The Grief Wall: Loss of Identity After Stillbirth

This essay was written by one of our grief friends, Alex.  We very rarely have guest posts, only when we know the writer’s message will resonate with those who’ve had similar experiences in a way we couldn’t hope to replicate.  Thank you, Alex, for sharing your story.

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Our baby boy, Robin, was born still three weeks and a day ago. How do you say that right, by the way? “Born still” is the closest anything comes to seeming accurate and appropriate, but it sounds off at the same time. “Stillborn” is too clinical, and “born sleeping” strikes me as some form of denial. “Born dead” is obviously too callous. It’s not often that I’m at a loss for a good description, but this is one of those times. Anyway…

In the 22 days since I delivered him at 22 weeks, I’ve read hundreds of articles. I did the same thing throughout the four weeks I experienced bleeding at the beginning of my pregnancy, the three short and happy months after that, and then the three weeks I spent on bed rest before he died and was born. Each day has presented a new reason to “go look it up.”

Physical symptoms of grief
How is my boyfriend handling our stillbirth?
Feeling numb after stillbirth
How long will I bleed after stillbirth?
Why didn’t my milk come in after stillbirth?
How to memorialize a child
How long should I wait to go back to work after losing my baby?
Baby development at 23, 24, 25 weeks

I’m not naive enough to think I can find specific answers for our situation. As every article, post, and advice column disclaims – it’s going to be an individual experience. This process of moving through his death, and the life we had already built around his too-short existence, is our own to deal with; I know this. But like all of us, I look for insight; some key that will unlock the endless hallway of doors now closed in front of me.

The problem is, I don’t actually look at grief as a series of doors to unlock over time. Rather, it feels much more like I’m standing behind a wall. The Internet and its myriad of wonderful people has given me a lot; with its experts and wordsmiths and everyday users trying to express the awful feelings we all now share. But I have yet to find one very important insight, so I’ll try to share with you what it feels like as best I can.

wall 1

No one ever tells you that you’re going to lose all context of yourself. Your life, your identity, your interests, your relationships—everything feels like you’re figuring it out again for the first time. Fortunately, I guess we have our individual histories to rely upon for clues about who and what we were before our loved one’s left us. 

Obviously, I would’ve been a first-time mom. I didn’t even know for sure that I wanted kids until we were pregnant, and for the first few weeks, I did the usual, “Oh shit, what now? I had so many things I wanted to do with myself!” I figured things out quickly though; I realized I could still be me, still build my career and my life with my boyfriend, and still pursue the causes dear to my heart. I would do all of it for, and with, my new baby boy. My baby boy who gave me purpose in a way I always thought was over-sentimentalized by the other parents I knew – I get it now.

I wanted so badly to be a mom. The fact that Robin proved it to me was something incredibly special, and I wanted to be his mom more than anything I’ve ever known or felt.

And then I couldn’t be.

The good and caring people around me tell me I am still his mom. Of course. Who else would be? He was and forever will be my baby, but he is not here.  I didn’t get to take care of him for nearly long enough, and now I don’t know what I want at all.

It’s a wall. It’s a wall without a door and without a key. There are no keys in the online forums, the medical and mental health websites, from the grief counselors, in the support groups, or from the wisdom of family or friends.  No one tells you what to do when you lose yourself.

I don’t know who I am without him, without planning for him. This is not to say I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, and I do those things. I get out of bed, shower and groom, take care of our home and two lovely cats, interact with loved ones, reach out to support wherever I can find it, stay as involved as I can be in the causes I love, work on building the business I had started while I was pregnant. We even bought a new house. I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, but nothing is infused with meaning anymore. In fact, a lot of the time it’s devoid of any feeling at all.

I listen to Johnny Cash’s version of “Hurt” a lot. It’s the best explanation of what I feel like I’m going to feel like forever.

I wear this crown of thorns Upon my liar’s chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair

I’ve been through loss, depression, broken relationships, and some other very scary situations, yet I’ve never lacked for my own identity. I always felt strong, independent, and motivated — now I really don’t know what I am, and nobody has an answer or an online article for that. I wake up every morning with the groggy hope that everything is over, truly a horrible dream that will dissipate as the day goes by; I go to sleep every night just to end the pain and internal inertia.

I keep doing what I’m supposed to do, going through the motions and repeating “fake it till you make it” in my head. These things at least make me feel less dependent and less like a failure. I know I need to connect Robin’s memory and the positive things his little life brought me to the everyday things I’m doing now, but to know this is not to feel it. I just want to feel him again, and knowing I can’t is a wall without a door. The me I used to know is on the other side of the wall, holding his memory in happiness and trying somehow to live up to it.

wall2

What I hold onto, I guess (though I’ve never really acknowledged it until writing this) is the hope that I’ll wake up and the wall will have finally crumbled. Then I’ll be able to feel him and his life again without the hurt and confusion his death left in its wake. Maybe there’s a story or insight out there that’ll help me crumble the wall…but I’m guessing there’s not. Maybe, hopefully, something else exists within me, and anyone else who feels like me, that will eventually crumble our walls. Maybe this thing that seems to defy words is just time.  All I know is that I’m waiting here— in some cruel and confusing limbo between his life, his death, my life, and a new life without him—and sometimes it’s just too hard.

Have you experienced a loss of identity after stillbirth or any other type of death?  Share your story in the comments below.  

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March 28, 2017

26 responses on "The Grief Wall: Loss of Identity After Stillbirth"

  1. My favorite sister-in-law lost a baby but it was a lot longer than being born with no heartbeat. She was born suffering, stayed that way for 5 months straight before succumbing to the fact that she didn’t have surfactant (the thing that makes your lungs be able to expand so you can breathe.) She was a twin who lived. The other baby was born without a heartbeat. My mom didn’t tell me that until 10 years later. She made me think there was a higher possibility of the live baby surviving the difficult birth because I thought she was one live birth that happened too early. Even as an EMT-B, which I was when this happened, I knew that if one baby had died the other would need a medical miracle to survive. I was expecting Katelyn, the living baby, to get better when she died. It felt like a massive shock to me, and made me permanently give up praying the rosary. Even after my mom enlightened me I never felt like praying a rosary again. It was the first of two things that happened that turned me away from seeking religious “comfort” for good.
    The second was being forced to watch while my daughter’s dad, my former Partner, died in Tower 1 of the World Trade Center. I don’t blame a ‘higher power’ for making it happen but I seem unable to stop wondering why he didn’t do anything to stop it. That thought was intensified when I had to listen to people saying how he did see that others were saved that day. It made me wonder why not the almost 3,000 who weren’t spared.
    I guess I’m saying I’ve experienced almost a total loss of my religious identity after those two situations occurred in my life.

  2. Alex
    I lost my baby boy Julian a month ago. Nothing that I used to be excited about and interested in is enjoyable anymore. I also feel like I’m just going through the motions. We had just purchased a new home for our expanding family and our boys were going to share a bedroom. Decorating my toddlers room as a solo room is not as enjoyable now that I know his baby brother is not here to share it with him. In fact nothing is truly enjoyable about our new home. But because of our first born, I have to “fake it till I make it”. There’s no other way for me and your article really touched me.
    I also talk with my baby Julian, I write to him often. I think this has helped me tremendously. My heart goes out to you and I know you will get to mother Robin one day when you reunite with him. Some of us mothers have to wait a lifetime to mother their angels in heaven.

    • I’m so, so sorry Lizette. People seem to understand that losing a baby is heartbreaking, but they don’t realize that we lose almost all our purpose and place in the world too. And it’s really difficult to articulate to friends and family. But we know, and we understand each other. There are people here who can offer a lot of support and helpful words. I “met” Kristi on this thread, and she’s been one of my guides through the last several months. She found mothers who had lost their babies to guide her too, and I guess in that way, we all form an unfortunate but supportive chain.

      Here’s what I’ve found over the last few months, and I share it with you not as a prescriptive series of events that will undoubtedly happen, but maybe as some hope that you’ll experience something similar (or better). So I can tell you that I’m starting to see myself again–just a different version. Everyday I’m getting more okay with the fact that a part of me is permanently gone; that “life isn’t fair” applies to me too and is unceasing; that it’s probably going to take a long time before I’m as motivated and interested in life as I was before. I’m getting to know those feelings and letting them sit beside the plain, deep sadness of not having my first baby with me anymore.

      Robin’s due date was this Monday, January 4. It was a tough day, but it also felt somewhat cathartic. I talked to him (actually recorded it this time) and let him know that I’m not scared he’s alone or lost or suffering, like I used to think. I know that energy never dies, and I believe very strongly that it means pure spirits like his go on to do good in the world somehow and are naturally at peace. I believe he’s among babies, children, animals…other pure spirits like him. And it’s really comforting. It’s helpful to know that I’ve finally gotten to a place of being grateful for the little bit of time he was here, and being content knowing he’s not suffering.

      Now it’s just the ongoing process of getting to know an unexpected life, working through the ups and downs, and accepting the fact that I’ve changed so much (not necessarily in ways I’m always comfortable with–but that it’s okay). “Fake it till you make it” doesn’t mean you need to stuff away your feelings, but rather to keep doing what you need (and want) to do because you simply can’t make the world stop–as much as you may want to. I look at it like muscle memory: keep life going in whatever ways you have to, and eventually your brain and heart will start to catch up to your body. Doing our best in the wake of our losses is part of how we honor the memories of our babies. We’re living up to the version of ourselves that would have made us great parents to them.

      You, your family, and Baby Julian are in my thoughts. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Eleanor and Litsa (the moderators/owners of this site) have my contact info.

      xo

  3. This story is the closest I have come to feeling understood by another human being. It has been almost two years since I lost my pregnancy and I feel completely lost. Since then I have been suffering with horrible anxiety that I have no control over and the pressure to take birth control. I recently began experiencing acute panic attacks on top of the anxiety due to multiple stressors and triggers and I’ve never been so not-myself. I have nobody to talk to, nobody to relate to and nobody willing to accept my grief.

  4. Alex et al,
    thanks for putting to words what I have been thinking but not verbalizing…fearing others would think I am wearing my hair shirt outside 😐
    My only son passed away, sans wife and children, several years after my husband. I struggle with who am I…no longer wife to anyone, mother to any living being (besides the dog, thank God for him!) with no hope of seeing him happy, with a wife, maybe kids. It’s just ME. how do I define myself? My sympathies to all who struggle with these pains of re-birth of self as we mourn those who have gone to the next place.

  5. I lost my William 4 months ago, on my one year wedding anniversary. I have 4 kids from a previous marriage and this boy was to be my husband’s first. My husband and I were stunned when we learned I was pregnant; we were navigating a very complex new marriage. Later we felt this new life was a blessing and reward for all the hard work and at times even the reason we made it work. So when he was stillborn from a very rare cord knot, we hit the wall hard. We too struggle with purpose even with 4 other kids to care for. I dare say even my children went through it, esp my youngest who was going to be the big brother and his protector. He wanted to build a spaceship and take down heaven to get his baby brother. So even in the midst of other children I and my family, still struggle. My arms and my heart were supposed to be overwhelmingly busy. It was to be so different and its left me stunned and asking if it was all a really bad dream. It helps to remember with my husband. We talk about his hands being like his hands…..and we hope for heaven. We know he’s there. We envision not as a baby, but in perfection before Jesus, all he was supposed to be…grown and understanding the complete picture. It takes some of the agony away, but only a bit. You are not alone. Xoxoxo

  6. Your comments mean so much, Kristi. If you ever want to talk outside of here about Harley, your own experiences, or just your day-to-day, I’d love to hear from you. Just let me know if you’re ever up for it and I’ll figure out how to get my contact information to you.

    Take care of yourself. xo

  7. P.S. I realize, upon re-reading my comment above, that some of the thoughts were disjointed. This happens…especially lately. 🙂

    What I should have added after the bit about tuning out while I’m talking is that, after I left this interview—which has been the first time and place I’ve talked this much to anyone who hasn’t known about Robin—I thought, “I don’t know who that was in there. She was confident and casual, and a lot like the old Alex. But she didn’t break down crying, didn’t get so anxious that she couldn’t catch her breath, like the new Alex.” And then I thought, “That was Robin’s mom. Doing what she has to do to keep life moving along. For him and with him.”

    That wall isn’t totally gone, and I don’t want a few hours to delude me into thinking the grief is over, because it certainly isn’t…but I feel like I might have knocked out a brick today.

    Thank you again to everyone who’s read, shared, and commented. My heart is with yours.

    • No need to apologize. You accomplished a great deal with the interview . Losing your baby is not easy. I’m almost at the 11 month mark and it feels likeyesterday. Faking it is hard, so don’t try to like I’ve made the mistake of doing. Your words are so poignant and true. From a fellow baby loss mommy. From the movie The Help… “You is kind. You is brave. You is important.” Don’t let anyone tell you any less. God loves you too and He has got our babies in his arms

      Much love
      Kristi Lumpkin

  8. I just wanted to come back and say thank you to everyone who’s shared their own stories, given me (all of us) words of wisdom, and said kind things about my writing. It means a lot. And also to say I’m so sorry for the unique and profound losses you all have been through as well…I know “I’m sorry” doesn’t add up to much, but I am.

    I went for a job interview today. A two-hour-long job interview, talking to four different people in the company about the organization, the projects, and mostly about myself. It was a really strange experience to have right now. I’ve been keeping in mind what a couple of you have said, not to “fake it till you make it” because it won’t work, and think you’re right. I prepared myself on how to answer if they had asked casually if I had kids. Thankfully, I guess, it didn’t come up; however, I was ready to answer truthfully that I have a son who’s not living (or however I’d have said it). But sitting there talking about myself and my professional experience, my ideas for the organization, and how I would fit in there—it’s so strange to rely on those old things I knew and felt so deeply about my own personal and professional identity, and to be talking about them outside the context of Robin’s life and death. I found myself spacing out while I was talking and then tuning back in, which seems to happen a lot lately.

    I talked to Robin this morning before I left, and I asked him to be with me and help me live up to his memory, to show the outside world and myself that I can hold onto him while holding onto an old me…at least until a new me finds her way to the surface. I think I can do it, even if that means relying on the memory I have of myself while knowing and feeling in my bones that she’s not quite there anymore. Today’s been the best day I’ve had since he died, and I credit his little spirit—the one I helped create—for making it happen.

    I hope this might help any of you reading. xo

  9. Very well stated and written. I have not been where you are, but reading your words will make being with those who are going through this more understandable to me. My hope is that, although I can not offer words from a personal experience, that the many comments already posted will give you the tools to make it past the “wall” you have so eloquently described. Thanks so much for sharing with us! A warm embrace from cyber world. hugs.

  10. So very sorry. I have gone through many losses in my life, but three of them really knocked me to my knees. The first was our first born son. He died moments after his birth. He was perfect. (Long story.) I was only 22 and so unprepared for the shock of our loss. I had two years of college left, I attended, but it was all a blur because of the grief I had. July 1 he would have been 45 and my heart still aches for him.
    Twenty years ago my 86 year old mother was brutally murdered in her own home. It was pure hell! Not sure I would have chosen to go on if not for my 9 year old son. My heart still aches and I fight PTSD because I found her. These two deaths had such a major impact on me and changed who I was.
    7 months ago, I lost my husband of 46 1/2 years. I feel totally lost and struggle trying to figure out what now. But I know after the other two major loses, I am strong and will find the strength and courage to go on with life with the love and grace of my Lord and savior.

  11. I am so sorry for the loss of your sweet baby boy Robin. Alex I know the hurt you are feeling. We lost our baby girl Harley Nov 6 2014 due to a cord accident at 37 weeks. I hurt with you. Don’t ever let anyone try to rush you. I quit social media because I couldn’t deal with the deluge of posts from people complaining about the throes of everyday motherhood. My prayers are with you. You are not alone. We will always remember our babies. I pray for all of your losses to these sweet ladies on this thread. I’m so sorry that all of you are going through immense pain. I wish I could do something to ease it.

  12. Alex, I am so very sorry your sweet Robin is not here with you as he should be–with you to tend and care and plan for him and for your life with him in it. If I can wish something for you, other than the obvious wishing this had never happened to you it is that you will not try to “fake it till you make it.” There is no place to make it to, no there there. There is only learning to carry this and to continue to let yourself be awash in your love for him, even when, maybe especially when, that love comes in grief’s raiment. Losing who we are is such a hard, hard part of this grief. We do as you said, have to start all over again because we are not who we were before our children died and can never be that person again. Your words are beautiful as is your mother’s heart. Sending love to you–thank you for sharing his story and yours with us. (((((((((HUGS)))))))))

  13. My daughter Kat died June 18. Although I know I will always be her mom, who do I mother now? My identity was so tightly tied to hers as my child. Until her death, I hadn’t realized how much everything I do is , in one way or another, for her. She was 22 and had just graduated from college, about to start her life as a bona fide adult. I too, am dealing with that wall. Thank you for so beautifully expressing what I could not. I wish you peace

  14. I lost my dad in January this year and, 8 months on, I feel like I don’t know who I am anymore. We lived 200 miles apart but we were caring for him. We were organising sheltered housing, hospitals, Dr’s, social workers, dealing with when he took ill, on the phone around 2 or 3 hours a day at least, always needing to have it with me incase something happens. When he was moving we spent 4 months clearing out a house where he lived for 30 years, decorating a new flat, moving him in and sorting out carers only on weekends. Driving 200 miles on a Friday night and driving back for work at 8.30 on Monday morning, working all week and doing it all again. Two school summers in a row I spent my whole holiday back living down there again.

    Then he died. And I have no sense of identity. I was needed with him. He needed me, social workers, Dr’s, carers, the council needed me. I didn’t lose my friends but I didn’t have time to invest in them so now there are a lot less friends than there were before.

    I was his carer, I was his daughter. Now I don’t know who I am anymore. It’s been a huge relief to hear that others feel the same.

  15. I failed to tell Alex how sorry I am for her loss, Alex I am so sorry. Your strength comes through your post and I admire you for being able to put into words your feelings and your thoughts with such grace. Please take care, God Bless you. And to everyone who has posted here, I am so sorry for your losses as well. Grief is an awful thing, but it is a touch easier and so comforting to find Souls who are going through the same things and facing the same issues. It can help to share. Thank you all.

  16. When I saw the title, “Grief Wall,” I thought you had featured our website on your blog! But even though I was wrong, you made up for it with a very well written article. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing this, friend. Love to have you guest blog for us sometime.

  17. I have never lost a child but I understand losing yourself. I have felt that way since my husband died in August of 2014. Who the heck am I anymore? I am not a wife, or a caregiver, I am no longer serving in ministry as I did most of my adult life, my children are grown and moved away..Who is Jan? I dreamed my whole life of being a mother, wife, vocalist (I was a worship arts pastor), minister and now I am in some ways none of these. (I’m still a mom but admittedly it is different now and it is more at a distance – I have no one at home with me) I am simply Jan. And I don’t know what to do with her. So, as you say, I do what I should do. I started back to school because I know I need a finish and find a new job – career even! I struggle to care about many things I used to be passionate about. I’ve tried to explain it to people but it’s hard to articulate. I feel like not only am I grieving, I am rebuilding me….and I am not sure I have a map or plans to go by. Not sure what to do with my life now. You’re right, it can totally rob you of your identity. I am so sorry for your loss. Praying for strength to take one hour at a time into peace.

  18. I truly feel your loss and confusion. I experienced the same thing in 1973. Everything you’ve written here resonates loud and clear to me. The first thing I would suggest is don’t fake it til you make it. That was a huge mistake. Grief delayed compounds itself and will come back multiplied later. Right now, you’re in shock. I did exactly what you did. I read everything I could find to find out not what happened, but where my precious son, Seth, was. Speak about Robin. Use his name. Don’t let others minimize your loss. People mat say ridiculous things like, ” Well at least you didn’t get to know him. ” You absolutely did know him. You alone had that beautiful privileged. The only people who are going to understand are those who have experienced the exact same thing. If I were you, I would think of a phrase that you’re comfortable with to express to minimizers that Robin is as much you child as anyone else’s child. Over the years, when people ask me how many children I have, I tell them 3. Unless pushed, I don’t explain to them that one of my sons happens to be waiting for me behind this thin curtain we call death. Take care of yourself. Do whatever ishe necessary to find the answers that you need. You will come to an understanding that only you will know of. As far as the terminology goes, I simply tell people that Seth died. For myself, I explain to people that my son literally saved my life. From all of the searching I did to find out what happened to him, I found a true faith in God. I believe that I will be with him throughout eternity. God bless an keep you, Sweetheart.

  19. I lost my husband just short of three years ago. I have definitely been trying to “reinvent” myself ever since. It’s been recently compounded by selling our house and moving into another home. I thought it would help me start over but I still feel completely lost. I keep thinking once I finish remodeling, painting, unpacking, etc., that I’ll feel like I’m finally “there.” And the widow’s brain fog and inability to focus doesn’t help. But I still hope my grief wall starts crumbling soon. Thank you for the post.

  20. Hugs back to you, you have suffered so much as well. We are in our own special Club. Take care, Bless you.

  21. Oh, Lois, I’m so sorry for the loss of your precious little girl, and your husband, too. Yes, I truly and completely believe they are together right this very minute, and will be the first two to meet you when you cross over. ((((((((( hugs )))))))))

  22. We lost a little girl 36 years ago. She was full term. The only possible explanation was that I had chicken pox in my 7th month. She was beautiful, that is a memory I carry in my heart. I have so many regrets. One of being in the hospital while my family had a funeral service for her, and I couldn’t attend. I still feel her loss, and now that my husband has passed away from cancer, I always envision him holding her until we all meet again. Thank you for this post. Sometimes I feel very alone in this grief. And my grief for the loss of my husband of 40 years only adds to it.

  23. We suffered 2 pregnancy losses (both times with multiples) before I lost my beloved husband. I no longer felt I was “me”…..and that was even more confirmed when I wasn’t even included in my mother-in-law’s obituary several years later. Our sons were listed, to make it appear they were her other son’s children. The other son was listed, along with his wife, but not me. Not an oversight, but rather an intentional snub by my brother-in-law whose career of being a drug addict/dealer caused a rift between my husband and him, and the family (all enablers) sided with the other son.

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