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I am somewhat envious of the 17 days Tahlequah, the orca who carried her dead calf for 1,000 miles off the Pacific northwest coast, was able to spend with her dead baby. Bereaved parents know this pain.
Thirteen years ago, I delivered twins – a boy and a girl. My son was stillborn, my daughter lived for six minutes. It was the most agonizing emotional heartache I have ever gone through. The nurses asked before I delivered them if I wanted to hold them and I initially refused. “Who does that?” I thought. “Who holds a dead baby? Who would even want to see the baby when you know it is dead?”
I did. My husband did. Our mothers did. And, it turns out, nearly every bereaved parent I have encountered has their own story about how treasured those minutes and hours were with their stillborn baby. This story of Tahlequah, carrying her dead baby with her, having her family carry the baby when she was too tired, staying with her pod as best as she could, resonated with me – and with a lot of other bereaved parents. We would have taken 17 days if we could have.
Watching the nurse walk out with my babies, I wanted her to bring them back right away. I wanted them to be in my room – no, I wanted them to be in my bed. I wanted them to be with me while I slept, while I cried, while the world seemed to go on around us. I wanted them to be with me every minute. I wanted to undress them, to see every part of them, to imprint on my brain every millimetre of their tiny bodies. I wanted to see if they looked like me, or if they looked like my husband. I wanted to tell them what we had decided to name them, Elora and Joseph. I wanted to be a mother to them.
Tahlequah swam with her baby for a short time, and the baby died within hours of birth. I am jealous that she was able to follow her maternal instincts and stay with her baby, doing what she chose to do, with no pressure to give the baby up and just keep swimming with her pod. I read that carrying her dead baby kept her from eating and cost her precious energy; I can tell you that there isn’t a mother out there who hasn’t given up eating and pushed through what little energy she had to do what was needed for her baby.
Tahlequah didn’t have anyone gently explaining what might start to happen to the baby’s body if they were out of the cooling bed for too long. Tahlequah didn’t have anyone delicately preparing her for what her baby’s skin might look like after the first day, or a nurse assuring her that she could spend as much time as she would like with the baby, but she would be going on lunch and would be back in an hour, and would that be long enough for you to hold the baby?
Tahlequah simply did what every bereaved mother would do, if our system and our society was able to support her though this: Tahlequah spent every moment she could with her baby.
Parents who have lost a pregnancy or whose baby has died don’t care about anything else in those early moments but to spend time with their child. We know that this time is fleeting, and every interruption from the outside world feels like a jarring shake back into a reality where we have to begin living without our baby. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, perhaps it was the lack of food, or perhaps it was simply blind, unconditional love that lulled me into silent moments of just staring at my babies. I imagined them as chubby, drooly babies in their stroller as we walked along our neighbourhood sidewalk, strangers stopping to comment on how special it was to have twins, how I must have my hands full, how their sister’s best friend had twins. Then the door to my hospital room would open and a nurse would be there with a kind smile, apologizing for the interruption, but there is some paperwork to be filled out before discharge. Boom. Back I was.
Tahlequah just swam. She brought her baby with her for 17 days, 1,000 miles, and then she released her baby. Bereaved parents know that moment, too. We know the moment when you walk out of the hospital with empty arms and begin the work of living as a parent with no baby to hold. As I read, I felt the same jarring feeling as the words spilled off of the page: “her tour of grief is over and her behavior is remarkably frisky … the mom, seems to be doing well, very energetic.”
I couldn’t believe it. The same thing was happening to Tahlequah that happens to parents after they leave the hospital and start moving through their daily routines. Our society then says, “She seems to be doing well, she is going back to work, I saw her take the dog for a walk, things must be okay now.”
When you are fortunate to meet another parent who has shared your experience of losing a baby, it eventually circles around to what is normal, what is expected and how impossible it feels to meet these expectations of “normal.” We compare health-care experiences, we talk about our babies, we talk about the well-meaning comments from friends, family and co-workers that have cut to the quick: “You’re still young”; “At least you know you can get pregnant”; “Everything happens for a reason.”
There is a deafening silence that parents who have lost a baby feel when they come home and notice that no one talks about this. There are no commercials advertising where to go for help. There are no billboards telling you that you are not alone. There are no posters at the library letting you know that support is available for you.
Tahlequah, like all of us, has not completed her “tour of grief.” Grief is not limited to a number of days or weeks or years. Losing a baby changes who you are in the world. We may resume activities of daily living, we may return to work and we may go on to have more children, but we need to have a different understanding of grief – how it looks, feels, and how it should be supported. We need to know that the work of a bereaved parent is learning how to incorporate the loss of their baby into their life. The work is not aimed at completing a “tour of grief.” Tahlequah’s release of her baby is not the end of her tour, but rather the beginning of learning how to live as a bereaved mother.
Michelle La Fontaine lives in Whitby, Ont.