Ana is a psychologist and academic nomad. She is the mother of Luca, born in March 2011, and Nadia, who passed away at birth in October 2015. Upon finding out that Nadia will die, Ana received remarkable care and support from a palliative care team in Oxford, UK. Her experience will be published on Aeon soon.
She blogs in a professional capacity about neuroscience here but I asked her to submit a blog based on her stunning and thought provoking reply to my post on the confusion I felt around a family finding positives in stillbirth.
The bewildering benefits of loss
A striking aspect of life following stillbirth is the seamless conjunction of typically opposing emotions.
A previous experience I can compare it with is trying liquorice vodka: the burning and the cooling sensations sliding down my throat, not cancelling each other out as one might suppose, but instead coexisting, each doing its own thing. The individual elements of the experience were completely familiar; it was the totality of it that was foreign.
In stillbirth, as in many types of trauma, the positive and negative come together at unprecedented intensity, each following its own course, shifting through configurations that are alien to our experience and difficult to pin down.
It begins with meeting your child. The strong bonds of parental love shoot up as you take them in your arms. The protectiveness you feel for them, the gentle way you handle them, and how you know that they are just perfect. And the repulsion you feel because they look and feel all wrong. Their colour is not what it should be, they are limp and still and turning cold and you are not really sure how much more of that decay you want to get to know.
Except that you want to keep holding them forever.
It spills over to our relationships with others. Loss can briefly spark a strong sense of community, and a refocusing of priorities towards personal space. The spotlight shifts towards the connections between ourselves and others, and on how much of our identity exists in that complex web of interactions. When our grief is so strong that it permeates every aspect of our existence, receiving empathy for it may make it feel like the other person understands the totality of our being. It’s as if that ultimate boundary between ourselves and others becomes briefly erased.
But this feeling of cosmic attunement is accompanied by a feeling of absolute isolation.
In our vulnerability, we have difficulty forgiving all those who hurt us by saying nothing, who hurt us by saying something, who wait too long to say something, who act as if nothing happened, who keep looking for signs that we are ‘over it’, who get muddled and confused and we have to comfort them instead. We know that we’d be no different if the roles were reversed, but we are aching too badly for that insight to make a difference.
Knowledge builds meaning, and meaning brings clarity. We look at the world through a lens of acquired concepts which guide our interpretations, assembling our experiences into familiar categories. But the usual moments of recognition of what we are going through are missing after we lose a child.
Our new identity as a bereaved parent is a half-hidden one, invisible unless spoken about and not understood well by most. Narratives become important, crucial for making sense of what this means for us. Some people may turn to existing narratives, like those offered by religion. Others might sift through conceptual space, trying to grasp the fleeting moments of clarity and weave them into a coherent narrative of their own.
The outcome of our storytelling is a series of snapshots that talk about unbearable pain, or about growth and learning, about a debilitating fear for our loved ones, or a deep thankfulness for their existence, about new friendships or burnt bridges, hope or desperation, strength or loss of control, meaning found or meaning lost, clarity or confusion.
Maybe these are different stories, people grieving in their own different ways. Or maybe this is just one big human story, with all its intrinsic inconsistencies, accessed at different moments and from different vantage points. Or maybe both are true, and neither one cancels the other.