Hazel McHaffie


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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The Snow Child

It was billed as ‘A bewitching tale of heartbreak and hope set in 1920s Alaska’, and as ‘an instant classic’. It was recommended by the Richard and Judy Bookclub and received enthusiastic reviews. It’s been on my to-read list for ages. It’s Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child, and it intrigued me enough to become my first read of 2013.

The Snow ChildPart fairytale (based on a Russian folk story ‘Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden‘ and Arthur Ransome’s ‘Little Daughter of the Snow‘), part family saga about love and loss and the craving for motherhood, it was certainly different.

Jack and Mabel have left behind a comfortable life in Pennsylvania and are desperately trying to make a fresh start for themselves in a simple homestead in the raw Alaskan wilderness. But as winter approaches Jack struggles to clear the land and make ends meet, and Mabel mourns the child she lost ten years before when it was stillborn. Life is hard and the new environment is not bringing them closer or offering them hope of better times.

On the day of the first snow fall, in a rare moment of childish spontaneity and tenderness, the couple play outside and build a snowgirl together. The next morning, all trace of her has gone but small footprints lead into the forest. They begin to catch glimpses of a child wearing the scarf and mittens they’d used to dress the snowchild. Faina (an appropriately fey name, I thought) runs in and out of their lives, through the spruce trees of the forest, fending for herself amongst the wild animals, even befriending a fox, and learning to trust this strange and sad couple. They welcome her with a kind of breathless caution, and she leads them to new places, new experiences and a gentle kind of happiness.

If you enjoy reading large swathes of description; if you’re happy with a slow pace – a very, very slow pace – and interested in the minutiae of farming and trapping in the icy wastes, then this is your kind of novel. I’m not usually … and yet I found much to commend this book to me. The writing has a certain lyrical beauty; the landscape Ivey describes has an ethereal quality – something of the magic unique to each individual snowflake, as well as to a bigger pristine and mysterious world of snow and ice. (Curiously we’re experiencing our own first snowfall of 2013 as I write!)

But I was less enamoured with the big chunks of the book where nothing happened. And with the curious juxtaposition of the fairytale and the reality. The author has used a technique of omitting quotation marks when the snowgirl is present to convey a doubt as to the reality of the child, but seems to me to have thrown away her advantage when she dips into earthy descriptions of childbirth and illness associated with the same otherworldly figure.

And the element of implausibility throughout made it difficult to grasp exactly what was being conveyed. Flesh-and-blood small girls don’t survive alone in the wilderness … but what of that grisly corpse? The treatment for puerperal fever is not freezing the patient outside in sub-zero temperatures … but what of that discarded nightdress in the empty bed under the stars? I’m perfectly willing to suspend disbelief in the interests of a gripping read, but … well, this one stretched my credulity a tad too far for comfort.

On the other hand the development of the relationship between Mabel and Jack once Mabel has established herself as a partner on the land they call their own, is well wrought. The robust contributions of the neighbours, the thawing of Mabel’s heart, are warming threads in the story. I liked the underlying messages of love and loyalty.

So, although I was delightfully entertained by The Snow Girl, overall I’m afraid the different strands failed to gel for me. It wouldn’t be in my top ten. But I’m probably in a small minority. Which is partly why I’ve devoted a whole post to this book.

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