I wish to share the story of the infant loss my family experienced, I was 6 years old, my brothers 2 and 4, when my mother lost her fourth child at birth, my little sister Susan.
To this day, just touching into the emotions around this time makes me well up with tears. The impact of her loss has been the seminal experience of my life, and is why my acupuncture practice, my teaching, my writing, plus the work I do as a doula and as an antenatal teacher is entirely based in helping people to have healthy children. Susan's loss is why I have specialised in supporting bereavement.
When Susan died it was 1968. What is referred to as 'neo-natal death': she was born alive, but before either of them could see her or hold her she was taken from my parents, whisked into a darkened closet where she was left to expire. It seems barbaric by today's standards, but at the time this was the procedure. Susan had a terminal neurological dysfunction that meant she would not have lived beyond days or at most a few weeks.
At the time, the hospital chaplain, the doctors, our parish priest all believed this death was best dealt with by behaving as if it had not happened. My parents were actually told, 'You need to put this behind you now. Go home to the healthy children you do have'. My mother came home from the hospital a mere three days later, and fell, shattered, into a place of utter desolation and absolute isolation.
There was no funeral.
How I wish with all my heart that this had been different. We belonged to a church community of over 400 families. A funeral would have meant that the entire congregation would have had permission to call on my family, to cook for us, to bring my mother tea and sympathy, a kind word, a comforting touch, someone to sit vigil with her as she came to terms with her loss, giving her an opportunity to be in sympathetic company to express and share her grief.
Instead she was stranded into a no-man’s land, utterly alone, in despair, and she did indeed fall into a profound post natal depression coupled with an unprocessed grief of astronomical proportions. Being the 60’s the answer was ‘Mothers Little Helper’, and she was put on Valium. So not only did we lose my sister, we also lost our mother as she disappeared into a stoned haze of barely coping.
On top of that we also lost our father. In his isolation he became a workaholic of the long-hours barely-there variety, and the schism between my parents never recovered from the dividing they experienced at Susan’s death. My father tumbled further into an ever increasing alcoholism, numbing his pain of unresolved grief.
My mother only truly resolved all this grief in her 80's - not only for the loss of her daughter, but also for the end of her marriage, and for the fact of my father's early death from alcohol.
This unspoken grief haunted our childhood. My brothers were so little at the time, they only ever knew the tensions of our home, yet never truly knew why. My youngest brother made the choice to not have children, and though he will not talk about it, I believe that all the taboo around Susan’s death has potentially influenced his choice to not have children. My middle brother had also felt that way, until he met the right woman, and in their 40’s they have been so very fortunate to have two healthy daughters, though with all the challenges of late-in life parenthood, and the heartache of 4 miscarriages in between.
I am telling this story because I wish to communicate how the impact of loss is something that will never go away. I have learned, through the loss of the little sister I never knew, that stepping into one’s grief and fully embracing the loss, and in opening our hearts to allow our community to support us, it is possible to resonate the grief into the normal boundaries that it should have. Ignoring grief will amplify it into such a high pitched resonance it can become an all consuming hindrance to moving forward in our lives.
The unexpressed grief in our home rose to an encompassing, deafening silent-roar that manifest from the censorship around Susan's death. The resonance of this tightly held tamped down grief pitched to a dog-whistle level of silent piercing shriek. Always there, yet never acknowledged.
It's so important to communicate that, in the 40 something years since Susan died, there has been a seed change of profound proportions, and that what we experienced as a family in the 1960’s is highly unlikely to ever occur in today’s society and in today’s healthcare provision.
Today, when a baby dies, both the mother and father are given as much time as they might need with their baby, to hold and grieve and to begin the long process of letting go. The support network within the hospitals is there to provide parents with as much counselling and chaplaincy as they might ask for, and the awareness to support families through the grief process is well understood throughout (UK) NHS care.
Parents now are given as many mementos as is possible, ink prints of feet, hospital bracelets, a lock of hair – the keepsakes that help us to know that this person was here, that this person glimpsed in and out of our lives, but that they were fully loved and wanted and needed. Parents are encouraged to hold their baby and love their baby and to take absolutely as much time as required to be able to say a proper goodbye to their baby.
My mother was never allowed to say goodbye, and one of the saddest moments of my life was when she told me that this was THE greatest regret of her lifetime. She regrets with all her heart that she could not have held Susan in her arms to tell her how loved she was.
The unpacking of these immense emotions is so very important. As I write this, the raw emotion rears and the tears stream down my face as the fullness of unexpressed grief yet again rears its head within my heart and I am overwhelmed by the feelings of loss that came with Susan leaving us.
I was 32 years old when I determined the inherent burden of this unspoken story within our family needed to be resolved; after all these years, still NO ONE talked about it - most especially my mother. At that time she was still unable to connect with those lost years of zombie-like drifting in the valium haze. I began to call on my family, one at a time, and through careful detective work began to unwind the story, bringing together the collage of experiences to find the whole picture. This was my healing, this was how I came to accept and deal with all those hidden angsts that were the foundation of our childhood.
This is how I learned that there was no funeral.
And so I decided to make a funeral. On a sunny afternoon in early spring, on Susan’s birthday, in nature’s church, a beautiful Cotswold’s forest, I made a hole in the ground that I dug with my bare hands, and in absence of any Susan mementos I buried my own christening mug and my favourite stuffed bunny, and a bonnet my auntie had knit for me when I was born. And just as I smoothed the earth over this little grave of heartfelt cherished pieces of childhood, a group of 4 children ran by, shouting and laughing and chasing each other through the trees. Bringing up the rear was the littlest girl, two plaits bouncing down her back – and had any of them turned and shouted out ‘Susan’ I would not have been the slightest bit surprised. My perfect farewell to my little sister - we said our long lost goodbye in the joyful song of children laughing and playing.
There is no way through loss except to go through it. If you are suffering a pregnancy or infant loss, please know that you are not alone and that in reaching out you will find so much love and support and understanding. Hard as it is, there is a way through it. Hold hands and bravely step into the grief.
Know that your love of your little one will never go away, and though you will not know them, they will always know you love them.
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As well as your own family and community of friends, here in the UK you can always turn to your GP, midwife and health visitor for support. The hospitals all have chaplains there to support you, and we have many excellent child bereavement charities and support groups.