“I’m just sad all the time. I lost my mom 5 years ago, and I feel like I should be over it, but I’m not.”
“I had a still birth 30 years ago. That’s when he started drinking. That was my first major depressive episode.”
The response to grief, in our society is often motivated by well-wishers wanting us to feel better, saying things like “time heals everything”, and “maybe you just need to distract yourself until you feel better”.
For many people who experience loss, they find that distraction only delays the grief. This can go on for years until it reappears as fresh as if the loss happened yesterday. When grief is ignored, or pushed down, like all ignored emotions, it comes out at unexpected and inconvenient times. Grief needs time, yes, but it also needs attention and intention. We have to do the work of grief in order to integrate the new reality into our lives, and eventually find peace.
14 years ago I lost my first born. We had been trying to conceive for two years before he came along. He was diagnosed with anencephaly at 20 weeks gestation. The doctors were unsure if it was genetic until they were able to do testing after his birth (it wasn’t) and so, we decided to carry to term, unsure if we would ever have a chance to parent again. My first impulse, upon receiving the diagnosis, was to isolate myself, and never leave my bed again. My partner said, “We have a strong community, this is the time to use them.”
I believed that if I spoke about my grief, I would have to go through the same intensity of feelings every time I spoke about it. To my surprise, it got easier and easier to talk about it, the more I did it.
My theory is that, as I shared, others were able to carry my grief with me, and that’s why it became lighter.
After the diagnosis, I started spending time each day, sometimes hours (we were living in a remote community and had no other children) journaling, praying and playing the piano. I was trying to connect with the child in me and grieve the impending loss at the same time. My partner, a high school teacher, spent his lunch hours writing letters to our son. I started making a quilt, by hand (I’d never done this before). My husband made a claymation (he’d never done that before) which imagined our child’s life in my womb.
Our son River was still born. We held a memorial service for him. We buried him near his great grandparents. My father built a cradle with a lid for his coffin and bed. At the funeral, many of the men stepped forward and did the work of burying him. Many of these men would not have had words to give us, but could put their grief and support into physical action in a meaningful way. It was very moving.
After River’s death, I continued to put time aside to think about him and process my grief. I worked on a baby book for him for one year afterwards.
Over the course of the year, I found myself needing less and less time to process.
Sometimes people would tell us how much good would come out of this loss. That used to frustrate me, as I would have given all that good to have my son back, but since then, I have been grateful to be able to share with others, who have had a loss like this, and to give feedback to others supporting those who have experienced this kind of loss.
The following year we organized a memorial service for parents who had lost children, and had the service between mother’s day and father’s day at a local church. I’ve since been able to share with nurses in training, midwives in training, and church pastoral teams, about supporting couples who lose a baby. Recently we told our story on CBC radio in a series about coping.
It doesn’t replace grief to do these things, but finding ways to support others has increased the sense of meaning in my life and meaning in the short life that was my son’s.
In hindsight, this was one of the most difficult times of my life, and it felt like it went on forever. I know now, that taking the time to honour his life, by allowing all the feelings that were there to come, was a huge part of what enabled me to find peace, and eventually laughter, again. Not many people have the amount of time that I had to process, but I do encourage you, if you are grieving, to take what time you can and not avoid your feelings, whatever they are (there are no wrong feelings to have, by the way). This is the work of grief. If you find you are stuck in grief, don’t hesitate to ask for help.
A book that we came across shortly after River’s diagnosis was A Mourner’s Dance by Katherine Ashenburg. This book provided inspiration for making space for grief in our lives.
*Please note: I have signed on as an affiliate sales person for McNally Robinson which means that if you click on the above link, and decide to purchase the book I’ve recommended, I will receive an affiliate’s fee. I only recommend books I have read and believe to be worth recommending.
For more about grief see Good Grief Work
To read about talking to children about death see Death Education for Children – Don’t wait for Grief
To learn about how grief can look like depression see When You’re Down