“Don’t you think it’s unhealthy to talk about it all the time?”
“Don’t you worry about what people will think if they read your blog?”
“Is writing about it really what you should be doing now? It’s been over a year…”
When I was in college, my five roommates and I worked at a certain world famous theme park. One day I came home complaining about a man who I had called security on for having exposed himself. Nutty park patrons were something we all dealt with daily, and my story kicked off a sort of round table of griping about the weirdoes that colored our days. I thought when I shared it that my story was going to be the strangest, but then one of my roommates who worked as a hostess at a park restaurant blurted out, “You think you deal with weirdoes? Girl, you don’t know weird until you have dealt with the ‘towel baby’.”
‘Towel baby’ was just that – a towel, dressed with sunglasses and a hat to resemble a baby. The park patrons who brought ‘towel baby’ were regulars at the parks, such regulars in fact that my roommate had been instructed during her training that she (and all of the other employees) were to follow along with the couple’s delusion.
When waiting on their table, staff were to comment on how cute ‘towel baby’ was, take food orders for ‘towel baby’, and treat ‘towel baby’ as they would any other child at the park. As they ate, the couple would sneak bits of food away from the table to give the illusion that the child had eaten it himself. My roommate told me that she had heard that the couple had lost their child, and under the pressure of grief the wife had snapped one day and began treating the towel as if it were her baby. Not wanting to upset his wife’s already delicate mental state, the husband went along with the front.
Many who heard the story of ‘towel baby’ would write her off as a wacko and laugh. I even came across an online forum once devoted to making fun of this woman. In the years since hearing the story, I often wondered how it was that someone could be driven to such a place mentally.
Twelve years, and one dead child later, I have a little bit better of an understanding.
I was telling the story of ‘towel baby’ over lunch with some babyloss mother friends, when one of the mothers I was lunching with told me about a woman who lived on her street when she was a kid. She said the woman had lost her child, and would spend her days walking up and down the block pushing a stroller with a doll in it. She believed the doll was her child. Neighborhood kids would taunt the woman, even going so far as to throw the doll into the river. “She believed it was her baby,” my fellow babyloss mother told me. “Can you imagine how traumatic that was for her to see what she thought was her baby being thrown into the river?”
The story was heartbreaking.
Images of bereaved mothers are often portrayed in movies and on television as women who have simply snapped. On the show One Tree Hill, a nanny went crazy and tried to replace her dead child with the boy who was under her care. The villain in the movie The Hand That Rocks the Cradle went insane after, among other things, miscarrying a child.
Do you see a theme here?
Urban legends, literature, movies, the media, each offer depiction after depiction of women who have not only lost their children, but their minds, and honestly, having lived this nightmare of loss, the assumption that losing a child can send a woman over the edge doesn’t really feel all that far-fetched.
There are no words to describe what it is to go on living after your child has died. No words to describe what that does to a person, or how it feels. For me, our loss was compounded with infertility, and the list of descriptors grew longer by the day.
These are a few I would use, but even they don’t do it justice.
My grandmother lost two babies back before women could talk about losing a baby. I thank God that she went on to have more children (one of whom was my own mother who went on to have me) but I don’t really know how she did it. Especially not back when the taboo was that much stronger. Some women who lost a child would put on brave faces. Others became shut-ins. Many, unfortunately, were unable to fall in line with society’s expectations and grew too hopeless to go on living. Whenever I hear comments made to other babyloss mothers about moving on, I think of these women, and I cringe. Is that what pushed them over the edge? One too many people passing judgment on their grief?
What society doesn’t understand is that grief is not a phase, and it is not a choice. As a bereaved parent you can choose to put your best face on, you can choose to put your best foot forward, and still end up drowning in your own tears because of the many varied day to day reminders of what you had with your child, what was lost with your child, and what never will be for your child. Grieving is a long and nasty process, and if there were any choice in the matter, the bereaved would take it. We want to be free of our heartache but it just isn’t that simple, and any attempts at oversimplifying the process of grieving for the sake of others only add to the difficulties the grieving face.
My child died.
It was horrific to watch.
There is no cure for that.
I started to write about my daughter’s death in May of 2009 with a poem I had written about Mother’s Day. It was my first Mother’s Day, a day I had envisioned during my pregnancy, and one that I was being forced to spend without her. That first Mother’s Day was full of grief. My second was grief and anger at my lack of fertility. When I look back on those early days now, I can still recall how cruel life felt.
Over the past five years I have chronicled the occasional ups and many downs of surviving child loss while facing infertility, and then the emotions that come with parenting after loss. Writing has been my catharsis, my space to vent and be heard and understood and thank God for it, because it is only through being honest in my writing that I have maintained my sanity through loss.
Some think that grieving openly is unhealthy but I beg to differ. It is suppressing our grief that is unhealthy.
Our grief is a wound, deep and in pain, and it has to be examined and cleaned and dressed for it to heal. Sometimes the same areas have to be cleaned two, and ten, and a hundred times, and if that is what it takes to heal, so be it. Not dealing with our grief would be like expecting a Band-Aid to heal a wound without providing the wound any care.
Placing a Band-Aid over a wound for the sake of not troubling others with the ugliness of what has happened is an invitation for infection. Sure it might look better on the outside and be easier for others to cope with, but beneath that clean, shiny bandage it would still be festering and could possibly cause irreparable damage.
Damage that might make a woman believe a doll, or a towel, is her child.
I have thought a lot about the ‘towel baby’, and the doll in the stroller. I have wondered what makes those women, the ones who took a step over the deep end and never returned, different than me, than you, than any of us in this God awful baby loss world.
Just like us, these women were at one point considered normal. Just like us, they had their whole lives ahead of them. Just like us, these women rubbed their bellies and daydreamed about their child’s birth. And, just like us, in some way or another they witnessed the end of their child’s life.
But that, I think, is where the similarities end.
Unlike these women, we have sought out the help and validation of others who are walking this path with us, or have walked it before us. Unlike these women, we know how healing self-expression can be. Unlike these women, we understand that what we are going through and feeling may not be the societal norm, but is still perfectly normal under these circumstances.
Unlike these women… we are lucky.
Yes, you read that right. Lucky.
Lucky because we are still here.
Lucky because we know that masking our grief, or ignoring it, wouldn’t make it disappear. Instead our grief would manifest in other ways.
We are lucky because we are tending to our grief, and as impossible as it may feel at times, we will be better for it.
After all, it is only through tending to the wounds of our grief that they can heal, and we can survive – sanity and all.
**A version of this essay first appeared on the blog Once A Mother.