When Death Births Life: One Woman’s Journey through Loss to Healing

by Neena Robertson

It was summer. The early morning hours of July 4th, 2013 to be exact.

As I sat in the fetal position on my bathroom floor, trying to rock the pain away, I remember thinking how ironic it was to be having a miscarriage on the day our nation celebrates its liberation. The thing inside of me had become somewhat of an oppressor, forever connecting me to a relationship that I wasn't totally invested in, and a concept of motherhood that I wasn't totally sold on. It would have been a lifetime of responsibility that I wasn't totally prepared for, so some part of me was ready to be free and done with it.

Just hours before the pain began, I was out having dinner with friends who had flown in from Toronto. We were reminiscing about previous travel adventures across the continents and making plans for our next carefree expedition. I felt my stomach begin to cramp. After all of the research I had done online, I knew cramping was the first sign of a miscarriage, so to some degree I was prepared. My doctor had told me two weeks prior that the six-week-old life once growing inside of me had simply stopped. No more heartbeat. No reason she could point to. Just another reminder that death was also a part of life.
I remember reading a blog post in which a woman accurately described a miscarriage as feeling like a walking casket. I could totally relate. Some part of me welcomed the pain. I welcomed the idea of no longer being attached to this thing that I had objectified as part of some twisted biological mechanism.

But the reality is that I hadn’t always viewed giving birth in such a way. In fact, for as long as I can remember, I'd always wanted children. Like most 70’s babies born towards the end of that decade, watching The Cosby Show shaped my ideas of family. Although my own family was fairly intact, it was the relationships between Heathcliff, Claire, and their children that I aspired to achieve once I became an adult. I envisioned living in a beautiful home with a thriving career, a handsome husband, and five loving children whom I was proud and honored to be the mother of.

But as I write this, that image is in complete contrast to my current reality: I am a 36-year-old woman, single and childless by choice and circumstance.

Like many women in my situation, I am constantly being asked when I’m going to have children, get married, and settle down. The younger me used to take offense to family, friends, and complete strangers placing such judgments on my life. It was as if my life were in some way flawed or incomplete because I didn’t have a husband or kids. But my older, more mature self has accepted that it's often difficult to shake socially constructed views.

The truth is: Had it not been for losing my soul mate, I too would probably still be fantasizing about raising a family in a Brooklyn brownstone.

I was 26 years old when Russell passed, and with him went my sense of self and desire to have a family. For so long, it was he and I, traveling across the globe, enjoying each other’s energy, and making plans for the future—which most definitely included children. But not until we were both financially and mentally ready. And at that time, we were neither. Any money that we saved was spent on travel, including a fateful trip to St. Martins that would change our trajectory completely.

It was a Saturday, warm and sunny, with very few clouds in the sky. We had spent the morning preparing for our flight home—me packing, Russell resting. He had passed out from the heat the day before, and the doctor suggested that he take it easy.

I can remember us laughing and reflecting on our time away from home. Seven awesome days of vacation; just the two of us and a rental car. We were all over that little island, visiting the French side, the Dutch side, and then back around. Even on our last day, we made one last loop before traveling to the airport, attempting to take it all in before our return to the states. But halfway around the island, Russell began to feel sick again. He complained of nausea and was sweating profusely. I stopped to grab him a Gatorade and crackers, as the doctor from the day before instructed to do to keep him hydrated. I remember asking him if he wanted to go back to the hospital and him insisting that he just wanted to get home.

But that never happened. He collapsed shortly after we boarded the plane. And although the ambulance ride from the airport to the hospital was fairly quick—island traffic jams aside—he never regained consciousness: A massive heart attack at 31 years old. Dead.

I was calm… too calm. Maybe the experience of him passing out the day before had in some way prepared me for his mortality. Yet I'm guessing it was complete shock that explained my state of stillness. Someone I loved—who was so young and so full of life—was gone.

After the doctor left the room I was on my own, tasked with making sense of something so senseless. I picked up the phone, called my mother and then his sister, and waited for someone to come rescue me.

I had no concept of time. I just knew it was late, but I was wide awake. The sun had set hours ago, turning day to night, warm to cold. After speaking with a few of my family and friends, I convinced my mother that I could manage my flight in the morning on my own. There was no need for her come to me in St. Martin.

I got off the phone and let the reality of my situation sink in: I was alone. Completely and utterly alone. Miles upon miles of ocean separated me from any sense of normalcy.

I remember turning on the television in an attempt to drown out my thoughts. I laid in bed watching the sun peek behind the water with my favorite episode of The Cosby Show playing in the background. Rudy was belting out “Baby!” Her hips were gyrating, her smile as wide as could be, performing in the living room for her grandparents’ anniversary.

It was a small dose of familiarity.

But in the coming weeks, months, and years, my life would be anything but familiar. I would spend a lot of time and energy shaping a new reality, a new sense a self. In an effort to become more self-evolved, I became more self-centered in a way that made sense for my new situation. There was no one that I needed to consider; there was just me. So, I lived my life accordingly—in a way that didn’t hold a space for someone else. Especially a child.

The more trips I began to take by myself or with my girlfriends, the freer I felt. I embraced that feeling. I embraced being single because it meant I wasn’t responsible for meeting someone else’s needs. I still missed Russell and the relationship that we shared ( it’s ten years later and he still occupies a major space in my heart), but I finally felt OK with being by myself.

And it’s not that I despise children. On the contrary, I take pride in being a godmother, honorary godfather, and “fairy god-cousin,” but I'm OK with being childless. As much as I embraced the pain of my miscarriage I felt a few summers ago, I was also completely devastated when the ibuprofen wore off and the reality of my empty womb sunk in. However, in the process of healing, I accepted how loss can give birth to life.

I feel like a woman renewed and redefined. I don’t feel pressured to get married and have babies, or live my life in any one particular way. There's something very powerful in that for me; something very liberating and spirit filling at the same time.
It’s not to say that I will never love again or have children. But if and when I do, it will be on my own terms and according to my own rules. It will not simply be because that is what my mother did, and my mother’s mother before her, and so on. And it most certainly will not be because it’s what women are “supposed” to do. I have vowed to live my life in a way that makes me happy, and I’m not willing to compromise that for the sake of someone else. I understand compromise is the very core of being a good mother or spouse. They both require offering oneself completely to other beings. That is beautiful, but most certainly not for me—not at this time.

People often say that once you have children and get married that these feelings will change. Well, what if I don’t want to change? I want to continue living and being just as I am. I love the freedom of just being able to get up and go—no plans or approval needed. Indeed, I felt free just typing that! I would hate to end up being someone who had children or got married just for the sake of doing both, rather than truly wanting those things for myself. Why set myself up for that type of resentment… or anyone else, for that matter? Instead I choose to do what makes me feel good, however selfish that may sound.

Loss has forced me to live a more authentic life and I am forever grateful for that type of rebirthing. While we may never really know what the world is going to throw our way—or how to even begin to preparing for it—our work is simply to adjust, trusting that the universe will guide our way.

 Photo: Shutterstock 

Neena Robertson is a native Washingtonian and practicing psychotherapist. She specializes in depression and anxiety, helping her clients manage grief and loss. Neena also recently launched a clothing line (www.mypsatees.com) where she enjoys flexing her creative muscle by way of statement tees. She's also in the process of finalizing a mental health app, Sister Sessions, for women of color to help minimize the stigma of mental health. (Be on the look out!)

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