Here we are again, the fifth summer without you, our annual trip to the East coast. I run and play and dig and swim with your brother and sister. I scratch your name on heart-shaped stones and throw them into the Atlantic, in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island. Soft red stones, your name scratched easily, and then tossed into the sea – an arc across the blue sky, a momentary splash on the surface and then sinking down, settling in again to the ocean floor, waiting to be tossed up on shore again one day…waiting for me next year and the year after and the year after that.

 

Disappeared

Sometimes it feels like we disappeared her. When M was born, poof! she was gone again, gone differently than the first time, a goneness that sometimes feels more painful, more violent than the cause of her first goneness, her death.

Before M, it was so obvious that she was missing. Before M, everything that happened to our family should have happened to her, with her, too. I saw her always – or saw her absence always – running in the grass with E, sisters playing in the tub together, braiding two girls’ hair and snuggling two girls in bed. Immediately after M, I was disoriented by a second loss of her. Because to my mind, she and he could never be here together and he was incontrovertibly here, so she was incontrovertibly gone. They could never have existed, alive, together, so which one would I choose? Which one would I wish gone?

I get now that it doesn’t really work that way. My mind plays tricks. It bargains and denies and dreams and yearns. The simplest of truths is: she died – he lived – she is gone – he is here – and that’s how it is. It is what it is, as they always seem to say.

This is all clearer to me in my mind than it was then, but for others, for those outside our little family, the arrival of M signalled the almost total disappearance of Anja. A collective sigh of relief went up, I think. It was like M patched over the gaping hole Anja left in our family, and that patch helped everyone else feel better. They didn’t have to look into the hole anymore. They could even pretend it had never been there. Eventually, they forgot about it almost entirely, occasionally remembering, jarred out of their comfort zone by something I might have said: ‘when I was pregnant with Anja…;’ ‘when Anja died….;’ ‘when our baby died….’

It’s such a hard thing to have a dead child. That looks stupid, having written it. Anyone would agree. Except that I don’t feel it from other people. I barely have time to feel it myself anymore. I want sometimes to sink into the grief again, to go down deep and feel it all, and cry myself out. But when would I do that? If she had lived and I had three children now, I could not just ignore one – and if I did, there would be consequences; society would let me know how wrong I was – so why is it considered acceptable, normal even, for me to stuff my dead child into the past, push her aside, let everyone around me forget she ever existed?

It’s a hard thing to have a dead child. The cumulative strain of carrying on, getting on with things day in and day out…

There’s still so much mystery and in some ways, so little to say of it: My baby is gone. My baby died.  Where did she go? Why did she go? I wish she was here.

I love you my little gone girl. I love you still and always.

Baby brother turns 3

Tomorrow is M’s third birthday. E turned three when I was pregnant with Anja and her birthday remains one of my most treasured memories. She went to daycare in the morning so she could enjoy being the birthday girl there, wearing the birthday crown, having cake for snack, her little friends singing to her. My sister and I picked her up at lunch and we all walked up to the Christmas Market where we met her father. We wandered the stalls, shared pretzels, visited Santa and rode the carousel. I remember how carefully she picked the horses we would sit on, the purplest, glitziest ones she could find. And I remember going round and round with her, laughing, smiling at her sweet blond head of curls and chubby red cheeks, with one hand on my belly, wondering what her sister would be like and knowing we’d find out soon. Three weeks later, Anja was gone, and that day, for a long time, was too painful to think about.

And tomorrow he will be three. The little boy I carried so anxiously, whom I cried and worried over. Yesterday, I was remembering what it felt like to be carrying him inside me three years ago, knowing there were less than 48 hours before he’d be out, and a single word popped into my mind: danger. That was it exactly: it felt dangerous to be pregnant with him, and dangerous to be the one with all the responsibility for his safety. I’m sure we’ve kept him more of a baby than E was at this time, because we all remember, with a certain part of ourselves, all the time, how scary it was to get him here.

I can’t imagine telling him a baby sister or brother had died. He is so little. He is so innocent. How did we do it with E? We had to, so we did, and it was awful. We stumbled. We said stupid things. We scared her. We did the best we could.

I used to think: he’s not supposed to be here. But, of course, it doesn’t matter what is supposed or not supposed to happen. It matters what does happen. And to us what happened was this: she died; he lived.

And look at him. Just look at him. Three years old tomorrow. After they pulled him out of my belly, the nurse came to me, before I’d had a chance to have a really good look at him, because she knew I was anxious, and said: ‘he’s perfect. He’s a real peach.’ That he is.

Happy third birthday to my little peach. Oh, how we love you, Baby Brother.

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Thinking about mental health

So there’s a thing going on in Canada right now on social media called #BellLetsTalk. It’s supposed to bring awareness to mental health issues and to raise funds. I have a Twitter account but I mainly use it for professional purposes and hesitated to post this there…but in the last hour of #BellLetsTalk, I’ve been feeling increasingly grumpy and have some stuff to get off my chest.

First, let’s be clear: grief is not a mental illness. But the people who ostensibly are there to help us are usually mental health professionals. I dealt with a few in the earlier years of grieving.

I remember the social worker who came to see us in the hospital. She had black hair and was wearing a creamy Aran sweater. She was quite thin, and she stood against a wall, her arms wrapped around her body, like she was trying to stay as far away as possible from us and to protect herself from us, too. She was timid, obviously frightened, and completely unreassuring. She told us about services like Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, but discouraged us, saying, it’s all volunteer run and since it’s a Saturday…[trails off, casts eyes aside]. I was in too much shock to think much about this then, but I remember it all so clearly now. Her back pressed into the wall. Her arms tight around herself. Ok, yeah, it was fucking sad and traumatic, but surely a *mental health professional* can do better than that? Surely this wasn’t her first go around at a dead baby in the province’s busiest maternity hospital??

Next up: I was referred rather urgently to the post-partum unit at the hospital nearest me. I’d been told there was a six-month waitlist, but after maybe being a bit too open about my anger, I was suddenly fast-tracked. I had one appointment there. It was good. I like the counsellor. I wanted to go back. They said they would call to schedule another appointment, and they did, but they offered me one time, and when that wasn’t going to work for me….nothing. No other time offered. They hung up. They never called back. Sorry for the profanity but….the fuck??

Third round: the child psychologist. I wrote about her earlier. She told me children don’t grieve for siblings they never knew. Um…This blog is evidence to the absolute contrary. Idiot. That’s all I have to say about her.

Number four: the counsellor I saw, again at the province’s busiest maternity hospital, who berated me…who made me feel like a bad mom…because I hadn’t bought diapers for M when I was about 30 weeks pregnant. I know I wrote about her somewhere here, too. She was so concerned that I didn’t have these diapers: you know what? We live in one of the biggest cities in the country. There are 24-hour pharmacies. There are lots of places to buy diapers, and it’s easy enough to stop on the way home from the hospital, run in and buy diapers for a living baby. What’s not so easy? Confronting an unused box of diapers for a baby who died. Sorry, again, health care professional, but I don’t think making that particular decision to wait on diapers was the most crucial thing we could have spent our limited time together on.

Well, I guess there’s still some of that good old anger kicking around. Take that stupid corporate advertising-that-we’re-supposed-to-believe-is-pure-philanthropy. I feel better now. Goodnight.

Four

Four has been so different than any other year. I barely cried. Sometimes I wanted to but couldn’t because I was standing in front of one of my classes or waiting outside E’s class to pick her up. Sometimes I did everything I could to avoid crying – changed the radio if a certain song came on, dodged phone calls and texts. I was too busy to really let myself feel and I knew if I let a little bit of the sadness in, the rest of it would flood me. I don’t know…partly it was just easier this year, too. My body felt heavy, still feels heavy, and I can’t concentrate very well, want to eat sweet things and sleep. But it’s easier. Year one I was so anxious, pregnant with M and still in shock, I think; year two I was furious; year three I was befuddled and cried silently pretty much the entire week surrounding her death and birth days; this year, I soldiered through. Maybe I’ll pay for it later? I don’t really know what choice I had, at any rate: when people don’t understand one month after your baby died why you’re still sad, they sure as hell don’t get why you might need to sit back a little from your regular life four years after.

I wondered who would remember. Baby loss friends, that’s who. One other friend. Little Anja.

I had several conversations with both E and M about Anja. E and I had a long talk that night before Anja’s birthday. She was feeling sad and anxious, though she had trouble expressing it at first. We lay on her top bunk and chatted. I asked her if there was anything she was worried about and she said: How did Anja die? And I had to tell her, again, that we never knew how, that no one could tell us. ‘Was it my fault?’ she blurted out, suddenly. ‘Because I used to rest cups of cheerios on your belly?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘oh, no, no, no. It was not your fault. Never. Have you thought about this for a long time?’ And she said yes in a strangled voice and then rolled over and made upset, heavy breathing noises into her pillow. I reassured her, held her, stroked her hair. Remembered the little three year old she was.

After a while, we talked some more. She told me Anja would be one day younger than her classmate B’s little sister. If you’ve read here for a long time, you might remember once when I rejoiced because a little boy fell off a chair at the library and he and his baby sister, who was born when Anja died, had to be taken away by their mother. That boy is now in E’s class, and I see that kid all the time. The cruelty of it is she looks like she could be related to E and M. People tell me that all the time, not knowing. The curls, I guess. I thought of E listening to B tell her about his sister’s birthday and held her tighter.

She asked me if she could ask Santa Claus to bring Anja back to life. She said she wished she could break her leg so she could go to the hospital and people would ask her if there was something she really wanted and she would say she wanted Anja back. I know she doesn’t believe any of these things could ever happen, but she wished so many different times over the last few days that her sister was alive.

‘I wonder who her friends would’ve been?’ E asked. ‘I wonder what kind of birthday party she would’ve wanted?’ We looked at the picture of E on her fourth birthday that is posted to our fridge door. E in a pink dress, chubby arms, curls darkening already, her pink dress and tiara. A grown girl. Four years old.

And then there was M. After school yesterday, E and I went to pick up cupcakes. There were none that she thought were special enough so we splurged on a little cake, pink with white frosted flowers all over it and Happy Birthday in icing on top. M was so excited about the cake. ‘It’s Anja’s birfday!’ After a while he asked, ‘When is Anja coming over?’ ‘She can’t come over, sweetie, she died, remember? She was in Mommy’s tummy before you were born and then she died. She didn’t get to come home. She can’t come over because she died.’ ‘But it’s Anja’s birfday,’ he said, studying me seriously.

We looked at her picture together. ‘Aww,’ said E, though I know she is kind of grossed out by the fact that Anja was never bathed and cleaned up. ‘I wish we would’ve given her a bath. She was so pretty,’ I said. ‘Yeah, she’d be prettier with a bath,’ E said. R interjected: ‘She was beautiful. Just beautiful.’ ‘Little, little baby,’ M breathed.

Everyone has been a bit volatile. Lots of crying and frustration. Their worlds are out of sorts.

So, four. Mostly I just hated the day, wanted it to be over. It’s over now, and I don’t feel much better. But I don’t feel much worse, either.

All I kept thinking yesterday, besides about her sweet face and the weight of her in my arms, was that there will be another January 14 in every year I’m alive. I guess every one will be different. I guess I’ll find out.

Nearly four

I remember your sister’s fourth birthday. I wrote about it here. In 2012, just a few weeks before the first anniversary or your own death and birth. I couldn’t manage much that year. Nearly 20 weeks pregnant with M. Just finished my PhD. Still grieving so hard. But I couldn’t let it go, either. Your big sister was turning four and she deserved a party. We had a fancy tea party, family only and one other loss family we’d gotten to know. Everyone dressed up. I made little sandwiches in cookie cutter shapes, and cookies, and a cake to her specifications. She wore a pink dress I bought with money Gigi sent for the occasion. I remember it all so well. And now it is nearly your fourth birthday, the end of our fourth year of missing you. I won’t ever say that one experience is harder than another, but one thing I will say: being able to remember everything about one daughter’s fourth birthday makes everything I’m missing this fourth birthday show up in sharp relief: no pink dress, no blonde curls, no birthday tiara, or dancing in tutus with friends, no fancy sandwiches and requests for ‘pink angel cake with raspberry icing.’ I remember that party so well.

David Bowie died yesterday, and the media is full of stories of his death. His video, Lazarus: was it a message? Of course it was. Of course. I wish you could have left me a message too, but you had neither 69 years, nor four years. You had no years, no time to leave a message.

You know I’ll be free. Just like that bluebird. Ain’t that just like me. (Bowie) – I hope you’re free. (me, your mom)

December

It’s been so long since I’ve been here. Everything looks different. Autofill doesn’t send me right to this page anymore. The urgency to write is mostly gone. I miss it.

I’ve been staring at her picture lately. In the middle of marking papers last week, I got up from the table and went into the bedroom, took down the box containing her few things, and dug around until I found the pictures. I was shaking as I touched again the things I put away so long ago. When I saw the picture again, I was overwhelmed with tenderness. She was beautiful. I can confess now to having only seen before what was wrong with her in that picture. Was her head kind of squished looking? Was her colouring just too completely awful? Was she awful? Would people think she was awful?

When I looked at her again last week I saw only her beauty, her sweetness. My baby. I must have looked at her 10 times an hour for a few days. Where did it come from that urge to dig the picture out? Where was it before?

This is the worst time of year for me at work. So many papers to mark, courses to prepare for next term, papers of my own to write and revise, job applications to complete, and then all of the Christmas business and E’s birthday. I want a hole to crawl into. E and I read a story today about a rhyming rabbit and one of the illustrations showed its burrow and that is just exactly what I need. A hideout. I don’t need to be there all the time, but I need to know it exists. I think this blog used to be the equivalent of that hole.

Sometimes I still wonder how I am out there every day, making all our lives hold together, keeping going. So few people in my daily life understand how amazing it is, or how much of an effort it is.

I think I sometimes fool myself into thinking it is not that hard. I push and push and push myself because it feels like if I don’t keep pushing everything will fall apart, and I push the grief under, and then deeper under, so that I can get through, so that I can keep it all going, and then one day, I get up from the middle of it all and find her picture and just look and look and look.

 

 

To my big girl, whom I worry about the most

Last night in the bathtub I asked you and your brother to say three things you liked about the other. About your brother you said, “He’s here. He’s alive. He says funny things.”

This is yet another example of how hard it is to interpret the effect of your sister’s death on you. You said all this in a very blasé tone. If you did not have a dead baby sister, I’d be assuming you were just acting cool, like, “I don’t know what’s so great about him? He’s here, I guess.”

But you do have a dead baby sister and so I can’t hear “He’s here. He’s alive,” without thinking that you are imagining the alternative. If he weren’t here. If he weren’t alive. Like your other sibling. Like Anja.

You are inscrutable sometimes. I didn’t push to find out what you meant. I think I know. If I still think those things on a daily basis, why wouldn’t you?

You cried on Monday night. You begged not to go to school. On Tuesday, you sobbed and told me if you could just come to my office with me you would be so, so quiet and good. You’ve been having friend trouble. Same old thing as the last few years, with the same old group of girls. Today I went to talk to one of the school’s guidance counsellors. We talked for a bit about the problems going on and then I told him about Anja. I told him how it is hard for you sometimes to deal with stress except by getting angry, or loud, or excessively silly. I said, “I never know how much of what is going on is residual trauma, ongoing trauma, and how much is just her being a six-year-old and living through six-year-old things.” “But,” I added, “I just think if I am still so affected by Anja’s death, she must be too.” And he agreed with me wholeheartedly. “Oh, yes,” he said. And then he suggested we move you into a different class, what he thinks will be a more nurturing class, and away from the problem group. He said, “For a family that is living with the trauma that your family is, I think we should look at making a change.”

I feel both validated and concerned. Always concerned that I am making things more difficult for you by always bringing your sister into it. When I told your teacher this year, I thought, “do I really need to? Does it change how they treat you?” But ultimately I hoped it would make you feel safer. I hoped it would make your teacher understand something about you. And I worried that it would peg you somehow. I felt the same today: validated that the counsellor didn’t think I was crazy for bringing Anja into it and for suggesting that you would still be hurting, that the hurt could affect your comfort and behaviour; concerned that I will make it worse by talking about it.

Oh, I hate that. I hate that I second guess myself. I hate that I doubt myself. I hate that I think to myself for even a second: oh, it’s not really that bad, is it? Shut up and stop being such a big baby.

But you know what? This is the message that is sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly but always still pressed upon me. Get over it. It was a long time ago. She was only 3. It’s not her that is upset, it’s you and you’re making it worse for her.

Oh, my little-big E. I hope you like your new class on Monday. I hope I made the right decision. I hope I am doing right by you. In all of this experience, it is you I worry about the most. It is you, I think, for whom this is most unfair. Yes, Anja is dead and that is completely unfair, but she is not here to notice. You my dear, are here. You have to live with it. Your life was tremendously disrupted. Your sense of security was shattered at such a young age. And you live in a world that just doesn’t get that. I’m sorry, love.

We’ll keep trying.

The bewilderment of time

I remember that Catherine often used to use the word ‘bewildering’ to describe how she felt several years after the death of her sweet Georgina. I recognized that that was a good word, an apt description, but I also thought that it didn’t quite explain where I was then; my own brand of bafflement a couple years ago was a bit more virulent, and bewilderment seemed to me to have softer edges. These days, bewilderment is the exactly the right word. Today, for example, it is perfect. It’s a good friend of mine’s birthday, and I will forever remember how on this day in July 2011, I took a pregnancy test because R and I had a babysitter booked for the evening, and I had a feeling, and I wanted to know if I could have a beer or two while we were out. The test was positive. I was pregnant with Anja. I remember leaning on the windowsill, looking out over the park, and talking to my friend about her birthday, her twins who were only a few months old, the most recent pregnancy test, the hopes I had for this one. Four years later, her twins are riding bikes without training wheels and Anja has been dead for three and a half years. As I sit here, in a coffee shop, writing a paper about post-mortem photography for an upcoming conference in Amsterdam, a song comes over the speakers that was popular the winter and spring I was pregnant with M and I feel myself thrust back suddenly to the anxiety of those car rides to the hospital for ultrasounds and NSTs. And now here he is, two years old, and coincidentally we’ve been at the doctor for him today because he’s covered in some kind of viral rash, but he’s just fine – in fact, he’s perfect. He’s a delight. He astounds me every single day by the deceptively simple fact of being here.

It is bewildering. How have four years passed since that hopeful summer? How have two years gone by since the terrible strain of my pregnancy with M? My living kids have grown and grown and I have aged and our lives have changed in innumerable ways and it is utterly baffling: four years?? I remember coming home from the hospital without her and finding blogs written by women who were two, three, four, five years out and thinking: I can’t do this for that long. And if I can, I don’t want to still be blogging about it four, five years later. I want to be better. I am better. But also, there is no better. Time passes and passes and passes and she is still gone and I still miss her and I still wonder: how did this happen to us? How did we get here? And here is different now than it was at two weeks, two months, a year out; here is almost, but also not at all, ‘normal.’ And ‘normal’ is utterly bewildering. How did we get here? Where did you go, sweet girl? I know you were here. Four years ago today our story started, with me hanging out the window, soaking up the sun, hopefully telling one of my best friends: ‘I’m pregnant again. Cross your fingers for us.’

Sibling grief, three and a half years on

E is doing a daycamp this week while I work, and though last week she did it too and loved it, this week she’s been dragging her heels in the morning and saying she wants to stay home. This morning, after dropping M off at his daycare, E and I held hands while we walked the few more blocks to her camp and chatted. I told her that I can remember going to camp and having fun, but also sometimes just really wanting to be home with my mom and dad and brother and sister.

‘I only have a brother,’ she says, ‘except I also have a sister, but she will never be home with me.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘She won’t. I wish she could be.’

‘How could Anja die when she came out of your tummy? How could that happen?’ A pause. ‘She probably died because you ate too much chocolate.’

‘I don’t think that’s why, sweetie. Sometimes doctors don’t know why babies die. They did lots of tests and they couldn’t find a reason. She died inside my tummy, before she came out.’

‘How could doctors not know. I think you ate too much chocolate.’

My poor kid. Still trying to figure this all out.

‘Have you been thinking about Anja a lot these days?’ I ask her.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I hope when I grow up I have two baby girls.’ Pause. ‘How old would Anja be now?’

‘She’d be three. That’d be fun, wouldn’t it? To have a three-year-old sister here to play with?’

‘Yes. That’s how old P is.’ I watch her think, wonder if she is thinking about all the things P can do and what it would be like to have Anja here, doing those things. She thinks for a long time, then says, ‘I can’t wait to go see Inside Out with E.’ E is the daughter of my babyloss friend, Andrea; they are the same age and so obviously derive comfort from each other. Just like us adults, they find comfort in the company of others who have experienced the death of a loved, longed-for baby.

‘Mommy, can we do something special after camp today?’

‘Yes, sweetie, we can.’

* * *

There is so much in that conversation. So much thinking, so much figuring out, so much worry and blame and wonder. She’s six.

She’s been a bit wild these days. I think camp is stressful for her. She has a friend there who she thinks is really cool and she tries to emulate her. She is an imitator, always trying to fit in with her environment. I worry that she’s trying to please whoever she happens to be with at any given time. I worry that this – at least in part – comes from feeling like she had to cheer us up after Anja died, like she has to be more because Anja died, that she has somehow determined that she needs to be what others need her to be. I worry too much. She’s a great kid. She’s wonderful. I will always worry, though, about what damage has been done to her through the experience of Anja’s death and our family’s bereavement and the crap crap crap attitude toward that bereavement of most of the world around us.

She gets easily anxious. M had a rash on his belly this morning and I took a picture of it and sent it to my mom, who is a nurse. I just wanted to know if she thought it was something that merited being kept home from daycare. He was not feverish, had a good appetite, was his usual cheerful self. I wasn’t worried about him. But the simple act of me photographing M’s tummy and asking Gran caused E so much anxiety, though I didn’t see it entirely until later. ‘He’ll be okay,’ I assured her over and over. ‘It’s just a little rash. You have them all the time, and you’re ok.’ Oh no, I wonder suddenly: does she worry about herself? She worries when any one of us is sick. She worries quietly.

She’s been so silly and wild lately. She’s tired from camp, she’s picking up on different behaviours from other kids, she needs a holiday just like the rest of us. But I wonder, too…there’s been something about these last couple weeks. There were forest fires burning nearby and the air and sky were full of smoke. Something like this, not as bad, happened three years ago, that first summer, six months after Anja died. I thought about those days last week while the smoke hung low over the mountains and park. Those July 2012 days were some of the worst, and they were worse for being unexpectedly so bad. The half year. And yesterday it was the 14th. Three and a half years exactly, and my body, always before my head, remembers. I’ve been dragging a bit, feeling overwhelmed. I bet she feels it, too, my girl, my first daughter. I complain constantly that the world does not recognize children’s grief, but I am guilty sometimes, too, of that fault: I wonder how often I am and don’t realize at all?

Sweet E. I am still fumbling through this. I hope I am not failing her too badly. I’m doing the best I can. I’ll keep doing it.

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