Recently, in my doula and childbirth educator training, I've had to do my coursework on death. I knew it was there... I knew I'd have to do it... I know that you cant talk about birth and pregnancy without discussing death. As my instructor put it so clearly, death is a part of labor. And she's right. When 25% of pregnancies end either before birth or shortly after the baby is born, death truly is a part of labor. And, since my specialty will be working with parents as they are delivering a child who has already passed away or who is not going to live long after birth (or, later on, parents who are pregnant post a loss), it makes sense that the death aspect of my coursework is one that I'll need.
But that doesnt mean it wasnt hard. Really hard. Harder than I had anticipated.
Part of it was that, when I started those chapters, I was gearing up to attend a funeral for a baby who had died. I dont know the family. Their information was given to me by another local blogger. I knew it would be tough to go, but I also remember the strangers who attended the funerals of our children. I didnt know them... They had either heard about us or knew someone close to us, and wanted to express their sympathy and offer support. It really touched me that people cared, even when they didnt know us. So, I wrote out a Mass card and slipped in a prayer card, and got dressed to go. It was a half hour to the church, which gave me time to reflect and meditate. I was okay... I got to the church and stepped inside. That familiar smell of flowers filled the air and I felt my chest start to tighten. But I was okay. I filled out the guestbook and waited in the receiving line. When the baby's uncle asked who I was, words stumbled out, and he thanked me for coming and supporting his brother and sister-in-law in their grief. Finally, I was face to face with the parents.
I recognized the look on her face. She had sat down because she could no longer stand. Her husband held her hand, trying to stand for both of them. Her eyes were glazed, her look far away. I spoke to her, and she nodded and tears fell down her cheeks. I knew that look... That why look... Why my baby? Her daughter wasnt premature. She was full term and went in for a scheduled c-section. Something went wrong. Her uterus ended up tearing and, somehow in the delivery, the baby was deprived of oxygen... She never recovered. (You can read the full story here) It was a shock to read... This couple fully expected to bring their daughter home a few days after her birth... There was no reason to think they wouldnt. And then... the unthinkable. The unimaginable. And they were at her funeral.
The father hugged me. He thanked me for coming and for praying for them. I almost lost it then. In his grief, he thanked the people who were there... I dont remember being able to find too many words at our childrens' funerals... Thank you was one phrase I do remembering uttering. His words brought it all back. But, still, I was okay.
But that tiny coffin. With that beautiful little girl inside. I felt my chest tighten and my body go cold. I stood there for a moment, asked God to watch over the sweet little Saint whose body was contained within, and slowly walked away. I didnt stay for the service. And I barely made it to the car before I sobbed.
As I left, I went back to my life. I went to the bakery and got fresh bread, to the local farm and picked up free range meat and raw dairy products. I came home and made lunch for my family. I talked to Peter about Bobby and Maya's tumbling class that we'd gone to earlier in the day. We played, we hung out, dinner was made and fed, the kids were bathed and put to bed, and I sat down to start on some classwork and listen to the archived lecture.
I made it about 2 minutes into the lecture before I turned it off. I read a paragraph of the lesson and a few pages of one of the books before closing them. Not happening. I just couldnt do it. I thought of reading ahead and doing something different, but instead, I just stopped.
But, Tuesday, I decided that I would get back on track and get busy. It took me a few hours to listen to the 45 minute lecture. I'm glad it was archived because I wouldnt have made it through the entire thing live (not and retained any information). A lot of it is stuff that those of us who have lost children know already, especially if we read up on infant or pregnancy loss afterwards or, in my case, became active in the ALI community. Diseases incompatible with life... Prematurity... Miscarriage... Stillbirth... SIDS.... Helping the parents afterwards... What to say.... What not to say.... How to help.... Remembering that the parents arent the only people you are supporting, but the baby as well... That the parents have rights.... That the baby has rights... One of the parts that really struck me was that the instructor, near the end of the lecture, talked about the baby's rights. The right to be named, to be held, to have formal recognition of their life and death. "If the parents cant hold the baby, then you hold the baby." Those words stuck out in my head. She's right. Everyone grieves differently and I've met plenty of parents now who regret that they couldnt hold their child- that no one held their baby. If we hold their baby, if we take mementos and photos- even if we hold onto them for months or years- then, when that parent is ready, there is something... In my dealings with orphaned parents, some of the deepest anguish comes from not having held their babies, named them while they were with them (although many name them afterwards), not having funeral rites (or knowing that those rites were available to them), and not having any photos/mementos of their baby/babies. If, in the most horrendous thing they have to do, I can help alleviate those "afterpains", then it is well worth my own journey.
Something else she mentioned was taking care of ourselves as birth assistants. Talking it out, writing it out. That it is okay to be grieved by the process. It was really validating. One of my fears was how will I deal with the pain that I'm feeling. Obviously, the pain of the parents is the most important, but I know that I wont leave births where babies die unscathed. Hearing her say that and offering advice for how to handle the emotions I will have was extremely helpful.
The thing that really hit me when I finished the assignment was that this really is what I'm meant to do. I've struggled with how to make lemonade so to speak. I've accepted that my children have died. That death is part of birth. That I was blessed to have them for the moments I did and that, just as the Spirit door swings to let life into this world, it swings to let life exit it. That I would do it over again if it meant mothering them all. I've accepted that their deaths were part of their lives. And, truly, although my heart will always hurt and I will always miss them, I am at peace with their deaths. I carry them with me. Forever. Always. I am thankful that Bobby and Maya are here with me because it does lessen the emptiness of parenting children who are not physically with you, but I would like to think that, even if I hadnt been able to deliver children who lived, that I would have eventually found peace. But, beyond that, I wanted the impact they had on me to help others. It's one of the reasons I blog; I do it for me, too, mind you. It is helpful and has brought me into contact with wonderful men and women all over the world. It's one of the reasons I got involved with Face2Face. But, the biggest thing, is Mending Heart Bellies and my training to be a doula and CBE. That is Nicholas, Sophia, Alexander, and my miscarried babies coming to life in this world. It is because of their lives and the experiences of being their mother that this has come out... My lemonade, I suppose.
But I know the days ahead will come with storms. They must. You cant support families dealing with loss and death and expect to walk out into the sunshine. But, if I can let them know that there will be sunshine... one day... even if it is only peeking out from behind dark clouds... then it will be worth it...