Death generally makes people one of two things: silent, or awkward. We clothed bipeds find death pretty confronting, after all.
Now take death and stir in some child death. This escalates the level of standoffish charm to something approximating a total communication blackout. In fact, you get up, leave your chair and exit the metaphorical room because it is all. too. hard.
On Mother’s day, other women are being showered with flowers and breakfast in bed and cards and calls from relatives and outings. But because of what I like to call “The Empty Chair Syndrome” women who have lost children in early or late pregnancy, stillbirth and childhood, receive a whole lot of fat nothin’.
Well, not nothing. If they’re like me, they’re lucky enough to have one or two friends who remember. Remember who the child was, their name, their intended life, the swirl of love felt when they were present. These friends validate it.
In the May of my first year without my baby, after having carried her through her first trimester and then having her leave me, I experienced my first mother’s day. August died in February, so it was only a couple of short months later. The proximity was terrible. Still morbidly depressed and teary at every prick and annoyance, I feared and longed for the day to arrive.
I held my breath, wondering what would happen, but I was sorely disappointed. No calls from family – from either my husband’s side or my own. The phone didn’t ring. No flowers, no gifts, no cards. I ended up having imaginary conversations with them, thinking what they would have said, what would have felt nice but didn’t happen. I was surrounded by a sea of empty chairs.
Well, one card. The one and only card I received was from my friend Erin, and despite the now large distance between us, the memory of this kindness and the enfolding hug that accompanied it moved me deeply. The card depicted a bird making a nest, and the nest had an egg in it. Inside, she’d written such warm words about motherhood and the enduring spirit of it – and that to be a mother is not dependent upon the immediate presence of the child. Mother once, love like that once, and you’re always a Mum.
I felt seen, I felt heard, and I felt real. Being a silent mother makes you a ghost having conversations with the dead. Acknowledgment, even now, adds flesh to the rigging of my ribs, to make me whole and moving through a world more tangible.
I still have the card. It helped me get through the day and focus on my own experience, rather than have it obscured by anger at the lack of emotional dexterity or remembrance from those nearest and dearest to me.
Another random act of love happened last Mother’s Day. My beautiful flatmates Cassie and Andrew gave me a custom made necklace engraved with a lemon tree, and August’s name engraved on the back, along with a sweet card patterned with baby elephants and gentle messages written inside.
I wear it on special days that I associate with August, so she’s sitting close to my heart. I’ll be wearing it tomorrow.
I’m grateful for the ways in which those around me have tried to help me make sense of Mother’s Day by their participation. I know, though, that in many instances this would not have happened for women quieter and less outspoken than me. It is partly because I speak of August often that I receive love and care; when you agitate for something, it is bound to happen.
But this post is not for myself, this year. This is for the women too quiet, still too tender, forced to be too ‘polite’ to talk about their little lost ones. For the women who have had miscarriages that their community has treated as ‘par for the course’. For the women who have made a choice to have an abortion but still grieve, despite knowing it was the right thing to do at the time. For the women who are surrounded by people who think talking about dead babies is inelegant and gauche. For the women who are given plenty of support at the time, only to have it evaporate in a month or two.
If you know a woman who has miscarried, had a late term loss, a stillbirth, or an abortion you know they grieve, here are five simple tips to marking Mother’s Day so they are less a ghost.
1. Give your fear it’s due but get over it. Yes, it feels strange and scary to talk to a woman about her dead child. But you are a grownup. You push through fears about plenty of things – push through this. They’re not going to think you’re rude; they might be quiet and not say much, but you’re not doing it for feedback.
2. Remember that your fear and awkwardness is less than the sadness and loneliness of being ignored at a really important moment in your life. Cover the distance between those points with action informed by love.
3. Acknowledge them with words. A card, a letter, an email, a phone call, a visit. Even a wall post on facebook or a tweet. Speak and affirm them just as you would any other mother.
4. Make your affirmation positive. This is Mother’s Day, not death day. You’re affirming all that they did for that child in the time they were here. For instance, maybe you could include a specific memory of admiration if you knew them when their child was around. “I remember how hard you worked to keep healthy when your baby was with us, and that makes a great Mum.”
5. If you can’t speak to them or write to them because you don’t know what to say, act. Send flowers, or a small gift, or take them out to dinner. Offer to help with some chore to make the day easier. Offer to keep them company. Bake them a cake.
No matter what you do, remember that ‘making someone cry’ by speaking their truth out loud is actually a good thing. When people talk about August, I often cry. It feels good to do so and I’m grateful for the people who are more than their programming and let me be that vulnerable with them (and they, in turn, make themselves open to me).
Just be present, in some way. It lets a little light and love in. Be brave enough to take a stake in a whole park bench and let us sit beside you to just…talk.
Or even just to sit in the weight of the day. Together.