This blog has been knocking around in my head for a good few months, but it’s been brought to a head by a couple of Instagram posts I saw by a brilliant lady I follow called Anna Mathur (@annamathur).
Anna put a post up about how she’d been attacked by an online troll with this message:
Anna says you can be strong but broken. I agree. Now I don’t know Anna’s story, but this dichotomy of being ‘strong’ and being ‘broken’ applies so much to any bereaved parent – certainly every single one I’ve ever had the honour of knowing.
This contradiction is something that bereaved parents regularly find themselves measured against. Many of them will tell you that they’ve heard people say well-meaning things like this:
“You’re so strong. I wouldn’t be able to cope, I’d just die.”
Truth is, you wouldn’t ‘just die’. You just can’t comprehend losing your child – and that’s okay with us, we couldn’t comprehend that either until, in a heartbeat (or lack of one), that became our forever reality.
My good friend Hannah had a similar experience to Anna Mathur. If you haven’t read Hannah’s blog, I highly recommend it. Hannah and Phil’s beautiful boy Dexy was stillborn on 5th January this year. Within a day she had the strength to talk publicly about their experience. Now THAT’S strong – it took me three and a half years to start writing about our journey.
Here’s a photo of Hannah and her gorgeous Dexy (shared with consent):
This photo prompted someone on social media to ask how Hannah could be happy when her son had died.
But what do any of us see in this photo?
Do we see a dead baby? Yes, and that is tragic.
But I see a mother utterly in love with her newborn son. Now, Dexy has died. None of us can change that fact. But while Hannah is utterly broken by Dexy’s death, she’s also totally in love with her boy, like any new mum would be.
Because the thing is, you can’t be either one of these two things all the time. If you try to be strong all the time, you end up breaking. If you’re broken all day, every day, it destroys you. So you end up being broken but strong.
Here’s a picture of my amazing friend Steph (who founded the charity Beyond Bea within weeks of her daughter’s birth) and her daughter Bea in the minutes after Bea was born at 23+4 (shared with consent):
Look in the top left hand corner and, like Hannah’s photo, you’ll see a smile on Steph’s face. Of course – she’s just met her beautiful daughter. But Steph talks very powerfully about how a smile can mask the grief that’s behind it. People see a smile and assume that we’re okay. Someone on social media saw Hannah’s smile and assumed that it was an indicator that she was ‘okay’, despite her baby dying.
We’re not okay even if we’re smiling after something like that. We’ll actually never be ‘okay’ in quite the same way ever again. But we’ll still smile. We’ll still put a front on. That spares society’s awkwardness you see – it means people don’t have to work out how to talk to or help the parent with the dead baby, something that’s (not unreasonably) completely outside of most people’s comfort zones. It means people can shrug and think “they’re smiling, they’re okay, I don’t need to talk to them about it” or “I won’t mention their baby in case it upsets them, they’re obviously doing well.” And so the way that society fails those that are grieving is reinforced and continues unchecked.
I have a picture like Hannah’s and Steph’s. Even right then though, twenty-one minutes after Henry was born, you can see in my face that I’m utterly broken. But you can see in the way my jaw is set and my lips are tightly pursed together that, even right then, twenty-one minutes after Henry was born, I was already starting to fall into the stereotype that society tells men in particular that they have to conform to (the patriarchy is damaging to men too).
“Don’t show emotion.”
“Support your partner.”
I tried “just being strong” after Henry died. I threw myself into work. I didn’t deal with what was building up inside me. I didn’t allow myself to break. It worked for about ten months. Then I couldn’t keep it up. I broke, and crashed – hard. What I needed to recognise (but failed to understand) back then was that actually breaking IS strong. Despite what Anna’s online troll said, being broken but strong is not a contradiction.
So how can you be both? Well, put simply, because you don’t get a choice. And that doesn’t just apply just to losing a baby. It applies to a whole host of wildly different but traumatic situations – a battle against cancer, a serious neurological condition, the death of a spouse, the list is endless.
I find it interesting to consider the way our society and our use of language assumes that we are one thing or another, that different things and different emotions are mutually exclusive. My amazing friend Rachel, Dorothy’s mum, writes an incredible blog called An Unexpected Family Outing. I love her writing. So many times I have read one of her blogs and it’s felt like she’s looked straight into my soul.
My favourite piece of Rachel’s writing is a post called “The Power of ‘And’: How One Word Changed The Way I Grieve”. The experience Rachel writes about in this blog changed the way she grieves. Reading it changed the way I grieve.
Five weeks after Dorothy died, my nephew was born. I remember going to our weekly therapy session and sharing this news with our therapist. Of course she wanted to know how I was feeling about his arrival. I replied that I was so happy that he was safely here but I was also happy that he lived across the country so I didn’t have to see him yet. “And.” she replied. I looked at her puzzled. She continued, “And. You are happy he is here AND you are happy that you don’t have to see him right now. Rachel, you don’t have to choose.”
Understanding this is the single most significant contribution to my journey of grief that I can think of.
‘Rachel, you don’t have to choose’ is one of the most important and influential sentences I’ve ever read. Because we don’t have to choose between “being broken” and “being strong”.
We don’t have to choose between smiling and grieving – one of the biggest emotional challenges I faced after Henry’s death was the guilt I felt the first time I laughed after Henry died – really properly laughed I mean.
I was immediately awash with regret. How could I ever laugh again? – my son died! But that’s the thing, just because we buried our children, doesn’t mean we have to sit stony-faced while the candidates on The Apprentice make an absolute hash of a selling task, or avoid comedy shows for fear that something might actually be amusing.
Like I said, if you try to be strong all the time, you end up breaking. If you’re broken all day, every day, it destroys you.
We don’t have to choose between grieving and being happy.
We don’t have to conflate losing our children and losing the rest of our lives.
9-15 October was Baby Loss Awareness Week. 10th October was World Mental Health Day. I’m sure it’s a coincidence but it feels totally appropriate that they take place at the same time, as the two things are inextricably linked.
I’ve got another blog coming looking back at Baby Loss Awareness Month, but in this post, I just want to draw those two themes together. Losing your child, clearly, has an incredible impact on your mental health, it takes a huge toll. It breaks you, without question – but it also makes you strong. You learn how to survive, how to get out of bed in the morning when you feel like you can’t ever get out of bed again, and how to spare society’s blushes.
Steph spoke at our charity’s conference on baby loss for midwives and student midwives in Birmingham in Baby Loss Awareness Week. As a practising midwife, Steph spoke to this audience of maternity professionals on the topic “Resilience – is it all we need?”. This is relevant to us all because being resilient (being broken but strong?) is something that is impressed upon us throughout society.
Steph asked “Am I resilient?” and then answered her own question:
“No. Because I haven’t recovered, and I don’t recover quickly, and I don’t expect any of you to do that…resilience…shouldn’t really exist. We don’t want you to be resilient, we just want you to not burn out.”
And Steph’s absolutely nailed it. What’s needed here is a fundamental change of interpretation about what being ‘strong’ or ‘resilient’ actually means. People shouldn’t feel like they have to keep internalising things in order to be seen as strong.
Because, despite what Anna’s troll said, you CAN be broken but strong. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
But it’s more even than being broken but strong. You can be broken AND strong.
So, if you know someone who’s lost a child (or indeed someone who’s suffered some other hugely traumatic event), don’t just automatically assume that if you see them smiling, that they’re okay, that they’re strong, that they don’t need your help.
They are strong. But they may well be broken too.
And that’s okay.