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The Mask
By: Gwen Flowers

It doesn’t fit me very well,
But it matters not, you see.
Because most people do not want
To see the real me.
It’s much too painful for them.
So they avert their eyes.
Their platitudes are only words
that I’ve come to despise.
They can’t bear to confront it.
They don’t know what to say.
They think if I ignore it,
The pain will go away.
But I cannot ignore it.
It is too deep and real.
And those who’ve never lived it400
Just don’t know how I feel.
No one wants to face it
When a baby dies.
They quickly try to hush
A grieving mother’s cries.
They say I should be moving on.
They don’t know what they ask.
So, to spare their feelings,
I put on the mask.

People frequently say things to me, that perhaps they truly believe are going to comfort me, or perhaps they truly don’t think before they speak. Either way, I’d like to dispel another myth. Here it is. The fact that I have living children does not make up for the one that is dead. The fact that I can have another baby does not make up for the one that is dead. The only thing these statements say to me is that the people who speak them really have no clue what they are talking about.

When someone makes one of these remarks, my first thought is usually something along the lines of “Okay, then how about you stick one of your hands out here and we’ll chop it off. Sure, it will hurt a little at first, but you should be able to get over it quickly because you do still have another hand, right? As a matter of fact, after some arbitrary amount of time (determined by me, not you) I do not want to hear you ever mention that you are having a difficult time dealing with the loss of your hand. Don’t ask me for help. You just need to be strong. No complaining. That will just tell me that you are ungrateful for the hand you have left. And would you mind terribly keeping your stump hidden? Looking at it makes me uncomfortable. Hey, where are you going?”

Do you see my point? Nobody would use that kind of reasoning when talking about their hands. Why in the world would that kind of logic apply to one of my children? Bottom line-it doesn’t. It doesn’t apply at all. It is faulty reasoning.

I love my living children. If I am lucky enough to be able to have another baby, I will love that child too. I love them so much it hurts. I love them more than my life itself. But they do not make up, could not ever make up, for my Eliana not being here. They are not machine parts, easily interchangeable. They are people. They are my children. I cannot swap one for another, and in doing so, somehow patch the hole in my heart. The Eliana size hole is there to stay. It cannot be filled with anything, or anyone else. I could have twenty s41588cb110832_5more children, and I would still grieve for my precious baby.

I miss her, will always miss her, much as I suspect you would miss one of your hands (or one of your children) if you happened to lose one of them. That which is precious cannot be replaced. It would be foolish to try. And it is foolish to ask me to do so.

Today is the National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, and it’s also the day Eliana would have turned 8 months old. I lit one candle in remembrance of my baby, and some more in memory of all the other children who are no longer here. I wanted to share this with you, but I did figure a few people would not be overly impressed with this “DAY” since there seems to be a “day” for just about everything now.

This got me thinking about our vast array of holidays we can choose to celebrate. Talk Like a Pirate Day is one of my favorites. Not because I actually talk like a pirate on that day, but just out of sheer fascination that someone not only thought it up in the first place, but got enough other people interested that it’s become a “day.” Ever heard of What if Cats and Dogs Had Opposable Thumbs Day? What exactly are we supposed to do on that day? Just sit around wondering what kinds of mischief our pets would get into if they did in fact have opposable thumbs? I’ll tell you what the cats would do. They’d leave. Most of them don’t like us that much to begin with. A thumb would come in very handy on the front door. I’m sure the dog would be more than happy to give them a boost.

So I’m sitting thinking of all these goofy, meaningless days, and wondering why people have heard of things like National Go Barefoot Day, but they have not heard of the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. Or why so many people would be much more comfortable with me talking about VCR Day, than they are with me talking about a day in remembrance of my precious baby who died. To tell you the truth, it’s enough to make me wish it was the International Moment of Frustration Scream Day. Too bad I missed that one three days ago. I guess I’ll have to settle for writing this blog post.

But really, folks, let’s get serious. Horrible as it is, children and babies die way more often than anyone wants to think or talk about. But being forced into silence leaves those of us who are grieving feeling very much alone. Is it any wonder we cling to each other when those who are supposed to love us spend more time running away or chastising us than they do trying to really care or help?

I would like to ask those of you who know someone who has lost a child to please, please, just call them up or send them an email and say you are thinking of them. Tell them you are remembering their child, and use the child’s name. Would you like it if we referred to your kids as “him” or “her” or “the baby” all the time? Or even worse, as “IT”? They have names. We love to hear them used.

Please reach out to those you know are hurting. We know you are uncomfortable. We understand. If you don’t know what to say, a hug or a sincere “I am here for you” would be fine. Just saying we are in your thoughts is a very nice thing to hear. Saying our child is in your thoughts is even nicer.

Make a Difference Day is coming up soon. I suggest you start making a difference right now, by showing some of the love we know is in your hearts. Love not shown might as well not even be there at all. We need your love, more than you can possibly know. You cannot fathom the depth of this pain, and we wouldn’t want you to. We just ask that you be here for us as we try to live through it.

Sincerely,

Deanna, on behalf of myself and the other bereaved parents

I would like to respond to one of the comments posted recently, and address some of the concerns people seem to be having about me, my life, and my writing. Sorry for the length, and the bluntness, but I had to get this off my chest.

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As a matter of fact, I have experienced death, many times over. Of course I am aware that death has at some point touched most of us. All I can tell you is that losing a child goes so far above and beyond the grief I have felt over the other deaths, that I do not feel adequate to describe the pain. This blog is my attempt to do so.

Deaths I hear about on the news do in fact cause me much concern. So much so that I have a difficult time watching it without crying. But there is a limit to how much a person can do from afar. With information being shared globally now, I think most of us have had to put up a wall of sorts. To allow ourselves to feel this depth of grief for every death we hear about would make us want to curl up and die too, not motivate us to fight for something better.

I understand that many people don’t care about lives not affecting their own, but I am not one of those people. I tend to care too much, to the point that I have to be careful not to overextend myself helping others to the detriment of my own family. I realize many people reading this don’t know me personally, but that should be even more reason to be cautious not to categorize me erroneously.

Most people avoid death. That is part of being human. People who wish death for themselves or others and act on that wish are considered mentally ill, and we try to help them. A deep respect for life naturally leads to an avoidance of death. Sometimes it’s a fine line between when to keep fighting and when to let go. Of course death is a part of life, but no parent welcomes the death of their child. We can speak in grandiose terms about accepting death, but it is much easier to accept for a person who has lived a long and full life, than for a child just barely starting theirs.

Grief is hard, painful, sometimes debilitating work. It takes time. It takes energy. This blog is part of my grief work. My writing is what accepting life and death looks like. It is making room for all the pain, so that it doesn’t crowd out the other things in my life. I know many people get concerned about me when I write the way I do. But guess what? This is reality. I do not write about the good stuff, because I don’t need an outlet for positive feelings. This is a journey of grief, remember? Not the journey of my whole life, just this aspect of it.

I am not going to sugar-coat what I am going through to make other people more comfortable. This is what losing a child feels like. This is what it does to a life. This is how horrible and agonizing it is to experience it. I am much more concerned about the people who bury all their feelings down inside and don’t ever let them out, than I am about myself. The feelings are there no matter what. Healthy behavior is to acknowledge them, experience them for what they are, let them run their course, and they will mellow on their own. Grief left unexpressed, like pressure inside a bottle, will explode unexpectedly if not relieved from time to time.

I know many, many people who have lost children. I can assure you that I am not grieving any harder, or longer, or deeper than any of them. There are people years, or even decades, into their grief that are still expressing the same feelings that I am. We will not ever be normal again. This is the new us. You can get used to it, or you may choose to step away. We do not have the luxury of that choice. We cannot choose to step away from our pain. It is our new adornment, a weight hanging around our necks. It is permanent. We will not ever “get over it.” We will not ever “snap out of it.” We will not ever be the people we were before. And we will not ever, ever stop grieving for our children. This is who we are now, take it or leave it.

Some of us are not strong enough to stand up to the people telling us things “for our own good” and “because they care.” Some of us don’t have the energy or courage to respond to the hurtful, thoughtless comments that people make. Some of us try not to make waves by objecting to the rude, insensitive behavior displayed by people who are supposed to love us, or by people who don’t even know us. So I will do this not only for me, but for everyone I know who got pulled kicking and screaming down this road that is so scary the average person won’t even think about the possibility of having to travel it. We walk this road every day. We are bloody, and bruised, and broken, and yet we have to keep walking, on and on, without our children.

I will not be silent. I will not keep my grief contained in the privacy of my home. I will not pretend I’m fine when I’m not. I will not hide away like some sort of monster, only allowed back out when I can appear normal again. I am going to speak up, so that the next time you run into someone going through this, or it happens to your friend, or maybe you lose your own child, you will know that this is what is normal. This is what grief looks like, and it’s ugly. But we can’t go around it. We can only go through it, step by aching step.

If you want to look, and listen, and learn, then I welcome you to keep reading, hard as it may be. If you don’t, you are welcome to stick your head back in the sand. But our pain is our reality, whether you choose to accept it, or look the other way. If you can’t handle walking next to us on this dark road we are on, and choose not to, we understand. We would have chosen a different road too, if we had been given a choice.

Running around our house is a cat named Lilly. Sadly enough for him, he’s male. You can blame the discrepancy between the cat’s name and it’s gender on my foo foo 4 year old. In Elisabeth’s world, all things good are female. If it can’t wear pink, what good is it?? She tells me she does not like boys. Well, except Daddy…. And her friend Adam…. And her friend Michael…. And…. well, you get the point. Soooo, despite my best efforts to convince her otherwise, she continues to insist that Lilly is a girl. I’m not quite ready to show her the physical proof just yet, so for better or worse, Lilly he will remain.

But back to the point of this post. Eliana and Lilly spent part of their babyhood together. When I put Eliana in the bouncy, he would climb in there, curl up next to Eliana, and start purring. It seemed to comfort both of them, and they would usually fall asleep like that. It was one of the sweetest things I think I’ve ever seen. As a matter of fact, Eliana would not sleep in the bouncy unless Lilly was lying in there with her.

The night I came home from the hospital without Eliana I started to walk in the front door, and the first thing I saw was this cat. I lost it. I couldn’t even walk in the house. I ran back out into the front yard sobbing. I had a really hard time even looking at Lilly for a while afterwards. It seemed so unfair. The stupid cat got to live, but my baby didn’t. He will get to grow up, but my baby never will.

As the days passed, the cat became kind of a comfort to me. I would look at him, and know that Eliana had, in some vague sort of way, loved him. He gave her warmth and contact and companionship during those few times I actually put her down. They were buddies. It’s very important to me to try to hold onto anything and everything that Eliana ever touched. He both hurts me and helps me, and I will never be able to part with him.

A couple days ago, I sat down for a few minutes, and Lilly was stretched out there. I picked him up, something I haven’t done very often since losing Eliana. Being Elisabeth’s cat, he is well-trained in the ability to lie in your arms belly up, just like a baby, and look perfectly happy while doing so. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, trying to pretend, trying to remember what it felt like to have her in my arms.

I lost it again. I started crying, couldn’t stop, and ended up in the bathroom for a while. It wouldn’t have been so bad, if not for the fact that we had quite a few people over at the time. They, unfortunately, have experienced the same kind of loss that I have, so I guess it wasn’t hugely shocking for them when I came back out all tear-stained and hoarse. They understand just how horrible this feels. Most people, thankfully, never will.

This is what I mean by the “others”. My world is divided into two types of people now. There are those who have experienced the loss of a child, and those who have not. As much as someone may love me, as much as they may want to try to comfort me, as much as they want to say the right thing, have the right words, the others will always be hindered by their complete lack of knowledge of what this really feels like.

When I was in the hospital, I thought a lot about how I would feel if Eliana died. I thought I knew. I thought I had answers. I thought I went through all the scenarios. But the truth is, that absolutely nothing, no amount of thinking or planning or wondering, could have prepared me for the brutal reality of what this actually feels like. Nothing. And there is absolutely no way that the others could possibly understand what I am going through, no matter how sincerely they try to imagine what it would feel like if it happened to them.

The others are able to forget Eliana for a few minutes, hours, or days at a time. I can’t. She is like a filter that I see the world through now, and she colors everything I see. The others are able enjoy their children, and not feel conflicted by joy and jealousy. I love my girls, but why can’t Eliana grow up to do the things they’re doing right now? The others are able to live their lives without hurting so bad death seems like a better alternative. How can anyone survive this much pain? And my guess is that the others are able to hold their cats without crying all over them. I, apparently, cannot.

I wish the others would just stop, and close their mouths back up, before they tell me that they understand how I feel. Because they don’t. And I hope they never do. I really hope for their sakes that they get to remain as clueless about this endless aching as Lilly is. But at least Lilly doesn’t try to tell me he knows how I feel. He just sits with me and lets me cry. Why can’t the others figure out how to do this?

Warning-bitter post ahead:

I can’t begin to tell you how maddening it is when someone comes at me with “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” This inevitably rolls off the tongue of someone who has never lost a child. I’m sure there are some people who have lost a child who truly believe this, but at least they have the good sense not to say it to me less than 2 months after my baby died.

I sit and think on these sorts of comments, made by people who are still whole, and who get to tuck all their children in at night. I have lots of time to think about it, since I don’t have a baby to take care of now. And I wonder why I got to be the lucky one. Oh, boy, thank goodness I’m strong enough that God thought I could handle it if He killed my baby. I guess I should be grateful He had that much confidence in me, right?

Well, who knows. Maybe I am strong enough to handle it. But what about all the people who aren’t? What about the people who become alcoholics in their desperation to numb some of the pain? Or who get addicted to sleeping pills because they can’t sleep at night anymore and are exhausted? Or who take their own lives in a last ditch attempt to escape the unbearable? Or those who go completely crazy and end up in a mental hospital? Or who just never recover from the loss and spend the rest of their lives as empty shells of their former selves? What about them?

Did God make a mistake? Whoops, maybe that person couldn’t handle it after all. Oh well, guess He’ll have to find someone else to snatch a baby from. I mean, does anyone really think about what they are saying before they say it? Has anyone thought out the implications of this phrase they so flippantly toss out at me?

I can already hear the argument coming back. Well, maybe those people weren’t Christians. Maybe their faith was weak. Maybe they were faking it. Fine, maybe that’s true. But if it is, then it invalidates the whole concept. It would mean that He did in fact give them more than they could handle. You would think He would know, being God and all, that those who don’t believe in Him are less able to handle it. Or are all bets off if they’re not Godly enough? For unbelievers it’s random bad luck, but for Christians it’s a test anyone should be honored to take?

People keep telling me how strong I am, that I’m doing such a great job getting through this. I guess if that’s true then I have a lot of work ahead of me. I’d better get started right away trying to make myself weaker so He doesn’t come and take my other kids too. ‘Cause you know He wouldn’t give me more than I could handle.

Maybe not everyone knows this, or has ever thought about it, but people who have just had their child die are a little sensitive. I might enjoy hearing about your baby (or I might not, but will listen anyway because I care), but I more than likely will not want to hear you complain about how long it took her to sleep through the night. I’d give anything to have my baby here waking me up every hour, or every 10 minutes for that matter. I would happily be woken up during the night for the next 18 or 20 years if that was the price of having my child back.

And please do not tell me that you understand what I’m going through because you have had a cherished pet die. I understand that you loved your pet very much, but it just doesn’t compare. Perhaps only people who have never had a child could compare the two? Or only people who have never lost a child?

I grew her inside my body for 9 months. I went through the pain and joy of labor and birth to bring her into this world. I rocked her in my arms, and nursed her at my breast. I spent a month inside of a hospital praying she would get better. I had to watch as they took her off the machines. I held her little body as she took her last breath. I know you love your pet, but the connection between a mother and her child is (or should be) physical, and sacred, and unlike anything else in this world. And it is certainly more excruciating, in my opinion, than your pet dying.

Please, please, think about what you are going to say before you say it. A simple “I’m so sorry” would work well.

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