Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Grief We Carry

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Photo by Mike Schaffner. See more of Mike's work at flickr.com/photos/mwschaff/

My toddler son Seamus had been dead for a little over a month when I attended my friend Jess's baby shower. She had extended the invitation with several caveats: everyone would love to see me, but they didn't want me to feel obligated. I could arrive late, leave early, skip it altogether with no hard feelings. I hated being treated so delicately. And so, as if to prove to myself and others that I had my shit together, I showed up with a big smile and a gift in hand, determined not to be a drag on the celebration.

I usually tell people that Seamus died in a car accident, but the reality is more complicated. My husband Eric was pushing him in a stroller through a marked crosswalk when an elderly driver started to make a right turn through the intersection, then slammed his foot on the pedal, mistaking the accelerator for the brake. Eric was thrown 30 feet through the air and briefly knocked unconscious. Seamus' stroller was dragged through the intersection then pinned to a telephone pole by the car. He endured two surgeries and a night in intensive care before succumbing to his injuries. Twenty-seven hours after arriving at the hospital in a blind panic, I walked out with a bandaged, shell-shocked husband, a manila envelope full of grief pamphlets, and five tufts of wispy blonde curls tied neatly with purple ribbons and tucked into tiny envelopes—mementos the PICU nurses had prepared for us while we filled out organ donation paperwork.

Family and friends rushed in to help in the aftermath. By the time a month had passed, Eric and I were still receiving a steady stream of thoughtful messages and meals delivered to our door every night; but for the most part, people had gone back to their lives, and the two of us were left to face the vast emptiness where a chubby, silly, inquisitive little boy had been. Our once-happy marriage had become unrecognizable, replaced by a somber, weary march through days that ended with an alcohol-and-Ambien-assisted fade to sleep. In addition to signaling my togetherness, attending Jess's baby shower offered a temporary escape from the misery of our home, a chance to feel normal, or at least to act normal, for a little while.

The women who gathered at our friend Megan's apartment that night were former colleagues at a local nonprofit where organizational restructuring and layoffs were a constant source of stress and uncertainty. The group was practically founded on gallows humor; but still, I worried that my transition to "grieving mom" would be an impossibly heavy lift for them. We congregated around a small table stocked with appetizers and bottles of wine. My friends caught up on workplace drama, while I tried to follow along. I tried not to drink my wine too fast; I tried to smile; I tried to keep my hands from shaking as I delicately arranged cheese on crackers. Curiously, no one was talking about children or babies. Worse, my friends' eyes kept filling with tears whenever I spoke, even when the topic was sports or the weather. At one point, one of the women pulled me aside to tell me how much she'd been thinking of me and Eric and Seamus over the last month. I remember a surge of panic, watching her tears overflow as eight pairs of concerned eyes darted to me, then back to their conversations, then back to me again. I smiled, said "Thank you," and changed the subject.

And then there was Jess, looking so radiant and so pregnant. Her blue eyes sparkled, and she was all belly and limbs in her gray sweater and black leggings. "I'm so excited for you," I said, hugging her. But my smile was a thin membrane holding back enormous, ugly feelings. I held them back with such force that my face hurt.

When Megan herded us to the living room to open gifts, I took a moment to appreciate that Jess, like me, had no tolerance for baby shower games. No one would be asking me to guess the candy in the diaper or decorate a onesie. My affection for her grew—alongside a desire to run out the door and disappear into the rainy night, never see these people again.

I slid into a chair opposite the mom-to-be, clutching a glass of wine and bracing. I tried to calm myself by looking out the window behind her, where street lights lit up the rain in cascading, fluorescent triangles. I tried to muster some oohs and awws at the swaddle blankets, tiny hats, and plush toys amassing in a pile at Jess's feet. When the women began trading childbirth stories, I sank back in my chair, fixing my smile and my eyes on whoever was talking, watching opportunities to contribute to the conversation pass by like distant trains. Looking down at my empty glass, I recalled the earthquake-like sensation that occurred in my pelvis right before I reached down between my legs and felt Seamus' head for the first time. It was cosmically powerful, despite the fact that I was sitting on a toilet and crying. Eric was holding my hand, setting the stage for countless jokes about bathroom pep talks in the weeks to come as my stitches healed.

Where did Seamus come from? I wondered. Where did he go? Is it the same place? Is it a place at all?

Megan pulled me back, saying, "Michelle, tell them what Eric said about the placenta."

"Well, placentas are gross," I said, looking into my empty glass. The women responded with smiles and eyebrows raised expectantly, but the room went eerily quiet. Red wine swirled in my belly.

Bless their hearts, I thought. They are pretending so hard.

"I can't remember what Eric said, though," I lied.

Megan told the group that she had come to visit us a few days after Seamus was born. She wanted to hear everything about the birth and I was excited to tell her. Sparing no detail, I walked her through the twenty-eight-hour ordeal, then arrived at what felt like the end of the story: healthy baby, everyone crying, relieved, exhausted.

 

I pictured my palm opening to reveal a tuft of hair, a purple ribbon. He's right here.

 

"And then Eric chimed in, saying 'And then a steak came out.'" She was laughing. "He must have thought your organs were just like, falling out of your body."

Everyone laughed, and I followed suit, relieved, amused, or perhaps both. The knot in my chest loosened.

Later that night, I helped Jess load the gifts into her car and hugged her again. I couldn't wait to meet her little guy, I told her, but it might be a few months.

"Of course," she said. Her husband stood beside her, looking stricken.

Driving home, I cried bitter tears, aching with jealousy at the thought of Jess's baby, warm and safe in her womb, comforted by the steady pulse of her heart. Other friends were going home to tucked-in little bodies and warm cheeks to kiss. What did I have? Tiny locks of blonde hair tied up with purple ribbons, in an envelope, in a box somewhere. I thought about primate mothers, who have been observed in the wild cradling and carrying their dead babies for weeks, even months. As with those monkeys, my grief had become a monstrous, physical presence—almost as if my body was confused, asking: "Where is your baby?"

I pictured my palm opening to reveal a tuft of hair, a purple ribbon. He's right here.

After the baby shower, I entered into a kind of social hibernation. I could not carry my son with me, but I could not set him down, either. With few exceptions, I declined invitations to happy hours and barbecues, even missing a good friend's wedding. I lived in fear of the awkward silences, and the questions, which ranged from "Do you have kids?" from a friend of a friend, to "How's the little guy?" from a coworker who hadn't heard about the accident. I still saw my friends, but only in small, intimate gatherings where saying my dead son's name was less likely to suck the oxygen out of the room. Until I became pregnant again the following year, I stayed in hibernation mode; and even then, I emerged tentatively, only to face new questions. "Is this your first?" "How are you feeling?" "Is Eric excited?"

Two years and one day after Seamus died, I gave birth to his brother and sister—twins we named Gus and Greta. It's now been eight years since Seamus died, and while I am more adept at navigating social situations, I still enter most small-talk situations feeling like I am carrying something inappropriate—a bomb I could drop into any conversation: My son is dead.

Last summer, my family was preparing for our annual trip to the San Juan islands when I learned about a resident orca whale whose calf had died. She had been photographed nudging her baby's corpse across the Salish Sea, holding it aloft on her nose when she breached. As if she could will the baby back to life. On social media, a chorus of grieving parents sang out in solidarity. We understood the part of her that could not let go. At least not yet.

After a week, the story about the grieving whale was national news, and even as my heart broke seeing the images day after day, I wondered why humans found it so easy to rally around a grieving whale when we can't seem to make space for grieving humans. Why did I have to protect other people from the truth of what had happened to my family?  Why did moving on require letting go?

Seventeen days after her baby's death, the grieving whale let go. A few days later, I stood on a beach in the San Juans with my children, watching a pod of orcas breach a few hundred yards offshore. I wondered if the grieving mom was among them. I wondered if she would return to the place where she left her baby, if she was tormented by the thought of ocean scavengers eating its flesh. I thought of my own son's body, swollen beyond recognition, a line of stitches running the length of his abdomen, a hole in his skull. I thought of the heavy box of ashes that had been delivered to our house a few weeks after he died, the terror of opening the box, and how surprised I had been by their stark, translucent beauty. Years later, those same ashes would cast a white film on the clear blue mountain lake where we scattered them, along with some flower petals and little boats made by Seamus's brother and sister. I remember Eric swallowing a sob, Gus and Greta's voices saying (a little too cheerfully), "Bye, Seamus!" which made us all laugh. I thought of how rotting flesh gives way to bones, and how grief softened by time becomes inoffensive, and frequently—surprisingly— beautiful.

In many ways, I still carry Seamus with me. He's a tattoo. A necklace. The cells in my body. The neurotransmitters that light up when I smell a sun-soaked, musky toddler head. He's small tufts of blonde curls tied with purple ribbons, tucked into an envelope, in a box in my basement. I've carried my dead son for so long that my grief no longer feels monstrous. I've carried this grief for so long that I am not myself without it.


Michelle DuBarry is a grant writer living in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two young children. She recently completed a memoir.


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This is so beautiful and yet so awful. Thank you for sharing this.
This is so beautiful. I feel it in every pore of my being. Thank you for sharing. I would love to read your memoir.
I love this.....you couldn't have described the emotions, hurt, anxiety any better.
Hi, I have just recently found you, and so glad I have. I love the way you write, so real and honest. I lost my beautiful boy, Dustin a little over 10 years ago, and still think of him every day. Please keep writing, and together we will all keep our children alive. I have also shared your writings with two friends that are also in our club.
“I still enter most small-talk situations feeling like I am carrying something inappropriate—a bomb I could drop into any conversation: My son is dead.” Thank you for describing so beautifully the hell we live in and can’t quite explain ourselves.
Thank you for sharing your story. Our son, my first baby, Aiden, died 12 days after he was born in November of 2017. I fell asleep with him that night at 8, completely and utterly exhausted. I woke up a little after 1 the next morning...he was gone. Accidental asphyxiation...the cause of death listed on the death certificate- co-sleeping with mother. I am currently 24 weeks pregnant with our second baby, another little boy. It's amazing the mix of emotions that brings. I hope I will be able to love him and enjoy him without feeling guilty. I hope I don't make him feel like he isn't enough because I will always long for his big brother and feel the weight of the agonizing pain that comes with his absence.
I am so very sorry for your loss
So beautiful and sad. As a bereaved mother, the pain is always there. When in a social setting , it is so difficult . But also so joyful when someone talks about their memories of my son. He was 27 when he died.
We lost our 2-year-old son (also our only child) suddenly and I also attended a baby shower very soon afterward. I didn’t know many people there and I so relate to keeping quiet when I normally would’ve contributed during the child birthing stories. I knew I wanted to be able to answer that dreaded question “Do you have kids/How many kids do you have?” without denying my son or making the person feel awkward. I decided to make a little business card sized answer to be able to tell everyone about my social boy who was still filling the world with joy. It was an idea I felt like I wasn’t supposed to keep to myself so I’ve made a template available (free to anyone it may help). If you would like to make one for Seamus to make these social exchanges easier, you are welcome to do so. I’m sure you also have others who have shared their story with you, so you have my permission to share it with anyone that may benefit from this. I’m sorry to know we share this horrific thing in common but I’m grateful you are using your shattered heart to help others. Wishing you and your family well. Here’s the link to the cards: https://thecalebeffect.org/walking-through-hell/
The pain at the thought of losing a child has always gotten my every cell. I lost an 8 month stillborn , but then again a son at 20, the loss was so compounded I couldn’t believe it could happen again. I go through this with others and it never goes away, you do carry it on your shoulders every day of your life. I just wish people who never had to experience it would have compassion sometimes. They will thankfully never feel the agony. Thanks for the beauty of your writing.
I really connected with your words. Myself and my daughters, me being 36 weeks pregnant, were hit by a car while walking into a store. The driver of the cars foot got stuck under the brake which caused their foot to be pushed down on the accelerator, well thats ehat they claim anyways. They were travelling in reverse when they crossed quite a distance in the parking lot before hitting us at a speed of over 50 k/h. We were smashed through the sliding glass entrance doors then thrown into the large front foyer entrance of the store. I was in and out of consciousness but when I came to I learned that I had been rushed into an emergency c section to deliver my baby, my 3 year old Miah was badly injured and currently sedated and my eldest daughter Addison at 6 years old was brain dead. I later learned that the baby I delivered was a girl and that she had no brain activity. We took Rhiannon, thats what we named her, off life support a few days later. Addison, it was decided, was to become an organ donor and she saved 4 lives. That was 4 and a half years ago but it still feels like yesterday yet strangely feels like forever ago.
Beautifully written and so so accurate a description of holding in grief for others sake. I don’t know what this world has become that we can’t express our grief without frowning friends or people backing away as if you are riddled with weeping boils. A very brave memoir. X
This is so perfectly said. Thank you.
My sister in-law lost her 47 year old son 3 months ago in a sudden tragic accident , I’m at a loss how to help her. I’m sure she has tuffs of her sons baby hair in envelopes tucked in a special place. I send her cards all the time. I wish I could send her your article but I’m so afraid of hurting her feelings. You are a brave family and I admire how you could articulate your feelings. Bless you!
It still hurts 44 years later. He died immediately after cutting the umbilical cord. I never saw him, held him or smelled that awesome baby smell. Yes, I still cry, just not as often. James M. Vizena Feb. 10, 1975
My daughter had just turned 4 when she was killed. It has been almost 5 years now, but I still carry that bomb with me wherever I go. I'm so sorry that we're in this club together.
This is so beautifully written, thank you. I wish I could contact Cristin above. I really sympathise with you. My daughter Mae died in her sleep at 9 months old. We weren't cosleeping, she got twisted in her blanket and died. Ironically it would not have happened if we had her in with us. I feel more shame and sadness than I know how to express. And yet life does go on and has beauty. Mae died in 2017. Eadie was just born 3 months ago, almost exactly 2 years after Mae was born and just 14 months after Mae died. My heart and soul are learning how to deal with both my daughters. I found this recently and found it so spot on, gorgeous and perfect: https://pregnancyafterlosssupport.com/10-promises-to-my-rainbow-baby/?fbclid=IwAR1fdCLKYAjz-jpL2SxMJJZv5vtFs1Ij4s6xOpNxTlsM9TYmL-c0rGqfb80.
I, too, like other mothers whose children have died followed the story of the orca whale and her dead baby. And I, like you, wondered at the ability of humans to rally around and sympathize for a whale mama with a dead baby whale when there is often so little support and lack of understanding/empathy for a human mama whose child has died. Our son died at 19, the victim of a car accident when a drunk driver hit him at twice the speed limit. It's been a long, difficult, and often misunderstood walk. My heart goes out to all on this journey. Thank you for your excellent article.
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