Our family has spent the past week remembering what we were doing ‘a month ago’ and commemorating Joel’s due date. The older children were particularly aware of each of the significant dates: Joel likely entered heaven on January 7th or 8th… we went to the hospital on the 10th… he was born on the 12th… he was due on February 14th… and he was buried on the 15th. We wanted to visit his grave on one of these dates, but snow-covered cemetery roads or other plans have prevented us from doing so. The Valentine balloon we bought to fill with Sharpie-written notes of love and then release still bops around the dining room ceiling, waiting for the perfect moment that never comes. Maybe tomorrow?
Portions of the unfinished posts I had intended to write during the past five weeks have been tumbling in my mind during this first month without Joel. Unlike the rocks that our kids put in their rock tumbler, which come out smooth after a few days, my tumbling thoughts are still rough and unpolished. I’ve been largely uninspired to share them in this raw form and especially reluctant to write about Joel’s birth, our short hours together, his funeral, or my thoughts/feelings since then. All of my purposeful planning ended abruptly after his death and birth, and the anticipation – even if it was the anticipation of loss – was gone. Everything felt dark, empty, flat, and negative.
Being post-partum without a baby is much more difficult than I had expected. Sometime during our pregnancy, Jeff was talking about the Biblical account in I Samuel 12 of David’s loss of his infant son. According to this story, while the child was sick, “16 David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. 17 The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them.” Then the baby died, and “David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate.”
Jeff anticipated that he might feel much the same after our own loss, and I agreed. Gradually learning of Joel’s anomalies and diagnosis from weeks 14 – 35 of our pregnancy had given us much time for ‘anticipatory grief.’ Certainly this would greatly reduce the grief we would feel after his birth. We would be ready to move on with life much more quickly than those who are shocked by the sudden loss of their unborn babies. With this tidy little theory tucked away in my mind, I somewhat looked forward to being ‘on the other side’ of the pregnancy and indeed ‘moving on’ with life.
Because of my hopeful, but unrealistic, expectation, I was quite shocked at how I felt during the first three weeks post-partum. I had not factored in the plummeting hormones and the hollow, aching emptiness of not having a baby to provide the counteracting oxytocin, etc. I had no baby waking every 2 hours at night to cause sleep deprivation, yet I still felt so exhausted. There was no baby to nurse away the baby weight – or at least ‘explain’ it when out in public – and no baby to provide happy diversion for all the big siblings. And all of this in the middle of February, which is already a notoriously uninspiring month for homeschool moms everywhere. Even in the best of times, moms and kids alike are tiring of the school routine and have cabin fever with excessive pent-up energy. I felt short-tempered and snappish (and had to apologize far too many times) as we tried to regroup and get into a new, post-pregnancy normal. Tears came at very unexpected times and places, like the library. I’m not one who cries easily or often and especially not one to cry in public, but I even cried while attempting to pay the fine for the books that were due on the day Joel was born and left quickly with kids in tow, offering no explanation to the poor bewildered library ladies.
I have struggled greatly with disappointment about the many imperfections of the short hours we had with Joel in the hospital and also at his graveside service. Without going into details, both experiences felt chaotic to me and for a variety of reasons were not what I hoped or envisioned them to be. In spite of trying to prepare, they just happened as they happened, and at both places I didn’t experience the type of closure I felt I needed. I’ve comforted myself with the reminder that Joel’s entire life was about imperfection. It was only fitting that our time with his fragile body and the memorial service to commemorate his brief life would be so marred by ‘anomalies’ too. “So things didn’t go the way I wanted them too? Well, neither did the pregnancy. Let’s just chalk the whole thing up as one big mess and get over it,” I reasoned. I can’t go back for a re-do of those moments, and gradually I’ve stopped dwelling on the ‘if-only-we-had-done-this-or-that’ wishes for a more peaceful ending. It was what it was. There are many things I would do differently if I had it to do all over again, but I pray I never will.
Another difficult aspect of coming home without a baby was how horribly quickly certain parts of life got back to ‘normal.’ While it’s NOT normal to have dozens of people stopping by to deliver food and gifts and it’s not normal to return from the mailbox with dozens of sympathy cards, other aspects of life were just too routine. The day after we got home from the hospital, Jeff took Sarah to Claire’s restaurant for their regular breakfast date and then took a load of scrap to the recycling center before heading to Lowes and on to take measurements for a few jobs. Work that had to be rescheduled because of Joel’s delivery was calling, and although Jeff paid bills, made phone calls, and worked on taxes in the hospital while waiting for ‘real’ contractions to begin, he still had a lot of catching up to do. “Staying home doesn’t pay the bills,” he often tells the kids, and getting back to his typical schedule was healing for him. It was also generally healthy for all of us, though it still reminded me that there was no baby here. A baby would have resulted in some altering of the routine, but now, there appeared to be no need. Hardest for me, our little girls never got the memo that post-partum mommies need extra physical rest and that grieving mommies need mental rest and time alone to process. They needed ME, and rightly so, but I needed to be alone. It was impossible to simultaneously meet these conflicting needs, so I just muddled through, doing the best I could and usually feeling like I was failing miserably.
When you have five kids, a dive right back into parenting is to be expected, and it began the moment they walked into the hospital room to meet Joel and continued very intensely especially during the first week. Lydia hasn’t been away overnight often (ever?), so she was feeling very emotional about having been away from mommy for two nights and large parts of four days. Everyone was sad. The big kids were missing their normal routines and getting frustrated about feeling behind on their school work. Though they had all had a fun time with cousins who put aside their own school work to make the days special for them, and though they were well-loved and fed while we were away, and though we had offers for play dates and babysitting, there was simply a lot of reconnecting and re-establishing that needed to happen during that first week. They needed us to be together, here. Then, during the second week, we needed to get back to school and re-set expectations for behavior that had been relaxed maybe a bit too much in an attempt to allow grace for the grieving process. These were hard, yet necessary, days, so we plowed through them.
The positives? Yes, they were/are many. In the early weeks, it was just hard to see them. Delivering Joel brought an almost immediate end to the all the discomforts of the third trimester. Apart from a painful vein in my arm at the site of my IV, I felt better physically than I had in quite a long time. I am still elated to not be recovering from a C-section, which (as one of the doctors said) would have been like adding insult to injury. Not bringing a baby home means continued opportunity for good nights of sleep (for the most part). Rather than being distracted while nursing, diapering, or settling disputes about whose turn it is to hold the baby or who has had the longest turn, I can spend extra time reading to the little girls or helping the older kids with schoolwork. By his due date, we had cleaned the house from top to bottom. We were able to enjoy sledding and snow tubing and roller skating. Because he was born early and not on or after his due date (as were the first five), we haven’t had to wonder if Joel’s birth will prevent me from seeing Hannah, Caleb, and Sarah perform their roles in our church’s kids’ musical this coming weekend or mar their enjoyment of participating in it. Recently, a younger mom who is eight+ months past the delivery of a stillborn daughter with trisomy 18 invited me for a visit and lunch in her home, sharing helpful insights. Friends and family have brought delicious meals, sent cards with such thoughtful messages, delivered cheerful bouquets of flowers, sent texts and e-mails to remind us of their prayers, and given many generous gifts, including some very meaningful hand-made and/or personalized items that we treasure. And I could go on…
While we’d rather have Joel here with us and would gladly give up sleep and all these other ‘positives’ for the opportunity to snuggle him longer, we are so grateful he didn’t have to struggle and suffer outside the womb with the consequences of his extra chromosome. We feel great joy in knowing that he is completely whole as he worships our Lord and Savior, enjoying all the splendors of heaven. To bypass the troubles of this world and go straight to Jesus? What bliss! Joel got the ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card so early in life, and in my sorrow I have almost envied him!
Week four was a turning point for me, for no explainable reason. My spirit felt a little lighter, the days seemed a little brighter, it was a little bit easier to feel patient, and little-by-little, my motivation and energy returned. The tears came a little less often, and more predictably. As we work our way through week six, it’s nice to feel mostly normal. Knowing Joel’s diagnosis ahead of time truly did allow us to do some of the work of grieving in advance, though this process will be more on-going than I anticipated.
So, for all of you who have asked, “How are you doing?,” there’s the long answer… all 1932 words of it. I’m sure you are glad that I usually just say, “We’re doing ok, thanks.” 🙂