Every year, 26,000 babies are stillborn in America. In 2003, one of them was my son.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

When Did You Know You Would Survive?

Last month, one of my neighbors phoned me up to tell me that a woman on our block, E., just around the corner, had suffered a stillbirth. She, her husband and daughter moved here in June, and most of us hadn't yet met her. My friend was phoning to see if I could help in any way, as E. and her husband are not from the States and have no extended family here.

We've met a few times, this mother and I. And talked, and talked, and talked. Like me, E. was surprised by how little information there is about surviving bottomless sorrow. Where are the books, the first-person accounts, where is it written down somewhere that you will, you can survive? I bought her two books, the one by Elizabeth McCracken, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, and Empty Cradle, Broken Heart, by Deborah Davis. She's read the first one and is working on the second. E. has asked me to give her the answer to the same question I had after we lost Ben, a question unanswered in most of the babyloss books: how does she survive?

And what can I tell her? Words are inadequate. There is no map or blueprint, though I remember being at the same stage she is in now, wanting directions, something to follow, something to do with my time now that there was no baby occupying me. Steps to take to make it through.

There are none.

And I wonder when I knew I would survive. I can't pinpoint it, really. It wasn't after I got pregnant again, not after James was born, not after my marriage nearly fell apart two years later. It's gradual, and agonizingly slow. I've been able to tell her she will survive, but it will take a long time, it will always hurt. I've told her that she needs to get through the first year, observe the holidays and anniversaries, before she can come to terms with what her son's death means for the rest of her life. I've told her she can only get up each day and do the best she can.

What I've told her is not enough, but it is the best I can do: "You will survive. I promise you. But it's going to hurt like hell."

When did you know you would survive? Was it a moment, a particular day, or is it still a work in progress? What would you say to someone in these all too familiar shoes?


Sharon said...

Our daughter was stillborn at 39 weeks, 4 years ago. I remember asking the same question your new friend asked. I asked a neighbor whose adult son had died if it hurt any less then it did when he died (7 years before). She thought carefully and replied "I am used to living without him now but it still hurts as just as bad". I recall being so scared at the thought of living with such intense pain the rest of my life. I thought I could not survive that punishment. But day by day, I have. What day that "survival mode" kicked in I don't know. Day by day was my mantra in those early days. I can't see any other way to get through. My heart aches for your new friend.

Monica H said...

I'm still trying to survive. I think we all are. Some days are more challenging than others, as you know. I guess I knew we'd survive and climb out of this dark hole after Jack died. If we survived two extreme losses, i knew I could survive anything.

Anonymous said...

I always thought I would survive as there was not real choice. But I think the question for me was would I ever know happiness again. I have doubted that.

For me the first anniversary in October was a major turning point. After that I could look forward rather than just back. Before that I had been driving by looking in my rear-view mirrors - a painful experience to say the least!

For me, someone whose 8 year old son died explained it this way. Your grief does not get less but your capacity to absorb it into your life grows. Imagine a tryng to fit a tennis ball into a small cup - impossible, like the first days, but after a while it is like trying to fit the same tennis ball into a bowl, or bucket - you grow around it and can accomodate your love for your baby and your life. I guess now I have more things to remember Abigail - photos around, projects we are doing etc - so it is not just her loss I remember but the value she has. I have found ways of growing around her.

I miss her just as much as I did. But now my grief is more about broken or weakened relationships of people who haven't really related to us through this. That is a second loss which I am only just coming to terms with now.

To your friend what can you say - you will survive. It will hurt. I am here for you. Take time. Be gentle on yourself. Don't bottle it up. Be prepared to train people how to behave - you shouldn't have to but if you don't you may be disappointed. Find ways to treasure and remember your baby.

Take care

Anonymous said...

I think that you have to make a conscious decision at some point. You have to make the decision to survive. Every little thing you do in the days and weeks and months following the death of your child is a conscious decision because you don't feel like doing anything. I lost my second baby at 37 weeks just over 5 months ago and I decided that I would not let his death define me. I would not allow his life to be a sad event in my life. I made the conscious decision to move forward and though it still hurts and I still cry on occasion, I've made great progress. It's the worst thing a parent can go through but you must survive because your child would not want you to be sad forever.

Debbie said...

We survive because we have to. That's my answer. What other choice do I have? I can curl up in a ball and cry and alienate myself from the world (which I did try to do for the first several months after Sophie died)-- but as we approach 3 years since she died, we simply survive because there is no other choice.

It will hurt. Forever. I am positive of this. Some days (most days now) it doesn't hurt so bad, but my heart always feels the ache for the baby who isn't here with us.

I don't know when it happened. That I knew these things. I suppose it just developed over time.

I am sorry that you have made a new friend due to such terrible circumstances, but I am so glad that you can be there for her in a way that so many of us need when we first begin our journey.

niobe said...

I think it's easier (or maybe "easier") if losing a baby isn't the worst thing that has ever happened to you. From the beginning, I could say to myself, I've been through more painful things and survived.

If it is the worst thing that's ever happened to you, you don't have that point of reference....

Catherine W said...

I don't know if I'm there yet. Or perhaps I just don't want to believe that I am, that I can survive without her. But, day by day, I do. For nearly sixteen months now.

You are so kind to meet with your neighbour. The support from other mothers that have been through a similar situation has meant so much to me. xo

Virginia said...

Thank you all, for your comments.

Niobe, I can't imagine going through anything worse than this - and I'm so sorry you have.

Monica - Yes, if you survive this, you can survive anything.

Sharon - you do get used to it- and it sucks.

Living in the rainbow - "Your capacity to absorb it grows" - that is so true, and so wise. I may have to borrow that sometimes.

Anonymous - I think you're right, you do have to decide. And that's what gets me about some people, who haven't been through anything nearly this bad, who choose NOT to survive what life throws them, or at least to spend their lives completely miserable.

Debbie - Yes. We survive because there is no other choice.

Catherine - I spent the 2nd year after Ben figuring out the future, and in the 3rd year I started to live again, if that makes any sense. I was living all along, of course, but in the 3rd year I knew I could keep-I had kept-going.

Ummi said...

I would like to do more than just survive, I don't know where I am until the time passes (I have noticed this).

I don't know how much advice we can give others, especially when we have good and bad days. I email a friend a lot about my loss (another blog mama), and she gets it, but then when I read on her blog that she's having a good day,
I don't want to be that big dark cloud that comes in and take that away from her.

I think she thinks the same too. It's a funny dance in a way, but I don't know how I could help someone...unless I am strong enough, which I don't think I am right now.

I hope your friend finds her balance.

Abby said...

I think the 1st year was difficult.. Since then, I think well, I've survived a year I can survive another one.. For me it's a matter of whether I want to survive or not.. And I still have days where I don't..