A sister in loss.

A few days ago, a woman came into my workplace to take care of some business with a coworker. We started to chat while she was waiting, and it was a typical conversation between strangers. You know; the weather, the news, our husbands, etc. Then she asked the question I was dreading from the moment our conversation began:

“Do you have kids?”

I panicked. This question is by far the hardest thing I am asked on a daily basis. I never know what to say, or how to say it. But on the other hand I’m grateful they ask because I do want to talk about my daughter. I just despise the way people often respond.

“I have a daughter, but she passed away about a year and a half ago.” I said shakily.

And then I stared at the floor and quickly cracked a joke about how I also have a dog, who I treat like she is my second child. Which is how I always follow up my answer to the “kid’s question”, because people are often quite visibly relieved when I change the subject. For the general public, talking about how my daughter died is just too uncomfortable for them to navigate.

But when I looked up, she stared at me with tears in her eyes, grabbed onto my hand and said, “I am so sorry. I lost my son right after he turned eighteen years old. I know your pain, and I’m sorry.”

I stood there for a moment, shell shocked. She caught me completely off guard. I had become so accustomed to people clamming up and quickly changing the subject when I explain that I am a bereaved mother. But this woman wouldn’t let me switch topics and gloss over my loss. Instead, she chose to open her heart and sit in this messy, emotional moment with me. Just like that, this woman who was a total stranger a few seconds ago had turned into a sister in grief.

“How old was she?” She asked.

“Only an hour old. She was very sick at birth.”

She blew a kiss towards heaven and said, “Oh, sweet baby girl” and put her hands over her heart. I could see the sincerity all over her face.

“How long has it been since your son passed away?” I asked.

“Eleven years. He died two weeks before he was supposed to graduate from high school.”

I told her I was very sorry, and we stood there for a few moments with our red and misty eyes locked onto each other. We then nodded in unison, and continued to go about our business.

The moment was brief, but I can’t tell you how much that conversation meant to me. The impact changed my entire day. I suddenly felt like I was no longer at work, but in a community where I belonged. A place where I was understood. For the first time in what feels like forever, someone was seeing me for me, and not the brave face I plaster on each morning. She saw the tears I was trying to blink away. She heard the subtle shake in my voice when I told her that my daughter had died. And she felt that same searing pain in her heart when she heard that I too had lost a child. It was beautiful and heartbreaking all at once, which is really the best way I know how to describe bereaved motherhood.

Even as I rocked on my knees, howling. I detected soft breathing behind the roaring. I leaned in, listened. It was the murmuring of ten million mothers, backward and forward, in time and right now, who had also lost children. They were lifting me, holding me. They had woven a net of their broken hearts, and they were keeping me safe there. I realized that one day I would take my rightful place as a link in this web, and I would hold my sister mothers when their children died. For now my only task was to grieve and be cradled in their love. – Mirabai Starr

A post about feelings and being heard.

Your feelings are valid. Your feelings are valid. Your feelings are valid.

I don’t think the grieving hear that enough. Actually, I don’t think people in general hear that enough.

After my daughter’s passing, as I began to grieve the loss of my only child, I was constantly facing this belief that I needed to grieve in a way that was neat and tidy. It needed to be linear, and I needed to rise each day feeling better than the last. People began preaching platitudes about time healing all things, and telling me how important it was that I handled this gracefully.

After the first few months, I found myself feeling guilty for not improving each day. I would have days of great joy only to find myself incapable of getting out of bed the next day. This wasn’t the journey with grief people had been describing so I wondered, what was I doing wrong? I was also getting frustrated that instead of always walking on the bright side, I often turned to bitterness and anger. I didn’t want to be that kind of person, and I never had been in the past. I wanted desperately to change that, but I just couldn’t find the strength to move beyond it. The littlest things would send me into a tailspin, and well meaning but poorly worded comments would cause anger and resentment to well up inside of me. I felt so devoid of grace and I couldn’t stand it. I knew people weren’t intentionally trying to hurt me, so I tried really hard to suppress my anger but that only made it worse. I felt like I was constantly being forced to forgive people who weren’t even sorry, or were totally unaware of what they had put me through.

David Augsburger, an American author and theologian once said, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.” And the truth is that it wasn’t just the comments that were upsetting me, it was that I also felt like I couldn’t voice my feelings without someone misunderstanding or becoming defensive. I just wanted to be heard because it made me feel like people cared. It’s not that I didn’t know I was reacting in an extreme way, but I had also been through an extreme loss. It’s completely normal to want to fly off the handle over things that most people wouldn’t bat an eyelash over.

While time hasn’t healed my wounds, time has allowed me to become intimately familiar with my grief. I have developed such an understanding of it that carrying it no longer feels as heavy. So now when someone says something I don’t approve of, I analyze it. I ask myself if it is worth correcting, or if that would only create a bigger divide. I also think about where that person is coming from, and what they are walking through that may have caused them to be a little less understanding. If I can’t come to my own conclusion, I consult someone I trust who can talk through the situation with me. A lot of times, just being heard by someone is enough for me to extinguish the fire in my heart. There is immense healing power in being able to say, “This hurt me.” And for someone to simply respond with, “I understand.”

So I want you to know, your feelings are valid. Even when they are selfish. Even if they are tinged with jealousy. Even if they are mixed with wounds from decades prior. Even if they don’t fit the mold of grief that people are telling you to fill.

The important thing is what you do with those feelings. I encourage you to find a safe, and secure space to express those feelings where you won’t be judged or chastised. This blog, counseling, and confiding in friends and family have all been excellent ways for me to do that. They have helped me find appropriate responses to those feelings so that I could prevent them from continuing to weigh me down. Truthfully, I think that is something we all could benefit from, whether we are grieving or not.

Dreams

The other day Brian was helping me in the kitchen as I prepared dinner when he looked at me with glistening eyes and said, “What would she be doing now?” He didn’t have to specify who “she” was or what exactly he was asking, I already knew.

“She’d be talking. Not a whole lot. But several words by now I’m sure.”

“Would she be walking?” He asked.

“Walking? She’d probably be running by now.”

I watched the corners of his lips turn up just slightly, like his proud smile was some kind of secret he was trying to keep inside of him.

This pride we feel is an interesting thing, and not easily understood by those who have not been where we are. To think about all the growing and thriving she could be doing right now if things had been different brings so much mixed emotion. The most apparent and obvious are the negative ones, the pain, the longing. The ones that form tears in my eyes and an ache in my heart. But there’s a pride in imagining her growing up, and the joy that would have brought.

Sometimes, for the briefest of moments I pretend it was all different. I ignore the fact that she never came home from the hospital and let myself imagine what it would be like if she were racing around the house with our dog, Lana in tow. My ears fill with the symphony of tiny footsteps and excited squeals. I close my eyes and watch her black hair bounce in the air as she plays. Oh, it feels so good to imagine how those curls have grown since the day she was born. I sit there in that joy for just a moment. And then…

The weight of the world falls back onto my shoulders, and reality floods all my senses like a rising tide, washing all my dreams away.

But that imaginary joy, it still left its mark on me. A hope for what is to come. On that day when that little girl turns around and sees me standing at the gates of heaven. One sweet day.

Until then, I will do my best to thrive here. To build something beautiful from the wreckage that became my life nearly eighteen months ago. And I’ll dream, because no amount of anguish can take that from me.

I’ll dream about life on this earth. I’ll dream about growing old with my sweet husband. I’ll dream about having more babies. I’ll dream about having a farmhouse with a bountiful garden. I’ll dream about finally living next door to my best friend. I’ll dream about holidays surrounded by family.

But most of all, I’ll dream about her until I won’t have to dream at all.

I’m scared of feeling relief.

I posted two days ago about picking the day we would pack up Aria’s room. I haven’t been able to stop the topic from swirling through my mind ever since.

I felt strange after setting the date. I liked the certainty in knowing when that day would come. I could prepare and brace for it, and that felt like a good thing. There was also a lot of sadness as I thought about the reality of never seeing Aria’s room again. It’s the place I run to when the sadness overwhelms me and I need to feel close to her. It is the only place on this earth that I feel totally surrounded by her, and to lose it is incredibly tough.

There is some part of me that looks forward to the day we will pack everything up. I have known for over eight months that this day was going to come. I have spent a really long time dreading this day. It’s been a huge dark cloud that looms over me every time I walk past her room, or spend a few minutes sitting in her rocking chair. I have to constantly remind myself that much like Aria, this room would not be here forever. So a part of me looks forward to no longer having to walk through life fearing this day. I want to let go of this because I have carried it on my back for so long and I just want to feel a little lighter.

But how can I want this? Seeing all the hope we had poured into her room get packed up into cardboard boxes is going to shatter my heart. How could this ever be a good thing?

I guess what I am trying to say is, I feel like letting go of her room is a lot like letting go of her. I know that is far from the truth, but it’s a tough feeling to shake. I don’t want to dishonor Aria’s memory, and I don’t want to distance myself from her. I don’t want to be happy about letting go of something so connected to my memories of her.

And yet… I have hope. I have hope that packing up and starting over in our new house will bring us a lot of joy. I have hope in the possibility of a few of Aria’s things eventually finding their way back into our home, to be used for her future siblings. I have hope that doing all of these hard things will bring us one step closer to a brighter future.

Aria’s Story: Ramen Noodles

{I have decided to start writing snippets of stories and memories from my pregnancy and Aria’s birth, to celebrate and remember our daughter’s brief life, and to document all of our memories.}

I’m not quite sure where it came from, but suddenly around 10pm at night, I felt the strongest craving for ramen.

I’m a pretty healthy eater, and this is usually very high on my “Absolutely Not” list of foods. But I was ten weeks pregnant, and I needed ramen, and I needed it right away.

The only problem? We were vacationing on a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean. So you can imagine my husband’s reaction to my request. At first, he laughed and said “I’ll get you some ramen as soon as we get home.”

Oh no, my sweet husband, that is not what I meant. I said there had to be ramen somewhere on this ship! It was huge, and there were tons of kitchens on board! We were going to satisfy this craving!

Brian quickly left the room on his quest for ramen. He was half annoyed, but also half amused. I honestly think he did this more for the baby than me.

So, I laid in bed in our cabin, still fighting off a horrific combination of morning sickness and seasickness, and waited for him to return.

Did he find the glorious package of top ramen that I was convinced was hiding somewhere on the ship? Nope. But he had a good story, and that helped.

Apparently, he assumed his best bet was the gift shop. Which was actually a pretty good guess since they sold a lot of candy, and a decent assortment of snacks. It was pretty similar to the food selection at a gas station, and they do tend to sell packs of ramen. He didn’t see any at first glance, so he turned to the sales associate and asked if they sold packs of Ramen or even a cup of noodles.

Unfortunately for Brian, this woman was from Russia, and had no idea what he was talking about. So Brian tried to explain in detail what a cup of noodles was, and how you make it, hoping she would understand. It didn’t work. She just stood there, totally bewildered. She was probably also wondering why this guy wanted to make some weird dried noodle, and powdered broth concoction on a ship with several dining rooms, and buffets.

She then directed him to the buffet, and suggested he tried some of their pasta. Unfortunately, that wasn’t exactly what he was looking for.

Brian went to the buffet anyways, hoping that there was a small chance they were serving something that could satisfy my craving. But it wasn’t meant to be. So he returned empty handed.

Although I was very disappointed then, it’s so funny to me now. I felt like a crazy person! All I could think about was ramen. That craving actually lasted a few weeks too! My food cravings were one of the most interesting, and entertaining parts of my pregnancy. I think they actually made us bond with Aria even more.

Saying goodbye to his little girl: A father’s love in pictures

This coming Father’s Day is the first for my husband, Brian. With all of my heart, I wish it were drastically different for him, and that our daughter was here to celebrate with us. I wish she could finger paint a Father’s Day card, and help me make him pancakes for breakfast. I wish he could walk along the beach holding hands with the little girl who made him a Dad. As much as my heart aches, I want to celebrate my husband this Father’s Day. I want to honor the beautiful connection he shares with our daughter. I want the world to know that death does not negate his role as a father.

I took a photo of Brian kissing my belly just before our daughter’s birth, and a few photos of him with our little girl shortly after. Aria Noelle Rose was with us for a little over an hour, then quietly passed in my arms. I took these images as Brian said goodbye, not because I wanted to remember the pain, but because the love in his eyes was incredible. He cared for our little girl with every ounce of his soul. For me, the emotion in those images are the very definition of fatherly love.

He has granted me permission to share these images with all of you. They are very personal, and raw. I ask that you view them with the utmost respect for his vulnerability in these moments.

RITAB4RITAB1RITAB2RITAB3

 

Our hope in sharing these images is that they help break down the stereotype that men do not grieve as much as women. We want to send the message that there is no shame in grieving, breaking down, and crying.

If you know a bereaved father, please reach out to them this Father’s Day. Let them know you are thinking of them, and their child has not been forgotten. Our society too often neglects bereaved fathers. Many men walk a very difficult path after loss, because they don’t feel they are allowed to be as open with their feelings. There are also far less opportunities for grief support for men than women. If there is one thing Brian and I want you to take away from this post, it is that fathers grieve too.

To every bereaved father, It is our hope that you are able to find a way to celebrate on Father’s Day – no matter how small. You are an incredible Dad, and you deserve recognition.

Fatherhood, from the very beginning. (A wife’s perspective)

With Father’s Day rapidly approaching, I have started thinking a lot about fatherhood, especially as it pertains to bereaved fathers like my husband. A few days ago I recalled a phrase I’ve heard several times through the years.

“A woman becomes a mother when she learns she is pregnant, but a man doesn’t become a father until he holds his child for the first time.”

You know, I really hate that phrase. I’m not a father, but it even feels like a slap in the face to me. It’s so dismissive, and really belittles the incredible connection that men share with their unborn children. This is the very reason men have such a difficult time understanding their emotions while grieving the loss of a baby, whether it happens early in pregnancy or shortly after birth.

Let me tell you this, my husband became a father the moment he learned I was pregnant. His journey began when our daughter was the size of a sesame seed. I can say this with great confidence because I have walked this path alongside him every single day of our daughter’s brief life, and beyond.

When I was just five weeks pregnant with Aria, our doctors warned us that our pregnancy may not be viable. They couldn’t find a heartbeat, or any evidence of a baby inside the gestational sac. My hormone levels, and the date of my last menstrual cycle led them to believe I should have been far enough along to see much more development than that. After a week and a half of worry, Aria finally allowed us to see a glimpse of her on the ultrasound, and her rapidly beating heart.

But while we were in that limbo period, waiting to find out if I had miscarried or not, I watched my husband behave exactly as a father would. He drove home from that doctor’s appointment with tears streaming down his face. He was already in love with our child, and we had only known I was pregnant for a week. The thought of losing this baby was devastating to him. In that moment, to tell him he wasn’t actually a father would have been grossly inaccurate. He had never met our child, he didn’t know if we were expecting a boy or a girl, and he didn’t even know if this baby was going to survive – but he was a father.

He fathered our daughter throughout my entire pregnancy. He took care of me as I battled horrendous bouts of morning sickness, and fetched whatever food I could stomach at the moment without a single complaint. He enthusiastically helped me assemble her nursery furniture, and even made a shopping trip to Babies-R-Us on his own. He spoke sweetly to my belly, and loved feeling her little kicks. He prayed for her, planned for her, and hoped for her from the very beginning.

When our daughter was diagnosed with CCAM at our anatomy scan, he stood bravely beside us. He went to every single high risk appointment, which involved two hours of driving once (and sometimes twice) a week, and a lot of time away from work. I never once asked him to do that. In fact, I told him not to worry about it every. single. time. But he felt very strongly that Aria needed him, so he was going to be there. That, my friends, is what a father does.

By the time Brian held Aria in his arms for the very first time, he had already been a father for months.

And let me tell you one more thing about fatherhood, it does not end.

He did not stop being Aria’s father when she took her last breaths. He did not relinquish that bond when her heart beat for the very last time. In fact, his love for Aria has grown exponentially, and completely transformed since she left this world. He is still her father, and he still fathers her – no, not in the typical way, but in a way that is unseen to the naked eye. He is fiercely protective of her memory, and constantly searching for ways to grow her legacy.

He is Aria’s father – he has been from the moment she was conceived, and always will be.

Photo Nov 10, 11 43 32 PM

Brian after setting up Aria’s crib – November 10, 2015