Three years ago, on April 19, I gave birth to my first daughter, Annelise. She was born at 34 weeks and due to her prematurity and congenital diaphragmatic hernia, she passed away in my arms three days later, surrounded by her dad, grandparents and caring NICU nurses at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital. When I look back, the days that followed her death are both vivid and blurry in my memory. For over a year I was stuck in this loop of the memories of the week of her birth and death. I had more panic attacks than I could count, and although the light cut through the blinds in my bedroom that spring, all I could see was grey. My life lost its color.
I still get a knot in my throat and tears sometimes roll when I think about everything. Grief was an atomic explosion that shattered every bit of me and carved a huge cave inside my heart. At first, I was extremely afraid to explore this cave and even recognize that I had it. At some point, I really didn’t believe that it was possible to be happy again. My cave was filled with ghosts of desperation and hopelessness that tormented me for months. In the first couple years, time was my biggest enemy – it passed by so slowly that I was aware of each breath I took to survive. Getting out of bed, showering, wearing clean clothes and breathing felt like huge tasks that took all my energy.
It took me lots of counseling, restorative yoga, time off work, love from friends and family, and a lot of conversations with other grieving moms to come out of the loop of memories and to get to know my “cave” better. All these things, but especially yoga, helped me burn all the energy caused by the physical tension of grief. And I was a pile of anger and tension.
Now time is my biggest friend – it allows me to make sense of my feelings and to understand the shape of Annelise’s presence in my life and heart. With time, I learned that I didn’t need to live in the cave, and that I could revisit it any time and anywhere. After all, the cave would never go away.
The biggest difference between now and then is that now I have the tools to visit the cave without feeling hopeless or in despair. I also have more control of when I visit it, and my challenge now is to allow myself to visit it when I need to. It took me a few days to gather courage to revisit and explore it this year. Which is kind of ironic.
Before Annelise’s death, I would hear stories like mine and think that I could never survive something like this. What I have learned is that survival, some times, is an acquired skill. To me, it didn’t come naturally. I needed A LOT of help. This realization was what helped start Alive in My Heart. I had help available, but so many people don’t. So many people are stuck in their caves without healthy tools to help them.
When I realized the size of my cave – pretty much infinite – I didn’t know what to do with it. I felt this urge to externalize it and express it, but I didn’t know how. I had never lost someone this close, and my family was never the type that celebrates or remembers the dead well, plus, this wasn’t my culture. I wasn’t born and raised in the U.S. and I didn’t know what was available or what was proper.
I learned that some people tattoo their child’s name, others raise money, start a charity, some carry jewelry. Some people start blogs, buy plots or stones at a cemetery, run races, light candles. Some people plant trees.
The Tree of Annelise
We planted a tree. This week, three years later, we planted a tree. And it felt SO right.
The one thing I learned about my cave is that it is not hollow. It is full of roots of the ones I love, and Annelise’s death never uprooted her from my heart. Her limbs might be in heaven with God somewhere, but her roots, her bark – sometimes a heavy one – is always with us. Mindfulness – which is basically a lantern that helps you explore your cave, has made me aware of that, and gosh – Annelise is a gorgeous tree that is always alive in my heart!
You see, the most important lesson I learned was that there are no rules for the grieving. You can use any analogy or metaphor you want to help you understand and make some sense of your pain, and you have the freedom to express it however you feel like – as long as it’s healthy! And expressing it is the only way I’ve found to get rid of all this energy that accumulates inside of me every once in a while. Energy that some times manifests itself as deep sadness or enraging, bursting anger. It is also the only way I found to make sense of the cave of grief and truly live with it (not in it).
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been on this journey, I encourage you to find the bark that gives you hope, and the tools that you need to get to know your cave, your grief, explore it, get to know it, and eventually, make it a touristic point for your thoughts – and not their permanent residence. A lot of people will tell you that it doesn’t get better. To me, it did. It is better because I learned that love is this amazing thing that doesn’t end with death. It is resilient, elastic, and it can restore the most broken of hearts when the proper help is available. It is better because now, I am aware of it. I know how deep the roots of love grow in the human heart because of Annelise.
Your cave, your heart, your baby – they are beautiful, she/he existed, and you will always, always love her/him. There is hope for you and your heart because there is love – your love. Three years later, this is not a possibility or a hypothetical anymore. I don’t doubt it or question it. I know it as a fact because of Annelise.