They call it heartache because your heart really does hurt. I’ve found it so interesting that grief and mourning is such a physical process. Of course your mind is constantly churning out messages to you, but it’s my body that often gives up at the end of the day. My brain throbs from working so hard to not think about Stella every second as I go through the motions of life. My heart aches from missing her so much. My throat hurts from swallowing tears and pain hour after hour. My shoulders and neck burn from carrying all the stress around. My arms and legs seize from the sheer effort of forcing them to keep mechanically moving when I just want to curl into a ball and disappear.
I hurt all the time. Sometimes it’s intense and overwhelming pain, but most often it’s just a dull ache that niggles at me, always constant, always there to remind me that my daughter died and nothing will ever be the same.
Did you know May is National Brain Tumor Awareness Month? I didn’t know either. It’s not a pretty or popular cause, and likely the only people who really know about it or participate are those who have been touched by it. I certainly never knew that “grey ribbons” existed, or meant anything. But now I do. I’m part of a small minority of people who know about brain tumors, and an even smaller group who know about watching their child die.
Thankfully for most people, their children won’t die before them. It’s one of those “worst nightmare” things that we all hear about happening to “other people”. You listen to a story about someone whose child died and shake your head, saying, “Ugh. That’s awful”. But you don’t really feel any emotion when you say it because it’s so far removed from you. Then you get to go on with your life. That’s how it should be. That’s how it used to be for me. Now when I hear about a child dying, my whole body shrinks with the agony of knowing another family is having to deal with the overwhelming reality of losing their most precious treasure.
So, in honour of brain tumor awareness month, let me tell you a little bit about what it means to lose your child, in my experience.
Losing your child upsets the natural order of the universe. It’s investing all the time, energy and effort into pregnancy, birth, parenting books, tantrums, the alphabet, kisses, good night cuddles, bath time, laughter and then being left with an empty bedroom where your child once slept, neatly folded clothing that your child once wore and dust covered toys that your child once brought to life.
Losing your child is spending hours looking at the finite amount of photos and videos you have of them, trying to remember each angle of their face and the sound of their laughter. It’s closing your eyes and forcing yourself to remember how it was before because thinking about how it is now hurt too much.
Losing your child means learning to laugh even when it sounds hollow, learning to keep moving when your whole body wants to shut down, learning to push through the pain and hurt and exhaustion because everyone keeps telling you that time will heal, even though time just passes.
Losing your child means never knowing when you will be overcome with raw grief that shudders through your veins and emerges in an explosion of silent screams and hot tears.
Losing your child is cradling a cold, lifeless body in your arms and trying to reconcile your brain’s memory of an energetic, laughing, smiling human being with this shrunken bruised waif that stares at you with unseeing eyes and slack jaw.
Losing your child is handing over their body to a stranger to take to the morgue, then getting back a tiny, cold box that holds grey, dull ashes. All that’s left of your beautiful baby.
Losing your child is packing away their things into boxes that you don’t know what to do with, clutching the stained clothing to your chest hoping it will soothe the stabbing pain in your heart, desperate to catch a small hint of the smell of their skin buried somewhere in the folds of the fabric.
Losing your child is showing great restraint when people tell you to be grateful for the children you have left, or say “you can always have another one”, as if your child is replaceable.
Losing your child is forever grappling with feelings of guilt and regret. No matter what anyone tells you, your mind won’t let you think that there wasn’t something you did wrong that caused your child to die. Diet while pregnant? Using a non microwaveable dish? A flame-retardant mattress in the crib? There is no end to the crazy, inane and far-fetched reasons you will come up with to torture yourself.
Losing your child is being forced to watch people whom you love very much live out the dreams you had for your own child, and fighting a fresh wave of grief each time their child reaches a milestone that your child won’t.
Losing your child is being shut out of the play groups you planned on attending, because you don’t have a child that age any longer. It’s skipping social events and birthday parties because you don’t want to put a damper on the party by bursting into tears at an inopportune time.
Losing your child means losing the friends and family members who aren’t able or willing to give you what you need. It means accepting that you are changed and having to let go of a lot of people that you care for very much because you can’t bear to be around them and their lack of understanding.
Losing your child means separating the years you have lived into two different worlds, the “before” and “after”. They don’t always match up, they don’t always reconcile themselves, and it can be difficult to remember what it was like to be blessedly ignorant about the cruelty of a world that betrayed you so badly.
Losing your child is forever losing a part of yourself.
Sometimes late at night when I can finally hear myself think, I remember all my favourite “Stella Stories”. It frustrates me that I only have a few dozen to sift through and remember. Today I will share one of my precious memories with you.
When Stella was two I picked her up from daycare. As happened on many days, the daycare teacher walked over to me to talk about Stella’s day (by this time I knew enough that if they make the effort to do more than wave goodbye and smile, it’s not usually good news). “Stella had a difficult day,” I was told. “She was doing a lot of hitting. I think she needs to be spoken to about it”. I looked at Stella who was happily sitting on the stool by her cubby, swinging her legs and smiling up at me. “Stella,” I said sternly, “it’s not nice to hit your friends”.
“But Mama,” she explained, stretching her arms out as far as she could, “I hit all, all, ALL my friends!!!” With a big smile she hopped off the bench for a hug. I remember trying to stifle a laugh as I buried my face in her curls.
If there was one thing Stella was, it was fair. But what happened to her wasn’t.
Picnic at Stella’s beloved farm with Sam, Kari, Hugo, Xavier and Arin (behind Stella’s bench):
Sam has been introduced (by Poppa, of course) to Stella’s favourite…the ice cream truck!
Xavier, Sam and Hugo play in the backyard:
Stella visited the farm in March, 2012: