Hazel McHaffie

finding meaning in suffering

The swirl of insanity that is grief and loss

I’ve returned to my roots for this one … pregnancy, birth, babies, grief, loss. … even NICU! … and my own experience as a mum of a seriously sick baby; hearing words that no mother ever wants to hear.

Still is the poignant story, a memoir, of one woman’s experience of tragedy and the search for meaning. The woman is Emma Hansen, model, writer, full-spectrum doula, whose blog about the stillbirth of her first son went viral.

On a spring morning, Friday 3 April 2015, Good Friday, the day before Reid is due to be born, Emma wakes up, acutely aware that something is wrong … there is no movement from the baby.

Hoping against hope, she waits as staff listen, search …
‘I’m so sorry, but your baby is dead.’
The worst words Emma will ever hear, and each time they are confirmed, breaking her heart into a million pieces.
One day before his scheduled date of birth. Why didn’t he hang on just one more day?

And now she must go through labour knowing that her longed-for baby will never take a breath, never open his eyes to see her, never suckle from her breast, never reach a milestone, never grow up. Somehow it must be done.

‘It is an inexplicable feeling to carry death inside you when the very concept of pregnancy is so explicitly connected to life.’

‘I want it to be finished, but I also don’t want it to start.’

As a midwife in a former life, I could totally empathise with this. I’ve never forgotten the atmosphere in labour ward when this particular tragedy unfolded. All the usual processes going on, but an eerie hush pervading the room. Footsteps, voices, movements, all softened respectfully. No fussing, no panic, no rush. No small talk. Just a sombre quiet. A sense of awed suspension; no one wanting the moment to arrive when the devastating truth will be irrevocably pronounced, confirmed, beyond doubt. What is there to say? How can you comfort in the face of such a nightmarish outcome?

Emma bravely addresses the unique heartbreak of mourning for a child born in such circumstances, the endless questions, the lurking sense of guilt.

there is no presence to link to the absence

loss becomes part of the story

fears can be debilitating and paralysing – they can own you

I am a mother, but what kind of a mother am I?

I don’t think people realise how relentless grief can be.

And then the fluctuating emotions for both her and husband, Aaron, around contemplating, living through, a subsequent pregnancy. Even I – someone who has walked alongside countless mothers in similar circumstances; someone who should have known better – even I felt a slight gathering of impatience with this mother’s paranoia with baby number 2. I was lulled into a false sense of security when another boy, Everett, is born safely. But tension soon escalated when things started to go seriously wrong again. And if bad things could happen the first time with a perfectly normal pregnancy, why not this time when there had been so many complications in conceiving and carrying this child? I was feeling the acute anxiety too, but nevertheless on the side of the rational voices calming her down. Fortunately for Everett, Emma’s maternal instinct overrides them all: her obsessive vigilance saves his life.

So, by the time the author reaches her conclusion, I am much more receptive to listening to her; to her analysis of the way in which events and their outcomes changed her, how she eventually found peace and a way of understanding how good could come from tragedy. For her, there will never be a reason good enough to warrant the death of Reid, and she certainly doesn’t believe that God ordained it.  But she finds comfort in numerous inexplicable moments and revelations and connections that say to her: though terrible things happen, we are not left alone in them. And good things can come out of loss and through suffering. She no longer prays for changed outcomes, but for the grace and strength and comfort to let these outcomes change her.

The healing journey has no end, it is always evolving. The scars of the past will still open back up and weep sometimes. But the grief grows and softens with everything that life after loss presents. I am writing this blog post on the day a mum I know is to attend the funeral of her only son: it resonates powerfully in the face of yet another tragedy.

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