When my second child was stillborn in 2005, I learned to write. Not well. Not with important insight. I could write only enough to save what was left of my mind as I had formally perceived it. My writing was minimal and disorganized and chaotic. Nonetheless, the impulse to write was almost involuntary – it was spinning an existence for a baby who died before he ever lived. The piercing truth of that fact kept abandoning me at my kitchen table holding a pen and staring at a stack of post-it notes (blank sheets were too massive), while into my kitchen spooled that blanched and cold winter sunlight. My third eye had been pried temporarily open. I felt strangely as if I had lost all my senses but sight. Being somehow mute, I needed a way to express what I witnessed.
So I started taking notes. I might add, that to that point, I had no knowledge of, or particular belief, in concepts like the third eye, which in Dharmic traditions suggests a path to higher consciousness. Nor do I mean to suggest that I actually had this gift. I did not. But even as I felt despair, I felt too that I could see in sharper focus than ever the tremulous beauty of the world. In retrospect, I see this sense of my role in the world (which was broken and had broken me) as a need to understand and to find meaning. This is a common response to a traumatic event. But this confounded me: my son’s stillbirth was a tragedy. Absolutely. But I did not want to see it only in traumatic terms because there had, to that point, been great happiness around his arrival. How could I string together these seemingly opposite truths? Rejoicing and despair? Birth and death? I was obsessed over fragile things. One winter afternoon a cardinal slammed into my glass kitchen door and died, seizing on a gray and crusted snow bank as I stood helplessly by. This exhausting dichotomy left me rattled and spent, and for the longest time I did not know how to inhabit my own body. I felt like standing up and sitting down and pacing and pressing my fingernails into my flesh all of the time.
And so I wrote. I wrote hundreds of post-it notes. I wrote for no one and for everyone. I wrote to create a record so that the details of my son’s death and birth would not be obscured. And when I wrote I sometimes felt less confused. The nausea provoking anxiety would sometimes still. The power of the healing narrative is well documented. According to psychologist James Pennebaker, those who write about traumatic life experiences are more likely to make sense of them – they experience less anxiety and have fewer medical ailments. Psychiatrists such as Judith Herman have written extensively on the benefits to the survivor of documenting trauma. Herman describes a sense of numbing and a loss of connection among survivors of many different types of trauma. Significantly, she adds, “[B]ut we know that women who recover most successfully are those who discover some meaning in their experience that transcends the limits of personal tragedy. Most commonly women find this meaning by joining with others in social action.”
Says award-winning novelist Edie Meidav, author of Lola, California: “After trauma, many people start to feel they live a story unscripted by them. And since we walk around always carrying great secret possibility — the ability to name elements of what we would otherwise call, merely, pain, shelving it away in the pain drawer — we all have a great power. Tell what you know (and also what you don’t know) about what you have suffered, and both a writer and reader find a sense of choice in what otherwise would seem to strip a person of that most basic dignity, that of telling one’s own story.”
In the months and years since, the loss remains a great part of who I am, now as a parent to three living children. I like to think that I can teach them to integrate tragedies into their lives, treating great sadness as an accent or companion to what I hope for them, an abundant happiness, just as I hope for all the families who have been touched in this way, all the richer because such joy is premised on an affirmation of life, not its negation.
In an effort to create a fully digital archive of stories, Reconceiving Loss (www.reconceivingloss.com) is honored to partner with the film Return To Zero (www.returntozerothemovie.com). We invite submissions from people in this community who would like to share their stories of loss from miscarriage through to neonatal death. This public project will be used to promote greater discussion and societal awareness of pregnancy and infant loss within various communities, and the media. In introducing the Return To Zero Project/Reconceiving Loss, New Yorker contributor Daniel Raeburn writes: “[L]ike therapy, writing is narrative. It’s taking the raw, senseless material of this world and shaping it into something that’s not so senseless, into something we can live with. A story. And after the death of a child, that’s what we need: a story we can live with.”
There are a number of ways to assist us in building the archive.
1. If you have a story of loss you wish to share, please visit Reconceiving Loss (www.reconceivingloss.com) for guidelines on submitting.
2. Share this article in your networks.
3. We have launched an indiegogo campaign to build, curate and publicize the RTZ/RL archive while we work to provide additional supportive materials. Those who would like to make a financial contribution are invited to do so for a minimum suggested donation of $10. Donations in greater amounts are also acceptable. All contributors will be listed permanently as Charter Underwriters of the Return To Zero Project/Reconceiving Loss Digital Archive. Contributors may list anonymously, in honor of a family touched by loss, or in memory of a baby.
This campaign closes on August 17. For more information see link. https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/reconceiving-loss-archive-documenting-loss