Birth and Death and the Grief In Between

In my creative non-fiction craft class we talk a lot about form and structure and voice and tension. We read a lot of personal essays. We write a lot of memoir. We experiment with form, we crystallize our memories, we seek to find our voices.

Some non-fiction writers find it difficult to write about the world outside of themselves until they’ve purged their minds of the personal stories that monopolize their hearts. I am one of those writers. I am told that not all writers are like this, that some writers write completely removed from their personal experience. For me, that just isn’t the case.

It doesn’t seem to be for a number of the authors I’ve read this semester either–writers who crystallize romantic relationships, parental relationships, divorce, the loss of a pet, a stay in a psychiatric hospital, coming out as homosexual, the death of a parent. One of my favorite pieces that I’ve read this semester is Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, a memoir that details her experience of still-birthing her first child.

I’m sure this all sounds just terribly depressing, but in many ways I find reading about other people’s grief to be an important part of the healing process. Like those days when you completely give yourself over, singing along with the sad sad songs whose lyrics never seemed to make sense until now, stories like McCracken’s give me a narrative on which to hang my own feelings and emotions.

I don’t mean to suggest that I know first-hand what it is like to lose a child. I am quick to suggest that the pain I experienced at the loss of both my best friend and our two-year dating relationship pales in comparison to a 15-year marriage, but as one of my friends was quick to point out to me, “there are no comparisons when it comes to human suffering.” Maybe that is why this story speaks to me–because pain knows pain, no matter what form.

When I began dealing with this loss oh-so-many months ago, I repeatedly had friends and strangers alike permitting me to grieve, advising me to grieve, begging me to grieve and mourn and move on with my life. I am no stranger to loss. My first grandparent passed away when I was eight years old. The remaining three (one of whom was a great-grandparent) died intermittently:  one when I was thirteen, another at seventeen, and the last just before my nineteenth birthday. I became fairly well-versed in mourning–the initial shock, the necessary crying, the importance of remembering, the healing that comes through the passing of time.

On the whole, my grandparents died rather young–64, 72, 74–but as a child and a teenager, I didn’t really grasp that. There were fewer presents at Christmas, fewer people on holidays. I lacked the unconditional doting affection unique to a grandparent-grandchild relationship. But grandparents die. I learned that early on. And as hard as that was to deal with, it didn’t interfere with my day-to-day life. Though I loved my grandparents, I hadn’t learned to rely on them, to need them, to picture a future that they were a part of.

So when I tried to translate the grieving of my grandparents to the grieving of my most recent relationship, I was at a loss. This was the loss of someone I had come to rely on immensely, someone I needed more than I realized, someone who was not just a part of my future, but who had become for me the future I most wanted–the future I was willing to give up other futures to pursue. And then he was gone. And so was the entire future I had pictured with him.

In many ways I relate more to Elizabeth McCracken’s loss of her child than I do to the loss of my grandparents. Throughout her book, McCracken reflects on how she carried this baby, this little life, this potential somebody around inside of her for nine full months; how she was so excited, so hopeful; how she picked out tiny little baby clothes not realizing that they would never be worn; imagined picnics never eaten, first steps never taken, first words never uttered. It is like that with love–love that dreams of cable car rides and four-course meals, of lips interlocked and flesh wrapped in blankets; love that names un-conceived children and fills a house not yet on the market with framed snapshots of trips that will never be taken and celebrations that remain unplanned.

McCracken’s first child dies 42 weeks into the pregnancy, mere days before she goes into labor. That closeness–that “we almost made it” realization makes the loss even more painful if that is possible. She does not write of what it was like to know she would not nurse, even as her breasts swelled with milk that her stillborn child would never drink. I have wondered if it is at all like the swelling of my heart, so full of unexpressed love that I thought it would burst.

Time alone cannot heal, but it most certainly can help. Within a year of her loss, McCracken and her husband have moved into a new home, she is finding a new rhythm, and she is pregnant with another child–a second child that will never replace the first, (and whose parents would never want him to), but who will be his own person in his own way.

I have looked for new rhythms as well, in a new part of the world, where I am a student, a writer, a teacher, a mentor. And though I cannot live the future that my heart had dreamed so well, I do live the one that is mine to live.

“It is a happy life, but someone is missing.
It is a happy life, and someone is missing.
It is a happy life.”

(These last three lines are taken from the final chapter of McCracken’s memoir).