As the festive period and 2016 draws to a close, it feels like a time for reflection, taking stock and thinking about these last twelve months as a whole. I think it is fair to say that it has been a tough one: the toughest I have faced so far. But I refuse to see it as all bad and I certainly do not want to turn my back on 2016 at midnight and write it off as the worst in history. This was the year that I became a mother, the one that I got to meet our precious daughter, who has changed me and my life beyond all recognition. It is the year that I have learnt more about myself personally and professionally than I have in all the 34 years that came before. And I hope that it is a year that has made me a better wife, friend, psychologist – I guess, just a better person.
Certainly, globally in 2016 there have been many challenging, saddening events, and some downright disasters; political madness has prevailed with Brexit and the election of Trump, there have been many high-profile deaths of much loved and talented celebrities. But sad things happen every day all over the world, many life altering and devastating but not national news worthy. This won’t stop in 2017; people will still die and wars will continue to be fought. When the clock ticks over to a brand-new year, all of our difficulties will not fade away and we will not be new and revived as if by magic. But maybe it is a time when we can think about how we hope to set new intentions, to find gratitude and strength in order to face, and learn from, the curveballs that life can, and will, throw at us.
I suppose I have learnt that in life after loss, each new day can (and often does) bring its own new challenges. Although I have some longer-term goals and objectives for the coming year, my hope is that I can learn to expect the unexpected; to attempt not to over-plan; to set my intention for that day, or for that moment. And to be accepting when things do not go as I had planned. I want to be hopeful, yet also forgiving and non-judgemental of the darker times when I struggle to maintain this. And to embrace all of my experiences, good and bad, since these are what make me who I am.
So, in this vein, these are a few of the things that 2016 has taught me:
Life is precious and unpredictable
I started 2016 expecting that I would be bringing home a healthy baby; that my summer would be a whirlwind of nappy changes, sleepless nights and walks in the park with my new mummy friends. Instead, I had to witness the still ultrasound screen, experience the silent birth of our beautiful Orla and organise a funeral. I had to learn how to breathe again, to get out of bed each morning despite not wanting to wake up and to leave the house on my own without having a breakdown. I have had to navigate a world that continues even though mine has been shattered. And this was all without warning, without any time to prepare or make sense. But I guess there is no sense: it just is.
Stillbirth still exists
I suppose that this is something I would have preferred to be blind to; I understand that it can make people feel uncomfortable and anxious, particularly if they too are pregnant. But it is true, it is real and it happens every.single.day. Stillbirth still exists and it isn’t going away until someone does something about it. We need to support awareness and research to try to reduce the stigma, to understand the causes and to help prevent other people’s lives being destroyed. And I have never before felt more determined about being part of something.
Becoming a parent is life altering
Everyone says so and I would agree. But I guess for me it is in a way that I never quite imagined. I didn’t think it was possible to love another human being as much as I do, to feel so fiercely protective and wanting so intensely to preserve their memory. I’m sure that there are many more lessons to be learnt, but those that we have faced have enabled us to grow as parents and people in ways that I hope will only be positive for the future. At times, I may be a broken mess, but as Hemingway said, that’s how the light gets in.
I am stronger than I thought I ever could be
It’s amazing how you can feel both utterly broken and yet stronger than you could ever possibly imagine. It seems to be common for people to say ‘you’re so strong’ when grieving the loss of your child, maybe because it is something that seems unthinkable, let alone survivable. But being strong isn’t a choice, loss isn’t something that has been chosen for you because you are innately strong. Trauma and loss gives you an inner strength that is there even when you feel that you cannot go on. It is more than just surviving, even though that is often all it feels like. Those that have loved and lost and still put one foot in front of the other are the strongest people I know.
There are some people who can and those that can’t
Loss is uncomfortable for others. Many don’t know what to say or how to say it; they may feel fearful of causing upset or find it difficult to understand. They may not want to understand. But what I have learnt is that there are some people who can manage your grief and sadly there are those that can’t. Even when you explicitly say what you need, even when you lay it out in the public domain, there are some who still cannot, or will not, engage with you in the ways that you need. Even though this continues to be a source of pain, and sometimes anger, I am learning to accept this. Slowly.
Grief is visceral
Grief is felt in your heart and soul. It permeates your organs and sits deep within your bones. There is no rational thought in grief. It is raw, it is all-consuming and it is based on intense love.
Pregnancy after loss is one of the bravest journeys that anyone can face
I cannot do justice in just a few sentences to how hard the PAL journey is. The fear is intense and persistent; it is the dark cloud that hovers just above you and the voice of doom that whispers in your ear day and night. But it is the light at the end of the tunnel that drives you forward, and the people around you that hold you up when you feel it is all too much to continue. And hope. Hope that there will be brighter and lighter days ahead.
Social media can change lives for the better
I have met some of the most amazing people on social media this year, many who I now call friends. They have shared their stories, their own personal journeys and I am infinitely grateful to have them in my life. I have been inspired by women who have set up businesses that work for them and their families and have helped me to start thinking about ways in which I can integrate my professional and personal experience in the future.
That despite everything, I have so much to be grateful for. I have a wonderful husband who has been truly incredible since losing Orla. His determination and spirit has guided me when I felt completely lost; he held hope for me when I couldn’t and really is one in a million. I have been surrounded by so much love and support from family and friends. They have continued to call and text even when I haven’t been able to respond, held my hand when I could do nothing more than cry and have continued to love and remember Orla, speaking her name and showing me that they too love and miss her. I am also grateful to have the opportunity to grow another life. Each and every day I get with this baby is an honour that I will never ever take for granted.
But most of all, the thing that I am infinitely grateful for in 2016, is that I grew and birthed the most beautiful little girl who has changed me only for the better. Orla Maisy Cottle is by far and away my greatest achievement and although I miss her more than I can describe, I am so honoured to have had the opportunity to meet her.