It’s now been 5.5 months since the loss of our daughter — more time than I was pregnant with her — and it’s shocking to me how often it comes up in my everyday life. Partly it’s because we’re at an age when everyone (everyone!) seems to be having babies left and right, and as our friends enter that new phase of their lives it’s all they want to talk about. But I think that partly it’s just that children and family are (rightly) a central fixture in society — so that a basic getting-to-know you conversation usually includes figuring out family relationships.
Last week I was at a conference, and got asked the dreaded “So, do you have kids?” question twice, once by someone I already know fairly well professionally, and once by someone I was meeting for the first time. Both times, I said no. I felt a little twinge of sadness and guilt when I said it, but I also feel like I’m moving into a new stage, a stage in which answering “no” represents a choice not to tell someone about my daughter, along with a recognition that either choice is OK, and that in different scenarios I might choose differently, and that’s OK too. It’s a matter of forgiving myself, more than a matter of how I feel about my daughter, I think. Saying “no” is a white lie, and we all tell socially convenient white lies now and than. It doesn’t mean I feel any less love for my daughter, or that I consider myself any less her mother, but that I’m making a choice not to share the deeply personal experience of my pregnancy and loss with a casual acquaintance.
The harder situation happened on the way back from the conference. I was visiting some friends I hadn’t seen in about a year — we were good friends in college, but have been sort of occasional and casual friends since then. They have two kids, a boy almost 5, and a girl who just happened to be turning two the day that I visited. I’ve always enjoyed visiting with them, and of course more recently playing with their kids. They’re extremely child-centered people, and naturally much of our conversation revolves around children — theirs, but also children in general. My husband and I have been married for a year and a half, so naturally people who don’t know about our loss are wondering when we’re going to start reproducing. These friends were clearly curious, but didn’t come right out and ask — they kept hinting, but not in such a way that I felt free to talk about our loss. For example, “You’ve always been so good with kids!” and “Do you have any any little kids in your life these days?” and when I told them we’d bought a house this summer with a yard, “Oh, yards are so great for dogs and kids!” We kept skating so close to the issue, but not quite close enough that I felt like I could say “Look, this is a sensitive subject, and here’s why.” So I just let the hints go by. I’m sure they would have been very empathetic if I’d told them, and I’m not sure why I didn’t… probably because it would have put a damper on what was otherwise a pleasant visit, and also because it would naturally have brought the conversation around to a focus on the sadness in my life, which I didn’t really want to do. Part of it is also a recognition that what I’m experiencing is clearly outside their experience, and I don’t want to put them in the difficult situation of having to comfort me from a position of relative privilege. I don’t know the details of what they went through to have kids, but I’m quite sure that if they’d had a late loss like I did, I’d know about it.
As the months pass, the way I feel changes. The grief is no longer quite so sharp, but it’s still far more present in my daily life than I would ever have imagined. I still feel intense emotional pain quite regularly (daily, or nearly so), but I’m more able to put it aside when I need to, in order to have “normal” conversations and interactions with other people. I haven’t lost it in public again, despite a couple of opportunities, although I’m not entirely convinced that I’m past that stage.
Friendships are hard to navigate. Since we’ve only lived in our current town/state for two years, when we lost our daughter we were just starting to become close friends with some of the people in our new life. Our loss changed that landscape. We disappeared socially for several months, and our new friends with kids (i.e., most of them) are understandably hesitant to bring up our loss. One couple that we were becoming friends with just announced their pregnancy with their third child, and they’ve been awkward (but in a kind way) when I’ve congratulated them.
Regardless of who has kids and who doesn’t, the friendships that have stuck and deepened have been the ones in which our friends have acknowledged our loss and talked about it. Those friendships don’t revolve around our loss, but I’ve found that I feel an uncomfortable tension until I’ve talked through our loss with someone. Once it’s been aired, whether that’s a single conversation or occasional check-ins, I feel a lightening, as though now that it’s been acknowledged it’s OK to continue our friendship, and if something related to the loss of our daughter comes up, it comes up, and I can say something about it, and we can move on. The hardest friendships to maintain have been the ones where our friends are too uncomfortable to talk about it, or so uncomfortable that they shut down if I say something, so that it’s a big silence — the elephant in the corner of our friendship. I’m not sure if I’ve expressed it well, but that’s how I’ve felt as our loss has gotten less raw and become more a part of our lives.
Some days, I feel like the 4.5 months that I was pregnant with our daughter were a dream. Our lives now look, on the surface, so much like our lives before pregnancy that it’s hard to believe that there was in fact a pregnancy, that we became parents, that everything has changed. But at the same time, I feel like an entirely different person than before I gave birth to our daughter. A sadder one, yes, but also a more compassionate one. Sometimes I’m a person who is more prickly and vulnerable, and sometimes I’m a person who is more gentle with my fellow humans, who is more able to put setbacks in perspective. Sometimes I feel like the world is a more uncertain place, like I’m less in control of my life, that life is less benevolent… but sometimes I also feel like our daughter’s brief life and death were so vivid that they have added another dimension to my experience as a human, that I am now participating more fully in life, in the pain of loss that is the other side of the coin of life. Our loss has changed me, neither for the better nor for the worse, but irrevocably.