Full Circle

In the spring of last year, my friend told me that she was expecting her third child.  Her due date was March 25 2014.  Samuel was born on March 21. Watching Sara on her pregnancy journey was like revisiting my own pregnancy with Samuel week by week.  In the two months preceding Samuel’s birthday and Sara’s due date, I was barely able to see her.  The anticipation of her birth and the site of her belly were triggering my own experience of loss something fierce.  It was almost too much to bear.

Up until Samuel’s year anniversary I had been missing his physical presence so much that the pain of that missing seemed to get in the way of allowing his spirit to lift me and help me to feel joy and embrace life.  It had been painful for me to hear babies crying at the grocery store.  I could not be around pregnant women without feeling uncomfortable.  Listening to other mothers’ conversations about the woes of nursing or the challenges of juggling newborns and toddlers was almost nauseating.

I have hated this experience.  I have always related to woman wearing these similar shoes of motherhood and relished in our similarities.  Simply witnessing conversations surrounding pregnancy, childbirth or rearing of these little beings has always made me feel connected to my own experience of motherhood even more.  Being alienated in those same circumstances was completely traumatic.  I have felt ashamed of myself, yet unable to do anything about it.  There was no shoving it aside.  Allowing space for the discomfort and moving through it was the only way to get it to fade to the background a little.  I wondered how long I would have to endure these triggers.  How long before I would connect instead of withdraw in the same circumstances?

The anniversary of Samuel’s death and birth passed.  I made room for the sadness and relived each moment.  I made space for celebrating his life too and our love for him.  My friend Sara was there every step of the way, and stood by me in my grief, even when I couldn’t share in her imminent joy.  I navigated this milestone well.  I did it!  Somehow now, I feel lighter and more peaceful.  I feel steadier on my feet, and dare I say it, more optimistic.  I am more comfortable with the way it is, and less focused on the way it was supposed to be.  I feel my little guy’s essence in everything I do, and am embracing it as a gift.

As we talked one day, I realized that discussing the birth of Sara’s baby wasn’t as hard as it once was.  I commented on how exciting it would be to give birth to her precious baby girl and how I love the labour and delivery.  (Yes I am weird like that.)  She laughed, and then invited me to witness her baby’s delivery.  She said that she and her husband had discussed it and wanted to share the experience with me.  They thought it could be very healing for me to be there, if I was ready.

I was lost for words in that moment.  The selflessness and generosity of this offer was overwhelming.  But I didn’t know how to answer.  I really didn’t know if I was ready.  How would I know?

Sunday evening, only a few weeks ago, Sara text messaged me that she was in active labour and would let me know when she got into a delivery room.  I felt nervous.  I still wasn’t sure I would be able to be there.  I continued to prepare for Monday morning, and decided to see how I felt when she texted next.  My heart was beating fast and I couldn’t relax.  The moment her husband messaged me that she was 6 cm dilated, I sprang into action.  I knew right then that I was ready to witness her daughter’s birth.

I stumbled out of the door into the most peaceful night.  Snow was falling lightly as I drove to the hospital.  I spoke to Samuel as I travelled and asked him to be there with me and help me to be able to feel the joy of this experience, and to not let my own fear and pain get in the way of being present to my friend.  I stepped into the elevator and arrived on the 5th floor.  I moved through the doors to the labour delivery unit.  Although I paused and remembered entering them that awful day just one year ago, that memory didn’t hold me back.   I could recall going through those same doors, not just the time I had Samuel, but for the delivery of all of my other babies too.  I felt Samuel’s spirit willing me to remember the beauty there.

I found Sara’s room.  She was working hard in labour, lying on her side, grasping her husband’s hand with each contraction.  I stood on the other side of the bed and encouraged her as the pain became more frequent and intense. The wonderful nursing team attended to her, and I watched in amazement at my friend’s strength and endurance.  She was gracious as always, even in that pivotal moment when pain of labour threatens to take sanity and will.   Sara’s husband whispered to her that yes she could do it, and yes it really was too late for an epidural as the baby was going to come any moment. I merely nodded my head in agreement as she looked at me pleadingly.

Moments later, she was 10 cm dilated, and I watched as Sara bore down against the pressure with all her might.  Her wonderful husband was shouting joyfully for her to push and my exhausted friend did just that.  A full head of curly hair began to emerge.  Samuel had the same dark curls.  But not for one moment was this his curly hair, in my mind.  This was the first glimpse of baby Mishl, the beautiful daughter of my beautiful friend.

She entered the world blue, then pink, and her cries made me laugh out with utter happiness.  She had arrived!  She was safe.  I breathed a prayer of thanks.  The nurses placed the baby on Sara’s tummy but exhaustion had overcome her and she struggled against shock in the aftermath of her experience.  “Let Shannon hold her'” she whispered to her husband.  “Let her hold her.”

I was awestruck.  Mine would be the first arms to hold this child.  I picked up this perfect baby, sniffed her wet head and kissed her little face.  I held her against me and whispered in her ear.  “Welcome sweet girl.  Welcome to the world.  You have no idea how much love is waiting for you here.”

She is the first baby I have held to me since I held Samuel in my arms.   There was no sadness in my heart in that moment, just simple joy.

As I left to return home, I tentatively walked past the room where I had delivered Samuel.  It was empty.   I stood in the doorway and looked in.  I saw the window through which the sunrise found me as I delivered him.  I saw the bed I lay in and the chair his Daddy sat in and cried.  But it was just a room.  Samuel was not there.  The memories were not held by those walls.  I turned to leave, and remembered the heaviness of my steps on the floor of the hallway as I left my son there in that room, cold and alone.  Everything in me had yearned to break from the arms which were holding me up and run back to take him with me.

Leaving that night, I put new foot steps down, lighter ones this time.  I walked down that corridor, my heart healed.

Sharing this intimate event had helped me come full circle on my journey through grief.  This was my friends’ most generous gift to me.

Witnessing the birth of their daughter helped me remember the joy of giving birth to all of my children, not only our loss of Samuel.

Holding their baby helped me feel peace instead of pain.

This experience had allowed me to rediscover aspects of motherhood I had disconnected from; the part of me that could embrace the delight of brand new life.

Thank you baby Mishl for helping me find the light again.  You are my beacon through the storm, a torch lighting the way on a dim path.

To you Sara, I am so deeply grateful.

Meaning of the name Mishl – beacon, light, torch

In Praise of Hope

Hope revealed her twinkling self to me yesterday.  She kind of snuck up on me out of the blue.  Suddenly I realized that while I was driving and listening to music just a little too loudly, I was anticipating.  I was looking forward to things.  It doesn’t even matter what it was exactly that I was looking forward to.  The point is that hope, that elusive little thing which I had taken for granted until we lost our baby boy, was a regular part of my life.  Hope was the thing which kept me motivated, kept me dreaming, kept me driving forward.  The promise of something fun or new, of creating something meaningful, or better, was the fuel and the spark which has always lifted me out of the average day to day.  Not that the average is bad.  But familiarity, although stabilizing, often brings along blinders which makes seeing the forest for the trees difficult, and potential, invisible.

Hope thrives on potential. She lives in your heart.  But when your heart is broken, Hope has a hard time thriving.  You soon learn though that she is tough.  She is resilient.  She is the weaver which is at least partly responsible for bringing those broken pieces back together to heal. Helping one foot march in front of the other, she brings you to the light.  Before you know it, your face is turning towards that light.  The warmth that Hope sends forth is melting away fragments of sadness and shadow.  In her light, all of the beauty and love that you have to offer and share sparkles once again.  And finally you see it.  And then a new phase of living begins.

Thank you Hope. I have missed you.

Making Peace with Anger

“Why is she so………..angry????”  Yup, you guessed it.  The “She” referred to in that question was Yours Truly.  It was posed to my husband after I had a rather memorable meltdown prior to the commencement of a small family reunion being held at our cabin during our summer vacation, only five short months since my sweet Samuel had died and then was born.  Thankfully, I was out of ear shot at the time, as I am fairly certain that my response would not have been very constructive.

I had been quite wound up preparing for the trip and  getting ready to host relatives coming to visit from overseas. The packing up had started at 7 am on the Wednesday and continued non stop until Saturday night at 11pm.  We and our four children, our dog, our minivan with roof box and silver equipment trailer stuffed to the brim, left the following Sunday morning at 4 am.  Yes, you read that right, 4 am.  We traveled as non stop as one can with four kids, our youngest with us now being all of two years old, and arrived at our cabin at 11 pm Sunday night.  “Epic” is the only word I have which effectively describes that effort.  To say that I was exhausted seems obvious.  We were all exhausted but we felt excited too.  We were finally on holidays!

Upon arriving, we started the grand unpack.  The kids needed some time to adjust to the new surroundings, and we began setting up our place to host the other families joining us.  I should preface this story with the admission that I am a bit of a neat freak, and really wanted to make a good impression on the extended family visiting for the first time in 15 years.   So, true to form,  I was cleaning like a maniac.  I can also be honest and say that my patience and tolerance for normal but annoying kid behaviour was waning as the day progressed.  Ok, maybe it had waned.  By mid afternoon I felt like I was living my own version of the movie “Groundhog Day”, doing the same series of mind numbing tasks over and over again.  I had become a dirt fighting Tasmanian devil, whirling around with vacuum in one hand and wet mop in the other, ranting at full volume as I went. But I didn’t really think that my fairly long-winded grown-up Mommy tantrum about the kids tracking dirt through the house, on the brand new couch and across the throw rug all afternoon was that difficult to understand.  When my four-year old reported to me that my two-year old had “done art” with felt marker on the couch upstairs, that was it.  I blew a gasket!

Now it is one thing to blow a gasket.  It is quite another to do so with witnesses, especially when the witnesses are your in-laws.  It is probably fair to say that anyone would have had a hissy fit in the same set of circumstances, except for maybe Mother Theresa herself, and that even others there found the situation quite challenging.  Unfortunately though, my rant went on and on………..and ON.  My husband rather exasperatedly “invited” me to take a walk for as long as I needed, to pull myself together.  Clearly the display was too much for him to mitigate as well.

As I walked along the beach, I reflected on what it was that was driving my intensity and marveled at why my family just didn’t seem to be very sympathetic.  It seemed so obvious to me!  Granted, I was upset and annoyed at the kids for constantly tracking dirt in the house, for their choice of art canvas, and most infuriating of all, their failure to listen to me.  But it was more than that.  I was driven to distraction, because while everyone else seemed happy and relaxed, I just wasn’t.  No amount of cleaning and preparing for company would make things seem quite right.  Because for me, the only thing that could really make me feel relaxed was impossible; my baby being physically there with me.  It was the most frustrating, infuriating experience ever.  That day, the dirt all over the floors and the felt marker on the couch gave me an outlet for that.  But no one else saw it that way.  It would have helped if I could have stepped outside of my overwhelming tirade for a moment, and been able explain that to them.  I am sure they would have understood.  But this is the other part of the grief journey that is really inconvenient.  When you are grieving, communicating about your grief is just really difficult to do.

Most people can list all stages of grief published by Kubler-Ross, and acknowledge that these experiences are both normal and predictable.  It is fascinating though how certain of those emotions are really more “acceptable”  when it comes down to it, and these feelings are released from their cages for all to see.     My experience demonstrates that truth; that sadness is by far the more popular of these two fraternal emotional twins spawned by grief.  I am not sure why,  although there is little doubt that witnessing an angry display can certainly feel like more of an affront.  I am sure my family could attest to that.  Maybe a grieving person seems more accessible if sad than when angry.  Perhaps the vulnerability of a sad individual is compelling.  Possibly people feel as though they can do something about the sad aspect of their experience,  although they can’t.  The sad feeling cannot be removed or changed or altered by anyone.  Oddly, it can coexist with other feelings, side by side, even with happiness.  I found this discovery very strange.  And sometimes sadness can be distracted from for a little while.  This gives the grieving person a momentary break from this emotion which makes taking in a full breath physically painful at times.  But no, nobody can really take the sadness away.  Yet somehow those who surround the aggrieved seem to feel more inclined to try to connect to the sad aspect of the grief experience than the angry one.  Even my husband admitted this. He said, “You know, if you were curled up in a corner, crying, they all would understand and sympathize.  But you aren’t.  You are really, really angry.  And it makes people uncomfortable.”

He was right.  Sadness is the most comfortable emotion.  It is more acceptable,  even to me.  Dealing with this part doesn’t require much thought.  I am sad, so I cry.  When I am desperate, I sob.  (And by sob I mean a big horrid messy ugly cry that even your closest friend couldn’t bear to witness without shock and horror.)  But this doesn’t surprise me.  I have accepted that doing so is the way to deal with my sadness.  When anger jumps into the picture, there is a whole different reaction.  Even those close to the one experiencing profound loss seem to understand that anger has a place in this whole unfortunate experience.  It seems most often however, they are even less equipped to accept this or to know how to deal with it than the person going through it.   Let me tell you, I didn’t want to feel the anger.  Not one bit.  I rejected it as long as I could.  I wanted peace, and acceptance.  I’d have even chosen the desperate pain of sadness before I wanted the anger.  It just seemed so negative.  But guess what?  The anger showed up anyway.  I tried all of the constructive methods I could think of to deal with the anger. I went to spin classes, ran, locked myself in the garage and screamed my brains out.  Then I went to counselling.  It all  helped, but certainly didn’t prevent the feeling from encroaching.  And it still doesn’t.  It didn’t prevent my all out display in front of my family either.  I guess that is because anger is supposed to be there.  It has a purpose in this whole experience too.  And I guess I am coming to realize that maybe anger’s role isn’t so negative after all.

Since losing my baby boy, I have felt innumerable emotions.  I know I am not alone in this experience.  Desperation, heartbreak, frustration and hopelessness carry you on an emotional roller coaster which changes trajectory every other moment.  But which feelings are really responsible for this upheaval?  Sadness and anger are.  The act of grieving seems to involve going through every variation and permutation of these two emotions over and over again.  They are at the root of every twist and turn.  And what I have come to accept, is that they both have a crucial and healing role in grief.   Sadness and I are on good terms.  We always were I guess.  But finally I think I have learned to allow a place for anger as well.  I have discovered that anger provides the energy which helps me to get up and keep fighting to live each day to its fullest, despite the loss I am enduring.  It is the part of the process that seems to help keep me moving forward.  Anger even has helped me to choose to see the good and the beauty, as it refuses to let the sadness take the limelight every moment of my day.  Letting anger out is like releasing the pressure valve that seems to get installed as soon as you lose your precious loved one.   Allowing a place for the anger to exist with my experience of grief has also helped me channel it in a less, shall we say, imposing way on those who surround and support me.  Anger has in the end, helped me find a way back to moments of peace and surrender.  How ironic is that?

By all accounts, the family reunion was a great success and the holiday was tons of fun.  Eventually I was able to let go a little, and relaxed into vacation mode surrounded by wonderful people, our crazy kids and the beautiful island paradise where we are so fortunate to spend time together.  Thankfully the effects of my outburst had limited impact in that regard.   To be honest,  I am not even completely sure how my husband answered the fated question in the end.  I didn’t ask.  I am sure he handled it graciously and with kindness.  He probably said something simple and to the point.

Because the perfect answer to the question “Why is she so……. angry?” is actually very simple.  It is, “She is grieving.  It is just part of it.”