They say grief is non-linear, though my Type A personality wants to believe it’s possible to graduate from one stage to the next. I experienced the first stage of grief, shock, when the doctor first told me, “I’m sorry, your baby does not have a heartbeat.” I literally could not believe what he was saying. In my mind I was convinced that until Ellis was born, they would not know for sure whether his heart had stopped. I silently held on to this belief for the next several hours until the c-section. I was scared to see Ellis. I did not know what he would look like or if the grief of holding a quiet, breathless new baby would be too overwhelming to bear. When they laid Ellis in the bassinet in the operating room, I knew instantly I had to hold him. Perhaps that was the moment I became a mother. I needed to embrace his little body, feel his warmth, and admire his perfection. I needed to memorize every feature of his face and hands because these were the first and last hours I would have with him.
When we were in the recovery room, my doula Tori, and the nurse gave Ellis his first bath. My dad helped clothe him in a sweet outfit made by a local charity, Threads of Love. Tori arranged for a bereavement photographer to take photos of Ellis and also made castings of his hands and feet. We will treasure all these memories and mementos forever. After the surgery I trembled uncontrollably from the epidural and the shock of what happened, yet every time they put Ellis in my arms my body relaxed, flooded with warmth and peace. Close family and friends came in to see Ellis and wept with us. I’ve never cried as hard and deep as I did that night in the hospital.
The following week I experienced the seemingly unbearable pain and guilt of grief. I cried uncontrollably, barely ate, did not sleep, and constantly relived each moment leading up to the loss of our baby, agonizing over whether there was something I could have done to prevent it. I laid in bed at night drowning in the darkest thoughts of “why?”, “what if?”, and “did he feel pain?”. One night I continuously felt for my pulse, fearing my heart might stop just like Ellis’ did. The next weekend, my family gathered at my parents’ house to celebrate my sister’s birthday. I had an irrational fear of going to their house because I was there the weekend before when Ellis died. I decided it was important to go, in spite of my fearful thoughts, to avoid giving them power over my actions. As it turned out, our family was able to find joy in spending time together—playing board games on the porch, watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and celebrating the day my sweet sister was born. However, in moments alone I felt a confusing sense of guilt for feeling happy; I thought I should only be feeling sadness. I realized that although this heartache and longing will probably always be with me, I am still allowed to experience joy and happiness.
This week I’ve started to reflect on and accept what happened. Our beautiful son Ellis died. The doctors don’t know why, and that is okay. There was nothing I could have done to prevent this. Death is an integral part of life. Our baby’s life lasted a sweet seven months, and we will carry him with us always. Our experience is not only defined by tragedy—it is both dark and light, terrible and beautiful, heartbreaking and joyful.