It happened a few months after Nadia died, at a random moment with no clear trigger. I became consumed by emotion in a way I never experienced before. It felt as if this enormous beam of energy was flowing into me from above, then bursting back out through the palms of my hands. I sat at the computer in my office, waiting it out, wondering what is happening to me. It didn’t feel disconcerting, but it was intense.
The imagery I conjured came in part from The Wheel of Time, a fantasy series where certain individuals learn to surrender to the One Power. Once the Power flows into them, they can channel it through their fingertips, using it to produce magic – but some will get burned out from its strength.
This too felt like my emotions had the potential to make a train wreck out of me unless I did something with them. But where does one channel emotions that are meant for a person who can’t receive them?
When I first started reading loss boards, I was creeped out by people discussing their dead babies in ways that made it unclear whether they were still interacting with their children or with just a memory of them. Talking to their babies every day, celebrating birthdays, thinking how their actions are making the babies proud. Or doing good in memory of their baby, and then feeling proud of their baby for the good that got done. It looked as if I had stepped into a community of crazy people, people unwilling to face reality.
But slowly, and with great reluctance, I have come to think that what they were doing makes sense.
They know, of course, that their babies are gone. They constantly live this reality. However – and this is so weird, and so confusing – even though I know that my daughter is gone in every conceivable way, I still have an evolving relationship with her.
Nadia vanished when her existence would have been physically intertwined with mine, at a time when I would have needed to feel her, on a visceral level, in order to do the right things to keep her alive. We were poised to shift from symbiosis to dyad, where we would continue to form a complex whole together. I made the decision to let her go at this time of co-dependence, before any natural separation between us set in. I let her go because she would not have reached independence, because the care she would need as an infant would likely continue to be the care she would need as an adult – if she were to live at all. But in infancy, her complete helplessness would have been just perfect. To be separated forever at that point in our co-evolving relationship was brutal.
Losing Nadia cut deep into the fabric of my sense of self, and some part of her still exists inside me. This part, whatever it is, needs acceptance, nurturing, interaction. But how?
I realized that something had changed when I read a discussion between first-time mothers who had decided to continue decorating their children’s rooms after stillbirth. These mothers would spend time in the baby’s room, preparing the bedding, arranging the furniture, putting up the mobile. Or just sitting there, spending time with the memory of their baby. One continued to swap baby clothes for (previously inherited) bigger ones every few months. I was touched by this and I thought, what a healthy, natural, logical thing to do. These intense emotions need focus, and why not let them focus on the thing they naturally flow towards: our child.
The irrationality still makes me hesitate. I still can’t plant a flower ‘for Nadia’ without the background thought that there is no Nadia to plant it for, that there is no meaning in doing things for her, that the entire action is simply for me… and that I should try to channel these emotions into something more level-headed instead.
But I would like to call that flower hers and get insanely attached to it. I would like to walk into a shop and select a Christmas jumper for her, for the age she would have been now. To name a certain route I sometimes walk down ‘Nadia’s path’. To see her in the few surviving wildflowers each October. To think of our sturdy dining room table as her presence in the family (because I bought it with the money I earned by writing about her death… and because our family gathers around it every day). But it still seems so futile, so silly. Yet my instincts continue to go against my beliefs, against my knowledge that she is non-existent.
But just how non-existent is she, if part of her lives on inside me?
When she died and everything but interpersonal connections went out of focus, I found myself wondering what it would mean to exist if nobody knew me. I’d imagine myself living on a desert island, being the same person, just away from everyone else. If I knew for certain that nobody would ever know that I existed, that nobody would know that I thought and felt and created – that no part of me would ever be communicated further – then I suppose I’d think that my physical existence was not that important. I need to leave a mark on others in order to feel fully present, to feel that my life has meaning.
Then I found myself thinking about the opposite case, about not existing in a physical sense but nevertheless being present in people’s thoughts. Some long-dead historical figures still shape a fraction of my world. Or perhaps there might be an imagined mugger in the neighbourhood who will make me decide to stay home today. Or take deities and supernatural forces. I firmly believe that none of them exist, but I could hardly deny that the idea of what they are like exerts an influence on me through others. All these presences can shape my interactions with people, or make me act in certain ways. Without existing in a physical sense.
So why not Nadia? Could she be a tiny presence, missed in ways that personify her even in her absence? Growing in our minds if not in reality? Influencing our actions, pulling our thoughts toward her? Setting our family in motion by not existing when we expected her to exist? Would it be reasonably unreasonable to attribute our current path to her? And could we still find ways to interact with her memory, if not with her in person?
I feel like she was this tiny drop in the ocean, a ripple that disappeared, and that I am the only one still feeling her absence in such a palpable way. I want her to continue to be part of our family, even if she can never be here with us. But I am alone in this need to recreate her, and because of this, part of me now lives on that desert island. Convicted to being contained within the bounds of my own thoughts and feelings, uncommunicable but persistently there, present but unacknowledged, vital but denied. There might be healing from the trauma of losing her, but I am not sure there is any way to heal from this separation from the rest of the world.
To say that I am alone on Grief Island would not be completely true. I am there with her absence; it always walks beside me. And over there, I can shape that absence into her. And I wonder whether I can help her grow into independence in my mind. Enough to one day walk away, a person separate from myself. I’d watch her go with proud tears in my eyes, instead of a heart pierced by pain. Some day. Perhaps. I wish. But it takes a village, and I am raising her alone.