Why Grieving Parents Will Never Let Go
Why Grieving Parents Will Never Let Go
I am a grieving parent. Prior to my loss the death of a child was a thought that I, like every other non-bereaved parent, quickly put out of my head. It is such an awful and incomprehensible concept it causes your brain stops you from internalizing further. We foolishly think if you listen to a story or watch a movie it will happen to you. Or increase your chances anyway. Bad things are contagious. Right? Clearly infant death was a fluke that called an unlucky few and then sweep it under the rug with the other damning topics.
I am not the type to ever put myself in someone else’s shoes – my journey is mine and yours is yours. period. Especially for sad or tragic events. Why would I want to pretend or think “what would I do?” in regards to someone else’s misfortune? If I’m daydreaming you bet it’s about a fantastic beach, perfect weather and great company.
The truth is just about every person in the world will be touched by grief and loss in some capacity. Everyone except a stillborn.
I honestly do not know how I survived 2011. The year is a haze of hospitals, therapy, Hawaii, walking, medications, procedures, flashbacks and a boat. After the birth of my second daughter I was clinically dead. I was hemorrhaging and my vitals were not conducive with life (60/42). My daughter died during my life saving procedure in her father’s arms. By the time I returned, alive, she was dead. The second dead baby I held in two weeks. My first twin was stillborn exactly two weeks earlier. I wished I was dead but then I looked up and saw the faces of my three older, living children, and I knew it wasn’t possible. I was still here for some damn reason and those six eyes needed me.
How one minute you are in the midst of nervous excitement then literally the rug is pulled out from under you. Even that is an understatement. How was I selected as one of the unlucky ones called to live through such loss? To top it off I had multiple complications, was over medicated, began having flashbacks and still on bed rest. But for what? I had been in bed for weeks, hopeful. Now all hope was gone. Then I find out I needed a second D & E, guess I had one after my second daughter but I still had my daughter’s “matter” (oh medical community you charmers you) in my womb. As I sat in the office, hearing this I was not even a shell of my former self, I knew the doctor’s weren’t being sensitive by saying I had my “daughter’s matter” but I began thinking of it from my mother’s perspective. My daughters matter. Their entire, brief existence matter.
Time was not important to me anymore other than postponing the girls memorial mass until after my second D & E. I was sedated while they scraped out the last little remnants on my babies but I didn’t want to let go. It was yet another incompressible day I endured. And survived. The day started with vivid dreams, then phantom kicks (which I was told was “normal” but you feel completely insane) and knew this procedure was the final final. I know it sounds odd but not if your baby or in my case babies, died. Then you understand.
The phantom kicks continued and I’d wake up, hands on my stomach, smiling, thinking “what a terrible dream”. Then reality set in and uncontrollable sobbing, screams, panic and sheer terror set in. It was not a dream. Our next door neighbors had a newborn. His room wall adjacent to ours. At first we both (my husband and I) thought we were both hallucinating then realized we were not. We listened to crying for months adding unbeknownst insult to our injury.
One of the most difficult aspects is the triggers. Especially in public as you get to relive those harrowing moments over and over in front of an unintended audience. In an instant something sets your mind off. Memories flood you like a tsunami when you were suntanning a few minutes before. Then you are gasping for breath, solitude and comfort that doesn’t exist so you have to let it pass and wait for the next wave to hit you. Then you come out of it only to see you are standing in downtown San Francisco, tears streaming down your face, your heart beating out of your chest and not in your bathroom in a pool of blood. Not anymore. You see everyone is looking at you. You often imagine everyone is looking at you and that neon sign above your head that reads, “mother to dead babies.” Only this time it’s real, everyone is looking at you. Everytime you leave your house you are hyper aware a memory may flood you and the task becomes difficult but staying home is much worse. There is no safe zone. The reality is you must look like a crazy, sad, lost person yet “normal.” The imaginary part is they all really know you were just standing in a pool of blood on your white tiled bathroom floor.
Then you try to go out, socially, accept a few invitations, and man that is hard. It is hard because unlike downtown your friends really know what happened. Bits and pieces anyway. When you walk into the room, all eyes on you, and not because you look amazing. I’m short. I don’t really stand out in a crowd. They look for other reasons. “I can’t believe she really made it!” Hyper aware of the few whispers, although not to intentionally single you out, they just want to make sure the person next to them knows – “yes she is the one”, you take a deep breath and pray you get through the night. Episode free. Not a foreseen part of “getting through the night” is realizing every other person wants to tell you about their miscarriage, their boyfriend’s sister’s uncle’s brother’s mother baby loss, or offer advice you can still try again, at least you got pregnant, sorry I missed the memorial it is just death is too hard for me (my favorite), or the ones who stay one step ahead so they don’t actually have to talk to you.
You begin to realize no one, least of all you, will actually ever forget your babies died. It is now part of who you. Just as they were part of you. You are a parent to an irreplaceable human being. In my case, beings. This is now another layer added to our unique complexities.
Perhaps you had a childhood pet, a German Shepard as I did, and the site of another one still takes you back to a certain memory, or a song that reminds you of your friend that passed away, or a parent. You see little idiosyncrasies in your sister that is something only your father did. These losses prove acceptable discussions. But not someone’s dead baby. You never met my kid and I never met your dog but I’ll listen, respectfully to your retrospective. At times I suffer in silence, thinking about the brief, happy pregnancy, for the five months it was happy. My skin never looked better and I was active as were they. The first movements, kicks, creating a list of names we endearingly titled “names we don’t hate” and planning how to add two more bodies to our party of four home (my oldest already on his own). During my pregnancy I went to festivals, dinners, walks. Gloating and gushing with excitement. My grandmothers were both twins. Fraternal twins. I have twin cousins and so does he. I took a trip to Universal Studios with two of my then three kids, two of my nephews, my niece and sister and although it rained we had a blast. I remember the swimming pool at the hotel was packed even though it was pouring rain. The San Francisco Giants won the world series and hosting a giant parade! All the kids cut school and I even picked my then younger daughter up and we went together. I was there with three of my children. Not one. I felt the twins kick inside me as hundreds and thousands of people cheered as the Giants passed by in cable cars. We celebrated our traditional family Christmas and went to a New Year’s Eve party. All legitimate memories only it was 2010 and I was still pregnant. I would only sustain my pregnancy for three and five more weeks in 2011. Completely blindsided, fighting until the death became quite literal. And I went into battle three strong and came out, receiving pints of blood from severe hemorrhage the battle bestowed on me, alone.
I don’t like to be sad. Truth is, I have a lot of days where I’m not sad. I also have days when I can’t control my sadness. I especially am prone to those days around the holidays. Especially Christmas and New Years. New years new tears. I know these dates mean the dates are coming. The other dates. How I’ll never be free from comparing my 2010 self to the rest of my life self. The days that hit me like a tsunami all over again. January 21 is my favorite uncle’s, he’s my godfather even, birthday. I don’t think I’ve called him on that day in three years as it is also the day I gave birth to my stillborn daughter. He knows I love him. It’s not a selfish act rather a self preservation one. I’ve accepted I’ll never be great company on January 21. Ever. She looked, even at 21 weeks, just like me. She looked just like a sleeping baby. Then February 4 hits and the anxiety never subsides between their two birthdays. Then I think of their due dates although it had been decided it could possibly be a c section in May their due date was in June. Back into a haze because I didn’t make it to those dates either.
This is a snapshot of memories of my daughters. I’m learning to let go of my anger I failed them. I’m learning it was an honor to carry them and it’s an honor to be their mother. These two little angels gave me a voice – the voice I’m sharing with you.These two guide me and give me a strength I didn’t know I had. I’ll forever walk the rest of this life as their mother and one day we’ll reunite forever. Bond unbroken. My peers all understand and I hope now you will too.
Following the 2011 preterm labor (and subsequent loss) of her twin daughters, Jennifer “Jake” McKenna Ibarra, realized how very few resources were available for bereaved parents. Jake then began sharing her story, educating herself on statistics and began the process to transition her career. A serendipitous conversation with her OB/GYN led to a meeting with a peer (another bereaved parent) and the realization that she was meant to enter the field of bereavement counseling. She would use her experience to assist others through the pain and grief of child loss.
Jake is a passionate volunteer and fundraiser who began volunteering during high school at a soup kitchen, which ignited her passion for cooking and helping others. She was a project leader for Hands on Bay Area (formerly Hands on San Francisco) for ten years. During this time she volunteered at Harbor House, tutoring a homeless girl and cooking breakfast monthly at Edgewood Children’s Center, a Level 14 group home. Her volunteer efforts and leadership skills garnered her a Volunteer of the Year Award nomination in 2006. She is an active fundraiser for March of Dimes for Babies, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, leukemia and lymphoma, brain tumor and AIDS. In addition, she successfully ran two Give Forward campaigns, raising over $100,000 to date.
Jake studied Early Childhood Education at San Francisco City College, is a certified birth and bereavement doula through SBD University, certified in perinatal mood disorders by Postpartum Support International and is also a PSI member. Recently Jake re-connected with H.A.N.D., helping after neonatal death, and began co-facilitating H.A.N.D. support meetings.
Jake is a proud and loving mother of six, including her two preterm angels, and grandmother of two. She and her husband, Jeff, live in San Francisco.