[Trigger warning: This essay describes one woman's emotional journey with a traumatic birth experience.]
My arms are filled with blessing and my lungs are filled with air. But my eyes are drawn to my heart, which is shattered into pieces. Shattered because what was expected to be a sweet day of welcoming our second baby girl into the world turned into the scariest day of our lives.
After a straightforward delivery, I was blindsided by unexpected massive blood loss stemming from a clotting complication. I almost lost my life in an operating room. My family almost fell apart because mama almost didn't make it. My husband almost lost his wife and my girls almost lost their mother. And while everything turned out okay in the end, my heart was left with a grief that is really hard to understand.
You would think almost dying would make me grateful for living—but it left me stunned and incredibly sad. I had no idea that I held so many unconscious expectations on how that day would go—and they all seemed pretty reasonable.
This was my second pregnancy, I was in good shape, and I already had one uncomplicated labor and delivery. How could anything go wrong?
But when those expectations were smashed on the ground, it knocked the wind out of me. And the dust that rose from the rumble formed this dark cloud over me, around me. It settled like a shadowy fog over my thoughts and my mind.
For weeks after, I couldn't stop thinking about how "it wasn't supposed to be this way."
I wasn't supposed to only hold my newborn baby for 15 minutes before being rushed into an OR for six hours. I wasn't supposed to drain blood like a broken dam until the point just before death. My blood wasn't supposed to stop clotting correctly. I wasn't supposed to wake up in a recovery room with an oxygen mask and 14 different tubes and monitors in and on me.
My husband wasn't supposed to wait in a room for hours to hear if his wife would live or not. My baby wasn't supposed to spend her first day of life in a hospital nursery, being held by nurses instead of by me.
I remember staring at the operating room ceiling, unable to move, as doctors and nurses swarmed around me. At that point, I had no idea what was going on. All I knew is that I felt like I was coming unplugged from my own body. I started to pray—telling God that I was scared, that I wanted to live so I could raise my babies.
God graciously answered my prayers that day: My babies are healthy, my family is still together. After mustering the courage to ask a doctor if he would tell my husband that I love him, in case I didn't get to tell him ever again—I am alive, I have survived.
But my heart is grieving the "almost"—what it almost lost. I almost missed this. I almost lost my family. I almost lost my life. That's all I could think about for weeks. Those thoughts would echo as I nursed my newborn, as I saw my 3-year-old come joyfully running when I picked her up from school, as my husband and I would cuddle up in bed.
I felt confused by how devastating "almost" could feel. And I felt ashamed for struggling at all—because the reality was—it all turned out okay. What was there to grieve?
"At least you have a healthy baby girl!" was a phrase I heard a lot in the first few days. Each time I heard it, it stung. Because she and her sister almost didn't have their mama. Almost.
There was an ocean of tears in between what happened and the happy ending—and to ignore that ocean made me feel like I was drowning.
It took me the better part of two months to realize my heart was grieving what it did lose. There was no "almost." We grieve what we've lost—and I had lost a lot of precious moments.
I did lose memories that were supposed to happen and plans that didn't get to be. I had lost a safe and uncomplicated delivery. I lost spending the day with my baby on her birthday. I lost the chance to spend those first precious hours alone with my husband and our newborn, soaking in her features. I lost the chance to introduce her to her sister, her grandparents. I lost so much blood that it took months to get my energy back to normal.
I lost the illusion that death was a distant event because I was unexpectedly thrown into the valley of its shadow. I lost the illusion that I would always be there for my girls, that I would share my life with my husband until a ripe old age.
An entire village of people was gracious and brave enough to enter into this pain with me—my husband, mom, doctor and a few close friends. They gave me permission over and over again to feel whatever emotions presented themselves in the days and weeks that followed.
They reminded me that what I went through was, in fact, traumatic when I was tempted to brush it off. They pointed to hope when I couldn't see it for myself. Sometimes I cried for much of the day, other times I was so numb (and tired) that I binged watched TV for hours while nursing my newborn.
A dear friend sent me a message early on that has been the encouragement I have clung to when I'm tempted to rush my recovery: "I'm certain the gloominess will lift, just as the fog always does, but you're right in the thick of it. And I don't think you need to feel the need to lift the fog yourself. Let it sit there. Let it be lifted by faith.."
Sure enough, I started to feel gratitude for different moments of that day. I have started making peace with what happened. I've realized that life after a traumatic birth means you live in the tension of two massively conflicting realities: Grief and joy. Fear and relief. Sorrow and delight. I no longer have the illusion tomorrow is guaranteed. But that's all it was—an illusion.
So I snuggle both of my babies a little closer and hug my husband a little tighter, trusting that the fog isn't forever. I thank God for details and memories that did take place that day, trusting that healing will come. I try not to take a single moment of this life for granted. And I lean into grief when her currents rush over me, knowing that swimming with them is the only way to get to shore.