There is a powerful impact in being present to those who are grieving, of not being afraid to enter in to their sorrow and spend time with their loved one in that lonely place. A bereaved mother longs for this as she mourns her child.
“Do you want to tell me about your loss?” Nine little words that bring me startling relief. I am at the dentist, carrying – as I usually do – the soft blue baby blanket that was wrapped around John Paul Raphael for all of his 1,690 minutes of life. It is my comfort, the one thing I can carry when I can’t carry him. The hygienist comments on it right away.
“Did you bring your blanket?” she chuckles in her Caribbean accent. “Are you cold?”
“We lost a baby 3 months ago,” I reply quietly. “It helps me to carry it around.”
“I’m so sorry,” she says and I expect that to be it. It tends to be a conversation stopper. I refuse to feel bad for sharing my uncomfortable truth, but people mostly don’t know what to say next.
After she finished getting my tray prepped, she paused and said, “Do you want to tell me about your loss?”
Oh, my heart. The tears fill my eyes again two days later as I write this. Those nine words are such a gift to me as a lost and invisible grieving mother. You see me, I think. You recognize and hear that something is not right with me. You have wisdom to suspect that there may be some giant, invisible wound that you cannot see, but you don’t want to make it worse by not acknowledging that it is there. You are not afraid of me or my baby and you are willing to enter in. I treasure this.
You see, this child that is not here anymore, this baby I cannot hold – he is still alive to me. Alive in how I think of him all the time, long for him with every breath, ache for him in all I do. He is gone with such brutal finality and yet not gone at all. He is present to me in the massive baby-shaped hole that was blown out of the center of me. In these early days of grief, the enormity of this emptiness overwhelms me. It covers every part of who I am and how I feel and what I can do or where I can go and if I can speak. It alters my identity so that I feel like an imposter. If I walk into the gym or the school office, I may appear to be the person you know and remember, but I am really NOT.
I am awkward and uncomfortable and anxious in these months after my baby died when it is no longer possible to hide in the safety of my home. My husband is back at work and the demands of my day to day responsibilities require that I return to the land of the living in some way, shape, or form. I walk around my daily life with what feels like a huge deformity. I feel raw and naked and exposed. I am scared of handling my emotions with others. Will I be able to talk about my baby and still breathe? I expect the weight of grief and the cavern of my barren arms to repel people around me, for them to step away and hide their eyes.
But this doesn’t happen. People DON’T see. They DON’T notice. They DON’T ask. And it isn’t that I want attention, but I feel so profoundly NOT NORMAL that it is hard to understand why people aren’t staring at me, children whispering innocent questions to their mothers and pointing shy fingers. With the exception of my few dearest friends, there are no questions and no reason to talk about John Paul Raphael at all. The silence burns around me and I feel invisible wherever I go. In order to function in my life, I have to work so hard every day to look and appear normal and do the normal things that are required of me. The cavern of emptiness within me and the giant monster of grief that I carry everywhere are ever-present but somehow so imperceptible to others that I must be a master of illusion.
I have a moment of clarity when I totally GET the whole custom of dressing in black, of an official “period of mourning”. When you walk around wearing black mourning garments, you are not invisible. Your clothing announces to all those around you: Please treat me with care. I am not okay. I am not currently the person I was and I may never be again. It gives me permission to not attend social events or make idle chatter in the check-out line. It offers explanation for why I may be standing immobile by my car and staring into space. It reminds you why I have not answered your text, called you back, or signed up to bake cupcakes. I would actually love a mourning veil to cover my tears and red, swollen eyes. In losing a cultural tradition of mourning garb, Lisa Levy writes in her article Women’s Expressions of Grief that “we have lost a way to identify the grieving and give them the social space or human comfort they might need.”1
I long to talk about my baby. I long to hear his name and say his name. Grief is a ravenous beast and is only satisfied when I spend time with John Paul Raphael in my mind and heart, by bringing him to life in whatever way I can. I realize as the weeks tick painfully by that I don’t get to talk about him because no one asks. Out of respect or fear of upsetting me or ignorance, I don’t know. I understand and am not angry. I am not sure I would have known what to say or do before now either. But the longing to bring him to life and to know he lives not only in my heart and in the heart of my husband is SO DEEP. Sometimes before we fall asleep at night, lying face to face in our bed, one of us will say, “Tell me about our baby.” We follow a ritual of speaking his life to each other – His name was John Paul Raphael. He was born at 10:33 a.m. on January 4th, 2018 and weighed 4 pounds and 1 ounce. He was 18 inches long. He lived for 1,690 minutes. He had the softest skin and a cry like a little bird… Warmth spreads through me as we bring him to life in the love we share, proclaim if only to each other how he was HERE. He was real and his life mattered.
I spent 2 days away with my daughter this past month at a horse ranch in Pennsylvania. We spent a lot of time with the owner in the barn and on the trail. I felt this girlish excitement heading up there that being in this new setting meant this stranger would probably make polite chit-chat and want to know if I had other children. I could tell her about John Paul Raphael! Not a big drawn out emotional story, but at least speak him into life for a brief moment. Say his name. Have that awkward exchange, but affirm the truth that he was here and alive and was real.
She never asked. The whole trip came and went and I cried with my husband when I got home because of this unfulfilled longing to tell a new person about our beautiful child. Being a bereaved mother is all about unfulfilled longings. One of the easiest ways to bring a tiny bit of relief to us is to speak our child’s name. Write his name. Text his name. Make a pretty marker drawing out of his name. Don’t worry about upsetting me or making me cry. I am going to be upset and cry whether or not we talk about my baby. If you bring up my loss and ask how I am feeling or just say you are thinking of my child and say his name – please know you are HELPING me. It is a relief and a gift and a comfort and I will smile while I cry and share about our sweet baby.
So, thank you, kind, gentle dental hygienist. I’m sorry that I do not even know your name. But I am grateful, SO grateful, that you asked if I wanted to tell you about my loss. I do.
1. Levy, Lisa. (2014, Dec. 10) Women’s Expressions of Grief, from Mourning Clothes to Memory Books retrieved from https://daily.jstor.org/women-and-mourning/