The Five Things I Did (And Still Do) To Survive My Son's Death

How I lived through one of the most tragic experiences a woman can face.
Publish date:
October 23, 2015
death, motherhood, grief, mourning

I gave birth to a premature baby and endured a three month stay in the newborn intensive care unit. Then my son died and I survived.

I am a mother whose child died. It's a role I never imagined I'd play. The grief initially felt insurmountable.

But with time and a lot of introspection, my loss has become less unbearable. I've identified five choices I made that have enabled me to live through one of the most tragic experiences a woman can face. 1) I chose not to ask why or what if. My son's premature birth and subsequent hospital stay is shrouded in medical mystery. I don't know why I went into labor three months early. I don't know why he didn't respond to treatments. It's tempting to retrace the experience, wondering if different decisions would have led to different outcomes. Would my son be alive today if I had managed my stress better? If I had different doctors?

Did I exercise too much? Too little? Was there something in the water that triggered contractions? Hundreds of "what if" questions steamrolled my mind during our hospital stay and after his death.

Dissecting each choice and stringing together webs of possible alternative outcomes was a dizzying, obsessive practice that only resulted in frustration and exhaustion. And so, for my own sanity, I surrendered. I will never know why he came early and I will never know why he didn't survive. I quit wondering and I quit "what if-ing." I simply decided not to toil over the unanswerable.

With this decision, I managed to tame runaway thoughts and never reopen the Pandora's box of "what if." I now try to reflect upon the experience with love and gratitude. 2) I chose to believe there is no wrong way to grieve. When my son died, I went from a high stress, anxiety-provoking, prolonged situation to...emptiness. The stillness of the aftermath is just as jarring as the chaos of the NICU.

No one hands you instructions on how to deal with the death of your child. You're tossed into the wild with no roadmap to normalcy. In fact, there is no such thing as normal anymore and you have to figure it out for yourself. After his death, I would lie. When strangers asked me if I had children, I simply said "no," and now, after the birth of my daughter, I say that I have only one child.

The alternative was to unleash my tragic story onto unsuspecting strangers who were simply making small talk by asking how many children I have. Still, guilt ensued. I worried that he thought I had forgotten him, that he thought I didn't love him. Eventually, I chose to believe that my son understands why I exclude him from my child count. He is not looking down and wondering why I didn't tell the check-out girl at the grocery store about him. He has better things to do. 3) I chose not to avoid pain. I knew that trying to avoid pain could easily send me into a downward spiral of grief, and I'd likely take alcohol along for the ride.

I knew, too, that painful emotions are bullheaded and that trying to suppress them would only make them come roaring back with more force and determination.

I resolved to not tie the pain down. If I faced the beast, I reckoned, maybe it would not come around so often. So when the pain-beast does come knocking, I let it in. I allow it to consume me, steal my breath, cover me with a heavy blanket of despair. I quickly realized that the emotional pain waxed and waned like the tides. I learned that the moments of extreme darkness were fleeting and that, given time, the weight would lift.

Sometimes the pain eases in minutes, sometimes it takes hours. But it always eases.

In the three years since my son's death, the pain-beast arrives with as much force as ever, but it doesn't stay as long as it used to, and it doesn't show up quite so often anymore. 4) I celebrate his birthday and "soul birthday" every year. I've created rituals of marking the days he took his first and last breath. The annual acknowledgment of these two days has become twin beacons that punctuate the calendar every June and September; metaphoric lighthouses amid a tumultuous, dark sea. The rituals provide a sense of control in remembrance of a time that was wildly out of control. On my son's birthdays, I light a candle for him and write a letter. I remember and relish the positive moments of his brief life. The first time we made eye contact. The few times I got to hold him. The rare moments when I knew he was physically comfortable. I use this day for introspection and memories. I also celebrate the day he died, his "soul birthday." His dad and I had to decide when it was time to free him from pain and to untether him from the tubes and wires that had been keeping him alive.

After the support was removed and he took his last breath, agony subsided and serenity hung in the air for a fleeting moment. We did he right thing, at the right time.

On the anniversary of his death, we release balloons as a symbol of the quiet and graceful ascension of his soul. 5) I believe that he is still with me. Another conscious choice I made was to believe that he is with me, that he hears me when I talk to him, and that signs that I think maybe are from him are definitely from him.

The alternative — that my son is simply gone, irrevocably and permanently — leaves such an unbearably empty feeling that, despite a cynical mind, I have to believe.

My son arrived with a flash and disappeared as quickly as a shooting star, leaving behind a mother who will be forever tarnished. My skies will always be cloudy, but as time goes on and I continue to make deliberate choices in dealing with grief, perhaps, someday, I'll see the silver lining.