The Body Knows: How Grief Shows Up

By Sara Barry

“How are you doing?” a friend asked, knowing that May is a charged month.

Mother’s Day is a complicated tangle of breakfast in bed and flowering plants, homemade cards, and immersion in what is with an undercurrent of what was supposed to be. What was and then wasn’t and always is.

The end of the month brings the birthday with nobody to blow out the candles. And while I have a tradition, one I fell into rather than creating deliberately, of tending my Henry’s garden since I can’t tend to him, it is another complicated tangle. Joy for his being. Sadness that he isn’t here. Edges softened over time, like a rock in running stream.

“I’m doing OK,” I say. “I’ve been so busy, I keep forgetting it’s May.”

And it’s true. I’m not deliberately avoiding facing this month, but I’ve been caught up in a swirl of Science Night planning and late evening ice cream, Teacher Appreciation and getting the garden ready.

My mind is busy. I forgot that Mother’s Day was coming, despite the signs by the flower store and the notification in my calendar. Henry’s birthday loomed and I hadn’t bought anything for his garden. I hadn’t looked to see if our neighbors would be home for cake.

My mind keeps forgetting that it is May, but my body knows.

I’ve felt it in the number of times I need to take a deep breath, in and out.

I’ve felt it in the tightness across my back and in the heaviness that settles in my limbs and then lifts a little.

I notice the sharp intake of breath when I see a cardinal dart across the yard. 

I tense at the unexpected mention of a 6 month old named Henry who died from a heart defect in a novel about the flu.

I come to tears easily, whether it’s a video about babyloss moms or talking to my neighbor about her own different, fresh grief.

I find myself on the verge at church for no explainable reason at all.

I don’t say, “I’m having a hard month.” I’m not, but there is an undercurrent. My body knows what month this is. It is gathering energy like a storm moving in. The sky may still be sunny, but you can feel a change in the air, an electrical build up.

Come the end of the month, I will exhale. The pent up energy will expend itself in a torrent of tears or day of hard labor in the garden or it will just fizzle out and fade away like a storm that is pending but passes.

Come the end of the month, my body will relax and move on to June, a simpler month, a safer month. It will relax until the calendar turns to December, and then, even if I forget the date, it will start it’s wind up to the day he died.

The mind may forget, but the body always knows.

Does your body respond to certain dates? How does grief show up in your body?

How many kids do you have?

By Sara Barry

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by Sara Barry

Lights flashed and the disco ball made shapes on the floor. Kids shrieked and balls and bins clattered. Typical bowling birthday party.

“I don’t know you manage with three,” said one mom of two. “I thought I wanted three or four until I had kids.”

The conversation unfolds with “You get used to what you have” and “Two is good for me” and “I always thought we’d have three.”

I don’t chime in. I don’t say, “I always wanted two or three. Three really, but as I got older and hadn’t started yet, two seemed more likely.”

I don’t add, “I wanted two or three and somehow I got two and three.”

I have three children, but in so many ways, I get only two.

***

A few weeks later, we’re at the lake for my girls’ swimming lessons. I point my little girl to a mom nearby with somebody in the same class and my big girl swimming to the side.

“So you have just the two?”

Pause half a beat.

“Yes.”

***

How many kids do you have? Since the day Henry died, that has been a hard question. He was our first, so I had one but none. I was not the person I was before he was born, but I didn’t fit in with other moms either.

A year later, my older daughter was born, and I re-entered the world of moms with kids. But the questions, How many kids do you have? Is she your first? Do you have other kids? still stymied me.

I know I am not the only parent who has lost a baby who struggles with these questions. There is no one answer. There is no right answer.

“How many kids do you have?” might be simple enough but for the follow up: “Oh, how old are they?”

I recently joined a writing group. We’re all moms, and one of the getting to know you questions was “Tell us how many kids you have and how old they are.”

I have three. 8, 6, would be 10.

And yet, “So you have just the two?” Yes.

Both true in their way.

I suppose I can explain my thinking sometimes. For the writing group, I’m going to write about Henry. I’m going to write about babyloss. He’s going to come up. That day at the lake, the meeting was likely a one-shot deal and I was tired. I wanted the short answer, not the essay answer that the question seems to require.

***

I give the full answer sometimes because I need to claim Henry. I need to keep him present in this world.

I give the full answer sometimes because a mom of three, one who died is who I am.

I give the full answer sometimes because I’ve learned that sometimes when I give the “three, one died as a baby” answer, I open a door for somebody else who may have an unseen child too. I open the door for people to say, “My sister’s baby was just stillborn” or “My best friend’s baby is dying.” And “I don’t know what to say to her?” or “What can I do?” And when that door opens, it pours light in on all the hidden losses, the tiny, powerful lives unseen.

***

I have three kids. My daughters are heading into first and third grades. My son died as a baby.

I have three kids, but I’ll only ever know what it is to have two.

I have two daughters that I love to the moon and back and a son I love and miss always.

How many kids do you have? Three, or just the two, depending on the day, my mood, the asker, the reason for asking.

It should be a simple question. It isn’t a simple answer.

I still pause when I get the question. And sometimes, some variation—How many kids did you want? How many do you have? How old are they?—still catches me off guard.

How do you answer the question: How many kids do you have? Would you answer differently here than you would at a store or the park? Do you have a set answer or do you decide each time what to say?