As soon as I entered the shop I saw what I was looking for: an exquisite, frothy, cream baptismal gown. It was rather expensive but that was irrelevant. I held the dress at arm’s length thinking about its size.
“Can I help you?” A woman with a welcoming smile approached me.
“I’m not sure this will fit.”
“How old is your baby?”
“Our baby is dead but he was full term. I want a beautiful gown to bury him in.”
The woman’s smile disappeared, her eyes filled with tears and she enveloped me in a warm hug. “I am so sorry. If it is too large, I can adjust it for you.”
I will always remember the compassion this shop assistant showed towards me. Although I was a complete stranger, she shared in my sorrow and went out of her way to make the difficult task of buying a burial outfit for our baby as easy for me as possible.
It must be very difficult for a person to know what to say when she hears that someone’s baby has died. Generally, people are not comfortable with death and they fear saying the wrong thing. This usually results in nothing being said at all.
A couple of weeks after our baby Thomas died, we went along to a picnic. We weren’t sure going along to the gathering was the right thing to do, but we were urged to come along: “Don’t stay at home by yourselves. It’s not a good time to be alone.” I joined a group of women who were chatting.
“Hello,” they greeted me and resumed their conversation. No one mentioned Thomas. As I sat trying to keep my mind on what was being said, I could feel a couple of women taking furtive looks at me. Did they notice the tears threatening to fall from my eyes? And then Carol arrived. She walked straight up to me, touched my arm and said, “I don’t know what to say but I can’t say nothing as if nothing happened. Sue, I am so sorry.”
The ladies at our local shop are always very friendly. When I ventured out shortly after Thomas’ death, they were eager to hear news of the birth. (I hadn’t told them that our baby was unlikely to live after delivery.) The words, "Oh, you have a saint in heaven!” sprang to one woman’s lips. It was a reaction that I was to hear many times over the following weeks. It sounds like a comforting thing to say but I must admit that it didn’t help me at all in those early days.
A couple of weeks after Thomas’ death, I was cleaning the Venetian blinds. This is an excellent job to do when feeling angry: bang, bang went the blinds, bumping from one side of the window frame to the other, in time to my intense, angry thoughts. Suddenly, I hurled my cloth into the bucket of water and stormed out of the room in search of my husband, Andy.
“If having a saint in heaven is such a fantastic thing, why doesn’t everyone want a saint in heaven? Would anyone swap their newborn for a saint in heaven? Of course not!”
In time, I came to realize, for myself, the gift of having our own saint in heaven. I thanked God that Thomas had lived long enough to be baptized and so we are assured that he is in the presence of God. But this appreciation came slowly over a period of time. In the beginning, the words, “You have a saint in heaven,” sounded like a platitude said by those who had no idea what we were going through.
Thomas had a diaphragmatic hernia which allowed many of his internal organs to move into his lung cavity. With the lung cavity occupied, there was no room for Thomas’ lungs to grow and he was born with only a fraction of his intended lungs. His lungs were too small to allow independent respiration. Because Thomas’ body was imperfect, some well-meaning people have said, “His death was all for the best.” How could it be for the best when my heart was breaking?
Six weeks after Thomas’ death, my grandmother came to visit.
“How are you?”
“Not very good.”
“It was all for the best.”
“I had a daughter, Angela, who was a year older than your mother. When I was pregnant, I fell down the stairs and the baby’s spine was broken. Angela died when she was three weeks old.”
Later, I questioned my mother, “Why didn’t you tell me you had another sister?”
“I didn’t know,” she replied. My grandmother had carried her heartbreaking story inside her for over 55 years.
In an effort to comfort me, a few women have confided that they too have lost babies. Hearing their stories made me feel less alone. I wanted to hear all the details: were their experiences similar to mine, did they feel like I did, would this deep ache of grief ever go away?
In the early days after Thomas died, the phone rang frequently. It was usually the same few friends. We had an understanding: if I needed to talk I would come to the phone but if I wanted to be alone, then a message could be given to the caller to say I wasn’t up to chatting. This system worked very well. My friends’ feelings weren’t hurt if I didn’t want to speak. They didn’t have to worry that their call would be unwelcome. I didn’t have to be anxious every time the phone rang.
Gradually over the weeks, the phone rang less and less. Sometimes, feeling sorry for myself, I felt forgotten: everyone else had gone back to their own lives thinking we were coping with ours. It wasn’t really like that, of course. Every now and then someone would be inspired to pick up the phone and dial our number just at the right time. How many times I would sink into that steep pit of grief unable to pull myself out. Then the phone would ring and in seconds I could feel a lifeline being thrown out to drag me back from despair.
Similar lifelines have appeared with the unexpected arrival of friends on our doorstep. One ‘bad day’ Gail stopped by. “I hear you have a special memory box for Thomas. Would you mind sharing it with me?” Gail had lost a son a few years previous and soon we were swapping stories about memory boxes. We even laughed when Gail told me how she’d photographed every casserole baked for her family, in the days following their loss. “I had to make memories out of something. There wasn’t much to show that our son existed. I didn’t have a baby to photograph so I took shots of funeral flowers and casseroles.”
I will be forever grateful to our loving friends who supported us after Thomas’ death. They weren’t afraid to talk to us. They didn’t deny our feelings or try to cheer us up by asking us to ‘look on the bright side’. They bravely shared their own experiences of grief in an effort to ease our feelings of isolation. More importantly, they gave us opportunities to talk. They showed remarkable patience as we worked our way through the same story over and over again. The help and concern these friends showed didn’t last for a few days, weeks or even months but years and they are aware that our grief will never quite go away.