Grief for me has meant appreciating joy and accepting the pain inherent in loss. The most joy and pain I had in life before 2015 was during the month my daughter was alive. In 2003, my daughter died of SIDS; I had an ectopic pregnancy in 2004 and then struggled with secondary infertility for over 10 years. Three years ago I had my daughter Willa Kate through IVF.
Because my joy was interrupted with my infant daughter, Madeleine‘s death, I wasn’t able to feel any of the inevitable losses mothers go through with her. With her, I never had to feel the loss of identity mothers often feel, never had to feel sad that my daughter was no longer my baby. Grief made me romanticize motherhood.
Now I know that my joy with my first daughter would have been interrupted in other ways during mothering; that joy wasn’t what I would only feel.
An important part of healing from my losses was accepting what is, rather than being stuck in my longing. Before my second daughter was to be born, I had to accept a life no longer defined by nostalgia of a lost motherhood in order to heal. I had to learn to find joy in other ways, such as in step-mothering, getting a PhD, my relationship with my husband, and loving my pets. I know it sounds clichéd to say that happiness means appreciating what you have rather than what you don’t have; but that was a hard lesson for me to learn.
Infertility caused more grief I had to wade through. My grief was reset every month that the pregnancy stick was negative, and I was catapulted into desperate longing.
Eventually my longings lessened. Eventually I would hope every month, but every month my cycle would end in blood, I no longer felt fatally wounded. My heart still ached when I thought about my daughter, but I was also appreciative of the joy I felt when she was alive. I began to feel joy again. Rather than obsessing over what isn’t, I was getting better at accepting what is.
Bereavement means defining yourself in a way that isn’t dependent on your loss. Now that I have my daughter Willa Kate, I am no longer just the mother whose child died, no longer just infertile. My life isn’t stuck in the negative. Healing for me means seeing life as it is, not just what I want it to be.
Facing forward is still hard for me. As a writer, the past is important to me. Dwelling on my past has helped me make sense of now. But, I realize that even with my current joyousness as a mother to a toddler, I can get stuck in the past.
One of the hardest parts of my early grieving was flashbacks of my daughter’s death. The puff of blood coming out of her nose, her body limp in my arms, the ambulance ride to the hospital, the moments waiting alone in a stark room at the hospital to see if she was alive or not; the haze of the funeral. My heart felt broken whenever a flash went through my mind.
Now I know that I was probably dealing with PTSD. I couldn’t help seeing these images over and over, getting stuck in the moment of the tragedy. Also, I realize that going over and over the moment of her death I kept wishing for it to be different. I wanted my prayers now to rewind time and make it be different. Being in the past meant time travelling and hoping to bend time to my will.
And dwelling on my infertility was also a way of being stuck in what isn’t. Wanting to get pregnant every month meant being keenly aware of the disappointments I had already felt before. I braced myself, feeling like nothing would change, and I would be disappointed again. My current was determined by my pain in the past.
I had to learn how to look ahead and not feel trapped in what has been. I had to have hopes that were not dependent on replacing my past losses. I was able to start living with dampening pain, the heartache less intense, and move toward joy once more. Accepting what is while wanting more is a delicate balance. It was my challenge, but I had to learn to face forward once more.
There will still be heartbreaks, I know, despite the fact I have had a second chance at motherhood with another daughter. Motherhood isn’t a path paved in gold. But my past losses and longings are a blessing in that they make me embrace every moment of loving my 3 year old daughter.
Grief is a journey, grief is embedded in life. As I get older, the source of grief shifts, such as losing my 73 year old father last year. But I’ve become a warrior in the face of grief, able to accept what comes. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to move through the flames of loss.
Melissa Miles McCarter struggled with secondary infertility since the death of her daughter to SIDS in 2003. She was successful through infertility treatments to have her daughter Willa Kate in 2015. As a way to cope with her losses, she edited the book, Joy, Interrupted: An Anthology on Motherhoodand Loss, which also features art and writing on topics such as stillbirth, miscarriage and adoption. In addition, she’s written about feminism, motherhood, popular culture, mental illness and grief for various publications and in a number of books. Melissa lives in rural Southeast Missouri with her husband, step-son and daughter. You can find out more at melissamilesmccarter.com