It’s been five years since my son was stillborn (eight since this article originally appeared) and in that time I have cried too many tears to count. I’ve listened to people give me their opinions – rude, kind or otherwise – I’ve changed jobs, added a few pounds and had another two children.
I’ve also learned many lessons as I’ve walked through the corridors of grief. Many of the things I’ve learned have surprised me. I didn’t know what to expect when I became part of the saddest club in the world, but today I do know that I’ve made it through the hardest part.
If you are early in your journey after experiencing the loss of a child, or anyone really, hopefully my learnings can ease your mind and give you a little bit of hope.
You won’t forget them.
I know you are afraid of this. I was. In fact the idea that I might forget my son was consuming at times. In the beginning, I visited his grave every day. I would lay there and play music or look up at the sky and think. I looked at his pictures from Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep every single night, falling asleep with my lap top open in front of me. I did anything I could to make sure he was a part of my day. I was actually pretty compulsive about it.
Time is such a funny thing though. As we passed first year milestones – my birthday, his real due date, holidays – I began to let go of the actions I was taking to try and make sure he was a part of my daily life. And, I let myself believe that it was okay to do so, because after all, it was. Instead of looking for him in the things I did, I would feel him in my heart and I tucked him safely into the memories of my consciousness. I began to realize that there was no way that I could ever forget him because he shaped the person I was since the very moment I found out he was a part of me. Today, I still see his influence in the way I react to situations all around me – whether I take a moment to breathe and refocus when my children are whining and crying or when I’m dealing with a problem at work – his death puts every day in perspective.
You need people who didn’t know you before the loss.
It might not seem important, but these people who come into your life after a loss are insanely important to your sanity. Whether they are people you meet through a support group, or people you meet as a part of daily life, these people help in two ways.
Support Group Friends – These people are the only ones you will really feel normal with after the loss of your child. It isn’t just that misery loves company, but misery loves and craves a common understanding. These people, your new tribe in life, are the ones that will help to validate the way you feel and allow you to feel that way without judging you. They will also be the ones with the most helpful suggestions when it comes to finding different ways to cope and recover. In my support group, we all hit the milestones and dealt with our pain triggers together. We made plans about how we would deal with any events or dates causing us anxiety. We talked about how we would honor our babies’ memories and many, many times we just cried together as we talked about how unfair life could be. You need these people who will just let you cry without trying to make it better.
New People In General – About a month after my son died, I took a new job in an industry that I had no experience in. I had been a photographer when we lost our baby, often working in newborn photography. I couldn’t go back to that so I walked away and found new, non-newborn people to surround myself with on a daily basis. That meant there was a whole new pool of people in my life who had no idea who I was. They didn’t know me before the loss so they couldn’t expect me to be the same way. If I needed to be quiet and solemn one day, I did it and no one thought it was weird of me. Maybe they thought I was weird in general, but their presence allowed me to be the way I needed to be without expectations. It also allowed me to put my loss on the back burner of my brain as I absorbed myself in the new job and the new people. Sometimes, I could even pretend that this bad thing hadn’t even happened to me. I could absorb myself in whatever was happening in their lives and laugh with them. That in itself was very healing because after a few months of being there, I didn’t have to pretend anymore. When I wasn’t consumed with thinking about death, I began to live again.
You need people who remember the person you were.
Just as you need new people, you need the people who knew you best before this tragic event changed you forever. For a time, these people may be difficult to deal with. These people will want to see the old you come back and they will want to see it happen on their timeline. Be patient with them as you try to put yourself back together because you need them. These people are important because they will help give you something to reach for. They will see the moments of you that come back, even if only fleetingly, and they will urge you on as you are able to take baby steps towards recovery. They are your cheerleaders. Even though cheerleaders are sometimes annoying (I was one.) you need their perspective, you need their positivity and you need their love.
You need to let some people go.
This is a hard lesson to learn when you lose a child. You may think you have lost enough already, but I guarantee there will be people that you will need to let go. Some people will never be able to deal with your loss because it makes them too uncomfortable. It’s not just that they won’t know what to say or do, but they will avoid it all together. The day we buried my son, one of my closest friends didn’t come. We had been friends for 15 years and while I knew our relationship was waning as adults, I still believed I would always be able to count on her when I needed her most.
I had requested that no children come to the burial. There was two reasons behind this. 1. I couldn’t really deal with kids in my mental state, especially babies. 2. If you have ever attended a funeral or burial for a child, you will know they are more difficult that adult services. The coffin is tiny (I always thought my son’s looked like one of those white, Styrofoam coolers you might buy at the grocery store.) and people cry more often because instead of remembering the person’s life and their accomplishments fondly, they are focused on the dreams that will now never be reached. However, when I requested this, my friend immediately told me that she wouldn’t be able to come because she didn’t have a sitter for her 1-year-old. In my head, she didn’t even try. I mean, she worked part-time and had a nanny. Her parents lived close by and her husband worked for his own business. Surely someone could help out for an hour?
I let her go. I was in so much pain, that someone who caused me more pain wasn’t worth it to me. Someone who couldn’t be bothered to even try to find alternative arrangements for their day so they could be there for me as I experienced the most difficult thing I had ever done, just wasn’t worth it.
And you know what? While I’ve missed her sometimes and wished that things could have been different, I haven’t really looked back. Focus on the people in your life that will be there for you through this and love you all the same. They will be the ones to hold your hand as you walk towards healing. Don’t be afraid to let others go.
You will survive.
I know it doesn’t seem like you will survive. I know on some days you probably won’t want to. In the days after my son died I wished I had died too. I felt dead inside so to me it didn’t really make a difference if I was alive or not because I certainly wasn’t living. I wished I could have traded his life for mine.
On those days, on those very hard days, when you feel like you can’t go on, take it moment by moment. In my support group, we all agreed that day-by-day was too hard in the beginning. A whole day felt like a whole lifetime with grief weighing down heavily on your soul.
My aunt gave me amazing advice during the first, dark weeks that still stays with me today. “If you can’t walk, you have to crawl there,” she said. My advice to anyone early in loss is the same. On those days where you feel like you won’t make it, you can’t make it, dig your fingers in and crawl. Little by little, the crawling gets easier and one day you will find out that crawling has become so easy that you can actually take some baby steps. Years later, with two children now by my side, I have learned to run.
You will be you again.
This one is hard, right? On the days that you can’t even walk, there is no way you can imagine being that sunshiney, happy person those cheerleaders wish you were. This is the one that takes the longest. You can survive if you are miserable, but to actually regain some sense of self after you have lost a child takes at least the first year. You need to learn to be able to live with the trauma that has impacted your life and figure out who it makes you in the years following. Don’t rush it. Take time to go through all the phases of grief, all the steps of recovery and feel the emotions of it. I promise, if you block them out, they will come roaring back at a very inopportune moment. While you are never exactly the same again, you will be close. You will smile, you will laugh and one day when you aren’t even paying attention, you will find you again.
Updated: Since originally publishing this post on this website this piece been posted on the Huffington Post as well as several other sites. All content originated here at The Everyday Mom Life.