Trigger Warning: This story contains an image of and information about miscarriage, stillbirth, and pregnancy loss.
Once, I had a baby, and he died. There are nicer ways to say it. He was stillborn; he passed away in utero; I had a pregnancy loss. But no matter the words, the result is the same — I am alive, and he is not.
Sometimes things happen in life that divide you into two people. Once upon a time, I was a person who didn’t have a dead baby. And then I wasn’t. Before and after. Then and now. Two roads diverged, and I took the one I didn’t want to travel. And that has made all the difference.
I was only able to begin writing about my son recently, six years after the fact. Words, my solace and comfort in times of distress, deserted me. There were no words that could make sense of surviving the unsurvivable. I didn’t merely feel sadness. I felt incomplete, a shadow, a ruin. Life could not go on.
But it did.
The irony of grief is that when your world stops, the rest of the world keeps going. Time stops for no one, and that is both the beauty and the heartbreak of it. We humans have a remarkable ability to go on after life knocks us to the ground, trudging down paths that are dark and difficult, crawling when it gets too hard to walk. Finding our way, slowly, making wrong turns and going backwards sometimes, and eventually discovering new routes.
My son, Luke, was stillborn on Christmas Eve of 2010. His death sent me veering in directions I never anticipated. Grief is transformational. At first, it was all I could do to endure and survive. Breathing was an accomplishment.
Eventually, I tried to begin to reconstruct my grief into something that made me better than I was before. I reevaluated my entire life, moving on from people and things that did not enhance it. I began to help other families going through loss. I told people how I felt, both good and bad. I recognized that there was no making sense of the senseless, but that I could honor the place in my heart where my son lives, making it not a void, but an altar.
I always said that the one thing I could not survive was the loss of a child. I was right. The person I was is gone. I took her place. The main character of my life narrative was replaced. I felt like the stories of changelings that my grandmother had told me as a child, terrifying me. In those legends, fairies or elves stole a child, leaving a horribly altered substitute in his or her place. I was the changeling, irrevocably changed, the exchange irreversible.
Haltingly, I have climbed my way into more of a combination of the two people, part woman, part changeling. First, I climbed toward my living children. There were four of them at the time, such tiny little souls, enduring not just their baby brother dying, but their mother lost and floundering. They became my compass. When I could not live for myself, I lived for them.
And then my good husband, struggling in his own sorrow, fumbled to me and we clutched hands in the dark. We tripped and stumbled and blundered through helping each other and ourselves, until one day, we started to see some light. We searched out others who had once been lost on this same path, the path that no one chooses but so many end up on. We took uncoordinated steps forward. Sometimes I would be much further behind. He waited. Sometimes I ran, trying to escape the path, not realizing that it was one I would travel always, and that it would become more manageable and yielding in time. Parts of it would even be beautiful.
Continuing my ascent, I scaled the next hurdle. Another baby. Surely I had been through enough. This new baby would be fine. But at five weeks, the bleeding began, and another hope died. Stepping forward again, even more gingerly this time, knowing that the ground could be pulled from under me at any time, we moved again. This time, it brought us a perfect baby, a boy we named Sam. He would always know about the brother who came before him and couldn’t stay.
There was such an intertwining of relief and guilt and fear and joy and hope and anguish at this gift of life. He healed a part of me that I thought would forever be an open wound. It is now a scar, one that can be easily felt, obvious but no longer gaping. It still marks me, every day. It is not an eyesore, but an emblem that tattoos me as a survivor.
I think everyone wonders about life after death. For time immemorial, philosophers and scholars and prophets and sages have created theories and theologies, doctrines and dogmas, speculating about souls and spirits and heavens and hells. I have no answers. But I do have proof of life after death.
My data includes a red-haired little boy who came after his brother, and stitched up my beautifully broken heart. My facts are validated in the acts of kindness we do in his honor each year. My witnesses are four children who were so young they shouldn’t remember, but do. My verification is the families I have visited after their losses, in hospitals and mortuaries. My substantiation is his name, spoken over and over in our home. My testimony is in waking up, each morning, even when I didn’t want to. There is life after death because love never dies.
I wanted my son to make a difference in the world. And even though he never drew a breath, he did.
I am his mother. I carried him once. I carry him still. Even death cannot take that away. I will be his life after death.
This post originally appeared on Still Standing.