I’m standing at the edge of the playground making small talk with another mom as we watch our kids on the play structure. I point out which children are mine.
“Three girls, huh? Are you going to try for a boy?”
The question is innocuous enough. A half joke with a smile. But inside my stomach twists a little. A tiny arrow of pain stabs me.
I take a breath.
Do I go there? I quickly decide, No.
I’m not up for that conversation this morning. Nor the feeling that I’ve revealed too much and am standing naked next to a complete stranger.
Instead, I take a sip of my coffee and sigh with a smile, “Oh we’re done having children.”
The truth is, I did have a boy.
Five years ago, I gave birth to a stillborn baby we named Bode. Although his life was brief, his death plunged me into the somber world of lost babies and powerful grief. A place where people speak in hushed voices. A place where my husband and I grieved a child no one else met—the invisible boy we didn't bring home from the hospital.
At nearly six months pregnant my water broke. I spent four anguish-filled days in the hospital feeling my son’s somersaults and hiccups while willing my body not to go into labor.
On day four, I awoke to stillness.
Our baby had died in utero, succumbing to an infection his tiny body could not fight. After twelve mentally grueling hours of labor, our son came into the world: tiny, perfect, and quiet. My husband and I rocked him in a hospital baby blanket, marveled at his golden eyelashes, his wide feet like his daddy and his piano-long fingers like mine. His small body was flawless. We kissed his head and said goodbye as the nurse wheeled him away along with the broken fragments of my heart.
Later that day, I exited the hospital empty-handed with a soft belly, bleary eyes, and a body stiff with shock. I thought the worst was over. However, nothing could prepare me for the tumultuous road of grief ahead.
Enduring a late-term loss brings with it the same things that new mothers experience: breast milk comes in (but there’s no baby to relieve your swollen breasts), healing from delivery, the six-week postpartum check-up (where you quietly suffer in your doctor’s office with a group of women and their gorgeous round bellies) and raging hormones coursing through your body. While the physical healing was challenging, it was the emotional aftermath that left its indelible mark on me.
Miscarriage and stillbirth are touchy subjects most people avoid. Pregnancy loss is abstract. It’s invisible. The theoretical child. There isn’t a baby that everyone knew to mourn. Our friends and loved ones didn’t know what to say or how to help us. It was easier to say nothing than bring up the awkward subject. In many ways, we were left to grieve alone.
Grief is a complicated thing. A quick look at the definition states:
Grief (n.): a deep sadness.
My definition would be more like: a multi-faceted, unpredictable emotional roller coaster that includes shock, anger, jealousy, sorrow, anxiety, hopelessness, loneliness, and acute sensitivity.
Grief is complicated. All those ugly feelings you know you have, but mostly keep at bay? Well, they came roaring to the forefront for me. I became a person who hated pregnant women and new babies. I avoided baby showers and pregnant friends and even “trying to get pregnant” friends. I would steer clear of potentially emotional situations for fear of unleashing the unpleasant emotions I was trying to bury.
I was afraid the “old me” was gone. I wanted to find joy again. To fast-forward through all the pain and get to the other side quickly. I was afraid to fully immerse myself in my grief for fear that I wouldn’t be able to come out of it.
Yet the emotional wall I put up didn’t make me feel any better. I fooled people into thinking I was doing okay so they left me alone. I made every effort to keep my emotions in check and appear that I was strong and resilient. Instead of protecting myself, I ended up feeling isolated and depressed, a shell of the person I had once been.
I was home alone one afternoon feeling particularly sorry for myself and I remembered something I had read years ago in one of my favorite books, Tuesdays with Morrie. Mitch Albom quoted his wise and dying friend, Morrie Schwartz:
“If you hold back on the emotions—if you don’t allow yourself to go all the way through them—you can never get to being detached, you’re too busy being afraid.”
I allowed myself to have an incredibly powerful cry. I let go of my fear and allowed the grief to permeate me. I wailed. I pounded on the ground. I prayed to God to help me because I couldn't help myself. Depleted, I laid down on the floor and stared at the ceiling. To my great surprise, I felt better. It was as if the heavy burden of grief had lightened a bit.
Through my period of grieving, I learned that you must allow yourself to go into the darkness to find the light again. You must move through the muddy water, slog through the deep, ugly muck in order to find air. It was painful and exhausting. I often felt like giving up. There were times I'm sure I made people uncomfortable with my honest emotions. Still, I learned that it was important to acknowledge my sadness and dwell in that shadowy place as long as I promised myself that I wouldn’t stay too long.
As time passed, I found I spent less time in the darkness. Instead of being paralyzed by my grief and living in limbo, I was able to let go of a lot of the negative feelings and move forward.
So, no, we’re not going to “try for a boy.” We have a boy.
He may not be physically here, but his brief existence has had a pronounced impact on who I am now. Because of him, I know what it truly means to love, to lose and to survive. Because of him, I have been able to connect with others who have suffered loss and hold their hands as they bravely walk the crooked path of grief. I understand that grief is messy and lonely and exhausting. I also know it does not need to swallow you whole. You must allow yourself to move through it in order to let it go.
This isn’t to say the heartache and pain of loss goes away. Like a tapestry, my loss is one of the many threads that makes up who I am. Sometimes it is bold and glaring but nowadays, it mostly blends in.
There’s no timeline for healing and the grief can reappear when it’s least expected. Even after six years, three healthy children and joy now dominating my life, I can still get teary-eyed thinking about my baby boy.
Most days, I feel brave enough to talk about him, even to strangers.
This morning at the park, I didn’t. That’s ok too. Loss is heavy and some days I simply don’t want to dip back into it. I’m at peace with needing to guard myself as well. I’ve done a lot of hard work to get here.
Yet when I do open up and revisit those feelings of grief, I am less afraid. Because I know there’s light waiting on the other side.
Guest post written by Nicole Fisher. Nicole is married to a real-life MacGyver and lives in Salt Lake City. Between parenting three spirited girls and juggling a job in the adventure travel industry, she daydreams about finding stolen moments to write. She believes in God, the runner’s high and the health benefits of coffee and chocolate. You can find her on Instagram.
Photo by Emily Gnetz.