Note: This is not a new piece of writing, but I wanted to post it today, May 5, 2017, on international midwives day, with love and gratitude to my daughter-midwife. In the ICU I promised I would write to her, what we didn’t know then was how long it would take.
Grief is a place
Everyone agrees that the loss of a child is the worst kind of trauma, and every parent tries to imagine it. The minute you have that newborn in your arms, the second you know you are pregnant, the instant you think of even trying to conceive, practically the very next minute you imagine the worst thing that can go wrong. You move through infertility, miscarriage, and stillbirth: a mother’s hierarchy of horrors. At the top of this list remains the thought that you might one day outlive her.
When that happens, you join a club that you never wanted to belong to. There are few members and you are enrolled for life.
A mother’s grief is a place that few visit, but you can never leave.
Do you remember, when you were pregnant for the first time, how you wondered what giving birth was going to be like? It’s a little like that when your child dies. You can’t really know ahead of time. Once it happens people will try, without success, to give you pills and drugs to shut you up. The nice ones are trying to be nice, the not so nice ones have other motives, but each is trying to justify a certain choice. They don’t understand why anyone would want to feel everything that life has to offer. Drug free privilege is a homebirth mamma advantage.
We know people who apply this epidural philosophy to the whole rest of their lives, people who are so scared of pain that they chose numbness over living. People who, at the end of their lives, might well ask if they have ever really lived at all.
When people ask me if I found childbirth painful, I used to tell them it was the most painful thing I’d ever done. When I gave birth to her, it was like having my leg sawn off without anaesthetic. At some point I realized I could actually have my leg cut off without anaesthetic in this way.
The pain went like this: huzza huzza Huzz. It quickly built up to a white hot burn. To my surprise, when the sawing stopped, I was perfectly fine. I told jokes and entertained my supporters.
Persons who knit will find the mechanism of labour familiar. You start out at the beginning of a single row, build up momentum in the middle and slow down at the end of it. And then you take a little break in the process to turn the piece of knitting around, before adding another bit to it. Then, eventually, a sweater appears.
The purpose of knitting is to produce knitwear, while the purpose of labour is to make one person’s body into two people’s bodies. It makes sense that painful sawing is involved. And it is just plain clever that the chainsaw of contractions operates under an ingenious, off- grid wind-up mechanism. Something—who knows what — starts it off, then it eventually winds down, and there is a welcome break in the action for rewinding.
Huzza huzza Huzz. Stop. Huzza huzza Huzz. Stop. Just like this the pain stopped and started and stopped. Eventually, a baby appeared, along with a little bit of torn skin.
The pain of birth didn’t exactly compare to the pain of losing her. She fell into the sky that day without leaving a visible mark. Even so, it is true that the pain of grief is even more intense. Your whole body hurts. Your heart hurts and you cry and cry and cry. Your teeth and joints come lose. Snot is running out of your nose and your eyes are swollen shut. It is as bad and as ugly as you imagine it.
But what you might not know is that I –and you—we—cannot sustain it. The chainsaw of grief is operated by a similar mechanically wound clockwork apparatus. Our bodies run out of the stuff of grief. Eventually you are spent and you sit up and someone brings you a cup of tea. Some boringly banal thing happens in the midst of all this profundity and it calls you back. You smooth your clothes and pat your hair, and you decide to defrost a casserole for dinner. You tell jokes and entertain your supporters. The pain comes back, yes, but it stops again. In between the pains, as in labour, you find yourself coping. You find yourself marvelling at the design of it.
If you lose your child without taking the drugs they offer you to numb it, you also might find out, as I did, that you can have your heart removed from your body without anaesthetic. Here is what you also know, when your heart is eventually given back to you.
You will be sorely tempted to place it in a metal box, in order to prevent a second removal. This is why they talk of hardening your heart, under a protective coating of scar tissue. You will remember what it is like and you will fear it happening again. Like when you have a second baby. They say you forget the pain the minute it’s over. But you do not. You never will.
The trauma is so severe that you rightly worry you would not survive a second loss. But you must risk it. Your sternum may indeed be made of steel now and you may possess a myocardium of iron, but there are a million other routes inside. You must turn your soft underbelly to the world and invite them to kick you again. You may well now be constructed of some artificial body parts but you need to be as fully human as you are able to be. She is dead and you owe her nothing, but nonetheless, you don’t want loss to diminish you in that way. You want to honour her life with your best broken self. That means exposure. She would be– but of course, she cannot be– so proud of you.
There is no law of nature that says for every bad thing that happens a good thing of equal and opposite magnitude has to happen to you. But there is a law of parenthood that any greatly loved child will leave you—(and I hope she never does)— with equally great grief. That is just the way these things work. It follows by simple mathematics that one can measure the magnitude of loss by the magnitude of love. You will stop grieving the day you forget to love her. You will not forget.