Twenty-three grams. When he was born, my baby weighed 23 grams. Only when the funeral home told me that seemingly minor detail about my son—the only tangible thing I ever knew about him—did the weight of what I had lost begin to sink in. Before that, in hospital, he was ‘remnants of conception’ and ‘foetal tissue’. My baby was anything the medical staff could call him that would protect them from the humanity of the situation. And in turn, their word play hid the truth from me too. The truth that, as we peered at the strange shape on the ultrasound machine, we were staring at a death.
‘We will take care of “this”,’ said the doctor when they couldn’t find a heartbeat—a woman with a salt-of-the-earth country feel. As though this tiny human whom I had continued to carry long after he had stopped breathing were a disease they would now cure me of. The doctor patted my leg as she repeated, ‘We will take care of it’, avoiding my eyes as effectively as she avoided nouns.
When all the doctors walked out of the room, leaving me alone, I curled up in my hospital bed and cried. I cried in a way I never had before—my chest crushed by what had just happened, unable to move air in or out. Unable to make a sound.
• • •
Later, at the funeral home they talked of my ‘baby’, of 23 grams of whole human being that had grown inside me. Here, in this place, he was a person—not remnants or fragments of a medical condition. He was a person who could be wrapped in a piece of a stranger’s wedding gown they keep at the funeral home for such occasions. A person who could be placed in a donated coffin, cremated and handed to us in a tiny white box.
As I sat next to my husband signing paperwork, I thought, we had a child, we made a human, and I gazed numbly at the paper strewn across the table—a wooden table in a room that looked as though it had been untouched since 1960, with its brown walls, carpet and matching brown furniture. A dispiriting setting for a disorientating experience. That room and I both stripped of colour, both existing outside the normal march of time where people went about their day just on the other side of those brown walls.
He had to exist, to create this much paperwork, I thought—such is the burden of modern capitalist society. There is nothing, we are nothing, if not a never-ending stream of paperwork. Our lives and deaths are marked by forms and signatures and stamps. We were here. He was here. The paper trail says so.
The woman at the funeral home began filling a bag with pamphlets about coping with grief. More paper. When she handed it to me across the table, I wanted to give it back. To tell her, Honey, I know more about grief than can fit in all of your pamphlets put together. These forms, these endless forms you are explaining to me—I’ve seen them all before.
When I picked up the ashes of my mother, two years before collecting the ashes of my baby, I was shocked at their weight. When I spread them in the ocean where we spend every summer, they slid endlessly from the grey plastic tub that held her. My sister walked over to me, looking slightly irate, thinking I must be doing something wrong. It was taking so long for me to empty all the ashes. Round and round I turned in the ocean, waves hitting me as I went, rain beginning to spit from the sky. When she reached me in the surf she simply exclaimed ‘Oh!’ There was so much. So much I struggled with the weight of the tub as the breaking waves buffeted me around.
The weight of my mother’s ashes matched the size of her in life. A large woman in force of personality as well as mass. She was the anchor of our family and, as I gradually discovered after her death, of my life. Everything spun around my mother. Her mood—happiness, sadness, pride or irritation—was always the most important in the room. She left little space for others—sweeping everyone up in her larger-than-life personality, for better or worse. She was, in fact, the kind of woman who drives you nuts while alive—loud, sometimes infuriating. But for those reasons such a woman leaves a hole in your life so large once gone that you can’t help but circle it for the rest of your days, drawn in by its gravity.
There is something deeply complex about losing a mother. Memoirist Cheryl Strayed explains it as a splitting in two—the new life without a mother, the old ‘sitting on the surface like a bruise’. It is heavy enough to leave a mark on the body. In her book about the experience of losing her mother at a young age, Claire Bidwell Smith describes an ever-present growing weight: ‘Grief is now a giant, sad whale that I drag along with me wherever I go’, she writes. It seems we reach for metaphors of heaviness in trying to uncover and explain this shared experience of lost mothers.
Losing an unborn baby, however, is a more ambiguous loss. For us unfortunate souls who must survive it, we fight to make it tangible. We all have mothers and, on some level, we know that one day we will lose them. Dead babies, however, we dare not think about.
Many women dare not speak about it, even after they have survived the birth-death of their child. It is an intensely private loss we don’t know how to share, but also one we feel should not be shared lest everyone else be confronted by the brutality of nature. Like so many things, we—society—ask women to carry this burden alone.
Even when we find the courage to share our loss, others cannot mourn a person they did not know. You, who shared your body, and you alone knew this person. You loved them even though you never met.
When a baby dies inside you it is barely visible to others. It is a small thing from the outside, like a box that fits in the palm of your hand. Yet it is a loss so large as to be ungraspable.
Browsing through literature on miscarriage in bookshops, I found it is chocked full of guidebooks and self-help-style texts. Even first-person accounts seem aimed at soothing. The very fact that many in the title have ‘miscarriage’—not ‘books on dead babies’—is an abstraction that society encourages. They are filled with compassion and comfort. And you will find that this is mirrored in the responses from people in your life.
‘Miscarriage is common’; ‘You’ll have another.’ All of this works to detract from the embodied sense that yes, however small, however much you, as a rational feminist, interpret where life begins and ends, in the wake of that loss they were a person to you. For me, the only person I had ever made. They may be the only person you ever want.
In the wake of the death of my mother and the death of my baby, I avoided these platitudes—in writing and in person. I didn’t want to be told I would survive it, I wanted to see how others survived it. When I lost my mother, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking became my guidebook—I wanted to witness her inner-most workings, however muddled, as she tried to make sense of, and carry on, after the death of her husband and her daughter’s hospitalisation in the same week. This was followed swiftly by other memoirs where people stumbled and stormed through the emotion and chaos death wreaks on your life. I sought out ever more honest, brutal texts.
If I were to scour the six metres of bookshelves that line the walls of our home and pull out the books that convinced me I would survive and gave them to you, it would be a small pile. Obscure, and not for everyone in their unflinching accounts. But those books would lay out the facts for you—the true unadulterated horror of witnessing death and the mess of mourning that follows. More than that, they show you the contradictions that exist in grief.
Here, you can listen to Meghan Daum tell you how she wished her mother would hurry up and die. That she looked up momentarily from the book she was reading when her mother took her last breath and remarked aloud, ‘Is that it?’ You’ll realise that you are not the only woman who grapples with a mixture of grief and relief when her mum is dead.
Take a winding journey with Sarah Manguso. Trace your steps back to every moment, every conversation, every action in your life where you might have done something different. Prevented death.
With Lidia Yuknavitch, there will be urinating on supermarket floors, sobbing fully clothed in showers, and pretending to strangers that your baby is growing up ‘just fine, thanks’. Build a wall of craziness from your grief and live inside it as long as you need to.
Make quiet for Cheryl Strayed as she eats chunks of bone from her mother’s ashes.
Fall in love with a colour with Maggie Nelson, and let it flow through you. Allow yourself to mix senses, sorrow, sex and loss in a dizzying blur. Or follow her search for catharsis in her memoir The Red Parts, and learn with her that such a thing does not exist.
Allow yourself to laugh at the blackness when Ariel Levy, as she gives birth to her premature son in the toilet of a Mongolian hotel, thinks before she understands what is happening, ‘This is going to be the craziest shit in history.’
You are not alone, whatever shade your grief takes … or if it takes all of them.
• • •
When I first learned my baby was dead, I wanted him out of my body. I refused to leave the hospital with him still inside of me. I couldn’t bear the weight of my dead baby—of my husband’s and my deadened dreams—in my belly. Before agreeing surgery was best, a doctor tried to give me medication so I could give birth to my dead baby at home. I imagined having to hold him, alone in my home. Through the fog I raged inside, ‘The things we do to women, the things we ask of women.’
One day before we discovered our baby had died, we learned he had a rare and devastating chromosomal abnormality. He would probably be unable to breathe once born, his kidneys and digestive tract malformed. He would never see—not because of neurology or a maldevelopment of his eyes, but because he did not have eyes at all.
For the small window of time I knew of his condition and believed him still to be alive, I was consumed by the thought, My baby has no eyes. In nurturing him my body gave away everything: I’d lost weight, I’d lost half my hair, at points I’d almost lost my sanity. And in all I had been giving away to nurture him, he was lying there in my stomach with no eyes.
If he had not passed away naturally, we would have been faced with an even greater weight, that of killing our baby. If we lived elsewhere, such as parts of America, we would have had to wait for our baby to die inside me, or be born alive to live several agony-filled hours. To live in Australia was a small mercy in a swamp of grief.
As the anaesthetist injected me, tears ran down my cheeks—tears of despair at my baby’s death, and relief of his removal. When I woke, I sensed a loss I could never have imagined. An emptiness where he had been. Through the haze of drugs, I reached down and touched my stomach. Something important was missing, and I wanted it back. When Ariel Levy lost her son she took a photo of him right there on the bathroom floor. ‘I was worried’, she writes, ‘that if I didn’t I would never believe he had existed.’ I looked at my body for evidence that I had ever been pregnant to begin with, disappointed it hadn’t left me with a scar, or so much as a stretchmark. Something that would mark me to others as a mother. Something to prove it had been real.
• • •
The large grey tub with my mother I could barely hold, the tiny wooden box that fits in the palm of my hand. This is the literal weight of grief—the parts that can be measured in metrics. When her daughter was stillborn, Lidia Yuknavitch describes in The Chronology of Water how the funeral home tried to mirror the weight of her loss by filling the urn with other things ‘to cover the smallness’.
We want the numbers, the weight, to measure up to the grief. To be able to do the sums and have them come out equal. Some deep part of us wants to be able to draw a straight line between the figurative and the literal, to help us make sense of what has happened. But we cannot, and if I have learnt anything it is that all grief is qualitatively different. Each has a different flavour, a different feel. And yes, a different weight.
With the figurative weight of my dead mother and dead baby combined, I found myself wondering if it was more than I could carry through each day. I am unanchored—from what came before me and what I had believed would live on after me. While burdened, it has also left me weightless—drifting through days, shrugging off things that might once have seemed large. I have an opaque quality, someone who is here but only just. You see, small parts of me have been turned to ash too.
When my mother came home in her tub my father stored it in a draw in the bottom of his closet. Sometimes I would sneak into his house, take it out, cradle it and cry. She wasn’t there, but I was still with her. I told that tub of daily happenings and life events. I told it I missed my mother and wished she would come back.
When my baby came home in his box, a tiny teddy bear engraved on top—lest we forget what it contained—I did not want to hold it. I did not talk to it. I did not want to look at it. My baby did not belong in a box. He belonged inside me. But knowing he was there, in his tiny box, was still better than not knowing where he was at all.
When TS Mendola was forced to endure a brutal third-trimester abortion for a similar set of reasons to me, she asked but one thing amid the horror. She asked for her baby to be removed whole. But so late in the pregnancy, he needed to be dismembered to be safely taken out of her body.
Even though she would never see or hold her baby whether he was removed whole or in pieces, she wanted this one thing ‘viscerally, animally, the way your body wakes up in the night looking for a newborn, the way you feel a physical connection to your children even when you cannot see them, the way you want something when everything else has been taken from you.’ These are the same reasons our baby had to come home in his tiny box. Even though I could not look at it, we need to know where he is.
Together we decided to put him in the ocean with my mother. We scattered his ashes in the same bay, where we return regularly to our family beach house.
This time I did not struggle with the weight of the ashes. They slipped too quickly from their box into the ocean. Giving my mother to the ocean felt endless. Giving my son to the ocean took just seconds. The numbers do not add up.
In my mind they are together—my mother and my son. When I wade out into that bay, I am with them. They are there. But they are also in a million fish. A million beaches, spread across the world, are made from them. I need this. Viscerally, animally, I need to know where they are, even though their physicality is reduced to fragments and particles.
This, I realise standing in the ocean running my fingers through the water, is how I cope with the weight of grief.
Gemma Carey is a researcher at UNSW and an author of memoir and nonfiction. Carey’s writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Canberra Times and the Mandarin. Her memoir will be published in 2020 by Allen & Unwin.