A message to parents on the anniversary of the birth of my first born

A message to parents on the anniversary of the birth of my first born

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

            I tend not to post personal matters, the exception being reminiscences.  I am not the sort who posts on Facebook about something I have cooked (I am not a good cook), or a random thought, or an accident at home.  Rather, I enjoy engaging with people regarding ideas and events, which is not to put down anyone who uses social media for other purposes (aside from nefarious forces who spread misinformation).

            Addressing something personal, however, is what I do today.  March 18-21st of every year since 1986 are the lowest points of my life.  March 18-21, 1986 were the three days when my first born lived and passed away, an unexpected tragedy that has left a mark on my soul ever since.

            Every year I attempt to note and honor the brief life of my first born.  On two different years I had the strange experience of forgetting the significance of March 18th.  I was so preoccupied with other matters.  But on those two occasions I found myself experiencing inexplicable physical pain.  Suddenly I realized that it was the anniversary of the birth of my first born.  I cried and apologized to her spirit, and the pain almost immediately vanished.

            I have written previously, in different venues, about the loss of my first born but something happened recently that has led me in the direction of writing this particular essay.  It all started with a colleague of mine in a project where we are both engaged.  This colleague is a wonderful person, but they have often been disruptive, unfocused, and sometimes losing their temper.  I was discussing this situation with another set of colleagues when one mentioned, almost in passing, “…you know, they recently lost their grandchild.”

            Immediately I straightened up and understood precisely what was going on.

            Losing a child or, indeed, a grandchild, is probably the most painful emotional experience one can have.  Whether the loss is expected or unexpected is next to irrelevant.  It hits you with the force of a racing locomotive and leaves you emotionally shattered.  And, while most people will be patient, if not supportive of you in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the depth of the trauma is frequently denied, if not lost on most of those who were not directly involved.

            The impact of the trauma lasts for a long time.  The symptoms are very common.  You become impatient in a way unlike anything that you have ever experienced.  The sadness seems to take you over.  You become intolerant of things that are small and petty.  You can become argumentative.  And, complicating all of this, you may not mourn either in the same way or on the same timeline as your partner, which means that tension can grow between the two of you even when one assumes that you would be brought together by the tragedy.

            This is all so important because your reactions or that of someone suffering this trauma can be misunderstood.  My colleague, mentioned above, has never mentioned the passing of their granddaughter to me, but I can tell that my colleague is suffering.  Years ago, an important social movement leader with whom I was familiar lost a child—unexpectedly—and proceeded to make some disastrous and harmful personal and political decisions even though they had been cautioned that they could not trust their own temperament.  

            It sometimes feels very lonely, in the aftermath of such a loss.  You feel as if no one can understand what you are experiencing.  To some extent, this is true.  What is worse, though, is that we live in a society that neither prepares us for such tragedies, nor prepares us to assist and support those experiencing such tragedies.  Those of us going through this trauma feel that we have to go it alone.  And then, heaven forbid, when you do open up to someone regarding your anguish and they shut down or distance themselves from you, it confirms all of your worst fears.  I lost one of my best friends in the aftermath of the death of my first born.  He later confessed to a mutual friend that he did not know what to say to me in the face of my despair.  As if I needed him to say anything.

            Yet you come out of it.  No, this is not about ‘getting on with your life,’ which you hear so many people say.  With the right support—and sometimes this means receiving professional counseling—you can move forward.  You never forget, but you come to accept that the tragedy is now a part of who you are.  And you adjust to the pain that you will always feel.  But you can find happiness and hope; all is not lost.

            A final note.  When I lost my first born, I was told by someone who had nothing but the best of intentions, that I should remember that I can always have another child.  Well, not so quick.  You may not be able to have another child.  But, even if you do, that next child will never replace the one you lost.  It does not work that way.

            I was lucky to have had another child and I could not have designed someone as wonderful as she is.  She is irreplaceable.  But so, too, was her sister.  I will love them each, and separately, until the lights go out.  They are not interchangeable.

26 thoughts on “A message to parents on the anniversary of the birth of my first born

  1. Thank you, Bill, for your honesty and vulnerability. Sending much love during these difficult days.

  2. What a landscape of emotions you bear and share Bill, and provide space for friends’ stories that speak to remembrance, anguish, mourning, sadness, loneliness, disruption, impatience- and love.

  3. I’ve been thinking about ancestors lately. Although very different I’ve lost a few students over the years. One as recently as last year. We often do not think of the young as ancestors when they transition, but to me it feels appropriate. And it feels correct to honor them in this way. Thank you for sharing your story. For me it will help me to help those in my community dealing with similar situations.

  4. Thank you for writing this from the heart. I too lost a daughter at birth, a year after our first born from a failure of the brain stem to fully develop. We knew five months in what the outcome would be and her Mother made the decision to see it through. I supported her decision. I will never forget sitting in the hospital room holding her wrapped in blankets and being helpless to care for her. It’s true, it does define a part of who I am. Our other daughter is currently in college and nailing it but I still find myself reflecting on what might have been. Life is humbling, no way around it.

  5. Thank you for the courage to share your pain with me/us. A vital part of men healing ourselves and becoming emotionally whole. My father died when I was five and I have only understood the impact in the last ten years

  6. This is beautiful. So many need to hear this his. Thank you for sharing your heart with us. Sending love and light❤️

  7. Thank you for sharing! I was born when my mom was 16 yo and she passed when l was 33! A boy without a mother is lost and he weeps like a baby! Our mom’s are the best gift forever! May our mom’s Rest In Peace forever!

  8. When I was 19, I lost my 13-year-old brother, Scott, to a drunken driver. Despite my stepfather having nothing to with Scott’s death, my mom attacked him regularly. Each parent drifted away from each other and all their friends. While living under one roof, they, there was a profound loneliness! I had left home for college, but my youngest brother, who had been four at the time of Scott’s death, had to witness terrible arguments at practically every dinner! He didn’t survive! By the time he was 18, he had become a full-blown addict, a condition that has undermined his entire adult life. At present, he’s homeless and is suffering from traumatic brain injury.

    My contribution here relates to ‘self-care’ and counseling. While I haven’t lost a child, I witnessed first hand how deeply a child’s death cuts into the parents’ relationships. Counseling will not be a “cure”, but it may give the parents the tools to support each other as they move forward in their lives. My heart goes out to all who are grieving their loss.

  9. Hello Bill,

    We have met as I’m the partner of Bill Nevins, who shared your post with me. We had dinner with you & your beautiful wife at Franklin’s in Hyattsville, I think it was, a few years ago. Bill and I live in northern New Mexico.

    I lost a firstborn too, so I feel and understand everything you are saying in this post. My date is August 14. There are years when I don’t mark it and years when I burst into tears. Abigail died three weeks before her due date in 1987. It turned out that when she dropped she probably leaned her shoulder on the only part of her umbilical cord that wasn’t completely sheathed. Her dad and I went through labor for 14 hours, then we held her. I held her again the next day. She was cold. Putting her down was naturally one of the hardest things I have ever done. Abandoning my child, in a sense.

    She was beautiful. Perfect. I had then and still have a clear vision of her at age 16 running through a field toward me, long brown hair blowing behind her. She is, somewhere.

    I felt like I’d jumped off a diving board into a concrete swimming pool that was empty of water. I felt cheated. I was also befriended, as a designer on the National Geographic Magazine heard about this and imposed herself on me to keep memorabilia of my baby: a Xerox of her feet!

    I learned so much from losing Abigail. The main thing was the uniqueness of each person, as you point out. My daughter is somebody. There is no replacing anybody, no matter how old.
    The other learning came when I was back at work at the National Geographic Society, walking through the intersection of 17th and L Sts. NW in Washington DC, I realized with a start that nobody knew what I had just been through, and I didn’t know what anybody else was going through. We need to care for one another.

    Abigail’s dad Joseph is Jewish, and oddly there is no ritual in Judaism for loss of a baby who dies before birth. (There seems to be a ritual in Judaism for everything else!) We held a gathering at our house in commemoration of her. Two friends said things that were the most helpful. Monica said, “Jeannie it can happen anytime.” Hakeem said, “Jeannie, I don’t know what to say.”

    I was able to let Abigail go only after I met with my minister, Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Savior, about six months later. We prayed for her and lit a candle. I do not go to churches anymore but have a profound awareness of the unseen, guiding aspect of life, and it is telling for me that the time with Gordon enabled me to let her go. I put her in God’s hands. Open hands that hold in safety.

    Abigail’s father and I had two incredible sons after she died and was born. They know about her and wonder a bit about her. We are still a close family.

    Abigail lives in my heart and mind and in her own way, as I know your daughter does in yours.

    I hope to see you and your wife again.

    ~ Jeannie

  10. Bill, I am so sorry for the loss of your first born. Thank you for sharing so honestly how painful, lonely and traumatic it is to lose a child. As someone who lost my first born, your words really resonated.

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