Thursday, September 25, 2008

hard to explain

Disclaimer: This post is contains descriptions of children's deaths. It's sad. Don't read if you don't want to.

A couple years ago, my brother in law's best friend lost his six year old son to an aggressive brain tumour. He died in slightly less time than the hospital had given him, after doing some chemo, seeming to improve, but getting ill because of his depleted immune system and a return to school. The funeral was - well, it was as you'd expect. My sister in law had just announced her first pregnancy and I was barely, still secretly pregnant with Bodhi. We swung from squall to squall of tears, coming to the surface perhaps with a laugh, then sinking again into the awfulness of the grief.

The hearse pulled into the Church front, followed by a huge procession. Our friend held his girlfriend up, as she fell against him. Her keening, moaning, wailing sobs became audible as they approached, a kick in the gut, a punch in the face to say, yes, this grief is as bad as you imagine, yes, this ordeal is real. A little white coffin bears their son. All they have left.

At the graveside, they stood together, he held her still. Stoic. Who could he lean on? We went up to them one by one, to share in their grief, to offer some comfort that couldn't comfort. At last, the father's brother put his long arms around them, held them both. Thank god. How could our friend carry all that weight? I put a little silver angel in her hand, closed her fingers over it - one I'd given to my mother in law at her husband's funeral, that she mentioned in her speech at my wedding, and gave back to me a week later, when my mother died. A thing to hold, to turn over in your pocket.

We left, to go back to their house, to look in on the room where their son had died in his bed. Where my brother in law's best friend had screamed out his pain and grief, my sister in law heard it over the phone call her husband took. Agony. They stood by the grave, his father there with them. I thought, how do you leave? Could I ever leave, turn away and walk away from my child in the ground? How would you stop yourself from sinking to the grass, the mud, from staying there? How would you make yourself go?

We thought they might separate, and fast. Their relationship hadn't been great, there was talk that they'd stayed together for their son. His parents feared that since their boy's death it had all been about her grief, with no support or time for him. Yet they stayed together, helped each other. A while back, I visited a friend where they live, and as I drove home through the town, there they were! Happy, smiling - and that night, we got a text, she was four months pregnant!

We've all been so happy, so scared for them. I salute the bravery of anyone who faces the pain of losing a child again after a loss, who takes the risk to love and be loved.

I've been reading about the effects of breast milk on cancer risk, most recently that cancer cells die when breast milk is put on them - though I can't find a lot of research on the topic so far. I sent my friend a mail offering as much breastfeeding support as I could - I know his girlfriend didn't feed her son at all. But he answered that he didn't think she would - that she wasn't a hundred percent sure, but that there were other considerations influencing her choice.

And today we heard their baby was born, a boy, eight pounds ten ounces, a strong name. monosyllabic like his brother's. I'm so happy for them, we've all held our breath, facing the fear you feel during every pregnancy times a hundred. Their miracle child, he says. I'm so glad they had the strength to open their lives to another baby, a healing baby.

But the idea that she won't feed him digs at me, leaves me aghast, tempers my joy. To lose a child, and not do everything in your power to safeguard the next? No doubt she would have given limbs, organs, marrow up to save her son who died. Anything to stop that happening again. Except breast feed. Except put the baby to her breast as he instinctively roots for it and the protection and comfort it offers.

I know someone else whose first child was stillborn, having had his chord wrapped round his foot at the onset of labour. Another tragic, tragic, unbearable story. She's had another baby, thankfully, without incident. But she didn't feed her herself either. I can't get my head around it. The immense, intense cherishing and protective urge you must feel for a child born after having lost one - surely every part of you must want to wrap them to you, and give them all you can, to feel the life-milk flowing into them from you, to see them grow and flourish in your arms, protected, strengthened with the milk that you've made for them, after making them. Obviously, many people don't feel that. But I don't understand. I don't understand.


The Scarlet Tree said...

I love breastfeeding, but perhaps she is on a medication that prevents her from feeding or has some other private issue that stops her from feeding. I think that despite the joy the breastfeeding can offer, it is mostly about choices. I cannot imagine losing a child however, the pain would be too much to bare. I thin I would cry forever.

problemchildbride said...

Oh God, Jo. The pain of it. It's unspeakable. What a joy to have another little one though. I find myself wishing these strangers all strength and joy as the continue to live with, but necessarily move on from their tragedy.

It's funny those couples that make it and those that don't. I guess we never really know what goes on between two people.

That's fascinating about the breastmilk killing the cancer cells. I breastfed the girls as long as I could - 6 months, and then there was nothing left. I was exhausted, I'd lost a ton of weight and despite herbs and medication and these nutrition drinks they give old people to bulk them up, my milk just dried up. As emotional and hormonal as I was at the time anyway, I felt like some kind of failure and wept bitterly about it.

In retrospect though, my body did an amazing thing. The girls (twins) were 10 weeks premature. I pumped every two hours around the clock for them becasue they were too small and weak to coordinate sucking, swallowing and breathing all at once. My milk for 10 weeks was that yellow-fat-rich colostrum, really rich, and that's what was exhausting me. But on the day they were due to be born, my milk turned the regular faintly bluish-white of breastmilk. The doctors said it was because my body was compensating for the lost womb time with extra-rich nutrition from breast-milk. I didn't even know such things happened far less that my own body could do it, just automatically. It was an amazing revelation to me about the power of breastmilk to give babies the perfect balance of what they need at any given time. In time I got over the disappointment about running dry, but I still find it amazing today that my body knew exactly what to do to meet the needs of my premature babies and then, on the day they were to be born, switch to the then more suitable thirst-quenching regular milk.

Selina Kyle said...

a few years ago a colleague was pregnant and we were talking about it and i asked whether she would breastfeed, and her reply was: no. i love my child, but not that much.

it broke my hear to hear that... but everyday i see mothers depriving their kids of so much (not material stuff, kids can have all the toys in the world, what's that without nurture?)

some people are so lucky and can have all the kids they want, i think sometimes a lot of them don't realise what a blessing that is.

sorry if i ramble, this subject just really digs deep here...


jothemama said...

Yep, tatoca, I know.

Sam, this is the third time I've replied to your comment - the first one disappeared, I thought the second one posted, but it hasn't - ??

Last try: I think you did an amazing job getting six months of milk into your twins - I can't imagine looking after twins, never mind feeding them too. It makes me sad so many women feel like they fail when breastfeeding is too hard. In your case, you gave them so much good, but you have to look after yourself too - you need to be strong for them too, not just feed them of course! It sounds like you took on a huge challenge successfully, you did NOT fail.

I know the emotional feeling though - after only ever having too much milk, on this one thrush and mastitis and taking too much vitamin B for them knocked my supply out, and it was a freaky and awful experience, not having enough milk.

Your story is amazing, I've never heard of colostrum going on for so long - it just goes to show how in tune with the baby the whole system is. Did you read about how your breasts sense a temperature drop of a degree in the baby and adjust the milk heat accordingly? Crazy.

I'm tempted to keep breastfeeding forever, just to have the milk - I feel bad for not donating to the milk bank sooner, when I had bigger supply - I read the stories about how the donated milk has helped babies like yours and they're very motivating.

Also, all this stuff about it combating cancer makes me think it's a good thing to have on tap. You know it has stem cells in? They're not sure what for yet, but I presume that's partly where the anti-cancer thing comes in.

Maggie, Dammit said...

I honestly don't think I'd survive it. Even having another baby, I just... I think I'd worry that it could be taken from me at any time. My God, I just can't imagine the anguish.

jothemama said...

People do though. We need to, and we do.

I wrestle with the fear of the pain of grief. It's good to see that people can still live happy lives after such a loss. Altered but still able to find happiness. I salute them.