This morning someone posted a longish paragraph about how to help someone experiencing grief. It was interesting, I read it carefully and wondered a lot how it related to me in the situation I find myself. I found it particularly interesting because I’ve had a week off from the girls this week and been at our office. An entire week of concentrating very hard on something different. I’ve not cried (not proper crying, silently leaking just because I thought the wrong thought is not the same as proper crying) since Monday. That’s kind of taken its toll now, because I’m feeling a bit like I’m about to do a huge exam that I haven’t revised for, but the emotional break was pretty good.
The piece of writing itself was about losing a partner. I find myself totting up the better/worse thing lots; am I better off because I hardly knew him, or worse off for that very fact? Am I luckier because he was only briefly part of my life or worse off because the hope of him was extinguished before I had a chance to make him properly part of that. I hardly knew him yet I knew him better than anyone. He barely existed outside my body yet while he was inside me he was entirely mine and relinquishing him to the world was his undoing.
It’s true, certainly, that I want to be able to talk about him but there is so little to speak of. People came, to start with, and I told his birth story and his death story. But what I want, what I need, is some other bits to remember and clutch on to – and there is so little of that. My friends were able to find me pictures of me pregnant and those are precious but I had no idea while we were in SCBU that I was making all our memories – and so I didn’t take the time to do it. I lived, second by second, hoping the next second wouldn’t be a downturn and not trusting the good moments to last longer than just that, a moment. In those 11 short days Max and I taught ourselves not to enjoy the ups too much because the following down was so dreadful. We learned to steer a middle line and not enjoy the briefest of highs as anything more than a moment. Actually, it was not dissimilar to being in labour, the ebbing of one contraction only meaning the next was closer.
So yes, I like to talk about him, see his name on the page, watch his shadow? in the circle, but there is precious little to talk about. But there is little worse than knowing he’s being overwritten, or wondering if people think “move on or at least don’t colour my life with this if you can’t”. Ignored, avoided; that is certainly worse. The worst mentioning him can do is make me cry but not mentioning him, or assuming I’m toughened up enough now to not mind something that will remind me, that is worse. It’s incredibly, desperately bad to know I’m “that lady whose baby died” and its worse still to wonder if people aren’t talking to me because they don’t know what to say.
Last week someone asked me the ages of my children. I listed the girls, gritted my teeth and tried to keep my face straight but evidently not well enough. Later, that person, who I hardly know, came up and said “I saw your face change and I suddenly realised who you were. I’m just so sorry you lost your baby.” And she cried. I spend a lot of time apologising now that my life makes people cry, but it was precious indeed to have her take the time to say that, kind of her to be touched enough to be sad for me, thoughtful of her to make amends for a wrong she didn’t even perpetrate.
I don’t mind that people don’t know what to say. I don’t mind if they say “I’m sorry” – I’m not going to snap and say “you didn’t do it!” – I just say “thank you, yes, it was awful”. Sometimes, most of the time now, I like people to come to see me and talk about other things. I want to be normal again. I want to be part of a world that isn’t defined by dead baby. I don’t want us to be the family that lost a child, I want to be us, just us, as we were.
I’ve noticed recently that I’ve ceased to say, if it does come up, “we lost our baby in April” and now I tend to say “we lost one of our children in April”. I’m not sure why this is, but I think it might be a reaction to a gentle, not unkindly meant, social comfort zone. No one has told me to get over it, no one has said “are you still sad about that” – a few people say “will you try again?” as if that would make it okay but mostly people are kind. But I think there is something, a perception, that I need to distance myself from. I’ve never thought a stillborn baby or a miscarriage could be anything other than truly awful, the worst of things; in fact I count myself lucky (lucky!) that Freddie was not stillborn. But I think there is a perception that “losing a baby” is somehow not losing a person. That losing a baby is losing something you can replace. That losing a baby is an un-thing, a medical process.
Freddie was a person. He has a birth certificate and a death certificate and a different date on each of those. His medical file is thicker than most of his sisters, he had more injections and drugs than most of my children. He cost the NHS more money than any of them. We didn’t lose an un-thing, or even a promise of a person. We lost a person, someone we sat over and loved and hoped for and discussed; someone I pumped milk for and changed the nappy of and knitted a blanket for. However sick he was from the first moment, his death was still a profound shock. Not something we were prepared for, even in the middle of it happening. If we had been, if we’d really understood the finality of what we were about to let happen, would we have gone for breakfast first? No, of course not. It was still a shock even when it happened. Did it make sense to wash his face while he died? No. Was it important he died with a clean face and in his mummy’s arms? Yes. It was only when talking to someone yesterday, who knows us well, that the enormity of that, of what people comprehend about what has happened to us, sunk in. There are people who know us quite well who are surprised that we were there when he died, that not dying alone could be so very important when relating to a baby.
And that is the huge reality of what it all means. No, I’m not going to get over this. I’m going to learn to live with it, I might even have another baby, I might one day not almost lose my breath when a customer spells out their postcode to me and says “F for Freddie”. But no, I’m not going to get over it; Freddie’s death will be like a chronic illness, one that is there permanently but will have periods of remission and acute attacks of pain. if you’ve ever read the “spoons theory” then I would say that I think this grief is actually very like that. I have days when I can eek out my resilience long enough to get through the day and days when the dream I had last night leaves me with barely a spoon for the rest of my waking hours. If that day then happens to contain 4 baby boys in Tesco, a new baby announced, a breastfeeding article and my period starting, then I’m out of spoons for the rest of the week.
So no, I’m never going to be my old self. I’m likely, forever, to be the Merry who slightly turns her chair away from babies. I’m going to be the Merry who for now can’t face watching a sling wrapping practise. I’m not going to like, even less than I did, births happening on television. I’m not going to deal well with answering how many children I have. I’m not going to cope anything other than in a spiky way with people who say “don’t you wish you’d had a boy?”
I do know I’m a mass of contradictions. What I need is to see people bothering to take care. If people carefully don’t wave their babies in my face and I know they are doing that to save my feelings, I’m likely to hold out my hands and ask for a cuddle. I get angry when people invade my space and hurt when they don’t bother to ask. I’m not interested in other peoples sensitivities – I’d prefer “would it be invasive to visit?” to “I didn’t offer to come because I didn’t want to intrude.” A single letter has the power to move me to tears by reminding me what I’ve lost but if someone says “Oh my god, I’ve put a picture where you might see it, I’m so sorry” I’ll probably look, and like it, and be incredibly moved that they cared enough to warn me. I’m touched if people announce something carefully so I can’t see it, I’m grateful for their care, knowing full well I’ve carefully clicked on their name for days to see if it has happened yet.
Like I say, a mass of contradictions. It’s very exhausting to be living it. I daresay it is exhausting to be a friend through it. I do know that the people who take the time to make sure they are getting it right mean the world to me. I do know I’m almost impossible to get it right for. But I can’t help that. I didn’t ask for this to happen. I don’t know what I’m doing; I’m just living and trying to figure out anew every day where the ground is in this world. Trying to work out, like in the days of SCBU, whether it is worth trusting the up days for being what they are or whether they are just a precursor to a crashing down. It isn’t always worth being up if the day after will be unlive-able.
When something happens in your life which makes a trip to Tesco an emotional whirlpool that can take a day to recover from, nothing is easy. Yes it’s 4 months since he was born but I’m no more resilient to being reminded that my son came out of my body and didn’t breathe than I was on that day. Everything reminds me; blue, babies, our spare room, my girls, one of my girls being sick, the 7th seat in my car, being able to go to work, my period, wondering if my period won’t come, the clothes I was wearing when he was born and when he died, my breasts, my tummy, the bath, 2 of my bathrooms, the letter F, having a cold, seeing someone sad or in pain, feeling fear or feeling nothing, being tired, drinking water. People who talk about their new or currently building baby, people who try to avoid everything about children, babies and birth and hope I won’t notice.
Everything. If you can work out how not to trigger any of the negative feelings and tummy dropping horror but still help me to talk about and remember my son, you are one of a select few. If I’ve got no idea how to do it, I don’t know how anyone else can.
But what matters is people trying. Trying to get it right. People knowing that this is not something that happened to me 4 months ago, it’s something that is happening to me now. It’s going to go on happening right now for quite a while.
HAD I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet,
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.