Thursday, September 19, 2013

Conditional Love

In the Kindergarten post, I wrote about how confusing it would be for our daughter if she was sometimes a big sister and sometimes an only child. It's totally normal for parents of stillborn babies to have to think about whether to mention their babies in social situations. If I didn't have her, I would probably do that. I would pick and choose when to mention Toren and when to keep him private to avoid discomfort, my own and other people's. I cannot judge bereaved parents for making those choices. In grief, we do things if and when we're ready. Here's how it works for me 20 months on, as the parent of a bereaved sibling - being the mother of a stillborn baby is uncomfortable no matter what. No matter what I decide to do or say, it will be uncomfortable for me. If I mention him, it could also be uncomfortable for the other person. I haven't figured out a way around this. And really - tough talk here - this is what I signed up for when I decided to have children. Hard, hard work. Just because I didn't know exactly what I was signing up for, does not absolve me of my responsibilities.

But there's a bigger reason why I continue to incorporate him so much in our lives, to not keep him a secret. I think about what our daughter would learn about love if I didn't, especially parental love.

What would she learn about love if one day, I were to pack up all his things, put everything away, his photos, the memory boxes, the hummingbirds, the candles, stop talking about him, stop including him in our family, and say enough with this grief shit, this "wallowing", this "self-pity". What will she learn about parental love then? That you can put it away. That sometimes love is just not possible. Sometimes it's "too hard". It ends. And if those things are true for her baby brother, could they be true for her too? Could we put our love for her away one day? Could we decide it's too hard, too uncomfortable? Are some children just unlovable? He died, and so many of the people who were excited about his arrival, who were looking forward to seeing him, who cared about our family, who already loved him, just disappeared. They abandoned us and they abandoned him. They put their love away. I don't want her growing up thinking there's something she could do that would make us abandon her. If we put him away, she would learn that parental love is conditional.

There is a pervasive message out there that we're supposed to forget the people we love who have died. Let them go. Forget. Move on. Here's what I think - we're supposed to hold on to those people like crazy. Hold on tight and never let go. Keep them close. Not let them ever truly die. The people who abandoned our family, abandoned Toren just because he died, I sometimes wonder why they did this. Less and less now but I still think about it. I wonder if they did this because they learned along the way that love is conditional. They were abandoned, they were not supported when something difficult happened to them. Do I want Toren's sister to become like that? No fucking way.

Being a parent is hard. There's just no way around it. Right now, we are the main people in our daughter's head and in her heart. We want her to be completely secure in the idea that we will love her no matter what. There's nothing she or anyone can do that can stop that. We will never abandon her or forget her or treat her like she's a shameful secret or let her go or move on from her. Even if she dies before us. This is not what we do to those we love. We hang on tightly and we never let go.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Kindergarten II

Self-portrait our daughter drew this afternoon. She said the heart bubbles above her head with 'A' and 'P' are "Me thinking about mommy and daddy while I'm at school."



It's been a challenging few weeks with Toren's sister starting kindergarten. It seems like nothing we do now is straightforward, but this is a whole new level of so-not-straightforward-ness. I feel like I've already become a "problem parent". Last week at our school interview, the teacher asked our daughter if she has any siblings. It was very hard for us to watch her go silent and shake her head, no. That is her choice and that's fine. But as her parents, we had to find a way to introduce Toren and help the teacher understand what that means for our family and for starting kindergarten. Teachers do not get grief training. Hardly anybody does. And from what I can tell, children's grief is either minimized or dismissed altogether. We are our daughter's main guides along the grief path, however imperfect that may seem to us, but we can't be at kindergarten with her. We need more people on our team for this, and our only choice in this scenario is to educate the teacher. Sometimes, education means advocacy. I hate it. It's so uncomfortable (that's the mild word for it). This responsibility, education and advocacy for our daughter's well-being, is something I feel we neglected when she was at daycare because I didn't fully realize how treacherous the stigma of stillbirth can be.

Yesterday while waiting to pick her up, one of the parents asked me if our daughter has any siblings. I responded, "Yes, she has a baby brother but he died." I could see he didn't understand at first, and then the shock and the discomfort started setting in. Do I like shocking people and making them uncomfortable? Definitely not. It will be a miracle if that parent ever initiates another conversation with me again. Is there any way around this? Sure - I could lie. I could say, "No she's an only child." Who cares? As long as we know, right? I could keep him private, so that I don't "bother" anyone with our family's problems. As a bonus, no one can do or say anything against him, no one can minimize the force of his life and thereby cause me and my family pain.


On the practical side, there's his sister. At home, she is a big sister. Where she feels safe, she includes him. She talks about him. She makes art for him. We go to events because of him. Half the people we know and spend time with now have at least one deceased baby in their family. It would be pretty confusing for her if we sometimes included him and sometimes didn't. And it sounds disorienting and exhausting to go back and forth between being a big sister and being an only child. How is she supposed to establish her identity in her own mind with this kind of yo-yoing?

We don't have to tell every new person we meet that our baby died, and in fact we don't. Not even close. But if someone asks directly, how can I lie? I worry about kids teasing her, telling her she's not really a big sister, she doesn't really have a baby brother (the way some bereaved parents are told they didn't really have a baby). Or worse. I picture an adult, maybe another parent, hearing her say baby brother is dead and telling her she shouldn't say things like that. If we keep him private, and teach her to keep him private, there's no risk she will be teased or hear those comments. But then there's a bigger problem  - she will learn (and live) the insidious message that he is a shameful secret.

She is not yet old enough to advocate for herself. We need the teachers, the other parents, our community, to help her with this. To help our family. I think anyone can learn  to be able to say: "Oh yes, she does have a brother, but sadly, he died."

Is this ever going to be comfortable for anyone? It's impossible to see how. The furthest I can get to is to work on the idea of getting comfortable with the discomfort. It's only been 20 months since he was born and I am nowhere near "accepting" his death. It's not any kind of goal actually. As Liz Lemon would say, it's not even a thing. I sometimes make the mistake of looking ahead to the beginning of each new school year, each new teacher, all those new parents and I just want to hide under my bed. Then I remember that I only need to face today. When I pick her up later today at school, someone might ask me about siblings. I will go through the story again. No one's going to drop dead, we will all survive the conversation. Hopefully the parents will talk to each other, they will share our story, they will "warn" each other if that's what they feel they need to do. And maybe one day, someone will share their own story with me, not necessarily of babyloss but of something difficult in their own life. Maybe I will make a new friend. Someone who doesn't see me as a problem, and doesn't add to mine.

I've noticed that sometimes, when I tell Toren's story, difficult things happen, yes, but amazing things happen too.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Piano Lessons

Toren's sister had her first ever piano lesson last week. The last time I was in that tiny room, I was the student, and Toren was with me. I had my last lesson a few weeks before he was born. I haven't played much piano since that time, but I am starting to play again, little by little. Being back in that room makes me sad, but I like it too because it reconnects me to that time, to the time before he died, to the time when he was here with us. I'm glad he had music in his life. I'm grateful to feel able to play again. But there will always be sadness and longing to go along with the present happiness and fun of watching her learn to play piano and develop an appreciation of music.

Grief, mystery, magic, music, love. It's a small room, but there's space for all of it.

Discovering the mystery & the magic of the piano