On post-partum anxiety after loss

“You spent nine agonizing months fearing he had died every second. It isn’t logical to assume that just goes away,” my friend Nora texted me.

Two things… Nora is incredibly wise. And, also, I was wrong.

It’s difficult for me to admit this… When my doctors questioned my ability to let go of some of my anxiety after Joel arrived, I confidently reassured them, “I expect my anxiety to return to normal-parent-type levels. After all, my traumatic loss experience is associated with pregnancy, so if I can just get past this…”

I prided myself in my ability to be logical. And the above assertion is indeed logical. But sometimes feelings and emotions trump logic. And almost immediately following Joel’s arrival I was reminded of this in a very big way, reminded of how oh-so-naïve my statements on this were.

My post-partum anxiety started in the hospital. And I’m not sure any of the nurses were ready for me…

Our post-partum stay spanned four and a half days and four nights. Each of these four nights we made a decision that most parents probably take lightly but one that felt monumental to us (or I guess I should say, to me) – should we, or should we not, send Joel to the nursery?

And each night (multiple times, because he returned every three hours for feedings) we sent Joel away, but only after I cross-examined the given night’s poor nurse, “How many infants are there in the nursery? How many nurses are there? How often do you check on them? Would you notice if one of them stopped breathing? Are you sure they are safe in there? Can you send in another staff member so I can corroborate your answers?”

And although our nurses tried to reassure me, I never felt reassured, sending Joel away only because I reasoned that if Mark and I were to fall asleep, no one would be watching Joel, while at least in the nursery, someone might be watching him, and also, the medical staff know CPR whereas I still need to learn it.

With each night came at least one code blue. (Pause for scary/sad/interesting fact – during our stay one nurse informed us that code blues happen disproportionately at night.) With each code blue came my assumption that Joel was the one who’d coded. With each confirmation that it wasn’t Joel (there’s an accompanying announcement indicating the applicable section of the hospital), I breathed a sigh of relief but cried for the family involved, remembering when the code blue was for us – for our child.

At least 20 times our nurses opened our door to return Joel for feeding time. At least 20 times, I looked for a doctor to follow our nurse, because surely it must be hospital protocol for a doctor to inform me that Joel had died in the nursery. At least half of these times, I cut straight to the chase, asking our nurse for clarification, “Is he breathing?”

Because the nurses in post-partum weren’t as familiar with me or life after traumatic loss, they frequently dropped bombs (or, in other words, vague statements that I could only interpret to mean that Joel was on the verge of death) before casually walking out of the room.

“So we tested his blood sugar, and it’s borderline low… We’ll keep watching it. See you later.”

“We noticed Joel looks a little bit yellow… So we tested him for jaundice, and his levels are borderline high. The pediatrician will be in tomorrow to advise us on next steps. Don’t forget you can order breakfast at 7:00am.”

“So Joel lost 8% of his body weight, but we won’t worry unless he loses 10%. Have a great day!”

And I responded to each statement with a hysterical meltdown, “You can’t just casually say these things to someone who’s lost a child and then walk out of the room. I interpret 8% weight loss as on the brink of failure to thrive, which I in turn equate with death. I need you to tell me that you see these things all of the time and that the babies do just fine. And then I need you to tell me this ten more times.”

Suffice it to say, I didn’t really sleep in the hospital, and, upon my return home, I found new anxieties… I actually began wishing for a nursery full of staff who know CPR. (I realized that the hospital was an ideal situation, which I could not fully appreciate at the time.) And, to this day, I worry about someone dropping Joel, or someone breathing germs on him, or that it’s too hot or humid to take him outside, or that he looks like he’s positioned questionably in his car seat and that his neck is kinked in a way that could cut off his airflow. We’ve also purchased a $300 mattress and installed the Angelcare baby movement monitor in his bassinet, and he’ll probably sleep in our room for at least five years. And I won’t even get started on my thoughts related to returning to work. (Before I continue I want offer some perspective and point out that the other day Dr. Phil featured a woman who is convinced her husband is poisoning her despite repeated negative toxicology screenings, so I am not THIS batshit cray. Yet.)

But, even with all of my fears and said extraordinary measures, I’m reasonable enough to recognize that so much is out of our control. Not every risk in life can be averted

As a new parent to a living child, I’m having trouble finding time for much other than feeding and changing diapers and snuggling my baby, but I did find time to read a book called Rare Bird: A Memoir on Loss and Love by Anna Whitson Donaldson, a bereaved mother and blogger, who lost her 12-year-old son, in the most unexpected, tragic way. (Because it’s probably a genius move for someone like me who’s struggling with anxiety over loss and the fragility of life to read real life stories about precisely these things. But this grief is so isolating, and I think reading the words of other bereaved parents helps me to feel less alone and also, in some weird way, makes me feel more connected to Matthew.)

In her book, Anna writes about how one day she answered, “Yes,” when some neighbor kids came knocking, asking if her Jack and Margaret could come out to play in the rain. And Jack never returned home. Because he drowned in a creek in their neighborhood. A creek that became a raging river when it reached thousand-year-flood levels.

In one instant, this creek that was usually dry stole the life of a handsome, smart, healthy boy who was usually cautious. And this mother, who’d gone to seemingly great lengths to educate her children on the various dangers/hazards of life was unable to protect her son from this most unlikely, awful fate.

Reading Jack’s story freed me from my anxiety on some level, reminding me that we can’t protect ourselves and our loved ones from all dangers. We just have to do our best within reason and then try to enjoy each day for what it is, because tomorrow is never promised.

But in other ways, the thoughts of Jack’s story, and the stories of so many others, and even my own story of losing Matthew, are crippling. Because it really does only take one second for life to change course in the most tragic of ways. And I can’t un-know the brutality of the suddenness of the events that took Matthew. And I can’t help but look around at our broken world and fear for myself and for all of my family members and, for most of all, my precious boy who’s just made his entrance.

So, sometimes, there are hours when I just sit on my couch, literally paralyzed by my fear and the weight of my thoughts. And I also can’t help but rage at how unfair it is – that I lost Matthew after already being so pre-disposed to anxiety… I was the eight-year-old who asked her mom questions like, “What if our neighbor’s dog dies while we’re watching it?” From a young age I always thought of, and feared, the worst-case-scenario, no matter how improbable.

I don’t want to convey that I’m not having joyful moments… Joel has brought so much light to us in such a short amount of time. He’s showing signs of starting to smile (perhaps giving us some half smiles), which feels like the most exciting thing ever. But, at times, the dark thoughts creep back in, and I struggle to view this world as anything other than a scary, horrible place where I’d have to pull a Duggar and have 19 children for one to survive to adulthood. (But I’ve started too late for this and one surely can’t have 19 C-sections without developing scary uterine complications.) And then I feel so defeated.

This is why I’ve sought help via therapy. (Though I’m not sure whether to feel hopeful after my therapist cried as I sobbed through my story.) I want to feel better, even if only a little bit. I want Joel to experience a childhood that at least borders on normal. And I want to teach Joel that this life can be wonderful and beautiful and that amazing things can happen. But often times, I don’t know if I believe this myself. (Because although Joel’s safe arrival is certainly an amazing thing that’s happened to me, in some ways, I feel a renewed sense of devastation over Matthew’s death.) Often times, I can’t remember a time when I did. This is what tragedy/grief does – it steals everything, it seems, including our perception of the world we live in.

So while I agree that it probably isn’t reasonable right now, I just hope I can see life a little bit differently again someday.

8 thoughts on “On post-partum anxiety after loss

  1. Christine,
    I have been thinking of you so often. I can’t wait to see a baby Joel smile picture.

    I hope you click with the therapist and she is able to help you reach a calmer, new normal. You guys have been through so much, I wish I could give you a hug w/8 arms. 😉 ❤

    (ps. I haven't read her book, but I do follow her blog, I am glad you found a little bit of peace from it)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. God, I just seriously love your writing. You are honest. You don’t sugar coat things, which is what grief around losing a child needs. I love you, sweet Joel, and Matthew. Your section about Joel being here opening a brand new grief from losing Matthew was SPOT ON. I’m very certain I will feel this too (having days already actually). Also, lol so hard at Joel sleeping in your room until he’s five (My son is five and I just pictured it in my head and laughed out loud so hard). Sending you calming vibes. Being a new parent is full of emotions all their own, add your grief on top and I’m sure it’s a very easy recipe for breakdown/anxiety.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. I read her blog! She just had a surprise after 40 baby!

    So something that caught me by surprise after our losses is how very mortal they made everyone else. We could all die at any second. Like what the fuck. It’s still hard for me to be separated from G. A weekend away is joyful, but also anxiety ridden. Not only could something happen to G, but something could happen to US! Together! AND THEN G IS AN ORPHAN.

    So I was always a helicopter mom. It’s part of my very being. I was a helicopter nanny for fuck sake. But the shit we went through justifies all of it. I don’t have to stress about judgement, try to hide it, or apologize for it. I’m crazy and proud. Deal with it.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you so much for your honesty. I am acutely aware that if we ever get there, there is going to be a lot of learning and battles to work through. This journey does not end in its lessons. I hope that therapy gives a calm, and the reasons for doing so, come from your ability to be the best mother to both Matthew and Joel.

    The fear of the next shit thing to happen is so real. Like you said, you can’t unknow that shock suddenness. I am just waiting, waiting for the next thing. And I am amazed that I’ve made it through life relatively unscathed – like how can some people dodge all the bullets, when our sons got hit by one before they were even here? How is that right?

    Much love to all four of you xx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am so thankful for everything you write. For your honesty and openness about the absolute horror and absurdity of grief after losing a child, and also for being able to still see some of the humor in that absurdity. I laugh and cry with you.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Aaah yes, the ridiculously cruel, raw, emotional vulnerability of parenthood. It’s absolutely terrifying.

    I can relate so much to being a “worrier” before Josie died, even as a child. My parents had this super thick medical book and I would read it all the time, and eventually they had to hide it from me. There were these quizzes you could take, answering yes or no to various symptoms and ultimately leading to an approximate diagnosis. There is a longstanding joke in my family that is still talked about all the time, because I once told my little sister (age 8) that she either had a cold or a brain tumor. I could also be found at any moment when a family member was sick, mere inches from their faces as they slept to ensure they were in fact, still breathing.

    And this was all BEFORE I became a parent. And BEFORE I became a bereaved parent.

    In a way, Josie taught me to release some of that fear. (And by some, I mean hardly any). I did everything “right” with her and she still died. I stressed over every millisecond of my subsequent pregnancy with her little brother, all the while keenly aware that there was nothing I could really do to prevent it from happening again, at any second. Logic would tell me to relax then; however this is much, much easier said than done.

    Parenting a living child after and during the parenting of a dead child is excruciatingly hard, and I’m not sure many truly understand this. I’m so proud of you for pursuing therapy, which is something I have been needing to do for a looooong time (as you know 🙂 I am hopeful that your anxiety lessens, even fractionally on the daily and that in time, this cruel and warranted fear isn’t as paralyzing as it is now. I have found that (with a rainbow baby specifically), the fear has become slightly less paralyzing than it was when he first came home.

    So much love and so many hugs to you, friend.


    Ps. Joel is so freaking ADORABLE!


  7. My crippling anxiety ebbs and flows. Sometimes I think I’m totally chill, and then I’ll have a night where I’m up, checking on Coco four or five times. Zuzu ends up in our bed 95% of the time, and I love it because then I know she’s there and breathing. I do agree with Nora that the fear is less paralyzing now, but it’s easy for me to take minor illness to a very dark place.

    (I loved that my therapist cried because I needed her to acknowledge how huge and horrible this was. I wanted her to be a human and not a robot, although I appreciated her objectivity.)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It is soothing to hear the rant (!) of another mother who has experienced loss. I can’t lie, I have thought that if God were to bring me a Rainbow, my grief may lift a little, or even a lot. It’s unrealistic though, that we could ever ‘get over’ losing our children. That is unthinkable. Thank you for sharing your beautiful and scary moments–

    Liked by 1 person

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