I’ve always had a pretty vivid imagination and would tend to have nightmares at times of stress. Since losing Isobel, my nightmares have become crazily detailed with intricate plot lines that seem to span hours of time. They aren’t recurring in the sense that it’s the same storyline over and over, however there does tend to be a theme of death or imminent death and me either being powerless, or trying desperately in vain to stop it from happening. This theme is apparent even in my normal dreams where I’ll be trying to make a phone call and repeatedly press the wrong button on the keypad or I’ll be trying to drive a car but from the back seat.
My normal nightmares don’t bother me too much, if they gets too intense I can wake myself up and I don’t tend to be upset after them. On a number of occasions however I have had lucid nightmares, where I know I’m having a nightmare and yet I can’t change it, stop it, or wake myself up. If my other dreams feel like hours, these ones feel like days of pure torture. I am paralysed, completely unable to act, I scream but don’t make a sound. I know that it’s a nightmare and that it’s not real but the feeling of being trapped is so real. Sometimes I think I’ve managed to wake up but then the nightmare starts again and I realise I’m still asleep. These dreams are horrible and when I wake up my heart is racing, my body filled with tension and my throats feels raw from screaming even though I haven’t really made a sound. It takes me a few minutes to accept that I’m awake now and it’s over. Then I don’t want to close my eyes again or go back to sleep. Simon is normally woken up by my gasping and we have a cuddle and I have a cry.
I was chatting to a psychologist friend about the most recent lucid dream I had last week. We were talking about the sense of powerlessness in the dreams and how that of course connects with Isobel’s death and my inability to do anything to save her. We were talking about different trauma therapies and how it might be helpful to see a therapist to help me process this a bit more.
I was imagining myself being free of nightmares, these trauma symptoms being gone and it made me realise that I still feel like I deserve these symptoms. In connection with my beliefs of my own responsibility for not saving Isobel, some part of me thinks that having to experience these distressing dreams is a fitting punishment. In a strange way, my ongoing emotional difficulties are also my ongoing connection with Isobel. If I’m fine, if I have no more distress, then is it just like Isobel never existed at all?
I know this doesn’t really make sense, or at least only makes a kind of sense. Which makes me realise just how complicated people and minds are!
I’ve been googling lucid dreams and I think the strategy is to learn to control the events of the dreams so maybe that’s something to work on! Any one else suffer from nightmares? Any tips?
These are some of the photographs of Isobel that we have in our living room, there is another single one on the TV unit and another in the hall. So far, we don’t actually have any pictures of Theo printed out or on display!
My mum asked me recently if I could print her this picture of Theo as the ones she has up in her house aren’t her favourites and she liked this one. I found myself feeling really angry, and not understanding why until I thought about it later. My mum and dad only have one picture of Isobel in their house and mum deliberately picked the one below that you can’t really see Isobel in. My dad has said before that he doesn’t feel comfortable seeing pictures of Isobel so I think mum has avoided putting one up because of him and maybe other visitors too.
Even though I understand why, I am cross that one of my children is good enough to be displayed by their grandparents and one of them is not. To me, they are equal, but this photograph issue and so many other things remind me constantly that to the eyes of others, Theo matters and Isobel does not.
I feel angry and sad that we don’t have more pictures of Isobel. Even though we took literally hundreds of pictures in the four days we had with her, if there aren’t already more pictures of Theo, there soon will be. Our house will be filled with images of Theo, in different poses and clothes, different places and seasons, getting older and older (I hope!), but there will never, ever, be any more pictures of Isobel. Those hospital photos, that one babygrow, that look of pure trauma on our faces, are all we will ever have. I think I’ve resisted putting up pictures of Theo because I don’t want him to overtake Isobel on our walls, in the same way a mother with two living children wouldn’t have significantly more pictures of one than the other. I also have more of a need to see Isobel’s face in pictures, as I can see Theo’s adorable wee face any time.
We are moving house soon, we are buying our first house (how I feel about moving from this one may be another post). I am definitely going to put up some pictures of Theo when we move. I just don’t know how I will feel when we have more of Theo than of Isobel.
I’ve been very involved with Baby Loss Awareness month this year. As well as completing Capture Your Grief, I did an interview for a local newspaper, had an article published on Still Mothers that was shared on Facebook over 1000 times, attended the screening of Still Loved where my husband spoke on the Q and A panel and presented my therapeutic retreat proposal to a SANDS committee to successfully secure funding.
As wonderful and worthy as all of that is, and as much as I love being able to talk about Isobel and share her story, it is really draining too. The flip side of every experience of speaking out or sharing something is that ache in my chest, that sick feeling in my throat, the sadness that I am doing this because my baby died. I swing between embracing this life that I’m living, and feeling extreme resentment that this is my experience. I move between the numbness of it almost not seeming real and the gut wrenching reality slap that it actually happened. And in lots of ways is still happening on a daily basis.
There is no doubt that many things are easier than they were last year. I’m sure to people on the outside, I seem back to my normal self a lot of the time. And that’s not a wholly false perception. I feel so different than the old me but yet more recognisable to myself than I was last year. I’ve gotten used to having part of my mind always thinking hard thoughts and to being intermittently swept away in sadness or anger or guilt. I know now that the intensity of those feelings will always ease after a while and that I can cope until it does. Sometimes I’m afraid to say things like this though, because I worry people will think I’m better and although I’m not quite sure why, that scares me.
I think this description of grief is excellent. It’s not something I will ever be finished with, but it is something that I can absorb and still live a meaningful life while carrying. I’m both sad and relieved that Capture Your Grief is over for another year. I am thankful to everyone who shared their hearts, who read my posts and to Carly Marie for creating such a beautiful outlet for our thoughts and feelings. Until next year…
Oh Isobel. When you died, straight away I decided that I never wanted anyone to be able to say that you ruined my life; that your impact on me was overwhelmingly negative. This meant I had to try. I had to get up, get dressed, go out. I had to exercise. I had to see people. I had to write, to talk, to connect. I had to function, even when the effort level required felt like more than I could bear. Some things are easier now, some things are still hard, some are still impossibly hard. But still I am trying.
I can’t promise you that I will always appreciate the huge gift of simply being alive. I can’t promise that I will always be happy or kind or loving. I can’t promise that at any given moment, someone observing wouldn’t see me struggling, flailing, failing. But I can promise you that I will always try.
This prompt is about spreading kindness. I have been rubbish and haven’t done anything specifically to write about but I did do something a few days ago which I know my friend appreciated. NSPCC are running a fundraising promotion where you can sponsor one of the Christmas lights on Oxford Street in London. I named one for my friend’s little baby son who was lost to miscarriage and sent her the picture. Sadly her experience has been that miscarriage is even less acknowledged than stillbirth and I know it meant a lot to her that I was thinking of her little baby, that she got to see his name in print and that she can imagine a wee star named for him shining down all through the Christmas season.
So many people have been kind to me when I’ve really needed it, I feel I have so much more awareness of how to give away my love by experiencing the love that has been given to me.
I’ve written before about having thoughts of responsibility and blame for Isobel’s death that make me feel guilty. For me this adds such an extra challenging dynamic to the grief of the loss itself. The fact is that Isobel was herself a perfectly healthy baby and had I realised something was wrong, and gone to the hospital sooner, we quite possibly may have been able to save her.
I had known about kick counting during my pregnancy and had counted her kicks a number of times when I was unsure about movements before, and even gone to hospital twice with what I perceived were reduced movements only to be told everything was fine. But counting the kicks wasn’t something I did every day. I would like to think I would have noticed if her movements had reduced before she died but honestly I don’t remember the day before, and what the movements were like. Why didn’t I take just half an hour to monitor movements every day? It sounds so stupid now, but even when the doctors talked about monitoring movements no one actually said “There is a risk your baby could die”. I genuinely didn’t think healthy babies could die at 39 weeks in low risk pregnancies with no complications.
Our post-mortem showed that Isobel was starved of oxygen over a six hour period which I believe happened over night but maybe there were signs the day before that I missed. The night before, we went for a walk and I was a little sore. Instead of being concerned, I was excited, thinking this could be the start of labour. The pain didn’t progress and went away so I didn’t think any more about it. Now I’m tormented by that pain, was that the start of the placenta giving up on Isobel? What would have happened if I had gone to get checked out that night? How could my baby be struggling, suffocating, dying inside me and I didn’t know anything was wrong? How was I so neglectful? Where was my mother’s intuition?
It makes me sick that I went for lunch that next day with my NCT group. Five of the women had their babies with them and two of us were still pregnant. I held all those babies, so excited that I would be holding mine soon. How could I not have realised that she wasn’t alive? It was when I was having lunch that I started to think that I hadn’t felt any proper movements aside from the mild contractions I was having. When I got home I had a cold drink and lay down and didn’t feel anything. Even then I still wasn’t that worried because this had happened twice before and everything was fine when I went to the hospital, but I thought I better go and get checked out. Simon and I sat waiting in the hospital for two hours before we were seen. We were so unconcerned that we didn’t make a fuss about the wait, we sat there debating names and chatting as normal. How was I so naïve? I look back and I absolutely cannot understand how I was so blasé about my child’s life.
I didn’t intend this post to be a whole confessional but maybe this is something I have needed to write. I know people will say that I didn’t know any different, I had no reason to think she was going to die and maybe I couldn’t have saved her anyway if the placenta stopped working acutely. I know all these things. I have told myself all these things. But none of that changes how I feel.
In the model of psychology I practice (ACT) we try to recognise that thoughts are just stories our mind tells us. We don’t get in to debates about how true or not they are, but instead think about whether getting hooked on a particular thought or story is helpful for us and encourages us to live according to our values. I recognise that the ‘It’s my fault’ story is so unhelpful and adds unnecessary suffering to a loss that would be painful enough without these extra layers. But even as a psychologist, I just don’t know how to let this story go. 16 months on from losing Isobel, it’s the main aspect of the loss that I feel I have made absolutely zero progress in dealing with.
Our messy house, full of love, with Isobel’s pictures always present on the wall. Our messy hearts, full of love, with Isobel always present.
Kindness. A hundred little acts of kindness from lovely people reminding me that although awful things happen, there is much more good in the world than bad. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
These are just a few recent messages of support. Seeing her name is more healing than they could ever know.
Finish these five sentences…⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
I wish…every day that I could go back and do something differently to save her.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
I remember…thinking this can’t be real because nothing bad ever happens to me.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
I could not believe…how close I was to having everything I ever wanted. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
If only… I had realised something was wrong, sooner. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
I am…finding it very hard to forgive myself.
I was a lot of good and admirable things before Isobel but I wasn’t a mother. I didn’t understand the love that I would have for my baby girl, how I would do anything to protect her and how when I was no longer able to protect her in life, that I would become someone who would face anything to protect her memory, her legacy.
I have become someone who speaks publicly about the most personal of things with little hesitation. I have become someone who overshares on social media because I need to remind people that she existed and that she mattered. I have become someone who complains, about maternity care and the treatment of bereaved parents, someone who sets up focus groups and support services. I have become someone who has no difficulty with being assertive regardless of the audience. Such is the fierceness that Isobel gave me when she made me a mother.
If I could choose, there are definitely aspects of the ‘before’ me that I would like back. The easy optimism, a general compassion for myself, the (slightly increased) tolerance of others, confidence in groups/crowds, the capacity to have fun and feel joy without there always being at least a tinge of sadness and guilt. Another thing from ‘before’ that I would be over the moon to have back would be my ability to sleep well – although my nightmares have improved significantly, quietening my mind and getting to sleep is still a real challenge.
Who am I becoming? Someone who is still figuring out how to be a mother to two children with very different needs. Someone who is still hoping to regain some of her old self while retaining some of the strength that her first baby gave her. I am becoming someone who has made her daughter’s death a part of her story but not the end of it.