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.
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.
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.
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.
I miss this space and what it used to be. I’m glad I don’t need it like I used to – I mean, I still need it; I can’t really imagine a time I’ll let it go entirely – but, I’m glad I don’t need it desperately like I used to. I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog and what it has meant to me, especially in the first years, because of some research I’m doing for work on the ways in which people use records, archives – paper or digital – as part of a grieving process, as a means of working around and through and with grief, and also as a means of maintaining a relationship or connection with their lost loved one. That was certainly something this blog did for me. It was the space in which I spent time devoted to Anja, and it was a space in which she – in some strange way – grew…people came to know her – or know of her at least. People – other bereaved mothers – missed her and remembered her as I missed and remembered their babies. Now I am thinking about what happens when that space diminishes in importance, when it grows quiet and…still…a loaded word. Why does this happen? Time? Both the passing of time and the always diminishing stock of it in my day-to-day life?
I read two things this week that are causing me to think. One is a post about teaching anthropology where the authors talk about being “aggressively human” – it’s a manifesto, a call for greater humanity in the academy, for kindness, empathy, support. Kindness to oneself and kindness to others. In my own teaching this past year, I have been focusing on two goals: to be kind and to be generous. It’s hard sometimes in a space that has not been particularly kind or generous to me, that has never permitted me to grieve properly, never cut me a moment’s slack. I want to think a lot more about this and about how I might contribute to a kinder, more generous academic space and culture. Maybe this will be how I respond to the bitterness I so often feel. As the authors of the aggressively human manifesto state: “We exemplify kindness and care toward ourselves and others, and we aggressively insist on reminding people that we are humans first and scholars, teachers, and employees only in addition to that.” Maybe I can do that. Maybe that is another way of making space, too, for Anja in the world. Maybe no one else will see her, but I’ll know she’s there, at the centre.
The other thing I read this week was an article on grief and digital ghosts that someone who knows my recent research sent to me. It’s a beautiful piece, but it was this bit in particular that has me thinking: “After he died, Jon’s online presence grew and then faded into the ether. Now, when I Google his name late at night, I see he has slipped further and further down in the search results.” This makes me think of the blogroll at Glow In the Woods, and how it grows, new blogs added, old blogs pushed further down the list, abandoned blogs, the digital ghosts of all these babies. Six and a half years is a long time to keep up a blog and maintain this online space. Slowly, I retreated, sometimes by design, sometimes by accident. It sometimes feels like the only place Anja ever lived was here. What happens when this place fades into the ether?
He was so timid as a toddler. He didn’t run and climb at playgrounds, but stood next to me, quietly watching. He liked to sit on my knee and cuddle while his sister did gymnastics or swimming. He didn’t go down slides, and when he got his run bike, he would just stand and slowly walk with it. He was thoughtful and sweet, tilting his head and saying, Mommy? Telling me stories, asking questions, wondering about everything in his squeaky, uptalking way. He liked to collect rocks, pinecones, flower petals, sticks and carefully sort and arrange them.
He is still the sweetest thing, but at 5 he is also a big boy and turning wild. His long legs are covered in bruises now that he has decided to run and slide and play with the other children. He climbs the tree at daycare until my breath catches and I can almost not look. He rides his bike like a racer, suddenly skidding out, trying to lay down the longest ‘chopstick’ behind him. He yells everything and screams with laughter with his friends. He leaves a ring of dirt in the tub at night and wants bedtime stories about Tintin or snakes or cranes or firetrucks. He still holds my hand whenever he can, and his hand is warm and small and sure.
Very shortly after he was born, Anja’s spot in the family shifted. She had been the middle child, but he surpassed her, filled a space she’d left; he DID NOT replace her, but he did make her spot less visible, certainly to others, but to me, too. I couldn’t see how she fit in once he was here. There was no way he’d have been here if she’d stayed. None of it made sense to me. I couldn’t imagine her alive once he was a certain age. Where I’d been able to say, she would be x months old or x years old and she would be like this ______, once he was a year or two old, especially, it just didn’t make sense to imagine her that way: she was gone.
When I was pregnant with her, I’d imagined her with blond ringlets, like her sister had had as a toddler, quiet, but wickedly funny and with a mischievous bent. For a while that image stayed, but as he grows and changes and gets louder and wilder, she gets quieter in my mind. She is a little dark-haired child, fair and slight, hiding a little under the low branches of a cedar tree,watching the others, drawing with a stick in the dirt. Her eyes are dark and thoughtful; she doesn’t say very much – hums a little, just watching, staying apart.
It is the neverending mystery: who would she have been?
My son, five years old, a mane of redgold hair flying out under his helmet, races ahead of me down the forest path on the way home from school, the filtering sunlight bounces with his gleeful voice off the trees ahead and in between them the tiny slip of my gone girl retreats back into the darkness, watching, always watching as I try – and fail – to chase after them both.
I made it through Anja’s birthday without crying. That was a few days ago. Today, I’ve been crying since noon. Nine hours and 22 minutes. My work is ridiculously stressful. I have more work than any person could reasonably be expected to do and I am basically on probation for 7 years. I’m 1.5 years in and I’m terrified that I won’t make it through this probationary period. Tenure sounds like a dream to many people, but 7 years of constantly feeling like you are not doing enough, not working hard enough, never going to be good enough is exhausting. And I started exhausted. Three years of precarious, term-to-term teaching right after completing a PhD which is no walk in the park in itself. Never mind six pregnancies: one traumatic birth, three miscarriages, one dead baby, one brutally stressful subsequent pregnancy. I’m cracking up. I never know how much to blame grief, but I know it’s not a small part of this. I have marvelled, over the years, at how I’ve kept going. I’ve resented – bitterly resented, if I’m honest – others who have been able to rest, to retreat, even in grief, while I had to go back to work only days after my baby died, to keep working, keep pushing, so that “all my hard work wasn’t for nothing.” But what was it for? This miserable life of feeling inadequate, overworked, and insane with the anxiety that I will not get tenure and thereby lose my livelihood, my home (we live in faculty housing), my children’s schools, my understanding of my place in the world. I don’t really know what to do to help myself. Counselling or therapy is probably the answer but when I think about where I will find the time to find a good counsellor or therapist let alone see one regularly, I just want to laugh and cry and bang my head against a wall.
Today is the 12th of January. Six years ago at this time exactly, I was lying on a hospital bed in the assessment room, watching my GP’s face as she moved the ultrasound wand across my round belly. You hadn’t moved for hours.
Six years ago.
You weren’t delivered until the 14th. Then I saw your face, your perfect hands and delicate wrists, held your weight in my arms, put my lips to your forehead.
I don’t have it in me to write a long post today. There are so many frustrating, difficult things happening and I find I just can’t do it, can’t summon the words. But I bought some daffodils today and they are opening in water on the kitchen table. And I knew I would write even just a few words here, in this space that is for you, and that has held me up since you’ve been gone. I owe this blog and the mothers who read it so much.
Six years ago. If I really think about it, I will go down under the sorrow…sink under the weight and neverending incomprehension of your loss.
I remember your hands so well, tucked just so under your chin. Your sweet, perfect chin.
I love you, Anja. Forever.
E and M experience the death of their sister in such different ways. For M, Anja’s death – and Anja herself – is an abstract concept. He knows she was his sister, but it’s clear that also confuses him; he has a living, breathing, running, loving, shouting, laughing, helping, playing sister and Anja is not a sister like that at all. What kind of sister is she, then? He will often give me a stone or shell and say he found it for the ‘Anja jar.’ In the summer, we saw cemeteries on the side of the road throughout New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and he was curious: ‘what are all those stone places, Mommy?’ I explained to him how people’s dead are buried there and he suggested we could put Anja there, too. It was a very polite suggestion. It was clearly intended to help me. He knows that sometimes I’m sad about Anja and he wanted to help me. M is sometimes – maybe often – confused about Anja’s death, existence, and place in our family, but it is a gentle confusion – or seems to be: he is quietly perplexed.
For E, everything is so different. Turbulent, frustrating, unjust. I was upset with E the other day because she and her brother kept screaming and squealing over my attempt to facetime with my sister, who lives in NY. I said to E, ‘she’s my sister and I rarely get to talk to her.’ E snapped back: ‘well, do I ever get to talk to my sister?’ E’s turned into a clam of late; she doesn’t want to talk about how she feels very often, and it’s harder than it used to be to know what she thinks, how she’s understanding her loss these days.
Yesterday on the way to school we talked about Christmas plans and how we would buy gifts for some children whose families couldn’t afford presents this year (through the Christmas Bureau). There’s a Christmas tree at the Granville Island kids market that is decorated with cards saying ‘girl, aged 4,’ ‘boy, aged 11’ which you can choose off the tree and shop for in the market. E wants to do that and choose a ‘girl, aged 6’ – ‘because 6 is the age I most remember being,’ she adds. ‘6 is how old Anja would turn in January, too,’ I said. E’s face changes, and I wonder: is she thinking about what 6 was for her, what it might have been for Anja? I know E wanted to buy a present for a girl Anja’s age, too, but I’m not sure she realized Anja would be 6 and whatever she was thinking, it was clear her thoughts were swirling around, keeping her busy. Her face was a bit crumpled, eyebrows drawn in. For E, the loss is tangible in a way it isn’t for M. She remembers me pregnant. And most of all, she remembers how it was when Anja died. The intense grief that took over our lives and home. That grief – my grief – had such an impact on her. It becomes increasingly clear to me how the period of time where I kind of checked out (it wasn’t very long and it was for my own survival, I tell myself over and over) shook her to her core. She was only 3. She needed her mama. And I was there…but I was also gone. There’s an insecurity in E that I feel sure traces straight back to that time when I wanted nothing more than to run into the forest and cry all day and night amongst the trees or to check myself into a hotel room – in my fantasies it was an all-white hotel room, white furniture, white rugs, white beddings, no art – and be by myself for as long as I needed. I was with her, all the time, but I was far away, too, desperate to be with her sister who had become so completely unreachable, so permanently distant. There’s a desperation in E when she’s stressed that comes, I think, from feeling abandoned in some important ways, and there’s an anger in her when she’s frustrated that comes from the total unfairness of the death of her sister. E was so excited to be a big sister. To have a little sister. She talked nonstop about what she and her sister would do while I was pregnant. She saved dolls and toys for her. She helped organize her room to make space for a sister. I’ll never forget her face when we told her there was a sister for her in my tummy. Her huge, beaming smile. ‘We can call her Balloon,’ she yelled, gleefully. I remember the dance parties we used to have, before Anja died. We’ve never had one quite like those pre-grief ones. Something went missing with Anja and E knows it, felt it, lived it. We don’t dance with the same abandon since Anja died.
On our walk to school yesterday, while we talked about the giving tree at Granville Island and buying presents and Anja, aged 6, M was on his bike. He was thoughtful, but distracted; interested, but not invested in the same way E was. He could ride ahead, wait for us, catch up on the conversation, move in and out. But E was different. She said, ‘we’d have to move again if Anja was 6. She wouldn’t want to share with a little brother.’
‘Well, you two would probably be sharing,’ I suggested, and she thought about that, quiet, in her own head. ‘We’ll never know how things would have turned out,’ I said, gently. ‘Life is so strange like that. You could turn one corner one morning instead of another and your whole life could change completely. Everything changed for us when Anja died. We were going one way, and now we’re going another.’
This is real for E in a a way it is not for M. If I had a nickel for everyone who said, ‘at least you have E,’ when Anja died… I wanted to shout at them, ‘well, what about her? Now she has to figure this out and live with this, too.’ I was – and am – so unequipped to help. And not only does she have to deal with the loss of a sister she wanted so badly, she had to deal with the loss of her mother. I can’t imagine the confusion, the anxiety, she must have felt.
And the other platitude: ‘well, she’ll develop empathy in a way other kids her age won’t; this loss will teach her to look out for others.’ Ok, maybe, but she didn’t need that. She didn’t need to be taught a lesson through the death of her sister and the temporary implosion of her family.
M didn’t experience those things. He gets to experience the loss of his sister as something his family has already begun to process. We’ve established the narrative of her loss. We have ways of telling her story, gentle ways, ways that integrate her into our family, into the world. I can tell her story without sobbing or wanting to scream. I can hug him while I tell him. E lived through the untellable times with us, the times where I had nothing to say but screams and sobs. There was no gentleness for her. We tried, yes, but she wasn’t fooled.
I met someone last week whose first son was stillborn. She said to me, ‘and you had a living child, that must have been so difficult to navigate.’ Something inside me stopped at that statement and listened: I think that was the first time someone started there, with ‘it must have been hard to parent a living child in that grief’ instead of with ‘weren’t you lucky,’ at least in some way. It was never lucky for E, and she was not a consolation prize for me. She was her own little grieving person.
E and I walked the rest of the way to school, holding hands, M just ahead on his bike, in his dinosaur rain coat and with the pink streamers flying on the side of his handlebars. I think she and I were thinking the same things: loss, wonder, grief, love and the terrible/wonderful way that it is all out of our control.
Fall always feels like your time, sweet Anja. Fall 2011 was a time of comfort, coziness, the warm, conspiratorial feeling of growing you, learning to know you, waiting to witness your way through the world. The leaves fall red and golden and the rain imprints them black on the sidewalks. Red, gold, black. Pearly grey skies. Misty rains turn into downpours. I put on the coat I wrapped once around my growing belly, wrap it around nothing, pull it in tight. We make our way to school in a new neighbourhood, where I did not expect to find memories of you. Now I understand they come to me where I am. Your brother speeds ahead on his new pedal bike. Your sister holds my hand and tells me about the new friend she is making. Red and gold leaves drift around us and the mist of almost-rain settles on my hair and cheeks.