Letting go is one of those perennial lessons that most of us humans (and a few other quirky, sentient animals) are pretty clumsy with mastering. We may have little victories here and there, but for the most part mastering it is presumably reserved for the Buddhist monks. That doesn’t help the average family, though, when they’re faced with the tragedy of losing their own child or, in exceptional cases, the plural form. In Ukraine and Afghanistan today a single family losing multiple children at once is devastatingly more common than it should ever be.
“Should” is a big word here. It brings to mind that in the most natural setting void of all complications, a parent should never have to experience the death of their child. We are simply not wired for it. Our instinctive expectation is that someday our children will have to witness our own death; not the other way around. It’s by far the most heart-breaking thought that life can suddenly leave the body of the child you nourished in your womb, outside of your womb, or perhaps even had the opportunity to celebrate all of her incredible milestones and watch her personality flourish like an immaculate garden on steroids. And then, suddenly, she’s gone. The kicks in her mother’s belly are gone, the midwife or the doctor can no longer hear her once-celebrated heartbeat… My son just now ran up to me as I was typing and decided to tell me with the most excited look on his face that he loves me. How would I ever be able to survive the heartbreak of never being able to hear those words from him or see that excitement on his beautiful face ever again? I held back my tears as he jumped into my lap and gave me the most tender hug.
Parenthood is plagued with enough “should’s” and regrets. I can’t imagine how much that would escalate after losing a child. What is our alternative, then, if not pointing the finger at ourselves or even God or the Universe for taking away our children? I’ve talked with several women who have had to undergo such an experience. One of them stopped hearing her baby’s heartbeat at 9 weeks of gestation, another gave birth to her stillborn daughter at 19 weeks and the other lost her daughter to an extremely rare disease when she was only about 4 months old. All three women shared very similar experiences of grief and evolution. Regrets and blame will always be a part of the process, but these women transcended their pain so effortlessly and so beautifully. Granted, they’re both Vedic Meditators, so I’m sure that has a lot to do with their ability of letting go. But that didn’t mean they didn’t allow themselves to feel the pain. In fact, they felt it so much that it turned into an exploration, and that exploration turned into evolution.
Whether they thrive throughout our lifetime or leave their bodies early, children teach us how to relinquish control. The mother who lost her baby at 19 weeks and the other mom who lost hers when she was 4 months old (100 days old, to be exact) both mentioned expectations being a culprit of grief. It is so natural for us to fantasize about how our children are going to turn out, and sometimes we go as far as “predicting” it rather than merely regarding our daydreams as fantasies. But when we hold certain expectations of our children and those expectations aren’t met, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Can you imagine what losing a baby would be like if we lived moment by moment and didn’t expect anything of him? For the pessimists who are reading this, I am not suggesting expecting the worst so that we’re delightfully surprised when the opposite prevails. I’m suggesting that we are pleased with whatever is in front of us at this very moment. Again, not because we’re expecting our children to drop their bodies any day, but simply because every moment is truly abundant. Imagine if - on the basis of a spiritual belief that they signed up for a certain amount of time in their body - we actually let our children Be.
Many different cultures all around the world handle a child’s death according to their ancestral traditions, spiritual beliefs, medicalized approaches and/or stress levels. On an extreme end, we know that a good handful of tribes unabashedly commit infanticide which, to them, is a duty being served to their community and tradition. Then there are various tribes in the Americas who handle their loss with grief, spirituality and oftentimes meditation. Recently, I learned that Qatari women handle miscarriages by balancing pragmatism with spirituality by reasoning that a) miscarriages are a common result of having sex with your husband and b) to them, it is inarguably God’s will.
There is always something to be said of the great comfort most of the world finds in a higher power. According to an article on Sapiens.org, because the Qatari women felt that everything was in God’s hands, the concept of control (expectations being a form of control) was nonexistent. The writer found that grief in Qatar was often less intense compared to what most of their interviewees in the United Kingdom experienced.
Alas, there is yet another facet to grieving a child’s death. If we take the human burden of expectations and control out of the picture, there is the harsh reality of grieving a child we already knew. For some, getting to know a child can even be experienced in utero. For those who have lost their child months or years after their birth, what they already knew about their child isn’t enough. The grieving parents’ desire to learn more and more about their deceased offspring is insatiable.
Take, for example, the mother in the Atlantic story “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind.” Bobby McIlvaine was 26 when he died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Out of compassion for Bobby’s girlfriend, Bobby’s father let her have the diary in which Bobby wrote saliently of his girlfriend. His parents already owned all of his other diaries and notepads, but that wasn’t enough for his mother who grieved the loss of her son as passionately as any mother would. She needed to know everything and anything she could about her boy whom she would never again have a conversation with nor ever see his radiant face express what he was thinking.
When life leaves a body, we are reminded that the physical form can be such an exquisite vessel and magnificent expression for what we experience as Divine. It makes one wonder whether some angels out there envy the experience of the human body. And what pious angel could blame them when the human body is as fascinating as it is?
A few years ago I read the fabulous book Like A Mother: A Feminist Journey through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes. It’s a great read for all of its goods: from self-deprecating humor, relatable stories, feminist wisdom to an inspirational amassment of fun facts; some of them in aid of debunking pregnancy myths. One of the most memorable scientific facts I learned from her book was about fetomaternal microchimerism in which fetal cells are detectable in the blood of all pregnant women by about 6 weeks of gestation. The implications of this fun fact are profound. We’re accustomed to seeing a child as a reflection of his mother based on a well-known fact that he carries his mother’s DNA. What we’re not accustomed to is the fact that his mother is carrying around her own son’s DNA. As I sit here typing, I’m aware that a percentage of the blood circulating throughout my body is connected to my husband’s ancestry by way of our sons who were knit in my womb.
What significant role does fetomaternal microchimerism play when a child doesn’t thrive? I was blown away when I found out that fetal cells pass into the mother’s blood in even higher amounts during or following a miscarriage. After the termination of a first trimester pregnancy, the fetomaternal hemorrhaging that ensues shows an 80-fold increase of fetal cells in the mother’s blood. It’s as if Nature unconditionally gives us the most precious gift of our child’s DNA, and if we were to lose that child in the womb, we’re abundantly compensated with even more of their invaluable blood. With this knowledge, my hope is that Bobby McIlvaine’s mother can be comforted without the possession of her late son’s diary because she knows she will have her son’s DNA coursing through her veins for as long as she lives.
I know I write a lot about spirituality. So, you won’t be shocked to learn that I hold to the belief that our children - in their spirit form - choose their parents. Some believe that the child also chooses the length of her journey in her physical form. All they need is a peep into our world and then they’re ready to move on to a different experience. Interestingly related in some kismet way, all of the mothers I’ve talked with regarding their loss have mentioned learning so much from their experience; and even though they’re incredibly mournful of their loss, they don’t regret it ever happening simply because they wouldn’t have evolved as much had they hadn’t lost their baby or child. One mom said it was like an accelerator for evolution, and that things that needed to be changed were finally seeing change. These mothers regarded their loss as a blessing that spontaneously catapulted them into deeper wisdom.
Mourning isn’t something of which we’re entirely unfamiliar. With every milestone, a small part of the parent mourns the younger version of that child. We might say with a sigh, “Ah, remember when he couldn’t even put two words together? And now he’s expressing his preferences like the Prince of England.” We’re eager to see our children grow up, yet we’ll never forget what they were like as babies. The memories of their most innocent, goofy and angelic stages of life are held so tightly against our hearts. The love is so extraordinary that it literally feels as though there’s a gentle pressure on our chests.
Mourning also isn’t something that needs to look or be dealt with a certain way. As a society, we go through lots of different measures to avoid the risk of making anyone else feel uncomfortable by mentioning death and dying. For example, there’s that old tradition of keeping one’s pregnancy a secret for the first trimester in case a miscarriage occurs. I’ve heard from a couple moms who lost their babies that they wish that wasn’t a tradition at all. While they could understand a woman’s preference to keep her first trimester a secret, the moms I spoke with made a very important point that by keeping a pregnancy a secret, you run the risk of feeling isolated if you do end up losing the baby. The death of anyone is uncomfortable, but the death of a baby? - It rattles the soul in a very particular and bewildering way. Therefore, a mother’s grief is silenced.
Jennifer Senior, author of that Atlantic piece about Bobby McIlvaine, writes, “This is one of the many things you learn about mourning when examining it at close range: It’s idiosyncratic, anarchic, polychrome. A lot of the theories you read about grief are great, beautiful even, but they have a way of erasing individual experiences. Every mourner has a very different story to tell.”
Those stories deserve to be heard. Nature is constantly calling us to be comfortable with our old, familiar friend Death whose appearance is inevitable. There is so much more to existence than our wonderfully limited bodies. Yes, how incredibly divine it is that in order to have these “idiosyncratic, anarchic, polychrome” experiences, we have to have these physical forms. But in my experience (and many others') of losing a loved one, when a soul drops its body it’s as if that soul becomes omnipresent. Ever more present than before. My Grandpa is that Blue Spruce tree standing tall in our backyard. His voice is the music of Bob Dylan, Roger Miller and Dion.
"Every day countless people die, and yet those who remain live as if they were immortals." -Yaksa to Yudhistira when asked, "What is the greatest of all mysteries?" (from the Mahabharata)
As I mentioned earlier, a woman I know in Sydney and her partner who carried their baby lost their precious one to an extremely rare disease. She said, “We feel [our daughter] all around us. She’s always here; always watching over it.” They’re also Vedic Meditators, so when their daughter passed away on Guru Purnima - an already very auspicious night for us meditators - it was only confirmation that their daughter was a Guru to them and many others who witnessed her first and last 100 days in that body. What’s even more incredible is that she passed away 365 days after their conception. The couple published their daughter’s life on social media where they very openly shared their pain, fears, self-discoveries and spiritual confirmations for any of their followers receptive to being a part of their journey. While I don’t think this type of mourning and growing is for everyone, I do hope the discussion of loss becomes a discussion of transformation.
If you're feeling the urge to share your own story, please don't hesitate to reach out. I would be honored to hold space for your story on this blog. Another great way to hold space is through my friend's illustrative garden online dedicated to the children who didn't make it very long and their parents who are experiencing the loss. It's called The Artemis Garden, named after her daughter who passed away in her womb.