“By the way, I’m sorry I never said anything about what happened,”.
A colleague said, ending what had been a lighthearted conversation, her eyes suddenly mirroring my private sadness.
I found myself, momentarily, wanting to wave her concern away. I don’t like being the cause of discomfort; grief is uncomfortable. I replied as I usually do when people offer their condolences: “It’s okay. And thank you.”
“I didn’t want to bring up difficult emotions for you, to remind you of it,” she paused. “Kinda like I am now.”
Why Clear Communication Mirrors a Growing Garden
Six months ago, I gave birth to my first child.
Only, it wasn’t the joyous occasion my partner David and I, and our family and friends had been anticipating. Ashae’s heart stopped in utero when I was 7 months pregnant.
I labored for hours to push his tiny, perfect body from mine, but we never got to look into his eyes or hear him cry.
Instead, we held him in our arms and felt him grow colder, watched his skin tighten around his bones, fought to stay awake for hours because we didn’t want to let him go. Toward the end of the day of his birth, we finally gave his body to the nurse because we didn’t want to watch him decompose.
I am never not thinking about him.
There is nothing anyone can ever say or do that will remind me of this loss because the loss is never forgotten. The absence of Ashae is always large. It takes up space in my life. I am always reminded that I am where I am, doing what I’m doing, precisely because he is not here.
“Actually, it really helps to talk about it,” I told my colleague, wanting to retract my habitual it’s okay.
Staying Grounded as Your Share Your Loss
We use the word orphan to describe a parentless child, but there is no word in the English language for the parent who has lost their child.
It is impossible to define this emptiness and this longing.
As a writer, I know language is limited — especially when it comes to death.
Death snatches all of us from each other at some point and then slams the door in our faces. There is nothing to be done about it, nothing to change this fact.
It’s a steel door and it’s locked and there is no key.
It’s the only kind of permanence we know, and that makes it all the more destabilizing. But we find ways to deal with it; we heal and find joy again.
Miraculously, we don’t walk around in a constant state of fear and horror. Often, it even makes us appreciate life more.
A Way Thoughtful People Use Sharing to Build-Up their Pummelled Lives
One of the most important ways we process grief is by sharing the experience with each other. Humans are storytellers by nature; we use stories to make sense of our lives.
Karyn Arnold, the founder of Grief In Common, talks about the compulsion to tell the story of our losses repeatedly: “The disbelief lasts longer than we’d think. The direction our life took, the things that were supposed to happen that didn’t or never will…the only way to even begin to understand that is in the re-telling of the grief story.”
I imagine the story may need to be retold for years, but with each retelling, perhaps the pain becomes a little less sharp, the absence a little less overwhelming.
I’ve lost several loved ones in my lifetime — friends, uncles, aunts, grandparents — and I’ve noticed that there is particular loneliness in the grief of a stillborn baby.
I believe it’s, in part, because there is no shared experience of the person who has died.
No gathering of loved ones to tell their funny, sweet stories, no pictures of the good times, no reminiscing with family.
While loved ones may have watched the unborn move on an ultrasound image or heard a heartbeat or felt a kick through the thick flesh of the mother’s belly or dreamed together of the potential future of that child, not a single person experienced every moment of the unborn’s life.
Things Only a Mother Experiences
In that way, the mother is the only one who ever knew this person. And that relationship is an indescribable, intense, intimate love like no other.
It’s difficult to process the loss of this connection.
For a long time after Ashae’s death, even showering was heart-wrenching — every moment was a reminder that he was no longer here. My body felt drained of life for months as if he’d taken my soul with him.
Sometimes I’ve felt crazy like I’m the only one who can see the ever-present ghost.
When people avoid mentioning the death of my child, at times I feel crazier, more lost, more alone.
Sometimes I want to scream to strangers: “My baby’s name is Ashae and he died!” I imagine the relief I’ll feel when everyone knows about Ashae and everyone’s talking about him and delighting in the stories I tell about him as if that will bring him to life again.
I‘m sure I will not ever scream at strangers, however. I realize Ashae’s death is my loss to grieve, not theirs.
A Deep Dive into a Mother’s Heart
But the silence around the topic is isolating. I can feel joy and participate with gratitude in a life filled with wonder and love, but I will always be Ashae’s mother and I will always wish he were here.
He is forever part of who I am.
Somehow, when that’s seemingly forgotten by the world around me, I feel the loss more, and I find myself banging on that steel door again, looking for my lost soul.
I don’t need to talk about him all the time, but when someone else recognizes the depth of this wound, I feel better. When my motherhood,
Ashae’s existence, and the realness of it all are acknowledged by others, I don’t have to try so hard to keep my truth contained. I can feel sad and I can also enjoy life. I can be a mother without a living child and also a woman who is more loving and forever changed because of this pain.
It’s in talking about death, grief, and loss that we’re able to truly integrate the story of who we were, who we are, and who we’re becoming.
Perhaps grief stories are the stitches that mend the wound.