“In April this year, at 38 weeks pregnant with my second child, I met a friend for lunch. We talked about how I’d get around New York City with two kids and how my friend was excited to be an auntie again. I ate an especially fatty meal, knowing the calories were going to a good place—to help my daughter’s brain development and weight.
What I didn’t know was that my daughter had actually died earlier that morning. Later, around midnight, after what I had thought was a normal day, a sonogram showed a black and white blob of static, unmoving, rather than the beating of her little heart.
The next day, I delivered my baby. She was as perfect as a newborn can be, except for the tight knot in her umbilical cord.
That was the day I was introduced to two concepts I had had very little experience in: stillbirth and grief.
Grief has been called a journey, but a journey implies an endpoint, a destination. I’m certainly not the first person to find the analogy of an ocean more apt: Grief is being thrashed around by the waves, trying to come up for air, trying to find land, trying to last one more day in a world where you are not a fish—a world that you never wanted to visit, where you shouldn’t be, but where you must learn how to swim.
Acute grief—as psychologists call it—which happens in the earliest stages of mourning, is almost unsurvivable without a lifesaver. You literally cannot breath as you scream. You may undereat to the point of malnutrition. You may not sleep a wink—or sleep all day.
Today, nearly six months out from my loss, I am (mostly) past that point of grief. Today, I can look back on that time thanks to the friends who saved me by throwing me lifesavers again and again. Some were ships who veered off course to pick me up when the waves were too tumultuous. Some were simply nearby swimmers who encouraged me with a shout. Together, they helped me to shore.
To the friends who brought food to our house, most of your food went to my husband and son. Thank you for feeding them when I could not. But some of it went to me. During a time when the action of bringing a fork to my mouth often seemed like too much effort, I could stomach the apple cobbler for dinner. A container of tuna salad gave me enough calories to make it through the day.
To the friends who went on daily walks with me, you helped me heal physically and learn to appreciate my body again. Stillbirth makes you hate your body, which betrays you first by killing your own child, then by producing milk, then with the stretch marks and the linea nigra that won’t fade. Thank you for not telling me that I was lucky to lose my baby weight so fast and for knowing I would have gladly worn it as a badge of birth if only I had something to show for it.
To the friends who listened to me talk for hours, and then days, and then weeks, and then months about nothing but my grief, for once, I have no words. Telling my story again and again was healing—my therapist called it ‘processing the trauma’—and you listened with each rendition. You listened as I told the birth story, and you listened as I cried her name. You listened when no words came out, and you listened when I sat in silence.
To the friends who opened up to me about your own losses, whether they were baby loss, infertility, loss of a marriage, loss of the life you once knew, or any other kind, many of you followed up with apologies for taking the focus away from my grief. Please know those apologies are not necessary. We all suffer loss in some way, and allowing those losses to connect us rather than separate puts their power to good.
To the friends I met in my support groups and Facebook groups, I loved you before we met in person or talked on the phone. But I hate that we know each other. But I love that I don’t have to explain that statement or worry that you’ll be offended because we all get it. The secret handshake of our club is a look of emptiness and a teary hug.
To the friends who protected me at social events, you gave me a safe place to go when I could no longer make small talk. When grief had taken over my brain so I couldn’t care about seeing people or meeting people or talking about anything other than my daughter, you slipped me aside into a room where I could cry and tell you something about her. Then you walked out the door with me without so much as a goodbye to anyone else and took me home.
To the friends who had babies around the same time, thank you for understanding my jealousy and not holding it against me. Thank you for understanding why usually I couldn’t hold your babies but sometimes I couldn’t put them down.
To the friends who didn’t know what to say, or who said, ‘Maybe it’s not her time yet,’ or ‘Things happen for a reason,’ or ‘Just stay strong,’ it’s OK. Really. Nobody knows what to say. I hope you never learn from experience what to say (or not say).
To the friends who emailed, wrote, called, and texted, thank you for remembering that grief is not finite. Thank you for continuing to check in after weeks and months. Some days, when sadness overwhelms me, the most helpful thing is acknowledgement that this is a terrible experience and that my daughter did exist. Your messages are gulps of air that keep me afloat on those days.
Six months after our loss, I have learned how to keep my head above the ocean of sadness most of the time. But a tug from a baby nursing in the park, or from a little girl twirling in a dress, or from a book by an author with the same name as my daughter—any of those situations threatens to pull me back under. You are my lifesavers again and again. Thank you for making sure I’m still breathing. I hope I never have reason to do the same for you, but if I do, you have taught me well.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Laura Forer of New York, New York, in honor of October being Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Do you have a similar grief journey you’d like to share? We’d like to hear from you, for others to know they are not alone. Submit your story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.
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