A few days ago, we returned home from the YES! Jam, a gathering here in Mexico that some friends and I began dreaming up before Rafael was even conceived. The Jam was an important milestone in my healing process since the plan had originally been to participate as a family. It was supposed to have been Rafa’s first encuentro with people from his extended global family of friends and non-blood siblings. The time was good and hard. There’s some gratification that comes with simply completing the gathering. This completion helps me to remember that time is passing, that I am still alive and moving forward. There is the lingering sadness that was more alive (or had more room) during the time we were together; our togetherness somehow made Rafa’s absence more present. There are questions about how much I should continue to self-identify first and foremost as a bereaved mother, asking myself if that is healthy or useful. There was space for anger (which I have struggled with letting out). There was this beautiful little one-year-old, Andino. There was also a fuck-ton of laughter and fun and joy! I felt bathed in the light of the community: the light of each person and the glow of our collective power.
And there is acceptance. This is life now, with all of its complexity. Complexity that’s always been here, I’ve just never lived it so fully. In this process of conceiving, gestating, losing, birthing and grieving Rafael, I’ve realized that countless (sometimes opposing) feelings, thoughts and perspectives can all live at once within me. It’s a wild ride, but it’s breaking open my understanding of the multi-dimensionality of our human existence.
Looking back, I can see how this web of paradox and contradictions became much more visible when I found out I was pregnant, one year ago yesterday. I lived my pregnancy surfing wave after wave of conflicting emotion and thought: from incredible disbelief to overflowing appreciation; from unwavering confidence to paralyzing fear; from resentment and clinging to my old ways of doing things to surrendering to the fact that nothing was going to ever be the same. Right after discovering I was pregnant, I remember putting my head in my hands and blurting out: “I have to get a job!” I was petrified by our lack of economic security… AND I was confident we would figure it out. I got better at taking care of myself over the nine months; AND I also worked way too much, churning all aspects of my life through the “to-do list machine” (a mechanism in my head that turns everything into one endless To Do list). Since Rafael died, I’ve learned a lot about accepting that this messy concoction of sometimes paradoxical experiences is part of the very nature of our humanness. It’s part of who and what we are.
Today, I want to share a random sampling of the different thoughts and feelings that I am experiencing all at once during this period of mourning and appreciation:
- This is the end of the world. I don’t want to live anymore. I don’t see how I can go on.
- This is completely normal. It happens all of the time. Life is really not all that different than it was before. Everything is just fine.
- I wish this had never happened! It’s so unfair! I am pissed as hell that after I let go of the possibility of having children, I then got pregnant, only to lose that baby after a perfectly healthy full-term pregnancy. WTF, universe!?
- I have a great life. I am so grateful for all of the people around me. I am thankful that Rafael came to this planet and grew inside my womb. I’m happy that I was able to have the experience of giving birth. I feel him with me.
- I feel forever marked by this and I don’t want to feel that way. I want to deny the many deep feelings that I am experiencing and just go back to my old way of living.
- I feel stigmatized by the outside world. I feel people are afraid and uncomfortable to talk about what happened and that, in turn, makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable and guilty.
- Is Rafa’s death my fault? Was it because I ate soft cheeses and ceviche during my pregnancy? Was it the lemon verbena I put in my water the week I was due? Was it the massage? Was it that I was too active? Was it my own fear of success? Am I not fit to be a mother and that is why my son died in utero?
- Everything happens for a reason. I know that death was in Rafael’s path, that he was not meant for this world. There is nothing I can do or could do to change that. There’s a part of me that was never able to picture my son here, with us, especially in important events like the Jam. Rafa taught me so much just in the short time he was with us.
- If I just can get pregnant again, everything will be okay.
- I’ll never get pregnant again. This was it. I’m too old.
- I don’t want to get pregnant again. Life’s too risky when you love another being that much.
- I am happy I don’t have a tiny infant to take care of right now. It allows me to do a lot of things that I wouldn’t have been able to do if Rafa had been born alive.
- I have disappointed everyone and caused so many people grief by not being able to give birth to a living child.
I feel deeply ashamed and embarassed by several of these thoughts. I am acutely aware that many of them are not rational AT ALL. This is where I begin to see that as much as I might prefer it, intellect and rationality are but a tiny sliver of what I am capable of experiencing in this, my human form. It’s in the messiness that we find we are alive.
Right after the birth, I started experiencing something that I call “the pendulums.” One of these pendulums swings between the polarity of feeling that everything happens for a reason and this wouldn’t have happened to us if we couldn’t handle it and, on the opposite pole, suffering incredibly because things did not go as we expected. Both of these experiences are true and worthwhile and even need one another to exist. So far in this blog, I feel like I’ve been presenting myself as a bereaved mother who has been deeply changed by the experience of having her son die inside her, one who maybe only sees the positive side, only takes away the life lessons. That is one facet of me, for sure. But there are a lot of other dimensions within me that are just plain sad and mad and depressed. These “ugly” feelings are present with me every day. They also need a space. They want to be expressed, recognized and accepted.
I know that I have to live, fully awake, through the pain of grief, sorrow, longing, confusion, depression and rage. I also know I will learn as I pass through these feelings. But I need to remember not to jump to the “making the most out of this” place too quickly. I must stay present in feelings. Eight weeks after Rafa died, I went to a workshop on gestational and neonatal death and grief. The most significant learning I took from that experience was that there is no playbook for grieving a dead baby. Everyone responds and reacts in his or her own way. The “stages of grief” seem to have been a construct used to help us feel more secure or as if we are traversing known territory, when really we may be bouncing around from feeling to feeling in a tangled mess of emotions and experiences that don’t make sense to the analytic mind.
There is also no need to compare our experiences with others. Shared pain has the capacity to create empathetic bonds when we speak and act from our lived experience in the first person without expectation of what it should or could be. But one of the things that I’ve noticed a lot in myself is a propensity to compare myself to others: “Well, it must not be so hard for them to process the grief of their baby dying because they have other children.” Or “I don’t have it as bad because I’ve never experienced the joy (and challenges) of having a living child.” Sometimes I feel angry and resentful when I see people who have children but don’t really want them or whom I deem to not be able to take care of them. Pretty awful, eh? These comparisons don’t really serve much in the end. Earlier this month some acquaintances had a baby girl who never began breathing after birth. A mutual friend of ours said that the couple is doing really well now, just a few weeks after their daughter’s death. Part of me feels outraged: How could they be doing well? But then I remember my own advice: everyone gets to have the experience they’re having. It’s not necessary to judge or compare.
AND… and… just because there’s no ‘right’ way to do this, does not mean that we do not have a lot of work to do collectively to create and hold collective space for the grief that comes from the death of a baby (or any grief for that matter). More than advice, self-help books, one-off workshops and sympathy cards, we need to build strong containers in our societies for all of the responses, reactions, feelings, emotions, questions, confusions and learnings we might experience in this process. We need ritual, ceremony, circles of conversation. We need to shift the way that we talk and act when it comes to miscarriages and perinatal death. It is something that happens in one out of every four pregnancies! Maybe we need more open spaces to share experiences. We need to learn together how to speak with both frankness and reverence for what has transpired, not only as a terrible (and therefore apparently unspeakable) tragedy and not only as a source of learning and growth, but as both of these things (and more) at once. I wonder why there isn’t more ease and openness when it comes to grief, letting it flow, knowing feelings will come and go, allowing it to be all it is, in its messy, chaotic, beyond-reason way. It seems like our hearts would benefit a lot from more spaces where everything is permitted: everything all at once.
Circling back to the beginning of this post, to me the Mexico Jam felt like just such a space: one that let me be all of my contradictory and confusing selves. I look forward to co-creating and participating in more powerful gatherings that make space and time for every single person’s stories, feelings, experiences and forms of expression.