Currently reading Waking the Tiger – Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine
Yesterday, at 5 a.m. I woke up with excruciating stomach cramps, and I couldn’t get out of bed without fainting. We called an ambulance, and I was brought to the hospital. The paramedics arrived wearing face masks, and I had to wear one too. I had taken a pregnancy test the previous day. Positive. Elation was followed by fear. What a stark contrast.
I was wondering for a long time, whether I should write this post or not because we are in the very early stages of my pregnancy, but then I changed my mind in the blink of an eye. Of course was I going to write this post. All of me just has to, and here’s why:
When I was pregnant with our first daughter, Catherine, I had kept the pregnancy a secret until the end of the fifth month. I had done everything according to the “unofficial rule book.” I had been hiding my morning sickness at work, and I hadn’t talked to anyone about our growing joy. So it took me until the beginning of the sixth month before I posted a picture on social media saying “it’s a girl” revealing our secret and finally being able to openly share our fantastic news. We were elated.
Then only three weeks later, things started to go wrong. We discovered that our beautiful baby daughter, our firstborn, was suffering from a fatal heart disease, very rare, and that she would enter this world stillborn. We hadn’t seen that coming. At some point, I thought, “damn, I wish I hadn’t posted that picture on Facebook, because now I have to tell everyone that we lost our tiny, perfect baby.” Silly me, because it turned out that whenever anyone asked or addressed our loss we managed to openly discuss what we had experienced, and our sharing led to many other people opening up about their past losses and grief – things they hadn’t dared tell anyone before or pain from the past that had been buried deep down in their heart of hearts for decades was finally being partly released. It was the beautiful amidst the ugly that managed to raise its head in that safe space of mutual trust and respect.
So now, four years dowm the line, my only regret from that time when I was carrying our first child is that we didn’t start celebrating every single moment right from the beginning on and that instead we had been worrying way too much about trivial stuff and thinking about the perfect timing for the big reveal. We had been wondering for so long if everything was going to be alright, until all of a sudden it wasn’t alright anymore.
Why keep a baby a secret when it is more than welcome in your life? Why for three months or even longer? Who gets to make all those arbitrary rules in the first place? Losing a baby is just as bad three weeks into the pregnancy as it is after seven months or three years. Sure, the emotional and physical connection has gone through different stages of development, but what all those losses have in common, no matter at which stage they occur, is the sudden break down of hopes and dreams that had started to emerge on the blank canvas of our imagination. Stories we had started telling ourselves since the first positive test about all the adventures we were going to experience with our babies and indulging in speculations about their hair or eye colour, their looks, or character, all screechingly brought to a halt.
What I learned in the past is that in case of doubt, or uncertainty or if you are in a position of really not being able to know what will come next, then maybe choose to focus on the joyful now and share it with others. Brighten someone’s day with your joy. Radiate it out into the world. Then at least the “now” is joyful, even if the “next” might not be. I choose to tickle our babies until they have a belly ache from laughter – I choose to look at my husband and repeat over and over again with a smile on my face: “we are going to have another baby” – I consciously choose to share our happy news in dire times; not with one or two or three, but with as many people who want to share in on our joy. You are so welcome to be part of our journey.
If I am deeply honest with myself, I do feel a lump of fear in the pit of my stomach – a tiny one – it’s there. It’s undeniable. I do know, and I am fully aware of what is happening all over the world right now, and I don’t intend to trivialize all of that grief. What about the baby – will we be able to get the regular check-ups? Will all of this have calmed down by the time the baby will be born? All of those questions are of course crossing my mind, but at the same time I stubbornly refuse to let the fear creep in and get the better of me before my physical health, or my loved ones’ health has actually been impacted. It’s tricky at times to keep the darkness at bay, but we keep choosing the sunshine, and the tiny new baby, and our children’s laughter, and our peace right now. A tiny ray of hope that is bravely saying hello amidst a world of the unknown.
When we lost our first baby daughter, one night my grandmother called and she kept saying: “Why do all those tragedies happen to us? To our family?” But I had never ever considered losing our daughter, or losing my mother, or growing up without a dad, or experiencing my grandfather’s death to be some sort of divine punishment. In the midst of all of this – of this current crisis – and of personal past and future crisis – maybe there is no “Why me? Why my family? Why our country?” in the way that we understand it as some sort of punishment for whatever so-called past sins we might have committed. I am adamant that no matter how excruciating the emotional pain might be, there is and will be the aftermath of unexpected support and emotional and psychological evolution and deep insight, healing, and understanding too if we allow this growth to take place.
After our daughter’s passing, I didn’t see all the trauma and the “why did this happen to us?,” but I saw the messages, the phone calls, the cards – our loved ones reaching out to us and we experienced doctors who deeply cared, beyond their medical duties. We found our gynaecologist call us on his day off, just to make sure we were okay. We had our wedding to look forward to, and we had us. How lucky is that?
Losing our daughter didn’t “happen” to us. She brought us joy and lots of experiences. Yesterday, I listened to a podcast, and there was a stage four cancer survivor who explained that from his point of view, there are no positive or negative experiences – there are just experiences full stop. Our soul came here to experience all of what we are going through, and it’s how we handle our gains and our losses that defines our time here on earth.
Before my first pregnancy, I didn’t know what to make of doctors really. I had this vague stereotypical idea of what a doctor was like, but experiencing our daughter’s heart condition brought us lots of new insights and understanding. We asked lots of questions and discovered that experts are all too willing to answer our questions if we ask. We learned that we were the odd ones out because usually, people weren’t asking that many questions. At least apparently not in our country. But asking questions is imperative. The gynaecologist who delivered our stillborn baby told me: “I’m always wondering why my patients are like sheep in a herd. They never ask any questions. They just sit there, numb, quiet, motionless, like deer caught in headlights.” I guess people being hesitant to ask questions boils down to a combination of several things: fear of the unknown, fear of getting answers that we don’t want to hear, but would rather avoid if we could, fear of coming across as stupid or uneducated, or fear that after asking, we are being left with even more unanswered questions.
If anything, I learned from what we had to go through that we should collaborate with our doctors and medical staff and ask – ask plenty of questions to help them help us. I was confirmed in my belief when I was in the hospital two nights ago: When I was lying in emergency care, waiting to be wheeled up to the maternity ward for further check-ups, the doctor opened a dose of paracetamol and wanted to administer it to me. She went through her motions without any explanations. I stopped her in her tracks, asked what she was about to do and declined the treatment. At first, she was perplexed and went on to say that she couldn’t leave me in pain while I had to wait for further treatment. At first, I was annoyed that she had not even attempted to let me in on her medical plans for me, but then I realized amidst the chaos and hushed voices in the hospital that this doctor too was acting out of fear: I realized it was standard protocol and she didn’t want to be blamed in case anything had gone wrong in the end. All of us want to feel safe and do the right thing at the right time. Especially if it comes to other people’s lives and happiness. In hindsight, I should have emphasized that I’ll take on full responsibility for my medical choices and that she will always be safe. Sticking to our own decisions is so empowering for us and relieving for people who usually need to be fully in charge.
By the time I was wheeled into the maternity ward in the hospital. I had tears in my eyes. The stress in the hospital was palpable, and I felt so sorry that I had unintentionally added to their stress. But then and there, one of the nurses looked at me, I mean, she really looked at me and said: “That’s why we are here. For personal stories and personal emergencies like yours. That’s what nurses, and doctors, and hospitals are for. The world is not all virus right now, although it might feel like it. The world is still also new beginnings and new life and very personal worries.” I loved her for that comment. She had said exactly what I needed to hear. In times of crisis, it’s wonderful nurses, and beautifully calm people, that make all the difference. I felt so lucky. Thank you so much for your kind words, Diane. Thank you to all the doctors and nurses. Due to the circumstances two nights ago, I could experience first hand the pent-up stress and fear regarding the uncertain future events. However, at the same time, I felt confident that there is a capable team in charge that we can rely on in times of crisis and that there are people that go out of their way to brush their own feelings of fear and uncertainty aside to help fellow human beings in distress. Those miraculous people have outgrown their former selves. I am so very grateful to have experienced this comforting side of humanity too. I admire your bravery! Thank you!
So why am I writing all of this? Currently, I am watching a free video series released by Hay House (thank you Hay House , the videos are amazing!). The series deals with the phenomenon of “radical remission,” which is when people beat the odds and fully recover from a usually terminal disease. There are ten practices that radical survivors seem to all have commonly applied after their diagnosis. One of those practices is doing shadow work and walking once more through all those moments that have caused us pain in the past. But this time around consciously – really looking at what had happened and processing the feelings, hurt, and emotions. I have been writing blog posts for a few months now, and only after the launch of the series did I discover that what I was and am doing has a name: shadow work – processing past, traumatizing experiences, and turning them into positive life lessons, using every tiny inkling of hope there had been in those episodes and turning them into life lessons, providing future personal guidance, values, and standards. I hope for all of us that we manage to use the boulders that were put in our way and that we laboriously had to work through to pave our future roads with resilience and memories of growth and goals and expansion – for us and for future generations to come, like for our tiny baby.
We might not know the “why,” but we can apply the “what.” What am I going to do with this newly added experience now and in the future to make my time here on earth more joyful – to turn my loss into gain? Well, we, my husband and I, for one, transformed losing our first daughter into celebrating every single pregnancy that came after that right from the start on. No shame, no regret. No “what if anything might go wrong down the line? It’s still so early…” So what? What if it might go wrong? At least we laughed and rejoiced and got all caught up in positive momentum and revelled in the happiness of the moment for a minute, or a week, or for as long as it might last and hopefully all throughout the pregnancy, and way beyond. For what people forget is that even if you make it through the pregnancy, then there will be your child’s entire life that lies ahead of you and him or her and at any given moment an unexpected tragedy might strike, like the one we are in the midst of. And in times of darkness, we will be so grateful for the amounts of decisive moments and joyful memories we have been able to bag in the past, for it’s our sunny moments that are the bridges we can choose to walk on to get to the other side of this. So do you postpone celebrating life’s joys for fear of anything negative interrupting your happiness down the line? Let’s hope that the answer to that question is a fervent “no.” Let’s hope that we will all find within us the courage to celebrate a new life, or newly found love, or a new friendship or a new hobby, even if there might be a potential disappointment or heartbreak, or full blown crisis like the current one lurking down the line.
To courage. To joy. To tiny babies. To laughter. To medical professionals. And to all that is still good in this world, because there is.
LEAVE THE LIGHTS ON
My grandad was lying in his hospital bed, eyes closed, tubes down his throat, shallow breathing, pale. Only 24 hours earlier, we had still been chatting. This seemed so surreal. He hadn’t been feeling well, so I had urged him to go to the hospital and get a blood count. I had taken him to the hospital in the morning on my way to work, and I was supposed to pick him back up later that day. When I arrived back at the hospital, a doctor came to see my grandad and me. He told us that they had found some irregularities and that he needed to stay the night to get some more tests run the next day. I can remember the look on my grandad’s face. He looked frightened, but he was still joking. I love him so so much. I will never forget those last days we spent together in hospital.
That same evening, quite late already, my grandma called. My grandad wanted me back in the hospital. That didn’t sound like him at all. I figured something serious must have happened, so I got in the car and drove. When I arrived in his hospital room, my grandad was fine. Or so it seemed. He talked to me, and I asked why he had wanted me there in the first place. Everything was fine. He asked me to stay – so I did. I found it odd, and I was a little annoyed too, because I had to get up really early the next day to go to work – but still.
Only half an hour later, he started to act weird. He started to say funny things that didn’t make any sense. He wanted to go home. Let’s go home. Get me home. He kept repeating those sentences over and over again. Getting out of his bed. I panicked. What was I supposed to do?! He also wanted to go to the toilet: let’s go to the bathroom, and then we go home. I rang for a nurse to come. She was quite annoyed and angry that as a visitor, I was still in the hospital that late at night. She put my grandad back into bed, shoved a bedpan underneath his buttocks and left us to it. He looked at me, tears in his eyes: I can’t go like that. He was such a proud, strong man, and this in itself felt humiliating to him. Now I tried to get him out of bed. Get him to the toilet. Allow him the dignity he deserved. At that point, he had become quite delirious.
In a dim hospital room, I tried to walk him to the toilet, but by the time I had pulled him to the edge of the bed, he wet himself. He was crying. I rang the bell once more. Please, we do need help. This time the nurse took me a bit more seriously: Is he not usually this confused and delirious? Far from it, he is the smartest, most discerning person I know. My grandad knows things before anyone else knows. He observes and comes to his own conclusions. He can read people like nobody else can. My grandad was trashing about, saying over and over again to get him home. Please take me home. I will always remember those last words. Take your loved ones home. Don’t leave them in hospitals or hospices to die. Just don’t. I have seen the fear in my grandad’s eyes, and all I wanted to do was take him home. I regret telling him to go in for a routine check. It might have been worse if he had become delirious at home. But he might just have gone to sleep and never woken up again, peacefully closing his eyes forever in his bed at home, where he was born and raised – had lived his life. But instead, he was wheeled away for emergency examination in the middle of the night, and I was left in that empty hospital room all by myself.
Take your loved ones home. Don’t leave them in hospitals or hospices to die.
Just don’t.Insight Number One – June 2008
You know when there has been loud noise or a fight and all of a sudden it’s very quiet – my ears were left ringing, and my head felt really light. What I remember from that night in the dimmly lit hospital room is: turn the fucking lights on. If there is an emergency: turn the lights on. Even if there is no emergency: turn the lights on. It makes you think straighter. It makes the bad seem not so bad. It takes some of the monsters away. Monsters don’t like the dark. Scary thoughts don’t either.
Leave the lights on. If it’s dark: Turn the lights on. Always turn the lights on.Insight Number Two – June 2008
But even the light, even the brightest sunshine, couldn’t have prevented what was about to happen next; – After what felt like an eternity, a stern-looking doctor entered the room. She briefly informed me that she was the doctor, that she had examined my grandad, that we knew that he had been suffering from lung cancer and that a metastasis in his head had ruptured and started bleeding. He wasn’t going to make it through the night. If there were any family members that I still wanted to call, then they should come to the hospital now, because by dawn he would have taken his last breath. And on that note, she left. I hadn’t known.
Cancer? Spread? I hadn’t known. I was 26. I hadn’t known. I wonder if he had known. I can only guess what had happened that night. Either he was so scared being in hospital all alone or he knew what was about to happen next. Intuition? An innate knowing that speaks to us when we are about to leave this planet? Does death touch your heart and whisper into your ear: It’s time to go. I don’t know. But I had been with him earlier that day when the doctor had told us that they were not sure yet why his blood tests were so bad and that they needed to take some more tests the next day. So how was he supposed to have known? How was I supposed to know? I guess doctors have to deliver a godzillion bad news per day. And I guess they need to keep an emotional distance to keep functioning in their jobs, but at that moment I couldn’t function anymore. My brain couldn’t function. But I was left to function. I had to. I called my grandma, telling her to get the neighbours to bring her to the hospital. And while I was waiting, my grandad was wheeled back into the hospital room. He was lying in his hospital bed, eyes closed, tubes down his throat, shallow breathing, pale. Only 24 hours earlier, we had still been chatting. This seemed so surreal.
My grandfather was supposed to die before dawn that very Monday morning, but he didn’t. His brain had stopped working, but his heart kept on beating. His heart that had been beating for his family, for my grandmother, for my mum and me. He had loved us. With all of his beautiful, strong, resilient heart. I’m very sure of that.
I remember the times I went fishing with him. It had all been so peaceful. And the times we had spent sitting around the fireplace in the garden, watching the sunset. We had never talked much. But I loved his calm presence. We never needed to talk – we just knew.
I kept pleading that we take my grandad home, allow him to pass away in our home like he had asked me to. We agreed to take him home on Thursday if he hadn’t died by then. Those four days and nights, my grandmother and I didn’t leave the hospital room. We stayed with him the entire time, taking turns sleeping on the narrow guest bed and holding his hands. I will always remember those hands. Resting so peacefully on those white hospital sheets. Those hands telling the stories of hard labour, of houses being built, of babies being held or carrying his daughter to the grave when she was only 29. I was singing songs to him, hoping he could still hear us. Hoping to comfort him. To make him feel loved. At one point in his life, he had been someone’s baby – my great-grandmother’s baby – and I was wondering what she would be feeling if she could see him helpless like this. I always wonder about that when I see people: All of us are someone’s baby. What would a loving parent have to say?
I do believe that those amongst us who are dying do still hear us. They are not gone yet. At one point, my grandmother was holding one of his hands, and I was holding the other and then all of a sudden we looked at each other. He had squeezed both our hands at the same time, he was going to wake up, he could hear us after all. I rushed to get a doctor all excitedly, but when he came and checked both his eyes for any movement, he confirmed that my grandad was braindead and that we should consider taking him off the oxygen machines that kept him artificially alive. Squeezing our hands had been his last farewell. His last physical effort in this lifetime. His last labour of love.
My grandmother didn’t want to take the decision. So future events were left up to me. I was 26. Twenty-six is just a number. To a ten-year-old, a twenty-six-year-old is an adult. A grown-up. A person who has his shit together and knows what to do. But now I’m 37, and I still feel like an eighteen-year-old. No matter your age, you are never prepared to take life-changing decisions. Especially not if it means altering someone else’s reality. – I pictured my grandad: proud and strong. Pipe in his mouth, shovel in his hands, a sly glimmer in his eyes, his Dalmatian by his side. My grandad knew what self-worth is. Self-esteem. The feeling that you know who you are to the very core of your being. He didn’t allow anyone to walk all over him. He didn’t take any shit from anyone. He was the most honest, most direct, but also most tenderhearted person I know. One can tell that I loved him, and I still do. And so did many a people. His funeral was an endless stream of people wanting to say goodbye to him. People kept coming and coming, honouring his lifelong integrity.
Bearing that picture in mind of integrity, of pride, of independence, I decided to allow the machines to be switched off and the tubes to be removed from his throat. If he had to die, he should be left to die in dignity; – Die the way he had lived. I know that this is a very controversial topic, but if one hasn’t gone through days like those, one cannot really judge. All our stories are different, and so are our emotions and decisions. The plan was to switch the machines off and take him home on Thursday to grant him his last wish and to allow him to die at home in peace. In the early morning hours on Thursday, he took his last breath and was gone for good. You know the saying that dying people only leave the planet when nobody is watching, well my grandfather had waited until I had fallen asleep doubled over his hospital bed with my head resting in his lap. I had woken up with a jolt, and I knew that he was gone.
After my grandfather’s death, I went back to work straight away. I had to. If I missed more lessons of my teacher training, I could lose my job. So I returned to the everyday grind. Some months later, my tutor took me aside after my practical exam, and he said: you are very resilient. Am I? I didn’t know what the word meant. Even after 7 years of studying English, I had never come across that word. At least not consciously. You are fortunate if you don’t know what it means. Your vocabulary is telling. I didn’t think I was resilient. I figured there had been nothing else left to do. It’s my students that kept me going. I had a reason to get up in the morning. They were so kind and so willing to learn, and I showed up for them. I showed up for my future. There is no use living in the past. One of my students asked me if I was still feeling sick because my eyes were all puffy from crying. I could barely speak, choking back the tears. I couldn’t reply. What was I supposed to say anyway? Lie to them? Tell them the truth about what I had just gone through? They were thinking I had had a bad flu. I couldn’t respond. The compassion in his eyes let me know though that he understood. He might not have known in detail, but one can know without knowing.
A few weeks later, I woke up in the middle of the night, and I had to throw up. It all came gushing out of my body: all the emotions, the hurt, the anger, the pain, the disgust, the disbelief, the hospital smell. All of what had been buried deep within; my body hurtled it all out. I was lying on the cold bathroom floor of my tiny apartment, sobbing, my body heaving with tears. I had had to hold it in for too long and now it was all being released. When I returned to work the next day, I remember a colleague’s snide comment, saying: oh, that was a quick recovery. I know what he was alluding to or implying: having a nice lie-in, right. Well, far from it. It wasn’t a quick recovery. I’m still recovering. I will always remember the grief, but I learned to share it. To talk about it. To express it. To allow my body to rest when it wants to release past pain, even if it is just for two hours. Bodies know so much if we just listened carefully.
And when it comes to resilience, I don’t know about that. Am I resilient? I love my life and I am always trying to be joyful, even in the face of everyday challenges. I used to hate that I am so serious. Mostly, I don’t get other people’s jokes and I don’t think that they are funny. I’ve always wanted to be more lighthearted and more easy-going; to put my brain aside for a bit and to just be. But quite recently, I have come to embrace my serious self. It is my core rationality within my overtly emotional self that has allowed me to weather the storms that I have had to face. My seriousness has allowed me to make sense of my deeply emotional experiences and to feel my emotions and express them instead of gilding them over with jokes.
So another thing I learned experiencing my grandfather’s death is that the things or character traits we might loathe most about ourselves are maybe the ones that keep us afloat; that help us to express our uniqueness and to help us make sense of the world surrounding us. I still don’t have all the answers as to why my grandfather had to leave us that day, and in such a way. The exact same date my mother had passed away 22 years before – Mother’s Day weekend. The exact same date. We will never have all the answers as to why things happen to us, but we can decide how to weave those events into the tapestry of our lives in order to create our unique, bold, joyful canvas, despite, or because of, the hurt we have gone through.
THE DAY I KNEW
I distinctly remember the day my mum died. Nothing prepares you for that. Especially not if you are four years old. And especially not if it is a sudden death that doesn’t allow for any goodbyes. – My mum left and never came back, because someone else decided to take her life. – Just like that. – Take her life. – Take part of mine. – Part of my ancestors’ lives and part of my then still unborn children’s lives.
I remember being with my great-grandmother that day – THE day. She was sick and bedridden, but because I used to spend most of my time with her, combing her long silvery grey hair when she was still fitter, I kept doing what we always used to do when she was in bed, silently suffering. I adore thinking back to those endless days when summers seemed to last a whole year and school holidays would just last forever. I used to braid her hair for what seemed like an eternity in the summer heat, rolling it up into a bun and fixing it at the nape of her neck with a honey-coloured comb. I thought she was so pretty and wise – to me, the prettiest and wisest person I knew back then, and on some level, she still is and always will be.
I was with my great-grandmother – and the moment my granddad opened the bedroom door, I knew. I just knew. There is an innate knowing within all of us. These days, everyone calls it intuition, but to me, intuition has always been that instant knowing that hit me back then in that very bedroom. My granddad was about to tell us that my mum had been found – dead, but I just knew – no words needed. I remember him standing in the doorframe, the sunlight pouring in from the hallway behind him, turning his figure into a mere shadow of himself – an image that must have been eerily mirroring his feelings at the time. He didn’t go on to say much. He didn’t have to. What do you say when there are no words left? When nothing can express the grief that keeps you in deadlock.
I didn’t cry. My great-grandmother was crying. Those silent, heavy sobs – the kind of sobbing that leaves the room eerily quiet although it’s filled with deafening grief and the aftermath of shattered hopes and dreams. – I went and held my great-grandmother. I held her face in my tiny hands, with her silvery grey hair draped over my fingers. –
I held her and told her everything was going to be okay. And the weird thing is I believed it. I just knew. It took a long time and many more tear-filled times for the heavy veil to lift that had set upon our family that day and muffled our unbridled light-heartedness, like a freshly fallen layer of snow – but not the light, crisp kind of snow that glitters in the light of the street-lamps, but the kind of heavy, soggy snow that leaves you feeling damp and chilled to the bone.
But even though it took me more than thirty years, nothing manages to break your heart forever; at least not if you decide to choose – again and again – if you decide to choose love, over and over again, even though at times it feels so hard that you’d rather not get out of bed in the morning. But you just continue to grow, and expand, and learn, and love – one day at a time – even if at times it feels as if all the oxygen has been sucked out of the air, leaving none for you and when people are so outright mean that you can only stand and stare in disbelief, at a loss for words. – For there is evil in this world; the worst is the petty, everyday kind of evil, too profane to be lethal, but yet too hurtful to be trivial. Evil has many ugly faces, ranging from the evil that left my mum lifeless to the ignorant schoolyard bully evil – but the thing is: don’t give up. – Not just yet. Maybe never really. At least that’s what I did: I chose to believe my four-year-old self, and kept believing her ever since with unbridled optimism and faith. There is love and kindness in this world, even in the face of downright evil. Choose love instead. It’s hard. I know. Fxxx hard. But when you are feeling blue, maybe think of silvery grey hair and a little girl who decided to believe hope when she whispered in her ear that day.
Please believe hope too when she whispers of kind hearts, of random smiles, of holy encounters between people, of hands being held, and future dreams to be shared, of everyday heroes, and small acts of grace. – Choose to notice those fleeting, but yet potent moments of golden peace on a daily basis, and ignore the ignorant. – Choose to choose love. – Even when it’s hard. – Especially when it’s hard.
still choosing – Every.Single.Day.