Today is my birthday – but celebrating is the last thing on my mind.
For the past 3 years, my birthday has not been marked with cake and candles and good cheer. Smiles and excitement and joy have given way to tears and sorrow and despair. My birthday list – once a mile long – is bare.
The truth is, the only things I want for my birthday, no one on this earth can give me. I want my daughter back, and I want a guarantee that my son will remain healthy and happy and alive for the remainder of my (hopefully many) years.
But the knowledge that no one – not even, apparently, God – can make me this promise, forces me each year to confront the visceral terror that on better days simmers deep within my bones. And the slogging battle to tamp it back down leaves me drenched with existential dread.
(Happy birthday to me.)
It wasn’t always this way. Before the day I learned what the word “stillbirth” meant – after a textbook pregnancy with zero risk factors characterized only by an eager, innocent, anticipatory bliss – I had been an expert at invincibility. I was lucky for 28 serendipitous years to be untouched by any real tragedy or heartache, and so it’d become almost a reflex to shake off the possibility of “it” (sub in whatever misfortune featured in the news that week) ever happening to me.
And don’t get me wrong – I was arrogant and naive, but I was also grateful. I understood, at least on a rational level, how incredibly lucky I was to have been given all I’d been given, and I was as conscious as someone who’s never suffered adversity can be not to take it for granted. I guess on some level I must have thought that that gratitude would protect me, and by extension, those I love.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t.
And so when I found myself walking into the hospital two days before my due date, after nine uneventful, blissful months, ready to finally, finally, finally bring home my baby girl – the much beloved and anticipated eldest daughter (and first grandchild!) that I’d dreamed of since I was only a child myself – only to learn that her heart was inexplicably no longer beating, well, my entire world was decimated. This wasn’t supposed to happen to anyone, not this late in a healthy pregnancy – and it especially wasn’t supposed to happen to me.
I wandered in a daze through my delivery and the empty, heartrending, surreal, lonely weeks that followed. I woke up every morning with her name on my lips, still in utter disbelief that she was gone, that I wasn’t going to get a do-over, that she would truly never again (never??) be here in my arms, where she belonged.
Eventually I woke cursing the very air I breathed and begging not to wake again, the salt of her tears crusted in my swollen eyes and a constant, panging ache in my gut. I wept, all day, every day, for months and months and months on end. And soon, I seethed, my soul consumed by an angry, often irrational bitterness, and the blackest of envy.
If you’d asked about my worldview in that first year, “bleak” wouldn’t even have begun to cover it. I didn’t know how I would ever feel joy again. I didn’t know how the hurt would ever, ever subside. I didn’t know how I would ever learn to live with such a gaping, ragged hole in my heart.
And yet, somehow, I did.
Somehow, I found the courage to try again, and to face a second – now long, anxious, and terrifying – pregnancy with as much joy as I could muster. Somehow, I let myself fall hopelessly and perilously in love with her baby brother, and let myself believe (or, at least, tried my damnedest to convince myself) that he would indeed be coming home from the hospital with us. Somehow, I learned to let the smiles surface along with the tears, often in the very same breath.
We were blessed to bring home a son just a few weeks after what should have been her first birthday, and he has lived up to the meaning of his name: our beam of sunlight through the dark.
And now, as her third birthday approaches, with two years under my belt of the gratitude and heartache and wonder and guilt and fullness and anxiety and unadulterated, earth-shattering love that is parenting a living child (particularly after a loss), I’ve come to realize that I am well on my way to “integrating” (as they call it) her death.
Yes, I will always, always, always miss her. But many days now, with my son’s toothy toddler smile beaming up at me and his soft little hands wrapped in my palms, it is both heartbreaking and a relief to realize that that ache is no longer quite so searing. I know now that I will never leave her behind; she is a part of me, a part of our family. Our love will endure for always.
And is that enough? No. Of course it is not. But it’s all we have. And most days, I can make do.
There will always be some days, though – like my birthday, like today – that will stand as a grim reminder of all that we have lost.
So, yes, as my wonderful family and friends refuse to let me forget, my birthday is worth celebrating – at the very least, for the significance it holds for my own mother, who never fails to remind me that it was the happiest day of her life.
But for me, now, I simply can’t imagine it ever feeling anything short of criminal to commemorate my managing to survive another year on this cruel, fickle planet, when my daughter didn’t even make it to her own birth alive.
My innocence, my faith, my child are gone.
And my birthday will never be the same.
But as grim as this all may sound, if there’s one thing I’ve learned to take comfort in along the way, it is this: I’m not the only one. You are not the only one.
It is an unfortunate fact of life that we will all, eventually, suffer. After all, grief is the price of love – the tradeoff for a life well-lived. As a shockingly wise internet quote I once came across said, “None of us is making it out of here alive.” And so, someday, we will all lose the people closest to us (unless, like my daughter, we are unlucky enough to go first).
It’s a morbid thought, but also a comfort. Grief – especially that for a loss like stillbirth that is so poorly understood and little acknowledged by the general public (we “didn’t even know her,” after all, so how can we miss her, right? Sigh) – can be incredibly isolating. But it doesn’t have to be.
No matter your heartache – death, divorce, infertility, abuse, illness, rejection, you name it – there are other people out there hurting too, in the very same way, in this very same moment. And if you can only find them – through a support group, an online forum, a mutual friend, whatever – you don’t have to be alone in your pain for another minute. Having been there, I can promise you, it’s all so much better when we do it together.
So the next time your birthday rolls around and you’re plastering on a smile while silently sobbing away the hours inside, ask yourself this: how many other people are doing the same?
And when the desolation of despair calls your name, instead, remind yourself that no matter how bad it hurts in this moment, tomorrow is a new day. And there’s someone out there right now who understands, if you just put your hand out and reach for them.
Samantha Banerjee lives in Westchester County, New York with three of the four loves of her life – her husband, son, and cat – and carries her fourth love, her stillborn daughter, in her heart. In addition to penning novels and writing candidly about grief, she is also a sometimes freelance writer/consultant – though more often than not these days she’s on full-time mom duty! A former software engineer, Samantha said goodbye to the corporate world in 2010 to pursue her entrepreneurial dreams and lifelong love of writing. Learn more atwww.samanthadurante.com.