Balzac had it right when he said our worst fears often lie in anticipation. The bar exam, a blind date, an unexpected meeting with your boss—once the event comes to pass, you often realize the worst part was simply the build up. The anxiety over what might happen, what could be said, a slew of potential outcomes that you can chalk up to worrying about what is not yet known. If you are navigating the rocky road of pregnancy loss or know someone who is, missed milestones and anniversaries of loss or due dates can be incredibly challenging both mentally and emotionally.
I am a mother of two babies, one sleeping peacefully upstairs as I write this, and the other nestled snugly in the soft corners of my memories. I gave birth to my rainbow baby four days after the one-year anniversary of the loss of my first pregnancy. I think she knew how very ready we were to have a baby to hold and therefore made her entrance six weeks ahead of schedule. As I move through this second year of anniversaries and missed milestones with our first daughter, I am able to reflect on how far my grief work has brought me, and brace myself for what is ahead in the years to come.
The First Year of Missed Milestones
As soon as I learned we would not be bringing our first baby home, happy and healthy, I started dreading her impending due date. The date we might have met her, had everything gone according to plan. In my grief, I fixated on that date to the point that it felt nearly alive. I told myself I had to be pregnant again before that date arrived to minimize the weight of the loss. That I needed to preconceive an itinerary for the day to avoid idle time I might spend dwelling on what wasn’t. I wanted the day to honor the baby I lost, and I wanted to avoid guilt for not honoring her “enough” with my intentions that day. I was painfully aware with each passing day leading up to her due date that my belly was no longer growing bigger, and that emptiness carried its own weight.
And then it came. I asked friends and family to call me that day to help me through it, and I spent some time writing a letter to my baby in a journal I keep for her. I realized I had made it through every challenging day previously, and there was no reason I wouldn’t survive this one, too. After the sun set on her due date, I felt an unexpected loss of its power over me. I wasn’t pregnant, I didn’t have a baby in my arms, but I felt the clouds lift a little. I felt free from a timeline I had meditated on for so many months before. I learned that the due date was only a theory, and the date held no real significance to the baby I had and lost.
Moving through future missed milestones that first year still held heaviness. When she “would have” been one month old, six months old, maybe crawling or walking, a Thanksgiving where she would share my plate of mashed potatoes and fling bits of turkey on the floor. We completely skipped Christmas that first year, not wanting to acknowledge our unmet expectations of the first family Christmas.
The First Anniversary of Birth and Loss
Along the way that first year, I was fortunate to become pregnant again. I would be remiss to ignore that having the hope of another child in my belly eased the pain and burden of getting over those missed milestone humps. As we approached the anniversary of the birth and loss this past January, we chose to honor both our daughters with a trip to Sisters, Oregon, a fitting tribute. We sat by a fire, looking out over a frozen mountain top lake over the anniversary weekend, talking about our two girls. Talking about our baby, saying her name, opening the door to the memories of the time we had with her while she was growing in my belly, knowing we had survived an impossible year of grief…these things brought us healing on that day.
The very next day, my water broke at only 33 weeks and 5 days. After spending several weeks living in the NICU with our rainbow baby, we brought her home. Any fears I previously held that inviting this new baby into my life would come at the cost of my love for our first quickly evaporated. My heart just got bigger. I am a better mother to my daughter because of the love I have for the one I lost. The baby I don’t have in my arms is with us every moment of every day, and we keep her spirit alive in our gratitude for one another and the life we are lucky to share together.
To Build Endurance, You Simply Endure
We are coming up on the second loss anniversary this January. I can feel the date sitting out there, like an iceberg. I can also see a joyful first birthday sitting right behind it. But it doesn’t feel looming like it once did. It feels like a day I want to set an intention for, to honor my first baby, and a day to practice loving my living child even more fiercely. A day to hold her closer and for longer. A day to breathe in her smell a little deeper.
Even if you are navigating a loss anniversary or due date without living children, I encourage you to identify what your liferaft is and hold on to it like hell that day. Maybe it’s your spinning bike, your therapist, or your best friend. Talk to the people who love you and tell them what is coming up for you. Identify what brings you comfort and solace and ask those who care about you to support you in those ways. And remember that the only way to build endurance is to endure, and every day that you thought you wouldn’t make it through your loss has already come to pass, and you survived.
As the years trickle by and I move further and further away from the time of my loss, I’m told to expect that dates which feel significant for my first baby may go unnoticed from time to time. I play out the anticipated guilt and grief in my head over “forgetting” her. It makes me feel temporarily sick to my stomach, and then I am reminded to be gentle with myself. She is never forgotten, she is always with me, and a date on a calendar doesn’t make or break the love I have for her.