I've been thinking about betrayal a lot lately. The biggest betrayal of my life so far has been the death of my baby at birth. Being told that I was bringing a new baby home. Being told by everyone around me, friends and strangers alike, that I would have a second child. Being told by the doctor that he was taking care of us.
The betrayal of my body against my family.
The day I went into labour, Pete & I were joking in the assessment room, finally excited after a difficult pregnancy. After losing one at 17 weeks. After not being sure we could even get pregnant after we had our daughter. Even getting pregnant with her took 3 years. We started to relax in that room.
It didn't last long.
The nurse couldn't find his heartbeat. She moved her hands all over my belly.
"I'm just trying to figure out what position this baby is in."
I attended a talk by a woman who wrote about meeting the man who murdered her father when she was a child. She is incredibly brave and it was a very moving event, but after a while I found it so uncomfortable that I had to leave before the end. I think it has something to do with, when listening to someone talk about their grief, especially if it's a traumatic loss, I think I expect to connect more with the person and the story than I do, and then that disappointment gets added to the daily disappointment. I wonder if it's because stillbirth is just so weird, so unrelatable to anything else, that I end up feeling more isolated and alone. No other type of loss requires you to deliver your loved one's body out of your body. That doesn't make it "worse" or "better" than any other kind of loss, just different, with its own set of challenges. It's the most terrifying thing I've ever experienced and haunts me to this day, yet I still get asked why I think I have PTSD.
I had this weird horrible jealousy about the author's grief being validated. No one could possibly blame her for what happened to her family, or pressure her to forget her father and somehow replace him. I struggled through her talking about how it helped her to meet the killer, to find out about his difficult past, and to tell him about the man he killed and how beloved and missed he is. It sounded like it helped him be more remorseful, which in turn seemed to help the family (not in a vengeful kind of way). It was through an amazing sounding restorative justice program at the prison.
As so often happens since his birth, my thoughts slither to: what would be the stillbirth equivalent of this experience. Restorative justice. Any kind of relief and justice for a life never lived seems impossible. Would it help to meet with our doctors and talk about how the healthcare system is not set up to prevent babies dying at birth? About how pregnant women are so infantilized that their legitimate concerns are dismissed with eye rolls and jokes about hysterical motherhood and getting fat? About how the pervasive belief in "the power of positive thinking" means no one thinks a baby can die at 38 weeks which also contributes to maternity nurses not being trained to support families in sudden, traumatic grief?
I've heard enough comments about not participating in the "grief Olympics" to want to delete this post. But of course there are shared experiences and things we can all learn from each other when it comes to grief. I wanted to ask about her perspective now on trauma and grief as a child, and whether she felt supported during what must have been a chaotic time for her family. As a bereaved mother raising a bereaved child, I'm always interested in the opinions of those who are willing to share their lived experience. I feel like people rely too much on the concept of children's "resilience" rather than providing loving support, as well as accepting how individual grief and love are. And because the world thinks that children are not fully human because they are not fully developed, they don't always get treated with respect and humanity. Grief is so disorienting and confusing when you're an adult. As a child it must be downright frightening. I also wanted to ask about anger. Of course. A perennial favourite.
The first audience question was about the prisoner and I quietly packed up my things and left as she gave a very measured and respectful response about how the focus of her writing is on her own experience, not his. I couldn't stay and listen to her valiantly fend off sleazy questions about her family's pain, not when I had so often been asked to talk about my son as if he were a morbid source of gossip and fascination and not our child who died. I wanted connection and relatability but when it showed up, I had to check out. I'm a difficult audience. Impossible mostly.
A final note - her baby was in the room being looked after by someone and crying intermittently. I thought about how having a baby must be adding unexpected dimensions to the grief. Her father should be here to meet his grandchild. As the author was being introduced as "an important new voice", the baby happened to cry and the speaker stopped and smiled and said, "And another important new voice!" So true. It was a lovely moment. Everyone laughed. Except me.
Well, there's no shortage of blog posts out there about Halloween and grief. Just google some version of that and you will see bereaved people coming out of the woodwork to express how difficult it is walking around at this time of year when the dominant culture is so entertained by body parts and blood and tombstones and death.
We were at a community centre last weekend for our daughter's roller derby practice and it took a while for me to notice that on the windows, along with the paintings of bats and spider webs, there were red handprints. I blurted out to Pete, probably too loudly, "It's like a fucking maternity ward in here." So I will write a letter asking them to consider removing them. Do I tell my story or do I simply ask them to be less gory, which is not as effective and makes me look like a fragile mom who just needs to toughen up and lighten up and shut up? I guess some people would call it playing the bereaved mother card. It's also his story and I feel protective of it, more so now than when he first died. And why should I have to get people's attention in the most shocking way, why do we so often have to scream to be heard, rather than being able to just say, hey, consider how this hurts people who have death in their families. Even in non-bereaved families, I suspect children learn to silence how disturbed they actually are by all these morbid displays and the long-term impact of that exposure and lack of support for it. This is sometimes called "resilience" but I think it's actually an enormous problem. Turning death into a big cultural joke perpetuates our collective extreme fear of and unhealthy relationship with death that has real and destructive consequences in people's lives. I know it has in mine, and it manifest itself at the worst possible moment, when I needed to see and be with and learn to love my baby. But that part does not need to go into a letter to a community centre.
I get that different people find different things "disturbing". But so many business and private residences put up decorations that I really don't think having city-owned sites be gore-free zones is going to negatively impact anyone. I'm pretty sure no one has ever been traumatized by a lack of Hallowe'en decorations.
I think I would be more ok with the whole Halloween premise if I felt that people were also doing some of the work. The grief work. The work of being human. That we were all genuinely honouring what is special about life - that it ends - before jumping straight to a supposed celebration of life. This year I'm again planning to attend All Souls Night events at the cemetery, some of it in the hall where we had his memorial service. Last year I let the rain stop me but this year I really need to get back to honouring him (regardless of weather!), of finding ways to be close to his memory again. Year six has been hard. Getting further from the time he was born has actually been harder on me, not easier. And a celebration of his life remains impossible for me. It was just so short and so brutal and I live every day with the after effects. It would be so much easier if I could just celebrate but I can't, and I can't fake it without some cost to my well-being, so. Honouring.