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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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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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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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Three Years.

Dear Sebastian,

It’s been hard to write today. Not just because thinking of you can be hard. It’s also difficult to find the time, with your brother and sister around, and life being the overwhelming To-Do list that it is. I feel drained, and the words feel awkward under my fingers.

It’s been three years since your death and birth. When I let myself remember that time, it does not feel like three whole years ago. The memories are so clear and immediate. Part of me is still back there with you, I think.

In another way, I feel far from you, because I have no baby this year. On our first anniversary, your sister was growing in my womb. On our second, she was still definitely a baby. This year, she romps around full-tilt and talks nonstop. She’s not a baby.

Somehow, it made me feel closer to you to still have a baby in the house.

This brings home something I already know, but don’t like to think about: my other children are growing past you. Someday they will probably be even bigger than me, but you – at least in my mind – will still be a baby. It will get harder and harder to think of your babyness. I guess I should be keeping in mind that you are not a baby – you are a free soul. You have no age.

I’ve thought of you so much over the past many weeks, but I still didn’t feel ready for this. I don’t have time to grieve for you very often, even when I need to, and that makes me sad and guilty and off-balance inside.

(I can’t help but notice that I keep using the word “still.” I wonder if that’s just a coincidence.)

Yesterday morning at 9:30 I happened to have an appointment to donate blood. I thought about that very last time I felt you move, right around the same time of day, on that date, three years earlier, and it made a certain kind of sense to me to be giving blood.

It was my twentieth donation (took me a long time to get there, between travel, occasional low iron, tattoos, and pregnancies, but I still felt proud). While I donated, I wondered where my blood has gone from my other donations, whether the people who got it survived, and whether any of them were children.

When I got home, I was talking to your brother about blood types, and we looked at his baby records to check his. I had forgotten that he is O negative, like me – the universal donor.

I realized I don’t know what your blood type was. I know we have the records somewhere, but I couldn’t find them.

Daddy and I had a big talk about you yesterday, too. We talked about how we have very different ways of grieving, which is sometimes hard for us. We both think about you very, very often. We talked about what we remember about you, and the day you died and the day you were born. We both remember them in great detail.

We figured out that it’s both harder and easier for me, to have the privilege of being the only person who actually felt you alive. (Daddy felt you from the outside, but it’s not quite the same.) We both really really wish, just as profoundly as we did on your birth day, that we could have held you in our arms when your heart was still beating, and looked into your eyes, even for a few minutes.

I’m so sorry that when we think about your sweet self, it always has to be sad.

I still need to do the thinking, though, and the sadness too. Sometimes I worry that I spend so much time ignoring or pushing away or skirting the painful parts, I will forget how to connect with your memory.

Then, sometimes the ache is so deep and strong, I know you’re still right there in my heart, where you’re supposed to be. When it hurts the most, that’s when I feel closest to you.

I’m afraid that, on these two anniversary days this year, there is not a lot of time to think about you and honour you properly. But something special did happen for you, less than a month ago. Our dance troupe, for the student recital, did piece about some of life’s journeys. I was one of three dancers who did a solo, and it was all about you. All the women in the group knew about you, and danced for you too. We danced for all of us, and the painful things that tear us apart and bring us together. There were tears and there was so much love. I’m full of gratitude for that.

I want to post this while it is still your birthday, but I have more to say. I wish I had a whole day to sit under a tree and think about you, and write to you. With a pen.

For now, good night. Here is your lullaby. I sing it to you often, as I sing it to your sister and brother. Sometimes they sing along. They both especially like when we sing, “Your heart and my heart are always together.”

I love you so much and I miss you so much.

***


 

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Here we are. Two years.

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It’s here. This day has been homing in on me for weeks.

As I begin to write this, at 2:21 p.m., it was exactly two years ago that my husband and I wandered around the mall with my induction prescription in hand, wondering how we’d manage family phone calls to tell everyone that the baby had died.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been realizing that hot weather is now a trigger for me. It gets warm and sticky and suddenly I think of cabbage leaves and ice packs and bitter sage tea (it wasn’t any better iced). Sorrowing days. Plans and purposes unhooked, dangling. And so much crying. Writing and crying.

And, as I am grateful to remember, enormous love.

We have been using the air conditioning more than usual, because my coping skills diminish in proportion to the rising humidity. I regularly get tears in my eyes over some inconsequential thing; at first I kept thinking, What is wrong with me?? But once I made the connection, it all made perfect sense.

Feeling grouchy, frustrated, and short-fused is not cleansing grief. When I’m just grumpy, and not feeling close to my Sebastian, it just makes me depressed. And anyway, how do I put into words what it means to “feel close” to a son I only held in my arms once he was already gone?

I have a friend whose beloved stillborn son should have turned four just as my firstborn did. She is an amazing source of wisdom and words that fit perfectly. She says Crying is love. This is exactly true. Crying is the best way I know to access what I have of my son – which is mostly just love.

As I was telling another caring friend who wrote me a much-needed note this morning, a day like this shows me how seldom I let myself think deeply about Sebastian. I can’t afford to get weepy every hour (especially because E already does that). Reality needs me to function reasonably well.

Even at times when I am thinking of him, I’m not necessarily feeling him. Yesterday, our little family took a trip to the local pottery shop to make a clay memorial marker for Sebastian. I was glad we did, but mostly I thought about Are those letters straight and Is E getting bored and It’s almost Baby AB’s nap time and Please don’t let anyone impale him/herself on an etching tool.

I guess that’s for the best. I mean, I know it is. I wouldn’t have wanted to weep all over our clay masterpiece. But it’s a good thing there are days like today, when I can sink into the sadness for a little while (the length of a baby nap). Strangely, it’s sort of a good sad. Good in a heartbreaking way, because that’s how I get to feel close to my baby.

Last night, waiting for sleep, all I could think of was his face. I still remember it – I deliberately tried to imprint it on my mind – but it’s getting harder. I thought about the feel of his cheek, so incredibly soft, but cool and pale and lean, never having had the chance to fill in. I lay there and listened to his sister breathing beside me, she of the warm, rosy, very chubby cheeks. My heart was so full, it was hard to breathe.

I know there are countless ways to lose a child. When I hear the awful stories of other bereaved parents, I usually feel grateful that our loss was as simple and peaceful and unpreventable as it was. At the same time, when I think of how it felt to let my little boy leave my arms forever… the pain comes back, sharp and raw. The simple version of loss still hurts a lot.

Also when I think of E, and how he would have played with his brother, how they’d probably share a bunk bed already, and chase each other, and squabble over dinky cars… and how I’m not sure we are succeeding in keeping him reminded that he once had a baby brother he never met – how one of these days, it will suddenly become real for him, and I don’t know what we’ll do then… Those thoughts hurt a lot too.

I ferociously wish I could protect my E from this loss, and I’m incredibly thankful for him and for my vivacious little rainbow girl, and I miss my tiny unknowable boy so much, and I love all three of them to death-defying heights.

As I finish writing this (having done some reality in the interim), it’s 10:36 p.m. Two years ago, I was feeling the first twinges of contractions, and I was just over four hours away from giving birth.

So tomorrow is Sebastian’s birthday.

A lot has happened in those two years. I know I am different. Still his same mom, though.

Thank you so much for reading today.

***

Image from Wikimedia Commons.


 

 

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