Last week at our Sands support group we were talking about strategies, and more specifically scripts, that you develop to deal with questions following the death of a baby.
The most terrifying question of all ‘Do you have any children?’ (alongside its variants, ‘How many do you have?’ or, for those pregnant after loss, ‘Is this your first?’) is one which you continue to face throughout your life, whether your baby died 5 days or 50 years ago. It’s part of the treasury of small-talk which we exchange whenever we meet new colleagues or acquaintances, and everyone from the cashier in Tesco to your dentist will ask about your family. A perfectly innocent question. Just something to pass the time.
But to a baby loss parent, that question can strike fear and panic. Heart starts racing, tongue dries out, palms get sweaty. What do I say? Do I tell them about my baby who died? Can I find the words? Will I cry? Do I want to risk breaking down here, at the checkout? Will they judge me? Will they say something awkward, or hurtful? Should I not mention my baby? Is it simpler just to say ‘one’? Am I a terrible person for not acknowledging my child? Why did they ask me? What business of it is their’s? I wish the ground would just swallow me up…
There is no one answer: as with all aspects of grief, it is completely unique to the individual, and each person deals with that question in a way which is right for them at that time. At the support group, one mother said they decide if the person asking is special enough to deserve to know about her daughter. Another said that her answer depends on her own frame of mind and the circumstances, sometimes she hasn’t the energy to explain her son’s death to a total stranger, whereas other times she wants to share her story.
For me, I always count Findlay. I look for any opportunity I can to talk about him, to carve out his place in the world and have others know his name. The questions which once filled me with dread now provide a platform from which I can talk about my beautiful son, acknowledge him and the monumental impact he has had on me and my life. It’s also a chance to raise some awareness, to help break the taboo around baby and child loss. One thing I have learned is that (tragically) so many people have been touched by the death of a child and talking is the only way to make people feel like they are not alone.
I have had twenty one months to careful rehearse my answer. I know what I want to share about Findlay and what I keep just for us. I been met with a range of responses from sympathy to horror and have learned to navigate both in the way I feel is appropriate, which honours Findlay and my status as his mother.
But what happened when someone catches you off guard? When you’re faced with a question you’ve not prepared for? Perhaps one you’ve not even considered yourself?
This is exactly what happened to me a few days ago when I was talking to my best friend.
‘Do you see Leo as himself, and not always Findlay’s little brother, or your rainbow baby?’
She had seen some of my Instagram posts where I had talked about missing Findlay and wanted to know if I an ever able to ‘just enjoy’ my time with Leo, or if our happy moments are always tinged with grief at the fact that Findlay isn’t with us. Whether that grief displaces my joy, or diminishes it.
Her question came from a place of love, a concern that I may be struggling or unhappy, and perhaps a desire to understand more of what it means to parent a living child after the death of another. It was not intended to cause upset or judgement and it didn’t. But her question did catch me off-guard, as I realised I did not have a response.
Anyone who is parenting after loss will no doubt tell you that guilt is part of the package. Guilt for the baby who died when you are happy; guilt for all the things they were denied but which their siblings enjoy. Guilt because at times it seems like the result of the world has moved on, perhaps even forgetting the baby who died. Guilt at not having the time to dedicate to your baby, maybe you don’t get to visit their grave as often as you used to, or other things you did before to remember them. Guilt for the times when you’re not being grateful every single moment with your living children – even the really tough bits (see here for further thoughts on that one). Guilt for your living children for the times when you do feel sad…the list goes on.
Of course, as part of that guilt I have thought about the impact my grief for Findlay may have on Leo, but I’ve never really thought about what his rainbow baby status might mean to him.
Is this something else I should feel guilty about?
This question has haunted me for days; I’ve been playing it over and again in my head tying to get to the root of it. By recognising Leo as our rainbow, does that somehow take away his identity? Will Leo feel like his place within our family, within my heart, is somehow lessened because he was born second, because his brother died?
Even as I write that, it sounds ridiculous. The reality is that Leo is our second son, he is our rainbow baby. My friend’s question made me wonder if it was wrong to think about him in this way, that Leo may grow up to feel that his existence is defined within the context of his brother, but I don’t think that’s the case. Had Findlay lived, would anyone judge or comment on me referring to him as my youngest? Similarly, had he been a girl, would there be an issue with acknowledging her as a daughter, rather than a son? The truth is, Leo has a brother. He may not share his bedroom, or his toys, but they are both part of our family and it is my job as their mother to teach Leo about Findlay, so he can know his face and speak his name.
Like any brothers, they share my heart; but my love for each one takes nothing away from the other. My heart has grown and expanded to make space for them both: just as there is room for Tom and the rest of my family, they each have their own unique piece of me which is entirely their own. That is true for all siblings, whether they love or die.
It’s true, there are parts of my heart which will always be broken, my grief at Findlay’s absence is tied up in my love for him; but that does nothing to lessen or change my love for Leo. Yes, I wish things were different: all these wonderful memories we are creating with Leo I long to share with Findlay too, but it is love which makes that so.
I am the mother I am because of both my boys. It was Findlay who made me a mother, and he has taught me so much about love, and life, and what it means to survive. I am not the person I was before he was born; I hope that I am kinder, more compassionate, more able to find joy and beauty in the every day. For all those things and more I am eternally grateful, and I would not change having had Findlay for anything in the world. By how I wish things were different. That my baby hadn’t had to die for me to learn these things.
I like to think that Leo benefits from being born to this new version of me. I hope that I would always have known just how precious he is; that I would always have held on to him a little longer, a little tighter. That I would have always tried to drink in each moment; cherish our time together; be thankful for the small things.
But perhaps he also has a share in my grief. The baby born in the storm. The colour in the darkness. If so, I hope this gives him strength and teaches him that it’s okay to feel vulnerable and afraid; that you can keep on living even when your heart is broken; that love is what will help you to survive.
And of course, every day I am learning from Leo too. I love getting to know this cheeky little boy more and more each day, and as he grows so do I, as we navigate the choppy waters of parenting after loss hand in hand.
Yes, Leo is our rainbow baby; but this is what he is and not who he is. He brought colour back into our darkened world; he showed me that even the most shattered of hearts has the capacity to grow and be renewed; he taught me to dream again. And more than anything I hope that as he grows up to become his own, unique, wonderfully treasured self, he will know just how much I love him.