What Grief is Teaching Me About The Pandemic

What Grief is Teaching Me About The Pandemic

Today is my son’s 26th birthday but unfortunately, he only lived for 9 hours. And so today, my grief takes centre stage. Not that it’s ever far from my mind.

My grief has brought with it an important life lesson today that is affecting the way I am seeing the difficult life situation we are all finding ourselves in: the global pandemic brought to us by the infamous COVID-19.

The lessons only make sense if I start with the story.

The locket with Cody’s photo in it sits on my desk within arm’s reach. I no longer wear it, as it’s a little out of fashion after 26 years. The two little boxes of mementos of his too-short life are stored in the garage these days, but they always come out to play on his birthday. Birthdays are meant to be fun, aren’t they?

Sadly, Cody never got to have a fun birthday. Even the actual day of his birth was spent fighting for life.

I was encouraged to hold him in my arms for most of the first two hours of his life, oblivious to the fact that each passing moment took him further from the possibility that medical intervention would have a hope of saving him. I would trade those moments in a heartbeat for the chance to be with him today.

Four of my five live births were medically induced labours and only this one was the “birth of my dreams”: a successful natural birth with no intervention other than a little nitrous oxide, which is saying something given his 11-pound 6-ounce (5+kg) size! I would give up the natural birth a hundred times over if it would give me even one more day with my son.

It’s uncanny that we often hold so tightly to our birth plan, as though the day of birth means anything much at all in the grand scheme of things. I was so determined not to have a medically induced labour. I desperately wanted to bring my son into the world in the Birth Centre at our local hospital, with one of the midwives who had been through the pregnancy with me.

My first birth had been one of those hellish labour stories that can frighten the uninitiated away from the idea of parenthood altogether, but those long, long hours of labour pale into insignificance in comparison to the years we’ve spent together since then. I am thankful every day for the gift of four living, breathing humans who call me Mum, and I still grieve for the one who never got to utter a word.

Cody was born breathing, but with a severed umbilical cord. He spent 2 hours with us in the Birth Centre. Those two hours should have been spent in the neonatal intensive care ward (NICU), because of the ruptured umbilical cord, his size, and my bleeding. There was a hospital policy in place to ensure that babies over 10 pounds are taken to the nursery, but our midwife described it to us as a “silly hospital rule”. She was very proud of having delivered an “11 and a half pound baby” naturally and seemed more excited at the number on the scale than on her duty of care.

I believe that our midwife had a bias against intervention, which clouded her judgment and led to the death of our baby. 

  • Instead of pressing the big red button on the wall, or the pager on her belt, bringing immediate help from the hospital upstairs, the midwife tried needlessly to independently manage my care and the needs of a macroscopic baby in respiratory distress
  • Instead of whisking Cody away to the neonatal intensive care ward as soon as he was born, the midwife gave him to his father to resuscitate while she dealt with my apparent haemorrhaging.
  • Instead of getting additional, appropriate medical assistance, the midwife shouted instructions across the room to an untrained father about how to force much-needed oxygen into his baby’s lungs.
  • Instead of suctioning the meconium from Cody’s lungs (because she was busy with me), she expected my then-husband to undertake a medical procedure he was not trained in, that ended up leading to his own baby’s death.
  • Instead of doing the APGAR tests at 1 and 5 minutes, when he was being “bagged with oxygen”, the midwife did them about 30 minutes later and lied about the timing in her notes.
  • Instead of writing an accurate APGAR score, she gave him a score of 2 out of 2 for respiration, while he was literally being given oxygen to help him breathe. Can you make sense of that?
  • Instead of providing appropriate medical interventions after pointing out to us his signs of respiratory distress, she relied on skin-to-skin contact, a warm blanket and a cup of hot tea.
  • Instead of undertaking any appropriate examinations apart from the APGARs at 30 minutes, she relied on my observations but gave no heed to my comments such as, “He seems floppy,” “His legs are heavy,” and “He whimpers when I move him.”
  • Instead of taking Cody to the NICU when I eventually had a shower, she left Cody alone in a room while she sat outside smoking and writing up a long stream of inaccurate notes.

There is more, but I am sure you’ve heard enough.

I still carry some guilt and shame about the time I held Cody in my arms, trusting the midwife’s judgment and the very low key “interventions” mentioned above. I would give up those 2 hours of contact in an instant if I had even just an inkling of the medical knowledge our experienced midwife had. I know it’s not really my guilt to bear, as it was the midwife’s failure to act that failed to prevent his death. An investigation by the Health Care Complaints Commission found her guilty of 12 counts of gross negligence. (Her failings were so bad that we had a legal case for criminal negligence, our barrister told us, but that was not a path we wanted to pursue.)

I have just one photo of Cody, living and breathing on his own, cradled in my arms. Just one photo of him before he got strapped too late into the machine that would help him in his tenacious fight to hold on to life. In this photo, he is in my arms, flesh against flesh, my dearly beloved newborn baby. This photo is so precious to me, as it is the only one where he is alive and not on life-support. I have always kept the original photo to myself as it is a little… messy, taken very very soon after birth. (Births are messy!) Until now.

Things have changed a lot since 1995 when Cody was born. Back then, medical staff typically used Polaroid cameras to take photos when it was apparent to them that a good outcome may not be likely. The photos were typically neither good quality nor long-lasting. A few years ago, when I was facilitating a Sands group for bereaved parents, people often spoke of the amazingly beautiful photographs taken by Heartfelt after their baby’s death. Heartfelt is a generous charity, with professional photographers who generously give their time and skill to create photographic memories for bereaved parents to treasure forever. I wondered if it might be possible for them to somehow edit the photo I had of Cody, so I tentatively reached out to them.

They generously and kindly offered to do what they could with my old photo but they couldn’t make any grand promises about what was possible, I was so pleased! Eventually, I received a beautiful package with the edited photo and a gift-quality thumb drive so I could make more copies. The photo is still not great quality, but it is deeply meaningful and precious to me and I’m happy to share it now.

Neonatal Loss

When Cody was finally taken to the NICU, the midwife declared, “Oh my God, he’s not breathing!” He spent the next 7 hours on “life support” which is an odd name for it really, as it feels more like a life battle: the machines versus the looming death, ever threatening to win the fight. The level of care he was given by NICU staff and the helicopter crew cannot be faulted.

Another precious photo I have shows Cody on life-support just prior to him being airlifted to Sydney Children’s Hospital. It is the only photo I have of him where his eyes are slightly open. I can clearly recall the moment, as we said our final goodbyes before he was taken to the helicopter by the Newborn Emergency Transport Team. I could barely stand (did I mention he was over 11 pounds?) but I wanted so desperately to etch the moment in my mind, in case the unimaginable happened. I longed for him with every fibre of my exhausted, aching body. His eyes were only open for a short while, but they pierced my soul and I feel connected to him, still.

I am so glad that I soaked up what I could at that moment, as it was to be the last time I would see him alive.

Neonatal Intensive Care

One day, I hope to find just the right artist who can create a painting of Cody, blending the above two photographs.

Initially, we couldn’t fathom that our favourite midwife could have somehow been complicit in the outcome that had ripped the fabric of our lives apart. We even invited her to the funeral! But something was amiss.

The attending paediatrician later called us from his holiday to say something didn’t add up. Concerned about the mismatch between what was written in Cody’s notes and the blood tests that were taken when he arrived in the NICU ward, he strongly advised an autopsy to try to uncover what had happened.

The thought of an autopsy was horrendous, but it had become clear that questions needed to be asked, and answered. I remember saying, “I don’t want to be angry at someone. It is hard enough to feel such immense sadness.” The more we asked our medical friends about standard processes in terms of Cody’s treatment, the more alarmed we became about how far from “standard medical practice” the midwife’s actions and non-actions were. Needless to say, the anger I had hoped to avoid showed up, as it become increasingly evident that Cody’s care had been far from optimal and had, in fact, contributed to his death. One thing I remember reading from the investigation report is that he almost certainly would not have died if even basic nursing care had been provided.

I have been able to reach a place of forgiveness, although that doesn’t make what happened okay. Basically, what began as a ruptured umbilical cord at the time of Cody’s birth, could have and should have had a very different outcome. It was not a split second error, but two hours of serious misjudgement and failure to act, by a very experienced midwife.

I have written about Cody’s story on a previous blog which is no longer online and also in posts here and here. Today, my grief has a different urgency to it.

Life Lessons

A song that I used to listen to in the early days of grief contained a line that said, “Perhaps someday we’ll understand the reason why you came.” I don’t really believe there is always a singular reason, and I don’t believe that he died “to teach us something” but I do know this: I have learned and grown so much through my loss and would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for having known, loved and lost my not-so-little baby. Cody’s life – and death – have transformed me and continue to do so as I reflect on the impact of his loss today.

  • I no longer assume that our days will be numbered in the sum of years. Some of us won’t even get a full day. Knowing that life is limited, and death is certain, can have a profound impact on the value we place on life.
  • Sometimes the order of things is turned upside down, and parents end up burying their children.
  • Putting too much faith in one medical person is not a great idea.
  • It’s important to have a circle of support around you. We are not meant to live like islands. My friends and family literally got me through.
  • Listen to your gut instinct. If you have an inkling about a thing, lean into that, find out more, speak up, take action.
  • Ideally, labour is just one day (well, hopefully only one day!) of many. Don’t treat it like the main thing.
  • You can grow through your grief, but you do have to go through it.
  • There is no shortcut to post-traumatic growth.
  • You will survive this.
  • If you don’t think you want to survive this, reach out to someone who does.
  • In addition to external supports, don’t forget to look within. You are stronger than you know.
  • You don’t have to be strong. You only have to be strong enough to take the next step. Micro steps are still steps.
  • Sometimes a “step” is just another breath.
  • Since you’re breathing, you might as well make the breaths count. Take a moment to notice – really notice – your next life-giving in-breath. And as you exhale, notice the release of… whatever you want to release.
  • This too shall pass, but the pathway through won’t necessarily be smooth sailing.
  • Along the journey, you will be climbing over boulders and clambering across obstacles. In the process, you will grow invisible muscles you didn’t know you had, that you’ve never needed before.
  • There is no timeline for grief.
  • There is no hierarchy in grief.
  • If you’re a person of faith, your faith may sustain you. Or you may find yourself questioning everything you thought you believed in.
  • If you’re not a person of faith, never say never. Grief can open up all sorts of existential and spiritual questions.
  • Grief exists in the wild and unpredictable shadows of life. It is a normal response to loss, but it will often feel all sorts of abnormal.
  • You will wonder if the grief ever ends, and then you may hope that it doesn’t, in case it means you forget them.
  • Your friends and loved ones may get sick of you talking about your grief.
  • You may assume your friends and loved ones are sick of you talking about your grief.
  • Some of your friends and loved ones will not get sick of you talking about your grief.
  • You may wonder how to bring up your struggles today, thinking they are sick of you talking about your grief.
  • They may wonder how to bring up the issue today, thinking perhaps you’ve forgotten about your grief today.
  • You won’t forget about your grief but sometimes it will fade into the background for a while… and then smack you in the face when you least expect it.
  • The days you think will be the hardest are often not as hard as the days you spend thinking about the days you think will be the hardest.
  • Sometimes nothing much will seem to make sense. Like the last sentence, perhaps.
  • Sometimes you will relentlessly try to make sense of things.
  • Sometimes you will wish you didn’t know, you will put your head in the sand, and do anything but attend to your grief.
  • If you’re putting your head in the sand, you might as well build a sandcastle and have some fun, because play and laughter can be as much a part of grief as sadness and misery.
  • When you feel strong, people may think you’ve forgotten, or it’s not that bad.
  • When you seem strong, you may be feeling anything but that.
  • When it feels like the pain will never end, you may surprise yourself by waking up one day and noticing the fog has cleared a little.
  • When everything seems meaningless, you will find a way to make meaning again.
  • You will never be the same, yet the you that you are becoming has been there all along.
  • Sometimes it will help to talk about your grief with someone who is somewhat removed from it all.
  • Grief is a natural part of life, but if life is feeling unmanageable, it is okay to reach out for help.

COVID Lessons

It may seem strange for me to be mentioning COVID-19 in a post about the death of my baby. In a nutshell, he taught me the most valuable lesson possible: life is precious. If we can do something to protect it, that is a good thing. Sometimes, our philosophy is given a more privileged position than action that we could take to protect our health. Let me explain.

Reflecting back on how torn I felt between possible medical interventions and my preferred birth plan, I have a different perspective on the situation. Hindsight can be a difficult thing to live with. At the time, I was passionately convinced of all the reasons why a natural birth was of great importance and a dream worth holding onto. I had “done all the reading”, I had listened to all the stories, and I was convinced.

My fears around childbirth, second-time round, were based primarily on my first experience. I had also read stories about how inductions are much more difficult and painful than natural labours and this was definitely a factor in my decision to do what I could to hold off an induction if at all possible. There was no way I was getting that needle inserted into my veins unless all other avenues had been explored!

And trust me, I explored all those avenues! I even resorted to consuming castor oil, more than once, in an effort to bring on labour. The thought of it almost makes me heave. Even now after all these years, I can almost taste it on my gag reflex.

My determination to avoid medical intervention persisted, in spite of being told that the risk of neonatal death increased significantly each day after 14 days past the due date. I was shown the graph depicting those numbers and was alarmed, but remained confident that I would be fine. Besides, I had been declared a “low-risk pregnancy” and a “perfect Birth Centre candidate” only the week before. I would be fine.

I wasn’t.

I did manage to avoid an induction!
I did manage to get my preferred birth story.
I just didn’t get a living baby at the end of it all.

I am not suggesting that all home births, or Birth Centre births, are bad. But I have a painful life experience that demonstrates just how quickly something can go wrong, even when we’re so sure it wouldn’t happen to us.

It can be very difficult to let go of philosophies and ideals that we are very passionate about. The medical establishment was taking the low road and I felt sure that mine was the better path. As I got closer to the “2 weeks overdue” mark, I felt trapped by the seeming inevitability that I would simply have to comply with an induction. It seems so silly now, to have held on so tightly to my resistance. I felt that I had no choice, and I was resentful.

A doctor I know lived and worked for many years in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He told me after Cody died that he could not understand why, in Australia, we have medical intervention available for childbirth that is resisted by people who want a more natural birth experience. He recounted stories of women walking for days to try to reach the hospital, only to end delivering on the side of the road and the baby and/or mother dying. When I think about this, I realise how privileged my position was, that I had so much choice and so many options, yet I resented the fact that my option of a non-medical birth was disappearing from my grasp.

I haven’t spoken to that doctor for many years, but I am guessing that he would have similar views about Covid and vaccines. With the vaccination rate in much of Africa being as low as 4%, I imagine he would find it incredulous that people in Australia are rejecting the offer of a potential medical intervention as part of a public health initiative.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe, based on the evidence, that my midwife’s ideals about non-intervention and a non-medical birth clouded her judgment and led her to make decisions that had a direct impact on the disastrous outcome. Help was at hand, but it was not used. There was a team of highly skilled health professionals upstairs ready to jump into action as soon as the red button or pager were pushed, but they were not utilised.

At the end of the day, medical interventions which could have saved my baby’s life were withheld. During our court case which was settled out of court, our barrister subpoenaed the files of the other side and discovered that there were literally no health professionals willing to give evidence to support the actions and non-actions of the midwife. In contrast, we had an abundance and needless to say, the hospital was very keen to settle without facing a public court case! I mention this simply to point out that there is comfort in the evidence, and in the bulk of highly trained professionals agreeing in general on the best way out of this pandemic. There will always be some who disagree, but when the evidence stacks up clearly on one side, that is usually quite telling.

It is heartbreaking and frustrating to watch something similar happen with Covid. When medical interventions are available, but not taken up due to philosophical ideals and beliefs, it may seem like freedom of choice, but the health outcomes can be disastrous. If we can do something for the greater good and choose not to, we need to live with the consequences of that choice. In my experience, living with the consequences and the regret can be very difficult.

We can value our personal freedom and our right to choose
We can feel resentful and angry about government public health orders
AND we can make a choice to protect our health and the health of others

When You Don’t Want to Get the Vax

You are likely feeling trapped, resentful and angry. It is becoming inevitable that you may have to have the vaccination if you want to participate fully in society, and this is causing you all sorts of angst.

As a Registered Counsellor, I sometimes use a therapeutic tool called a “Choice Point”. It is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in general, and the work of Dr Russ Harris in particular.

It’s probably best if I let him explain it with this fun little video:

 

So, with vaccine resistance, it might look something like this: Identifying the difficult thoughts and feelings that you’re experiencing, and working on identifying your values to help you take steps towards the life you want to live. There are skills that help with “unhooking” from the thoughts and feelings that tend to want to dominate our life when we are feeling stuck or trapped. It is too much to explain here, but the basic idea is that we don’t have to pretend that we are not feeling frustrated or fearful or angry. We can work towards mindful acceptance of those feelings, and still turn towards the life we want and the person we want to be.

You may also find Dr Harris’ book, The Reality Slap, helpful. In this book, he talks about how it can sometimes seem like life holds “endless setbacks and challenges; like reality is continually slapping you in the face and causing pain that you aren’t equipped to handle.” I’m fairly certain many of us can relate to this feeling at the moment! Dr Harris gives some helpful strategies for rebuilding life after setbacks.

If Cody’s short life has taught me one thing, it is to value the days and to know that even when life isn’t working out quite as we’d hoped, we can get through, we can be real about our feelings and our struggles, and we can learn lots of valuable lessons along the way

Affiliate Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, I may earn commissions from qualifying purchases on amazon.com.au 

 

Meditation, Music & Nature: A Healing Trilogy

Meditation, Music & Nature: A Healing Trilogy

Meditation, music and nature are a healing trilogy for hurting hearts; a perfect antidote to stress and anxiety.

Here in Melbourne, Australia, we are facing yet another lockdown due to increasing cases of Coronavirus. Having been through Australia’s most extensive, significant lockdown in 2020, many people are experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety, fear and dread.

It is at times like this that we need to nurture our souls, bring healing balm to our stress and anxiety, and regulate our distress. One of the ways we can do this is by treating our senses to the sounds of music, the sights of nature, and the experience of stillness.

We may have lost the privilege of going to our preferred places for solace and comfort, but we can still reap some benefits from a virtual experience.

Michael Johnson, the resident harpist and composer at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, often using music as a tool for mindfulness and meditation. He has recorded a beautiful piece that has been overlaid with a calming meditation, along with video footage from the beautiful gardens many of us can not currently visit.

I encourage you to watch the video on fullscreen mode with headphones on and notifications turned off, to fully (virtually!) immerse yourself in the experience. Perhaps if you haven’t yet used up your quota of outdoor exercise time, you could watch the video while sitting in a favourite nature spot within your allowable 5km travel zone.

Wherever you are in the world, whether in lockdown or not, I hope you enjoy this little moment of meditation, music and nature; that it enriches your day and soothes your soul.

Where are your favourite nature locations that soothe your soul? I’d love to hear from you in the comments about places you love to go to restore your sense of groundedness and wellbeing. Or perhaps you might want to share a favourite piece of music that transports you to a place beyond your physical location.

Life may not be “normal” or easy right now, but we can take steps to lift our spirits. I hope this video does that for you.

Coping with Covid – Again

Coping with Covid – Again

Here in Melbourne, Australia, we find ourselves facing the grief and trauma of Covid in a way we haven’t had to face since the big lockdown of 2020. With at least 15,000 known contacts and over 120 exposure sites, many of which are of significant concern, people are understandably worried. Many are feeling triggered and anxious, after the extensive lockdown of 2020.

There is a heaviness in the air hanging over the city. A stillness. A quietness. A sense of foreboding… We’ve been here before, which possibly contributes to the looming sense of doom. We’ve beaten it before, but at a significant cost. What will it cost to beat it again? 

Covid has a way of creeping up on you, stealthily sneaking its tendrils throughout your city until it suddenly knocks you off your feet and sends everything crumbling down around you.

So here we are. Lockdown 4.0 in Melbourne, Australia: a city known for its vibrant nightlife, its culture, its laneways filled with art, culture, food, and coffee. But today the clubs and bars are closed, the laneways are deserted, the streets are eerily empty, and…. did I say coffee?

Now we have to brew our own. 

Cafe Closed for Covid Quarantine

And so we grieve. 

We grieve the loss of freedom.
We grieve the loss of autonomy.
We grieve the loss of cultural norms.
Is anyone going to the footy this weekend?

We grieve the loss of normality, predictability, safety, and good coffee.

There are some who say it’s “not such a big deal”, but for those who have experienced significant loss, or who fear that fate, the grief is real. And the experience, however it is felt, is validated by the one who experiences it. 

COVID and Grief

A person doesn’t have to die for someone to grieve. Grief can be experienced after losses of any kind, including non-death losses such as divorce, redundancy, retirement, estrangement, companionship, or financial security. One of the losses many people in Melbourne have already experienced is the loss of a business, which has rippling effects extending far beyond the closing of the cash register for the final time. There are so many empty shops now. “Businesses gone bust.” Even JobKeeper couldn’t save them. 

Grief is multi-faceted and can be experienced in a multitude of ways. More than just unrelenting sadness, grief can also be anger, rage, disappointment, regret, dread, pining, ruminating, jealousy, busyness, denial, and despair. And it doesn’t end there. 

In the case of ‘COVID Grief,’ there can also be secondary losses such as: 

  • Feeling trapped in a house with a partner you were planning to leave
  • The isolation of living alone and not having someone you can call on to be in your ‘COVID Bubble’
  • Financial security: savings or superannuation are withdrawn to make it through
  • With reduced numbers permitted at funerals, many are denied the opportunity to participate in mourning rituals
  • Celebration rituals – with the cancellation of weddings
  • Inability to travel to see loved ones, some of whom may never be seen again, such as ageing relatives
  • A sense of mate-ship and teamwork. State is pitted against State, the vaccinated against the unvaccinated, and mask-wearers against nose-exposers
  • Fear of strangers AND loved ones – could we ever have predicted the day that every single other person is seemingly a threat to our health and safety?

COVID and Trauma

When faced with danger, it is natural for our nervous system to automatically respond with either fight, flight, freeze or fawn. 

Fight! People who are typically demure and quietly spoken have been known to erupt in a fit of rage at people not wearing masks. The fight response has them behaving in ways that may normally be quite foreign but in the face of danger, the compulsion to protect and fight back is strong. Rage at those who break the rules – rage at those who make the rules.

Flight! There are others who cannot get away quickly enough. They may cross the street if they see an unmasked person or change grocery store checkouts; they may dash across the border before the chance of escape is slammed shut in their face. Everyone is a threat, everything is dangerous, and it’s too scary or dangerous to fight. So they run. Either physically, mentally or relationally.

Freeze! There are some who feel claustrophobic during a lockdown, and others who may, in a way, thrive. Sort of. The challenge for the freeze types is returning to society and social situations afterwards. It may feel easier to stay hidden. During the Lockdown, this type of response may lead to shutting out the news, denying that Covid exists, turning off notifications, refraining from answering the phone, cocooning inside the walls until the danger hopefully passes by. If this state persists, the danger can be increasing isolation and significant hesitancy to embrace ways of connecting in spite of the lockdown. Life gets smaller and smaller until the only thing left to face is themselves. 

Fawn! Fawning is less often talked about as a trauma response. This occurs who someone must appease, conform, comply… They are compelled to make sure everyone else is complying and that everyone is okay. This is the one who may exhaust themselves trying to help and fix anyone and everyone else. Except, perhaps, themselves. 

All of these can be very normal responses to traumatic experiences. The most important thing is to move through this response and have the capacity to shift back to a state of calm, rather than staying stuck. Dr Stephen Porges speaks about another nervous system state: the social engagement system, where we feel safe enough to use play, face-to-face contact and the voice to regulate our emotional states. This can be more challenging when wearing masks, but there are still ways to connect with our eyes and voice and utilise other elements that help us feel safe enough to connect with one another and settle our nervous system response to trauma.

If you are feeling traumatised by anything to do with the Coronavirus pandemic, please reach out for professional mental health support.

How to Help Yourself

Unless you are living under a rock, you will be hearing, reading and seeing relentless news coverage about the Coronavirus pandemic and the Lockdown. Whilst it is important to be well-informed, there is definitely a balance between information and overwhelm. It may be helpful to limit the number of times you search for information, and practice the art of scrolling by or turning off when you are feeling inundated. Preferably beforehand!

Give yourself compassion breaks. Treating yourself kindly in the middle of a crisis is a non-negotiable, really. Now is a great time to lower your expectations and do what is right for you, regardless of the pressure to create a masterpiece or take up a new hobby. What helps you decompress will often be quite different to what helps someone else. If you find cake baking and decorating to be relaxing and calming, go for it! If you would prefer to curl up with a good book or settle in for a Netflix binge, go for it!

If you find yourself spending disproportionate amounts of time in one activity, or hiding from life, it could be an important time to reach out for help.

No one needs to go through this alone. There are ways to connect with support systems and find resources to help. Here are some ideas:

  • Griefline is a good place to start if you are needing compassionate, non-judgmental counselling support from trained volunteers.
  • Lifeline is the go-to for a crisis. If you are having thoughts of harming yourself or someone else, please, reach out for help.
  • 1800RESPECT is a helpful phone support service for anyone struggling with violence and abuse.
  • Counselling by a registered, trained professional is a great way to help you cope with challenging thoughts, feelings and situations. Counsellors often have no waitlist, they do not require a GP referral, they may offer health fund rebates, and you can receive unlimited sessions with an approach that is tailored to your unique situation.
  • If you would like to book a free inquiry call with me, you can do so here.

There is no shame in reaching out for help.

Unfortunately, we cannot avoid this global pandemic. Trying to push away the reality of the situation does not make it go away. Ultimately, we need to face COVID. Dr Russ Harris has created a video and eBook that outlines some steps to face the challenges that COVID is presenting us with.

Focus on what’s in your control

Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings with curiosity

Come back into your body through grounding and the breath

Engage fully in what you’re doing, focusing your attention on the activity at hand

Committed action guided by your core values

Open up space for difficult thoughts and feelings, with kindness and compassion

Values – what do you want to stand for? What sort of person do you want to be?

Identify resources for help, assistance, support and advice

Disinfect and distance for the greater good of the community

5 Ways to Help Others

  1. Check in on your loved ones and those you think may be struggling. Your phone call might be the one thing that makes a difference and helps them know they are not alone.
  2. Validate, validate, validate. There is no hierarchy in grief. All grief experiences are worthy of being acknowledged by others. Disenfranchised grief that is pushed into the shadows tends to worsen, not lessen. Telling someone to “get over it” or that it’s “not that bad” may lead them to hold more firmly to their grief response. Knowing that their experience is acknowledged by another makes it easier to bear, somehow. Feeling supported and knowing that others ‘have your back,’ reduces the sense of isolation.
  3. Kindness, not Rivalry. Enough with the State wars. We are in this together. Star Wars is a great movie; State Wars not so much. The online disinhibition that is so often seen in social media comments can actually cause significant harm to other readers. Now, more than ever, we need an extra dose of common human decency.
  4. Be a listening ear, not a talking mouth. When someone needs to talk, they need to be heard, not told. The art of empathic listening is well worth practising. This might look like reflecting back key words or phrases that the person has shared, not in a parroting fashion, but in a way that shows you have really heard them in their distress.
  5. Ask, don’t assume. Check to see what they might find helpful, rather than assuming. Some people find video calls invasive and others prefer them to a phone call. Some people don’t like receiving phone calls uninvited and may prefer a text message first to see if it is a good time. When someone opens up to you about their distress or struggles, it can be helpful to ask if they are wanting supportive listening, or practical ideas and solutions.

Practical help during Covid

Coronavirus is apparently not going away anytime soon, but neither are we, so we might as well get through it together.

From a distance, if you’re in Melbourne!

A Helpful Podcast

Jodie Gale’s Podcast, Finding Meaning and Purpose in Difficult Times, is both uplifting and down-to-earth. The podcast includes helpful ideas including journal prompts and a book list by inspirational authors who have found meaning in spite of incredibly adverse situations. Addressing the issue of toxic positivity, Jodie reminds us that we need to stay grounded in realism without denying our suffering, while also holding onto hope and the possibility of being transformed by the challenges we face. This podcast and many others on Jodie’s site are highly recommended.

25 Things I’ve Learned Since My Baby Died

25 Things I’ve Learned Since My Baby Died

On this day, 25 years ago, my second son, Cody, died. He had lived for just 9 short hours but spent most of them on life support. To say our hearts were broken would be a gross understatement.

It had been a healthy pregnancy and my easiest delivery out of 5 babies, which is slightly surprising, given that he weighed in at 5 kilograms (that’s about 11 and a half pounds)!

Two weeks overdue, with an induction looming, I finally went into labour with the help of some castor oil (the thought of which still makes me heave! It is NOT a method I would recommend!). I held off calling the hospital until midnight because I was waiting for my favourite Birth Centre midwife to start her shift. That is one of many regrets I’ve had to learn to live with, as it was her gross negligence that led to his unnecessary death (as determined by a Health Care Complaints Commission inquiry process).

Cody was born breathing but was not given the care he needed after his umbilical cord ruptured during delivery. The big red emergency button, which would have had extra staff from the antenatal or labour ward immediately on hand, was ignored. For 2 hours.

He needed a bit of help with his breathing, and the task of “bagging him” with oxygen was given to my husband while the solitary midwife attended to my needs. The Apgar scores, which should have been taken at 1 and 5 minutes, were done about half an hour later, due to the aforementioned things going on when he was first delivered. The midwife wrote in her notes that the Apgar measures been taken at 1 and 5 minutes and gave him scores of 8 & 9 out of 10, with a 2 out of 2 for the respiratory category. The mind boggles.

For almost 2 hours, I was encouraged to hold him in my arms under a warm blanket because the midwife noted he was “a bit cold”. For almost 2 hours, my comments such as “he seems a bit floppy and his legs are heavy” were ignored. For almost 2 hours, I was told I could not breastfeed him as he may later need to go on a feeding tube in the nursery. For almost 2 hours, the midwife occasionally popped into the room to see how things were going, or to bring me a cup of tea to “help warm him up”. I’m not sure what she was doing the rest of the time, as it was the middle of the night and the Birth Centre was deserted, apart from us. For almost 2 hours, we trusted our favourite midwife, who told us the hospital policy of taking babies larger than 10 pounds to the nursery was “just a silly hospital rule.”

I eventually showered, while the midwife finally took over Cody’s “care.” It was later discovered that she’d left him, alone, in a storage room on a warming trolley, while she sat outside smoking and writing up one long entry of clinical notes covering 2 hours of his life.

When he was finally taken to the nursery, she placed him down, opened his blankets and declared,

“Oh my god, he’s not breathing!”

Those words have haunted me for 25 years.

The midwives and paediatrician in the neonatal intensive care ward tried valiantly, for hours, to save our baby’s life. The NETS (Newborn Emergency Transport Service) team were brought in to help and flew him by helicopter to the children’s hospital, but it was too late. He was unable to be saved.

And our hearts broke.

 

Over the past 25 years, I have learned to live again.

For a while, I wondered if I would.
For a while, I wondered if I wanted to.

 

25 things I’ve learned along the way.

  1. When you’ve had a baby die, you’re likely to be friends with people who are having babies. You will have to face soooo many baby showers, toddler birthdays and social gatherings filled with other people’s babies and children. Later, you will have to watch your friend’s kids grow up and do all the things your child won’t get to do.
  2. Every second person seems to be a pregnant woman or a parent with a baby.
  3. Birth Centres are lovely, but a bias against intervention may cause your midwife to make bad decisions. Very bad decisions.
  4. 2 hours of bonding is nothing compared to a lifetime of living without your child.
  5. Labour is only 1 day of your life (hopefully!) and your perfect birth plan will pale into insignificance compared to everything that comes afterwards, whether good or bad.
  6. It’s important not to place 100% faith in one health professional. Listen to your intuition. Insist on a second opinion.
  7. Forgiveness is possible. Really. And it’s not about them.
  8. Coming to terms with “if only” takes time. Sometimes a long time.
  9. Deep, heart-wrenching sorrow changes you. Not necessarily for the worse. And it can be survived.
  10. There is no hierarchy of grief. Whether your loss happened at 6 weeks’ gestation or 42, whether you had a stillbirth or a neonatal death, whether you had to make an unimaginably difficult choice or the death was chosen for you, the grief you feel is the grief you feel.
  11. So many people will say unhelpful things. One of the unhelpful things said to me was, “Oh well, at least he didn’t live for 6 months. Imagine how hard THAT would be!” Some of the unhelpful things are said with good intentions, and some are really just clueless. People don’t usually mean to cause hurt.
  12. There are people who love you, who care deeply about you and what you’re going through. You may want to push them away sometimes and hold them close at other times. You may think they don’t understand, and they possibly don’t, really, but they are likely trying to help the best way they can. It helps to tell people how they can help you. Yes, it would be nice if you didn’t have to, but if they don’t know, they don’t know. If you know what you need, don’t hesitate to ask.
  13. If you don’t have people around you who are providing the care and support you need, you reach out to one of the many support services available, such as Sands Australia. I did.
  14. It can be difficult for people to know when to raise “the issue” and they may hesitate if it seems like you’re having a good day. Social media can be an easy way to flag that you’re having a hard day, and people are then likely to reach out to offer some support. If not, you will survive that too, but it will hurt.
  15. Other people’s lives will go on much more quickly than yours, and there will be times when it seems that no one remembers. It will really hurt at first, but slowly you will realise that it’s because you love your baby more than anyone else ever will. The bond you have with your baby who died (at whatever stage of pregnancy, or after birth) is incredibly special, so it makes sense that you’ll hold a place in your heart for your baby that others won’t. And that’s okay. Also – there will likely be a select few who will always remember. And that’s always incredibly meaningful. In fact, while writing this post, I have received a message from my mother, who has been to Cody’s grave this afternoon – I live in a different state now, and other messages from great friends.
  16. Rituals of remembrance are a beautiful thing and help to keep the love close to your heart.
  17. If you have a subsequent pregnancy, it will likely be… complex. You will have all the feels and be told many platitudes such as, “It will be fine this time.” It might not be. You need to learn to live with that. Holding on to hope, while acknowledging the complete absence of guarantees is a bit like straddling a see-saw. (Side note, for me: I gave birth to my rainbow baby less than 1 year after Cody’s death. Did I mention complex? His birth – and his ongoing life – have been like balm for my soul.)
  18. If you are blessed with another baby or two, you will never, ever forget the one who died. You really do have enough love. You really can hold a special place in your heart for the one who died too soon, and also delight in the other child or children. I mean, REALLY delight in them. My love for my 4 living children is even stronger than I think it would have been if Cody had not died.
  19. You may not be able to have another child. That is a whole other experience and off-topic for this post, but I will say this: you will always be a mother. Always.
  20. You can grow through your grief. You can honour your grief and also become more. The lessons you learn can change and grow you into a better version of yourself. Your life does not need to shrivel up, even though right now you may just want to curl up in a ball. You can learn to live again.
  21. C.S. Lewis was onto something when he spoke of the shadowlands of grief. It really does feel like living under the shadow of a dark cloud that follows you everywhere. But over time, the light really does get in. The clouds will slowly clear and you will eventually feel the heavyweight of grief’s shadow begin to lift.
  22. Death is not the end of a relationship. Life really does go on. I may have already said that, but it bears repeating again because if you’re in the early stages of grief, it may be some time before you can believe it.
  23. There is no time limit to grief. It’s not something you get over. It’s something you learn to live with.
  24. Did I mention living? Grief is something you feel when you are alive. Over time, you will find meaning in your life again; you will find ways of living again. And it will be awesome!
  25. You will be okay. I know, because I am.

24 Years Since My Heart Broke

I was going to write a post today about how to help someone who is grieving but I just can’t do it. Because my own grief is very present for me right now and I need to honour that. All I can do tonight is say, hear me, please. Listen to me. I have a story to tell.

Assumptions 

It took me about 15 months to conceive my first child, including one early miscarriage along the way. After a difficult birth, it would have been tempting to quit the baby-making days! But alas, my heart was full, I had so much love to give, and I knew I wanted more. 

My second pregnancy was pretty easy, really. I was loving being a Mum, and so excited to be with-child while parenting a toddler (and a wee bit exhausted). All the checkups went well and it was progressing without a hitch. 

By the time the due date was approaching, it became evident I was going to have a big baby (about 10 pounds, the obstetrician consulting to the Birth Centre thought). Nonetheless, he said I was a “perfect birth centre candidate” and it was full-steam ahead for a delivery in the natural setting of the Birth Centre, with the midwives we had been seeing throughout the pregnancy. I was elated!

Having been induced the first time, and in labour for about 1,001 days, I was so excited that it was looking set to be a natural delivery this time. It was going to be amazing! 

What helped us in our grief?

I think it would also be wonderful to share some of the helpful, supportive, memorable things people said or did for us. This may help others feel more confident about coming alongside someone who is grieving. It may encourage them to “have a go” at helping, rather than holding back.

By speaking up about what helped us in our grief, we can pave the way for people to show more compassion and support for others who experience the pain of heartbreak.

I’ll start.

What Helped Me in my Grief

When my baby died, there were some words said that caused pain. They were probably well-intentioned but often missed the mark, or worse. There were times when I ended up comforting those who weren’t sure how to comfort me. (“It’s okay, I know it can be really hard to know what to say”). Or I swallowed my shock at what had just been said.

BUT there were also a multitude of ways people showed their love and compassion that really, really helped. For example (and this list is not conclusive):

  • The midwife/friend who arrived at the hospital for her regular shift while our son was being put on life-support, who sat with us, cried with us, and was a literal lifeline in a confusing, scary situation.
  • Those who came to the hospital while we waited for our son to be air-lifted to the children’s hospital, who held us when we discovered he had died not long after arrival.
  • A friend who rang the funeral parlour for me, because I couldn’t get the words out without sobbing.
  • The (same) friend who came to the funeral parlour and sat with us while we made arrangements for our son’s funeral.
  • Those who simply visited and sat with us in our pain!
  • People who turned up with toilet paper, toys for our toddler, tea and coffee, and many many tissues, so that we didn’t have to think about such things while our house was filled with supportive friends and family.
  • Those who washed dishes, took out rubbish, cleaned our house, mowed our lawn and did who-knows-what-else while our hearts were so broken that we couldn’t think about the practical things!
  • A 3-page letter from a friend who had experienced a similar loss, telling us all the things she wished she’d done or not done after her baby died.
  • The friend who hid her newborn at the house next door during the wake,  sneaking out to nurse and feed him, so I wouldn’t be confronted by seeing a 2-week old baby when my baby was in a grave.
  • My parents and parents-in-law, who grieved for their grandson and their own children at the same time, and carried their own pain while helping us survive ours.
  • People who changed my toddler’s nappies! I don’t even know who you were, but I figure someone did it because I don’t remember doing anything like that for about two weeks!
  • The thoughtfulness of a friend who gave us a baby congratulations card, in recognition that even 9 hours earth-side is something worth recognising. I still have that card, 24 years later.
  • My sister-in-law’s gift of a beautiful hand-stitched memento, which we placed in the coffin with our baby.
  • The friend who made a beautiful outfit for my son to be buried in.
  • The (same) friend who re-made the outfit because a 5kg baby just can’t fit in normal newborn sizes!A friend's gift helped me in my grief
  • The friend who carried my baby’s coffin to the graveside so tenderley, knowing that this could just as easily have happened to his own 2-week old baby.
  • Friends who patiently answered our relentless questions about “what was normal” in maternity practices when we were coming to terms with the awful realisation that our baby probably shouldn’t have died.
  • The friend who understood how hard it was for me to visit her newborn in the same maternity ward where my baby had been born.
  • A sensitive, compassionate friend who waited until just the right time (about 5 months, from memory) to ask me if I’d like to hold her baby, knowing that our babies should have been growing up together.
  • Those who patiently listened, cared and prayed as I railed relentlessly against this unfathomable, unimaginable loss.
  • Friends who took their kids to our baby’s grave and left little gifts, without saying a word.
  • So many letters, art, gifts and cards! A They are still treasured, even after 24 years.
  • Friends and family who kept on remembering our baby’s anniversary, year after year after year.
  • A new friend who visited me on my baby’s anniversary the first year after we moved away from the town where he’d been born, died and buried. She simply asked me, “Tell me about Cody? I wish I’d met him.”

I could go on. And on. and on. And I’m sure I’ve missed so many people who reached out with love and support.

What Helped You?

To those who have travelled grief’s pathway, what are some of the memorable ways people cared for you? Let’s remember the good and helpful things, and inspire others to reach out, rather than hide from, their bereaved loved ones.

Add your voice to the comment box below, and let’s bring to light the positive stories of what helped us in our grief.

Do You Need Help?

Are you struggling to cope with your grief, whether it be through the death of a loved one, relationship loss, pet grief, or any other type of loss? It can be helpful to seek support from a grief counsellor. If this is you, please reach out for support.

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