With a stillborn baby, there is no past to be mourned

MY HEALTH EXPERIENCE: I can’t help imagining what Eoin would look like now, relates CATHERINE DUNNE

MY HEALTH EXPERIENCE:I can't help imagining what Eoin would look like now, relates CATHERINE DUNNE

IT IS TEN to six on the morning of the February 28th, 1991. My labour ends and my small son slips quietly – too quietly – into the world. I learn that the Gulf War is now over. It feels that another battle has ended, too.

The midwife, Caitríona, wraps Eoin in hospital-issue green blankets and hands him to me. “He’s beautiful,” she says.

I reach for him, hold him close, surprised at how warm he is. But of course, he’s only minutes old. The cold will come later.

I stroke his face. “Poor little scrap,” I say.

* * * * * *

All that night, we’d held a vigil. My doctor, Patricia; Caitríona; other midwives whose names I no longer remember, and my husband. By turns, each of us wept, laughed, told jokes and stories, moving in and out of sorrow. It was one of those times when significance seems to lurk in everyday objects, common as a teacup.

An abruption, Patricia told me. I’d never even heard of it. The placenta falls away from the wall of the uterus. Abrupt: just like the word. The baby, a tiny spaceman, falls out of his self-contained world, spinning away into a different sort of gravity.

He didn’t suffer, she promised. It was just like going to sleep.

Why me, why us? I wonder, silently.

Why not, comes the answer.

* * * * * *

Two days later, we are shopping. Eamonn has just bought a gift for his baby brother. He has replicated for Eoin what is most precious in his own small life: his blue blanket. We buy it, wrap it up, head for home. I wonder at this eight-year-old’s courage.

“I want to hold his hand,” he’d said, once we’d told him what had happened. He looked sturdy, determined. The nurses watched as he unwrapped the green waffle-blanket, took the cold fingers in his.

They turned away quietly, coming back later with lemonade, biscuits, a plate of battered fairy-cakes, covered with blue icing and Smarties.

* * * * * *

People told me it would take time. And it did, but not in the way they meant. Days lost their definition, blurring sleepily into nights. Weeks tumbled one into the other, baggy and shapeless. I washed, dressed, cooked, cleaned, drove, ironed, supervised homework, cried.

The one thing I didn’t do was look at the open suitcase on my bedroom floor. At all those hopeful packets that I hadn’t had the chance to take to the hospital with me, so that I might have been able to leave them behind.

Vests, Babygros, nappies.

* * * * * *

During these early days, I want to know why formerly kind people cross the street when they see me; why conversation is bright and brittle as glass; why people step around this death as though its shards might make them bleed. I want to know how to answer those who tell me I have “an angel in heaven” or that I will “have another one” – as though babies, people, are replaceable.

And as I make my way through those first weeks, I long for an outward sign: something to show the world that I am a bereaved mother. I remember the diamonds of dark material, sewn onto my father’s sleeve when my grandmother died. I remember how people nodded to him, shook hands, touched his elbow. Strangers and neighbours alike offered comfort in that small acknowledgement of his loss.

I miss that – or something like it.

* * * * * *

There is a phrase in Urdu which I love: ghum-khaur. It means “grief-eaters” and describes the community that gathers together to absorb the mourner’s sorrow. There are no words in that language for a solitary grieving; no concept of the privacy of loss.

My first grief-eater was a man called John O’Donoghue. He is a thanatologist, which means he studies death and dying. He spoke at a conference seven weeks after Eoin’s birth and he was challenging, blunt, forceful. He railed against the displacement of grief.

Listening to him, I felt the first inkling that recovery was possible. Not just acceptance, not just the ability to “get on” with things, but the possibility of a full-blooded, whole-hearted reinvestment in life and living.

* * * * * *

Later, I learn what it means to be family, what it means to have friends. I learn about what to ask from each during my long, slow return. I learn, too, there is no tidy timetable to grieving, no milestones that can be marked off neatly with a tick: been there, done that. It is a process, one that ebbs and flows, that cuts the ground from underneath your feet one day, supports and soothes you the next.

* * * * * *

There are some accepted standards to grief and grieving. Kind people wanted me to know that the first six months are the worst, that it gets easier. After the first year, you will turn the corner. You will begin to feel better.

Well, yes and no. If some automatic, linear progression towards recovery existed, then what would explain the presence of all the elderly men and women in the front row of the conference?

Well into their seventies, they confessed that they had never dealt with the death of their children. Society had greeted their loss with silence, with a refusal to speak the unspeakable.

They had no tools, they said, no knowledge, no understanding, no support. And so they had been consumed by their own private sadness for decades. There were no grief-eaters for them. There was no acknowledgement that theirs was a sorrow that demanded to be recognised, shared, softened by talk and tenderness. Recovery remained beyond them, always out of their reach.

It struck me then how central ritual is to recovery. Without it, we have no starting point, no point of departure, of separation, between the past and the future. We hover in the shadows, unable to move back, unwilling to move forward.

* * * * * *

We seem to be programmed to grieve. It is our response to the strength of the ties that bind us. It’s a messy, complicated, emotional process, that of absorbing loss and facing life again. With a stillborn baby, there is no past to be mourned – which is another loss in itself – but there are the endless, unfulfilled possibilities of the future that we need, somehow, to make our peace with.

And there is a harder truth to be faced here. Although fathers and mothers grieve the loss of a baby together, in reality they often grieve separately.

Some say that there is a fundamental difference in relationships that needs to be untangled. That for mothers, the baby’s reality has been an immense presence, even if unfelt by others, all through the advancing pregnancy. For fathers, the reality often begins at the moment of birth. There is a disconnect, a skewing of perceptions, a different focus to loss.

For both, it is devastating, but for each, it is different.

* * * * * *

The comfort of ritual; the company of grief-eaters; learning to live from one moment to the next; valuing the power of spoken and written words – all of this got me through. It’s hard to chart recovery, in the same way that it is impossible to grieve in stages.

But a guesstimate of four years is as good as any. At that point, grief ceased to ambush me. It moved to a different register and acquired a new tone. A strong sense of having been “spared” eventually began to grow. It was accompanied at the same time by a dark surge of guilt: how come I was the one to survive, and not my son? But little by little, over the next few years, this sense of having been given another chance became stronger and stronger.

Life began to feel, truly, like a gift.

* * * * * *

I began to write like a demon. Blankness receded. I could focus again, sleep again, celebrate the birth of other people’s babies again. The world no longer showed itself to me in black and white. It was now peopled with more subtle colours, more shade than shadow. The shoots of recovery that I had once sensed were becoming hardy plants; still susceptible to frost, but nonetheless, strongly rooted in the future.

And writing made me.

* * * * * *

Eoin is still part of my daily life. No longer the blinding light in the middle of my forehead that obscures everything else, he nevertheless abides with me. A gentle presence, an exacting taskmaster. He has taught me that grief is, above all, a sense of separation so acute that even now, 20 years later, I can access it with no difficulty at all, and not a little emotion.

* * * * * *

Would I wish it different? Of course I would. He would be approaching his twentieth birthday now, and I often imagine him at my table. He has his own decoration on my Christmas tree, his own place wherever I am.

But it is a place that is appropriate to the rest of my life.

* * * * * *

John O’Donoghue likened the early days of grief to a huge photograph in the house, a picture of the dead baby that dominates the mantelpiece, the room, the lives of all who live there. Gradually, the image needs to become smaller; still there, but no longer overwhelming.

It has taken time – time that was no longer stolen, but used in order to gain a foothold in the underworld of grieving.

Now, Eoin is of passport size, so that I can take him with me wherever I go. My travelling companion, my son, my teacher.

I can’t help wondering what he would look like. When I do, I just look at his brother. And I smile.

Catherine Dunne© 2011.

Catherine Dunne is one of 12 writers who have contributed to The Death of a Child, a collection of personal essays on losing a son, daughter or sibling, published on June 1st by Continuum, RRP €23.00.