As a mutual friend shared the news with me this past week that C had suffered oxygen deprivation during delivery and had suffered massive brain damage as a result, I found myself in tears as I talked about this dying baby with others. Clearly, since I had a child die during delivery 16 years ago, C’s tragic birth and impending death were stirring up deep personal issues for me. I found myself crying in a restaurant as I replied to an email on my phone, and yet, I didn’t care. If I had silent tears streaming down my face in public, that felt ok to me. I needed to release that emotion.
This new loss of C reopened the old wounds around my daughter’s death as I remembered in detail the grieving process I went through in the months and years immediately following her death. This is not uncommon for those who have suffered a tragedy or trauma: from time to time, something will trigger the emotions around the incident. When this happens, it can feel inconvenient at best and horrifically painful at worst. However, this reopening of old wounds is always a chance for us to grow and heal in new ways that weren’t available to us before.
In my case, I experienced very deep healing around my daughter Rebecca’s death several years ago. I have also experienced an incredible amount of personal growth in the past five years which has shifted my worldview almost 180 degrees. While processing C’s death this week, I approached the issue of infant death with a very different perspective than I’ve ever experienced before. I found myself grieving for the parents primarily; my own loss only played a background role in the tears that I shed as an empath because it gave me an understanding of the intense and unbearable pain that they are enduring right now. However, I was not afraid of that pain I felt nor the emotions I was experiencing in the present. All of it felt like a safe and healthy place for me to be.
One of the biggest issues for me to process around C’s death has been around the hypotheticals of my daughter’s death. We all ask the relatively difficult “what if” questions around any tragedy: What if he hadn’t decided to go out to dinner and wouldn’t have been in that auto accident? What if she had decided to go to a different college where she wouldn’t have been raped? What if something different had happened during my delivery and my daughter might have been able to take a few breaths? These questions are ultimately pointless because the past is what it is. There’s no way for us to change what actually happened. The only thing we can do in the present is work through the trauma as it happened and find healthy ways to cope with, accept, and move forward from what happened. That’s much easier said than done in the aftermath of a trauma, though, because it is perfectly natural for us to explore these hypothetical questions as part of our grief.
For me, one of the things I had always been grateful for surrounding my daughter’s death was that I did not have to make the decision to stop life support for my daughter. That decision was made for my ex-husband and me by higher powers because she never took a breath. If things had been just slightly different, though, we would have found ourselves in the situation with a baby who had been severely oxygen deprived and unable to live a life of any quality. This week as I explored the “what ifs” of my loss from a very different viewpoint, I realized that I would have been able to handle that decision. It would have been horrific, but no more so than pain of never seeing my daughter take a breath. The pain just would have been different. I finally have reached a place of peace surrounding this "what if."
My heart aches for C’s moms, sibling, and extended family as they are going through this horrible loss. Even though I’ve experienced the death of an infant, I am still just as helpless as any others outside of their direct situation to help them in ways that would seem meaningful at this time. All I can do is let them know that they are in my heart, and that I am always open to lending a virtual shoulder for them to cry on as they process their grief. At the same time, as I revisit my old wounds, I’m able to find a place of gratitude for how much healing I’ve experienced and how much I’ve grown in the years since my daughter died. She changed my world forever, and I am grateful to her for that gift she gave me.
© 2015 Elizabeth Galen, Ph.D., Green Heart Guidance, LLC