The following letter was written ten months after our son was unexpectedly stillborn at nine months gestation. My hope is that it will empower other bereaved parents’ loved ones to sit in solidarity with them through the impossible pain of child loss.
Dear Loved One,
I see you. I see you, watching me with concern, unsure how to reach out. I see you, wondering what to do when you do talk to me, reaching for the phone and setting it back down in uncertainty. I see you, frustration mounting over my failure to move on, at my persistence in mourning my son. I see you. I know you don’t know what to do. I know you find my sadness overwhelming, confusing, perhaps angering even. I know you just want things to go back to the way they used to be. Believe me, I do too. More than anything else in the world, I do too. I want to go back to who I was ten months ago too. I want to go back to the day before my son died and bask in the joy and happiness that every day life was. I want to go back to the day before my son died and go into labor. God, I even wish I could go back before that and have him early. I would give anything to go back to the way things used to be.
The thing is though, we can’t. We can’t go back to a time when he was alive, and I can never return to who I used to be. I will never be the person I was before his perfect little heart stilled. My husband and I have been shattered, set on fire, and reforged. You can choose to get to know and love the new versions of us, or you can choose to watch the distance between us grow. I won’t pretend to be who I was before he died, because to do that is to deny him and that is the one thing I will never do.
I don’t know when we crossed the line from appropriately grieving to needing to move on, to needing to temper our grief to accommodate others. Was it at five months postpartum? Six? Seven? I don’t know, and truthfully, I don’t really care. Since my son died, I have learned to care less what others think of me. Judgement cleverly disguised in the form of concern, initially so painful, is increasingly shrugged off. I only have enough energy to survive from day to day. That is it. If someone makes the days harder through judgment or corrections, their space in those days will be minimized. This isn’t punishment, or even an anger reaction. This is strict survival. This is the only way I can survive from one day to the next. I know that is hard for you, you who have never had to pick which urn best represents your child, to comprehend. I know it’s hard to absorb the magnitude and intensity of our loss. It’s hard for us too.
I know it’s hard to understand the importance of keeping our son present, of actively remembering him and keeping him close, so I will try to explain. Love is a verb. To love does not just mean, to remember. To love means to do. To love means to talk about him and say his name, to love means to walk in his honor, to love means to continually help others in his memory…to love means that you too mourn the passing of our sweet, curly-haired boy. To love him, to actively love him, is the only way to keep him present. When you choose to relegate him to vague, dusty corners of your heart, occasionally remembered as a sad event that happened to us, you are denying him, and moreover, you are telling us you don’t care that you are minimizing his presence in our world. This may not be your intent, but that is the impact, and, as we so brutally and irrevocably have learned in the past ten months, the final result sometimes matters more than the intent.
Dear loved one, I want you in my life. I want to be able to call you when the darkness is too much. I want to be able to call you when I see a 3-year old little girl playing with her infant brother and the shards of my already shattered heart break even more. I want to be able to call you when my daughter starts preschool, and in the back of my proud mama heart a whisper echoes that this is the only first day of school we will get, that we will never again see a chubby brown hand waving goodbye for the first time. I want to be able to call you on the mornings I sink to my knees and weep in the shower so my daughter won’t hear me. I want to so badly. But, I can’t. I can’t risk more hurt. Because even more than I want to call you, I need to believe you would be there for me if I did. Even more than I want comfort, I need to believe that if only I could find the words to call from this dark, lonesome place, you would answer. To love someone who grieves is to suspend judgement. I need you to stand shoulder to shoulder with me and to love our son, to love him through the heartbreak, the confusion, the anger, and yes, through the inconvenience. I know this isn’t what you planned. Believe me, it’s not what I planned either. Dear loved one, what I really want is just for you to love my son. I want to know that he mattered to you. He belonged primarily to his father, sister, and me, but dear loved one, he was yours too. All I really want is to know that you miss him. All I really want is company in loving him.
A heartbroken mother
Terrell Hatzilias, PhD