Invisible Daughter

This morning Chet and I were standing among a small group of moms and toddlers whom I hadn’t met before. We were in a park at a playdate that was kindly coordinated by a mom leader in our community to give us something fun to do on a Monday morning. The topic of birthing came up. The moms were swapping stories of epidurals, home births, and whether or not it was actually true that you forget the pain. I could feel my pulse rising. Was I feeling triggered by the topic of birth? No, I don’t think so. I love talking about both Ginny and Chet’s birth stories. I searched my brain for why my body was reacting. I think I was  nervous because I had to decide whether I should drop the bomb of stillbirth on this perfectly pleasant morning. I really wanted to. For me, it wasn’t a bomb; it was my motherhood story. I wanted to talk about my beautiful but invisible daughter. When would be the right time? Maybe I should let everyone else share first. I knew that once I spoke, the faces of laughter would transform into faces of compassion and concern. No one else will want to share their birth stories after that. I could feel my heart beating as I was summoning the courage to drop the bomb. But before I was able, someone changed the subject to carseats or preschool or something else for which I have no Ginny story. I felt both relieved and disappointed. 

One of the hardest parts of leaving North Carolina for Alabama was leaving our friends who were with us when we lost Ginny. With those friends, there is an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) understanding of how our lives were impacted by Ginny’s life and death, and that is comforting. When our NC friends see me as a mother or Daniel as a father, they see as us the parents of both Ginny and Chet. People here in Alabama only see Chet.

Now with each new person we meet, we need to figure out the best way to share our story with them. I love talking about Ginny. I love sharing memories of her pregnancy and birth. I love sharing about how God was with us through our sorrow. I love including her as part of our family. She is such a huge part of who we are. But it is not always an easy topic to bring up. 

One of the first friends we met here has a daughter named Ginny. What a great segue! – “We have a daughter named Ginny too!….” Opportunities don’t normally present themselves that easily. One of the next friends we met was 33 weeks pregnant; that was trickier. Although I don’t believe my story should require a trigger warning, I also want to be sensitive to the heightened hormones and natural fears that pregnancy brings. We held off on telling that friend until after her baby was born. It was hard to wait and sort of felt like lying. 

Being a stay at home mom, I often find myself standing among groups of moms at the playground, in Chet’s nature class, or in our stroller group. The other moms may ask me, “Is he your only one?” or “Is he your first?” I usually hesitate, which is awkward because it shouldn’t be a difficult question. I may have literally met this woman just seconds ago. I try to make a quick assessment based on who else is around, how much time we have, the likelihood I will ever see her again, etc. I may answer a quick “yes” with a smile and return the question. In these moments, my heart breaks just a little more and I feel a tinge of guilt. I feel like I denied Ginny and a huge piece of myself for the sake of comfort or time. I try to give myself grace and remind myself that it is okay to answer this way. Other times I respond by saying, “He’s actually our second. We had a stillborn daughter before him. He has a big sister named Ginny in heaven. We talk about Ginny a lot.” I also deliver this reply with smile. I try to show that we are hopeful and comfortable talking about her. That is completely true, but it also helps minimize their discomfort or regret in asking a usually harmless question. 

The responses I get vary. Most people say, “Oh I’m so so sorry. How hard! I can’t imagine.” This is perfectly appropriate. Some others don’t say anything and might just nod, which is not ideal but understandable. It’s hard to know how to respond, and I am not offended. I love when I get follow up questions about Ginny or my experience. I also love when people share their own stories of loss or friends’ losses. It helps to talk about this to know we aren’t alone and to dampen the stigma.

It’s amazing how much I can tell about people by their response to my sharing Ginny. I can usually quickly tell if this is someone that I will be able to have a deep connection with or someone who may want to stay more surface-level. There’s a place for both types of friendships. I can usually also quickly tell if someone has experienced hardship or sorrow in their own lives. Most of the time, when someone has experienced grief, they receive the gift of empathy. You can sense the difference between true empathy and more common sympathy. When I sense the empathy, I wonder what sorrow that person has had to bear. Sometimes they share, and sometimes they don’t. When I receive sympathy, they remind me of myself four years ago. I’m happy for them that they haven’t had grief, but I also know it will eventually come to them. Maybe my story and the hope I share will help them when it does. 

The more time we spend with our new friends, the closer we get and the more they understand how much Ginny is a part of our lives and hearts. I’m seeing it already. This weekend we had a sweet friend and her little girl over to watch football and play with Chet. We were talking about pregnancy, and she asked me about my pregnancy with Ginny. It meant so much to me to be able to talk freely about my daughter. It made her (and me) feel much less invisible.  

Parenting After Loss – The 2nd Year

In the baby loss community, you’ll often hear the phrase “My heart is fuller than my arms.” This is certainly true for me. Don’t get me wrong – one toddler keeps me very busy, but I’m definitely not as busy as I would be if Ginny were also here. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t take my time though. In fact, I spend way more time grieving Ginny three and half years out than I thought I would. She is still in my thoughts all throughout the day everyday, and I still devote hours a week to mourning her. What I’ve learned is that this is healthy and normal life after loss. 

Grief does not resolve on its own. Time itself does not heal. It takes work and devotion and Jesus to heal – and that does also take time. I think of it as tending a garden. If left ignored, the garden of grief will become overgrown with weeds and pests. Nothing fruitful will grow. For me when I ignore my grief, I feel very heavy with tension in my shoulders. I get irritable and irrational; I may lash out at those I love. I am not able to have as much fun or laugh as I normally would. In some others, neglected grief manifests itself in far worse ways such as addiction or violence. To prevent this, I must spend time “mothering Ginny” by mourning her. I tend to my grief garden by journalling, talking to those who care, praying, looking in her memory box, thinking of heaven, walking, reading passage of lament, listening to music or relevant podcasts, and crying. These activities are like pulling weeds, planting seeds, fertilizing, pruning, and watering. It is hard work but the result is peace, hope, and compassion for others. My heart is light and I can be my best for Chet, Daniel, and my community. 

A loss mama does not stop mothering her child once her child dies. So now I’m left trying to figure out how to balance parenting one living child and one child in heaven. As with all of parenting, it takes prioritization and intentionality. I do what I can to parent both kids at once. I tell Chet about Ginny, and we look through the special photo album from her pregnancy together. We thank God for Sister Ginny in our prayers. I think of her on our walks or in the car. I try to devote more time during Chet’s naps, after he is asleep for the night, and on the weekends with Daniel’s help. It’s hard to prioritize time to mourn over doing chores or errands that need to get done. It feels selfish to take this time. So occasionally I will put it on the back burner and focus on other things. Then slowly I feel the weight growing; I become weary and easily frustrated. Daniel sometimes reminds me that I need to take the time alone to mourn. I remember that this isn’t optional. This is a mandatory part of my life. I’m not sure it will require this much time forever, but it does now. It’s not selfish – it’s mothering my sweet Ginny and it is essential to be the mom I want to be for Chet. This is parenting after loss. 

Release

Sometimes the grief builds up and needs to be released. It feels heavy on my shoulders and on my heart. A good cry or journalling session usually does the trick to lighten the burden. If I go a while without being able to release the pent up grief, it just builds and builds. If it goes too long, I don’t have the energy to go about my normal day. 

One day a few months back, I was feeling this way. I knew I needed to cry, but I had to care for Chet. All morning I was feeding him, reading to him, and playing with him with a heavy heavy heart. I finally made it to nap time. My plan was to bounce him to sleep on a yoga ball while singing a lullaby (the ONLY effective way to get him to sleep at that time) and then go to my room and bawl my eyes out. I was looking forward to it; I needed the release. 

I started bouncing and singing, bouncing and singing. It wasn’t working! I kept bouncing and singing for what felt likes ages. He just kept looking up at me, refusing to sleep! I was getting frustrated. Ugh! Just sleep! I need to cry! I kept trying and trying. I called out to God, “Please help Chet sleep! I need to go cry! Please!” God responded, “Rock him.” I rolled my eyes. That will not work! He doesn’t sleep when I rock him. I’ve tried that a thousand time. It doesn’t work. I kept bouncing and singing, bouncing and singing. Nothing. “Ugh! God, please help Chet sleep! This grief is so heavy. I need to cry to release it. Please!” He responded, “Rock him.” That won’t work! I was getting so frustrated! Bounce! Bounce! Bounce! Nothing. Ahhh! Fine! 

I angrily stood up and walked over to the glider, knowing that rocking him was futile. He never fell asleep when I rocked him. We sat down. I looked Chet straight in the eye and started rocking and singing the lullaby. He looked up at me with his big brown eyes and started… laughing. He laughed a huge belly laugh and didn’t stop. I couldn’t help but laugh myself. The two of us rocked and laughed, rocked and laughed, rocked and laughed! Soon I felt my grief releasing and my heaviness falling away. 

Chet didn’t take his nap that day, and I didn’t cry that day. But we both felt refreshed. God saw my burdens and decided He didn’t want me to mourn with tears that day. He wanted me to mourn with laughter! Thank you, God! 

“He will yet fill your mouth with laughter.” Job 8:21

“A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” Ecclesiastes 3:4

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.” Luke 6:21

Parenting After Loss: The 1st Year

Over a year has already passed since we brought Chet home from the hospital. I still look at him in disbelief. I am in awe he is here! He keeps getting cuter and cuter, and I just can’t believe my eyes when I see him. 

One year is a big milestone for a lot of reasons. For loss parents, we are hyper aware that one year marks the end of the possibility of infant death. What a relief! According to the CDC, in the US more than 1 in every 200 people die in their first year of life (not including miscarriage or stillbirth). After having experienced baby loss, those odds seem monstrous. The chances of death greatly decrease for children over 1 year. Our boy is strong and healthy, and I’m so grateful! I wish I could say I have no lingering fears, but that’s not reality. COVID daily reminds us of our human fragility. Anything could happen, but that is also what helps us embrace every moment. 

We do embrace every moment and rarely, if ever, take a minute for granted. Time seems to be racing by, so I try to slow it down by rocking him for one more minute, putting my phone down (when I’m not taking thousands of pictures and videos), and having nightly family dance parties to the song Un Poco Loco from the movie Coco. We have a lot of fun together. My heart stings a tiny bit every dance party. Ginny’s not here. 

As more and more of Chet’s adorable personality comes out, I enjoy imagining the two of them playing together. Chet is so smart and interested in everything. He has a longer attention span than I thought possible for a baby. He spends time trying to figure out how things work and is very determined. But he is also very goofy. He never gets tired of laughing at our funny faces or sounds, and he loves making us laugh. He growls, roughhouses, makes loud noises, and throws things – all things I’m not used to, having been raised with two sisters. He LOVES music. It’s a privilege to learn these details about my son. I got a sense of who Ginny is, but I do mourn not knowing the details. I do know she is playful and goofy and fun. So I know she and Chet would have a blast together. 

Each milestone that Chet hits makes me so grateful to experience this. I’m proud of how far we’ve come, all we’ve been through, and who we are as a family. I’m hopeful for all that’s to come, here on Earth and in heaven. And my heart breaks…

My heart breaks in all the normal ways a mama’s heart breaks as her baby grows up. Recently Chet stopped breastfeeding. One day he just lost all interest in nursing. It was around when I was planning on weaning anyway, so it was actually great timing. Even so, I was on the verge of tears for three straight days afterwards. I know it was hormones, but it was also just realizing that Chet is not a baby anymore. He is growing up and that chapter of our relationship is closed. That time was so so precious. I will be forever grateful, honored, and proud to have been able to nurse him for so long. And for some reason, it made me miss Ginny. I felt like it triggered another wave of grief. Why would Chet’s weaning make me grieve Ginny? I asked a friend. She said that anything that marks the passage of time is hard. I think she’s right. Our family is moving forward, and Ginny is still missing. I think it’s also because now I’m taking the time to think back on this past year – all those sweet moments, cute smiles, precious snuggles – all the babyhood. Now I know what we are missing. Well I know the first year of what we are missing. And my heart breaks. 

Now we’ve started the second year. We are going to keep embracing every moment, making each other laugh, and remembering big sister. I’m excited to learn what else we’re missing!