I was nervously sitting in a Support Group Facilitator training, excited to take the next step in my path to helping others. The training had a good size group of attendees – most of whom had experienced some type of loss, some tragedy that called their hearts to service.
I was happy to be among “my people.”
As a means of introduction, we went around the room and gave our name, a fun fact, and the reason that brought us to training. My turn came and I said, with some pride, “My name is Caitlin. I am an Arizona native. And I am here to help others after a tragic loss. My son died 5 years ago, and I don’t want anyone to face that alone”.
After introductions we had a brief break. Another man, some years older than me, came over and said “You also lost a son!? I did, too. His name was XXX. He died of cancer when he was 18. It’s nice to meet another bereaved parent. What about you?”
I expressed my sorrow for the death of his son, and explained that, yes, I also had a son die. He was stillborn after nearly 8 months of pregnancy and I’m working with a group to support others going through the same thing.
The man paused, took a deep breath, and then visibly deflated, having found he didn’t have a companion in grief after all.
And it’s true. I don’t know what it’s like to have had a child live and then die.
Not in the same way this man did.
I don’t have memories of first steps and starting school and growing up.
I don’t have memories of horrifying diagnosis days for the one person you love most in the entire world.
I don’t have memories of losing a grown child.
I can’t even imagine what that is like, and this kind, grieving man knew that. He knew our grief was different.
That my loss was somehow different.
But I did, indeed, have a son who died. He died before he got to live.
I have memories of kicking feet and a growing belly.
I have memories of painting the nursery and happy announcements.
I have memories of plans, so many plans and memories of a duck themed baby shower.
I also have memories of a silent fetal doppler, the face of my doctor the moment he realized I’d be delivering my son dead, and the feeling of bile in the back of my throat understanding this same truth.
I have memories of blurry nurses, Paul making unthinkable phone calls, and memories of seeing my son swaddled with care and handed to me.
I have memories of cuddling sweet pink newborn skin that slowly turns darker in death’s clutch and of baptizing done in only the direst of circumstances.
I did, indeed, have a son who died. But he died before he got to live.
And so this is where I live. In a limbo of not belonging.
I don’t belong among those whose children died well after birth, with the time between their child’s birth and death in direct correlation to the distance between us.
And I certainly don’t belong among the land of the living, with those whose families are whole and complete. Those who get to tuck in every one of their children at night.
This in between place is lonely. Desolate.
I want to cry out in empathy “me too!” when hearing grieving words of parents whose living children have died, but silence myself with memories of faces twisted in confusion, pain, and doubt that I could begin to understand their despair.
The faces that, in their own grief, have said “Oh no. No. You and I are not the same. I thought we were, but we are not.”
I want to jump into the conversation with other school moms about birth order; the crazy middle children, the mature oldest, the easy going youngest. But I swallow my thoughts silently remembering those faces, untouched by grief, confused as I explain my “oldest” is not really my “oldest”, but my “middle”.
Remembering the silences that follow that awkward exchange. Because who really knows how to take part in that conversation?
The conversation about a child that died, but never really got to live?
This place I live is a no man’s land – skirted on both sides with the living and the dead. It’s visited only by other parents who have experienced a pregnancy or early infant death. Their presence a brief respite from the isolation found here.
Our grief being measured and balanced against those who have had their children take a breath and live, sometimes months, sometimes decades, before passing on to the other side. The depth of our loss becoming a sterile equation of gestational age, amount of deformation, and subsequent healthy babies.
And this chasm is highlighted every day I speak openly about my first son. My precious boy.
So, every day becomes a choice of emphasizing this void, the vastness of this space between, or minimizing it with my silence…and pretending for even just one day that I belong on either side of its border.