I woke up at 6am to my daughter crying. She had been up quite a few times in the night and I was exhausted before the day had even begun. Reluctantly I got out of bed and forced myself to go through the motions of our daily routine. It was very much like any other morning, but the day turned out to be anything but routine.
The above paragraph could go on to describe two very different days: April 18th, the day my husband died or December 22nd, the day I gave birth to our son. It’s amazing to me how the life altering days of our lives often begin the same as our ordinary ones. As opposite as these two days may seem, in many ways the physical process of bringing life into the world parallels the emotional journey of grieving it’s exit.
This pregnancy was anything but usual. 9 days after Jon died, just a couple days after the funeral, I found myself weeping against the bathroom sink, two pink lines staring at me on the counter. The first half of this pregnancy was spent in a grief induced coma of denial, fear and resentment. It took time but eventually I moved into acceptance and then happiness. But still I was still very afraid of one thing: the labor.
My birth experience with Jocelyn was quick and fairly easy. I had the natural, unmedicated birth that I wanted, without ever having a moment where I felt like I couldn’t do it or that the pain was more than I could handle. I knew that I could go through childbirth again (as if I had any other choice), but the idea that I wouldn’t have Jon there with me, the idea of facing that much pain without him beside me, was terrifying.
I woke up on the 22nd with a decent contraction and then had several more as I dressed and fed Jocelyn and myself. I tried not to read too much into it since I had been getting contractions every few days. I had a doctors appointment that morning so I would know with certainty whether or not I was in labor soon enough.
At my appointment, they placed me on the monitor to see what was going on with me and my son. Sure enough, every seven minutes or so I was having a contraction. But based on how I was acting the doctor didn’t think I was in labor. Until she checked me. With a confused voice she asked, “Are you feeling those contractions? You’re nearly 6 centimeters!” As we left the office to head to the hospital, my sister and I heard the doctor on the phone letting them know that I was coming. “She’s not going to look like she’s in labor, but I promise you that she is!”
Once I was checked in and hooked up to IV’s and monitors, the quiet of the room settled in and I began to feel afraid. I knew the pain of my current contractions was nothing compared to the pain that was coming. I didn’t think I was ready for it. Something like panic awakened in my heart. You would never know it by looking at my face. I am pretty good at hiding both physical and emotional pain. I know that it’s not necessarily a healthy skill to possess, but it’s almost instinctual. Like an injured animal, I tend to keep quiet about the things that hurt me most.
Then, slowly my support began to arrive. My parents, my in-laws, my sister and my friends began to fill the room. Now, if any of you know me or have read enough of my blogs you will know that I am an extremely high introvert. So why then would I allow 11 people to visit me while I was in labor?
For a long time I thought that I wasn’t going to have anyone in the room with me. I thought that it would be too hard or uncomfortable to go through such an intimate process with anyone but Jon. To be honest, there were a few moments when I felt overwhelmed. It was a bit like I was in a fishbowl with everyone watching me, waiting for something to happen.
But I’m so glad that I allowed so many people to come support me. More than my need for space was my need for distraction and company. Having so many people present who loved and cared for me filled the room with happiness and anticipation and helped me to focus on other things outside my fearful and depressing thoughts.
The community I had around me in the labor room was part of the same one that surrounded me and lifted me up in my grief journey. I don’t know what I would have done without them present in my life. One of the many lessons that I have learned this year is the importance of being connected to people who bring life to you. We need people in our lives, no matter how introverted we are.
Jon was always good at building relationships. It’s one of the things that he did that I am most grateful for. Not knowing how much I would need it, Jon connected me to a group of amazing friends a little less than a year before he died. Without having to do anything out of the ordinary, just by being present in my life, those friends (along with family and others) have helped me walk through the hardest year of my life.
(Side note: When things got intense it was just my mom and sister in the room. I didn’t want that many people there for the messy part.)
Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.” ― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Time changes when you grieve, especially in the early stages. Every second feels like a lifetime. The things that used to fill your days are empty and meaningless. Eating, sleeping, going about your business are all done in slow motion. It feels an awful lot like waiting, but you don’t know exactly what you’re waiting for, except life seems to have stopped and you don’t know how or if it will ever start again.
I checked into the hospital at 9:30am. When I told the nurses and doctor that I wanted an unmedicated birth they respected my wishes and were fairly hands off. But my labor slowed soon after arriving and time began to drag on. As the minutes moved to hours I stopped feeling afraid of the birth and just wanted to get on with it already! 8 slow hours passed with no change. I hadn’t progressed any further than I was before coming into the hospital.
Waiting in a mundane situation like sitting at the DMV or standing in line behind a coupon enthusiast at Walmart can feel like a trial. Waiting in pain when you can’t see the end of the line or if you’ve made any progress at all drives you to the edge of a special kind of madness. It feels like you’re stuck in an unending loop with no escape to be found.
Things finally began to move and move quickly in my labor once they decided to break my water. As for my grief, it wasn’t until I embraced my brokenness that I was able to start to to take baby steps forward.
The rhythm of labor contractions mirror the pain in the early stages of grief. Intense waves of pain followed by a time where you feel nothing. It’s how I was able to speak at the funeral. I was in one of the stretches of numbness where I could function as if my whole world wasn’t burning before my eyes.
But when the pain came, even though it was emotional, it manifested physically as well. Just like labor contractions I could recognize their approach before I could feel their pain. It started somewhere deep within, twisting my insides with a monstrous grip. When I felt the beginning of this process I would promptly find a place where I could get through it in private. Some processes of life and death aren’t meant to be experienced publicly.
If I managed to escape somewhere, (bathrooms seemed to be my go-to grief haven) I would succumb to the pain, letting it have it’s way with me until the wave passed. If escape wasn’t possible I would find something to focus on. A light switch, a piece of food, a song on the radio. I would concentrate all of my mental energy on that one thing until there was nothing left to focus on the pain. I used the same method to get through my labor contractions.
The early contractions were easily ignored, but as they intensified I had to turn inward to get through them. Contractions only last 30 seconds to a minute. At first, I just mentally said the name “Jesus” slowly over and over. Then at some point, I’m not exactly sure when, I started mentally singing an old song I learned as a kid,
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus
There’s just something about that name
Master, Savior, Jesus
Like the fragrance after the rain
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus
Let all heaven and earth proclaim
Kings and kingdoms shall all pass away
But there’s something about that name.
Most of the time the contraction only lasted as long as the song. When I focused on the words the pain became manageable.
I wish I could say that during the intense moments of my grief that I focused on the name of Jesus, but I didn’t, I couldn’t, not for awhile anyways.
And then came the worst part: Transition.
Transition is never pleasant no matter what the circumstances. In labor, it is the closest to dying I can imagine. In life after losing Jon, it was hell.
Transition is the part of labor just before it’s time to push. The contractions are excruciating and there is no break between them. The pain was so intense that my body started to shiver and tremble in response and I began to think that I wasn’t strong enough to make it through. In the midst of transition I heard the nurse mention to my mom that they were considering adding Pitocin to strengthen my contractions. Immediately the concentration that had helped manage my pain so far was broken. I couldn’t take any stronger contractions! With my loss of focus came the full force of pain and for the first time I cried.
The first couple months after Jon died I was buffered from the most intense emotions by shock and numbness. It was like an endless out of body experience. But the worst pain I have endured in this journey through grief came after the initial shock wore off. The 4th – 6th months after losing Jon were by far my darkest. By that point everyone else’s lives had resumed and I was coming to grips with the broken pieces of my new reality.
By day I could almost manage to appear as if I was coping well, but at night when the world was asleep the demons played. My mind would race and there was no sleep. The waves of pain would crash over and over again leaving me no time to breathe between them. I wanted to scream. More than once I cried myself into hyperventilating until I nearly passed out. All I knew was pain and I didn’t think I would be able to make it through. If one could die from wishing for death, I would not have lived through those months.
The time of transition shifts seamlessly into the time for pushing. The endless overlapping contractions slowed down and I was able to breath between them once more. While the pain level remained high, I was finally able to partner with it, knowing that soon there would be a new life in the world. Birthing my son required every ounce of strength I had within me. It’s normal for women to push for up to an hour. It’s actually better if you take your time. But my body didn’t follow instructions well. When it was time, it only took me 4-5 pushes.
While the 4th – 6th months after Jon died were the hardest, somehow the 7th month was easier. There was still pain, but I was able to channel it into action and plans for the future. There was a shift from chaotic pain to the pain of moving forward and envisioning a life apart from Jon. Instead of being overwhelmed, I began to push and test myself by intentionally going places and doing things I had previously avoided. Things like returning to the hospital, listening to certain songs and going to the inlet where Jon and I had spent our last day together. All of these things caused pain, but it was a good pain, a healing pain, a pain that I could participate in.
And then suddenly, after one last push that took all the strength I had left, there was life.
The moment my son was born was one of relief and exhaustion. It was nearly 10:00 at night and I hadn’t been able to eat anything for the entire day. The adrenaline that gave me the energy to make it through the last stage of labor was abruptly gone. I could barely keep my eyes open to see him at first. But when I felt his warm little body placed on my chest I was filled with peace. I just wanted everyone to disappear so I could soak him up.
I don’t know how long I was able to stay in that moment but it did not feel nearly long enough. They had to take him and clean him up and the doctor had to repair the damage his fast entry had caused. When that bit of awfulness was complete and my son was returned to me I ceased to be aware of anyone but him. All I could think was, I did it, I made it through, my son is here, my work is finished.
When I finally recovered some strength, I looked at my beautiful son, Jon’s final gift, and was filled with love and peace. The sadness and depression I feared I would experience in the hospital never came. I had expected to be distraught and instead I felt steady. In my arms I held the promise of hope and the expectancy of a beautiful future ahead of me. I named him Nathan Luke because through him God had given me light.
In my mind I had felt that the time of my son’s birth would signify a shift in my life in more ways than one. While pregnant I couldn’t start working, I couldn’t up a move to a new place, and I couldn’t even begin to think about someone new. While pregnant I was stuck waiting. The birth of my son, to me, signifies that I’m finally free to move forward. To step out onto a new path towards a new future. While the last year of my life was filled with darkness I see a future for me full of light.
While I will always feel the absence of Jon and there will still be days tinged with sadness, I am no longer held captive by grief. I may have a scar on my heart now, but the scar is no longer a bleeding wound. My grief and my pregnancy have progressed together and I have reached the end. I have traveled through the valley of the shadow of death, but did not remain there. I’ve pressed through it and have finally made it to the other side. I have chosen life, and it’s beautiful.
Isaiah 61:1-4 has been my life verse since I was 15 years old.
I have decided that 2017 will be “The Year of the Lord’s Favor” for me.
The Year of the Lord’s Favor :
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.
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