Thursday, July 17, 2014

The illusive mustard seed

There's a story told of a mother who early one morning took her newborn son who had died in the night, to the Buddha, prostrated herself before him and weeping with grief said, "I have heard of your great wisdom Lord. Surely you have a medicine that can bring my baby back to life again."

The Buddha looked on her with deep compassion, knowing that there was nothing he or anyone else could do anything to restore her child to life. But he could not bear to send her away with no hope. So he gently told her, "Yes, there is such a medicine. But to make it I need one ingredient I do not have, which you must search out for me."

"Oh, anything," she responded, "I will get anything you need."

"It is a simple thing," he said. "I need only one mustard seed from a house in this village which has not been visited by death, and has never suffered the grief of parting from one they dearly loved."

The woman rushed off and began calling on her neighbours, explaining what she needed. But at every door she was told with tears of the children, wife or husband, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and grandparents who had been called by death, and of the burden of grief lying on every heart.

At the end of the day she went back to the Buddha, heartsick and exhausted, but with understanding. "There is not a single house in the village where death has not come," she said.

"Now you know you are not alone in your grief," the Buddha told her. "Take your child home, pay your respects and bury him. Your grief is everyone's grief. Loss is universal. Remember and honour your child by extending compassion and comfort to all those who also grieve."

And so it is we live with grief and understand that it is universal. She never forgot her child. I know because 43 years ago I also held a dead infant, which no one could restore to life, and I grieved, and I will grieve forever.  Born sleeping one mother called it. One day active and kicking, and then stillness. My breasts, readying themselves to nurse, felt different, less full. There was a bloodstain.

I called the doctor. "Oh," he said, as if he were talking about losing a mitten or a book he hadn't much cared for. "You've lost it, it's died. You'll go into labour within the week. Come to the ER when you do."

The labour was quick. She was born in the car on the way to the hospital. I ducked into the washroom just inside the door and took her out of the leg of my slacks. She was bloody, and wet, and her skin was peeling off like petals falling from a rose. Legs the size of my thumb, such delicacy. The membrane was still around her head, and I was in shock and felt I might faint in the cubicle. I thought they'd let us see her, hold her, once we were in a room, so I didn't take the membrane off. I should have looked at her face. I never even saw my baby girl's face. She lay curled in my two hands.  I didn't want her exposed to the curious stares of the people sitting in the waiting area of the ER. I wrapped her still, small body in toilet tissue.

I walked shakily to the nurse's station and handed her to the nurse behind the desk.  I don't remember anything else except lying on a gurney. The doctor was behind me. He had her, was unwrapping her. I asked if I could hold her. He said no, it was better if I didn't see "it" or touch "it".

I asked my doctor later what they did with her and he said all stillborns under a certain weight were cremated, no birth certificates, no acknowledgement they ever existed.  He said just forget about "it" - pretend it hadn't happened. But how do you carry a child for seven months and "just forget it"?

Mothers were shamed for grieving a stillborn baby then. You were told not to cry, not to "worry" your husband with it, and not to even acknowledge your loss. And for many years I didn't. I soldiered on, and stayed quiet, until I just couldn't bear to do it anymore. 

"The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not 'get over' the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same again. Nor should you be the same, nor should you want to."  ~ Elizabeth Kubler-Ross 

Mary Margaret Isabel born sleeping 17 July 1971



smm said...

Sorry for your loss. I would hope the medical profession has evolved enough in the passing decades so that now women and the children they carry are treated with more compassion in life and in death.

oklhdan said...

Oh Deb so sorry you lost your little daughter. I too had a baby born sleeping. He was my son.

Deb said...

Oh Dani,
I'm so sorry. I share your grief. Things have changed a lot since the early 70s. Young mothers today are treated with a great deal of sensitivity when they suffer the loss of a baby, or even an early-stage pregnancy. I don't know if it lessens their grief but at least their loss is acknowledged and they have support.
Gentle hugs,

Linda P. said...

Your love for Mary Margaret Isabel came through strongly, and your efforts to protect her from the stares of others speak to the wonderful way you mothered her. Dismissal of a mother's grief for a baby born sleeping was not restricted to male doctors, either. My sister's first two children survived only hours after their birth, and she never saw either one. They were born in 1975, one early in the year and one late in the year. After the birth of her second child, the newly hired female neonatologist at our local hospital explained to my sister that her daughter was "not a good baby," as if she somehow deserved to die.

Deb said...

Hi Linda,

Thank you for your kind words. We were told the same thing, "It" was "defective" or it would not have died. When I asked how she was defective they said they assumed all miscarriages or stillborns were defective.