Grief is a many splintered thing
This month I am featuring an anonymous guest blog about the differences in the way men and women grieve the loss of their baby and how we can help.
(If you have experienced this yourself please take care in reading this.)
In 2006, 23 weeks pregnant with twins, I eased my considerably-sized self down onto the bed in the sonographer’s room and watched her go through the motions I knew so well – the paper towel, the gel, the click-click of my data going into the computer.
I was already crying.
I can’t explain why but somewhere deep in my unconscious I knew we were going to be given bad news. I didn’t know I knew it until I lay on that bed, trembling from head to foot.
An image flashed onto the screen, a quiet, hanging moment and then the monitor was switched off, a hand appeared on my arm and a soft voice told me one of my darling twins no longer had a heartbeat. As my body shook immediately with sobs and uncontrollable grief I descended into silence and I could no longer hear her words. I felt both searing pain coursing around me and an acute numbness all at the same time. I held my belly tight and drew in my legs towards me. My mind was racing but my first and overriding memory of grief was a powerful physical presence, long before it became a mental process. Every fibre of my being was screaming ‘I WANT MY BABY BACK’.
In contrast my husband sat quietly and held my hand, wiped my tears away and stroked my forehead. He helped me dress, he asked all the questions I couldn’t form in my mouth, he took me to the counselling room where we waited for the consultant to arrive. He smiled and held the hand of our 18 month old daughter, gave her a snack to keep her happy and found her some toys.
As we sat talking to our consultant I woke up a little, searching for answers and trying to make sense of it. My husband held his head in his hands a while. Something I didn’t notice until a lot later when I had the good fortune to have grief counselling. My counsellor told me, in her experience men hold their heads in their hands when grieving and react to it rationally and factually. Women react physically to grief, holding their body, internalising their grief so that it can affect them physically too – diet, illness, headaches.
This is never more so than when you suffer a loss in pregnancy. Women have a physical connection to that child – we feel the tiny movements within us, hear their heart beat within our own heartbeat, cradle and grow their body inside within our own. Men can only imagine this and build a mental picture of the child and the life and future they will have with them.
I spent that first week numb, teary, quiet and all-consumed by my own thoughts. Every now and then my husband would seek me out and hug me. I would collapse into his arms and let the tears flow through me and out of me and my chest and heart ached with a heavy ache I’d never experienced before. He never cried, he felt strong, assured, the embodiment of the ‘it will all be OK’ that he kept repeating into my hair as he held me.
We had our daughter to look after and precious life still growing in my tummy, a brother or sister to the dead baby I now carried inside me. These were all excellent reasons to get up, pull myself together and move forward and be the mother that I was. I told myself I could not spend the rest of the pregnancy wracked with grief, it wasn’t fair on the baby that kicked and wriggled inside my belly each day. So each day got a little easier. I still cried, I still felt angry, confused and aggrieved but these were in quiet times or at poignant moments.
My husband got there a lot quicker than me and for while it became an issue for us. He had put it into its place – filed it in the right file inside himself in order to access it later. I’d look at him and say “How are you doing this? Aren’t you upset anymore?” His answer was that it wouldn’t bring the baby back. It had been taken for a reason and we had to accept that. Going over it wouldn’t help. Rational, function arguments against the grief that was within him. Done. Dusted.
10 years on my grief waxes and wanes. We went onto to have a gorgeous singleton baby boy rather than the twins we started out with but he was more special than we ever hoped for. The birth was all about him, I refused to let it be about loss too. He has a beautiful, giving soul and (I like to think) a guardian angel looking after him. We were then blessed with another baby boy 2 years later. Through this time my grief will surface, mostly unannounced and I am accepting of it. My husband watches on and supports where I need it but it is not his grief, it is very much mine. His is filed away.
So yes, we all grieve differently but there is no hierarchy to grief. It bears many faces and guises and it is intensely personal.
One December six years later my husband and I attended one of the national remembrance Services organised by ‘Saying Goodbye’ who do amazing work for people who have suffered the loss of a baby. It was in St Pauls Cathedral by candlelight. It was here that our grief finally collided and combined. We listened, we cried, we held each other, we lit a candle to our baby and we looked into the lofty dome and sent up prayers. Never mind that it took nearly 7 years, we got there in the end and at the right time for us.
Postscript: One of the things that is hardest when you have lost a baby is that people often, due to their own discomfort or because of how society treats miscarriage and baby loss, don’t talk to you about your baby. This increases the sense of loss and sometimes inhibits you yourself from feeling you can talk about your grief. This is made worse when a child dies at birth or in pregnancy especially you are left with very little in terms of memories and things to hold. I have found great comfort in talking openly within the family (with siblings) and within my friendship group and on social media about our gorgeous angel baby. Recently, 10 years on, we have had a commemorative plaque put in the SANDS memorial garden which has massively helped us with our grief, the children have taken toys to put there to share with their sibling.
I would urge anyone suffering the loss of a baby to find ways of talking about and creating memories and ways of remembering. We have a memory box and now our plaque, but there are many other ways to do this creatively.
The garden where we have our plaque has this poem written around the walls and it sums it up beautifully:
"The mention of my child's name may bring tears to my eyes, but it never fails to bring music to my ears. If you are really my friend, let me hear the beautiful music of his name. It soothes my broken heart and sings to my soul."