Life on the Seesaw: A Message For Grieving Parents
From an experienced angel mommy
On October 1, Chrissy Teigen shared that she and husband John Legend lost their third baby. Teigen was halfway through her pregnancy when their son died.
She posted heartbreaking photos from the hospital that captured the raw emotion and unspeakable grief of losing a child.
Almost immediately, people criticized her posts. Some suggested that the pregnancy and loss were not real. Rather, they were an elaborate ruse to deflect attention from a brewing scandal.
Others didn’t question the authenticity but reacted with hatred. They chastised Teigen for posing for photos so soon after the loss. “It’s kind of sick that when you loose (sic) a child, you focus on snapping a good staged photo… Insane world.” They accused Teigen of seeking attention and trying to use the death of a child to gain followers.
“I don’t understand this or social media. Who takes a picture of their deepest pain and then shares it with strangers?” Jason Whitlock, a sportswriter, posted on Twitter.
And that’s just it. He doesn’t understand.
Nor do any of the other trolls who found it necessary to criticize Teigen at one of the hardest moments of her life. I’m willing to bet none of them have lost a child.
When I heard the news, a little piece of my heart shattered. And not because I’m an adoring Teigen fan. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you why she’s famous. I’m not into celebrities, gossip, or pop-culture.
But I can relate to the pain that she and her family are experiencing. I am an angel, mommy. Twice over. And the grief of burying your baby never goes away.
Every time I read about another loss, I am transported back in time to the day when my first baby died.
When grieving parents talk about their loss, they are often met with awkward silences, blank stares and hurtful comments.
I have empathy for the long road ahead for Teigen. And I admire her strength and courage for sharing those pictures.
Sharing Grief Shouldn’t Be an Act of Courage
The vitriol with which people responded to her message is symbolic of a big problem in America. People don’t like to talk about miscarriage and stillbirth. It makes them uncomfortable. When grieving parents talk about their loss, they are often met with awkward silences, blank stares, and hurtful comments.
At least that’s been my experience. And so, for the last fifteen years, I have hardly spoken about my babies at all.
In the early days, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. My babies were all I thought about. I needed to talk about them. But when I tried, my so-called friends changed the subject. And began avoiding me. I found myself not only grieving but very much alone.
So…over time, I learned to stop talking. I held my babies, and my pain, close to my chest. Today, some of my “close friends” don’t even know my history.
As an angel mommy, I thank Teigen for putting herself and her family out there. For sharing such a painful moment with the world. For forcing people to acknowledge that pregnancy and infant loss is real. And painful. And not something we can or should sweep under the rug.
Teigen wasn’t selfish when she shared those pictures. She was selfless. She exposed her grief and opened herself up for personal attacks she must have known were coming. But in doing so, she shed light on an often ignored important health issue.
A Secret Club
It shouldn’t be an act of courage to share your grief. But when the grief stems from miscarriage or stillbirth, it is. Even in 2020, those topics remain taboo in polite conversation.
It’s time for this to stop. October is Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness month. But unlike breast cancer or heart disease, it doesn’t get a lot of attention from the media. Or from anyone who hasn’t experienced it. The only people who pay this observance any attention are those of us in the club—the secret club for people unlucky enough to have lost a baby.
Usually, we do this in the smallest way possible. We change our profile picture. Or put a quote on our social feeds. Maybe we post a poem or a tribute to our angel.
And then we go on with life.
I don’t write that in judgment. There is no judgment here. I write it to point out that our experience has conditioned us to keep our mouths shut as members of one of the saddest clubs in America.
“I’m sorry, your baby is dead.”
Even in a month dedicated to shedding light on a great tragedy, our instinct is to stay quiet. Experience through which we learned not to share our stories. Not to call attention to the unspeakable grief of miscarriage, pregnancy loss, and stillbirth. Not to remember our babies.
At least not publicly.
Because it makes people uncomfortable.
Don’t Tell Me Your Uncomfortable
But do you know what is more uncomfortable than hearing about someone’s loss? Living it.
Sitting in a doctor’s office hearing the words, “I’m sorry, your baby is dead.”
Giving birth to a child born “sleeping.” A common euphemism for stillbirth.
Picking out a casket instead of a carriage.
Feeling like your body has failed you. Like you have failed your child.
Feeling completely and utterly alone.
Keeping this secret does a huge disservice to thousands of silently grieving parents. The more we hide our grief and the stories of our own losses, the more isolated they feel.
But miscarriage, pregnancy loss, and stillbirth remain common today. The least we can do is acknowledge that. Acknowledge our losses. Acknowledge our grief. And reach out a hand to help our suffering sisters.
Life always changes in an instant. Sometimes we don’t realize it until much later. But there’s always that one moment that is the point of no return.
Thanks in part to Chrissy Teigen, I’m doing that today. She took a risk and shared her most vulnerable moments.
So I will too albeit 15 years later.
I hope that my story can inspire Chrissy and other parents new to this heart-wrenching grief, that there is hope and love and lightness after the storm.
In November 2004, my life changed in an instant. I say that like it’s something remarkable. And yet it’s not.
Life always changes in an instant. Sometimes we don’t realize it until much later. But there’s always that one moment that is the point of no return.
For me, it happened on the ultrasound table. I was lying there excited to see my first glimpses of our new baby. But the tech was taking forever to take all the pictures and measurements.
My oldest son was almost two. I’d been through the whole pregnancy process once before, and recently enough that I knew what to expect.
We planned to head out of town right after the appointment, and I was getting irritated that she was taking so long. It was cold in the room. I had to pee. I didn’t understand why she had my husband wait in the waiting room. I wanted to tell her to hurry.
But then, finally, she took the wand away and looked at me. And I knew.
How could I have been so naïve? So impatient?
In that instant, I went from being innocent, hopeful, and excited to meet the newest member of our family to sad, angry, and afraid. The tech couldn’t give me any information. All she said was the pictures showed some abnormalities. She told us to follow up with my doctor.
“Not compatible With Life”
Somehow I myself drove to the medical center. Even as tears streamed down my face, I wouldn’t let myself imagine the worst. I don’t think I even knew what “the worst” could be back then.
My obstetrician had no bedside manner. She was a terrible doctor. She told us that the ultrasound showed several deformities. There were bone lengths that didn’t match up, heart abnormalities, and fluid on the brain. “That sucker’s just not adding up,” was her summation.
My husband and I both gave her “WTF” looks. There’s no other way to describe our reaction. She described our baby, a baby that was very sick, as a “sucker.” Then she continued. “Any of these deformities would be problematic, but in total, they are not compatible with life.”
I knew little about genetic diseases other than Down’s Syndrome. I found it hard to focus as she rattled off a list of possible “defects.” I now know she told us about Trisomy 13, Trisomy 18, and Turners’ Syndrome. But all those diseases sounded like a bunch of medical mumble-jumble.
I tried to wrap my head around the statement “not compatible with life.” Then said she was sending us to Pittsburgh for more comprehensive testing.
Wait a minute, I thought… is she saying there still might be a chance?
My daughter had Turners’ Syndrome — a genetic condition in females when part or all of the X chromosome is missing. Her symptoms were severe. So severe that they were, in fact “not compatible with life,” and she died three weeks later on Dec. 22, 2004.
That’s When I Fell Apart
It’s hard to believe it’s been almost sixteen years. I’ve come to terms with it. At least as much as anyone can.
After Charlie died, I fell apart. I wanted to crawl into my bed and never come out. I didn’t go anywhere or see anyone or do anything.
They talked about anything and everything except my dead baby.
I didn’t want to talk about my baby’s death, and yet I couldn’t bear not to. We kept her funeral private because I couldn’t imagine sharing that moment with anyone. Consequently, most people completely ignored the fact that my daughter died.
They talked to me about Christmas shopping and holiday baking, and New Year’s resolutions. They asked about travel plans and my birthday and how work was going. They talked about anything and everything except my dead baby.
Which might have been the better choice.
Those that talked about Charlie did their best to minimize my loss.
I heard every platitude you can imagine. “At least she’s not in pain.” “At least she wasn’t born alive.” (I still don’t know what they intended this to mean). “God needed a new angel more than you needed a daughter. (How could you know that?)
And, my personal favorites… “You can always have another one.” Or, “At least you still have your son.” As if children are interchangeable.
I know that people are uncomfortable with miscarriage and stillbirth. I know they don’t know what to say. And I know no-one intended to be mean-spirited.
At least I didn’t think so. But after watching the way people reacted to Teigen, I could be wrong. I am glad social media was not a thing back then.
But oh, how those comments stung! And when getting through the day took every ounce of energy I had, those words brought me to tears.
A Mother’s Guilt
I think that’s the hardest thing for others to understand. How simply continuing to live in the face of overwhelming grief is exhausting.
Some days it hurt to breathe. The smallest daily tasks–like getting out of bed, showering or even eating, require Herculean effort. I was a stay-at-home mom with a toddler to care for. Lounging around in bed was not an option.
I will not lie…I was definitely not the mother of the year. We watched DVDs for hours every day. I was never more than half-present while we played trains or built with blocks. Sometimes I even felt resentful that my son’s needs interfered with my ability to wallow in my pain.
And then I felt guilty. Here I was mourning the daughter I couldn’t have, and I didn’t even want to play with the son I did.
Still, I know that my little guy helped me make it through my darkest days. I do not understand how angel mommies who lose their firstborn do it. I guess they just do it because they have to.
Although my son did not and could never replace the daughter I lost, he gave a purpose to my life. He brought me fleeting moments of joy that reminded me life could, in time, be good again. And slowly, with his gentle help, I re-entered the land of the living.
Living With the Grief
As the days, weeks and months crept by, I learned to live with the grief. It didn’t go away so much as it became a part of me. Then we got pregnant again, and I delivered a healthy baby girl in January 2006.
She did not replace Charlie. Or eradicate my grief.
But she gave my days new focus. The busyness of having an infant and learning how to be a mom to two kids left less time for the oppressive grief.
Despite the many promises I heard when my grief was new, it hasn’t gotten easier. Time has not healed my wounds. I have not gotten and I will never get over “it”.
After she was born, I thought I had finally emerged from the despair that comes with losing a child. I was haughty enough to believe that I had conquered grief.
Little did I know what the future held…
My second son died on March 17, 2008. Also, a long time ago.
I don’t know where those years went. They seem to have passed in a blur. They were busy years, to be sure. Funerals and grieving. Pregnancies and miscarriages. Rainbow babies and moving.
Working and breathing and crying and hoping and praying. Hating and screaming and laughing and loving and living…
And yet, some days, each loss still feels like it happened yesterday. Despite the many promises I heard when my grief was new, it hasn’t gotten easier. Time has not healed my wounds. I have not gotten, and I will never get over “it.”
Not that every day is painful. My eyes aren’t always puffy and bloodshot. My face isn’t stained with tears. Most days, it is no longer a struggle to get out of bed, smile, or enjoy my living children.
The grief is not so suffocating, so intense, so unyielding as it was in the beginning.
Most days, life simply happens. I don’t have to force it or fake it. But some days, the grief comes roaring in and I feel myself sinking into that low place where sadness and pain reign.
Life on the Seesaw
Over time, I recognized these ups and downs as the pattern of my life. My life on the seesaw.
In the last fifteen years, I have experienced much joy.
I have experienced the joys of new motherhood three times over. I have lost myself in a funny movie, marveled at the beauty of a sunset, and savored the taste of delicious coffee. I have cheered for my kids at baseball games, tennis matches, dance competitions and rock concerts. I have experienced the exhilaration of crossing the finish line of a half-marathon. I have bought new homes, enjoyed amazing family vacations and felt the thrill of starting my own business.
I have watched my children grow into beautiful people. I have celebrated their successes–both big and small, and created meaningful family traditions.
In those moments, I bounce high at the top of the seesaw.
But every time I thought I was managing the grief, that I finally found the strength to shove off the ground and bob on the horizon, it surfaced again. And I crashed down from my perch at the edge of the sky, thudding into the hard ground with a bang.
Ups and Downs
My first rainbow baby was born only 13 months after Charlie died. She was born happy and healthy and with no complications. Talk about soaring high.
When we decided to have another child, I never expected that I could hit rock bottom again. And again. And again.
We had an explanation for Charlie’s death and no reason to believe that it would happen again. We had a healthy baby girl in our arms. The news that we were expecting again brought us joy. And sent me soaring.
The miscarriage brought me crashing into the ground before I knew what was happening. There was another pregnancy and another loss. Another up. Another down.
Finally, I got pregnant with Kasey; but, my seesaw never climbed very high. After three successive losses, my heavy heart weighed the seesaw down. I hovered above the ground, wanting to hope, but afraid to believe.
You’d think a fall from the middle wouldn’t have hurt so much. But, when I learned that Kasey, too, had died, my seesaw slammed into the ground with a vengeance and tossed me off to writhe on the ground in pain.
In the years since I buried my son, I have climbed back onto the seesaw and steadied myself for the ups and downs. Some days are high-like the birth of my son in 2009. Others are low. So low I feel like the ground is going to swallow me whole.
Sometimes I soar. And sometimes I crash into the ground. HARD.
You Never Know Where Grief is Lurking
What brings me down varies from day to day. Sometimes it’s the obvious milestones. Watching the classes my kids should have been in go to kindergarten or high school without them. Bringing balloons to the cemetery to “celebrate” a birthday. Sending my last rainbow to school and knowing there will never again be a baby in my house because we were too afraid to try.
As hard as those events are, the unexpected, daily pop-up grief is harder to manage. I can anticipate the milestones, and I can prepare for that trip to the ground. I often descend slowly enough that I can brace myself for the bottom. The unexpected jolts though, they bring me crashing down hard.
After all this time, it’s still hard to predict what will cause the fall.
Sometimes, it’s the sight of two sisters playing together. Or a picture of a newborn’s foot. Or a song on the radio.
Sometimes it’s a newborn’s obituary in the paper. Or seeing a new grief story, like Teigen’s, on the news. In those moments, I often slam into the ground so hard that it hurts.
Even after fifteen years, life at the bottom of the seesaw is not much fun.
More Good Days than Bad
But I know that life at the bottom only lasts so long. One way or another–slowly but surely, as a small child pushes down on that seesaw with all her might, or in a sudden burst of energy when a big kid jumps onto the teetering lever–I will again climb back to the top.
I will laugh, and I will smile. I will love and I will continue to live.
And that, my friends, is life on the seesaw.
If you are new to the angel mommy club, I offer you my deepest condolences. I know it feels like the world is ending. Like you will never laugh or smile or live again. I know you feel lost and alone.
I won’t try to minimize those feelings.
But please know you are not alone. Many have gone before before you. Many know your pain. Many would love to hear your stories. Or hold your hand. Or hug you in a safe, socially-distant virtual kind of way.
Reach out to me if you want to talk.
And although I can’t tell you when, there will be a day when your heart is a little less heavy, and you too start to feel that seesaw bounce a tiny bit above the ground.