Wednesday, 10 February 2010
Today, February 10th should be a happy day for my family, a birthday celebration. Instead it’s the saddest day of the year. My son Daniel was stillborn, twelve years ago, the worst day of my life. How could the inexplicable death of a baby in the ninth month of pregnancy be any other way?
And yet, all these years later, I can say that having Daniel was also one of the best things that ever happened to me, to us as a couple and to our family.
How can that be? How do you emerge from the horror and the shock, the pain and the anger, the emptiness, the totality of such a loss - a loss with no happy memories to mitigate the pain? Losing a baby just before birth is the loneliest of losses, because no one knew him, not even his parents. I still cannot believe that Daniel was meant to die, that his loss was somehow pre-ordained. The gifts that he gave us came from his all too short life, not his untimely death.
‘I cannot imagine what you have been through - and nor do I want to’ one friend wrote to me after his death. Well, now there are few losses that I cannot imagine, few traumas that scare me. Thanks to him I have supported friends and strangers through similar losses, through infertility, stressful pregnancies, sorrow and loss. Daniel gave me the gift of fearless compassion. He stretched my imagination immeasurably.
Just a few years ago one of my oldest and closest friend and her husband lost their only child James aged just a few days. How would I have begun to imagine what to say and what to do without Daniel? It could have caused a rift in our 30-year friendship. In fact, our sons brought us even closer together.
A friend described bereaved mothers as 'sisters in sorrow' and that sisterhood is also shared with friends who are trying to conceive and whose loss and grief is less tangible than ours.
Daniel’s death reminded us that life is a gift. It is hard to keep living in the face of a terrible loss, even harder to embark on a new pregnancy. There are some days when you can’t face getting up in the morning, because of the weight of sadness and fear. But the moments of grace, when the sun shines and you laugh and things go well are all the more precious when you have experienced the ultimate low.
‘You’ve always found a way of laughing at your troubles before’ one friend wrote to me. Well, not this time. The self-deprecating habit of laughing things off just wasn’t appropriate. Daniel taught me to take myself seriously. To ask for help when I needed it. To say no when too much was asked of me. It may just be me, it may be a deep-rooted female thing, but I learned the hard way that I couldn’t always cope on my own, and that not all troubles can be turned into a funny story. Before Daniel I’d thought of psychotherapy as self-indulgent. After his death it was as essential as physiotherapy after a devastating car crash.
When I became pregnant again, just over a year after Daniel’s death I did not take one second for granted. It was terrifying, it was wonderful. For a year I had avoided pregnant women, now I could not avoid myself. Every day that the baby lived inside me was a precious one.
Daniel made me think about my ambition, my goals. I wanted to do something to honour him. It was frustrating at first, not knowing how I could do anything but survive the sheer exhaustion of mourning him while bringing up little children. I fretted that I could never do him justice, that I would somehow let him down. I wanted to live his life for him, but I barely had energy to live my own.
But when I embarked on an Open University degree I dedicated my studies to him. And when I signed up for an evening course in writing for children I was determined to make the most of the experience. Without Daniel in my life - because he is still in my life - I would probably not have seen the course as an opportunity to produce a novel in a few months. Without the courage he gave me I’m not sure I would have risked the rejection of sending it to literary agents. Thanks to him I have reinvented myself as a writer.
When my husband and I face hard times we know that we have faced the worst that life has to throw at us and survived. I’m not sentimental about this - surviving the loss of a child is one of the hardest tests that any marriage can take and sometimes I wonder how we did it. Twelve years on though we know our love has been tested, and we know we came through it. Sometimes it’s useful that other trials seem trivial in comparison.
Our children have gained so much from the brother they never knew. They know how much they are valued, and they know, in these days when so much pressure is put on children’s shoulders, that they bring us infinite joy just by being alive. They know that it is fine to talk about Daniel, that we are not scared of big emotions or huge philosophical questions. I believe they are more mature and reflective as a result. We never forget how lucky we are to have them.
Last September Daniel should have been starting secondary school. It was difficult hearing about other children’s plans for their new schools. Seven years ago when I had to walk past the reception classroom that should have been his, I had to grit my teeth and remind myself that I never knew Daniel. Perhaps he might have been blind, physically disabled, autistic - in some way unable to take his expected path in life. That was probably Daniel’s most important lesson for me - there is comfort to be found in some very strange places, if you trust your imagination enough to look for it.
(This post is adapted from an article I wrote for Doreen Samuels' e-magazine Moonlight)