October was a much-anticipated month for my family. When I found out Brayden was due to arrive in October I began to mentally prepare for how it would feel for me to potentially bring home a baby during Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month. It was my second October as a loss mom, but it was my first as a loss mom with a clearer head. A loss mom who could fully participate. Who could commit her heart to projects like Capture Your Grief and the Wave of Light.
But it was a complicated month, emotionally speaking.
While I was committed to reflection and spreading awareness. I was also conflicted by wanting to be completely present with our new baby. Not wanting to miss out on moments because I was so focussed on my grief.
But I have come to realize this month, that I can be both. I can be present with Brayden here on earth, and still share my heart with Ryan who is gone. I can cherish the special moments here with Brayden, and miss these moments that we didn't get with Ryan. I can look down at this baby in my arms and memorize his lips, his nose, the way his chest rises and falls with his breath, and cry for the fact that without Ryan's photo, my memory of his few details might be fading away.
I can be both full of joy and full of grief at the same time.
I've been asked to make a promise to Ryan. So here it is:
I promise that there will always be a special place in my heart for you. A place that no one else can touch. You made me a mother. And everything that I am as a mother, everything that I believe to be true about motherhood, I learned because of you. I know that love for a child is ever-lasting. That nothing, no space, time, or circumstance, can change that love. So no matter what experiences come our way, no matter where this life takes us, I will always take a time out from my life here, to spend some time with you. You will always be an important piece of our family, my story. I will work hard to stay present, because I know you would want me to be. But know that wherever I go, I am carrying you with me, too.
So, as October comes to a close, I just want to say how grateful I am. Grateful that I could continue to share my heart. Grateful that everyone reading has been so receptive to the fact that my grief can still exist despite this incredible, beautiful thing that has happened to us this month. I'm grateful for my grief because it has given new depth to my love and joy. And I'm grateful for both of my boys. Both of the beautiful reasons I am mom.
This is our first weekend alone with Brayden. And yesterday, after a successful first week of Mommy-Brayden time, Richard turned to me and thanked me for “being amazing.” He then proceeded to let me know that if at any point this weekend I wanted to get away for an hour or so to just grab some “me-time” that he really encouraged it. My gut-reaction was, “No way!” I wanted to spend the whole weekend with him and Brayden. And how could I ever even think about taking “me-time” so soon!? How could I fathom willingly leaving my new baby who I wished and hoped and worried so hard for?
Then I realized I did need some “me-time.” For one year I worked really hard at feeling better. At finding a place in which I could feel okay again. And I managed it. I did it. Even when I was pregnant, and worried every single day, I got up, I did what I had to do, and I kept on surviving. Some days I even thrived. And I realized that just because Brayden is here now, doesn’t mean I can stop working on healing. Brayden’s birth doesn’t magically fix what was still hurting. The only thing that “fixes” that, at least in a temporary sense, is when I’m consciously working on myself and practicing self-care.
So I turned right back to my husband and I said, “Thank you.” And now here I am, bundled up on a beautiful Fall afternoon, writing from the cemetery I haven’t visited since before Brayden was born. And it feels good. It feels so good. It feels like everything I’ve cried about in the last two weeks is suddenly a little bit better. My guilt is lifting. And I’m feeling a little bit lighter.
I may even go home and tidy up Ryan’s Garden, too.
Self-care, self-compassion, self-love… whatever you call it, isn’t something you can just pick up and do when you feel like it. It’s a lifelong process. And I think, especially with grief, it’s important to make time (not find time) to practice it. And practice it. And practice it some more. All the therapy in the world couldn’t help me as much as taking time to care for myself has helped me. Caring for myself allows me to continue to care for my relationships. And to care for my baby at home. When I take care of myself I am more “me” than when I let myself get too wrapped up in the day-to-day to bother.
I’m lucky to have a husband who gets it. Who cares for me too.
And I’m lucky to have this place where I can take the time out when I need it.
I may not be able to write every single day, no matter how hard I might try. (Brayden really loves his cuddle time)… But I will definitely work on making time more often to just be with myself, and my Ryan, and practice my self-compassion like I have been for the last 13 months.
This week I did two things. I continued what I imagine is the incredibly long process of figuring out how to tend to Brayden's needs on my own now that Rich is back to work. And I also managed to find some thinking time as I spent some time alone for the first time in a while. In the last 13 months, I've grown accustomed to "me time." Always finding an excuse at least a few times a week to spend time alone practicing self-care and reflection. So as overwhelming as the past few days have been, in a lot of ways they've also been really good for me too.
I thought I'd piece together some of my thoughts through the last few days (ahem, week) that I've missed for Capture Your Grief.
Day 21: Relationships
I've already written at length about relationships. Those that have strengthened. Those I have lost. Those I have gained. When I hear the word relationship right now, there's one that comes to mind that I feel a little worried about. And that is the one between this baby in my arms and the one in my heart. Brayden and Ryan. How will that look? Because one thing is for certain: I want them to have one some day. I'm not totally sure how it will look yet. But I've seen it be possible, and I want that for my boys.
Day 22: Pearls of Wisdom
The only piece of advice that I've taken and really ran away with has been: Do what I need to do in my own time. This whole grieving thing looks different for everyone. How I grieve my son is going to be different from how someone grieves a father, a brother, an aunt, a grandparent. And even how someone else grieves for their child. I have climbed through the darkness time and again by doing whatever I need to do to get myself there. And this bit of advice, this "pearl of wisdom," has allowed me to do that without guilt or fear of judgement. That has made all the difference.
Day 23: Sounds, Seasons, + Scents
To this day, I still think of Ryan whenever I hear the song, "Riser" by Dierks Bentley. At this point, I can't even remember why that song takes me to him, but it does. It's everything I had hoped to be able to be after losing him. Strong again. Unafraid. A protector of him and my family. I work on these things every day, and it always seems that when I need the reminder most, that song pops on the radio and gives me a boost. I will also always think of Ryan when Fall arrives. Ryan came to us at the end of summer. But I don't remember it being summer at all. Probably because when I "emerged" from the thickest fog, it was suddenly Fall. And I remember the fear of seeing the seasons change and feeling that time was moving on without me. I still love the Fall, for all the beauty it brings. But it will always remind me of Ryan. And when Fall creeps in, there will always be a little jolt to my heart that time has kept rolling on.
Day 24: Consciously Becoming
"So many of us split our lives into a timeline of before and after our children died. Who were you before your children died? Who are you now? Who are you now in this present moment? What are you feeling? Have you been irrevocably changed by the death of your children? How are you different now? Do you love anything about the new you? Do you want and old part of you back? Who are you becoming? " ... Well then. Those are some big questions. Questions I think anyone might have a hard time answering, let alone someone in my shoes. Someone who spent a year defining and defending her motherhood only to bring a baby earth-side and have to wrestle with the term "motherhood" all over again. So instead, let me say: Yes I'm a bit different since Ryan died. But I am still me. A little bit broken. A little bit stronger. I'm a walking contradiction, I guess. I am consciously trying to become better. A better mother. A better wife. A better daughter. A better friend. Just a better me. And in that way I'm the same as I've always been. Maybe a bit hard on myself, actually. So I'm also trying to take it easy on myself. 1 month, 13 months, 5 years... I'm always going to be changing and evolving and growing. And that would be true even if Ryan had stayed. Except maybe then I wouldn't be that little bit broken.
Day 25: I Am (Finish these sentences:)
I wish... I could watch my boys grow up together.
I remember... what I imagined my family would look like some day.
I can not believe... how wrong I was.
If only... I could have them both here with me, instead of only one.
I am... once again trying to figure out my "new normal."
Day 26: #WhatHealsYou
This. This is what heals me. I've been swimming in a sea of diaper changes and feedings, trying to figure out a routine. Trying to learn how to mother a baby on earth. I wouldn't trade it for anything. But then this guilt sets in. This consuming guilt that the garden in the back has yet to be tended to, yet to be prepared for winter. I haven't been the cemetery in 3 weeks. I haven't written here in a week despite an overwhelming flood of feelings and thoughts. I haven't even had the presence of mind to light Ryan's candle in the whirlwind that has been the last 2 weeks. So when one of many nap times rolled around today, and I sat down to REALLY get into this catch-up session, I found I could breathe a little lighter. I'm "healed" at least temporarily from the "mom-guilt." When I'm focused on writing, I'm focused on Ryan. Sure, I'm still tuned in to the hiccups and grunts and sighs in the bassinet next to me. But my heart is with my other son. My first born. And that brings me some peace.
Day 27: Family is Forever
I have built a family of four. (Five, including our dog, Chase!) And even though all four of us humans aren't here walking the earth, each and every one of us plays an important part. Each member is forever. And because of that, it's so important to me that they're all acknowledged. Before my parents left after Brayden was born last week, they wanted a picture with their grandkids. "All four of them," they said. My sister's two, and Brayden, and Ryan's bear. When my dad grabbed the bear to hold in the photo it took everything I had to not break down in tears. Not because I was sad. (Though, yes, I was certainly sad Ryan wasn't physically here for the photo). I wanted to cry for the joy that he was included. Then today, in the mail came a big package addressed to "Mr. Brayden Francis Russell." (Which was adorable to see, by the way). Inside, from my mom (and dad) was a Halloween package for him. There was a card, some bottles, soother clips... That kind of thing. But there was also a card addressed to Ryan. A perfect little Halloween card with a message for him. And yes, okay, I cried. And my heart sang a little too. Because I have two sons. And the acknowledgement of that will always bring me simultaneous joy and longing. It's all about the confirmation that my boy is forever part of our family.
I love that today the focus is on gratitude. It doesn't seem like that long ago that I had promised myself to focus a bit on what was good in my life. Last November I started writing publicly about my feelings through my own little Gratitude Challenge. It didn't fix anything. But it was helpful to refocus myself. And for a few moments a day at least, I forced myself out of my darkness.
Today I'm not in the same kind of darkness. In fact, I seem to be standing in a lot of light right now. But there is something I'm particularly grateful for these past few days.
I'm so grateful for every person who has acknowledged Ryan since Brayden was born. Whether it was in recognizing or congratulating him as a big brother, or in checking in with me to see how I'm feeling emotionally since bringing Brayden home, that kind of thoughtfulness has gone a long way for me. Because as wonderful and relieving as it's been to have Brayden here, I do sometimes wander into wondering "what if" and wishing he was here. Which is a very complicated thing to wish.
So, thank you to the people who understand the complexity of a rainbow. He is the most beautiful part of my world and I love him with a fierceness I never thought possible, but he just can't erase that storm.
There's a lot of power in the lighting of a candle.
That's probably my biggest grief ritual. On days where I miss him especially hard, or days where I just want a little visual reminder that he's close, I light his candle.
I brought it with me when we travelled at Christmas. Lit it by the tree on Christmas morning as we opened gifts. I even brought it to the hospital when Brayden was born. We couldn't light it, but at that point, it was more what it represented: that Ryan was there with us. And the visual reminder got me through some of the challenging emotions I felt in those first few hours and days.
The candle has also been a bit of a signal (I think). A way of letting Rich know when I'm having a tougher day. Morning, afternoon, evening... When the candle is lit, my heart is a little bit heavier than usual. It's usually good for getting me an extra tight hug, or an especially attentive "How are you today?"
And sometimes, as a ritual of grief, it's just a bit of a habit. I'm always feeling it, and at some point in the last year, lighting the candle has become one more way for me to show it.
It had been one week since I've tended to Ryan's Garden. I usually go out once every few days to pick some weeds and remove spent blooms. But with Brayden's arrival I've been otherwise preoccupied.
Today, I looked out the window, saw the garden, and thought it was time to head back out and clean it up a bit. Yes. I know I just had a baby and should be taking it easy. But my philosophy was, if I could do it sitting on a foot stool in the grass at 38 weeks pregnant, I could do it at almost one week postpartum. And I'm so glad I did.
Though I've always loved the idea of gardening, how special it is to plant something and watch it grow into something beautiful, I had no idea how therapeutic I would find it as a tool for healing. And not just the watching it grow. It's in the having something of Ryan's to care for. Having a place to go that exists simply because he does. The time I've spent out there all spring, summer, and fall has always been enjoyable time. It's peaceful out there, and the gardening is really rewarding time spent.
And then, sometimes, something really special happens in the garden and I can't help but think it's Ryan reaching out to me. Like the one single daisy that chose October to bloom. A plant that was supposed to be done blooming in July, and in fact, sat dormant for all of August and September. Then suddenly, in the month his baby brother was born, Ryan's Garden gave me this one single sweet daisy. Yes I do take that as a gift from my boy. And those kinds of gifts are exactly why Ryan's Garden has been a wonderful and calming kind of therapy for my heart.
I've missed a few Capture Your Grief days as we were having and settling in with the newest addition to our family, Ryan's baby brother, Brayden. But every single day that's passed, I have thought of this project. That's when it became really clear to me that even though Brayden is here, and seems to be here for the sole purpose of bringing me joy, Ryan will always be on my mind and in my heart. He'll always need to be thought of, and held close, and spent time with.
The nursery has been my sacred space to connect with Ryan. My place to write. To think. To just miss him,
I was very worried that would have to change once Brayden was born. I'm relieved now to say that I know that's not true. Its sacredness has simply taken on new meaning. We've only been home for a couple of days, but already the room has seen so much.
So much joy. And already a few tears.
It has undergone some physical changes. It no longer remains unchanged from day to day. It's a living space now. Messes are made. And I'm constantly popping in there to keep it clean and tidy, like it was.
The time I spend in there now is packed with such different meaning than it was before Brayden came. As I sit in the rocker and feed him, across the room is Ryan's photo, looking back at me. It's a feeling I can't quite describe. That he's literally watching over us. He's giving us his blessing. Every moment I spend in there with Brayden is yes, a reminder of what I didn't get with Ryan, but also such a gift to be given in the midst of my heartbreak.
The nursery has gotten me through some of the darkest of my days. And now, it's seeing me through some of the most joyful. Some of the most complicated and confusing. It's sacred to me because it's the one place that has seen everything, all of me and my grief, and it will continue to be somewhere I can be with both of my boys no matter what.
As an English teacher, I hate cliche. As a bereaved mother, I hate trite phrases spoken in place of something that holds actual meaning.
"It's God's plan."
"Everything happens for a reason."
"When life hands you lemons, make lemonade."
I hate them because you can't fix the hurt of a major life-changing event with some tired cliche. Everything about the lemons to lemonade cliche makes me cringe. The comparison of Ryan's death to a bright yellow citrus fruit especially.
Maybe the only thing that makes sense in the whole horrible phrase is that lemonade, no matter how much sugar you put into it, will always be a little bit tart. A little bit bitter. Lemonade is bittersweet.
And bittersweet is the perfect way to describe anything "good" that has come since losing Ryan. Because even though I know goodness has happened, it's happened because he's not here in our arms. That just doesn't seem like a fair trade.
To be honest, the last few days my whole heart has not been really in this. It's actually been off in two completely different directions lately. One piece of it invested totally in Ryan and spending this month with him. And the other piece focused on his baby brother. A baby who I'm trying to be so optimistic for this month as we prepare to hopefully bring him home.
The point of "Capture Your Grief" is to bring some awareness into what grieving the loss of a baby looks like. And wow, does it ever get complicated when you're grieving one lost baby and hoping for the one on the way.
But my mother heart won't let me stop this. Writing. Reflecting. If Ryan was here, I wouldn't stop caring for him just because I am preparing for his sibling. And that's kind of how it feels for me. But sometimes, to focus so much on Ryan, makes me more afraid for his brother. And to focus only on his brother, makes me feel so guilty.
The fact of the matter is, my heart will always be in two places. And this is just another way I'm learning how to be a mother of two.
I guess I'm kind of apologizing if recently these posts have seemed half-hearted. I'm still working on the realities of doing double-duty, and Baby Brother isn't even here yet. But anyway... Today I'm supposed to be talking about the creative things I've done to honour, remember, and memorialize Ryan. Or maybe even taking on a new project. Well, I definitely don't have it in me to take on something new at this moment. But in the past year, I've done so many things, big and small, that tap into some bit of my creativity.
Most recently, for his first birthday, I had a book put together. I called it "Ryan's First Year" and I filled the pages with photos and bits of my writing to try to capture how we journeyed together over his first year "on the outside." From his birth announcement, first holidays, every milestone month, and even those creative projects I was just mentioning. It's something as a mother that you imagine doing for your child, keeping track of the memories for them. And I wanted to be able to do the same for Ryan. Even though it ends up being more for me. (But doesn't it for all moms?)
That's what "Creative Heartwork" means to me. It's doing little things for him, that help heal my heart a little. And hopefully over these next few weeks I'll find some inspiration for a little creative heartwork to help me through the confusion with which I've been struggling.
Let's be honest. I search for Ryan in hundreds of different things in hundreds of different ways, every single day. And it's a perfectly logical thing to do. Since the day he died I wanted to keep him close. I chose an unmedicated labour so I could feel every bit of him. I slept in my hospital bed, with a firm grip on the side of his bassinet, afraid to let even that piece of him go. Even after we got home I remember falling asleep holding the side of his bassinet that stayed at our bedside for a week or two. Empty. But his.
We want our babies close to us, so we wear jewelry. Carry around trinkets. Decorate our homes with photos, prints, flowers. Anything to have a constant visual that they are here with us in some way.
I have many symbols and signs I've come to recognize as little bits of my boy popping in to say hello. I've written before about how the flicker of a light is the most playful Ryan can be with us. Most recently, I went to visit a friend and her baby boy. I wasn't there for 30 minutes before he kitchen light started to flicker. We both smiled thinking that maybe Ryan had joined us on what should have been our boys first play date.
But from the earliest of days, butterflies were my most treasured sign. I suppose it's actually kind of a "cliche sign." It's very common for people to make the association between a lost loved one and a butterfly. But as the sympathy cards rolled in, and so many of them contained images of butterflies big and small, I couldn't help but start to make that connection. At the bottom of the memory box given to us in the hospital is a very large image of a butterfly. And one week to the day after losing Ryan, I took a walk to the park by my house. I sat alone on a swing and watched a butterfly land in the grass not too far from where I was sitting. I decided then to go home and do a little research on butterflies and loss.
There were a lot of explanations of the parallels between death and butterflies. And as I read them I formed my own. About their brief lives. About their emergence from a cocoon into this beautiful being. About the joy a butterfly brings as it flutters by.
All things true of my baby boy.