"Edited to Add"....

This started as a pregnancy blog when I fell pregnant in May 2009 after four years of finding a donor, doing all the counselling / paperwork / tests and trying.

And now, thanks to a 4WD which skidded onto our side of the road, killing our baby daughter at 34w and injuring me, my partner and two of my stepdaughters on 27 December 2009, it has turned into something else. We didn't want this something else, but apparently it is all we've got to go on with.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

All I have for you is a thousand broken metaphors

Last night I had the weepy honour of speaking to families grieving babies who didn't survive and the hospital staff who care for them at the Annual Memorial Service at The Women's. Here is the best I could muster in terms of broken analogies and 'my own meandering experience' as Mary Schmich* would put it.
(Edited version)
Thank you for coming this evening. When your own grief feels acute it can sometimes be difficult to encounter more loss – sometimes it can feel like an ocean of sadness. But there is something powerful in grieving together, in knowing that we are not alone, that even when we feel so very broken, sharing that grief can help others feel less alone and can help remind us what a fundamentally human thing it is to grieve your child. 

Some of you have lost your child sixty years ago, some only months or weeks ago. For me, it was eight years, two months and twenty-one days ago that we had our daughter’s funeral near here in the sacred space in this hospital. Being here again, the memories are sharp. The odd feeling in my arms from trying to cuddle a stupidly small casket, the cool feeling of her cheek, wet with all our tears. The main thing I wanted to know then was, would I ever feel okay again? Would I ever feel myself again?
Eight and a bit years on, I can say to my newly-bereaved self and to anyone here with similar questions yes, you will be okay. More than okay – if you don’t already, you will feel joy, you will laugh, you will have times when you think of the little one you are remembering tonight and smile. You will feel yourself again, but a different yourself, because you are a parent to your baby and that love, like any other, expands your heart. And at the very same time as feeling okay and feeling yourself, part of you ‘shall remain inconsolable’, as Sigmund Freud put it. 

Freud lost his daughter Sofi when she was 27. Nine years later, Freud wrote to a friend whose son had just died:
"We find a place for what we lose. Although we know that after such a loss the acute stage of mourning will subside, we also know that we shall remain inconsolable and will never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And actually this is how it should be…it is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish."
[Freud, S. (1929) Letter to Binswanger. In EL Freud (ed.) Letters of Sigmund Freud, New York, Basic Books]
This is the task of grieving: finding a place for what you have lost – a place in your own belief system, in your family and community, in your heart, in your sense of yourself – where the inconsolable part of you can somehow co-exist with everything else in your life.
This is part of what this memorial service aims to do – to provide a shared space for all we have lost – our babies, the children and adults they might have become, our chance to parent them in the usual way, our public identity as their parent, and sometimes our confidence in our bodies or ourselves because we were unable to bring them home.
Before we lost our daughter, I had a very rationalistic idea of emotions – I thought I could only feel one thing at a time. But this is what grief is – somehow you can feel completely broken and demolished by your grief, but at the very same time feel okay, even happy.
Mostly now, I feel more than okay – things have settled into a new normal, and I know I generally have a lucky life. The inconsolable feelings are just as intense, but they only show up now and then. I had a big conversation with a friend’s nine-year old daughter on the weekend. She was very cranky because she’d written to the Prime Minister about an issue very important to her, and she’d received a generic form-letter back which failed to respond to the issues she raised, and had a printed-on signature. She was so feisty and thoughtful, and as I got in the car I thought, I wonder if our daughter would have been like that by now? Would we have had those big conversations? And I sat and had a big noisy cry, but I also felt strangely grateful – as though our daughter had somehow visited me briefly via that little moment of connection with another child who was a similar age. The word that sums up so many moments like that one is ‘bittersweet’ – a moment when you can taste both the love and the grief all at once. It is heartbreaking, but it can also make you feel connected to life – the whole messy painful mix of love and loss that life is really about.
It hasn’t always felt that way though. There were some big chunks of time in the early years of our grief when I struggled to find the sweet in the bittersweet, when I was so exhausted by the sadness that I just wanted to be numb, to stop feeling. I can now identify that feeling now as the beginnings of depression – the point where feelings get stuck, or more like it, you get stuck under them like under a gigantic boulder. You’re stuck, because you feel like the boulder would crush you if you let it keep moving, and meanwhile, more boulders are piling up on the other side. That is exactly the point at which you need some help – for someone to help face the boulders with you. It is easy to think others are powerless to help you - that it would be pointless having two people squashed by boulders rather than one.
But the thing is, feelings are not boulders. They may feel like it. You may feel like you are Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom about to be squashed into the walls of the tunnel like a bit of roadkill. A more accurate metaphor is feelings as waves at a surf beach. They can be just as scary, and can definitely pummel you, and sometimes you need help to get through them, but pushing them away or trying to escape doesn’t tend to work because they just keep on coming. Numbing out can be dangerous – it dulls your awareness not just of the painful feelings, but of all the feelings and everything else, including others who may be experiencing similar things or who might be able to lend you support.
Sometimes the safest thing is counter-instinctual - to dive in deep and feel the waves roll through you all the way to your toes. You get better at it, you learn more about the waves and the rips, and you get to know some of the other people in the surf. You look out for one another, and you begin to feel okay asking for help.
We are all here because we have faced these waves. Eight years on from our loss, I feel so grateful for the connections made with other parents who lost their babies around the same time as us. Some helped us through a hard spot at the time, and others have become long-term friends, with some, just knowing they were there and suffering too made me feel less alone. I feel a bit like our kids are at school together, as though there is a cohort of ghost babies who bind us together as parents. Other bereaved parents get it like no one else does. We share dilemmas about what to wear to our child’s funeral, tips for weeping on public transport, frustrations about awkward moments and questions from well-meaning others. We exchange weepy hugs, knowing looks, compassionate silences. 

Other bereaved parents know that being a parent of a child who has died is still parenting. The parenting work is different and harder, but it is made of the same core stuff – unconditional love, wonder at your child, powerlessness about not being able to protect them, and the ability to survive feelings and situations you may have thought were beyond you.
Don’t underestimate the skills and knowledge that grief and grief-parenting gives you. This is your child’s gift to you, even though it may often be a painful one. The sudden sensitivity to other people’s loss and grief meant I couldn’t watch the news without bawling for years (and sometimes still struggle, if I’m honest). But you know more about death now because that’s where one of your kids is, and you know more about grieving because it is now a survival skill that you need to get up and out the door every morning. Empathy built on that knowledge is sorely needed in this world, and you honour your child and your love for them each time you are able to extend that empathy to others.
The other hard but valuable thing grief has done for me is that it forced me to think about where I believed our daughter went after she died so that I could keep loving her. I know that is an incredibly personal process, and that people and various communities have very diverse takes on that question. This poem is my take on it.

She was cremated

Not many people
have a baby daughter who is a star.
The light and heat released
with her little five pound eight body
is still travelling
through the heavens
will bounce,
and one day light upon
someone's eye
as the light from a star.
Not many people (I like to think)
have a baby daughter who is an ocean
(and at the same time, rain).
Her water atoms
went up like a mist
found new friends
among the atoms
of other babies
well-loved dogs.
And though it was scary to fall
(as rain)
when they hit the ocean
it felt like home.
(I like to think) Not many people
have a baby daughter who is a ballerina-shaped fuschia bud.
Her nutrients - every molecule that made
her soft skin
her fingers grip
has gifted itself to the earth
(I wouldn't have been so generous)
except for a few of the most beautiful
which circulate still in my blood.
‘You have a daughter’, they say
each time they get pumped through my heart.
‘You have a daughter’, they say
as they tend my broken cells.
The others
(there are millions)
find themselves
pulsing along a green stem
willing a bud to open,
feeding the thing that colours the petal,
scenting the pollen dust,
unfurling the leaf.
Are chewed on or breathed in by
living things,
And find a new home in them.
She is here.
Here a thousand times but also everywhere.
She makes me weep
at how clever and beautiful she is
And at my own small flimsy wish
For a more conventional baby.
(Still her - but here in the more conventional way)
It takes a very still
clear nightful of stars
or a big stormy oceanful of ocean
for me to know
(again, as I've always known)
how many babies it takes
to make up the sky.
Cremated and uncremated.
Missed and kissed.
Sung to and unsung to.
and each such a particular
little pinprick of light.

*Mary Schmich's column on Advice to Young People was subsequently turned into 'The Sunscreen Song' twenty years ago.