the inner world of grief, part 1
As I approach the two-year anniversary of the loss of our baby boy, I am still trying to make sense of my grief. Our son was much wanted and so loved, long before he ever came to be. Though I never got to meet him, I felt his presence in our short time together. I was half way to term. We had just started to envision our future life with him. We were in bliss. And then…
Exactly two years ago this week, everything changed. Time stopped. Bliss turned to terror. I imagine I will write more about what happened. But this is more about the aftermath, my attempt to come to terms with my grief, to slowly re-integrate the remnants of my life and find my way through. For now, it goes without saying that after I started leaking and bleeding well into the second trimester on that cold sunny day in January, nothing was ever the same again. In two weeks, he was gone. Forever. Along with every dream we had of our future with him.
I don’t think we ever really overcome grief. We try to work through it. We try to live with it and accept it. Grief is a lifelong healing process. Our journey through grief does not have a distinct destination. There is no end point. And the process includes how we deal with what we encounter along the way.
Many are familiar with the five traditional stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. These were first articulated by the late Elisabeth Kubler-Ross on death and dying. In her final book, “On Grief and Grieving,” she and her co-author explain how the stages apply to the inner and outer worlds of grief. While not specific to pregnancy loss, the stages are universal, though misleading in their seeming simplicity. But there are no instructions. The stages are not linear, and we can experience them differently. The fundamental truth they elucidate is that grief is the necessary beginning of healing. It must be experienced. We must be open, we must be present. We must live through it to come out the other side. “Grief is the healing process of the heart, soul, and mind; it is the path that returns us to wholeness.”
In truth, I don’t know that I can ever be truly whole after what I’ve lost. Will I ever feel complete without my son? Or without any living children if I must grieve my fertility as well? Will I ever come to “accept” this fate? I really don’t know.
After a year had passed, I sought support from a grief counselor who I hoped could help guide me to the other side. I had read a lot about grief and suffering. I had journaled extensively. But I just wasn’t finding my way through. Every new loss I experienced — every bfn, every lost hope, even the loss of my beloved pets who served as my surrogate children — brought up painful feelings of past unresolved loss. I was falling back into despair. I was hopeless, inconsolable.
My guide suffered tremendous grief when her husband died at age 35 from a rare form of cancer. Not only did she lose her partner, but she also buried the prospect of becoming a mother. She later lost her sister and best friend to cancer too. She describes grief as deep pain that inhabits the mind and the body. Heartache. Sometimes the pain is manageable, other times it seems intolerable. Grief shatters and scatters, she says. Yes. It destroys what we know and love; it steals our hopes and dreams. It leaves us to pick up the pieces. Yet feeling pain and sorrow is a necessary part of our healing. The only way out is through.
She once told me about meeting Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who became her mentor. She had shared her story and how so unfair she thought it was. “You poor dear,” Elisabeth said to her, “who ever told you life was fair?” Later when discussing their work, she told Elisabeth the five stages had held so much meaning for her in those early days. “Oh, I hope you’ve got more than that,” Elisabeth replied. “That is just the beginning, my dear.” Indeed.
Since then, this woman has spent her life trying to harness the “transformative power” of grief to positively impact her life and the lives of others. Wise, strong and compassionate, she has helped many through their journeys using a process she calls “de-griefing.” This includes being present for grief (overcoming barriers); normalizing grief (as a real and valid response); accepting that grief is a part of life that does not go away (though our relationship to it changes over time); providing relief from pain (physical, emotional); and most importantly, tapping into grief to enable some kind of personal transformation.
I honestly can’t say I’ve achieved these things. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of our sessions was the real life validation. Yes, my son died, and it really fucking sucks. I’ve been cheated and I feel empty and alone. I’ve not only lost my baby but every hope I had for our future together. I had to find a way to use this pain to help me through. I had to accept that my strength might be all I had, but it was OK to feel vulnerable. I had to let go of the idea of what was “supposed” to be. I had to accept that I can’t know the future. All part of the process. (She also helped me deal with people who were unable to support me — but more on that in part 2, the outer world of grief.)
She especially helped me understand my relationship to grief over time, how each new loss can trigger some unresolved grief. I knew this intuitively. When I lost my grandmother (with whom I was extremely close) nine years ago to breast cancer, it dredged up the feeling of losing my father to cancer when I was 16. It was as if my body and mind remembered: “oh no, here we go again. I know how this ends, in heartache.” And when we suddenly and unexpectedly lost our beloved pup last year — our source of comfort and the object of our parental love and affection during our years ttc — it strangely stirred the grief of losing my baby boy and also my inability to get pregnant again. Every failed cycle is itself a loss, part of the larger loss of my fertility.
We say that time heals, and I think that’s true to some extent. Time can put distance and space between us and what we’ve lost. But even that space is disconcerting. My baby boy is still a part of me. He lives in my heart. As much as we might want to remove the pain, we must feel it or it will only resurface. The raw despair I felt two years ago has somewhat lessened. Instead of feeling immersed and immobilized every waking moment, the pain has slowly subsided from the surface to a constant ache. Yet it’s always there, just beneath, and it still rises up and overwhelms like a wave, knocking me right over. In those moments, I try to breathe deeply and remember that this is my process. It’s part of my story now. That this moment will pass. Sure, the tears still come and they cleanse. And they continue to release the pain, one drop at a time.
I may never overcome my grief. With the memory of my baby boy, it lives deep in my heart forever alongside whatever else I may feel at any time. And this I have come to accept.