As I write this article, I am eating a stick of beef jerky. A scintillating detail, no doubt.
But for me, it isn’t just beefy jerky. It is the first stick of jerky I’ve eaten since my stay at labor and delivery, during which I birthed my daughter’s inexplicably dead body at 31 weeks of pregnancy. My husband and I had just checked into our hospital room. We felt numb, exhausted, and more than a little punchy, and so my husband pulled out the bag of jerky that was stashed in our suitcase.
When we’d found out the day before that our daughter had died, we had no idea how to prepare for her birth. The only tidbit of advice from our birthing class that still seemed to apply was the recommendation to bring snacks to the hospital to sustain me (and, to a lesser extent, him) during labor. So that day, before going to the hospital, we’d gone grocery shopping.
I remember wandering through the store as if treading on glass, praying that we wouldn’t see anyone we knew, or that some stranger who’d mention my obviously pregnant belly. It felt like walking between worlds. There was normal reality, in which life was buzzing on around us, oblivious to our tragedy, and there was the surreal and disturbing present in which I was carrying our dead child while we picked out jerky and fruit snacks. And then there was the gray future in which I would birth that dead child and we would somehow survive.
We were doing the only concrete action of preparation that our brains could catch hold of, and we arrived at the hospital armed with snacks, a desperate grab at normalcy in a horribly abnormal situation. As we waited for our nurse to come introduce herself, my hungry husband hauled out a piece of jerky, took a bite, and then tossed it across the room to me. We laughed as I caught it, and even as I laughed I wondered at how it was possible that I could laugh, when I could barely taste the jerky, when the only feeling my stomach could register was the devastating stillness within.
Today was the first time I ate jerky since that day. My husband bought some at the store, and this evening I drew a piece out of its bag and ate it as if it was no big thing. Except that it was a big thing for me – and then again, it wasn’t.
It was a big deal for what I hope are obvious reasons – how its taste and smell and presence are triggers that launch me backwards in time so that I am right there in that hospital room again, awkwardly joking with my husband through our shock, waiting to give birth in an unimaginable and terrifying way.
Perhaps less obvious is the reasoning behind why my jerky-eating is simultaneously not so big of a deal. It is because of the shift I have been noticing within myself recently. It is a forward shift into a new measure of healing, a new phase of life after stillbirth. Today it is exactly two years and three months since the ultrasound that showed a silent heart where a beating one should have been. Two years and three months, and I am growing forward, out of the raw newness of grief.
It’s interesting – some might say that after more than two years, it’s about damn time that some forward motion happen with my grief, that I should have stopped talking about my daughter’s stillbirth ages ago. But I firmly believe that is it is because I refused to grieve in any way other than my own – openly, vulnerably, saying her name, expressing my pain, entertaining discomfort – that I am now moving forward at precisely the right time for me.
Two years and three months, and I notice that I am finally able to drive by the hospital at night without experiencing flashbacks to the night we received the kind of news that nobody wants. Two years and three months, and I am able to function without seeing my therapist. Two years and three months, and looking at my stillborn daughter’s photos doesn’t sear me before it soothes me. Two years and three months, and I don’t feel that I am betraying her if I don’t wear the jewelry I gathered in her memory.
Two years and three months, and it’s not hard for me to say that I have more children than the one that’s visible. Two years and three months, and I find I’m not moving away from my daughter’s memory but instead finding a more sustainable balance for remembering her amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday living, instead of the harsh, wracking pain that would stop me in me tracks and throw me to the ground every time I thought of her.
Two years and three months, and I don’t need others to remember her with me as much as I once did. I love when they do, but my heart is healed enough, the gaping wound scabbed over enough that I will not wither without others’ acknowledgment (I think) (I hope).
Two years and three months, and grief has become a more comfortable sort of companion, if still unwanted. My grief these days reminds me of the life that was, the precious soul-light that pulsed bright before it fell dark, more than the life that isn’t.
Two years and three months later, and I cherish my daughter no less than I did the day I met her and said goodbye. Two years and three months is what it took for me t come to a place where I feel as if I am finally standing on solid ground.
Two years and three months, and I am stepping into something new. A new phase of living after intimacy with death. I don’t know what to call it, or how to describe it. I only know that I can sense the shift. I am stepping up and out onto a new stage of life after stillbirth, and it is resting on the solid foundation I built with my early, open, healthy, and needed grieving.
Those two years and three months of blogging about my grief, telling the truth about my inner turmoil, and dedicating intentional time toward taking care of her memory and my sadness have paid off. The naysayers who told me to shut up and move on quick were wrong. They didn’t know what was best for me – my heart did, and I’m so glad I followed it.
I encourage you to follow yours. As long as it is safe, grieve in whatever way you need to and for however long and however openly you wish. Don’t listen to those who put limits on your grieving in order to minimize their own discomfort. Do what your soul needs, and ignore the rest.
And I am grateful to be here, at least for a time. I know that the tide of grief will rise again and inevitably sweep me under the water once more. But that is okay. I am okay. Two years and three months and I can say with gratitude and gusto and no guilt at all that I am doing okay. I can eat the foods that once would trigger flashbacks. I can hope without more than the usual amounts of reservation or fear. Two years and three months is what it has taken, it seems, for me to find what you might call my “new normal.”
I have no more neat and tidy conclusion than this, but I know that you know that’s okay because I know that we all have learned too well how messy and untidy grief is. I write only to encourage you – that, rainbow or not, your time is coming. The time is coming when you will look down at your feet and see for the first time in a long while that they are not kicking desperately against the ocean’s deep, treading water in time with your exhausted arms, but instead are pacing tenuously up a new shore that is no less beautiful for the time and pain it cost to swim here. I’ll see you on dry land, up beyond the dunes, when you are ready and not a second before.