I kept asking when I would start to feel better. I am a person who likes concrete answers, but no one seemed to know the answer to my question.
This was 26 years ago, in a support group I had joined after my first baby died. The other day it dawned on me that had my son, who had a congenital heart defect which surgery was unable to repair, lived, he would be the same age now as I was when I had him.
When he was born, many of my friends weren’t even married yet and none had children. Consequently, after he passed away at 10 days old, they did not have any words of wisdom, nor did they know how to comfort my husband and me. So we turned to a support group full of strangers who had also experienced similar losses.
Their stories were equally heartbreaking and horrifying. One woman’s daughter had died of a lung infection two days after birth; another woman had been sent home from a hospital to labor, however, her baby was in an undetected breech position and would be stillborn.
The other couples wept and shared their sorrows. I shared but did not weep. I repeated the phrases that had been conveyed by so many friends and family: I was young and would have other children; my son was better off because he would’ve had a difficult life; we were lucky that we hadn’t known him long enough to get attached. But the truth is we did get attached: He was 8 pounds 14 ounces and looked like my husband and myself, and I had waited my entire life for him. I nurtured him, barely even taking Tylenol during my pregnancy, and went through a difficult labor and Cesarean section to deliver him. I felt so awful, so deeply depressed, that I could barely get out of bed some mornings, and I wanted someone to give me a specific date as to when I would start to feel better.
The facilitators who ran the group gently guided our discussions, but did not offer too much input. They allowed our conversations to evolve naturally—we talked about how hard it was to see other babies, how our empty arms ached, when we might be ready to try again. The woman whose baby died of the lung infection was already pregnant again when our group began and was dealing with a dying mother as well. Her strength and wisdom amazed me; outside of the group we spoke every day. Her calls were a lifeline—we poured out our souls and processed our grief together.
Session after session I listened but did not cry. I still wanted to know when I would feel better. One week a couple, who had lost a baby several years earlier and had had another baby since, came to speak to the group. They seemed happy, whole. I started to have hope. It was at a session shortly after that one when I started to cry. I wept as the others had wept. The facilitators later told me that I was the one they had worried about, the one with all the logical reasons why I shouldn’t be sad. I learned that sometimes you just need to be sad.
After our group formally ended, we all stayed in touch and got together periodically. The woman who was pregnant when our group began gave birth, and while I was thrilled for her, I knew she would be busy and would have less time for our conversations. I was wrong; she called me the minute she got home from the hospital with her new daughter. Her phone call was a kindness that, decades later, still touches me. She did not want me to feel alone, and even though she had a new baby, was not done mourning her first daughter.
Twenty-one months after our first son died, we were blessed with another son. A few months after he was born my husband and I were asked to speak to a new group of bereaved parents. I told the couples that there would be no exact date when they would start to feel better, that their sorrow would gradually lessen and that the lessening would likely continue over their lifetimes.
Mourning is not linear; it comes in fits and starts. You don’t wake up one day and say, “I am done mourning.” But I tried to give the couples a glimpse into their futures, which I assured them would be less painful. I told them they just needed to be sad for a while, that they shouldn’t listen to those who told them otherwise. While well meaning, much of the advice we had heard was not helpful, and in fact it had obstructed my healing process. I wasted too much effort trying not to be sorrowful when what I needed was to slog through the pain to heal.
I am still processing what happened so long ago, and I still think about my first son and the lost possibilities. But I am grateful for my three healthy sons and the laughter and happiness that found their way back into my life.