As a psychologist, I have been exposed to the experience of loss, grief and trauma on a daily basis having worked with many clients who have suffered in so many unimaginable ways. I have an academic and clinical knowledge, but I guess I have been really lucky that I haven’t had too much personal experience until now. Since losing Orla, many people have said ‘I guess your training / work must help with your coping’ which got me thinking – is it a help or a hindrance? Have I used any of my psychological training at all? Is it possible to know too much?
Like most clinical psychologists I embody the typical Type A personality traits, and at times I fear I am falling into the trap of trying to get grief ‘right’. I mean, I should know how to do this shouldn’t I? Not only that, my driven over-perfectionist self tells me that I should be doing the best that I can possibly can at grieving, doing the right things in the right order at the right time.
As if just grieving the loss of your child in itself isn’t hard enough…
The typical five stages of grief are something that most people know about; that there are typical responses that most people work through after any type of loss, and that hopefully at the end you are able to come to some form of acceptance of what has happened and continue on the path that is life. Kind of. So how am I doing?
Shock and denial – tick
Being told that our baby’s heart had stopped beating was like being hit by a ten tonne truck. We were in a state of shock that felt like we were having an out of body experience and entering a completely different state of existence. We had had a wonderfully smooth, textbook pregnancy. We had had seen the midwife two days before, had a scan just three days before that and everything was absolutely fine, so there was no way that this could be happening. It must be a mistake. Everything else in life suddenly became completely meaningless and we felt as though there was no way that we could continue without our precious baby. Life as we knew it no longer had any point.
Anger – tick
Alongside every other emotion that you could imagine turned up to the maximum volume. Pain, guilt, jealousy, shame, hopelessness, anxiety, panic – you name it, we’ve felt it. Losing your child is a pain that is indescribable. Most people respond with ‘I can’t imagine…’, which is true. You cannot even begin to imagine how painful this is without having been here yourself. And you wouldn’t want to imagine. Anyone who has a child or is pregnant I am sure relate to those dark intrusive ‘what if’ thoughts. The thoughts that bring a knot to your stomach, a racing heart and a frantic attempt to block them out, lock them in a box in the deepest part of your brain and then swallow the key. When your child dies, the pain, guilt and shame is overbearing. When your child dies whilst inside of you, you feel completely and solely responsible. I have been plagued by thoughts of what I might have done to cause this, what must other people think about me and how I have caused the pain and suffering of my partner and whole family. This stage is a dark and lonely place.
I have felt angry at life, at the world, at the government for not adequately prioritising or funding maternal mental health. However, it is the anger that I have had towards myself that has been the most painful. Feeling as though it is my own fault, that there must be something wrong with me, that I could have, should have, done something differently. The health professionals, friends and family tell you otherwise and your head can sometimes agree. But in your heart, it is almost impossible to shake the feeling of anger, shame and guilt that you have towards yourself.
Bargaining – tick
“If only” and “what if” thoughts plagued me like a broken record during the first week and continue during the more dark and wobbly times I have. Which is a vicious cycle that rewinds you straight back to the anger, guilt and shame…
Depression – tick
The best way that we have found to describe this is a chronic empty and hollow feeling. It’s like a background noise that is always there, but sometimes you are more or less attuned to it. This is the ongoing sadness of losing Orla, the reality that we will never again hold her, never see her grow, never know what she would have looked like or what a beautiful girl and woman she would have become. This is knowing that every day we live going forward, there will always be an Orla shaped hole in our lives and this is a hole that will never be filled. It is wondering what meaning there is in life if this is the reality of what can happen to you.
Acceptance – tick
Strangely, even early on, this is something that we have had fleeting moments of. It is not about being okay or being ‘over’ your grieving – we will never be over losing Orla. There are times that we know that we have to accept that we need to find a ‘new normal’, that we need to develop a new sense of self that integrates the immense pain and sadness that we have to hold. That we need to go on knowing that there will always be a piece of us that is missing and can never be replaced. Right now, this flips me rapidly back into anger (‘why the hell do I have to accept this?’) and depression (‘I don’t want a new normal – I want to be the old me who was looking forward to welcoming our much loved baby into the world’). But maybe as time goes on, this will be less fleeting and maybe even accompanied by hope.
I guess the term ‘stages’ give the impression that you move from one level to the next, much like learning a new skill or getting to a new level of candy crush. A stage is defined as a ‘point, period, or step in a process or development’, suggesting that you move from one to the next in a progressive way. The reality is that grief is so much more messy, chaotic and overwhelming than this. I can experience all of the above in the matter of minutes. I can be a snotty weeping mess as a result of sadness, pain and anger, feel overwhelming guilt and shame at the anger and then focus myself into something like writing that I accept is part of building a new me. It’s utterly exhausting.
Despite my training, I need to reconcile that there is no right or wrong and to give up the idea that I can find the perfect way in which to grieve. Grief is not linear; there is no timeline or timeframe and you can chaotically flip from one stage to another, and back again, in the matter of minutes. Acceptance doesn’t mean you have reached the end of your sadness, anger or bargaining, but for me it means accepting that I will be different from now on and therefore so will my life. Part of me will continue to be sad and empty in many ways, but I hope that having Orla will teach me to love wholeheartedly, to take all opportunities I can and to have gratitude for all the things that I have in my life that are positive. And that I need to give myself a break.
* I have never had a couch unfortunately. In the NHS, you are often lucky to get two of the same seats that are the same height in the same room, which can make for some very awkward sitting / crouching positions.