I grew up knowing that I had an older brother who had died one year on Christmas Eve. My mom was 18 weeks pregnant when she lost him. I didn’t know his name or how old he would have been. He didn’t feel like an actual part of our family. When someone asked if I had any siblings, I would tell them I had a sister who was 12 years older than me. This brother was more of a random fact about myself that I would occasionally pull out when it seemed like something interesting to say. I had no understanding or idea of what my mother had been through, the grief she carries with her to this day.
LEARNING THE TERRIBLE ART OF LOSS
When I became pregnant with my first baby, I used this 18-week mark as a goalpost for my pregnancy that I was anxious to sail through. When we heard the familiar thump, thump on the doppler at my midwife appointment that month, I sighed with relief. My baby was going to make it. We would soon find out if we were having a boy or a girl. It was Christmastime, and my husband and I stayed snuggled up around the fire and our tree with our little growing babe, the light burning bright in both of our eyes for the year to come.
A few weeks later, just after the New Year, we went in for our anatomy scan and the most joyful time in our lives quickly turned into a nightmare we still haven’t entirely managed to wake from. For reasons we still don’t know (and we did every test under the sun) our baby girl’s lymphatic system wasn’t properly developed. This meant that some of the fluids the body can usually process were backing up into her abdomen, chest, and into sacs that had formed on the back of her head and neck. Because of all the fluid buildup in her body, her internal organs had no room to grow. Her heart had been pushed into her throat, and her lungs were practically nonexistent. There was nothing that could be done to help her. Her little body simply wasn’t able to exist outside of mine. I was her life support.
We lost our girl, Georgia Joan Thompson, on January 17, 2019, at 23 weeks to the day. Because of the circumstances of her birth, we were never able to meet her, marvel at her, or feel her weight in our arms. We have her ashes in a beautiful urn a friend made, and a framed set of her 2” tall footprints on our mantle.
AN UNEXPECTED PORT IN THE STORM
Going through an unimaginable loss or tragedy has a canny way of sizing up all of your relationships. You quickly learn who your fair-weather friends are, the friends who just can’t handle tough stuff but love you anyway, and those who are going to sit in the shit with you. One of the people who has shown up for me in countless unyielding ways has been my mother. I can tell you this was something I hadn’t quite expected. For several years now, we have had a good relationship, but I wouldn’t say I felt extremely close to her. But suddenly, I was going through something that my mother understood deeply. The loss of a child.
She quickly became the person who called me every day to check in, holding no expectations of how I “should” be doing. She sent us care packages in the mail. She listened and gave me space to feel however I felt that day, hour, or moment. She promised to get on a plane as soon as I said the word that I needed her there, and she did. In so many ways, she knew what I needed without having to ask, simply because she had walked through her own version of this story nearly 30 years ago.
LEARNING MY MOTHER’S LOSS (AND LEARNING FROM IT)
While my mother held my hand through my own grief, I found her becoming more open about the son she had lost. In bits and pieces, her years of privately carrying her story of loss started to unravel. I learned my brother’s name, Charles Robert. I learned of the guilt my mom felt for the hours she spent at the mall, Christmas shopping for the family, still wondering to this day if “overdoing it” was what caused her miscarriage. I learned the doctors at the hospital explained little to nothing about what was happening to her, what to expect, or how to access meaningful support.
She explained, “back then it just wasn’t something you talked about.” This was the mid-eighties. She told me that she arrived home from the hospital on Christmas morning, freshly postpartum and likely in complete shock, to my grandmother who was demanding my mother get “presentable” because the neighbors who had watched my sister overnight were coming over. I don’t believe my grandmother ever acknowledged her grandson to my mother.
I came to understand during those early weeks after losing my daughter that my mother wanted things to be very different for me than they were for her. She wanted my grief to have a voice, for my husband and I to have the support of family, for me to feel encouraged in seeking professional help, for her granddaughter to be treated as a real part of our family. She wanted all the things for me she never experienced for herself, things she knew could shape the course of my grief and my life after loss.
MAKING SPACE IN MY LIFE FOR GEORGIA
One thing she said to me in the early days after we lost Georgia was that it took 20 years after my brother died before she recognized a day where she woke up and he wasn’t the very first thought in her mind. Knowing how palpable her grief remained every day for decades after her loss initially terrified me. In that time, she had conceived and given birth to me, had many successes in her professional life, bought beautiful homes, often traveled for work. Yet she still thought of her son every morning as soon as her brain clicked on. It was paralyzing to imagine how heavy the weight of my grief might feel even years down the road.
I no longer hold this fear in the way that I did. I now know that for my mother, her mind and body were the only places her baby and her grief lived. It woke up every day with her, desperate to be heard and finding no release. Because of the love and acceptance I’ve received from my mother, my partner, and so many others, as well as all the incredibly hard work I continue to do each day to create space for Georgia in my life, I find that my daughter’s memory and legacy lives not only within me, but is in the air I breathe. She’s in our life, our home, our conversations. She’s this incredibly beautiful, wonderful being who changed our lives in every way, and we choose to honor her by carrying her memory forward into our future.
I AM MY MOTHER’S RAINBOW
One of the most personally important pieces of my mother’s story that I learned this year was that she lost her son six months before she became pregnant with me. I learned I am her rainbow baby. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it represents a baby conceived and born after a loss. That baby is the “rainbow” after a storm. Growing up, I remember my father occasionally telling me the PG version of their journey to get pregnant with me. He always made a point to talk about how badly my mother wanted me, and therefore, how fervent their “trying” was. Only now do I understand that desperation, that longing, that grief fueled copulative frenzy to have another baby on the way.
WAITING ON MY OWN
I, too, conceived our rainbow baby six months after losing Georgia. As I write this, I am 14 weeks along with another baby girl. I am simultaneously so overwhelmingly grateful for every day of life with this baby, and also wholly terrified and waiting for the other shoe to drop once again. Every milestone carries a memory of the baby we lost. Our dreams for our life with this new baby are also painful wishes for the life we will never have with Georgia. While we paint our rainbow baby’s nursery, my mind wanders to what Georgia’s room would have looked like. I hold both joy and sorrow in my hands, every day, every step of the way.
When I think about the differences in support my mother and I received after our losses, and consequently how we learned to express that grief, I often think about the impact that my mother’s loss did and didn’t have on my life. I now recognize that she never treated me like I wasn’t the baby she lost. I never felt like I had to live up to her vision of who that baby would have been. She loved him completely as she loved me. But if she had felt encouraged to talk about her son and paint him as the real part of our family that he is, would I have felt any less loved? Would I have thought him someone eternally perfect to compete with? Will carrying Georgia’s memory into the future fabric of our life be good for this new baby? Or will she feel like Georgia is the “perfect” big sister that this baby can never live up to?
I know that having another baby doesn’t come at the cost of the love I have for my first, and vice versa. It means that my heart becomes more elastic, expanding to a new size, capable of holding more love than ever before. I also know that acknowledging and grappling with my fears about being a mother, about being a mother to my rainbow baby, is only evidence of that magical love I have for both my babies. I know I will navigate sharing Georgia with this baby with the same thoughtful intentionality I have drawn from to share this new baby with Georgia.
THE COMPLEXITIES OF LOVE AND MOTHERHOOD
My mother loves me fiercely, as she does my brother. Some aspects of that love for each of us are different. She longs for my brother in ways she never needed to with me. I imagine she held onto me so tightly when I was young because of how grateful she was to have a living baby after so much sadness and loss. She’s loved getting to watch me grow into the woman I am today. She never got to watch my brother grow older, but I know she loves him perfectly in her memory and cherishes her time with him in unique ways she doesn’t need to with me. I can already see my love for my babies unfolding in similar patterns.
I can’t say I’m glad my mother lost her son, despite the gentleness and understanding she was able to give to me after losing my daughter, but I am grateful. I imagine she hates that what happened to her ever became useful to our relationship, but I know she is grateful to have been able to support me in a way most couldn’t. I know we are both thankful for the ways that our respective losses have brought us closer to one another.
I know these next few months of waiting for my rainbow will be challenging, and what will come after that might be even more so. Yet I can’t help but feel encouraged by my mother’s bravery and the bravery of so many women who suffered an unimaginable loss and dared to try again. That courage is the reason I get to be a person living in this world, now waiting on my rainbow.
This poem, written by Pandora Diane Waldon is well-circulated amongst loss mothers who go on to have their rainbow baby. It speaks to the complex and beautiful nature of the relationship between rainbow babies, the baby who came before, and the parents who love them both so deeply.
A Different Child
by Pandora Diane Waldon
A different child,
There’s a special glow around you.
Surrounded by love,
Never doubting you are wanted;
Only look at the pride and joy
In your mother and father’s eyes.
And if sometimes
Between the smiles
There’s a trace of tears,
There was once another child
A different child
Who was in their hopes and dreams.
That child will never outgrow the baby clothes
That child will never keep them up at night
In fact, that child will never be any trouble at all.
Except sometimes, in a silent moment,
When mother and father miss so much
That different child.
May hope and love wrap you warmly
And may you learn the lesson forever
How infinitely precious
How infinitely fragile
Is this life on earth.
One day, as a young man or woman
You may see another mother’s tears
Another father’s silent grief
Then you, and you alone
And offer the greatest comfort.
When all hope seems lost,
You will tell them
With great compassion,
“I know how you feel.
I’m only here
Because my mother tried again.”