Below is a letter I wrote to family and friends for them to read at the one year anniversary of my daughter’s birth and death (which was over five years ago now). I share it with each of you now in case it is helpful to you to communicate your needs and experiences to your friends and family. And I know you might identify a piece of yourself in my experience.
Dear Family and Dear Friends,
I don’t where or how to begin. So let’s just see what happens.
A year ago the unspeakable happened to us – our daughter was born and died. The unspeakable. Yet it happened, and such healing is found in speaking about it. Speaking about it, writing about it, reading about it takes away the power of the darkness – of the fear, the discomfort, the anxiety and the pain. Words are healing.
My life was FOREVER changed in September, 2009. That is when my daughter was born, lived, and died. I know you all know that. And I know you don’t *know* my life after that. In some way or another, we can usually identify with those around us and their life experiences. And while we don’t *know* how someone else feels, we can imagine. But now, my life, with the birth and death of my daughter, you do not know, you cannot imagine. And that’s as it should be. There is no judgment in that. It is what it is.
(On a side note, I imagine there could be some people reading this that could imagine, at least to some degree – that have suffered losses we don’t know about, or faced issues of fertility, miscarriage and trying to conceive. One of the most challenging things I have learned about our loss is that it is oh-so-public. There’s no choosing who to tell about this. People knew we were pregnant, came to a baby party, etc. Then we went into the hospital to have a baby, and came home empty handed. There’s no hiding that.)
I am hurting. I have hurt and I will continue to hurt. My life is messy. It is not easy. I am vulnerable. I am tired. I don’t know who I am. I don’t know where I fit in. I am sad. I am angry. I am frustrated. I am happy. I am joyful. I am hopeful. My usual optimism has been tempered by reality. I am not who I was. With the death of my daughter came the death of me as you knew me. Sounds dramatic, huh? You can argue that I’m still me. And I am. And I’m not. I am profoundly changed by this deep, deep loss. I will never be the same again, and that’s OK.
I will always know that my firstborn, newborn daughter died. I will never forget that. And I don’t need to. I will always know how old she should have been. I will (and do) see families, and I know mine is missing one of its members. If we are lucky enough to have another child, that child will be my second. My second born will, for all intents and purposes, be my oldest. It doesn’t make sense that my second child will be the oldest. It’s a weird thing, really. And that weird thing is my life.
Life is bittersweet. There is the celebration of friends and family having children, and watching their families grow. Our friends are in that stage of life of making and having babies. We were in that stage too. And then our lives took an abrupt, unplanned, and unanticipated turn. It hurts to see friends and family having babies, watching their families grow. I don’t fit in anymore. I don’t know what it’s like to mother a living child. I came so close, yet remain so far away. I know what it is to be pregnant, and give birth. But that’s as far as I can walk on the path of parenthood. I do not how to change diapers with ease, I never resolved the disposable or cloth diaper dilemma, I don’t know what it feels like to breastfeed my baby, I don’t know sleepless nights, loads of laundry and a cry that cannot be easily soothed. I wish I did. And yet, life is to be celebrated. My loss should not and does not prevent your joy. This pain of mine, it is no one’s fault. I am not angry with any of you. I couldn’t be. But I am angry that my daughter died. My head spins as I experience intense emotions that aren’t ones I easily accept – feelings of deep envy, jealousy, and anger. I shake my head and scream inside, “but this isn’t who I am!” … and it’s not how I was, but it is part of me now.
I cannot tell you what my grief will look like in the days and years to come as I move forward, out of the year of firsts. No one can. There is no road map for me, or you, to follow. I can tell you that everything I am experiencing as a babylost momma is NORMAL. There is a deep darkness, an intensity that I don’t readily share, because I don’t want to scare you. And this darkness is common, even expected, when a mother’s baby dies. I have searched out resources to help take care of me, to help me understand what’s going on. I encourage you to do the same. There are books and websites out there about losing one’s baby. Read one, and understand me a little bit better if you’d like. Read one, and have your mind put at ease that I am doing what I need to do. Read one, and find out how you can be supportive as my family and friends. Read one, and know that I will remember my daughter forever.
I can imagine from the outside it doesn’t look like I’m doing so well. I can imagine it’s hard and tiring to hear that my life is STILL difficult, that I am STILL not over the death of my daughter. And I have come to despise the word “still” in this context – because I will ALWAYS be different. Time will most likely continue to soften the sharp, jagged edges of my grief. But I will never forget my daughter. And that hole in my heart will ALWAYS be there, STILL.
It is not easy for me to ask for help. But I need help. I cannot do this alone. And I haven’t been. But I find myself confused, uncertain of how to share my grief with you. I remember my mom coming into my bedroom after she died. I was in bed, crying. My mom hugged me and said she wished I didn’t have to go through this; that she wished she could take it away. And somewhere, from the depths of my wisdom, I remember responding by saying she couldn’t take it away, but that she could walk with me. I invite you, if you feel you are able, to walk with me, to be with me, as I am, and perhaps not as you wish I would be. I invite you to speak my daughter’s name. I invite you to ask me how I am, and then pause. And I might need to be asked again. I’ve noticed my habit that when someone says “Hi Shelly. How are you?” I usually jump to my automatic response – “I’m good/OK/fine. How are you?” I don’t know how much anyone wants to hear, so unless you push a little, I won’t go there. I don’t want to burden you with my pain. And maybe I’m protecting myself too – maybe I don’t know if you can handle the intensity, depending on how my day is going.
I invite you to tell me if/how my daughter’s life and death has affected you. I invite you to tell me when you think of her, or me, or my husband. I invite you tell me YOUR experience… what was it like for you to have a granddaughter, niece, or friends’ special needs baby die. I feel so alone sometimes, and I*know* I’m not alone. I know her birth and death affected all of us. I know I feel that experience like no one else, but it would be nice to know I’m not alone. I invite you to ask me to see her pictures, to look at her scrapbook. And to do this more than once. I invite you to ask me what it is like to hold your baby in your arms while she dies. I invite you to ask the scary, uncertain questions. I invite you to fumble your way through the tough questions and thoughts. And I invite you to be with me, to be with yourself, on this journey – in this uncharted, unknown territory of grief and loss, and life rebuilt and redefined.
I have been rocked to my core. Yet I know, in my heart of hearts, in my inmost being, I am fine. Sometimes people tell me that I am so strong, that they admire my strength, etc., and really, I am not that strong. I am not any stronger than the next person. There is a pull to life, an instinct to survive. I believe this pull is universal, across cultures, across religions, class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, life situations, etc. I think of people in the world suffering so much more than I am, and they are still alive, they haven’t killed themselves. And perhaps it is strength, but it is a strength we all possess. Some of us are lucky enough to not have to draw from a well so deep. And as I am surviving, I hold a hope that one day, I will once again thrive.
Thank you for being you. For being a part of my life. And for showing up on this journey that none of us could have ever anticipated, or asked to be a part of. But here we are, nonetheless. Somehow life happens when we’re busy making other plans. I invite you to continue to walk with me, to be with me during my darkest days and brightest nights, and all of the thousands of days in between. RSVPs welcomed, but not required.
What have you noticed with your friends and family that either can or cannot be there for you? What would like to tell them? What will you actually tell them, if anything?