Loss and the time after
An extract from At arm’s length (Fictional Clinical Narratives, 2018: pp. 52 – 58)
This week several stories of loss and devastation have travelled to me; Young people dying of covid, prolonged melancholia after a break up, when the love lost had been deep and life changing, people with young families dying in hospital from cancer, their loved ones not allowed to be there, to say goodbye. What do we do with irreparable loss? Many professionals working in the area of psychological therapies may disagree with me on that, but in my view, at best, we learn to live with it, to find a place for accommodating it in our bodies and everyday lives. It never quite goes away. So, could long term therapy sometimes be used as a safe harbour for living with melancholia?
In the extract below from one of my therapy short stories, Chloe faces the hours after following the unexplained death of her baby girl at the end of pregnancy. In the story, Chloe uses the space of therapy in order to manage the trauma through living her life after the loss ‘at arm’s length’.
She had woken up one spring morning, she said, about three weeks before she was due with a strange sense that something was wrong. She remembered staying in bed for a while, moving her body gently, trying to see if there were any signs of unusual discomfort or upcoming labour. There were not. She remembered thinking that it was a real luxury to be able to stay in bed like that as not only she had just begun her maternity leave, but Jackson seemed to be sleeping in late. She knew it was late as Fergus had gone to work already and the scent of his aftershave lingered pleasantly in the semi-dark. As much as both her pregnancies had been smooth, she suffered from the usual exhausting insomnia of the last stages, so it was completely unheard of for her to sleep through like that. She got up to take her mobile off its charger, which confirmed that it was indeed nearly eight o’clock, and she went straight back to bed, having just realised exactly what was wrong. There was no movement. She lay there, hoping that Jackson would take a few more minutes to call for her, doing all her usual tricks to wake the baby up, turning on her side, curling her legs up and then stretching them away, tickling her belly and in the end, poking it in desperation. Nothing. Chloe said that there was a particular moment soon after that which meant no degree of false hope-giving from Fergus or the hospital staff later on could dissuade her from the quiet knowledge of the horrendous reality. Her baby girl had died.
The rest was a frenzy. Fergus came back from work. They took Jackson to his childminder. They checked into the hospital. Two different scans. There is no heartbeat, the sonographer confirmed. I am sorry. How many people had told her ‘I am sorry’ in one hour? Then, an induction. Calling her mum to pick up Jackson. Asking her to take him home with her. She needed the night, they needed the night by themselves. The labour was awful. A true slaughter. She had remained calm throughout, secretly wishing that she would die as well. She knew she could not face up to the time after. The baby was beautiful. She could see Fergus in her strawberry-shaped lips, the dark hair. She could not feel much when holding her. The hysteria came after, when she was taken away. She kept screaming ‘why?’. She was taken to a private room. She still demanded that she got an answer. Fergus held her to start with while she screamed. Then, he left abruptly. ‘Had to get some fresh air’, he said when he came back fifteen minutes later. But why? This was what still bothered her. They could not tell. The foetus seemed to have been deprived of oxygen. It wasn’t clear why. Perhaps she had unwittingly compressed something in her sleep. Had she smothered her own baby?
She suffered from unexplained high fevers for weeks after. Every other day she was told to rush to the A & E as the midwife who followed her through would get alarmed, thinking that she was suffering from a postpartum infection. No trace of an infection was ever found. In the end, she learnt not to pay attention. She almost took pleasure in the familiar shivering, the urge to cover herself and then, the eventual cold sweat when the soaring temperature started dropping again.
Their life changed afterwards. She went back to work full-time. Fergus took a year off to do his art, what he always wanted to do. He spent long hours in his studio working on hard materials. Her parents got much more involved with Jackson. They got less. In fact, Fergus took it upon himself to spend a few afternoons with him taking him to the park and to playgroups. She was the least involved. She felt she had to protect him from the dark hole inside.
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