Guest Post by Nancy
I began to write this in the days before what should be my son Wyatt’s fifth birthday. I know a lot after losing two children— a daughter then a son, during labor, both to cord accidents at full term. I know a lot I wish I didn’t know. I know that I’ll keep walking and breathing somehow, and I’ll be thankful for the love and joy we do have. But as Wyatt’s day approached this year, I found myself aching and crying in new ways. Because, while grief for a child does get easier to walk with in time, nothing prepared me last year for how hard the fifth birthday year without our daughter Meg would be.
I walk through a fifth year again with an odd emotion, familiar despair, somewhat like I felt at the news of a second stillbirth.
As what should be Meg and Wyatt’s birthdays approached in the first years, my knees buckled slightly less quickly each passing year. I was better at escaping to a safe spot to cry rather than bursting into tears out of my control. I also learned quickly in the first anniversaries that I’d feel “off” as that date approached. That I’d feel it in my heart, in my body, before my head registered the date. Sort of like a craptastic Epiphany. (“What’s wrong with me? Oh… yeah, it’s January again….”) But as each year got easier, I got hopeful. And then came five– surprisingly worse, closer to the pain of the first year. My excellent friend Kirstan, another mom who knows infant loss, said it well: “Five feels like it’s happening all over again.”
But why is five so different? Because it’s bigger? Technically, of course, it IS a larger number. But so is six, and that didn’t hit as hard. I don’t have a good answer here. Part of it for me seems to be the big milestone of kindergarten. I was (and still am) a bit of a schoolie. Okay, frankly I’m a full blown academic type nerd. I even became a professor, for heaven’s sake, so I still measure my life in academic years. My big sister was five years older than I am, so my toddler years were spent in carpool lines and visiting the “big kids” classroom. I could not WAIT to go to kindergarten. And I loved it. Is it the “my child should be doing what I loved” thought that made this hurt so? Maybe partly. But nerd or not, all parents seem to feel this as a major milestone. Schools around here even have “boo-hoo breakfasts” [I did not make that up] where weeping moms can go after drop-off the first day. Maybe five hurts because it’s expected to be a big emotional deal, loss or not.
Maybe five also feels harder when you’ve lost because of the Facebook era, the age of “my baby is growing up” posts. Certainly I was as guilty of such posts as any other mom as my oldest started school. Kindergarten preview day in spring? Status update. Pictures of the first day? Posted. Update after school? Posted. Liked by many, shared by grandparents–it’s what we do nowadays.
And what you don’t get to do when your child is gone. I remember the sting last year as friends posted about their children, all the age Meg would be. Meg should be at beginner’s day. Meg should be standing next to her big sister for a first day of school picture. These posts should be my posts. Yet beyond what’s not on Facebook, there was something palpable that first day of school, as my oldest daughter started second grade.
There was a hole next to her, where there should be a sister, taking her leap into school life. There was an emptiness in the step behind her as she climbed onto the school bus. There should be a chance for the big sister to calm the little sister… or to taunt her. I’d take either. Sure, I’ve had moments where I felt that emptiness kick me hard before. I carried a surprise baby to her due date and her absence is never far from my heart. But on this first day of school, I could barely breathe. I forgot to bring our camera over to record the first day of second grade for my living daughter, because I was too busy trying not to fall apart. I focused on my daughter, though—her backpack, her lamentations about summer ending, her questions about the new teacher. I said optimistic mom sorts of things. I wasn’t my usual social self at the bus stop. I smiled but mentally distanced from the parent conversations about another mom down the street, due any moment with her third child. (Which added a new layer of hell, as the other moms began to talk about their stories of waiting for a baby to come. Why today? No one wants to hear or tell a birth story that includes “and then the doctor couldn’t find her heartbeat.”) I said a prayer of thanks that our school system has staggered entry for kindergarteners, so no actual child Meg’s age was waiting that day there with us. Then I mentally cursed the possibility that this might also mean five days of potential “first day moments” for other kindergarteners. Could I really make it through the week and re-learn to breathe at the bus stop for four more days?
I got to work quickly that day, because lingering with a cup of coffee over Facebook seemed like a bad idea; I’d click ‘Like’ and cheer for other growing cuties when I could breathe again. And the next four mornings, we did it again. Another parent who knows loss might have detected some of the facial expressions I have mastered in my “ways to keep from bursting into tears” skill set during those days. Other parents may have wondered why I had on sunglasses at the bus stop when the sun wasn’t quite bright yet. But I think I pulled it off, missing my second daughter each morning but not dropping to my knees in the sadness.
If you could see my timeline on Facebook, you could see a picture of my sassy, smiling oldest daughter on the SECOND day of 2nd grade. You’d see a wonderful friend joke about whether I’d planned that, and if we could expect a picture of my daughter’s THIRD day of 3rd grade next year. I laughed along (and I do kind of like the idea). But now our son should be five, and my heart and soul know that there’s going to be an empty spot on the bus next fall, where my daughter’s little brother should be. Annoying her, perhaps.
I can’t imagine that won’t hit me hard all over again. Perhaps, just as the day we lost Wyatt, in the moments after I stopped screaming from a place deep in my gut, I will again say “We’ve done this before. We’ll be okay.” It can be done. Perhaps.
I wonder if there should be a manual for parents who lost about the later years, when the world expects you to be over it. Has anyone written about the unexpected landmines of the first day of kindergarten, the first father-daughter dance? Will I be a hot mess when the flier comes out about the school’s Mother-Son Bowling Party next year? Will ten be like five? What about thirteen? High school? Will this ever settle into something gentler, more bittersweet? I know in grieving my parents who passed away years ago that memories of them now feel more like a hug, a moment of thanks that I got to have them as my parents. But grief for a child is so different, so much harder—maybe because I never got to know my younger children outside of me. Can these jabs ever evolve into sweet moments if I never got living moments with them outside of my uterus? Is this why the first day of school hurts more than some random Tuesday when my kids would have been three or four or six—because these should be milestone days that we look back on fondly?
I wish I had answers. I know this hurt has eased in the months since my son’s birthday and the dread seems less overwhelming. I also know I just hid a mid-summer Facebook message from a mom counting down the days till her five year old starts school. I know we’ll go on. I’ll make pancakes for my living child. We’re plotting our next summer trip. We’ll make more memories and laugh more often than not like we always have.
And then school will start. I’ll probably wear sunglasses a lot at first. And I can take a picture on the second day of school if the first day knocks the breath out of me.