Fifteen years ago, a family friend experienced the beauty of birth and the tragedy of death.
About a year ago, she wrote the following blog post. She remembered that blog post today; and she has allowed me to re-post it here. I’m choosing not to use either her pen name or her real name.
Yes, you are absolutely allowed to shed a tear. But also admire this woman for her strength, her honesty, her convictions and her love.
March 9th, 2002. The date is a bookmark for my life. There is my life before and my life after. It is the day my dream to become a mom, after two earlier miscarriages, came to a crashing awful inconsolable halt. 14 years ago my beloved quadruplets – Joseph, Patrick, Mairead and Roisin – were born and died from prematurity. I went on after that day to survive. I survived holding them as they lived their short lives. I survived spending the night in the hospital with their four lifeless bodies in my room – the only way for me to have a precious few hours with them. I survived the funeral and burial. I survived the aftermath of the death of not one of my children, unbearable in and of itself, but of four, an entire large family. The “aftermath” involves so many experiences, emotions, and interactions with friends and family. It is strange territory indeed finding yourself also managing the reactions and emotional needs of others not all of which are entirely supportive.
I went on to continue living a full and meaningful life. I’m not curled up in a ball overtaken with paralyzing grief. I function. I love life and savor every precious moment of it. I gained a keener wisdom of what really matters. I did lose a sense of security that whatever “bad” life dishes out, or good for that matter, well, you can never take any of it for granted. I certainly never utter the words “it’ll never happen to me.” I’m more realistic about how I measure something to be really “bad” and am not moved to disappointment as easily. What counts, and what does not count, is pretty easy to recognize now.
14 years later they matter as reminder of how lucky any parent is to have children . . . to just have them. Far too many parents who don’t have children with real life issues and special needs worry and fret over things that don’t really matter when it comes to their children. Are they this or that, smart, athletic, succeeding and on and on. Complaints of how hard it is to have kids – so many routine burdens and so much work – have earned it the title of hardest job in the world. In my family, if the living kid, who does have parental expectations of good behavior and at least trying her best, wakes up happy, healthy and breathing we’re good. Even if she wakes up in a crappy stinking tween mood, we are still good in the grand scheme of things that really matter.
Because they were quads, I lost the opportunity to mother living quadruplets and all the excitement that would have surrounded them. I fiercely own my title of being a mom to quads. I’m just one of many moms of high order multiples that have died. With all the attention on living multiples there is, after all, a group that reflects the tragic side of the worst risk factor high order pregnancies pose – death. Within a week of their deaths, I was introduced to at least 4 other families who lost triplets. There are a lot of families with not so happy endings. In this regard, they matter 14 years later as a lesson repeated far too many times in the world of infertility and reproductive medicine. 14 years later they should be blaring trumpets of guidance to patients and doctors alike making decisions on how aggressive, or not, they should proceed. Because of the way the pregnancy ended, which I won’t go into on this post, they matter also as a reminder of the level of care needed for moms and babies when such pregnancies occur.
I quickly learned I lost my ability to think simplistically: “things are meant to be”, or “not meant to be”, “there is a reason for everything”, blah, blah, blah. “You’re not given anything you can’t handle.” The last sentiment is truly wrong as not all bereaved parents survive mentally, financially, marriage-wise and even sadly life-wise. Platitudes making the speaker feel better simply ignore the fact that sometimes really really bad things happen for absolutely no reason at all. Some do have reasons but not ones that can be explained satisfactorily with “meant to be” sentiment. It’s okay for survival in the aftermath to have no time line and no set of predictable “stages” like a cookie recipe. Parental bereavement and the aftermath is messy, unpredictable and long, life long.
My blog is entitled “Scribble Journey.” The concept of life being a scribble of events first came up for me after the quads when fellow loss moms in my support group chafed at the concept of the stages of grief. They described experiencing grief, and bereaved parental grief in particular, as more like a giant scribble – up, down, sideways and all around as our new lives were being woven and formed. The lines may seem chaotic but each actually held meaning and history. We were finding our way and rebuilding our “new” normal and it was definitely not being done in neat stages with a clear end. The end people urge usually are ones of moving on, letting go and the like. It’s okay that this scribble goes on for the rest of our lives because bereaved or not we all have a scribble journey. In grief, it may be more intense and well, scribbly, early on. As I’ve found it gets more calm as time moves on but intense moments remain even years up the road. Some are expected like when the class of 2020 graduates I will think of my four who are not there. Some are quite unexpected and hit without warning.
Something as cataclysmic as the loss of a child will impact your emotions and experiences as you move through your future. You cannot control this. Not every moment or event stirs emotions of grief or even thoughts of the child that died. Some however do and it can’t be prevented. We are human and memories of our child and the loss of the child in our family cannot be erased. This normal reaction shouldn’t be equated with failing to move on or let go or “heal properly.” It is just the truth of being a bereaved parent.
After my daughter was born, two years after her brothers and sisters died, I realized even innocent small talk about kids can be fraught with difficulty, and guilt trips. “Yes. She is my only child.” Ugh did I really just deny their existence? “Sorry dear babes just could not go into “all of that” with some mom on the playground.” She’s not my only and yet she is an only and that is okay. I learned to call her my only living daughter. It goes over lots of heads and others get it. I don’t say it for the listener’s benefit. I say it to quell the guilt that comes when a mother denies, by omission, that they were, they existed, to avoid that conversation and all its awkwardness. One of the best pieces of advice from a friend, and fellow bereaved mom, was to look at it another way: don’t feel guilt, our deceased children deserve better than explaining their story during small talk in the frozen food aisle. Truth.
They matter to my living daughter, and yet they don’t, and that too is okay. When she was born I had to make a parenting decision concerning the quads and their baby sister. Would she live in the shadow of them or not? I certainly did not want a harmful impact of “all of this” on her as her mother. My parenting of her as a baby sibling to the quads started earlier than anticipated as I quickly realized I had to stop people from saying things around her like the gem from my next door neighbor: “see bad things happen for good reasons – she is your good reason!” Even in pregnancy these she’ll “make it all better” sentiments were being uttered. I had an ultrasound tech blurt out in response to hearing my doozy of a pregnancy history “well, this baby will make all that bad stuff disappear!” My mom instincts kicked in. I knew I had to stop the instant cosmic connection people wanted to make between her life/living and the quads’ deaths. Stop it for her sake. This was a big moment because at that time I was really into making sure they were acknowledged. I hope these things were being said as ill thought out efforts to comfort but all I could think was “sheesh what a burden for a kid to shoulder!”
I decided to tone it down in terms of the quads when it came to my daughter. As an adult the enormity of the loss of quads was hard to wrap my own head around. I couldn’t imagine a kid joining me lock, stock, and barrel on the journey. It was my journey not hers to walk. Is there a right way to parent after loss? Who knows. We scribble through the best we can.
My daughter has a right to figure her own way with “all of this” too. Two years ago at her 4th grade Open House waiting for me on her desk was a completed fill in the blank canned poem. It was the piece that was to be the wonderful take home for the parents. It included the line “I am ‘an only‘ child, sibling to ‘no one‘” she wrote the italic words in the blanks. The words sibling to “no one” stung and no amount of letting go or moving on or accepting the “meant to be’s” 10 – 12 years prior would have made that moment any easier. Yes, it sent a dagger through my bereaved parent heart but I never forgot in that moment that I was also this daughter’s mom. What do you do? Well first, you don’t let your loss and hurt ruin her poem or her moment of pride showing it to you. But it opened the door for a teachable moment once home for both of us. I mentioned the poem and her siblings to see where she was with her comfort level of acknowledging them. She explained that having to explain them in class or in a project is something she just doesn’t want to do. “It’s too . . .” “Complicated?” “Yes, too complicated.” I don’t blame her at all and support her position. How could I not, it’s what I experience when asked the “is she your only kid” question! Who wants to get into that conversation especially when you are kid. I’ve come to terms as her parent and the quads’ mom that she has every right to decide where the quads belong in her life because it is complicated.
14 years later I’m not deep in raw grief. I’m madly in love with my daughter and being her mom but they still also matter. Not a day goes by that I do not think of them. Yet plenty of days go by where I don’t speak of them. As March 9, 2016 approached, 14 years later, I mentioned them and remembered them and got at least one not so subtle message back from a close relative of the importance of “graciously” “letting go” of things “not meant for me.” The “for me” added extra insult to injury. Simplistic thinking can be so thought-less. And 14 years later having my feelings of missing them and need to remember them on their day be dismissed as not legitimate hurts.
I lost two sons and two daughters. “Irreplaceable Children” is the engraving on their headstone. The only real loss that truly matters is each one of them lost their individual lives. They each lost a future and all it means to be human. If each human presents potential to contribute, to create good, to make the world a better place, we will never know what they could have accomplished. We know they never got the chance to experience all that life offers. 14 years later their deaths matter because of what they and those whose lives they would have impacted lost.
Infant loss is still taboo. We talk about other people who die. Parents, spouses, siblings, friends. We remember them, speak of them, offer toasts to them, talk of them watching over us. We include them in celebrations. No one gets all nervous and awkwardly quiet when someone states that “dad” is “up there” smiling down because his favorite team won the big game. No one makes judgy snarks about being stuck in grief if you ponder that mom is shaking her head or “rolling over” cause we’ve added onion to her world famous recipe. Isn’t that the promise we make? Never to let them be forgotten. Even beloved pets fall into the worthy of being remembered category in our lives. They’re all waiting for us at the Rainbow Bridge after all, right? We miss all of them and it’s ridiculous to question this.
But infants? It gets a bit more quiet. Maybe the quiet is a reflection of how awful those deaths seem to others. They are. Yet there’s no greater truth than this: all the bereaved parent wants is that their deceased child also be remembered, be mentioned, be celebrated. We want the fact they are missed, even years later, especially years later, to not be so surprising. It’s not an invitation to offer unsolicited bereavement advice. Wanting this is not failing to move on or let go of something “not meant to be” any more than mentioning any other beloved who has passed is. Talking about and remembering our loved ones, human and even animal, that have died is so normal. Why wouldn’t we? They mattered. And years, and years, and years, and even more years after they are gone, they still matter, even the babies.