When Grief and the Holidays Go Hand in Hand
*this story was generously shared by Brooke who joined the Butterfly Run Committee after experiencing the loss of her baby.
My dating ultrasound was booked on Christmas Eve 2019. I was about 9.5 weeks along based on my calculations with my first baby and over the moon. I remember when I booked the appointment being surprised that they were even working on Christmas Eve and thinking what a fun Christmas gift we will be able to share with our families. We were going travelling for the following two weeks, so it made sense to book the appointment before the trip rather than after. It never occurred to me that the news wouldn’t be good. I remember watching the technicians face and trying to read her expression. This was before masks were a thing, so I stared intently at her trying to read any sign on her face. When she asked me to confirm the date of my last period I felt a nudge of worry, but then she kept clicking away so I thought it was fine. Being my first pregnancy, I truly didn’t know what to expect. After a while, she turned to me and said “you’ve come too early. I can see you are pregnant and your gestational sac is there, but it’s too early for a heartbeat. My warning bells started to chime, but I shoved them down and thought she knows what she’s talking about and she just confirmed I’m pregnant so I must just have my dates wrong. She said to call my doctor for another requisition and come back in a couple of weeks. She left the room, I got up and got dressed. Before leaving, I decided to take a picture of the screen. I wanted reassurance of my baby, and there was this beautiful gestational sac right there on the screen, so I snapped away. I didn’t know then that it would be the only picture I’d ever have of my baby. Christmas came and went and then we were off to sunny California for some fun with my partner’s family. He comforted me and said we had nothing to worry about. I wasn’t bleeding, we were just too early like she said. Even though I could feel the tug of anxiety, I allowed his confidence to wash over me and settled into the holidays. Two weeks later, we returned from our trip and I had the follow-up ultrasound appointment. As I hadn’t bled in those two weeks, I just thought everything was fine and I was going to finally get to see my baby and hear their heartbeat on the screen. I will forever remember that time as blissful ignorance. What I didn’t know then is that there is something called a missed or silent miscarriage; that a baby could die and your body didn’t recognize it or bleed. Eight days into 2020, into a year I thought was going to be absolute bliss, that same technician turned to me and said bluntly “Sorry, baby died. Those 3 words and her expressionless face have haunted me ever since. I asked her if she could go get my partner in the lobby, and she flatly said “no point, there is nothing to see, the baby died” and walked out of the room. I remember the shock as I cleaned myself up, the tears that slipped silently down my face as I tried to steady myself to face my partner who sat in the crowded lobby waiting for me. I remember feeling shame that my body had failed me somehow. I’ll never forget that crashing feeling as my world fell away under my feet. One moment we were us, and the next it was just me. No heartbeat. No movement. Empty. During the year that followed the miscarriage, that’s how I felt. Empty. I reached out to therapists and support groups looking for answers. I joined meditation groups and writing classes, trying to find a way to process all the grief I was going through. I remember feeling like I had completely lost my identity. Somehow, I was now a mother without a child and because no one knew I was pregnant yet, I hid the loss for a while from those closest to me. Somehow having to tell them I was and wasn’t pregnant in the same sentence felt impossible. I remember about a year after the loss, reading this poem a friend wrote on her blog and there was this stanza that really stood out to me. She put into words thing I hadn’t been able to say yet.
Where you live, where you live(d) That moving into past tense always such A pained trip the tongue must make to the Upper palate, a physical reminder of how Now is what we have, even though Then seemed forever. (excerpt from Jennifer New’s poem Gone Beyond the Beyond) I sat with that stanza of her poem and rolled that (d) around in my mouth for months. It still takes my breath away. For almost a year, I refused to refer to him in the past tense. I imagined all the stages of growing and if he were here. Even using the English subjunctive if he were here feels foreign in my mouth still. I dreamt about his face and what he smells like. I imagined where we would be right now. I worried that letting go meant I had to forget also, and so I clung to every memory I have of him. Of us. For an entire year after he died, I felt utter chaos and also absolute stillness inside of me. It took me a long time to realize I could make room for them both, the loud and the quiet, accepting that their coexistence within me is okay. That he is both within me and outside of me. He is nowhere and everywhere all at once. I am here, even though he is not. During that year I went through all the milestones. What should have been the start of each trimester, the due date that never came and thought by the time the holidays rolled around that I had healed enough for them to be okay. Christmas and the winter holidays had always been my favourite time of year. The coziness of it all, the coming together of family and friends. But as Christmas Eve loomed closer, all I could think about was that I was supposed to have a 4.5 month old in my arms and instead they were empty. Empty. There it was again, that feeling of emptiness. That identity crisis reared its ugly head again and I felt the injustice that here I was, a mother without a child. I tried to shove down my emotions for three whole days to put on a brave face for my family. To show them that I was fine, and that I had done all this work to heal myself and move forward, but the reality was that I couldn’t breathe. I had to take breaks from family time to go cry in my room, or hide in the bathroom just to gasp for breath. I remember counting the hours until I could go back to bed, only to then lay awake at night wondering how I was going to get through another dinner or put a smile on my face for my niece. I didn’t want to ruin their Christmas with my grief, but there I was, a ghost, walking around without a baby in my arms. By the third day of family festivities, I couldn’t shove the feelings down anymore and they erupted from me in the form of being physically ill, fighting with my mum and sister and so many tears I didn’t think they were ever going to end. I was drowning in a grief I was trying to hide from everyone around me until I couldn’t hide it anymore. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me that the holidays were going to hurt so badly. That my loss would be exemplified by all the happy instagram posts and the family time. Seeing people with their babies strolling about would make my body ache with sadness. That I wasn’t opening gifts for my baby or hanging the baby’s first Christmas ornament on the tree, or filling a tiny stocking with things a 4 month old probably couldn’t use anyways. I felt blindsided by it all. Even now, another year later, the feeling of loss is still there, but my body knows the grief is coming this time. I can feel it sitting there, waiting to weave its way into the festivities. Am I ready for it this time? I don’t know…maybe? It has softened a little as time does with grief, smoothing out the raw edges and soothing the guttural ache of new loss. But time doesn’t remove someone you love from your bones. It doesn’t fade the memories. They stay etched there, so that the love of that person carries forward. Love and grief change you. I still can’t help but think I should have a 16 month old in my arms this year (will that ever go away?). I should be chasing him around the room and hanging the breakable ornaments higher on the tree so he can’t reach them. Even as I grow a new little life inside me, as my belly rounds out with each passing week and I am so incredibly grateful for this second miracle, my heart still aches for that little boy who should be here too. For my first child who made me a mother even though I never got to see his heart beat or hold him in my arms. One child doesn’t replace another. That’s a lesson my grief has taught me. It has also taught me that grief and joy coexist now. As I ease my way into this season this year, I am trying to be gentle with myself as the emotions flood in. Letting go of the guilt I feel for finding joy this year and releasing the shame I feel for still feeling this intense grief in its many forms. Instead of bracing for impact this time, I am working on letting the grief and the joy mix together and take those quiet moments of missing my first child while feeling his sibling kick me for exactly what they are… love… because if I’ve learned anything, grief is just that, another form of love.