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.
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.
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.
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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