The First Year of Grief

Early Days

Waking up the morning after Cody’s funeral was ……. surreal.

Surely this wasn’t true.
Surely it wasn’t happening to us.
To me.
It must be someone else’s nightmare!
Head-shaking-disbelief.
Pinch-yourself-shock.

Despair.

And suddenly – the cry of a toddler hungry for Weet Bix!

Reality like a splash of icy cold water hits me in the face!

Conflicted emotions tug at my heart strings and threaten to rip them apart.
Part of me wants to lie prostrate on my baby’s grave, as close to him as possible.

Part of me can’t bear the thought of leaving my toddler and husband.
I am needed.
But I am empty.
Everything I had to give poured out of me with my tears.

But give I must.

In a robotic trance I go about my day, doing what must be done. And nothing more.

I just want to sit in utter silence, rocking back and forth,
Weeping for my wee one who is with us no more……

Remnants-of-a-short-life-unshackled

And so began day 6 of my grief walk. Sometimes it felt more like limping. Or lying down in the foetal position wishing the world would go away and leave me alone.

I honestly don’t think I changed a nappy for the first two weeks. I don’t remember cooking, or doing anything practical at all.

I just remember the tears. Waking up in the middle of the night, finding myself standing in the darkness of the kitchen, sobbing with gusto.

Other times the tears were silent, invisible even; falling within, unseen by other eyes.

I had a framed photo of my son, which I would sometimes clutch to my chest, but its hard wooden frame, cold glass and pointed edges were a stark contrast to the warm softness of a baby’s skin; a painful reminder of what I was really holding. Sometimes I would kiss the photographed image of my son’s lips, but between us was the cold, hard pane of glass. There was to be no more physical contact between me and my son. I was alone.

I vividly remember the first time it rained. I had a panicky, irrational, frantic, desperate desire to rush to the grave and rescue Cody from the falling raindrops, falling like tears upon the now sodden, muddy ground. I couldn’t bear the thought of his grave getting wet. I wanted to keep my baby dry. My tears fell like raindrops and there was no umbrella large enough to stop their wetness getting through to every part of me.

Such was the madness of maternal grief.

Til Death Do Us Part?

Grieving for a lost child, while parenting another child, and somehow navigating the tricky waters of shared parental grief, is a minefield of potential disasters. Geoff and I promised we would always be honest with each other, and refrain from the desire to “be strong”, or pretend. But we found that was easier said than done. The natural tendency, when one of us seemed to be doing “okay” and the other was falling apart, was to try to shield them from the intense emotions. That shielding could easily become a wedge that divided us. The intention was good but the outcome not always so.

I still remember the intense loneliness on Geoff’s first day back at university, three weeks after Cody died. A friend’s presence provided temporary comfort, a partial distraction from the life that lay ahead.

One of the things I learned throughout all of this was how differently men and women grieve.

I cried, I wept, I sat by the grave. I drenched my friends’ shirt sleeves with my tears. I shared numerous cuppas, walks, talks and tissues with supportive sisters. I often looked through the little collection of memorabilia from Cody’s short life and treasured every card and photo and keepsake even though they drew out my tears. I journalled my feelings, shared my thoughts, and sought comfort in the care of friends and family.

My husband’s grief was, for the most part, shut away behind his relentless effort to support me and be strong for me. When it did come out, it was often an angry grief. He yelled himself hoarse as he drove home from work, he threw things, he visited the midwife to plead desperately for answers, he shut himself away in a cave, he avoided the grave, he tried to be strong and supportive for me and yet struggled with volatile emotions that scared even him.

He didn’t get anywhere near the support from his mates as I got from my friends and family. I’m not sure whether his angry emotions scared them off, or if it’s just what blokes do? Take him out for a beer and talk about the footy.

“She’ll be right.”
“How’s the wife?”

I don’t for a moment doubt their compassion. I think they were simply products of a society that just doesn’t know how to handle male despair. I remember reading once about a primitive ritual in a far off place where a grieving man chooses a tree from the forest, and takes out his despair upon the tree with a machete, then throughout the days, months and years ahead, he visits the tree and observes its gradual healing, a symbol of that taking place within himself. I have read of cultures where men construct the coffin, often beginning with the chopping down of a tree. The physical outlet for grief, I imagine, is a significant part of their grief journey; an outlet so desperately needed for the huge emotions impossible to contain.

I think Geoff felt much more alone in his grief than I did in mine. Why is it that guys find it so much harder to show compassion towards those who are suffering? To take the time to really find out how they are going, and lend an empathic listening ear rather than a slap on the back with a beer in the hand? Why do people in general assume that a father grieving the death of a newborn doesn’t suffer as much as the mother? Why do they ask how a man how his wife is going, rather than asking him how HE is going?

Dads grieve too.

Help!

Whilst we at times tried to shield each other from our darkest days, we were also a lifeline of support from which we each gained incredible strength. We went together to a SANDS Support Group. We went together to grief counselling. We were a team. We were partners in this shared nightmare.

It was at counselling that we were challenged to consider the idea that always agreeing with each other, shielding each other, and thinking we could be each other’s “everything” was a bit “1950’s-ish” and that it was okay to be disappointed in each other, angry with each other, real with each other.

I think we’ve progressed well beyond the 50’s now. 🙂

The SANDS Support Group was certainly another lifeline, especially at first. It was amazing to walk into a room and find a group of people that had some idea of what we were going through.

Family and Friends

One thing that was strange for me was laughing. It didn’t happen much, but when laughter erupted it felt almost….inappropriate.

Our family and friends seemed to like it when we laughed or seemed happy though, because it made their job easier. Evaluations of me being “strong” were unhelpful to me, because it wasn’t always true, and I didn’t want to feel pressured to make it so.

It is hard to hang around with someone who is experiencing emotions that we deem “negative”, and who is morose a lot of the time, so I am deeply thankful for those friends who could manage it.

In fact, to be honest, I felt an incredible amount of support from my family and friends. I felt their compassion and love deeply. One or two people in particular were a strong lifeline of support for me.

There was a time, though, when I began to realise that this was really hard for them, too. We had “lost” our baby. They had lost their happy, fun-loving friends and in a way, they had lost Cody, too. It was amazing at times to visit the grave and discover that someone else had left some flowers or a toy there.

Strangers and Acquaintances

I remember walking through a shopping centre once, and feeling as though I was encased in a big glass box. People could see me, but I felt completely disconnected from my surroundings. I couldn’t believe that the world was going on around me as though ours hadn’t just ended. I was almost offended in a way, and felt like shouting out, “Do you not realise my baby just died!!!”

Everywhere I looked there were pregnant women or parents with newborns. I’m sure there hadn’t been this many previously! And whilst I could sometimes cope with it, there were other times when, seemingly out of the blue, I would burst into tears.

One day a new lady came to my women’s Bible Study group, and she had a baby boy who was about the same age as Cody would have been, which was 7 months by then. My other friend who’d had a baby 2 weeks before me, and had been an incredible support, was obviously there with her little boy too. The babies were old enough to be very cute, and everyone was laughing and enjoying these two baby boys. And I just lost it! It should have been Cody! Our two boys were going to grow up as great mates. But not any more.

There were strangers who said the most ridiculous things, such as, “You’re lucky your baby didn’t live for six months! Imagine how hard THAT would be!” or “Hmmm it’s been six weeks. You must be feeling better” or “God must have loved your baby more than you did” or “God needed another angel in heaven”. I could go on.

And then there were the strangers who gave love. Empathy. Understanding. Grace.

Pregnant!

One of our dreams had been to have a large family, with our children born closely together, so we knew that the longer time marched on, the more salt would be rubbed into our Cody wound, because we would end up having two siblings with a big age gap. Travis was 21 months old when Cody died. We decided that we didn’t want to wait too long before having another baby for Travis to play with, and for us to hold.

It was complex, though.

In no way, shape or form, did we see a subsequent child as a replacement for Cody. Such a thing would be impossible! And undesirable.

But we didn’t want to live forever with this extra wound of widely spaced children, when we had desired them close in age.

So, against advice, we went ahead with….. Well, let’s just say I was pregnant again eight weeks after Cody died!

We were absolutely ECSTATIC with the news that we were going to have a baby. In fact, we wanted it so badly that we just kept repeating the negative tests until we finally got the positive result we were looking for! I think we got 3 negative results until finally, on the fourth day, we got the result we were looking for!

Our joy and elation was tempered by our grief and sadness. It was complicated and messy. It was hard to separate the two situations when I was experiencing them simultaneously.

We were in the early stages of grief.
We were in the early stages of pregnancy.

We chose to cease attending SANDS meetings. Listening to the variety of tragic tales of things that had gone wrong and which had resulted in the death of a baby was doing my head in. I needed to do all I could to believe that this baby might actually live! Focussing on all those pregnancies that had resulted in death was not what I needed. There were also people at the meetings who minimised our loss because we already had a toddler and were now pregnant again.

It is ridiculous to try to compare losses.

One thing that was hard about our situation, in spite of the blessing of a toddler and another pregnancy, was grieving and parenting simultaneously. I didn’t hide my tears from my now two year old son, but the extent of my emotional expression was restrained somewhat by his presence.

One thing that was very difficult was his innocent assumption that this baby would die. It was all he knew. Mummy had a baby in her tummy, the baby came out, the baby died and everybody cried. A lot.

I still remember the day he said, “Mummy, when THIS baby dies and goes to heaven in a helicopter……” Sigh.

Pregnant-with-Brady-unshackled

We ended up walking the path of memories, taking him to the same hospital where Cody had been born, to visit a friend who had just had a baby boy, so that he could see what the end result was for most people. To get to the postnatal unit we had to walk right past the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where Cody had been treated. I almost vomited.

Grieving the death of one baby, whilst growing another, was complex. Conflicting.

Throughout the pregnancy, I would often place my hand on my growing womb, feeling an immense depth of love for this new baby, accompanied by a sense of guilt on Cody’s behalf. Was I betraying him? The womb which had been his but weeks ago, was now inhabited by another.

Could two babies, two pregnancies and two extremes of emotion co-exist?

I was very fortunate that we were in grief counselling throughout this first year, because I had someone who was paid to listen to me! I mean, I had my friends and family too, but they were also grieving. It was great to be able to go to our counsellor and be totally real and honest, knowing that he didn’t have an attachment to our loss. Although he did at times get very angry when we explained the circumstances of Cody’s mismanagement. One of the most beautiful times was when our counsellor lit a candle for Cody, so we could remember and honour him together.

Our plans for this pregnancy were quite different to the last one. Whilst we still thought a natural birth was absolutely desirable, we also realised that one day of natural childbirth was worth nothing in comparison to a lifetime of grief. If I had to choose between the two, it was a no-brainer.

We opted for high level medical care from an extremely experienced obstetrician who had the bedside manner of a bull but the skill of an expert. He was also very open to natural childbirth! He told me I could give birth standing on my head if I really wanted to, provided I was on the bed. That was his only stipulation. It probably had something to do with him being sixty-three years old. 🙂

The pregnancy was, as usual, uneventful. But there was no way we were going to be able to cope with 42 weeks of it this time. We pre-arranged an early delivery by induction, which I had mixed feeling about. My induction with Travis had been hell. My natural birth with Cody had been easy(ish). But both Geoff and I knew that we were going to get more and more anxious as time went on, so as soon as it was safe to deliver, we wanted that baby in our arms: warm, breathing and alive.

At 38 weeks our obstetrician agreed to an IV induction, on the condition that if labour didn’t progress we could stop the procedure, with my waters intact. Half way through the day he examined me and smugly stated that nothing was happening, as he’d expected, so we’d be turning the drip off and going home, when suddenly, as he was completing his examination, WHOOSHKA!! Amniotic fluid all over him. 🙂

A Living Baby!

Brady-is-Born1-unshackled

Brady was born on 5th September, 1996, just three weeks shy of Cody’s birthday. During the pregnancy we had been interviewed on ABC radio by Richard Glover, about the death of a baby, support systems etc. and he had asked us to ring him on air when this baby was born, which we did. So Brady’s birth was announced far and wide on ABC radio, and it was such a joy to celebrate his birth in that way!

For the labour, I had two support people in addition to Geoff. We knew that if something happened, we wanted one support person each. People said we shouldn’t even consider the possibility, that everything would be fine this time, and that nothing bad would happen. We knew better.

What had happened to us with Cody was as rare as hen’s teeth. Umbilical cords rarely break in half during delivery. Babies are rarely left to fight for breath, alone, in a storage room. A freakish thing had happened once. We knew it, or something different, could happen again.

We had been real about this with Travis too. We never said, “This baby will not die”. The last thing he needed was false hope.

He needed to know we would be okay, no matter what. And that most babies don’t die. But yes, some do.

When Brady was born, my volume of tears just about equalled the amount I had cried when Cody died, but this time they were tears of pure joy. And when Travis came in to meet his baby brother? WOW!

Brady-meets-Travis-unshackled

 

Brady-meets-Travis-2-unshackled

The day after Brady was born, he was taken to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. I was absolutely shocked! I couldn’t see a foot in front of me as we made our way to the ward. A torrent of tears was blinding my vision.

This time, however, the problems were nowhere near as serious. He simply had “blood group incompatibility” which had caused early onset jaundice. But I tell you, going to that ward was the one thing I did NOT want to do. We were surrounded by babies fighting for their life, and I had to go back to my room to rest – alone. Although it was not life or death this time, the experience of being there was really, really hard.

Brady-in-NICU-unshackled

When we took Brady home from that place, our dreams were finally coming true. Our two boys in the back seat of the car together just looked right.

Anniversary

But three weeks later we had to face an enormous hurdle. The anniversary of Cody’s birth and death. I relived every moment. Moment by moment.

This time a year ago I was drinking castor oil to try to induce labour.

This time a year ago I was shouting out from the bathroom, “If this isn’t labour I think I’m going to die!” as the castor oil did its trick and brought on sudden contractions.

This time a year ago we were ringing the Birth Centre, so excited to know that our favourite midwife had just started her shift.

And so on.

I knew I needed to go to the grave.

I felt such guilt, almost that of an adulterer, sitting at my baby’s grave, holding my new baby. I had a little chat to Cody about it which helped. But I sadly think that this guilt caused me to hold back somewhat from bonding with the beautiful gift in my arms.

Grieving and Bonding

Every time Geoff would check on Brady when he was sleeping, I fully expected to hear those fateful words, “OH MY GOD, HE’S NOT BREATHING!” Every time I would hold my breath ….. and then finally exhale it with relief when I discovered that my precious baby was, in fact, still breathing.

When I would breastfeed him and he would fall into a deep sleep, with his body limp and his arms completely floppy , I would get flashbacks to holding Cody in those first two hours, with his heavy, flaccid limbs falling away from my embrace.

This desperately wanted and loved baby slowly crept his way into the depths of my heart, and is still there now. How blessed we are to have him. And our other children.

It has been a complex thought to realise that I almost certainly would not, in normal circumstances, have fallen pregnant eight weeks after giving birth to a 5 kilogram baby! So whilst Brady is in no way at all a replacement, his life is a gift that we may otherwise not have been blessed with.

And we are so very, very thankful. He is our silver lining.

Published by

Karen Lee

FAMILY: Married since 1989 (does that make me old?), a full-time Mum since 1993, and unschooling my kids since 2005. On a journey of learning to live free and fully loved as God intended, following Jesus rather than an institution or "religion". Caring for the world and its people as best as I can.

4 thoughts on “The First Year of Grief”

  1. I really cannot imagine what that journey was like for you Karen. I’m not sure if this is it in your writing about this but I am also interested in your experiences in being pregnant and birthing your 3rd and 4th children and if there was more in the story of how you continued to process Cody’s death. Thank you for sharing this journey so honestly, it was very raw but powerful to read.

    1. I don’t think I would ever run out of words, or things to say! I do have two more posts about my grief journey up my sleeve. One about finding forgiveness and the other about looking back on the experience, what I’ve learned etc, I imagine I could include something about the experience of having my other two children. Thank you for your kind words.

  2. This is a sad but beautiful post Karen. I can really relate to the part you wrote about not wanting Cody’s grave to get wet when it rained. I was the same. I hated the thought of Salome being alone at the cemetary when it rained. And it is sooooo hard to do that subsequent pregnancy, pregnant and grieving at once, and also parenting grieving children through the subsequent pregnancy, I can relate to that too. So bloody difficult and heartbreaking. The first anniversary of Cody’s death, I imaginen that would have been a really realy hard day. Thanks for writing this.

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