Consequences of losing a child – have I changed?

This is something I got obsessed with – how I’d changed or not because of what happened was a constant newsreel in my head. Every decision about jobs, reactions to family and in particular the parenting of my second daughter has been scrutinised as part of my ritual need to see proof of the awful consequences of Evie dying.

Something that unfolds over time are the multitude of consequences of losing my first child. Many are obvious but many more are often only really apparent as the months and years march on.

  • Having our second daughter so soon after our first
  • Having a c-section with our second pregnancy rather than natural
  • Withdrawing from our social lives
  • Going on antidepressants
  • Countless sleepless nights
  • A general  feeling of “everything is out to get me” and anxiety

These are some of the consequences of losing Evie. They are a mixture of negative, necessary and inevitable consequences of such a bereavement and not all of them are long-lasting or permanent, I can see that now. It’s the permanent ones that interest me the most, as they will be the permanent mark on my life that show how I’ve altered as a result of losing my first baby.

I do feel at times like I’m playing make-believe

I do feel at times like I’m playing make-believe, that this title of mummy is temporary and when the grown ups come back I’ll have to take off the heels that are too big and set aside the dressing up clothes of parents to rejoin the ranks of the immature. I don’t feel qualified to do this children malarkey and in some ways that is a good thing because it keeps me on my toes and fresh to adapting my parenting style to be to best I possibly can.

However I also feel like this parenting gig is temporary because I know the harsh reality of how precious life is, how short and how easily it can be lost. There is a big part of me that still thinks – “how long will I get to keep Poppy for?” “how long can the dream last?”. I still think it could all be taken away, she could die and I be back with nothing again. Just because I’ve had an awful thing happen once doesn’t mean it can’t happen again. I shouldn’t be so presumptuous to assume I can have what I want when it comes to having children. For those of us who live this reality of having our worst fear actually happen to us, we know how perpetual fear and anxiety of potential bad things happening to our children takes its toll on our souls and state of mind.

When Poppy was first-born I genuinely thought to keep her here it was my job to be close at all times and some how keep her heart pumping and her lungs breathing. It was exhausting. As the months have turned to years and she has proven she can stay alive I have slowly relaxed… slowly. I believed that if I stayed vigilant, alert and anticipated any and every potential illness, accident, bump and cough I was doing my duty to protect from harm my living child as I couldn’t with my first.

The truth is that you can never do it enough – and it doesn’t work. They still get ill, fall over, get hit by another child and bang into tables despite your best efforts. The best we can do is find a balance between our heightened sense of anxiety about our children’s health and well-being and a “normal” amount of worry. We have to tell ourselves we know the likelihood of them catching meningitis is small so don’t spend time every day worrying but make sure you know the signs. Remind ourselves we know they will very likely fall over when they are learning to walk, put pillows down, be with them and rub any bumped knees – they will be alright.

One consequence many bereavement parents find hard is that you cannot say to us: “don’t worry they will be fine, nothing is going to happen to them. This pregnancy will be fine, it’s not going to happen to you. It’s such a small statistic so don’t worry”. We have seen that the worst can happen, pregnancies can be fine and then not: we have been that statistic.We are very hard to comfort in the respect and have to manage a much bigger slice of fear than others might.

Surprisingly I believe there is one way my altered self is better now than if I hadn’t lost Evie – I do not take my second daughter for granted, not one bit. I marvel alongside her when it rains and stand awestruck at the magic of bubbles just as she does; I laugh at Bagheera’s head ringing when Baloo shouts for him at close range in the Jungle Book (a current favourite film) and learn the words to The Gruffalo’s Child slower than her sharp young mind.

I wonder at her development as the months progress and she masters the shapes and sounds of words and the art of stringing them together to be understood. Her indignation as another child pushes her and her effortless ability to forget how that felt when pushing others, both amuses and angers me as I educate her on the need to be gentle and kind. I hold close to my heart the knowledge of how fortunate I am to be doing this at all, how privileged to be responsible for bring up this beautiful child in this imperfect world.

I have a respect for my daughter that gives her a voice and right to her own feelings; I try to teach her emotional intelligence not just counting and animal noises but words like angry, sad, happy and I’m full. I love how opinionated she is and assertive, I’m excited to see how her fledgling personality and character traits will thrive and develop as she grows. I will enjoy her like I cannot enjoy my first and not get caught up on a mark on the carpet or whether the washing is put away. I will devote myself to her for both her and my own sake. I will take an interest in her in all things. I will soak her up like warm summer rays, take her in like nourishing broth and drench myself in her like an exquisite perfume.

The daughter that lived

Until she is fully grown and can possibly understand such things, I do not know if she will grasp how much she has inspired me to embrace life without Evelyn. She is my motivation to carve out the best life I can for her, myself and for my family. She makes me strive higher, work harder, moan less, understand more, and generally pushes me to achieve what I am capable of, an ability I thought I had lost. She has reignited a lust for life that I thought had been extinguished. A heavy burden indeed for such small shoulders but I hope she will understand it is more a gift she has given me purely by being here and there is nothing she must actively do that will ease my sorrows and patch me up. Her existence is enough to cheer and soothe me and I sincerely hope I do not make her feel under pressure to live up to my expectations of the “daughter that lived”.

You see these are my worries: that the ultimate consequence of Evelyn dying is a warped parenting full of pressures and expectations that are harmful or damaging to my second daughter. My sister told me that after she had her second child she realised that with your first you don’t know what you should be worried about so you worry about everything and with your second you don’t have time to worry about anything other than the stuff you know you should worry about. I can see the logic in her wisdom but for me it is not really applicable, if anything, worrying about my second supersedes my worries for my first. Nothing can hurt my first, I can do nothing more but there are many, many things that could go wrong with my second, too many possibilities for harm by others or by my hand that if I’m not careful it will paralyse me.

I remember one example of trying to balance my gratitude that Poppy is here at all and trying to be a balanced parent who doesn’t let her get away with everything. One day I shouted – yes I know it’s awful – but she was driving me mad by not listening and generally being a nuisance while I was trying to cook tea. I had banished her to the living room in a desperate attempt to continue the cooking – and an even more desperate attempt to ignore the judgement in my head that I was winning worst mum of the year hands down – when she came back in. She climbed up onto her kitchen stool, sidled up to me, leaned in and told me she loved me. In that instance my heart melted, all my frustration from the day vanished and I realised she loved me unconditionally. She didn’t care that I had been cross, she didn’t judge me or think I was a bad mother who couldn’t teach her to be a model two-year old (they exist, don’t they?); all she cared about was that I was hers, I was her mummy, that was enough.

Seeing me through her eyes was inspiring, it stopped me in my tracks and it dawned on me I needed to bank this moment in my memory for future reference when I was having a bad day and thought everything was wrong. This fleeting mystical moment would be my proof of everything that was right with me and my daughter, my ‘little treasure’ as I tenderly call her, my little beacon of light in the darkness of the past few years.

Keeping a constant check on whether my decisions, reactions, instructions and example for my living child are balanced is a tiring occupation but I do feel it has largely paid off. I do not think I am over protective above and beyond a normal parent, I think I am sufficiently laid back that she can explore and find her own way without me hovering over like a helicopter, nor do I think I stifle her or express over the top fears about the world around her (in fact sometimes Poppy having a bit more of a health fear for the world around her wouldn’t go amiss!).

SO I guess what I’m saying is that despite my tendency to doubt my own abilities and my battle for sanity since losing Evie, when I really think about it, I do believe I am doing a good job parenting my second daughter in the way I believe is right. Even saying that out loud is a huge achievement and one not lost on me.

Until next time… do what you can to find your smile

Lydia

x

My little treasure
My little treasure

Application to fully fledged motherhood – denied

Before losing Evelyn I would have said my rock-bottom was my parents’ divorce, taking exams or breaking up with a teenage crush that had rendered me heart-broken and I would have meant it from the very bottom of my broken heart. Such was my perspective that any one of those experiences would have definitely been in my top 10 worst-moments-of-all-time lists that we all mentally store. Truly the hours I agonised over upsets, results, arguments, my appearance, my weight, whether people loved or even liked me, now seem so insignificant. Yet at the time if I had been told that I would have felt the keen sting of those patronising words; feeling belittled and humiliated by my silly, inconsequential angst that did not feature on anyone’s compassion radar but my own.

This is how it is.

In each of our own lives we have a compass which navigates us through our personal waters, clear skies and squalls. It is finely tuned to our past experiences, personality, perception of the world and our place in it. The same event could happen to a hundred people and a hundred different accounts would be generated. We travel through our lives and this world alone, alone with our version of it at least. Our account of what happened and why, with our own adaptations, edits and renderings, is what helps us translate what happens out there into something meaningful inside. It is how we make sense of the world around us, it’s what makes us human and I am no different. In a cosmic nutshell, I am just trying to make my way, trying to make an impression, trying to love and be loved in return … hang on, that may be a quote from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.

So when my daughter died in the very moments I was bringing her into this world, birth and death mingled disgustingly close, beginning and end intertwined in some ghastly dance that she and I were forced to partake. We swayed and twirled, I waltzed into blind pain and agony and she pirouetted into death. The grotesque raw nature of dying was unceremoniously revealed to my husband and I like a Tim Burton movie. In gothic Victoriana scenes our beloved daughter, our firstborn, was deprived of oxygen at the point of being born and those beautifully formed muscles, organs and tissue filled with toxic gas. The horror of those moments, those visceral bonds of mother and child being ripped, torn and shredded will haunt me for the rest of my life.

If I can, I will tell you what happened; just give me some time.

The unscrupulous lens of Death makes things very clear and definite, it is ruthless in its ability to sift through the grit and leave behind only the most salient and significant parts of us; only our core necessary soul remains. Our fundamental substance is left, vulnerable to the cold, dark world like a climber exposed on a snowy mountain side, clinging on for dear life.

Life.

We cannot have it without its counterpart, we cannot be, cannot exist if there isn’t a time when we do not. It is how it has always been and always will be. We appear as a brief extra on the film set of the epic story of the world. Death humbles you into submission, shakes you up and alters you, puts you in your place and never lets you forget it.

When you have seen death it imprints on your mind indelible sights, sounds and smells that fuse to you like a watermark. It is always there in the background and colours everything with its undeniable shadow. It moulded to my DNA and gave me a very real sense of ‘before’ and ‘after’. In this post-apocalyptic landscape of my life, I was hollowed out – a husk – and I had to learn to live, not again, as this implies I could pick up where I left off, but rather anew. Anew in the sense that my past life seemed totally destroyed, nothing left from the furnace but ashes, nothing but fragments too fragile to use in the rebuilding. So I forged new scaffolding and structures on which to pin my delicate and frail existence. I lived in the refugee camp on which stood my former life and I looked out on the desolate scene of chaos and aid workers.

Losing my baby made me feel totally hopeless, razed to the ground – I was obliterated. I had no idea so much of my identity was wrapped around my daughter’s small new-born hand. When I lost her I felt like I lost myself completely, I was extinguished, damaged beyond all recognition, ruins where smart buildings once should. Was anything salvageable? Was the wreckage of my life repairable? The day I lost my baby I truly believed the answer was no.

I know so far it all seems very bleak and rather hopeless and I suppose, from my own point of view that was true for the first year or so. I felt so involved in my own grief that I couldn’t really function on many levels – I could just about care enough to cook and clean occasionally, but really I was existing. I turned my focus inwards and dwelt there in the pain of losing my baby.

It is easy to overlook the hopes, dreams, plans parents have for their child and their life together, they are as lost as the child themselves. The devastation of an abrupt full stop to their story as a family is like a head on collision, the inertia of the life you were living is brought to a sudden and cruel halt. In car accidents the most damage is done when the organs in the body keep travelling in the body and hit bone, it takes time for the body to settle back internally and it will always bear the scars of those injuries.

At first, probably due to my disproportionate sense of self-importance, I felt this car crash was personal, it was a hit taken out on me to teach me a lesson in humility, a lesson I never learned well. How foolish was I to think I could have a healthy baby and a lovely birth? Stupid, silly me! I felt mocked by fate/ God/ destiny – insert appropriate Deity or supernatural power – and so I carried around with me a deep sense of rejection. My application to graduate to fully fledged motherhood had been denied for reasons unknown to me, the ink of the big red rubber stamp still not dry glared up at me. What was wrong with my mothering skills? Why had I had the reward of pregnancy taken from me, stolen from me? Why had I been taken off the production line of procreation and thrown in the reject bin?

So here’s where I apologise to my friends and family, an explanation is owed for why I was so self-absorbed, unable to retain information and repeatedly failed to ask after your day. I was consumed with deep and mysterious questions about the big stuff – why do bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people? Etc. And believe me grappling with these tough issues is no easy feat. If scholars, philosophers and spiritual leaders cannot fathom or explain the reason for life being cruel then really what chance did I have! But I gave it a good go, devoting myself to the cause for a long time. I didn’t remember what my friends were doing or keep up with the ins and outs of my sister’s second pregnancy; I found it hard to support my mum when her mum died a month or so after Evelyn and I pretty much cut myself off from everyone but my husband.

In short, I had basically checked out of life for a while believing it would be no great loss to anyone really.

I now know that is a lie.

Until next time, do what you can to find your smile again

x

Little miss perfect

The experience of losing my daughter has emphasised a trait I already had – perpetual introspection.

I always thought I knew who I was and where my place was in the world.

I thought I had a plan, a good plan, and I stuck to it. I have always done things the “right” way – the tick list of accomplishments ran: school, A levels, university; meet boy at 16, marry him at 23; get a job, support myself, have hobbies, friends and family… tick, tick tick. I never stepped out of line; not really, I tried to convey an appearance that I was perfect or at least trying very hard to be. And you can’t criticise a girl if she’s trying – right?

My self portrait
My self portrait

I had set my life up on the grand illusion that I was in control, of everything. I could make a plan and make it come true – I was my own fairy godmother and I was proud of that. I was proud to be able to hold my own in a room full of strangers, striking up a conversation with the ease of what I hoped was someone much older and wiser than me.

Overall though, I led a very sheltered life and had not really experienced much tragedy, on the scale of human suffering out of 10 I’d say it peaked at a 3.7.  I merrily trundled along, I played my part well like a character in the play of my life, a play in which I directed, narrated and starred; yet for all my control I felt out of control most of the time.

Like my own puppet, I was both in the drama and watching the drama unfold; I watched myself in real-time and gave myself constant critiques, put-downs, evaluations, appraisals. I always analysed what I had said, not said, done, not done and how I appeared to others. Was I good enough? I must be good enough, but I don’t know how much that is and I don’t know what I should use as a guide.

My plumb line to measure up to was in negative contrast, rather than what I wanted to be it was a guide of what I definitely did NOT want to be – “stay away from being like that”; “you don’t want to end up like that do you?”; “why can’t you be more self-controlled?”; “you don’t want to appear out of control, fat and lazy do you?”… And so it went on, and on, and on.

My outer confidence was masking a much more self-deprecating, self-conscious girl trying to be a grown up but always feeling like a failure to achieve this image in my head. One of the main problems was that the image keep changing, morphing into a new picture of perfection every time I achieved something. In this way I was never counting my achievements, they passed in the blink of an eye, I missed them because I never stopped to look at them and cherish the hard work I’d put it.

Instead I always looked beyond into the distance, to the next horizon and challenge to keep myself motivated and not become complacent. A never ending treadmill of self-dissatisfaction and loathing was my norm, my constant and (I thought) my friend. I thought it was my ally to getting on in life. It constantly left me feeling low and under appreciated but it also spurred me on and that was a good thing, that’s how I got people to love me – surely?

Now all of this, I hope, sounds insightful and self-aware but in truth it has taken more hours of introspection and heart-ache than I ever wanted to donate to the cause of understanding myself better.

They say ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ and I’m sure there are other equally flippant adages I could whip out at this point that share the same sentiment. But they don’t really mean anything, I mean really mean something, until you go through something so life-altering and devastating that you can see where they might apply. By that point, of course, you are so far beyond the comfort of a few dry words that their meaning is useless anyway. For me, the rock-bottom, worst thing that ever happened was my baby daughter dying.

There I said it, no varnish, no fireworks or clash of symbols, just the solitary fact in a few words that is so mortifying, so disgusting an idea that its simplicity belies the full impact it has on me every time I say it. By saying it out loud it means it is true, it means it happened and not to a fictional person or someone in the newspaper – it happened to me. Little ‘ol me, who thought she was quite important in her own little world but was rather ordinary, like we all are really. Saying my baby died means that I know it to be true, even though every fibre of my being screams for it to be a lie, a grand conspiracy of mistaken identity.

In fact what I’d like – other than the obvious of Evie being alive and well and with me – is a scenario I like to indulge on occasion, I’ll share it with you now.

Many years from now I will be contacted by Davina McCall or Nicky Campbell from the ITV show ‘Long Lost Family’ saying my daughter would like to get in touch and find out why I gave her up all those years ago. Or in years to come a mysterious stranger will give me a plain brown envelope with details that will lead me on a quest to find my long lost daughter. In both cases she didn’t die but was taken from me at birth and now lives a life unknown to me until now. We will cry and hug and speak our disbelief but we will be made whole again, the injustice will be righted and all will be well…

Then I wake up and the yearning for that alternate life withdraws into the misty cloud of sleepy dreaming and I am left with the harsh truth.

A girl can dream, huh?

Until next time, do what you can to find your smile.

Lydia

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