This year marks the first time that all three of my kids will be in school, and most excitingly, two of my kids are starting school for the first time. Having an empty house during the day for the first time is bittersweet for most parents, I’m guessing, but milestones like this have been extra difficult since I lost my first born son.
A few years ago, before my youngest two kids were born, I found myself pregnant with what should have been my second child. The pregnancy was a happy surprise, especially since my now-husband and I hadn’t been dating long. But we were both ecstatic anyway and dove right into planning for our expanding family. At my 18-week doctor’s appointment we learned we were having a son, which was exciting for me, coming from a family of all girls.
A few weeks before my due date, I woke up at three a.m. with severe abdominal pain. At first I thought I was having really bad Braxton Hicks, but as the pain increased I realized it was something more. We headed to the emergency room in a panic, expecting to be told I was in early labor. It was close enough to my due date that we figured everything would work out. A premature baby wasn’t ideal, but he would have a fighting chance.
Before before I was even admitted I realized how wrong I was. I looked down and blood was gushing from between my legs, “This isn’t right,” I said to the nurse at triage, and from the look on her face I could see she felt the same way. At this point my contractions were coming fast; much faster and harder than at any point during my older child’s labor and delivery. I honestly thought I was dying and all I wanted was to deliver my baby before that happened.
Everything else after that was a blur. My son was delivered an hour later, stillborn. I held his tiny, lifeless body for as long as they would allow me to, and all I can remember feeling after they took him away was hollowness.
The grief you feel after losing a child is hard to describe. For weeks, I refused to leave the house; the outside world felt too huge and dangerous. Even after I worked up the nerve to leave the house and go back to work, I would escape to the bathroom to sob into my fist, silently so no one would ask me how I was or if I was okay. Recovering from giving birth is hard, even when things go right. But when they go wrong, the emptiness is almost unbearable. It went beyond the intellectual knowledge that my child, who was just a few days, weeks, months ago, in my womb, was now gone and buried. The emptiness was a physical feeling. A distinct feeling of incompleteness right there in my body, under my heart.
I’m ashamed to say this now, but I didn’t want to even look at my living child. My oldest daughter was only three at the time, and so innocent. Every time I saw her it was a kick in the gut; a reminder of the little boy I had just lost and would never see again. A baby who would never live to her age, who wouldn’t walk or talk. The gut-wrenching grief that I felt when I looked at my daughter mercifully faded with time, but every milestone became a reminder of what might have been. Every birthday, every holiday, every vacation.
A few months after my son, who we named David, passed away, I became pregnant again. After a fearful and tense pregnancy my second daughter was born. The joy of the first year of life was much different than with my first child. We were happy, but it was tempered with apprehension. I bought a high-end baby monitor, which was never something I felt I needed with my older daughter, living in a tiny NYC apartment. I would sit and watch her breathe while she napped, counting each breath to make sure she was still alive. When my youngest son was born, two years later, some of the tension had passed, but the fear of the unknown never really went away. We had lived through the worst case scenario and we knew what the stakes were.
This autumn marks a huge milestone for my family. Like every major event that’s happened in the last seven years, underneath our happiness there will be a shadow of grief; a shadow that seems to follow me everywhere. Every boo boo I’ve kissed, every bath I’ve given, every bedtime story, it’s there. And as I line up my brood to put their backpacks on and take back-to-school and first day pictures, it will be there too, reminding me of the one who’s missing and will never go to school, or graduate, or get married. The one who was taken from my arms the day he was born, never to be returned.
I’ve tried to find silver linings over the years, as difficult as that may be. I’m not religious, so I’m not comforted by platitudes like “It was God’s plan.” As a logical person I also find no respite in thoughts such as “It was meant to be,” or “It is what it is.” I can say that the loss of my first son made each moment with my living children feel even more precious , and that includes the milestones that might just as easily be taken for granted. So this year, as I send my three little miracles off into the world, I will try not to focus on what I’ve lost, but what I’ve created, and the possibilities that lay before them.