Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part Four)

This series originally appeared on ACMB in October 2017. By Jennifer Soos. 

Continued from Part Three

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April 27

We found out today at the doctor’s office that we got the very thing every expectant parent hopes so desperately for: a perfectly healthy child.
The autopsy report said so.

No abnormalities of the heart or lungs. No vascular complications. No invisible bacteria or infections. No imperfections of placenta or cord. “Cause of death: Unknown.” I left with as many samples of birth control pills as they would give me.

When I got back to work the mound on my desk seemed like the most ridiculous thing I’d ever seen. The thought of sitting down to do it seemed even more insane. So, I cleared my voicemail, scanned through e-mail, and after a “full workday” of about 28 minutes, I left my office. Luckily, almost everyone was in meetings, so I only had to leave a note. As I was making my escape, I overheard a conversation in which a close colleague of mine was finding out that her expectant daughter-in-law is having a girl. They were giddy and cheering. After five boys in the family, there would finally be pink dresses. I was relieved to be walking out. The last thing anyone needs in the middle of a baby celebration is to have to talk to me.

When I got to my car, the sadness hit me like a wall. So much of this process is not even about the initial loss anymore. Yes, it overwhelms you in the beginning—the actual loss of the baby—but when I cry now, all these weeks and weeks later, it is about other things.

A friend of mine who has had several miscarriages wrote something a few weeks ago that came back to me today. She talked about the loss of her innocence—and even though I knew what she meant, I hadn’t actually felt it until today.

When I sat down in my car in the parking lot I realized that I will never, ever feel the way they do right now. In the midst of being respectful of the miracle that is pregnancy, I will never, ever jump up and down over it. That feels too presumptuous, too risky. I will never be uncautiously, unabashedly expectant. I have lost that.

Today he would have been two months old, and according to the charts, he would’ve been smiling in response to things. He would’ve been playing with his hands. He would’ve been starting to recognize the difference between parents and strangers. He would’ve grasped his ability to have needs met by crying and his personality would’ve begun to unfold.

That’s what the charts say. That’s how I know those things. And I also know, because an autopsy report says so, we had a perfectly healthy little boy.

May 1

Last night we went out. I mean “out” like we used to. Out to dinner with some new friends—people who didn’t know us when I was pregnant. People who don’t consider us the saddest people they know. We had great Thai food on an outdoor patio and drinks that came with disclaimers. Then we went to a bar with a live band that didn’t start until 11:00 P.M. We stood on our chairs and yelled and spilled things. The band was sweaty, drank Texas beer, and smoked a lot between songs. We thought they were awesome. When we left my clothes smelled like an ashtray and it didn’t bother me like it used to.

We laughed a lot.
We danced.
We “woo-hoo-ed” and whistled.
We had stamps on our hands.

We forgot for just a little while.

June 6

Last week I went to Baby Sam’s house. The best friend my son will never know. His mom and dad and I had dinner and caught up, and they got to meet Wheeler. It was something that needed to happen and I was glad to finally do it. I’ve missed them a lot.

Sam is huge already. I can’t believe how much he’s grown in these first five months. Absolutely perfect and precious, making adorable faces and new noises. I didn’t hold him, though. That is for a later time, perhaps.

It is amazing to me that he is already so different. I think that is what made it easier than I expected. He’s not the thing I lost anymore—he’s moved past that. I guess the blessing is that it might get easier and easier to be around him. After all, Wheeler will always be a newborn to me. That was how I met him, that was how I held him, and that was how I said goodbye to him.

It continues to be true that the things I’m sad about now aren’t much about a baby anymore. I’m sad about not being able to have a new dimension to my friendship with Sam’s parents. It was difficult to watch them in a new, evolved relationship. There is something deeper in their interactions. There’s experience in her voice—fragile and weary, but it’s there. And the light in her eyes when either one of them looks at her was breathtaking. I’m sad that she is embarking into this formerly unknown world, learning so much about herself and her capacities. I’m not sad she’s doing it; I’m sad she’s doing it without me. And I know she’s deeply grieved about this, too.

Later that evening Sam’s mom and dad sat and looked through my book of photos. She cried a lot. It’s hard when it becomes real to you—the photos make it real—and no matter how much you’ve cried up until that point, the pictures open up a new place in you. They asked questions. I told a birth story few are brave enough to hear. She talked about his profile and his curly hair and his perfect little hands. It occurred to me later that they did with him just as I had done with their son—conversations we had been waiting almost a year to have with one another. I realized I had often imagined us sitting around a dining room table talking about who got whose eyes and nose and which uncle would be taking credit for what.

So, I just want to acknowledge that we got to do it. We had those very moments we had expected for so long. They weren’t exactly as we had planned them, but how many moments in our lives really turn out as we plan?

I’m grateful because I was able to be there for them at all.
I’m grateful because my friends were willing to go through those moments even though they were much, much harder than we had imagined them to be.
I’m grateful because I’m learning that I’m stronger than I might have ever known if I weren’t having to prove it to myself.

I’m grateful that my love for him is not vulnerable to the things of the physical world. I don’t have to worry for his safety or fear the loss of him. Our bond has been perfectly preserved just as it should be: unconditional, invincible.

June 30

The house sold.

We close on the 9th. In spite of all the advice to the contrary, we are moving.

I’m aware that I will get overwhelmed with the move. Who doesn’t hate to move? I won’t feel like packing, and in 10 days I’ll be so sick of boxes I’ll scream. That’s all predictable and expected.

But there is this other layer underneath that. I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to roll out, but I know it’s there. It comes from the part of me that is sad about leaving this house, even though I don’t feel particularly attached to it and I absolutely cannot do the commute one more day.

For the rest of my life this will always be the house that contained my first nursery.

It will always be the house in which I experienced the revelations of pregnancy, with the kitchen that witnessed him finding out he would be a father for the very first time.

The living room could tell of evenings on the couch: four hands pressed to a belly, startled with every miraculous squirm held in silence and awe.

This house welcomed me as I came dazedly through the door, bleary-eyed and clutching a tiny wooden urn. I searched its insides for a place of safe-keeping, looking for the corner, the nook that felt most like a heart.

These floors are swampy with the tears I’ve shed. The moisture that incubated this musty hope I sometimes feel as the wood creaks beneath me, eking out the sounds of burdened planks, urging us to move on, reminding us that we have outgrown it.

We didn’t outgrow it in the ways we predicted. We don’t find it too small because of scattered toys and bulky playpens; we’re crowded by what we had dreamed of, by what is no longer here.

We’ve never loved this house. It’s too old, too far away, too plain—we’ve always found complaints. I didn’t expect to feel sad about it.

It’s just a house, I thought. Just a place that contains our furniture and clothing, where we do laundry and have meals occasionally. A place that holds our stuff.

But this place contained us as we were transformed into a family, forced through a tragedy, and now it releases us like damp butterflies or snakes fresh from papery skin: not what we were when we entered.

In spite of our resistance, these walls became our home. I’m grateful for that.

July 10

I am now sitting in the tiniest room in this new house. What a relief.

I’m surrounded by boxes of things—books, towels, stationery, more books, computer parts, dresser drawers—and it’s a bit of a disaster. But it’s all here. We left the old house for the last time last night at about 10:00 P.M., and it was bittersweet in the truest sense: an almost equal mix of hopeful happiness and exhausted sadness.

Before we drove away with our cars packed to their brims with final odds and ends, we walked through it one last time. First, the bedroom. I turned the lights on for one last look, and he made a predictable remark about “lots of good memories in this room” (wink, wink). We both chuckled, admired the suede walls one final time, and then the room was dark.

Then to “Kitty’s Room” (aka: Guest Room, Treadmill Room, Project Room). When the lights came up we both said, “Kitty!!” just like we did several times a day for years anytime she would emerge from that room. I thought of her lounging in the sunspots on the floor and napping on her window perch. It made me smile, and then the room was dark.

When the lights came on in the “office-turned-nursery-turned-office-again,” neither of us said anything. I glanced at the built-in shelves and drawers and saw a flurry of tiny clothes and blankets. I thought about the crib, the furniture we returned, the cries we never learned to decipher, and the bright, smiling paint that lives underneath those somber khaki walls. I think of that turquoise and green as perfectly preserved, completed only weeks before it was covered over. We were still silent as I slowly turned away from the room, aware that I was closing a door on the briefest chapter thus far. He stood silently behind me, tired eyes quickly filling. No words were spoken as he wrapped his arms around me, sadness seeping from one to another, and such relief that these would be the last tears this house would have to absorb.

Then the room was dark.

And we drove away. Into a new chapter.

 

Author’s Note:

I’m humbled and grateful for you, dear readers, who have gone on this journey this month. Your many messages and comments and emails have reminded me how important it is for all of us to share our stories. A few notes for many of you who have asked: these events took place in Seattle in 2004. And yes, our family’s memorial of Wheeler’s life continues to evolve. We spend his birthday each year inflicting kindness on those around us… a treasured day that I have grown to love. You can read about those days here, here, and here. And finally, the journal this story has been excerpted from is available in its entirety. I have shared it with other bereaved mothers many times over the years. I am happy to send it to you – requests can be emailed to jennifer.soos@gmail.com.

Thank you again for allowing me to share him with you all.

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Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part Three)

This series originally appeared on ACMB in October 2017. By Jennifer Soos. 

February 29th

– continued from Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part Two)

From the moment you left us, all I wanted was to go home. But there were still complications, and that wouldn’t happen for another 24 hours.

When I did finally leave that hospital, I was not carrying a baby, carseat, or diaper bag. I was carrying a plastic bag full of clothes I’d been wearing many days prior and cradling a small, delicate box covered in handmade paper and tied with yellow ribbon. When the angel-nurse had handed that box to me she said, “This memory box is full of several things: the clothes and blankets your son was wrapped in, photographs we took of him, his handprints and footprints, a tiny snip of his hair, your hospital bracelets, and the stuffed animal that stayed with him while he was here. You can take this home and never, ever open it—that will be just fine. But, if at some point in the future you do want to open it, I promise you will be very glad you have it.”

And with that we headed home.

When we pulled into the driveway, I just sat there. Still uncertain about what was supposed to happen next, other than an immediate shower in my own bathroom, of course.

Your dad said, “Hey…just give me a few minutes, OK?”

“Sure.”

He dashed inside and was out again in no time to help me into the house.

I would realize later that he had cleared the entire house of gifts, packages, baby furniture, clothes, bottles, pacifiers, diapers…all the things scattered about that had accumulated from baby showers, care packages, and shopping trips. He had piled them in the nursery and mercifully closed the door.

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In spite of my exhaustion, there was not much sleep in those first few nights. So strange to go from feeling like we would never be ready and had a million things to do to having absolutely nothing to do at all.

Every morning when I wake up, I re-remember that I am not pregnant anymore, but there is no baby in the house. Then I negotiate with myself for those precious few pre-lucid moments about whether it is a nightmare or if it has actually happened. I’m not sure when I will stop expecting there to be a baby.

I had no idea I could feel so incredibly hollow.

There will be an autopsy. I cannot even think about that.

And then you will go to the funeral home, and we will have to give them some kind of instructions. More things I cannot imagine. Your grandparents will be here by then. Maybe they will know what to do.

I know it’s time to stop writing this. It’s over.

I miss you so much that I can’t even explain it. I think that if I just keep writing maybe I will figure it out. Mostly, I worry about you… Are you OK? Are you scared? How can a baby be without his mother? I hope with every fiber of my being that you are warm and safe and held constantly. I like to picture you with our family who loves you who have also passed: Aunt B and Granny and Pop and Paw Paw. I really hope that something like that is true. (Though, I should warn you, if you listen to Paw Paw for too long, he will get you into trouble. But you do have his nose, so you might not be able to resist. I get it. He was my favorite, too.)

Someday, when we meet again, I hope you will feel proud of us and however it is that we figure out our way through this.

Until then, please be well, sweet angel…

All my love,

Mom

 

March 21

(Three weeks after)

People call to “check on me” a lot. I suppose they expect to find me answering the phone in hysterics and then they will rush over to…do what? I’m not sure what it is people think they would do if I was, in fact, a basket case when they called. Shouldn’t they know better? I mean, if I were in the midst of a crying episode, I probably wouldn’t bother to answer the phone, would I? It’s nice. I know. They mean well. They really care about us. I’m not complaining, it’s just curious to me. The bottom line is that there isn’t anything anyone can do or say to make it better, but Lordy, that doesn’t mean they don’t keep trying anyway. I think I’m supposed to be learning how to accept help and love and care from others more graciously. I’m pretty sure I’m not doing a very good job so far. And I will probably be sad when they aren’t calling to check on me anymore. What a mess.

It’s very quiet right now, which I like. No television, no radio, no video games, nothing. There should be new noises in this house by now—coos and cries and the sounds of spit-up—so I think it must feel even quieter than usual with their absence. Maybe just the radio wouldn’t be so bad.

I saw the nurse this morning. My blood pressure is still really high, but no one knows what else to do about it. I’ll see a neurologist on Tuesday. Woke up with an unbearable headache again today; took meds. Wash, rinse, repeat.

It was so hard to be in that waiting room today—the last place he was alive. Nearly four weeks already. Hard to believe.

Wasted day today. Just want to cry. So, so sick of crying.

Need to pay bills, feed dogs, do laundry, blah, blah, blah. Life keeps going, the world keeps turning, no matter how often you ask it to please slow down just a little. Or stop.

Yes, stop.

I really want to just get off this ride.

 

March 27

(One month down)

The first of many significant milestones, as they say. One month. Four weeks. Twenty-eight days.

Yesterday wasn’t a particularly easy day. Emotionally, I was definitely up and down. My mood changes like whip cracks.

But last night, when the lights went out, like a flood, the last remnants of denial must be leaving. That protective varnish of surrealism has been worn down. Like having the air sucked out of me, I felt dizzy as this new heaviness settled in, and I heard a cool whisper in my ear, “This is it. This is how you are going to feel for a long time, and there isn’t anything you can do about it. Meet your cross and get comfortable.”

I wanted to disappear.

I wanted to scream.

I wanted to pass out.

Instead, I cried and cried and tried really hard not to shake the bed, not to wake him up.

Finally, I had to get up and go into the other room…the box.

I went through his things: pictures, prints, teddy bear, the softest hair I’ve ever felt, the little cap he wore—it smells just like it’s supposed to—a new stab with each whiff. I became very aware that the physical reality of him is slipping away: the agony of milk is finally slowing, and the bleeding has ceased. Part of the aching last night was for something real, something I could hold. Those little clips of hair were like gold, and the smell… I began frantically calculating how to preserve a scent. I meticulously examined the photos so I could figure out exactly where his head and cheeks had touched the quilt. I beat myself up for not holding him longer, for not talking to him more, which led to beating myself up for not paying closer attention near the end, not being more vigilant and demanding with the doctor, for all the things I didn’t even know I didn’t know. There is a mountain of tissue on the floor in there. With a good two-hour cry under my belt, I tried to go to bed again.

The force with which the headache raged this morning was knee-weakening. Thank the good Lord for Relpax.

There is some solace in the really hard days: not as much guilt. The days that are outwardly more carefree and productive, the days that contain even a smile or an enjoyable moment, those nights are plagued by insurmountable guilt. It’s paralyzing. It’s a no-man’s-land: you either give in and cry until you think you will break or you shove it down, try to distract yourself, and wind up exhausted and overwhelmed with guilt, which just makes you cry anyway.

“You will never ‘get over it,’ as people say, and you should not expect to. You will just slowly grow accustomed to this deep sadness now within you, and the more time that passes, the more capable you will be to manage it. God will help you find a place to keep it so it isn’t always in the way, but it will never be far from you.” These were my mother’s teary words about her same experience 35 years ago. Not a very sunny forecast, but probably the most true.

The easiest death is most certainly your own.

 

Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part Four)

Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part Two)

This series originally appeared on ACMB in October 2017. By Jennifer Soos.

 

February 29th

continued from “Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part One)

They had taken you back fairly quickly from my chest. My health was still a “grave concern,” and there were issues they needed to tend to. Our sweet angel-nurse gave you a bath right there in the room with us. I watched her as if I were watching a very strange scene from a play with bad lighting and no sound. I remember how incredibly careful she was, so gentle, smiling at you and talking to you the whole time. It was easy to pretend that you were going to wake up and start crying at any moment. I wondered about that, too: crying. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t yet. Such shock and fear for my own life. Everything was suddenly so surreal. We were more than 24 hours into this ordeal, and I still had no point of reference for appropriate things to say, do, ask, or even feel… It was like I was levitating above myself watching everything from a distance.

Your bath was finished. She wrapped you in a blanket and laid you in the warming bassinet, though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t turned on. She explained to us that she was going to take you for at least a few minutes, but we could ask for you to be brought back in at any time, once they were finished with me and I was “out of the woods.” With a teary smile, she rolled you out of the room.

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I think your father then made some impossible phone calls.

I probably have not thanked him enough for the superhuman things he has been doing in this process—and all with such grace and protectiveness for me.

You are so lucky to have him as a dad. I can’t believe you are going to miss out on it.

We talked about having you brought back in: an idea both terrifying and completely natural.

You are our first; remember, we have no idea what we are doing.

But I did feel, deep in a place in my soul that I didn’t even know I had, that I needed to hold you for as long as I could. I feared the regret of it more than I was scared of how hard it would be. Your father nodded and told me about his phone call to your grandmother, who was many states away, while he was on his way to the hospital. He told her, “I guess something is wrong. They can’t find the heartbeat. I’m headed to the hospital now. I’ll let you know more when I do.” There was quiet for just a moment and then she simply said, “No matter what, you make sure she holds that baby. Promise me.” And so, your father concurred, as unbearable as it was to imagine, yes, of course, we needed to.

Minutes later, they brought you in.

You smelled exactly as a baby should.

They had dressed you in a yellow onesie that was covered in little stars. You were wrapped in a white blanket, topped with a white hat and bundled under a tiny, yellow, flannel quilt.

Your little lips were dark, almost like bruises, which I imagine has something to do with the way you died: lack of oxygen and other things I don’t know about yet. Your nose was perfectly adorable—an exact replica of your great-grandfather’s. How he would have loved that. Under the hat we found dark brown, wavy hair and teeny tiny ears. Your fingers, all so perfect, sadly lay limp with a little purple under your nails. But I could see you—your precious face as if you had never been without oxygen—and even in my despair, I could see peace there.

Your father held you. The very first baby he had held in as long as he could remember—he wanted it to be that way—for you, his firstborn, to be so special.

I won’t speak for him.

I’ll just say I was so relieved he did it, and that watching him endure it is one of the hardest and bravest things I’ve ever witnessed.

I felt such an urge to talk to you while you were in my arms—to tell you a million things you certainly needed to know—but, it was so clear you were not actually there in that little body. You had moved on. And, it turned out, no words felt significant enough anyway. I don’t know how long we had you there with us—maybe 45 minutes, maybe many hours—but it was mostly silent. I do remember the sun starting to descend and the room gradually getting warmer while you were there, fingers of light falling in through the blinds, brightening up your quilt as the rays of sunset slowly made their way across all of us. However long that gorgeous, brutal, finite universe of just the three of us existed on your birthday, I will never forget it and I will never stop being grateful that I got to have it.

And then the nurse was there.

And we told her she could take you.

And that is when I recall my tears finally began.

Because to say “hello” and “goodbye” to you, my precious son, in nearly the same breath, was just too much.

But that is exactly what we did.

 

Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part Three)

Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part One)

This series originally appeared on ACMB in October 2017. By Jennifer Soos.

In the months and years that followed the death of my oldest child, I found such incredible solace and comfort in hearing the stories of others. Just knowing that other people had survived what I was living through brought me hope and helped me feel a little less crazy. I have been continually grateful for the bravery and willingness of those parents who shared their worst nightmares in support of my own grief and healing.

In that same spirit, and in honor of Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness Month, I am sharing mine.

DeliveryRoom

February 11

Good morning to you, little one.

Now, with just a few weeks to go until we meet, your father has decided with impressive finality that you are a girl. In fact, he is so determined that he is correct, he will no longer discuss boy names. So, if you do turn out to be a boy, let’s all hope I’m in some reasonable state of mind to come up with something. (And yes, my mother is still irritated that we refuse to find out. She hates this whole surprise thing.)

Here’s some news: after 36 weeks of constant, relentless nausea, I actually felt hungry yesterday. I almost didn’t know what it was! So, thanks for finally letting up on that—I swear, if I ever see plain white rice again I just might faint straight away. It should only take me a few months to forgive you for all these months of misery.

Something else you should probably know about me is what a procrastinator I can be. True story. So imagine my delight (and surprise) over the reality that your nursery is nearly complete! And with several weeks still to go, it’s got to be some kind of record. Bassinet should arrive in a few days. We need to put the changing table/dresser together, but the prints are up on fresh, bright walls, and it is comforting to know you won’t have to sleep in a laundry basket when you come home. Kidding. We wouldn’t have done that. Probably not.

Let’s see. Brand new pediatrician? Check.

Nursery mostly assembled and decorated? Check.

Registry finally done? Check. (This, at least, makes my mother happy.)

Best friends’ baby arrived? Check. And, YAY!

The last big milestone of our pregnancy was the arrival of Samuel Robert—and he’s here! We were so excited to finally meet him—he who will surely be your very bestest friend or your very first boyfriend, either one will be just fine with us. So, hurry up and join the party, please?!

With the start of the weekly doctor appointments, the time should fly right by.

Can’t wait to meet you. Be well. Grow strong.

All my love,
Mom

 

February 29

My sweet child,

It is with a heavy heart that these months and months of writing the story of your long-awaited arrival will now come to an end.

I continued my weekly appointments, just as planned. Everything was as expected, although my blood pressure continued to make the nurses’ eyebrows raise, they claimed not enough to be concerned. I was always there late in the day and still working full-time.

This past Thursday I was there for my last weekly appointment.

My maternity leave was to begin the next day, our due date nearly upon us.

I was reading a Better Homes and Garden magazine, which was resting on my belly, and you kicked at least a half dozen times. Strong enough to ruffle the pages and make me take a deep breath. Exam room, step on the scale, pee in the cup…the usual. As the doctor was talking to me about my last day of work, he got out the Doppler to listen to your now-so-familiar heartbeat.

He never found it.

After about 30 seconds, I noticed he was suddenly very serious. It had never taken so long to find the precious little swish-swish-swish, and he was very, very quiet. He asked me when I last felt the baby move. I told him about the magazine in the waiting room. He was still searching. “Roll to your side.” Nothing. “Roll to your back.” Still nothing. I was worried because he looked so serious, but it didn’t occur to me that something might actually be terribly wrong. We’re at the end… We’ve made it, right? Surely everything will be OK.

He said, “I’ll be right back.”

He came back in with his nurse and an ultrasound machine. I could tell that she already knew something was awful. She reached for my hand. I felt the panic surge through me. I couldn’t see the screen, but I knew it was silent and still by the looks on their faces.

He said, “You need to get to labor and delivery right this minute.”

The nurse asked if she could drive me there since I was alone.

I felt a little swirly getting dressed. What exactly was going to happen now?

The nurse said I should probably call someone.

Right. And say what, exactly?

Your dad was at home. I said, “I don’t know much. They can’t find the heartbeat. I’m going to the hospital right now. You should come.”

There was almost instantly a radiologist and two techs standing next to my hospital bed with the giant machine: searching and searching and taking pictures. I could see the screen this time. So eerily quiet. I could see you there, perfect and still. Quite a difference from the first time we saw you—so much wiggling they could hardly get the measurements they needed. That reality seems like a lifetime ago. The radiologist touched my leg and said, “I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you. We’ve confirmed your doctor’s fear—there is no movement and no heartbeat.”

There is no reasonable response when someone says that, turns out.

You just lie still and stare at everyone, trying to figure out what else anyone could possibly say.

And then, “Do you want to know now whether it was a boy or a girl? I see in your chart that you do not yet know.”

No.

No. I do not want to know that yet.

I looked at the clock and wondered when your dad would finally escape the traffic he must be sitting in.

Within the hour, began the process of induction and labor. I’ll spare you all the gory details, complications, and horror stories of night nurses and just say this:

After 17 hours of labor you slid silently into this world, and you were perfect. I was instantly smitten, as a mother often is.

The delivery nurse, whom I’m pretty sure was actually an angel, said as she caught you, “Oh my goodness, what dark and curly hair! Do you know yet what you have?”

We said, “No.”

“It’s a boy. A beautiful, beautiful boy.”

In that moment, with those few words, the surrealism of everything fell away. No longer simply a baby, but a boy. Did we ever finally decide on our boy name? Your father seemed so conflicted in this impossible space—wanting to look, not wanting to look—torn between how we had dreamed this moment would be and the sobering reality of what this moment had turned out to be.

With tears in her eyes, the nurse placed you on a blanket on my chest while the doctor continued with the other tasks of delivery.

I had no idea what to do.

There is no way to be prepared for such a moment.

Your father was crying.

I was just staring at you—the shock of an actual, full-sized baby boy—and waiting for you to take a breath, willing you to just breathe in, which it seemed you might do at any moment. I will never forget the peculiar silence of that room as long as I live.

The doctor could find no abnormalities, no cord issues, nothing obvious that would offer an explanation. He put in a couple of stitches—which I could totally feel, by the way—and then he looked at me very solemnly and said, “And now, I’m afraid, the easy part is over.”

Those words were probably the truest he had spoken. The following months would reveal just how painfully true indeed.

(Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part Two)

Doing Grief… Together

Grief seeps into the cracks that already exist in a relationship and has equal capacity to break it wide open or to seal and strengthen it.

13976266899_748e50435e_oWe’ve all heard the hordes of experts tell us there is no “right” way to experience grief. It is not something at which you can “win” or “lose.” And when you are grieving on your own, as an individual, this truth might be a little easier to believe in. But, when you are grieving as a couple, this concept can feel more elusive. A couple who is grieving a shared loss or trauma, the death of a pet or a person close to them or even a shared child, will be very tempted to expect that their grief will look similar or march to the same timeline. But because grief tends to layer itself onto our old losses and onto our personal history, it will affect each of us differently and individual reactions can vary greatly. It can be quite challenging for a couple to seek out the commonalities and simply attempt to understand the other person’s journey, rather than focus on the differences, judge them or try to assign meaning to their behaviors.

If I could go back in time and say something to myself and my husband as we were launched on a grief journey together – something I wish we had heard from one of the therapists we met with – I think it would be this:

“As you navigate this loss together, seek UNDERSTANDING and seek CONNECTION. Do not waste precious energy comparing yourselves, looking for solutions or even relief.”

In the months following the death of our son, I very clearly remember thinking, “He never cries. He doesn’t seem sad enough. He just went right back to work. I can’t seem to get out of bed. What’s wrong with him? Or wrong with me?.” In the years since, sitting with the newly-bereaved in my office and in support groups, I’ve heard a thousand variations on this same circumstance. It is so tempting to make our own meaning of the behavior we see in others who are sharing in or witnessing our experience, but it is rarely helpful. Over and over again I see that when couples can maintain a position of curiosity about what grief looks like for the other person, they are more likely to maintain connection and avoid feeling isolated or wrong.  

18740589874_d93e10561d_oWhen I finally spoke up and asked my husband about his own ways of coping he explained to me, “Of course I am sad. I cry in my car, alone. When I’m with you, I feel like I should be pulled together so you don’t have to be. I’m tired of feeling helpless…what happened to us feels so far out of my control. Going to work makes me feel less helpless. It makes me feel like I am doing something productive, shielding you from having to go yourself… it lets me feel like I have some control over something again. But it doesn’t mean that I’m not also very, very sad.”

I was able to tell him that I was tired of feeling so lonely in our ocean of sadness and that while I greatly appreciated everything he was doing for us – things that seemed to demonstrate his obviously-miraculous abilities – I needed to see the falling-apart parts, too.  Maybe he could save a little bit of his grief to do with me at home instead of always protecting me from it?

We discovered that even though we were walking through our loss in very different ways, we could still find places to intersect and overlap and we could seek to understand each other’s journey as a way to stay connected and a little less lonely in the maelstrom.

30810876940_2d54a02360_oI listen to grieving hearts and give permission for these kinds of things all the time:

Go back to work. Or don’t get out of bed.

Talk to everyone all the time. Or refuse to answer your phone or door.

Cry and wail and rant like it will never stop. Or take deep breaths and seem stoically resigned.

Go ahead, be angry.

Yes, be peaceful.

Submerge yourself in your faith…it’s there for you.

Turn completely away from your faith…it won’t go anywhere.

Read every book and blog you can get your hands on.

Or read absolutely nothing because it is all too sad.

Find a support group.  Or find a therapist. Or talk to your dog.

Feel grateful for your family and friends.

Or feel smothered and misunderstood by your family and friends.

Believe that in six more weeks you’ll certainly be “better.”

Believe that forever is not long enough to ever be “better.”

When I sit with couples who are grieving, I try to help maintain a focus on how understood they each feel and on how to create opportunities for increased connection and communication. We try to steer away from the tempting distractions that sound like: “How long will this last?” “When will we be back to normal?” “How can I make him less sad?” “Why can’t she just do what I do?” (For the record, the very unpopular answers to those popular questions are: “As long as you need it to.” “That old normal probably doesn’t exist anymore. You’ll have to find a new one.” “You can’t.” and “She’s doing this the way she needs to and that’s OK.”)

It is true. There is no “right” or “wrong” way… there are as many paths through grief as people who must walk them. And when you are walking alongside someone else, chances are very good their path is going to look different.

9236863164_3ef11621f0_oHere are some of the ways I’ve encountered over the years that couples use to increase their understanding, connection and communication:

The Grief Check-In

When grief is acute and new, this is probably a daily occurrence. (John Gottman’s research, 2000, demonstrated that a regular check-in is a fundamental presence in the healthiest relationships. When a couple is grieving its importance is even greater.) Whatever the frequency of it, it is crucial for couples to make time to communicate about how they are feeling – not just in general, but today, right now. These check-ins often sound like:

“I had a pretty good morning, but then a song came on the radio that caught me off-guard – it was pretty rough after that.” or “I didn’t think I would be able to get up this morning, but I had an unexpected call from my sister and it really lifted my spirits. I even made it to the grocery store.”

And as grief becomes less acute:

“This week has been OK overall. I’m still having some trouble sleeping and I got angry over some really small things…but I think I’m mostly OK.” or “I’ve been feeling really sad again lately – her birthday is coming up and I’m anticipating how hard that is going to be.”

People often ask, “But won’t it feel weird or intrusive to ask “How are you?” when we already know they are obviously incredibly sad?” These check-ins are meant to go beyond the generic “how are you” and get to more sincere “how were you today, really?” or “what’s been good or hard about this particular week?” Couples often make the mistake of assuming that because we already know the other person is sad, we don’t need to keep asking and learning about it. Grief is incredibly dynamic and complex. People are usually shocked at how complicated and multi-layered it can be; there is probably always some new twist to notice or talk about. It has never been too long to check in and ask the question, “What does that loss feel like now?” even after it’s been years.

19175539158_0f4c81beef_oShared Action

It is very common for bereaved people to want TO DO something. Grief can propel people into action, service, and any number of memorial activities. When a couple can come up with their own way to join together in an activity that expresses their grief or helps create meaning for their experience, their connection can be immensely improved. This is sometimes a challenging endeavor, naturally, not every activity will be appealing or feel right for everyone. Not every grief-related activity we participate in must be shared, of course, but it is helpful when a couple can find at least one or two that can be. Couples who do this will nearly always report much less loneliness (which, second only to sadness, is the most commonly-reported emotion in my experience in grief support groups.)

Over the years I’ve heard so many ideas for shared grief activities: family gatherings on birthdays/deathdays, ritual visits to cemeteries, baking their loved one’s favorite dessert or meal, doing charity work/volunteer service in their loved one’s honor, a trip to Africa to dig a water well, a backyard memorial garden that is added to each year, creation of a scholarship, artwork and photo memorials, activism campaigns and legislation, annual trips or dove/butterfly/balloon/lantern releases… there are Pinterest boards full of ideas for how to connect with partners as part of a grief journey. And a side benefit for couples who create a repetitive or annual ritual is that the loss conversation doesn’t feel like it has to come to an end. This is one of the healthiest integrations of grief: the idea that we don’t have to “move on” or decide when it is “over,” but rather that it will be an on-going part of a couple’s life together.

In my own family’s experience, the differences were clear: I was much more open with our loss and would talk to nearly anyone who made the mistake of asking one too many questions. My husband, on the other hand, discussed it with virtually no one outside of family and never felt compelled to attend a group meeting. My mother cried readily and talked to friends and made a scrapbook while my father silently dug a giant hole, alone, by hand, so he could plant a tree. However, when it comes to our son’s birthday, my family is united in a whole day spent doing acts of kindness in his honor. And now, thirteen years in, I feel incredibly connected every year on that day – a day that once held so much potential for disengaged isolation.  

22251661352_04347dda96_oSelf-Care

And finally, another suggestion that helps couples stay connected while they grieve is attending to self-care and supporting that of your partner. Grief takes an astonishing physical toll on most. Commonly reported symptoms are headaches, fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite, nausea, muscles aches and shortness of breath. Whatever self-care routines might have been in place before the loss will most certainly be put to the test and, generally, people have to expand their coping abilities and include new tools. It is recommended to take a break from the work of grief and tend to your body and your soul and help your partner tend to theirs. Everyone must find what works best for them, and ideally, some of the self-care routines can also be shared: take a walk together, exercise, get as much sleep as possible, nourish yourselves with good food, spend time with loved ones, meditate, pray, have sex, take a trip or a long drive, get lost in your favorite music, take a technology break, go dancing, have a spa day, go see a show, do yoga, sit in the sunshine in a park, help someone else, spend time with your pet…and it is important to remember that when you feel like you can laugh again, do it. It’s OK. It’s good for you.  

I still remember the first time we really came up for air and did something that looked like self-care together. It was May in Seattle – and the sun was making a glorious reappearance. On a whim, we accepted an invitation to go out with another couple we hardly knew. It was such a relief to be around people who didn’t automatically think of us as the saddest people they knew. We ate at a new restaurant in the open air where the drinks had disclaimers. We saw a rowdy live band who drank Texas beer in a smoky dive. And we laughed. Real laughter. We believed, maybe for the first time, that we were going to survive this – together.

So, if John Green is right and “grief does not change you, (but rather) it reveals you” then as a grieving couple we don’t have to fear the immense damage that loss can bring. We can, in fact, find ways to use the opportunity to deepen our relationship, create new layers in our intimacy and allow the experience to strengthen our bonds. And we can do it together.