What do I say? What do I do?…How could this ever happen?
It is so hard to even imagine that some day you will face intense grief over the loss of someone you love – it is even harder when the loss is that of a baby who is supposed to outlive their parents. When a loss like this occurs it seems so unnatural – so wrong, so unfair. Unfortunately no one is really prepared for coping with death – death is not something that God ever intended we would have to deal with – we are not equipped for it. Aside from all the unfairness and shock that a loss brings, one of the key concerns that those in the supporting role face is, What do I say? What do I do? A lot of people simply feel overwhelmed and avoid contact with the grieving person altogether. In fact, when my husband and I lost our first baby (born still) we had people literally trying to run away and hide when they saw us coming into a shop. I would not have been able to offer any helpful answers if I hadn’t been in the role of the griever myself previously. This is not to say that I am in ANY WAY an authority on this subject or claim to be – far from it! – everyone grieves in their own unique way, but sometimes just knowing how someone dealt with the loss of their precious baby, and what was helpful for them, can be insightful for those on the periphery watching in helplessness as a friend, family member, work colleague, neighbour… wallow in heart-wrenching agony as they endure the loss of someone so special; someone so helpless and little. Sometimes it is easier to ask the questions of what is appropriate to someone other than the person who is submerged in a sea of grief.
Over ten years ago many people will remember the news that we too, had lost our first baby. Everyone was stunned that something like this could happen to my husband and I. We had gone in for an induction, being overdue by 10 days, and when undergoing the routine ultrasound the sonographer could not find a heartbeat. I never got to hold my baby alive, never got to see Blair open his eyes, hold my hand, feel warm against my skin.
A few years previously I had felt a strange fixation to unpack the globally asked question, “Why does God allow suffering?”After losing Blair I understood why God had burnt this question into my mind until I had the issue resolved – it was to become a very personal question I would have otherwise had to have asked under the heavy, black blanket of grief. Because of this, I did not have the normal question screaming out WHY?
My questions became fixated on: Could I plan my life? Could I ever look forward to things again – get excited with things I should expect would happen? Would I ever be a mother again?
My main needs from those around were that I could simply express myself, know personally that people cared enough to phone, speak to me, send a card, send flowers, lend me books on the topic of grief and baby loss. I felt uncared for when people sent their condolences through other people. I didn’t need people to have the right words of wisdom, comfort, cheer – I just wanted them to say how they felt if they simply didn’t know what to say, to cry with me, to just sit with me, to listen to my thoughts and feelings. My hairdresser at the time was a bit speechless when she saw me come in for a haircut only a few days after the funeral. She endured the silence for several minutes and then blurted out, “I cant do this. I cant cut your hair in silence but I don’t know what to say. I know your baby has died, and I cant even imagine how you must be feeling right now, but I just don’t know what to say.” I was so relieved because I didn’t know what to say to her either – I knew from the silence that she must have known but I didn’t know if she wanted me to talk about it or not. What was I to say,”Well, had you heard that my baby had died?” – like some small chit chat about something. I didn’t want people to tell me what they thought I should be thinking or feeling unless they had endured a very real episode of grief in their life too – then they were my heroes, my rocks where I felt I was safe to pour out my grief and know I would be understood. Everyone is so unique in the way they deal with grief. I was not angry, confused, bewildered with God, I was now just unsure of how I would do life – how could I plan for tomorrow when anything could happen? I had planned to be a mother and then was back working as a teacher a month after birthing!
Reading about the stages of grief was crucial to understanding what was going on physically, mentally, socially. Books on loss helped me to understand that at the six week mark the anesthetic of shock wears off and you are left with the raw, stark emotion of pain. You think that during the six weeks previously when everything has felt numb that you must be coping well, and have dealt with the loss – but no – you are just literally numb – anesthetized! At the six week mark you think you are losing the plot and suddenly cant cope, you cry all the time, every little thing sets you off, you cant concentrate when people are talking to you, you cant remember what you were about to do, you cant stand any extra noises, and for me, I wished I could have died with my baby so that I would never have had to say goodbye before I could have said hello. Your visitors have gone home, the mail box is no longer bulging with cards, you’re not working, and most of the phone calls have stopped. You are no longer an expectant mum, an employee, and a lot of friends now don’t really know what to say as they think its time to just move on – most not consciously – but its just part of life. At this point it is fabulous to talk with other people who have been through a baby loss – they will know it is not time to have moved on – loss is like dealing with an amputated limb – you never ‘get over the loss’ you just learn to cope and adjust to life differently but the loss will always be there – your baby will never be forgotten – they will always be a part of your memories and life, they will always have their role in your family – the first born, second born etc.
It was also good to be aware of the differing needs of the griever according to their personality. I went straight from the hospital where I birthed, to a maternity ward in the small town I lived. I slept among the sound of newborns crying, and during the day could hear the babies’ small siblings running around the rooms. I could hear visitors chatting and cooing excitedly over the new babies. Mainly though I had many visitors and phone calls both on the ward phone and on my cell phone, so for the most part I was not alone much of the time. Some of my visitors came with their children, and I coped because I was in the early stages of grieving – often I would feel like I was having an out of body experience because I would think, “This should be really upsetting but it’s strangely not”. I was numb to a lot of things. In hindsight, I think it is better for people to visit without their children – I had not only lost my baby, but also the joy of being a doting mother for that baby. I especially appreciated the visitors who came frequently and would ring before visiting just to ask if there was anything I needed and then would be happy to do what was requested; even for strange things such as getting a cabbage to ease engorged breasts. I enjoyed the company and the support of the nurses on duty who helped when my milk came in, and were there to chat when all the visitors had gone home. They were there to look at the all the baby photos and assure me that in time I would be a mum again; God would look after me according to what He saw to be the best for my life.
For my husband though, his needs were vastly different from mine. He didn’t like the hustle and bustle of a lot of visitors. He went home when I went to the maternity ward, and would talk to me early on the phone each morning or late at night because he didn’t want to be home when people would come to visit or ring him. He liked to be out and about on the farm with the milking cows – talking to them and just being in the open. I was happy for him to do his thing, and he was happy for me to cope in my way – neither of us would have been happy if we had forced the other to be where we wanted to be.
Because I discussed Blair with so many people, and allowed myself to freely grieve (I regularly went into Blair’s room and watched the scans) I was out and about in the public fairly quickly; I was back primary teaching in the school I had previously taught before taking leave, within a month of birthing. My first class was that of new entrants – short, straight talkers! Within an hour of being in the classroom one child could not contain themselves and stated, “My Mum and Dad said your baby is sick”, to which another child emphatically responded, “No, her baby is not sick, her baby is dead!” Its always good to tell a child the real story. Because people thought I must be fine, or I wouldn’t be dealing with children, some would come up to me as I was dealing with a bunch of children and tell me how sorry they were to hear about my loss – just because I looked fine in public didn’t mean I could deal with the loss being brought up in front of other people. And so passed the first six weeks of dealing with something that should have been so natural – and successful; I didn’t know it at the time but the long, hard, difficult journey had only begun!