In Sunday’s New York Times, Arthur C. Brooks’ op-ed “Choose to be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier” cites research about gratitude and “greater life satisfaction.” Gratitude stimulates the brain. He writes “Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things.” This is something that most Americans agree with, but where do grieving mothers fit in? Is remembering our children who are no longer here a sign of ingratitude? Last night I read Angela Miller’s post “Grateful and Grieving” from her blog A Bed for My Heart. She eloquently discusses her grief and how grieving is not a sign that we are not grateful. Miller writes “It’s not one or the other. Yes I’m still grieving because I love and miss my son with every molecule in my body, but that doesn’t mean I’m not also deeply thankful for my blessings.”
Recently my mother went to a family gathering and an aunt asked her “Is Dianna still sad?” The answer is yes. Dianna is still sad. Others offer my mother advice for me. “It is time for Dianna to find closure.” “She needs to move on.” “She has a son.” One woman told me that I have to look at what I do have, not at what I don’t have. I have a living son and a daughter on the other side of the veils.
Two years ago I was newly pregnant at Thanksgiving feeling first-trimester sick. I was not thinking too much about the abstraction of who my baby would be. But I did think This is my second pregnancy. I’m done child-bearing after this. I imagined that I would birth a healthy child. I imagined that all would be fine. Now two years later that assumption no longer exists. This year I prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday with a gluten-free America’s Test Kitchen pie crust recipe, and my heart still hurts.
Brooks’ op-ed made me smile because I am so grateful for so many things like this cold New York evening and red leaves almost gone from their tree. I am grateful for my family and for my friends. I am grateful for my readers and this blog and the publisher who is waiting for my completed manuscript. I am grateful for Mary Rose, but can I also be grateful for trisomy 18? Can I be grateful that she had the life that she was given by God to fulfill her mission in this life and the next? Her 42 weeks inside me, and one hour outside.
I was recently asked “How old would she have been?” at my MOPS meeting. My eyes opened wide because I stopped my brain from thinking those thoughts. I do not let myself think about how many months Mary Rose would be or what she would have been doing. In August my husband said “She would have been walking.” And I turned to him and replied “But she would not have been walking.” I cannot separate my daughter’s body from trisomy 18. But I quickly did some math in my head that Wednesday morning and answered with tear-filled eyes, “She would have been 15 months old.” My friend Terry came for a visit on her daughter’s birthday last week. We spoke about grief and life and anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder and our children. “Heather would have been 46 today” she said. Angela Miller writes about the empty chair “where my seven year old should be sitting…” And here we are living in this world of juxtapositions and paradoxes. Of reality and imagination. Of our children, who are still our children even though they are now ageless.
In Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, she writes about her first son who was born still at 41 and a half weeks. Her pregnancy was a happy time. There were no complications until he died in utero. McCracken stays on the practical, tangible side of her grief. She does not believe in God, which does not bother me per se, but when she speaks of her dead son, it is difficult for me to process death without the spiritual dimensions. However, this book is valuable as an academic’s journey through grief. The writing is good and it is not a sad book. McCracken is honest and talks about her travels, her pregnancy and her expectations for her son. Some of her insights are so true and important, though I cannot relate to her decision not to take a photo of her son, or not to have her husband present at the delivery, or how instead of giving the boy one of the names that they picked out and were considering, they put Pudding on the death certificate, which was his nickname through the pregnancy. I chose a different path, but there is value to McCracken’s book even if she walked her child’s death differently. In truth we each walk this path the best way that we know in the moments of our grief.
In discussing her grief and other people’s sympathy, McCracken writes that “grief lasts longer than sympathy, which is one of the tragedies of the grieving” (80). Is that what this is? I think. The world moves so quickly around me and people want me to stop talking about my daughter who died even though she is still my daughter while I listen to them speak of their many living children. What negates my own daughter’s existence? And yes, my heart is still tender and raw and I do seek comfort. I want to make sense out of this trauma and grief and I cannot do it alone. McCracken speaks about the social aspect of the grieving parent after mentioning her pregnancy or her stillborn son to others. She writes “People changed the subject. They smiled uncomfortably…They didn’t mention it. They did not say, I am so sorry or How are you?” She goes on to discuss how surprised she was when people didn’t mention her son or pregnancy (92). When I saw my uncle for the first time in over a year he did not mention my pregnancy or my daughter. Chit chat. Small talk. When someone asks how many children I have, I always mention Mary Rose. The person then looks at me in horror. A dead child! How could I speak it?
Later on McCracken beautiful and honestly writes
I’ve done it myself, when meeting the grief-struck…To mention it by name is to conjure it up, not the grief but the experience itself: The mother’s suicide, the brother’s overdose, the multiple miscarriages. The sadder the news, the less likely people are to mention it. The moment I lost my innocence about such things, I saw how careless I’d been myself.
I don’t even know what I would have wanted someone to say. Not: It will be better. Not: You don’t think you’ll live through this, but you will. Maybe: Tomorrow you will spontaneously combust. Tomorrow, finally your misery will turn to wax and heat and you will burn and melt till nothing is left in your chair but a greasy, childless smudge. That might have comforted me (94).
I was speaking to my friend Jenn about this very thing this summer. She says she doesn’t want to bring up the dead baby at work because she does not want to upset the mother. But the mother is never going to forget the baby. We remember our children living and dead, and for Jenn to tell her co-worker that she is thinking of her child is to acknowledge the child’s existence which is all we want. We don’t get the milestones, the parties, the graduations, the holidays, so can our world give us that one acknowledgement of the existence of our children? This Thanksgiving, can we open our hearts to be grateful for the living and the dead? Can we make space around our tables for the memories of our children and other loved ones who have passed away? We remember the grandparents and parents and aunts, but when it comes to the children we do not want to speak their names. As McCracken says “The dead don’t need anything. The rest of us could use some company” (138).
There is one more thing that McCracken says that strikes a chord with me this holiday season. She speaks of her pregnancy to her second son, Gus, and says “there was nothing in my life that was not bittersweet. Every piece of hope was tinged with sadness; every moment of relief was lit on the edges with worry…. Of course [Gus] does not erase his older brother’s death” (183). So when we gather this holiday season, please don’t chastise a grieving mother or father or sibling for not “getting over it.” Please don’t insist that living children should fill the empty space of where the other child used to be. Let’s offer a smile and some kind words instead. There is no getting over the death of a child. Or anyone else for that matter. As Lucie Brock-Broido writes in her poem “Pyrrhic Victory,” “Some grief is larger than my body is.” Certainly this grief is larger than a month or a year, even when we are so grateful for so much.