Another thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving morning.

We are off to our traditional Thanksgiving celebration later today and I have mixed feelings. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday- food, drink, family.  But now, like every holiday, I face the day with a little cloud over my head. The holiday has gotten easier after I lost Mabel- every year I still feel her absence but I can carry it with me and still enjoy the time with family.  This year I anticipate things to be a bit harder.  There are some new babies in the family who will be joining us. I know I have come a long way- I have Felix to fill my arms; I have returned to work caring rather effortlessly for pregnant women and new moms; I am able to really see those babies born at the same time as Mabel as real adorable little people and not simply triggers.

But….

The babies.  I know today I will see lots of cooing and holding warm wriggly little humans, outpourings of love from family. All so very deserved. I think I can safely say I truly understand how precious little babies are. I have taken that into my heart in an even greater way after having Felix.  Understanding what a gift it is to have a living breathing child to hold and watch grow up.  Watching Felix grow from a baby to a toddler occasionally reminds me all that I missed with Mabel.  For the most part, I am so very grateful.  Grateful to have the opportunity to parent a living child.  But I am also still sad- sad to have missed that opportunity with Mabel.

Since Mabel will be my forever baby- my memories of her as a five pound chunker curled on my chest-newer babies can be a reminder of her.  Reminder that she did not come to Thanksgiving, that most of my family never even met her, that she might not seem as real to them as Felix or any new baby entering the family.

I tried to go through some of Felix’s old clothes to bring down to one of these babies- as Felix was gifted many hand me downs.  It was a struggle to part with any of them. I pulled out some- ones that I know had been hand me downs- but most I couldn’t bear to let go of.  Going through the clothes I grew super emotional, realizing how lucky I was to have had a baby to fit in them- holding up newborn, then 0-3 month, then 3-6 month outfits. The ache was so strong for my other baby that only wore two outfits ever.  So I pulled out a few onesies- most of the clothes were the wrong season/size anyways- and that’s what I’ll bring.  I hope they understand why I can’t be more generous.  I need to hold on to the rest- they are a reminder of Mabel, a symbol of how grateful I am to have Felix and a beacon of hope that someday, if I would ever be so lucky again, I might have another baby to wear them.

In the meantime, I pack up the cheesecake, mac n cheese, some eggnog and a few onesie hand me downs in anticipation of our family gathering.  My ears have tiny carrot earrings and my feet have my carrot socks.  I’m wearing a sweater- one that my husband dislikes for its gaudiness- one with Olaf the snowman from Frozen decked in sequins. But his carrot nose is a tribute, literally close to my heart.  I am adorned with my Mabel armor, so that my forever baby can join us this Thanksgiving.

My three P’s of grief survival

This week I had the honor of being the guest speaker at a local hospital’s night of remembrance- an event they put on for those who lost babies. It was a beautiful ceremony, with music, poetry and a touching sand ceremony. Here is my speech:

____

Meghanol is Program Director for Hope After Loss, the Connecticut based non profit that supports the pregnancy and infant loss community. She is also a practicing nurse midwife in the greater New Haven area. But today she is here as Mabel’s mom.

____

I was 27 weeks pregnant with my first child when the doctors told me my baby was going to die. I was thrown into a state of shock and disbelief. I had already had my share of grieving this pregnancy- I survived a threatened miscarriage early on and at 13 weeks an unexpected Down Syndrome diagnosis caused me to grieve the loss of the child I thought I would have and work on accepting the child I was given.

And then at 27 weeks, my baby had no fluid, meaning her kidneys were damaged and lungs would be severely underdeveloped. I was told my baby would be unlikely to survive after birth, let alone pregnancy. Two months later, I gave birth to my daughter, Mabel, a 5 pound 5 ounce feisty little girl, who gifted us six sweet hours with her.
Though I can speak her story now, with a smile of pride, I struggled hard with sorrow and grief from the moment we learned she would be very sick. I was constantly looking for answers on how to do this- how to simply go on. I eventually found my way, and now two and half years later, I want to share three things I have learned help me with my grief. These are my three “P”s of grief survival.

Patience.

Practicing gratitude.

Perspective.

 

Patience

“Do you have kids?” was a question I dreaded from the time I learned my daughter would not survive. I tried out many different responses and I had to be PATIENT with myself as I learned which ones worked.

None living.

I had a daughter.

I had a daughter who died after birth.

Some answers produced a look of horror on the askers face, others were too subtle, resulting in awkward follow up questions and others still shut the conversation down completely.

Finally I settled on:

“I had a daughter but she died.” And following the requisite “I’m so sorry” I learned to say. “Thank you. And thank you for asking. I really like talking about her.”

This response took years of trial and error. Be PATIENT, Meghan. I had to figure out what felt best for me- what made me feel like I was being honest, but also protecting my daughter’s memory and keeping the conversation alive. It was arduous work at times. And just like with my grief, I had to be PATIENT with myself. Sometimes my responses were clumsy and ugly, leaving everyone feeling awkward. But with time I got better. You too will learn how and when and if you share your children with the outside world. The answer might change over time or with your audience. Just be PATIENT.

Practicing Gratitude

Not long after learning about Mabel’s prognosis, I was struck by a quote I saw floating around on facebook.

“The things you take for granted, someone else is praying for.”

I had been wallowing in a state of “life is unfair” and couldn’t figure out how to move forward. This phrase gave me some guidance. Instead of focusing on the things others took for granted- healthy pregnancies, being among pregnant women without jealousy, assumption that they would be taking a baby home and I tried to remind myself of the things I was GRATEFUL for- the opportunity to simply be pregnant, my own good health, an amazing OB team, an active baby. It was my first shot at the PRACTICE OF GRATITUDE during an extremely hard time. It didn’t take away the hurt of carrying a dying child, but it helped me find something to cling to while I felt like I was drowning in grief.

Later, after my daughter died, when the sadness started getting overwhelming, I participated in a challenge, forcing myself to find 3 good things every day and sharing my GRATITUDE about them on facebook.

I was even able to take other people’s comments and reframe them under that GRATITUDE lens. Shortly after Mabel died, a very good friend told me of his grandmother’s stillbirth experience- how the baby was rushed away before she could even see him. “At least you got to hold her,” he said to me meant as words of comfort. This was the first of many “at leasts” I heard. It took time, but I was eventually able to reframe such comments. “I’m GRATEFUL you got to hold her,” was what he meant. And I am GRATEFUL.

Perspective

After my daughter died, I felt like there were pregnant women and babies everywhere. I was in Ikea, trying my hardest to be a normal person, when I saw a woman I knew. She had a baby in a carrier on her chest and held a toddler by the hand. It hurt to see someone with everything I ever wanted right in front of me and I felt mad and jealous that other people have it so easy. I could only see her from the PERSPECTIVE of a baby loss mom.

A few months later, I attended my first walk to remember with Hope After Loss. As I worked my way through the crowd, I saw that same woman with her two young children. We were in the same club. I was there to remember my Mabel, and she was there to remember her firstborn, a daughter she lost to stillbirth. I gained greater PERSPECTIVE in that moment. Just like me, many others carry invisible burdens.

So my dear friends, I present to you what I have learned. Be PATIENT with yourself as you learn how to navigate your new normal. The path is not easy, nor one would have chosen, but it belongs to you and your baby. PRACTICE GRATITUDE- of the little things and of the great things. Find what’s good, and it will be a lifeline in your sorrow. Gain PERSPECTIVE. Remember, you are the one in four. Though you are now a member of a club your never wanted to be in, you’ll find the fellow baby loss, once they reveal themselves, among the most compassionate and supportive people you have ever met.

There is nothing that will take away the pain of losing a baby, nothing that will fix your grief… and there shouldn’t be. But there are ways to make the path we walk a little gentler. It is not moving on, leaving grief behind. It is moving forward, learning how to walk side by side with grief. Because we can never forget our babies. They are etched on our hearts, burned in our memory, our constant companions- silent but speaking volumes.

so I’m not perfect…

I was out for a run with Muppet and came across a lemonade stand- some neighborhood kids raising money for cancer. I was running by at just the right time, with several families approaching the stand. When the kids asked if I wanted lemonade, I regretfully said I didn’t have any money, but I’ll try to come back when I was done with my run.  Just as I was about to take off, I saw you there. My smile brightened with recognition- a fellow professional in my field and a someone who chose my practice for care.  You have a son a few years older than Felix and I was reminded seeing you there that you live in my town! Since I”m not attending births and you work in a different practice, I haven’t seen you in a while- in the past I crossed paths with other OB professionals on the labor floor, a place I don’t often visit these days. Seeing you with your son, gave me pause. We should be friends, I thought.

I stopped and chatted with you, saying hi to your husband and letting your son pet Muppet.  I learned your son had some developmental delays, something I hadn’t known before.  I straight up blurted out- “I need local mommy friends,” a truth so prevalent lately. I find it a little hard to make mommy friends easily… something I’ll elaborate in another post…but since you’re in my professional community, I’m pretty sure you know my story. You know I’ve lost a baby.

You given me your number and tell me how you have a good group of local moms who get together every now and then. You warn me that the moment you say you’re in the OB field, everyone likes to tell you their birth story.  I laugh in total understanding. You roll your eyes and we talk briefly about yours- how you tried so very very hard for a vaginal birth but it just wasn’t in the cards despite everyone’s best efforts. I could see how frustrated you could get hearing other’s stories especially when you felt frustrated with your own. It’s like hearing how someone has a beautiful birth when yours was traumatic. It hurts a little.

And then I blurted out something I wish I hadn’t.  “Well did you hear about Felix’s birth story? How I didn’t make it to the hospital?” You smiled and laughed a little, telling me how you read it in the paper.

I realized shortly after I said it, that I did exactly what you had just said was hard. I told you my birth story. I’m sorry.

I wanted to tell you, that I often blurt out Felix’s story because I can’t so very easily with Mabel’s because no one likes a story that ends with a baby dying. Blurting out his story makes me feel a bit like a normal person. I wanted to tell you that Felix’s birth story is a tribute to Mabel, because there is no way he would have come so fast had he not been my second child. I wanted to tell you that when I learned your son had some delays, I felt a small kinship with you because Mabel would have had delays too and I imagine parenting a child with special needs is especially hard, but it’s just what you do, isn’t it? I wanted to tell you I shared Felix’s story with you because I assumed you knew about Mabel.

In that brief exchange we had, I am reminded that I am not perfect and sometimes says things I wish I hadn’t. It was a good reminder that others do the same and to give them a little leeway.

Have you ever said something you regretted? Do you hold yourself to a high standard of always saying the right thing?

Dear pregnant friend,

Dear friend who is pregnant,

I know I have not been a very good friend lately. I realize that by all outward appearances I’m doing well. I see pregnant patients in the office, smile and chat as I put my hands on their growing bellies, listen to them complain about the discomforts of pregnancy or their difficult social lives.  I hold babies and even go to baby showers. I have my own wiggly, squirmy, whirlwind of a living child to fill my arms now. I am living and doing a pretty good job of it too.

It has been 936 days since I held my first baby as she took her last breath. It may seem like a long time, and in many ways it is. Yet, I am still grieving. I have my triggers. One of the hardest hurdles for me is welcoming pregnancies of my friends and relatives in the way that I wish I could. I was once the first person everyone told they were pregnant. As the requisite midwife and true lover of babies, I was the natural early confidante. I miss that person. I long to be her- the one who would squeal in delight and ask a dozen questions about how you were feeling. That all changed when I learned my baby would die. Learning of new pregnancies scares me and brings up some unresolved grief, mostly in the form of anger and jealousy. I am angry that most pregnancies produce healthy living children but first didn’t. I’m angry that most women naturally expect to bring their baby home from the hospital, but I don’t. I’m angry that my daughter died.

When I see you, friend, with your pregnant belly, I am reminded how easy pregnancy can be (and should be!) for most people.  I am jealous. I am jealous that you are likely carrying a healthy child. If you fell pregnant easily or quickly, I am jealous that it didn’t take much work.  I am jealous that you are having your second or third child- because for me, my second is seen as my first.  And my hoped for third child fills the role of second child. I am reminded that I will always be seeking one more- to fill that Mabel shaped hole in my life that can never be filled. I am worried my life will never feel complete… I can only hope that it will simply feel enough.

So my pregnant friend, I want you to know that I have distanced myself. We once talked frequently and spent time together, but I have seem to drop off the face of the earth. I have done it intentionally, to protect myself and to protect our friendship. I worry that that by being constantly exposed to your pregnancy, all my dark ugly grief feelings will surface and I’ll spiral out of control. So for now, I have put space between us.

I want you to know that I miss you. I miss the the quick chats and long evenings spent on your couch. I want you to know I am happy for you…just sad for me, and those two feelings can exist in the same world. I want you to know that I hope your baby arrives safely and I will love him/her even from a distance.  I want you to know that I know this distance might not be the best way to deal with my feelings, but it feels necessary at the moment. I am hard at work trying to figure out how to overcome it… support groups, therapy, and mental toil.

My pregnant friend, please be patient with me as I continue to figure out how to navigate this crazy world in which my baby has died. 936 days later and I’m still learning.

Meghan

Bravery

Sometimes I need to be reminded that I’ve done some hard things. I have survived. I am brave. I am brave because….

I hung up the phone, the news of a Down Syndrome diagnosis for my baby still ringing fresh in my ears. I took a deep breath, basked in a moment of acceptance and relief, and then continued on my day, keeping my personal life and professional life separate. I continued seeing my patients that day, all pregnant with healthy babies, all while holding my news secret.

I said yes.  Yes to a baby with special needs.

I walked into the CT Down Syndrome Congress annual conference, scared but trying to keep an open mind to learn all I could about what life is like parenting a child with Down Syndrome.

I left the hospital with a likely life limiting diagnosis for my baby, choosing minimal fetal monitoring until the baby had any hope of survival, knowing that I was choosing to preserve my fertility over heroic measures for a baby that would likely die, knowing that I might forever struggle with guilt if she was stillborn before the set date we were willing to intervene.

I told the doctors to take out the vent and held my baby as she died.

I held my lifeless baby.

I handed my baby to the nurse, never to hold her again.

I left the hospital empty handed.

I continued to live life.

I went to my first support group, though I cried tears of fear in the hallway before going in.

I went back to work and told hundreds of people, “my baby died,” and continued to care for them with a smile.

I chose a new career path.

I talk about my baby to strangers, to try to break the silence.

I try to ask for what I need.

I had had another baby despite crippling anxiety that I might lose him too.

I’ve been to baby showers.

I’ve held babies.

I write about my feelings here, for all to see.

Why are you brave?

There’s nothing in there.

“You got anything in there?”

A hand laid on my belly, with a knowing smile.

“Any more babies?”

Since when is my fertility anyone else’s business?  I know that these comments were either well intentioned or just causal banter, but their intention still hurt.  The askers know about Mabel, which in my mind should have made them more sensitive.

I have held on to some of the baby weight.  I could make excuses for why- but they’re irrelevant.  Either you’re calling me chubby (insult) or you’re assuming I can just have babies whenever I want (ignorance). Either way, the comments make me feel like a failure. I’m failing at losing weight and I’m failing at getting pregnant.  I’m only 10lbs overweight but my abs are non existent thanks to two babies in a short time.  Though since I have only one visible baby, I feel like my body is a mismatch. I also would love to be pregnant- but I don’t think it’s going to come easy.  And since I’m still nursing, my body hasn’t given any signs that it’s ready for another pregnancy.

Hearing these comments makes me realize people want another one for me (so do I), but it feels like expectation, pressure.  It’s the reason that I didn’t tell anyone about being pregnant with Felix until 12 weeks- I didn’t want to disappoint them if I miscarried.  I know I have no control over it- but my disappointment was going to be enough.  I couldn’t handle anyone else’s.  The same applies here.  I worry that I won’t be able to have anymore- I’ve learned there are no guarantees- and my own self imposed pressure is more than I can handle.  Please don’t give me anyone else’s.

“No.”

“There’s nothing in there.”

“I wish.”

A rogue wave

As a midwife, my colleagues and I usually meet once a month to discuss protocols, clinical issues and patient care.  I enjoy these meetings because it’s rare that we actually see each other in person.  I’m in an office with maybe one or two other midwives or docs on any given day, but even then we are all busy seeing patients, often working through our lunch hour.  It’s a pleasure to spend some time face to face with my coworkers- even if it’s entirely work focused.

Recently our monthly meeting has been cancelled or rescheduled for all sorts of logistical reasons, so when we had our first one in several months earlier this week, I was looking forward to it…even though it’s at 7am.  The hour long meeting flew by and I was leaving the hospital, where our meeting is held, in a good mood.

Until I walked out the main entrance.

Sitting there as I was leaving was a woman with a newborn carrier waiting for her ride home.  My heart clenched and I was thrown backward in time. Here I was, leaving the hospital, empty handed once again.

So much has happened since that first time I left the hospital without my baby.  I returned many times- for meetings, to visit staff and friends. I even finally had the chance to leave the hospital with an actual living breathing newborn. But it had been a while since I’d been back at the hospital and it’s amazing how even though it’s been two and a half years since I said goodbye to my Mabel, like a rogue wave in a quiet sea, the grief can still hit hard out of nowhere.

I don’t spend much time actively grieving these days. I often feel that my other job- working for Hope After Loss, the non profit that supports the pregnancy and infant loss community, is my way of grieving. I get to speak of my daughter often and empathize deeply when I’m speaking new a new loss mom or dad.  What I realized earlier this week at the hospital is that though I may be honoring Mabel in my role at Hope, I still compartmentalize my feelings.  It’s protective.  Grief is hard work.

Seeing this mom and her newborn, I was reminded I still have work to do.

I miss her, my baby Mabel.