Empty arms, broken heart

empty arms

No one could have predicted it. Why would they? My daughter and son-in-law have two beautiful children. During her pregnancies – as well as before and after – Kate was a model of health, eating well, sleeping well and running every day, even within days of delivery. Her daughter and son were born healthy and active, too.

Nothing could have prepared any of us for her third pregnancy – a stillbirth. Even after a year, the loss lingers, wrapping itself around my motherly heart.

Nothing could have prepared me for the phone call I received that morning, just after Kate saw the obstetrician for what should have been a routine checkup. At first, I couldn’t understand her words through the sobs.

Silently, without warning, the baby’s heart has stopped beating. Her little son, our grandson, was dead.

What could I say to my broken-hearted daughter, knowing she would go through the birth process – but when there should be joy, there will only be sorrow?

What could I say to my son-in-law, Cody, a highly trained military officer who manages crises and fixes problems as a career – knowing he would stand helplessly at her side, trying to offer her comfort despite his own crushing loss?

I am so very, very sorry, was all I said. Do you want us to come and be with you? No, she said. Wait. She would be OK.

Kate asked about a baby I lost more than 25 years earlier. I was only eight or 10 weeks along, but in my mother’s heart, I believe the baby was a boy. I didn’t want to think of him forever as “the miscarriage” or “the baby I lost,” so I named him David. I suggested they might want to name their baby, too.

Later that night, the doctor induced labor. My husband and I barely slept, waiting to hear news that she came through all right. When I did sleep, I woke gasping with fear from distressing dreams of losing my daughter.

Nothing happened until late the next morning. Kate was fine, physically anyway. They named the baby Wyatt.

Neither Kate nor Cody really wanted to talk. Truthfully, I didn’t want to talk, either. In the haze of my nightmares, I connected to Kate’s pain. Yet nothing I said or did would make her feel better. I didn’t see any immediate resolution to my own emotional rollercoaster of anger, sadness and emptiness, either. 

I turned to what I know: research. I made some phone calls. I wondered what traditions and support systems were in place to help parents whose children are miscarried or stillborn. I learned that often, these parents in particular suffer from disenfranchised grief – their losses go unrecognized by faith or social customs. However, as medical and psychological specialists realize the profound impact this loss has on a family, this lack of recognition is changing in the Jewish community and in general society.

Ron Wolfson, PhD, Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University, discusses the Jewish response to stillbirth and neonatal death in a blog on Kveller, based on his book, A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort. He writes, “The family whose newborn dies should not be denied its community. It is also extremely important, especially for the father, to allow permission to do nothing else but mourn during the shiva period.

“Both parents will react different to the loss, (but) it is particularly important for the father to recognize his loss, for it is no less real than the mother’s. When the father is treated as a mourner, he is relieved of the burden of ‘being strong’ for his wife. He has a specific set of ritual tasks to do that encourage him to confront the magnitude of his loss in all its dimensions.”

Rituals are critical for helping us through the pain of loss and grief, to help us know we’re not alone in the darkness. Without a funeral or memorial service, my family just pushed through life without fully acknowledging what had happened, or how we each felt about it. I wanted to be strong for my daughter and son in law, to wrap my arms around them and “make it better.” This was new territory and I didn’t have a map, leaving many emotions unexpressed – unusual for me and for our family, too.

I started writing this blog – then left it unfinished. The words were inadequate. The timing wasn’t right. The wounds were too raw. My notes gathered dust in a file folder.

Last week, I felt sad for no particular reason. My husband was feeling inexplicably gloomy, too. I talked to my daughter, who was also feeling out of sorts – and then she realized it had been a year almost to the day of Wyatt’s death. Our brains may not have remembered, but our hearts knew.

I searched my files to find two shadowy images, the sole evidence of my third grandchild’s existence. I strained my eyes, looking for features that just aren’t visible in the ultrasound, made less than a week before he died. What color were his eyes? Did he look like his sister and brother? What would his talents have been? I believe in heaven, so I imagine him there and hope he and his uncle found each other through the miracle of a spiritual family connection.

Maybe it will be better next year. I marked Wyatt’s birthday – for lack of a better description – on my calendar, to honor his memory each year. More important, I want to let my daughter and son-in-law know that I remember, so they know that Grammy loved Wyatt as much as they did.

Reflections from your editor, Cindy Sher, on people living their Jewish lives each day. ... Read More

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