Sharing My Fears Along Grief’s Roller Coaster
I have spent countless nights lying awake listening to the even ebb and flow of my husband’s breath beside me, just trying to pinpoint the exact moment when I first heard the clack clack clack of my car along the surface of the tracks. I like to think that I had no idea. I like to think that it was not until hearing the words, “something is very, very wrong with your baby,” that my ticket onto this ride had been torn, and my fate had been sealed. Now, having spent nearly six years replaying every detail of my daughter’s birth, and subsequent death, over in my mind, I have come to realize that even before I knew what was happening, I was already on the loading platform, waiting for my car to arrive.
I had gone in to be induced a week prior to my daughter’s birth, and the induction, to everyone’s surprise, hadn’t worked. I left the hospital with empty arms, staring at the vacant car seat in the back of our SUV, and complained about the unfairness of having to go home without her. I can still see myself staring at that little seat, pregnant and disappointed, and at times just the thought of it renders me breathless, knowing how cruel a foreshadow it was of what was to come.
“Just come back in another week,” the doctor had assured me. “We will give you some more time to go into labor, and if that doesn’t work, induce again.”
Seven days later, in my 42nd week of pregnancy, I packed up my hopes, tucking them neatly into my overnight bag, and headed for the hospital once again.
“This isn’t how it should be,” I told my husband. “I’m not happy or sad. I feel nothing. We are about to go have our first child, I shouldn’t feel nothing.”
He offered me a smile, and a warm hand against the back of my head, and proceeded to assure me that everything I was feeling was normal. “It’s different this time,” he told me. “Even if it takes a c-section, this time the baby is coming home.”
Sometimes I replay that conversation. I think of it as the moment when the cold metal bar was lowered over my lap. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but fate had strapped me in. My car had been queued up in line. In less than twenty-four hours, everything I had known about myself, and my life, would be gone with the diagnosis at birth of my daughter’s leukemia.
Twenty-eight days later, Peyton’s entire lifetime, with a still empty car seat heckling me from the back of our Ford, my car rolled to the front of the line, the pulley chain was attached, and I began my unsteady journey along the tracks of the roller coaster they call grief. A ride that, up until recently, I wasn’t even sure I had the strength to survive.
The night that Peyton died, and in the days that followed, I was a ghost, breaking outbursts of tears and guttural sobs with aimless walks around my home, and up and down our short cul-de-sac street. The air clung to me with a closeness that would take me nearly a year more to shake, and everything around me felt foreign and surreal.
In those days all I could do was wonder at how any of this could have happened. How I could have gone, in one month’s time, from leaving home to birth my first child, to transforming into a lesser and traumatized version of my former self, left in a perpetual state of questioning over things that could never be understood?
This phase of disbelief, I have since decided, was my trip up the lift hill, the roller coaster’s initial ascent.
In those first days I didn’t know what to expect from one moment to the next. I was like a pawn, moving at the whim of a force much greater than myself. Everything, I realized, was out of my control, and struggle as I might against the metal bar that held me into the car, I couldn’t break free. Nothing I did could take back what had happened to Peyton. I was scared, and in a fog, and too tired to think beyond the next minute.
In an effort to not face this new reality, I slept. And slept. And slept. At this point I believed that sleeping could bring her back. I believed that if I just slept long enough, eventually I would wake to find that this had all been a bad dream. I told myself that I must have dreamed her. I told myself that Peyton hadn’t been born with cancer. That she hadn’t died. I told myself whatever I needed to hear, but it made no difference, my car continued to climb towards the unknown.
I begged the operator to let me off this damn ride. I screamed at the air about how unfair it was. I tried bargaining, telling Him what a good person I would be if He would just stop the car, but He did not. Instead the clack clack clack against the tracks intensified, and gravity threw a suffocating pressure over my whole being.
Of all the points on grief’s roller coaster, I think that initial ascent may be the cruelest. It was a slow, drawn out, uncomfortable phase, and all the while I felt uneasy in knowing that the higher my sense of disbelief rose up the tracks of the lift hill, and the more I tried bargaining or reasoning my way out of it, the farther I would have to fall.
What came next was the first drop, and with it, the darkness.
Rounding the top of the lift hill, I plummeted to depths that I had never known existed in this world, at speeds that overwhelmed my heart, and at times, my sanity. I screamed into the wind but was choked silent by the g-force of the free fall. My surroundings became a blur while the permanence of my situation grew more and more clear. The clack clack clack was deafening. It left me disoriented and unable to think. Hurling towards the ground, I thought for sure my car would be derailed and crash into the concrete below. I lost hope in any belief that I would ever again see the sky, and instead just held onto the bar, closed my eyes, and awaited an impact that never game.
In the years since first stepping off the platform and onto this ride, the trip has been neither steady nor reliable. There have been moments that tricked me into believing that my ride might be coming to an end, or that I have already passed the worst of it. In these moments I take a deep breath, knowing that around any curve I may be met with another twist, turn, or barrel roll like those that have revealed themselves along these tracks: eight long months of trying to conceive only to learn that scarring from my c-section had rendered me infertile; meeting with genetic counselors who had no information or answers about our daughter’s cancer; our first failed round of IVF; birth announcements from friends as the nursery in our home remained stagnant and empty; a complicated and high risk pregnancy after loss, flashbacks of pain that I would like to put behind me, the emotions that come with desiring a larger family when my body and my wallet fight that reality. And though I hate being on this ride, it is a fear of breaking down on the tracks along the way that has scared me the most.
As a child, news stories about stalled roller coasters horrified me, and that worry translated into my grieving process. I worried about where I might be when my car gets stuck: right side up, up-side down, in the midst of a sideways turn. I worried that this loss would leave me contorted in such a way that I might never again be able to touch the ground, or to right myself. Never so much as on the roller coaster of grief have I felt more clarity about how little is actually within my control, and so, with no other choice, I hold fast to the bar, and I pray. I pray that when this car stops, it will be in a place of joy. I pray that the clack clack clack will eventually fade off into the distance, muffled by laughter, and conversation, and happy memories of the beautiful girl gone too soon. I pray that I will look back at where I have been, and how far I have come, and I will feel grateful.
I started blogging about my ride along grief’s roller coaster in May of 2009. It was Mother’s Day–my first Mother’s Day–and rather than spending it as I had imagined, with my child in my arms, I had spent it clutching the grass and the earth at her grave. I was eight months into grieving Peyton and I couldn’t get the images of what I had seen her go through out of my mind. I spent days, then weeks, and eventually months without a night of restful sleep as the guilt and anguish of not being able to save her tore at me with an unrelenting clack, clack, clack.
I filled those restless nights reading books in those early months. Books from well-meaning friends and relatives that I felt didn’t apply to my situation or my loss. These books told me to be grateful that my child was with Jesus, or that it was okay to walk away from the pain of her. I found no comfort in their pages, no understanding in their words. I felt like they were putting out a dolled up version of what it was to lose a child, one full of rainbows and butterflies, one that didn’t make people uncomfortable, and it angered me. I wanted the world to know, to really know, what losing a baby could do to a person, how it could take a grown woman so sure of herself, and make her afraid of everything: the dark, God, the future.
I wanted to tell my story, and to honor Peyton’s, with truthfulness and full disclosure, regardless of how I thought my words might make me look. Honesty was important to me, and it was something I felt was lacking in the books that I had been given. I had spent eight long months riding the roller coaster alone, being told in books that my reaction and inability to just move on was outside of the norm, and that sense that I was the only person to feel the way I did, or react the way I had, was terrifying.
In writing about my pain I also found unexpected beauty, in the form of connections with other bloggers in the loss community. Just as readers dealing with loss could identify with my words, writers of other blogs offered the same validation for me.
Sometimes I look ahead of me, and see someone who is more familiar with this terrain than I am, someone who has been riding these tracks even longer than I have, pulling into the unloading platform. As I watch their lap bar being released, and see them step off into a bright future, I feel a sense of hope that I, too, will reach that place. Not a place where we ever forget, but a place where our once-shattered hearts are once again overflowing with joy, and peace.
And then there are the other times. Times when someone fresh in loss takes a seat in the car behind me, and I watch the weight of the lap bar come down and secure them into place. It is at these times that I reach back my hand and whisper that I understand because I have been there, and I let them know that, though I cannot predict how or when, they too will get their turn at the unloading platform.
They, too, will survive this ride.
*A version of this article originally ran on our sister site, Exhale.