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Breaking the Ice with Words and Grief

Dear Sebastian,

Forgive me. I know you need some attention. You’ve been persistently reminding me for more than a year, but somehow I haven’t managed to sit down and contemplate you properly.

Last summer, your days were rushed into the beginning of Family Camp. I thought of you all the time, but couldn’t grieve or cry thoroughly. In response, I’ve found grief leaping up at me, unanticipated, all year long.

I clearly remember the summer you died, the way crying would insist upon happening (at inconvenient times)  if I didn’t deliberately fill a certain allotment of mindful grieving. The Crying Quota is a lot smaller now, but I’ve clearly been sidelining it too often. It persists.

There have been those random mornings when I’d be having a nice quiet coffee alone and suddenly find myself spilling tears on the table. Times when my mind would suddenly conceive, for no reason, that instant when your tiny heart stopped beating and your perfect soul broke away. Moments when I feel the phantom pain of your head pressing against my side, uncushioned by fluid, as it did for those last weeks.

There were also many reminders of your cherished existence in my heart – like you’re tenderly poking me from your place in the universe. Conversations I’d overhear – with weird frequency – about ultrasounds, sage tea, and even the salmon. And that day at school when I opened up a storybook I was given years ago, and caught sight of the author’s inscription for the first time since we’d received it: “To the Stephens boys.” It knocked the wind out of me for a moment… but it also made me glad. Proof of your realness.

Some days, I deliberately drive past the hospital on the way home. Which might seem strange. It’s a place I am tied to for its witness of the joyous births of your siblings, as well as the only time I spent holding you. It makes me feel closer to my babies. But sometimes that memory, of arriving at the dark street in front of the ER in unearthly pain, pops up more jaggedly than I anticipate – almost as if it were recent.

And while I try not to dwell on it, I can’t help but feel regret about that last morning. I wish I had kept you in my arms for longer – even half an hour longer. I don’t know why I wish this so hard, since it would change nothing, and it would all still be just as over as it is now… It was just too short. I know we usually want pain to be short, but in this case – I would give a lot to go back to that pain for a few minutes.

This grief is more than six years old now, but damned if I’ve figured out how to navigate it.

Another difficult time this summer was when our midwife died. We hadn’t seen her in a couple of years at least, and she had been working out of the province, but that didn’t make the news easier to accept. All our midwives have been excellent, but our primary midwife was a particularly amazing person and an expert in her profession. She was the one who was with us for the non-stress test where we last heard your peaceful heartbeat. She bravely broke the bad news to us the next day. She caught you and told us what a beautiful baby you were. She visited me for weeks postpartum, even though there was no baby to check on, just to talk and make sure we were managing. She vowed to help me deliver my next baby, who would be born healthy… and so she did. Having been through a lot of grief and pain herself, she was caring and empathetic and optimistic in a way that was inexpressibly reassuring. And she was one of a very small handful of people who met you in person. This summer, we grieved for her family and friends and colleagues, but also selfishly: it hurts to think that that handful is now even smaller.

In July, when Skye very gently nudged me about blogging (as she does when I haven’t written for a while), I was acutely aware that it had been more than a month since my last post, and that I blogged not a word about you on your days. The more days that passed after that, the more I couldn’t write – because it was your turn… But I needed to write you something real.

I tried breaking the ice some other way, nonchalantly. There were several attempts. I tried to make a post featuring one of your brother’s artistic masterpieces: an instructional page he created for your sister to teach her how to make fart noises with her armpit. The written steps are pithy and the diagrams utterly, utterly luminous.

But it wasn’t right. My blog even scolded me for this irreverence by refusing to upload photos. (Still not sure what that’s about… sigh.)

And now you won’t be put aside any longer. It’s the last weekend of summer before school starts. Life is about to go back to scrambly busy-ness. Here I am, still working on this post. And especially for the past few weeks, I’ve struggled with the confluence of love and grief – because right now, they’re seemingly inextricable. I’ve been weepy so many times – missing my kids when I’m apart from them, saying goodbyes to people I love, listening to my favourite music, seeing beauty, feeling the endings of many things… It’s all harder because you’re so present in everything.

But when I think about it, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m glad you’ve been so close to me all summer. You were there in the forested Appalachian hills on our trip to North Carolina, and in the joyous cacophony of the family we visited there – especially the smallest people. You were there at Family Camp, just as much in the boisterous play as in the brilliant silences. You were there on our trip to the Ottawa River, in the crashing whitewater as well as the tranquil ripples. You were there at OELC, in the gathered voices of more than a hundred people, singing this beautiful song written for a beloved little son.

Thanks for the reminders, sweetheart. I needed them. Your heart and my heart are always together, thank goodness. I miss you always and love you forever.

Mama

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More Beauty

As one of my dear Camp friends said to me today, I’m in the right place this week. Today, there was so much beauty – so easy to feel close to my Sebastian.

An hour-long silent Meeting on the hill (silent but for cicadas, wind in trees, and riotous birds), looking at this.

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Circles holding hands.

Hair flying behind children on swings.

The sound of lake-splash.

A world so blue and green and white.

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And such good hugs.

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Five Years to Miss You

Dear Sebastian,

It’s now five years since your birth day; five years and about thirty-seven hours since your heart beat last.

There is something about this year that has made my baby memories extra-vivid. I have thought of you so much this spring. I feel your days coming the first time the weather gets hot. Despite seemingly constant over-busy-ness in the last two months, you’ve been right at the top of my heart most of the time. It has felt strange, being in our new house where you never lived… but I feel you anyway.

I thought about you especially on your big brother’s seventh birthday. I could viscerally remember bringing E home as a newborn: the sunshine, the tiny onesies, the smell of welcome-home fruit crumble, the swaddling blankets, the days of rapt, awestruck bliss.

I remember how I felt that week when Emi told me that a friend of hers had borne a son on the same day I had, but that hers had been stillborn. My heart dropped like a rock as I tried to fathom how any parent could withstand that pain, when I could barely let my own newborn out of my arms.

Then, two years and one month later, you were born still, and I became friends with that same bereaved mama, who offered beautiful, generous words of empathy that I’ve never forgotten. By that time, she had a second daughter, who is now five – like you. What a strange, sad, lovely, mysterious entwining of lives and deaths.

Normally, school ends and there is that sudden space in my life at the beginning of July – and I let myself ponder you as much as I want. This year, I haven’t had time to spend with you, but my systems knew what they were doing and went all weepy anyway. I didn’t know what to do with that, because five is a heavy milestone, and it was getting lost in the preparation for Family Camp.

Then yesterday, I arrived here at NeeKauNis, and I suddenly felt lighter, righter, like you were all around me. It was quiet and fragrant and humid and leafy. I saw you, in this bright face.

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And I saw you again in this expansive sky-smile, after a much-needed, stormy downpour.

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Today, the other families arrived, and our Camp is full. It is busy and noisy and full of life.

This week, I’m going to watch for you. Beauty has always been where I see you, and interacting with beauty is how I feel close to you.

I really wish there were some way I could cuddle you again. Part of me feels entitled to, after missing you for so long. But I’m glad you’re here with us.

I love you always.

***


 

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Be The Calm

It was a busy summer.

Just so you know, that’s the usage of the word busy where it actually means overwhelming-and-sometimes-stressful-enough-to-make-me-think-I-might-lose-my-marbles. And that’s despite summer vacation, and my school being closed for renovations.

We bought a house in June, right before end-of-school craziness; we beautified and sold our house in July; we packed in August, and moved on the last Saturday of the month. It was hard to tell how much the kids felt the upheaval – they had plenty of emotional outbursts, but that’s nothing new.

In truth, it was a pretty nice low-pressure timeline – we even had five days of overlap with both houses, so that we could properly clean out the old house. I said goodbye to it by scrubbing out its fridge and vacuuming its bare carpets with a thoroughness it hasn’t seen since we became parents. (Interestingly, vacuuming an empty house is a good way to find all those above-mentioned marbles one has lost.)

Five days later, in our new house, I suddenly got weepy for no reason I could pinpoint… other than, I suppose, a whole summer of emotional and physical craziness.

Now we are settled in. Ish. That is to say, we have unpacked enough to function quite well, but there are lots of boxes still to unpack, and certain things we haven’t yet located. (Like E’s raincoat. Mom Fail.)

The kids like it at the new house, but E especially still likes to mention, in tragic tones, that he wishes we could go back and live at the old house.

E has started in Grade 1 at his new school, with a much smaller class than in JK or SK, and seems to have had good days (overall) every day… but he still doesn’t really want to go each morning. He still looks sadly at me each day before he goes into the school.

AB is going to same day care provider as always, and we are now within walking distance of her house! But since the summer, AB has decided she doesn’t like going there. This morning she was sobbing and holding my hand as hard as she could when I left.

In an alternate reality, today would have been Sebastian’s first full day of Junior Kindergarten. We got a notice last winter, on lavender paper, inviting all parents of “children born in 2011” to register their kids for kindergarten. Yep, we’re those parents… but not.

That was the first time I realized that starting kindergarten is the first concrete missed milestone for Sebastian, and for us as his parents. We know he would have gotten teeth and crawled and said words and walked and all sorts of cool things by now, but we have only a vague idea of when. The event of starting school has an exact date. I know many beautiful JK munchkins, Sebastian’s would-be peers, who have visited their classrooms and begun big-kid school over the past week. I’m excited and proud for them and their parents, and I’m sending them extra-special vibes as they settle into this new phase. With a little lump in my throat.

Before school started, I was feeling so-so about going back to work. My emotions were all over the map; the house wasn’t all ready; I didn’t feel organized; and I was still dealing with the bitter taste left after last year, when I contended with difficult behaviour from my students with a frequency that exhausted me. Last year, I was not happy with the level of patience I was able to muster, with either my students or my own children. I was not really proud of the job I did.

But, ready or not, a new house is a fresh start, and a new school year is a fresh start. And many things have happened this summer, both locally and globally, that give me perspective on the things I struggle with.

So, regardless of how many boxes remain to be unpacked, I am starting over. I have given myself a new mantra, in which I misquote Gandhi (but in a way I think he’d endorse):

Be the calm you wish to see in the world.

My life will be disorganized for a bit longer, but the calmer I can be, the sooner things will fall into place.

My children will certainly have emotional outbursts, but the more I can model calm, the more likely they are to absorb it.

Certain of my students will forget the expectations, say rude things, fall off their chairs, interrupt, be mean to their peers, and/or goof off when they should be working, but the more I remind myself to maintain calm, the easier it is to remember that it’s not personal – those kids are simply displaying their needs – and that my reaction, the part I control, sets the tone more than anything.

I aim to Be the Calm, and at the end of this school year, to be proud of myself for it. I can feel already that my classroom atmosphere has more humour in it, and less stress.

Today, one of my new Grade 4 students blurted, after five French classes with me, “You’re my favourite teacher!” I know it’s only week two, and opinions change mercurially, but that has to mean something, right?

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Four Years Remembering You In This House

Dear Sebastian,

Last week, it was four years since your death and birth. As always, we love you to the heavens and back, and miss you all the time.

We have bought a new house. We will be moving to it at the end of the summer, and we are all really excited about it. Your brother is counting the days. Your sister, when we talk about it, always adds, “But, we’re gonna be in this house for a little bit longer… right?” She is excited, but she loves her familiar house too; it’s the only home they’ve known.

I am looking forward to having a new place to be, a more functional and welcoming space, in a new neighbourhood close to many good friends… but I’m sad sometimes, thinking about leaving our home. It’s the first house Daddy and I bought; it’s a home we shared with people we loved even before having children; it’s the place we brought two of our babies home to, and watched them grow; it’s the place we expected to bring you home to, and the place that sheltered us when we mourned you the most.

Thinking about you gives me the biggest pangs about moving away. After four years, it’s hard to feel close to you, but sometimes, especially on hot and humid summer days, time folds back to that July, and I welcome the sorrow that keeps you near. Somehow, you seem to be here in these walls.

Our bedroom is where I slept curled around you. It’s where I sang lullabies to our two-year-old E that I knew I was singing to you too. It’s where he would touch my round belly, full of you, and say, “That’s my brother.”

Our living room is where I sat combing through the baby book for your name. Weeks later, it’s where I inverted myself on the edge of the couch, in hopes of getting you to turn head-down. I can still feel the ache, when I think of it, of your head pressing against that spot on my side, and how that bump felt under my hand, with – unbeknownst to us – no fluid to cushion you.

Our doorstep is where I knelt, paralyzed with pain, dilating in time-lapse, just minutes before you were born. It is also where our dear friends left beautiful meals for us in the days that followed, with compassion and thoughtfulness that humble me even now.

Our backyard is where our family gathered around us on your birth day, filling the sandbox with sand for E, installing our picnic umbrella (all the things we hadn’t got around to while expecting you), bringing food and so much love.

Our kitchen is where I gingerly filled my bra with cool cabbage leaves for the soreness, and steeped sage tea to dry up the milk I wished I could give you. It’s where I went about daily chores of cooking and dishes, thinking about how our life was suddenly unhooked from its plans. It’s the room that filled with flowers from people sending their sympathy.

And this home is the place where your lullaby coalesced in my head, where I tinkered out the harmonies on my piano, and where I carefully recorded each track so that it would sound as I imagined it.

As much as it hurts to think of all that, I never wish for the pain to be gone. It’s my link to you.

I guess that’s why it feels like you’re here, and why it also kind of feels like leaving you behind.

On Wednesday, your daddy and I marked the four years since your death quietly in our minds, and with some extra-long hugs. It was a mostly normal day – I did dishes, helped and played with your siblings, refilled my spice jars, bought groceries, folded laundry, practiced with my dance sisters. Daddy worked hard making our house and yard look nice for when we sell it.

I’m grateful for all those day-to-day things that make up our life: we are an undeniably fortunate family, in so many ways, not the least of which is our freedom to be normal and do all those things. But normalcy can be hard work when you’re yearning to just curl up and indulge in the luxury of grieving for a day.

A strange thing also happened. We had received a notice to pick up an unexpected package:

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A sample box of formula, addressed to me, with my full name.

I had no idea what to make of it, couldn’t even decide if it was oddly suitable on that day, or wildly inappropriate. After all, I do keep your baby self in my heart, and always will; but the dreams mentioned on the box didn’t work out at all.

That evening, I finally had the chance to sit and remember you, and look at your scrapbook. I got all caught up in examining the perfection of your little nose, captured in the few pictures we have. I wish – so often – that I could see your face in person again, even for a moment.

The next day, your birthday, we spent some time at your Grammie and Papa’s house with your Auntie Beth, and I thankfully got to do some writing, and we went to pick berries at the berry farm. Ever since your first anniversary, when we ended up at the berry farm almost by chance, it has felt like the best thing to do on your birthday. Not quite a celebration… but an appreciation.

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I’ve also realized that, along with writing and berry-picking, certain songs help me at this time of year. I decided to put my favourite healing song to images for you (and for me). I think this song helps because it’s about pain and beauty, and how they are both inevitable.

It felt really good to spend some time looking at these images of our breathtaking planet. It reminded me that I can never leave you behind, because you are actually everywhere.

***

P.S. Please stay tuned for photo credits for this video – coming soon.


 

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Sometimes it’s hard to find words.

Dear Sebastian,

I hope you enjoyed the music yesterday. I loved listening, and feeling so close to you.

The three women whose voices delivered our lullaby were singing with you in their hearts, thanks to the initiative of my dear friend C, who loves the song and felt that it should be shared in person.

I haven’t been to a traditional Sunday morning church service very many times in my life – it felt a little funny to gather with a congregation that is not Quaker, and not in silence.

But it was really nice to be there, sincerely welcomed by strangers with smiles, hearing about the people that the community is presently holding in the Light (they didn’t use those words exactly, but I knew what they meant), following along with the hymns, watching the music director’s exuberant piano-playing, listening to the reverend speak about love and what an important part it is of each of us.

And when our song was sung, the notes soared sublimely up to the vaulted ceiling, and it was lovely to be gazing at the candle flames, the flowers, the jewel-coloured windows, and the most beautiful organ pipes I’d ever seen. Of course, I was crying too.

It is hard to describe what was going on in my head and heart.

It was exciting to be announced as “the composer” of the piece – I almost felt like the genuine article… And it was incredible to be given the gift of finally hearing the song I made for your first birthday, live and real, for the first time ever, sung by people who care about your story.

Most of all, it meant the world to feel close to you.

The truth is, I missed you so much over the holidays this year. I thought of you often, and wore your necklace every day, but mostly – I’m so sorry – I tried not to think about you. Usually I welcome the connection I feel when I think of you, even though it’s sad for me. But this time, for some reason, the grief felt harder, chilling. When we put your special ornaments on the tree, I had a taste of the dark kind of sadness that reminds me of cold baby graves with teddy bears beside them, and devastating family tragedies that blacken December. I did my best to steer clear of those thoughts.

But in a big room filled with beauty and sunlight, listening to our music, I was okay. We were okay.

And somehow, the singers wanted to thank me for the song. I couldn’t remotely find the proper words to thank them.

Even though part of me would have liked for everyone who loves you to have heard the music yesterday, it was easier that only a few people present knew your story. C’s mom gave me a big, bolstering hug (which I really needed) when the song ended, but the general audience had no reason to wonder how I was taking the experience, thank goodness. Many of them told me afterward that they enjoyed the song, and that was all I wanted.

After the service (and lots of hugs, and a few more tears on my part), the three singers took the song to the hospital with them, to say goodbye to a dear friend who won’t be with them much longer. They had asked permission, which I gladly gave; that was when I fully realized that this lullaby has always been meant to be a comfort to both the listener and the singer. It’s just that, until now, the only singer had been me.

What a blessing, this experience.

I still can’t come up with all the words I need right now. I’ll just remind you that I love you and I miss you. As always, I am glad that you are part of my heart. I wish I could kiss your little cheeks.

***

To listen to the original lullaby, please click here.


 

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Things I’ve Learned About Being A Baby Loss Mama – Three Years Later

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Photo from pregnancyandbaby.com.

It’s October 15th: Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.

On July 9th, 2011, as you know, our Sebastian was stillborn at 35.5 weeks’ gestation. I have learned things, since then, about mothering an invisible child. Although I don’t presume to speak for other babylost parents here, some will relate.

  • It gets easier. Functioning day-to-day, compartmentalizing to get things done, packing away anguish for later – all that gets easier, gradually. They’re habits formed of necessity.
  • It also gets harder. Since Sebastian died, every day that passes takes me further from him. It’s agonizing, feeling so distant, trying to really remember his face (since our photos didn’t truly capture him). The older my living children grow, the more his infant existence seems out-of-context, and the more difficult it is to mention Sebastian in conversation – even though I yearn to acknowledge him.
  • The pain is the same. Underneath the coping habits, when I unpack it, the sorrow is the same sorrow it was three years ago, the loss the same loss, the love the same love. That’s what people mean when they say you never “get over” losing a child: they’ll always be your child, and they’ll never not be gone. That truth just hurts – and it rears up unexpectedly.
  • The awkwardness still exists. I sadly confess, I am no better at answering that awful question, “How many children do you have?” People meet me with my toddler, and I still talk around it: “I also have a five-year-old at home.” I can’t make myself add “and a baby in my heart,” even though I always think it, and mourn.
  • The club exists.There is an immediate kinship between bereaved parents. I’ve felt it with many who have lost children of any age, whether through miscarriage, disease, accident, or suicide. It’s not a happy club… and yet there is comfort in it.
  • I always know how old he’d be. Right now, he’d be three-and-a-quarter. There’s always a pang when I see the children of my pregnancy buddies – kids “his” age. Thank goodness, they are beautiful and healthy. I wish Sebastian could play with them.
  • Different versions of my family exist in my mind. I relate to your family with two close sons. We envisioned, almost were, that family. I relate, too, to the family with two boys and a little girl: that’s the family we are in my heart.
  • Grieving is different for everyone. I mentioned that Sean and I had a heart-to-heart last Sebastian Day, arising from my loneliness in grief. It was an important talk, one we both needed, revealing that neither of us is alone – we just grieve very differently. We must remember each other’s grief, even if we can’t see it, so we can still support each other.
  • It’s tricky to grieve an unknown sibling. Sometimes, E mentions Sebastian casually, without sadness. But as he grows, he understands his own loss more – the unfairness of having a brother he never met. Sometimes, when he’s feeling fragile, he cries. He adores his sister, but does wish we could’ve kept that brother.
  • Your babies are your babies, no matter how small. Sebastian changed my life dramatically, but I’ll never forget my first loss: an appleseed-sized person whose heartbeat stopped on May 28th, 2008. That tiny life will always matter to me, as part of my family and my remembrance.
  • The same things hurt.When friends, even close ones, accidentally forget or negate Sebastian’s existence, I understand… but it still hurts. I know that, having birthed him, I have the unique inability not to count him as one of my children.
  • The same things heal. When someone mentions him – by name, especially – that acknowledgement is profoundly important to me. Bringing him up doesn’t “remind” me; he’s always in my thoughts anyway. It helps to know that Sean and I aren’t alone in grieving him. I recently discovered that my sister-in-law has a Sebastian tattoo, and really appreciated the reminder: he’s in many hearts besides ours.

If you are able, tonight at 7 pm, please consider lighting a candle in your window for this Remembrance Day Wave Of Light. You never know when that small flame will comfort someone in need.

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