My first born was stillborn at full term. We went to the hospital expecting to give birth to our baby girl who was four days overdue and who we felt move that evening before we went to sleep. Arriving at the hospital, we soon learned that her soul had somehow slipped away that night. Since then, I have given birth to our second daughter who was born 16 months after our first. Looking back and reflecting on these past months of parenting a dead child and now a living one, I feel there is something unique about entering parenthood with a dead child as your first experience.
When we become pregnant for the first time there is something that forever changes in us, a switch to a light that gets turned on and no matter what happens it can never be turned off again. I didn’t really understand this until when four months perfectly and innocently pregnant with my first daughter a coworker of mine came into my office and sat down on my couch as she excitedly told me she was also expecting and just found out. I of course congratulated her and asked all the ordinary questions, “When are you due? Have you told anyone yet? How do you feel?” And with the last question she paused and starred at me wide eyed as she replied, “Scared.” Taken aback by her answer, I inquisitively asked, “Why?” Her reply still stays with me today, “I’m a mom. My life is changed forever. No matter what happens I’m a parent now, there is no taking that back.” I paused as she said this, placing my hand on my just blooming tiny baby bump and let her realization become mine as it sunk in that her truth also was mine. From that point forward, I was a mom. In that moment, my identity changed and my role in life shifted. I could only go forward on the road to parenthood as there was no going back.
Until there was. When my daughter died, it was as if my identity as a parent died too. Well, my anticipated identity. I soon came to learn that there are different ways to ‘parent’ your dead child just as there are different ways to parent a living one. We parent through letter writing, tending to their graves, celebrating anniversaries, and giving back in their name. It wasn’t what I had in mind when I thought of becoming a parent for the first time, but in my book it was parenting just the same.
My grief in parenting a dead child in this way is not unique, but the grief of losing my identity as a ‘real’ or traditional parent is. Moms and dads are born when their children are born as the great spiritual teacher Osho states, ““The moment a child is born, the mother is also born. She never existed before. The woman existed, but the mother, never. A mother is something absolutely new.”
So what happens when that child dies before she was even born? Well I’ll tell you, it’s as if the mom and dad die too. At least their role as a parent does or that is what it feels like. You feel lost. One minute you are growing into this new identity and role as a parent as your belly is blooming with life and in the next it is gone. Poof! Almost as if it never happened. This is unique. I had no living children left to my name and how soon the world forgot that we were once parents.
Amongst the grief of losing a child and not having any living children, a struggle with identity takes place within your mind and soul. You ask yourself questions that no one else has to ask, “Am I a parent or am I not a parent?” or “Was I ever a parent or was I just hoping to be a parent?” These questions feel absurd to you like asking a man who has use of both legs “Do you have legs or don’t you have legs?” He answers with, “Well of course I have legs, there they are.” You think the answer should be that obvious to others but it’s not because your legs can’t be seen. Your child is nowhere to be found expect for in a few photographs taken after her birth and some of you smiling innocently while touching your bulging baby belly.
And there is one other factor that makes this grief so unique. It’s that if you do go on to have other children and even if you don’t, as a bereaved parent of your first born who died from stillbirth, you never know the concept of parenting to include a time of joy uninterrupted by legitimate fears. You always parent through this lens of anxiety and bittersweet joy that is clouded by the idea of death lurking around the corner. You think thoughts that every parent thinks, “What if she stops breathing in the middle of the night?” and others might reply, “The likelihood of that happening is a low probability.” And you think to yourself, “Ah, but I am one of those low probability numbers. I know firsthand how close one can come to this being you.” And you start off parenting again knowing you can no longer push away concerns as other nonparents do and foolishly think “That won’t happen to me. That happens to other people.” Because it did already happen to you. Parenting after the death of your firstborn to stillbirth is like riding a fine line between death and life with death being on your mind and you never had the privilege to know otherwise.
It’s hard to explain this distinctive grief. Maybe I’m not doing the individuality of the complexities this unique grief of losing your first born to stillbirth has over a parent. But hey, maybe that is because, in truth, all grief is unique and complex. Because all of the children we have lost are unique and complex souls themselves.
And oh, I think I would have to argue with the spiritual teacher Osho. Maybe it’s because he was a man (but I think most loss dads would agree with what I am about to say too) or maybe it’s because from my knowledge, Osho wasn’t a bereaved parent. But in my opinion a mother isn’t born when a child is born. A mother and father are born when the dream of a child is conceived. That’s what makes this grief so unique I guess, because I lost so many things the day she died. I lost her along with my motherhood, my innocence and my dreams.