It’s been a long while since grief has hit me in the way it has over the past few days. It came out of the blue and at first I didn’t know what was happening to me. I’m at a conference in England, amongst colleagues and students, far from home, and I’ve felt awful: low and tired and just not right. And then the tears came. They started to seep out yesterday morning in a crowded conference room, almost entirely unexpected. I’ve grown so unused to crying in public.

I’ve been crying intermittently since, sneaking into bathroom stalls and hiding behind my hair when I can’t sneak away. I went on a walking tour today to learn about the history of slavery in Liverpool and we went to the Anglican cathedral, one of the largest cathedrals in the world. I’m not religious, but whenever I travel, if there’s a church where I can do it, I light a candle for Anja. I slipped away from the tour, detoured into the toilets at an opportune moment and went back to the quiet, beautiful Lady’s Chapel and lit a candle for my girl.

fullsizeoutput_61a6In the main part of the church, under a giant stained glass window, there was a message that felt like it was just for me, today. fullsizeoutput_61a8And then I visited the graveyard, trailed my hand along the tops of headstones and held in my heart the babies and the mothers who grieved them. I sat in the shade for a bit, waited, listened and then headed back to the conference.

Crying in bathroom stalls and putting on a brave face is almost harder than I remember it and this blindsided grieving present-me feels very proud of and tender toward past-me who did this all the time, everywhere and every day. Seven years ago I would probably have been appalled to know I could still feel this bad sometimes. I probably would have been equally appalled if I thought I wouldn’t.

Six-year-old boy

406F8561-90F7-4360-8C53-7F1A3024D7D1He stops to pick me buttercups on the way to school each morning. Splash of yellow clutched in his warm hand, the hand that will be caked in dirt when I pick him up after school from digging for lost villages at recess. His warm hand, still little, reaching out for mine while we look for the snake who basks in the long grass at the base of the big old fir, and his still-small voice asking question after question. Once, I so clearly imagined a future with two girls, sisters, and now I can’t imagine a present without him in it. The calculations never work out right; there’s never any real satisfaction in getting to the answer that doesn’t feel like a solution. But he is here and for as long as he is, I accept the buttercup offerings, tiny jars and cups of them all over my office and the kitchen table, and his warm, grubby hand and sweet, curious voice as we walk at the edge of the forest, still dark and cool on these early summer mornings.

On wrinkles and sea glass

I accompanied M’s kindergarten class on a field trip this morning. At one point, one of the little boys turned around to M and said, ‘is that really your Mom?’ When M said, yes, the little boy added, ‘she looks too old to be a mom.’ I’m not going to lie: that stung. (Especially because I’ve lately been worrying he’s right.)

I do look old. And sometimes – like today – that hurts a little, and is confusing, too, because, wait, I just turned 30, what happened?

In fact I turn 45 this year. 35 to 45 was a rough decade. Three miscarriages, one baby stillborn, one PhD, 3 years of precarious teaching, 3 years (and more to go) on an early tenure track, pregnancy after loss, parenting, never sleeping….That 10 year challenge that was going around on social media recently? Really fucking depressing for me. In 10 years, I’ve easily aged 20.

Sometimes I can really own that age though. Because it comes with experience that I would never have chosen but that I know has made me….a better person. The me of 7 years ago is gagging on that sentence right now and screaming at 2019 me: you were already a good person, you didn’t need to be better, your baby didn’t need to die for that!! And she’s right, too. Me of 2012 was right: my baby shouldn’t have died. Me of 2019 knows – for real and for good – that she did, and this is the aftermath, and a lot of it has been total shit and it has made me look like I’m 55 instead of 45 and I’ve spent probably a good half of the 7 years between 2012 me and 2019 me either sobbing or inwardly seething, but….Sometimes there really is a kind of grace I can feel and recognize. I am interviewing bereaved parents right now and it has been a hard and beautiful experience. I feel like I am being given a gift as parents tell me the stories of their babies, their so loved and so deeply missed babies; I add each of these baby’s stories to the story of Anja and of all the other babies whose names and lives I have learned and loved in the last 7 years. It is a gift and a tremendous responsibility and these wrinkles attest to both the gift and the responsibility. I have a jar on a shelf in our living room where we’ve collected rocks and shells and sea glass from places we’ve been without Anja; we go somewhere, we remember her, we bring something home to show that she was there too, with us – that she was here. The jar and its contents are a record of all the times she’s crossed our minds. My face, too, is a record; not as beautiful as the soft green and gold of the salt-worn glass, but a record nonetheless – a record of love, of loss, of laughter and tears, and anger like I never imagined, and more love, a little acceptance, and finally, maybe, some grace. It hurt to hear those words, but maybe it wasn’t so much out of vanity as it was over the memory of all that is etched on my face and that remains unreadable to most who look.

(But still – I appreciate my partner’s response by text when I told him about this kid. He wrote, ‘did you tell that kid he’s an asshole?)

Interested in participating in a research project?

As readers of this blog most likely know, I conduct research and teach at a university in Vancouver. Some will also know that I am a trained archivist, and that my field of research is archival studies. I’ve written before about the ways in which A’s death affected my studies as a PhD student and altered the nature of my research agenda. For several years now, I’ve been thinking about how grief and bereavement fit into my chosen field: how might a deeper understanding of the relationship between grief and recordkeeping impact archival thinking and practice? Grief is something archivists encounter pretty regularly; for example, a recently widowed donor might bring in her spouse’s records, or a residential schools survivor might comb records to find clues to what happened to her siblings or other family members. But archivists don’t really talk about grief – at least to each other – and there’s very little discussion about how having a better understanding of grief might help us to provide better services and care to the people who donate and use the records we preserve.

To address this gap (in part at least), I’m conducting a study that aims in part to fill that gap, to begin a conversation in the archival field about bereavement and recordkeeping, about emotion in the archives, and in particular, about grief in the archives. (You can read more about my work in this area here: https://blogs.ubc.ca/recordkeepinggriefwork/)

In my years of writing here and of working in other ways, too, to preserve A’s memory, I’ve thought a lot about how what I’m doing – in some ways – is building up an archive of my love for her and about how doing that work keeps me connected to her memory. I’m interested now in talking to other bereaved parents about their own experiences of grief and recordkeeping. Recordkeeping is a term archivists use to encompass making, using, organizing, and keeping records. A record can be anything a person makes, uses, or keeps to preserve evidence or memory;  in this project, we define a record as any document or object that you make and/or keep to remember your baby. You might keep records just for yourself, or you might share them with others. You might keep some for a short while and others forever. Records can include things like photographs, ultrasound images, journals, letters, emails, blogs, hospital records, etc. They might also include objects like a stuffed animal, an item of clothing, a special rock or dried flowers, etc. Records might also include ephemeral items that are important to you because they are connected in some way to your baby or your memory of your baby. Essentially, for this project, anything you make or keep as part of your effort to perpetuate the memory of your child can count as a record.

If you’re reading this, and you’re a bereaved parent who has built, or is building up, a collection of records – of any type – related to your baby and/or to your experiences of bereavement, and if you are interested in learning more about this research project and about possibilities for participating, please send me an email at jen[dot]douglas[at]ubc[dot]ca. I’ll be happy to provide you with more information about the research objectives and methods and to answer any questions. Please also feel free to share this invitation with other bereaved parents you think might have an interest in the project and/or in participating.

I don’t want anyone to feel pressure to learn more or participate; this is 100% voluntary, and I understand it won’t be of interest to every bereaved parent to take part in this type of conversation or work.

Thanks, as always, for reading here and for helping to hold me up all these years. I often think I would never have finished my PhD, never made it into the academic position I now hold, without the support I have received from readers of this blog. I’m forever grateful for this community.

Through the looking glass

I was watching the kids today as they stared out over the railing into the crowds milling below them at the Orpheum, as we waited to go into the symphony, a show just for kids on a Sunday afternoon, and I remembered how on the very darkest, early days all I wanted was a glimpse into the future to know if things would ever be okay for us again.

They are.

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January, again

I haven’t changed the calendar in my office yet, so I keep looking up to see what the date is and confusing myself. Is it the 6th or the 9th or the 11th? I know it’s soon, though, her birthday: the 12th, the 13th, the 14th – or the day we discovered she had died, the day I was induced, the day I delivered her, held her, said goodbye. How to mark those days? Do I really have to mark them all? How will it be this year? Questions that are pushing at the back of my mind as I rush through the first weeks of new classes for me and new activities for the kids and all the after-holidays reorienting. Seven years. Each year it seems impossible, how big that number grows, the realization that it will only continue to grow, though she never did. I have thought recently about how well I’m doing, how I’ve managed to keep going, how I’m not falling apart anymore but carrying on, and then I felt awful for making this about me when it was her loss, she who never got to experience anything outside of me. Who would she have been? The questions circles and circles and always will, never answered. On the way to school this morning, we talked about what we would do for Anja’s birthday this year. E wants to bake the cake. I asked her: ‘do you remember anything of those years after she died?’ and she replied with an emphatic, ‘no.’ So emphatic that I wonder what she doesn’t want to remember. I’m glad she can protect herself right now by not remembering; she is 10 years old and deserves to be unburdened. I know she doesn’t really forget, and I know now, too, that after all these years, grief and remembering change and then change again, and we change, too, and change again. She never changes, though. She never had the chance, and that is the ache that sits most clearly with me this year: her loss, all the ways in which she was cheated. We’ll muddle through these days. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again, and I know, finally, that there is no right way to observe them – we just do it, and then do it again the next year, and the next, and there are moments of grace in there, and moments where it’s all wrong, and then it all changes again, and all there is to do is observe and carry on, grieve and remember, love and continue to love.

Rough days

We’re having rough days over here, lately. M is asserting his independence, E is having none of that. There are fights. There is screaming. Lots of crying. I have 100 million papers to mark and the bathroom is an unholy mess. The stress mounts and patience is hard to find. Someone shrieks, ‘it isn’t fair,’ and I know it isn’t but my instinct is to yell or retreat. Almost December and Christmas.  So much to do, and then: January. Again. It’s hard, sometimes, to be the nurturer. To be the adult. To be the good mother. They’re all long limbs and eye rolls now around here – no more babies. Still, if I fold them up in my lap, burrow my head in their necks, kiss cheeks and backs of hands, and stroke the hair that so badly needs to be cut, they’re my babies again, melt into me, listen with their whole bodies to my love, and this is what I must remember: love love love. November, December, January – fill them with love, love, more and more love, always and ever love.

Interest in participating in a research project?

As readers of this blog most likely know, I conduct research and teach at a university in Vancouver. Some will also know that I am a trained archivist, and that my field of research is archival studies. I’ve written before about the ways in which A’s death affected my studies as a PhD student and altered the nature of my research agenda. For several years now, I’ve been thinking about how grief and bereavement fit into my chosen field: how might a deeper understanding of the relationship between grief and recordkeeping impact archival thinking and practice? Grief is something archivists encounter pretty regularly; for example, a recently widowed donor might bring in her spouse’s records, or a residential schools survivor might comb records to find clues to what happened to her siblings or other family members. But archivists don’t really talk about grief – at least to each other – and there’s very little discussion about how having a better understanding of grief might help us to provide better services and care to the people who donate and use the records we preserve.

To address this gap (in part at least), I’m conducting a study that aims in part to fill that gap, to begin a conversation in the archival field about bereavement and recordkeeping, about emotion in the archives, and in particular, about grief in the archives. (You can read more about my work in this area here: https://blogs.ubc.ca/recordkeepinggriefwork/)

In my years of writing here and of working in other ways, too, to preserve A’s memory, I’ve thought a lot about how what I’m doing – in some ways – is building up an archive of my love for her and about how doing that work keeps me connected to her memory. I’m interested now in talking to other bereaved parents about their own experiences of grief and recordkeeping. Recordkeeping is a term archivists use to encompass making, using, organizing, and keeping records. A record can be anything a person makes, uses, or keeps to preserve evidence or memory;  in this project, we define a record as any document or object that you make and/or keep to remember your baby. You might keep records just for yourself, or you might share them with others. You might keep some for a short while and others forever. Records can include things like photographs, ultrasound images, journals, letters, emails, blogs, hospital records, etc. They might also include objects like a stuffed animal, an item of clothing, a special rock or dried flowers, etc. Records might also include ephemeral items that are important to you because they are connected in some way to your baby or your memory of your baby. Essentially, for this project, anything you make or keep as part of your effort to perpetuate the memory of your child can count as a record.

If you’re reading this, and you’re a bereaved parent who has built, or is building up, a collection of records – of any type – related to your baby and/or to your experiences of bereavement, and if you are interested in learning more about this research project and about possibilities for participating, please send me an email at jldoug[at]mail[dot]ubc[dot]ca. I’ll be happy to provide you with more information about the research objectives and methods and to answer any questions. Please also feel free to share this invitation with other bereaved parents you think might have an interest in the project and/or in participating.

I don’t want anyone to feel pressure to learn more or participate; this is 100% voluntary, and I understand it won’t be of interest to every bereaved parent to take part in this type of conversation or work.

Thanks, as always, for reading here and for helping to hold me up all these years. I often think I would never have finished my PhD, never made it into the academic position I now hold, without the support I have received from readers of this blog. I’m forever grateful for this community.

‘Whatever a sun will always sing is you’

There are places in this city that can still cause my heart to constrict unexpectedly. Places strongly associated with her that bring up sudden memories of a lighter time. I used to think it was a happier time, and now I don’t know that that’s really true, but it was certainly a lighter time, the before time.

We moved out of the West End and downtown a year and a half ago and into a neighbourhood where there are no memories of her brief time with us. I miss the memories places brought. She had a presence in that neighbourhood. Almost everywhere I looked there was something that made me think of her; in some ways it was a relief to be able to walk through a new neighbourhood where every tree and corner was not strung with memories of my dead daughter, but in other ways it has been an incalculable loss. I miss her, again, in a new and different way.

This weekend I’ve been attending a conference in my own city. Taking the bus downtown, not quite to the old neighbourhood, but to streets where we often wandered. The bus drives past the hospital where, 7 years ago, we learned we were having another daughter, where a particular picture of our family, sisters, started to grow. The hospital is decorated in lights for a holiday fundraiser – lights of hope. I feel a familiar jolt that lessened over the years when I passed this hospital almost daily.

For weeks and weeks after Anja died I clung to the memory of a single, particular day. A couple of days before she died, E and I took the bus downtown, returned some Christmas gifts, met R for lunch. We explored and chatted and laughed and I thought how soon this time with just her would be unusual. The day felt like a gift, sunny and cold, her golden curls and rosy cheeks and the never-ending stream of chatter. When Anja died, that day became, for me, The Last Happy Day. I felt like there was a glass wall up between us now and us then. I could see the three of us at the lunch table laughing at how I could barely squeeze my belly into the booth, but those laughing three had been shunted back into an untouchable past: before.

Just before meeting R for lunch, E and I had played outside the art gallery. I called him to arrange where to meet and she marched up and down the stone benches in her pink, plaid duffel coat, jumping on and off, laughing out loud while I felt her sister kick inside. I remember feeling absolutely content and then baffled – just the next week – that such a feeling was ever possible.

Yesterday morning, early, on my way to my meeting I passed this bench: another jolt. I can see us there, in the untouchable before, my three year old sidekick, my unmourning self, my giant belly, and inside a tiny, kicking, still living Baby Sister.

A jolt. A flash of sun on the glass buildings, lighting the last red leaves. It’s Remembrance Day. A pause for a photo. And then on to my meeting. Nearly seven years later this is how she occupies a space.

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If that mockingbird don’t sing

I don’t often feel her presence. It’s happened once or twice, but not as much as I’d like. I can imagine how it would feel to sense her around me, near me when I need her, when she needs me, but it’s only imagination. It doesn’t work the way I want it to. The other night, though, E and M curled up together in E’s bed, all tucked in amongst E’s piles of pillows and stuffies and stuffies that are pillows, and they asked me to sing them all the old songs I used to sing. I’ve never really sung to both of them at bed time. M was in with us until he was 3 and then we tucked them in separately when they were sharing a room. I tried to remember if this was the first time, but I couldn’t be certain. At any rate, as I sang ‘Hush little baby’ to the two of them I felt her. I could really almost see her there with them, cuddled up, listening. I could picture the way it felt to hold her in my arms and sing to her in the hospital room, all the same songs I’d sung to her sister every night I was pregnant, all the same songs I sang to E and M on the bed the other night. I remembered I wrote about those songs, once, a long time ago, how singing to E could bring back that hospital room and the weight of my tiny, dead daughter. And here she was again, but it wasn’t really sad. I mean, it was sad, but it was also happy, and sweet, and I wondered if they felt it, too, the presence of their sister, but I didn’t ask. I just kept singing.