On Christmas day, 2014, my daughter Nina died from a congenital heart defect.
She was 36 hours old.
Losing a child is one of the most hideous, heart wrenching, “wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy” things we can ever live through as parents.
In a split second, my world was quite literally torn apart. Half the time, I didn’t know which way was up. I remember a deep, raw feeling of animalism—a mumma lion prowling after losing one of her cubs, pacing backward and forward, desperately hoping that if she returns to the last place she saw her baby alive enough times, that she just might still be there.
Nothing prepares us for any of the big dramas life presents us, but in the aftermath of losing Nina, I kept thinking it came at a time when I was the most vulnerable I have ever been. I’d opened my body, heart, and soul to that perfect being one cold Wednesday morning in December, and then next day, without any warning, she was just no longer there anymore.
Let me be honest from the offset—I don’t have the words to take this kind of pain away. But I am asked often, “How did you get through it?”
And the real answer is that you don’t.
The grief stays with you every day, but eventually, she morphs from an all-consuming black hole of total flipping disaster to an old, comfy, moth-eaten chair that you cling to despite all the many refurbs, because it’s the comfiest damn chair you ever had and despite the holes and funky smell, it’s yours and you are keeping hold of it.
Nina isn’t physically here, but she’s with us all the time—she lives through us in our memories, our stories, and a handful of badly lit photos in a crappy hospital room. I have learnt to wear my grief with pride. I don’t want to “get over her,” I still cherish every one of the moments we had together and I don’t regret them for a second. Our shared story is part of me, it’s here to stay, and I’ve found a way to make peace with the sadness.
My best hope would be that no one ever needs to read this, but for those who do, these are some of the things that helped me through the darkest days.
1. Batten down the hatches. Yes, spending time with loved ones is an invaluable part of the healing process, but spend time alone too—feel what you need to feel without having to negotiate anyone else’s reactions.
2. Trust your instincts. The person you don’t want in your inner circle, the person who manages to make it all about them, the event your friends think will be good for you—you know best what’s right for you. If you’re so lost you can’t hear your inner voice, try a one-breath, eyes open meditation and listen in to what your heart is saying.
3. Anyone who tells you, “this happened for a reason,”—don’t see that person again. This didn’t happen for a reason—not because “you’re strong enough to deal with it,” not because of karma, not because you saw a blue line and thought, “Sh*t, maybe I’m not ready.” There is no rhyme or reason for the death of any loved one, let alone a child. Sometimes, sh*tty things just happen, but it doesn’t mean for a single moment that you deserved it.
4. People who cry more than you—ditch them too (if only temporarily). Not because their tears aren’t valid, and not because they’re not allowed to feel sad. But this is one moment in time when you shouldn’t have to put your feelings aside to help someone else feel better. Own your sadness; the tears that don’t get cried now will just store themselves up for another time, anyway. So the folks who pool at your feet in a heap of sobs and snot—maybe hit pause on those meetings until things are calmer and you feel more equipped to deal with it all. You will feel more equipped to deal with this someday.
5. Find words that make sense, and cling to them. Mine were, “When you are going through hell, keep walking.” There are great websites, some fabulous books, and a sea of quotes that can help to keep you afloat.
6. Spend time with animals. They don’t need a response from you, they don’t care if you laugh or cry, and they help stave off the deep isolation and aching loneliness without expecting a thing in return.
7. Eat well and nourish yourself with good quality food. Gin, in moderation, is your friend.
8. Exercise—every day.
9. Set achievable tasks, like taking a shower, washing your hair, moving from the bedroom to the living room, feeling sun on your skin, and making toast.
10. When people tell you, “you are so strong,” remember first that they mean well, and then remember they have no idea how to say the right thing, so they’re just saying something, anything and hoping for the best—because seriously, what could anyone possibly say to make this situation better? Are you strong? Perhaps. But go ahead and be weak when you need, and cry your tears as and when they come. “Strong” is not a cage that binds us, it doesn’t magic away what happened or how you feel. And just because you choose not to cry all your tears in public, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t suffering beyond measure behind closed doors.
But the thing, perhaps, that saved me most, was a simple thought:
“I choose to survive this.”
I felt deeply that one life had already been wasted, and that we would be dishonouring Nina’s short life if we threw two more onto the pile and all sunk to the bottom for the rest of eternity.
I chose not to feel guilty the first time a smile or a laugh came. I chose to embrace all the many wonders my universe had to give. I chose to accept the seemingly never-ending kindness of friends and strangers. I chose to let this experience enrich my life.
If that sounds like I didn’t suffer, then I mislead you. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my baby, her wrinkled nose, her deep blue-grey eyes, her perfect, musty, newborn baby smell. I have many friends with girls the same age, and I have to exercise almost daily self-restraint to stop myself falling down the black hole of, “My girl would be walking, talking, and playing like this one if she were here.”
But what can I do? This is the hand that life dealt me.
So I wake up every day, and I choose to put one foot in front of the other. I choose to #putmysockson and get out that door.
Other resources for those who are grieving:
Sands.org: Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity
Glow in the Woods: For Babylost Mothers and Fathers (Also includes a library section with recommendations including books for siblings.)
A book recommendation: An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken.
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