Saying Goodbye to Survivor's Guilt
I am writing this post because I have lived the last 7 years with survivor's guilt, afraid to tell my part of the story, afraid to allow myself to mourn, afraid to feel the feelings I have felt, and afraid to not feel guilty.
My colleagues started a loss group called In Our Heart’s that focuses on women who have lost. These two colleagues asked me to join them at a meeting, I feared I wouldn't be welcomed, and I feared I wouldn't be let in. Worse, they asked if I could facilitate it one day.
At first, I thought I must be fooling myself to think my story was anything similar to the woman who have lost in my life and in my profession. I perceive deeply the emotional pain that a woman who has lost must feel, as a mother, a sister, and an aunt. I joined them, reluctant at first, I shared my story, and I allowed it to hurt.
Surrounded by 10 women who have experienced more pain than I could have ever imagined, I was embraced with love and acceptance. My story was heard and understood, my feeling validated. I wasn't afraid, I was loved. It was then that I decided to heal, and to heal fully, I must be vulnerable and tell my story. This is unlike any other post I have made, it is a deeply personal, and hard story for me to write. I feel fear as I write this, but I hold the arms of the woman that I was surrounded by to gather my strength. Here I heal my guilt. Here I heal my pain.
I am currently sitting in my office editing photos. All three at once: birth, maternity, and newborn. I am doing this all whilst having a sleepover with my amazing son Andrew.
Andrew will be 7 on Friday. Life has flown by. He has a love for soccer, Pokemon, star wars, and Lego. He does well in school, and joins in all the sports. He is a happy-go-lucky all round sweet kid. Andrew has a ton of friends, is always smiling, and currently has his 5th wiggly tooth: his first on the top. Andrew rides a 2-wheeler, roller blades, and plays both soccer and hockey. As his birthday preparations start, another feeling looms just around the corner, his birthday marks the 3 week countdown to the loss of my niece.
Every year around this time, Andrew gets so excited that his birthday is coming, and I get so excited that he is excited. And every year a piece of that joy is removed. You see, I live with something called survivors guilt. I am on the road to healing, and I am talking about it, I am opening up about it. I am letting myself grieve and feel the grief and guilt that go hand in hand. With my survivor's guilt that is the only way I can feel it, both grief and guilt at the same time, it’s like a twisted web, where one runs right into the other.
I can still recall the moment I got the phone call.
I remember where I was and who was with me. I recall it as though it was yesterday. This was the longest day of my life. I was in my PJ’s and my best friend Amanda who was living downstairs at the time was upstairs helping me because I had just had a baby. I was standing in the dining room close to the wall nearest my kitchen. I knew I was about to become an Aunt for the first time, my sister-in-law (I will call her my sister from now on) and I had talked about what great friends our children would be. We had plans for that summer with our family vacation to Manitoba. I knew she was currently in labour and the baby was going to be here soon. I had visions of love and babies dancing in my head.
My phone rang and I grabbed it off the table. Amanda was in the kitchen not even 5 feet away from me. It was my dad who was calling which meant that my niece was born! She is here, dance, dance! I felt elation, joy, and so much excitement. My eyes danced and sparkled. My father started talking, and I knew, I just knew. My eyes and Amanda’s eyes met, and the sparkle in my eyes turned into a tear. Time stopped. My Dad says
“ Your niece was born, but something happened. They resuscitated her and she is on life support, she won't likely survive.”
I shrunk slowly down the wall as tears burst from my eyes, hot and wet down my cheeks.” NOOOOOO NO,NO,NO,NO,NO, no no no no, noo.” I dropped the phone. Amanda lifted the puddle I became off the floor and hung up the phone. She told me to jump in the shower and I wasn't to come out for at least 15 minutes.
That’s where the blur starts and all there was, was the muddle of mess and confusion starts. The snot and the tears were both burning and hot. I couldn’t catch my breath or feel my body. My milk started pouring out of me, it came to save the day.
The thoughts that I had were of denial, begging, anger, bitterness, and bargaining.
I remember praying, “God, if you are there, if you really love me, if you love them, you will take my Andrew and give them their baby back!” (Andrew is my 3 week old son)
Next thought “ No, you love Andrew, don't do that.”
Next thought “ OK God, you can have my daughter just give them their baby back.”
Next thought “ No you love your daughter, don't do that.”
Then came the feelings of helplessness. Guilt hit me hard.
I wanted - no, needed to get to Winnipeg to do something, anything. But what could I do? I couldn’t see them or save their precious baby. I just had to get there though… I was in a panicked over drive, pacing back and forth with a hurried got-to-get-there feeling. I would have walked there.
The thoughts ran through my mind at high speeds. I have a newborn, and I cannot go, I cannot be there. I was bargaining with myself to get there.
I’ll take him with me and wear him, it will work….
Their baby just died, you can’t bring yours…
I need to go, I need to be there. But no, I can't. I can’t be there. I have a baby and they don’t. Mine will cry, theirs won’t. Mine will leave the hospital with me, theirs won’t - theirs will stay. Empty arms, empty cradle.
I can see it. It’s so clear and so visual: hugging and kissing and loving and needing, and aching, and crying, and bleeding. Milk coming in, arms hurting, hearts breaking and all the while I have mine. I can see it, in my mind's eye, I am hurting, and aching, my milk is leaking, it’s pouring out of me, like in some way this milk of mine will save them. Why the hell am I letting down? I am a mother, I am grieving for this mother, I am grieving for my brother, my sister, and my niece. I am a mother and my milk is mothering. This thought calms me.
Wait NO!!!! Stop, I am not allowed to grieve, I am not allowed to feel, how fucking selfish am I. I have not ONE, but TWO healthy children, and they are not dead. This is not your pain to feel. Your son is 3 weeks old, you get to keep him, go cuddle him…
They will leave the hospital with no baby in arms, no car seat, no bag. They will go home, not bathe the baby, not be awake all night, not to have frustration. And here I am complaining that my baby feeds too much. They will look into an empty room decorated in animals to only see it empty and cold.
All while at the same time, because my first thoughts are not enough, memories came flooding back.
A couple weeks earlier my parents were here in BC from Manitoba. They came to see my son when he was 11 days old. Every time the phone rang and it was my sister , my mom would be like, I hope she is not in labour, you’re not in labour are you? My mom would check in with my sister constantly. My sister would be having Braxton hicks, and like they are for many first time moms, these contractions can be confusing. My mom didn’t want to miss the birth. She wanted to go. My Dad was like a joyful grandpa in a candy store and the “new one” was coming. It was like they couldn't wait to leave. They were making flight preparations days before they had to leave. The day came and my Dad couldn't get out of my house fast enough. I pitched my fit. I was mad and hurt. This time was about me, and I felt that they made it more about getting home to Winnipeg to my brother, then they made it a visit with me.
What makes my brother so special? Why do they love him more than me? He has always been better than me, the golden child is now about to have the golden baby. Why is this baby so much more important than my baby? I felt hurt, anger, unloved, and unwanted. I felt like my son came second place, and I was jealous.
A fresh wave of guilt hit me.
I am so selfish. I was so mad at my poor brother for being more important and better than me. I was jealous of my niece for getting more attention than mine, more love than mine. I was angry they wanted to be there and not here. My brother was losing his newborn daughter, and I was angry. What a selfish little bitch I am. Wow, no wonder they didn't want to be here, I make everything about me all the time. I don't deserve to be here, how dare I make everything about me. I don’t know the feelings that came with that, but they were pitted right in the bottom of my stomach like a rotten rock that wouldn't leave. Heavy and hard and nauseating. Jealousy, anger, and hurt. All for what? NOTHING! I am no longer angry, I would have been just as excited and doing the same things, I was jealous and that is ok.
What happens next?
In the end, I couldn't go. I had Andrew and he needed his Mother at home. I didn’t hold my brother’s hand and just love him. I didn’t hold my sister's hand and just love her. I didn't kiss my niece, tell her I love her, say good bye. I wasn't there!!!!
I felt guilty because I failed my family. I have been living with these thoughts for 7 years.
I couldn’t have done anything, people keep telling me there was nothing I could do. I know that, please stop telling me that. I could have been there and held his hands. I could have prayed harder.
I know my children are alive, people keep telling me that too, please stop telling me that, but my niece isn’t and somehow that feels unfair to me, and I live with this sense of injustice.
I feel bad that I feel so badly and that I always think of her. I feel like my story takes away from my sister's story. I feel that is selfish. I know I am allowed the right to grieve, but I don’t feel like it is.
I feel like I am taking something away from my sister every time I tell her story. That I am somehow robbing her of her own loss and making it all about me. I know it’s not all about me and that I am hurting for her. I also feel like I don’t have the right to hurt for her or to imagine her pain. It's not my story. My life has been full of thoughts about how I should have been there, wasn't there, couldn't have been there, and how it really was impossible for me to be there. It’s not my fault - so I didn't go.
I should have gone and supported them. I should have told them I loved them, held on to them, and grieved with them and for them. I didn’t and I should have, but I couldn't have. All of me to this day says that I should have been there. I missed out on saying good bye. I wasn’t there to support her, to support my brother. I want to say sorry, I want to tell them that I didn't mean anything I thought. I wanted to go. I want them to know that I am hurting, I want them to know it’s like fire in my soul and I need them to know that I love them. I have to keep quiet though because they are grieving and it’s not about me. I don't let them know how badly it is hurting my soul. They can’t know. To this day, they don’t. I tell my counselors, but it is not the same, these feelings don’t leave me.
I got to see my baby roll, laugh, smile, hiccup, scream, freak out, bleed, roll over, get his first tooth, walk, run, have a 1st birthday, go to parties, celebrate Christmas, cry, get hurt, go to school, loose his first tooth. My sister and brother never will, the had the chance to celebrate the firsts removed.
I complained about the sleepless nights, the engorged breasts, the cluster feeding, the crying, the pooping, and being exhausted. Where I am sure my brother and sister would have given their left arms, right arms and both their legs to have 1 sleepless night with their daughter. I get to complain, I get to be tired, I get to get pooped on, I get to have messes. I get first smiles, and I get to watch him live, grow up, become a man, graduate and one day hopefully get married and start a family. She won’t get to do that. It’s unfair that someone else doesn't get to do any of these things, while I do. Every Time a huge milestone hits for my son, I think about my niece. I am now starting to share those milestones with her, because it’s how I honor her.
I have had this story in my head for 7 years. The back and the forth, the shame and the guilt. I hurt so much, yet I feel badly that I hurt so much. I also feel selfish for hurting, especially for someone else. Why is there so much pain? I am living with postpartum depression. My children survived, but I wasn't there for my brother and sister. I didn't get to say goodbye. I have these feelings and I somehow feel that these feelings take away from my sister's loss, they take away from the one who lost, they take away from the one who should be grieving.I feel I need to be punished for having these feelings. I feel I need to suffer because I get to keep my babies while my brother doesn't. But also because I wasn't there for them. I feel my thoughts were nasty. I should be sad yes, but I shouldn't be stealing their pain. I should be hugging my babies close and getting over it, but by hugging my babies I feel her emptiness.
I hurt so badly because I am, above all things, a Mother. My heart bleeds for mothers and children, my heart bleeds for my sister and my brother. I continue my life, and my son continues his. I should forgive myself and move on like my sister and brother have. I should love my niece enough to honor her and cherish her, and forgive myself. I know my niece does. I said in the beginning, I am now just starting to heal, and I am now telling my story.
Now as I prepare to sing Happy Birthday to my son, part of me is saying HOW DARE YOU!!!! As I prepare to celebrate, I know across Canada and around the world there are MANY MANY families who will not be singing Happy Birthday, or will be singing Happy Birthday at a grave. Yet, as I prepare to sing, I will sing for him, I will sing for my niece and I will sing for every other baby in this world that had to go home before they got here. I will celebrate with them because that honors them, that is how I will show my niece and my family that I do love them.
The best thing to come from all of this are the rainbows at the end of the storm, I have two beautiful rainbow nephews, that I am glad to know, who are both healthy and hilarious.
“I can think of no mother more deserving, than the mother who had to give one back”