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.