Grief and Trauma

This is a blog post I’ve tossed around inside the corners of my brain for a long time, extremely hesitant to talk about it. I think it’s safe to say, No one wants to talk about trauma. I don’t talk about it with even my closest of friends. And if Chad and I talk about it, its always in the vaguest of terms. Honestly, I don’t want to write a blog post about it.

So why am I? I think I feel motivated to write about it for a couple reasons. First, I’m part of a facebook support group for angel moms and SIDS moms. The effects of trauma from losing a child frequently comes up on the discussion pages. The distress around the trauma symptoms are real and it’s easy to feel “crazy” or out of control. So I think I’m mostly motivated to normalize trauma reactions. And the best way to do that is perhaps to share my own. Secondly, I think it might be helpful to share with people who haven’t experienced a traumatic loss like ours, to know this other side of the experience. The side people wonder about and those of us who experience it just DON’T talk about.

That side is the trauma side.

In this journey I’ve been dealing with grief. But because our loss was also traumatic, I’ve been dealing with trauma as well. I think anyone who loses a child experiences a traumatic loss but I don’t want to speak for other angel moms out there. I don’t know how my experience may be different for moms whose children are stillborn or die shortly after birth? Or for moms whose children have a poor prognosis at birth? I am only speaking from my experience in this post. It may seem as you read this post that I am approaching this trauma experience from a “clinical” perspective. And you’d be right. Talking about my trauma experience in a more removed, “clinical” way, is really the only way I can talk about it. Otherwise, my brain will go there and I don’t want to invite trauma reminders. So this is my attempt to share this part of my journey in as painless a way possible.

As a psychologist, I’ve worked with many clients who have traumatic histories. But I never understood trauma on the level I do now; until trauma happened to us. I will not discuss the details of the trauma of finding Charlie unresponsive and trying to revive him. The gratitude post I wrote awhile ago is as detailed as I think I’ll ever go regarding the details of that day. It’s incredibly painful to remember let alone describe the details. Further, when people often react to our loss they express, “I can’t imagine what that must have been like. ” And they’re right, they can’t. And I don’t WANT them to imagine it. It’s horrible. So, don’t worry, I’ll definitely spare you the details.

However, I want to express the effect trauma has had on me in this process. Grief is painful in a growth-promoting way. The pain of grief can even feel beautiful and meaningful. But trauma pain is totally different. It is unique and just horrible. It’s so sharp and unbearable that when I experience it, I sometimes honestly feel I would rather die than process it. Ok, that sounds really dramatic, but in those moments it’s that painful.

Prior to going on maternity leave with Charlie, I worked in an inpatient and residential facility for women struggling with severe eating disorders. Many of these women have traumatic histories and over the course of working at this center, women with trauma histories typically followed a similar pattern. As they began to recover from their eating disorders, suddenly the effects of past trauma become more powerful: they would experience nightmares, memories, sometimes flashbacks, and become more anxious and hypervigilant of their environment. This pattern seemed to occur about 3 to 4 months into treatment.

I seemed to follow the same pattern myself. About four months after Charlie died, I suddenly experienced exponentially more trauma reminders. I suddenly had more nightmares, and memories of that day flooded my mind at unanticipated times. I had increased anxiety and hypervigilance about Hailee’s and Chad’s safety as well. I’m grateful I haven’t developed symptoms beyond these, as I know some people may experience more severe symptoms than mine in reaction to a trauma. And trust me, the memories, nightmares, and anxiety are distressing enough.

As those memories and nightmares became more prevalent, it was easy for me to feel like I was somehow, “getting worse.” I was grateful in this process for my background as a therapist because the cognitive part of me was aware that I wasn’t actually getting worse. Actually, it was indicative of the opposite: my body had healed enough that it was now trying to process and understand the trauma of losing Charlie. I recognized that this was a normal reaction to an abnormal and horrible event.

My body couldn’t process the trauma in the early days, weeks, or months after Charlie died. It suppressed to some extent the emotional enormity of the trauma as a means of protecting me. But at about four months, it was as if my brain was saying, “I’m ready to take this on.” The processing of the trauma is horrible. I can’t really adequately express how horrible it feels. I wake up from the nightmares with my heart pounding and my eyes drenching my pillow with tears. I am often flooded with the unwelcome memories while I am driving and I may cry so much I can no longer see through the windshield. Even when the nightmares end or the memories pass, the rest of the day I feel completely battle worn. I HATE it.  I do NOT like thinking of that day. I never willingly think about that day. Or at least certain aspects of that day. And I also understand my brain needs to do this work. So against my will…it will go there.

Luckily now over six months out from Charlie’s death, the nightmares are decreasing and the memories are not as pervasive. I’ve also learned how to hasten the unwelcome memories out of my brain when they come, whereas before I didn’t feel capable of doing that. I don’t know the trajectory of these symptoms, having never experienced anything like this before, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ve passed the worst of it.

PS. This is another post that I “sat on” for a few days and I wanted to acknowledge that even just writing about the symptoms of my experience, brought me there and the day I wrote this post was a difficult day for me. This may feel like a very “clinical” entry, but when I re-read what I wrote, the words blurr with my tears. I’m trying to be patient, kind, and protective of my self. For this reason, I’ve written about my trauma in the only way I can. It’s as vulnerable as I can be about this sensitive topic.

Traumatic loss is just complicated and painful. Period. My body is trying to figure out how to internalize and process the memories and reactions of an experience that no one can be prepared for or should ever have to experience in the first place. And just like grief, trauma is a journey of its own. A journey I hate but recognize as necessary for me to experience in order to carry on.

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Baby Gabe

Since Charlie died, anything baby is hard for me to see or be around. I avoid the baby sections in any store (clothing, department, grocery, etc). I won’t even consider going in a baby-themed store like Babies-r-us, or Carters, or Gymboree. Naturally this avoidance extends to real babies as well. I usually avoid any baby where possible. Baby boys are especially hard for me to be around.

There is one exception to this: Baby Gabe.

When Hailee was 10 months old, Melinda came into our lives. For the past two and a half years Melinda has cared for Hailee on the days I work. We consider Mel one of the family. Mel has helped raise Hailee and also helped watch Charlie before he died.

I know Charlie’s death broke Melinda’s heart too. I still remember so distinctly one day I passed Charlie off to Melinda so I could go exercise. As I headed out the door Melinda was making Charlie smile and coo at her and I heard her exclaim to him, “I’m not supposed to get attached to you too!” She loved him.

Melinda planned on terminating employment with us a week after we returned from Hawaii in order to prepare for the birth of her own baby: Gabe. Baby Gabe arrived just weeks after Charlie’s death. I know it must’ve been so hard for Mel to give birth to Gabe while she was still reeling from losing Charlie. I know having Gabe has been simultaneously so therapeutic for her and also terrifying.

We were so grateful that Melinda agreed to come back and work for us when I started working part-time this fall. Of course, her new terms of employment included bringing Baby Gabe.  The arrangement has worked out really well and we all just love baby Gabe.

Baby Gabe is the one baby who I actually want to hold. When he was a newborn, he was very colicky, just like Charlie. However, when I held him, he’d fall asleep in my arms, every time. Maybe it’s silly, but I honestly felt that when I held newborn Gabe, I could sense Charlie close by. It was almost like Charlie was whispering to colicky Gabe, “Be nice to my mom. She needs some love.” And Gabe would just settle right into my arms. Gabe was the best therapy for me in those moments and Melinda was jealous of my “magical touch.”

Now Gabe’s bigger and older than Charlie ever was and it’s a little sad to watch him grow, wondering at each stage what Charlie would’ve looked like. But I still love each time I get to see Gabe and make him smile. I still eagerly reach for him and snuggle all his chunky babiness.

Hailee is also completely enamored with and attached to baby Gabe.

It is both healing and heartbreaking to see Hailee love on Gabe. I am so grateful that she has a pseudo-sibling to love and play with. But it is also heart breaking because Baby Gabe has become her Baby Charlie.

For example, every day I’m home with Hailee, at some point during the day, Hailee will pick up one of her bears and pretend it’s Baby Gabe. She will feed baby Gabe, dance with baby Gabe, make a house for baby Gabe out of her blocks, etc. I will ask her, “Why don’t you play with baby Charlie?” And she will respond, “Because he’s at Jesus’ house.” I might drop it at that or I might gently say, “Baby Gabe isn’t here either. Can Charlie AND baby Gabe play?” And she’ll say, “yeah!” And then I’ll ask, “So where is baby Charlie?” In other words, “which stuffed animal gets to be baby Charlie?” And she’ll say, “I’m playing with baby Gabe.” I inwardly sigh, pretend it doesn’t hurt, and move on.

I get it. Gabe is present in Hailee’s life. She sees him regularly. She gets to love him regularly. I’m so GLAD she does get to see him and love him regularly. I’m even glad she loves Gabe so much that she pretends to care for him when he’s not here. I understand that she doesn’t understand why Charlie died and is “at Jesus’ house” or why she can’t see him. I also understand, since six months have passed, Charlie isn’t present for her anymore. Hailee is three and making sense of her world in the best way she can. And I truly am so grateful she has baby Gabe to fill the hole Charlie’s absence left for her.

And it still breaks my heart. The picture above of Hailee of and Gabe reminds me of this picture of Hailee and Charlie.

How I wish so desperately that Hailee could continue to love on her baby brother, Charlie. That she could help take care of Charlie and play with him like she used to and now plays with baby Gabe. I wish Hailee and Charlie could grow up together. I wish they could be the best friends I just knew they were going to be. I wish they could play imaginary games, and tag, and hide and seek, and dress up. I wish Hailee would wake baby Charlie up on Christmas mornings to come and see all the presents  Santa brought them! I wish they could build forts, swim together, and kick and throw balls to/at each other. Oh how I wish…

Today Hailee did something different; something she hasn’t done before. I went into her playroom and she was building a tower/house like she usually does. Also, per usual, she had put her bear in the house. I was ready for her to tell me it was “Gabe’s house.” But today, Hailee looked at me and exclaimed, “Look mommy! I made a temple for baby Charlie!” This moment made my heart sing.

I know as time goes on, Hailee will continue to grow in her understanding of Charlie’s death and figure out how to incorporate Charlie into her life. I also know that Charlie and Hailee will have a relationship throughout the years. Not the relationship I envisioned or hoped for, but a powerful and meaningful relationship nonetheless. I believe with all my heart that Charlie will be active in Hailee’s life as her personal angel. I believe he will watch over her, protect her, and give her promptings at key times in her life. I know they will share a joyful reunion after this life (which is hopefully many decades away). Charlie is Hailee’s brother, and not even death can break that bond. Because I believe all this, I know Gabe or nor any other future sibling can, or ever will replace Charlie.

In the meantime, I am so grateful for the happiness, healing, joy and love we can all experience with baby Gabe.

Feeling vulnerable

I think people try to protect me. I think friends and family members may refrain from sharing good things happening in their lives because it might be hard for me to hear. Or maybe they also refrain from sharing struggles, because it might minimize my own?

I also feel instinctually protective of others. I want to protect my friends, my family, and even those of you who read my blog who I don’t personally know. I want to protect you all from some of the dark places I visit in this grief process. I worry it may make people uncomfortable or feel helpless. I worry, most profoundly, that I’ll lose you all. I didn’t anticipate how much I’ve come to need the continued support of family and friends, and yes, even you anonymous blog readers. Even anonymous hits on my blog feel like voices of support in this journey. Subsequently, I’ve historically been careful about what I say and how I say it. All I’ve shared so far in this journey has been honest, but carefully honest.

My last blog entry was characteristically  UNlike me. Usually, if I write a vulnerable post, like that one, I will write it, then sit on it for a few days. (I sat on the Wishing for a Rainbow entry for a month!) During those days I will evaluate if I’m in a space to reveal those expressed feelings into the blogging void. I may edit the entry…a little or a lot, depending on my emotional vulnerability and willingness to sit with that discomfort.

This last entry I wrote in one sitting and impulsively hit “publish” before I could think twice about it. I then sat with a deep feeling of discomfort…as the emotions in that entry were particularly raw and vulnerable for me. They continue to be raw and vulnerable for me.

I wonder if I was too honest in my disclosures? I wonder if I came across as bitter? Hopeless? A giant pity-party? I wonder if I made readers uncomfortable with what I disclosed? Did I make my friends feel guilty? Did I make my friends feel helpless to reach out to me? Did I push others away?

I feel like I disobeyed some blogging rule. I feel like that there’s an implicit rule that if you share dark things, you end with some sentiment of hope. Or say something meaningful or profound that was gleaned from that painful experience. Or at least say something that makes it alright.

But that wouldn’t be true. While I do have hope most days, and while I am actively searching for meaning, and have so far in this journey felt some meaningful things, that’s not always my landing spot. Sometimes this journey just feels dark. And that’s just what it is.

I vowed to be honest in this blog about this journey. I made that promise before I had any idea of what this journey would entail. I wasn’t prepared for the level of the vulnerability grief requires and sharing requires. But I’m trying to be fully honest. I want to capture this experience, in its entirety. In it’s ugliness and pain as well as it’s hope and meaning. I hope that through this, someone who may be journeying a similar path will feel connected to me and feel validated in their experience.

I don’t want others to protect me from them; from their experiences, good and bad. I in turn, will no longer try not to protect others from the dark places in my journey. For that reason, I am sitting with the discomfort of all I said in my last entry. I’m sitting with the discomfort of feeling that I may have made you, my readers, uncomfortable. I’m not editing it, or deleting it. And I promise I’ll write other dark entries as my experience dictates.

I hope you’ll continue to journey with me…because I need you.

Trapped

Sometimes I wish I could just escape all of this. I wish I could induce a dissociative fugue where I forget my identity, flee to another part of the country or world, and create a new identity; a new reality. Sometimes I wish I could just pack everything up and impulsively move to Europe and become a vagabond. I fantasize about doing this when I’m having a hard day…like today. I think about where I would go and what I would do to support myself. I know I could never and would never really do this. And even if I did, I know it wouldn’t give me what I hope for: an escape from my internal pain and the reality that surrounds me every day; the reality that feels so dark at times it threatens to overwhelm me and snuff out all sense of hope, beauty, and meaning in my life.

It’s incredibly hard to grieve the loss of Charlie. I can’t even articulate the experience in words…because really there are none. It is a deeply felt, tortuous, transforming experience. Even with valleys and rest breaks along the journey, it is still SO INCREDIBLY HARD. I’ve never had to face anything remotely this hard in my life.

Beyond the task of grieving Charlie and continuing to carry on with my life, it is also incredibly hard to still not be pregnant. To not have that hope for another baby in my arms. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t be trying to get pregnant because it only confounds my grief each time I find out I’m not.

Then beyond those two incredibly difficult tasks, it is culturally very hard to have only one (living) child, here in Utah. A mother (especially a 30 year old mother like myself) with only one child in toe is an odd site for a state that is overpopulated with children and where the average couple has at least four children in their home. Surrounded by large families all the time is a constant reminder of what we lost. I feel bitterness and anger swell up in me when I see families with siblings close in age and young mothers with lots of little ones hanging off their hips. I feel so sad for Hailee. I feel so sad for me.

I also wonder about what people think when they see me and my three year old. It is an overwhelming trend in Utah to not only have many children, but to have them close in age. So most women I encounter in Utah with three year olds either have another baby at home or another baby in the oven. I imagine people look at me and think, “infertility” or “ambitious feminist” or something along those lines. I believe this undoubtedly occurs because I’ve historically cast similar judgments myself. But at the end of the day, I don’t really care about how people may judge or perceive me. But what I do care about is pity. I don’t want to be pitied. I can sense times when I’m pitied and it’s a very uncomfortable experience.

Now, beyond the grief, the still empty womb, and the cultural aspects compounding my experience, let’s talk about the fertility of my friends! If you are looking to get pregnant, you should become friends with me. It is established fact that those who associate with me evidence sudden powers to conceive. It takes both of my hands to count how many of my friends have had babies or gotten pregnant since we have lost Charlie. And I can barely count all my friends on two hands as it is.

Individually I don’t grudge them their happiness. But it’s hard not to feel like the universe is mocking me as most of my social support system now simultaneously serves to remind me how tragically empty my arms are and continue to be.  Even though I don’t think He’s really like this, sometimes I think God has a cruel sense of humor. First he takes my son away, then he makes it hard for me to get pregnant again, and then, just for added kicks and giggles, he blesses my closest friends with uncanny fertility.

It’s been a difficult task for me to continue to stay close with these friends. I hate that I can’t compartmentalize my grief and longing for a new baby. I hate that associating with these friends is all at once vital to me and also incredibly painful. I hate that I can’t always fake that I’m OK with the reality that their pregnant and I’m not. I hate that I feel that beyond losing Charlie, I’m at risk for losing my friends because I sometimes choose loneliness over exposing myself to watching their dreams coming true. I hate that I know it’s also awkward and painful for them to be pregnant around me. I hate that I feel like a bad friend. That I have neglected friends who have struggled at times in their pregnancy or with their new baby; or even just wanted someone to rejoice with them in their pregnancy or new baby. I am very sorry if you are one of those friends I have neglected.

Sometimes I just hate feeling so trapped in all of this.

Halloween anticipation

Dear Charlie,

October is here. Fall has arrived in all it’s bluster. Since having kids, your dad and I began to really love Halloween in ways we never had before.  We like to dress up as a family in coordinating outfits. For example, two Halloweens past, your older sister was Tinkerbell, I was Peter Pan, and your dad was Captain Hook. We had a blast and were looking forward to continuing the trend each year.

Remember how this year we were going to dress up as Goldilocks and the three bears? Your sister would’ve been Goldilocks. You, obviously, would’ve been baby bear. Your dad and I would then have been the papa and momma bears. It was going to be the cutest family Halloween dress up ever! You likely would’ve fallen asleep on our trick-o-treat route, all snuggly in your warm bear costume and in my arms. Your sweet sister would’ve likely offered to share some of her Halloween bounty with you, which I wouldn’t have allowed because it would’ve been a choking hazard for you, our little 10 month old. Then behind my back, your dadda would’ve snuck out a sucker from Hailee’s trick-o-treat bag and let you lick it for a few minutes. He would’ve hidden it from sight before I came back into the room but I would’ve noticed red sticky residue on your cheeks and your sweet grin as evidence. It would’ve been a great night together.

So as Halloween approaches, we have something else to mourn: the holiday we’ll never have together. I know this is the first of many many many many holidays without you. We survived the Fourth of July without you, but Halloween seems more significant somehow. And the holidays will only continue to get more significant from here on out.

I think your sister is probably glad not to be Goldilocks, as Cinderella is MUCH more appealing for her. But please know, no matter how cute we look as a family this Halloween, our hearts will be aching to have you join us for what would’ve been your first Halloween. LOVE YOU SO MUCH Mister Mister!

A walk for little angels

Today was the Walk for Remembrance and Hope hosted by SHARE parents of Utah. This is an annual event put on for all angel parents and loved ones in the Salt Lake City area who have lost babies- either through miscarriage, stillborn, or infant loss. The day started out promising, with beautiful sunshine grazing through low hanging October clouds. But as mid morning arrived, so did the rain. I was seriously bummed about that and prepared myself emotionally to deal with icy rain pouring over my head and down my neck and a potentially very grumpy and cold Hailee. However, by the time the event started at 1, the rain had disappeared, leaving behind characteristic crisp fall air.

It meant so much to me that my parents, brother Preston, nephews Andrew and William, and dear family friend, Zee, all showed up to support us and remember Charlie.

I also saw and connected with many other angel parents I have gotten to know over the last six months. It was nice to share this experience all together.

The program for the Walk included a short inspiring speech, a brief walk, and then after the walk, each family got a balloon for their angel and wrote messages on the balloons.

And then, the names of all the angels were read, one by one. As each angel name was called, that family released their balloon into the sky. This was a powerful moment. Everyone was so silent and reverent as these little angels were recognized.

There goes Charlie’s balloon! By the time they finished reading all the angel names, the sky looked like this:

And this picture doesn’t even capture all the balloons! If you look hard, you’ll see lots of little dots of balloons already soaring high in the sky!

As I watched all the balloons soar away, I was overwhelmed with sadness that so many babies have died. I was also struck by the beauty of recognizing them together. When I realized that, I envisioned all our little angels gathered together just beyond those heavy October clouds, eager to catch the balloons their family members sent for them. I liked this image and it warmed my heart.

Throughout the program, tender songs played over a speaker system. Just as we were getting ready to leave, Charlie’s memorial song came on. Fresh tears sprung to our eyes and a fellow angel mom recognized the significance and exclaimed, “they’re playing Charlie’s song!” It was a perfect way to conclude our experience at the Walk of Remembrance and Hope.

This event was bittersweet for all of us. I loved the unity and reverence between all the families that came to this event. I loved the way we could remember and honor our angels together. It was beautiful and painful. And above all, it was wonderful to be surrounded by caring, understanding, and love.

6 month angelversary

Deep breath…I can hardly believe 6 months ago my sweet Charlie grew his angel wings. I can’t believe HALF A YEAR has passed with empty arms and broken hearts. I think in general I’ve gotten quite used to our new reality, even grown to accept it. But today I HATED it. Today was a day of feeling slapped in the face with the realization: another milestone in the rest of your life without Charlie.

I started out the day feeling ok. But as the day continued and the reality of the day sunk in, the tears began to flow more and more freely. The tears turned on in force as I dedicated a lot of the day to writing long overdue thank you letters. I wrote thank you letters to the Hawaiian paramedics, doctors, social workers, and mortician. Writing these letters was healing and I felt my heart swell with gratitude as I recalled their love and acts of service for us in our darkest hour. Writing these letters was also incredibly difficult as it brought back so many memories. Memories that carry both intense beauty and intense pain. I only hope I adequately expressed the deep and sincere gratitude I feel for all of them: my mortal angels.

For today’s angelversary service project, we decided to continue the gratitude streak and bake some homemade goods for our local fire department (Thanks Ruth for the inspiration!). We will never know if Charlie would be alive today if we hadn’t gone to Hawaii. However, had we not been in Hawaii when he died, then we would’ve been here at home and our local firefighters would’ve been the ones who responded to our call. Regardless whether they are our own personal heroes or not, we are so grateful for what they do every day to save lives.

As I enthusiastically started baking for our local heroes, I did not anticipate learning a new lesson: Do NOT try a new recipe when you intend to give the final product away! My first attempt today fell flat…literally.

Those were supposed to be buttermilk banana bread loafs. I think it was a good indicator of my overall emotional well being that I was able to chuckle about this result. And it’s a good thing I have loving and thoughtful friends who contributed to our efforts today:

Thanks Sarah and Ruki! Before the evening settled in and we headed out on our deliveries, I was able to finish a delicious (if not very pretty) batch of peanut butter cookie bars with chocolate frosting.

But Chad, in his paranoia, wasn’t convinced they were cooked through and suggested I not to give them to the firefighters in case we were to accidentally give them food poisoning! I complied and have subsequently taken to eating the batch myself-it makes a BIG batch.

The firefighters really appreciated the delicious baked goods and were really nice to us. They welcomed us right in and talked to us for a good 20 minutes. They showed us around their fire house, including a tour of the fire truck and ambulance, and Hailee got spoiled with a sticker, coloring book, and fire hat.

We ended the evening with a visit to Charlie. We brought six balloons to release. We released each one individually and shared memories we have of Charlie as we let each one go.

Overall, I was happy with the way we celebrated Charlie’s life today. This day was such a powerful mix of emotions for me: deep sadness, some anger and self-pity, polarized with profound gratitude. My gratitude deepened further as I received many thoughtful messages from friends and acquaintances who remembered us on this difficult day. We even received a small rose bush on our front door step last night. I also learned that my wonderful college roommates all engaged in their own acts of service this week to honor Charlie! (Whether they coordinated that with each other, I have no idea!) We are so blessed to be surrounded by such love!

Thank you all for being there and continuing to love us. While we are beginning to stand and walk on our own two feet again, the ground beneath our feet is still very unstable and your love and strength keep us upright.

Charlie, I miss you every second of every day. You are never far from my thoughts and always in my heart. We have survived six long months without you in our arms, but we are now six months closer to seeing you again! I know I’m a work in progress but I’m living my life in ways to try to make you proud of me. I hope you  know how much we LOVE you!!!