As a doula, I have the incredible honor of supporting women across the threshold into motherhood. This week I was presented with a rare and sad experience of supporting a family through the birth of their stillborn son. I have attended over 100 births of babies perfect in their own way and this baby was truly no exception. Born just ten days before his due date, surrounded by his family, parents and grandparents, he was amazingly beautiful--hinting at the hidden life he led in the warmth of his mother's womb and the life that could have been. The circumstances that made this experience even more unusual was that I myself am pregnant with my own second child and I believe that I was called to support this family due to a dream I received the night before the birth.
Usually, protocol allows that anyone who is pregnant would not be advised to support a family with a pregnancy loss. However, the night before the family called, I dreamt of a young dark haired man who came to my door, knocked and said he needed to speak with me. He took me out to a long greenhouse where there were dozens of tender and rare sprouts. He named each one and said that it was his job to tend to them. At the end of the line, he sat me down in the sun and just smiled at me.Later that morning the call came in. I felt so much compassion for this family, they were so wonderfully loving that I just knew I was the appropriate person to be with them. I knew that everything in my career had led me to being prepared and ready to support this kind of experience. I felt my own baby kick in response.
As the baby emerged, I felt a strange hopefulness, like maybe the ultrasounds were wrong. Maybe indeed this baby was alright. So many times before, I'd witnessed this moment that leads to an ecstatic release of emotion and relief. There was a silent hush in the room as everyone took him in. When I saw him, he looked like miniature of the boy in my dream. It was then that I realized how incredible the threshold that is birth holds Life and Death in equal measure. For this moment, we have no answers, just awe, emotion, observation. I did what I could to hold and preserve the space for the family to be in the moment to fully soak in the essence of their son.
What I wasn't prepared for was the impact of this experience on my own family and motherhood. I returned home that afternoon to my 2 year old son. He is a very sensitive and perceptive child. He also balances this with a huge dash of impish charm. Having grown up around babies and pregnancy, he always is ready to point to a woman's belly in the store and comment. "She's a mama. She has a baby in her belly too." Every night and every morning he kisses and hugs my belly and talks to baby "Juna", the name he called baby the day we found out we were pregnant. He's the first to ask if he can "gentee kiss" our friend's babies.
When I returned home I had one guarded conversation with a collegue but my son immediately picked up on the meaning. He was immediately very whiney and clingy. I scooped him up feeling both the mixture of relief of holding my incredibly vital child and exhausted annoyance at needing a break to process. I told him we had to get ready because I needed to go the my own prenatal appointment that afternoon. "Why?" he asked. "Because we go to listen to the babies heart beat"-- I could feel the words getting caught in my throat. But my son didn't want to go. He wanted to watch the "Baby Movies", the childbirth education movies I use for classes. He wanted to see the one's specifically with the "babies in the mama's bellies". Then he started asking me about our babies heart beat. "We go to the miiidddwiiiiifeeezz so the babies heart will be okay, right mama?"
The full impact of the day hit me then, when I realized that my son was deeply worried about our baby and was questioning the meaning of life and death. I had hoped to shield him. My style of parenting has always been to be somewhat matter-of-fact about life stuff. We use the real names for body parts and he is incredibly facinated with where babies come from and how. But up until now, it has mostly been around the Life not Death. His own ideas up this point centered around the ants he would try to squash on the sidewalk and in searching for an explanation we tried to explain how that was ouchy to the ants and that if he continued they would be "all done" (the only concept he knew with a definitive "end").
I wasn't prepared yet to try to explain to my own child why babies die. And come to think of it, how could I ever be ready? I thought of my dream of the young man tending the sprouts in the garden. The words that came to me were these. Sometimes we have other jobs to do that take us away from those we love. I had to go away today from you to help a family with their baby. And their little baby couldn't stay with them because he had to water the sprouts in his garden. But I'm here now. And our baby is here now. And you are here now. And so right now we can all have a big hug and love eachother. My son's responded matter-of-factly. " I want to kiss the baby too." I want to kiss you too, I chimed back.
As with everything in parenting, there's no one-way about it and I none seem to be satisfactory or simple. But I do have a deep faith in children's ability to absorb and accept the mystical and magical experiences of "reality" as we know it.
If you've had an experience with grief, I'd love to know how you've shared it with your children.