The first thing we were told by our grief and loss counselor while still in the NICU was everyone grieves differently. Yep. That couldn't be more true. I have witnessed more accounts of grief in the last three months than I ever imagined I would in my lifetime. I have learned that reading articles or books or blogs about "how to grief the loss of a loved one" is not very helpful for me simply because no one's experience is like mine. BUT. Reading others' accounts has definitely helped me accept my unique grieving experience as being perfectly normal. My perfectly normal. :)
People have asked me--or perhaps secretly wonder--how I'm doing. About six weeks ago I hated that question. It was a dumb question. Dumb because how I was doing was a general question. It seemed people didn't actually know what to say to me, so they decided that simple question was the best approach. I mean, what does a person say to a mom who just held her baby as he died at only 12 days old? Even now, I honestly don't know what I would say to someone in a similar situation. But I wouldn't ask "How are you doing?".
Why exactly is that a dumb question, you ask? Six weeks ago it was a dumb question because I didn't want to talk about how I'm doing. I wanted to talk to you about my son. I wanted to tell you about him. Tell you about his little quirks, the joy he brought us, how he changed us. I want to tell you about what it was like holding him as he died, as his soul went to Heaven. I think the hardest part about the question, and this is still true today, was that my honest answer to "how I was doing" surprised people: yes, I missed my son. I was (and some days still am) incredibly overwhelmed with sorrow that I don't get to raise him. However--and this is a BIG however--I felt more joy over the fact that we got to meet our son, got to spend 12 days with him, getting to know his spunky personality. I felt joy over the fact that we were able to baptize him so that he could be return to our Father in Heaven. We had so many happy memories in those 12 days. I have no regrets.
Sharing my joy about my son, even when he was no longer with me, really seemed to shock people. That perceived shock led me to question my grief. Was I actually grieving "properly"? Was I dishonoring the memory of my son because I was mostly joyful and at peace with the situation? This questioning of my own grieving became yet another aspect of my grief--it led me to isolate myself from others. From a "fix-it" perspective, not very productive. But it was all just part of the process for me.
For those who have never experienced tragic loss, let along the loss of an infant, I'd like to share different aspects of my experience. Many people--friends, family and even strangers--have asked me about it. I'll start by saying, and this will come as no surprise if you've read Samuel's story (it starts here), my grief is VERY faith-based. Without my faith, I have no idea how--no, if I would be able to find peace with the loss of my first child.
My grief has come in waves. Waves of overwhelming, life-stopping sorrow. Waves of disbelief and shock (did I really have a son, is he really gone?). Waves of ferocious anger, at people for no reason (I could chew your head off for driving 2 over the speed limit rather than 5 or 7...) and with God for letting this happen. Waves of guilt--as David puts it, bargaining--questioning my actions as if I could have done things differently and had a different outcome. And then there are waves of peace, joy, acceptance. I guess that would be when the waters are calm ;-) Needless to say, life is an ocean... nah, I'll spare you the silly metaphors right now.
The Monday after the funeral (a Saturday), after all the visits from family and friends were over, once it was truly final that our baby wasn't there with us as highlighted by the empty co-sleeper, the days were incredibly lonely. My arms were so sore, literally aching with emptiness. The weight of the loss made deep breathing a challenge. David seemed to be a world away, experiencing his own grief in a very different way. I wanted to talk through it all. I wanted to cuddle with David, finding comfort in the physical contact. But David needed space. He needed to be with his own thoughts, his own emotions. How could I talk through my grief if David wasn't available? This distance deepened my sense of loneliness.
But David was not the only other person who experienced the loss of Samuel. My mom, my dad, my sisters, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, my friends. We all were grieving in our own way. I found so much comfort in talking to my mom every day. In the past, we talked on the phone maybe once a week. Samuel had changed that. We now talked every day. We talked about little triggers in our days that would bring on a heavy wave of sorrow. I found this to be incredibly helpful in understanding my experience. One of my sisters--the one who met Samuel the morning before he died--was also a tremendous support. She spent time with me, filling that sense of loneliness. My girlfriends emailed words of encouragement. And all of our loved ones continued to offer prayers. While I felt alone, I was far from it.
Five weeks after Samuel was born--three weeks after he died--David went back to work. This was a huge step in continuing on with our changed lives. We were going to have to learn how to live in this new normal. What was this new normal? We had to learn how to be a mom and dad without our baby. We would have to learn how would we answer the question, "Do you have any kids?" We both had to experience Mother's and Father's Day. I had been planning my youngest sister's bridal shower during the pregnancy and was looking forward to wearing my little baby while hosting, playing pass the baby. How was I going to get through that weekend? Then there was my sister's wedding...and my cousin's wedding...and camping with our college friends... So many events that we had planned to share with our baby. How were we going to get through those?
Both David and I have embraced this new reality. It's taken time to learn how to walk into the fire, to allow ourselves to feel the sadness, feel our loss whenever it strikes us. But by doing so, I have discovered who I am as a mom. Sure, I'm a mom without my baby here on Earth, but I have learned how to be a mom with my baby in Heaven. Whenever we can, David and I visit Samuel's grave site (an hour or so south, sharing with his maternal grandparents' pre-purchased grave sites). We pray every day. We don't need to pray for Samuel--generally, we pray for people who died so that they may find peace in Heaven since we cannot be sure how long they are in purgatory. We know Samuel is in Heaven. He was baptized and 100% pure of sin since he was years away from the age of choosing to do wrong. Instead we talk to Samuel, asking him to pray for us. This has been a tremendous source of hope for me, and it's been remarkable helping me get to know my son on a spiritual level.
Throughout our journey, David and I have been very intentional with every decision about our response to the loss of Samuel. It has helped us find healing. It's helped us cope. The funeral was our last act of parenting. We were very deliberate in our choices of funeral directors. Deliberate in where and how Samuel would be buried. Deliberate in the choice of readings, music and ministers for his funeral. We were deliberate in all of our final gestures in regards to Samuel's body before the burial. After his funeral, as I mentioned before, I had moments of confusion and loneliness. But eventually I found more ways to cope, find peace and healing.
Most rewarding has been sharing our story of Samuel with everyone. Sharing on my blog was incredibly therapeutic. Before the blog, I finished Samuel's baby book to share with people at the funeral. We made a photo album of our 12 days with Samuel. David and I have a nice leather box that holds all the sympathy cards that we can read and re-read. We have "Samuel's Box," which holds his hippo onesie and footie sleeper, his hat, his blanket, his canula, pacifier, and all the other little things that were Samuel. We will be making a cardboard photo book of Samuel for his future brothers and sisters to read. When we have the land (hopefully soon!) we will be planting Samuel's Garden. David and I, and our future children, can care for the garden.
David's parents took a stone from their yard and had it engraved with "Samuel's Garden." That way grandma and grandpa can always have a tie with Samuel. All of these little things have helped me discover my new normal. They have helped me grieve to the point of acceptance and peace.
Every day is a new day. And every day has been different. But I'm so full of joy knowing my son is in Heaven. I have felt him comfort me. And for how crazy it sounds, I've even heard him call me mom in my dreams. I so deeply believe that Samuel brings a unique perspective to our family, a perspective that will hopefully teach our future children about the beauty of death, the power of community, and the grace and unconditional love of God. If there is one thing that Samuel has given, it is the laser-like focus on living a life worthy of Heaven. And for that I am grateful.