It’s been three years since my son died.
For three years I have not been permitted to publicly grieve for him unless I leave out the details of his passing. For three years I have had to bite my lip, blink back tears, breathe deep and appreciate how the hardest, most life-altering experience I’ve ever endured has to be a secret. For three years I, a psychology professor and published “expert” in bereavement, have frequently dissolved into screams and wails about the unfairness of all of it. If I had to experience loss in order to become a better professor, clinician, and healer, why on earth did it have to be in this way?? I don’t have an answer. All I know is that I’m coming out of the grief closet, today, because I can’t hide anymore.
Three years ago, my husband and I were told that the baby growing inside of me was dying and we were provided these options: wait for the baby to die in utero, try to deliver him brain dead if he made it to full term, or end the pregnancy.
I refused to terminate, so we sought options: I went for test after test. Fetal MRI, echocardiogram, bloodwork, genetics, scan, scan, scan. The world’s foremost fetal surgeon, divinely gifted with hands to heal even the smallest and most damaged of unborn children, glibly told us that even he was not equipped to help. So I prepared for the enormous physical, emotional, and financial cost of bringing a brain-dead child into the world through a procedure that would put my own life at risk. I wanted to do it, but not for him. For me. Because I so deeply wanted this baby as each day he simultaneously grew and died within my body. When, after many tearful discussions with my husband, I realized what my son’s life would (or wouldn’t) be if he survived: unconscious, unable to breathe on his own, laugh, know his family, live without painful interventions, at constant risk of infection, never to jump into bed with us after a nightmare, never to be moved to tears by music, never to feel a beloved pet snuggled into his side…I couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t do it.
The life of my son, Darby Joss Hyatt, ended at 20 weeks gestation. My husband and I chose to terminate the pregnancy. On August 3, 2012, in a matter of hours I went from pregnant to bereaved. But not just bereaved: Gutted. Empty. Unprepared.
In the flurry of decision-making, I couldn’t prepare myself to fully appreciate that, after all was said and done, I’d have to mourn in disenfranchised grief. The concept I’d learned about in my graduate classes, about some losses being taboo and society not permitting grievers to mourn, slapped me in the face. Hard.
Though I made no secret of the fact that I lost a son during my first pregnancy, often, the second piece of it: the how of my son’s death, remained silent. My heartbreaking choice followed me in insidious ways. It rested on the hearts of people who showed up to support us when we grieved in the initial aftermath, but later openly spoke of what we did as murder and deserving of incarceration; people who refused to acknowledge that this was a loss at all, insisting that I was the mother of only two children and buttoning up when I mentioned my first son’s name; and commenters who pointed their virtual fingers at me, as if they could possibly know my reality. My heartbreaking choice rested on myself, my fear of speaking and being told to keep quiet, to rescind my submission, to avoid creating drama, my fear of being pulled into a corner office and shamed.
The death of your child in any stage is the death of your naïveté, sense of safety and faith in a world that will give you what you deserve because you love so deeply and are a good person. The death of your child is the death of a piece of you: the piece that believed in itself, in its health and the ability to grow and protect a baby within you, in the hopes and dreams that your child represented.
Even writing about it out now, I feel a need to justify, and yet an eight hundred word limit will not allow me that option (would a thousand words? A million words? Are there ever enough?) I just want to grieve. Openly.
How do I honor my truth and mourn when nobody will bear witness to it in its entirety, my reality and inner meaning? Is it possible for you, welcomed reader, to just sit with my story, honor it, light a candle, and acknowledge my loss? Or does my decision awaken within you personal stirrings, a desire for advocacy, the urge to morally castigate me? I submit to you my heartbreaking choice…for your interpretation, but my living, breathing, daily reality.
Dr. Erica Goldblatt Hyatt is the department chair of psychology at a small college north of Philadelphia and mother to one angel baby and two living children. She also is the author of Grieving for the Sibling You Lost (New Harbinger Publications). You can keep up with her at https://www.facebook.com/doctorEricaGHyatt or at http://doctorerica.weebly.com/.