Everyone knows about the milestones of living children- their smiles, first word, first steps, their first day at school, every birthday…but little is known about the milestones a bereaved parent goes through. The time milestones you go through, the milestones you never will, the healing milestones, everyday tasks which never used to be anything significant but now are, and the struggles through celebrations.
Time marks milestones for the parents of angels just as it does with earth side children-
The first day, first weeks, every month for many months after a child’s death…
The due date for babies born pre term…
Their first birthday, their first anniversary of their passing…
And just like living children, every year after is still and always will be a milestone. No matter how many years pass, an angel’s birthday/anniversary remains forever etched as a significant and important point in time.
While sometimes these milestones can be a point in time where bereaved parents celebrate their angel and their LIFE, they can also be something that is truly heart wrenching and devastating as you struggle to ‘endure’ them. The lead up and the date of such milestones can greatly amplify your grief as it comes to the surface renewing the rawness of your loss. Yes I am in my early stages of such a journey but I have seen from others who are counting years that they don’t always get easier as time goes on. Yes, some might go by gently but others will be unbearable.. and it’s all a normal part of this journey, a complicated journey that might evolve and change but certainly never end.
The new milestones you never knew existed
After Elliott was born a type of social anxiety developed overnight as I struggled to understand how the world just kept spinning when ours was still or spinning in the opposite direction. I had an almost crippling fear of running into someone who didn’t know and having to tell them what happened. I had a fear of how someone might react or what they might say. Perhaps worst of all, I had a fear of how I might react to people.
Anxieties turned ordinary parts of life into something so much bigger. So many things that were previously tiny or insignificant parts of life to me, suddenly turned into milestones that feel as huge as climbing mountains. The first time/s after the death of our baby I went out in public, went to the shops, met up with a friend, took my children to school, returned to my workplace, went to a busy café… anything that felt like I was returning to the world, the world I no longer knew and at times perhaps no longer liked, was such a huge event to overcome. Driving to school for the first time after Elliott’s birth I cried most of the way there, and was terrified to walk in. And now after 6 weeks of school holidays in which I have been able to join the outside world only at times when I felt I could and wanted to, I’ll have to go back to it all again. Suddenly I am filled with dread for no real reason at all for something that is such a normal part of life.
I asked over and over “how did I go from someone who made a career and business out of being social to this?”. I knew our life would change but I didn’t realise how much, and how much it would change me, overnight. I never realised how much strength it would take to do things like go to the shops by myself to buy bread, and how many failed attempts certain things would take until I actually did them. How sometimes it feels you are faced with DAILY milestones, sometimes the same ones over and over, sometimes new ones.
I had and sometimes still do, have a desperate want to retreat from the “real world”, away from everything that is part of the “before”. Sometimes I feel I need to be away from anywhere I might feel a pressure to not break down into a big mess, even though I know its ok to do so. And other times very strangely feel the need to be away from people witnessing my good days when the waters are calm, as I very irrationally worry people will think I am cold, perfectly ok or “over it”.
As each of these returning-to-the-world-milestones pass, the anxiety lessens, and my desire to once again feel the sunshine on my face is returning. In all my desires to return to the world the waves of grief which can alter the ability to do so, come and go, and I think it’s safe to say will continue to do so for a long time. Sometime these waves crash down at unexpected times and sometimes due to a ‘trigger’. Either way a day out being calm and happy around people might be followed by a day or days of not wanting to leave the house or answer my phone. My strength I gathered crumbles and I once again find myself unravelling on the inside. The fragile stitching back up again continues over and over again.
The milestone of getting through celebrations
Holidays once so joyously celebrated can become such an hurdle to get through as they suddenly mean something so different than before. After all, holidays are usually focused around spending time with your loved ones… which is extremely difficult to deal with when one isn’t there. Two months after Elliott’s birth there was Christmas, and what used to be my favourite time of the year felt totally empty and sorrowful. It was exhausting to put on a brave and happy face for our other children when all I could think of was our baby who wasn’t here and never would be. All I could think about was how he would never open a present, never know the joy of a Christmas morning, never laugh and squeal with happiness with his siblings. As my children decorated the Christmas tree with excitement, I smiled and praised them and said how wonderful it was, but my heart was filled with pain and I wanted to burn that damn tree. I felt a panic leading up and spent most of the time waiting for it to pass rather than enjoying it. New Year’s Day was also terribly sad as I couldn’t escape the reality of time passing further and further away from our baby. New Years resolutions like “being organised” turned simply to “surviving this”. I find myself being torn between a want to enjoy these times like I did before and a want for them to never occur again.
Celebratory events are also a struggle. The thought itself of being around a crowd of happy people when I am still feeling so broken, wondering if I’ll ever be truly repaired, trying and pretending to be the old happy me, is completely overwhelming. The knowledge that our baby will never be part of such celebrations, just like Christmas, is totally shattering. I’m devastated for what we will miss out on as parents, I’m devastated for what my older children will miss out on as siblings with him, but what I am the most devastated for is what HE will miss out on.
The avoidance of events is partly for my own self preservation as I try to glue back my pieces and let that glue set, and partly due to not wanting to ‘ruin’ the event by shrouding it in our sadness. The avoidance is never a reflection of the event and my feelings toward the actual event, but a reflection on our loss and ‘coming to terms’ with the life that will exist without our son. I don’t want to avoid events, in fact I hate that I have so far, but first I need some time to learn how to live with it all which I know eventually I will.
Worldly milestones you miss
There are the many worldly milestones from starting school to finishing it, that are missed but certainly don’t go by without notice. A bereaved parent may pause for a second to hours or days thinking about all the “if they were here…” scenarios. It is hard to explain that being a parent ISN’T in fact measured by the number of these milestones and experiences witnessed that you can bear reference to, when parenthood IS MEANT to be all those things. A bereaved parent can no longer guide their child through life, but they DO carry them forever with them, gently yet tightly, painfully yet warmly and lovingly. Regardless if a child is with you or not, you will always be a parent, THEIR parent.
I asked a few bereaved parents how do you get from point a to point b? They told me you survive and just do, step by step and day by day. Sometimes you take one step forward and then two steps back but eventually the rawness will ease, slowly the pain will find it’s place. A great piece of advice was to take those steps “with no expectations”. The first belly laugh will come again, as will the first day, first full week and first month that goes by with you crying and eventually the hardest times are fewer in between. So far I’ve had days without crying but not quite a full week but I know this will come. I know we will not return to our old normal, but we WILL find our new normal eventually. I know however its not something I can force or unnaturally create. I also know it doesn’t mean an end to my grief when it does. I also accept that reaching these “milestones” doesn’t mean I can or have to stay in them and it’s ok if and when those very hard days/weeks/months return.
To everyone who might not be witness to these types of milestones that a bereaved parent endures, please be understanding and patient. The weight of the world can be ever so heavy some days.
To every bereaved parent, know you are not alone in this. Step by step, we will eventually get from point A to point B, past many silent milestones many will never notice, as parents to angels.