Most of you know me to be a positive, up-beat type of person where the glass is always half full, where the future is in our hands, and we can make our lives better by facing up to who we are, and how we want to be. My most popular posts are my education rants and my life-style – live better – be strong posts. You may not be aware of the extent of struggle and loss in my life, but that’s as it should be, I don’t blog to whine and moan too much without offering some sort of solution, some way to learn from adversity. But, like many of you out there, I have struggled and I have lost.
Last Saturday night I was suddenly and unexpectedly laid low by the impact of loss. By something terrible and deeply distressing that happened many years ago, that I never forget, but that does not reside at the forefront of my existence. I know that many of you out there have similar losses, something that tore you apart at the time, that you struggled to come to terms with, that changed you and your life, that bobs up from time to time to remind you, to never let you forget – as if you ever could…
In my long and extensive life of turbulence, of love and adventure, of wins and losses, there are only two things that I would change: the death of my mother when I was 17 and the loss of my baby, Grace, before she even got a chance to get started. I know, my dear friends, that many of you have trod in shoes like mine: a miscarriage, a still birth, a lost baby to SIDS, or something similarly devastating. We look at ourselves, feel our failure more keenly here than anywhere else in our lives: failure as a mother is a primal failure, the most severe stab at our essential being: how can we not bring a child safely into the world, not care for it enough? It threatens our sense of self, our sense of womanliness and it can destroy some of us. It is the hardest burden to bear: to go on living when our child does not. It is the worst punishment for any parent.
Grace died nearly twenty years ago. She was stillborn after I spent six weeks in hospital trying to hang onto her. A tiny-tiny hole, less than a pin-prick in the amniotic sac led to a slow leak which meant the fluid was draining away and she would not have enough to grow to term. The doctor said she was doomed once the diagnosis was in, but we persevered. I lay in hospital, still and quiet, trying my best to keep her long enough to grow to be big enough to survive. But the amniotic fluid was gone at 24 weeks and she was too small, and her lungs and brain were probably already irretrievably damaged. The equipment needed to keep such a premy baby alive wasn’t in Darwin at the time, so it was hopeless. But she was a tiny perfect baby. No imperfections, nothing to say why she died, why she couldn’t make it. She had soft blonde downy hair, perfect little fingers and toes but her eyes never opened. She never drew breath, never saw us, never knew how much she was wanted or loved. She was held and sang to and baptized. But she never lived amongst us, never knew her brother or sisters.
This is not a unique story – this, or a version, of this, happens again and again across the world. Babies die and families grieve. But we move on. We love what we have more and the final addition to my family made most of the sadness in my heart evaporate. Her smile, her breath and small perfections made the ache in my heart stop and slow, her joy in life and her calm serene being made it possible for me to face the world again, not such a failure, not so heart-breakingly sad all the time.
Time passes and life moves in different directions. Children grow and the pain heals, but the memory stays, it just doesn’t hurt any more. This is what life does. It heals, slowly, without notice, and here we are in the midst of grown up daughters, having dinner and drinks, half a world away from the worst day of my life. I am happy, I am sitting on the sofa drinking champagne, having had a lovely meal prepared by my eldest daughter, my beloved sits happily beside me; life is in a good place. The girls are singing and laughing along to Bastille and there’s a lyric, a mention of Grace, walking with her, or acting with her. And it’s repeated. I look at my grown up girls, enough alike to be obviously sisters, blonde hair and smiles, hugging each other, and then I saw a space between them, a girl sized shape where Grace should have been. And I could see her, I could imagine her there, between her youngest and eldest sister, like them but unlike them – herself, smiling and happy too.
I was hit in the heart. It broke. There was joy and love in the room but my heart was empty and shattered by loss, by what should have been. Not two but three. Three golden haired girls laughing and smiling and hugging. My tears felt slowly and I couldn’t stop them. My heart was so full of love for what I had but full of pain and sadness for what was lost, what could never be. How can you be so happy and so sad at once? Out of the blue I was hit by the sudden impact of my loss, like a comet hitting the earth, reeling me off course, shattering my orbit, leaving an impression the size of the Gulf of Carpentaria in my being. Suddenly, for the first time in years, I was brutally aware of my loss, of the gaping hole in my life. A hole that has to be ignored, otherwise you go mad, you cannot go on. A hole that is, on most days, filled by what I have.
Nowadays I don’t often wonder about Grace, about what she might have been like, how our lives might have unfolded. Like my mother, I can’t spend too much time wondering what if. Those sort of thoughts do your head in. You have to put those things behind you. It’s why we must grieve properly and fully for our losses, so we can return to our lives and live them fully, more alive because of the pain, because of what we have lost. But sometimes, like on Saturday our loss hits us in the face and we are undone by the strength of our feelings; our emotions wash over us again, drowning us.
It’s the suddenness of the experience, the unexpectedness of it that really throws you. No matter how neatly we put away our experiences, how well we package up our pain and loss and tuck them away in the darker recesses of our minds, they are always there and it’s the simplest of things that can set them off – a smell, a song, a sudden trickle of memory. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of, nothing at all. It’s one of those things that tell us we’re human after all. People die, and it is right that we miss them and feel something and express it.
Love your family. Cherish them and hold them close. Make the most of what you have, every day of your life. Oh, and your pets too, because they mean the world to us as well and losing them can be too much to bear too. (Images from Private Collection)