One of the risk factors that can contribute to postpartum depression and anxiety is experiencing the loss of a loved one. There can be significant impact either from a loss that occurs during the perinatal period or from a previous loss that resurfaces at this time. It can be especially hard losing a parent as grief can be compounded by missing them at a time when we want to lean on them for support or simply to share our experience with them.
The following story highlights the grief associated with the loss of the writer’s mother and how that affected her postpartum experience and her recovery. If you or your partner are experiencing the loss of a loved one, there are many organizations that can be helpful. We have listed some below. Our support line is also available to anyone who wishes to get support, resources and help with sorting through feelings of grief.
Story by Erika Mitchell
My first son was eight months old when I got the phone call from my mother. She had cancer. It was in her lungs. It was bad.
I immediately felt an icy feeling in my gut; I knew instinctively this was going to be devastating but I tried to be supportive. She begged me not to cry that night, saying that she needed me to be strong so she could be strong. She said she was going to fight, she was going to get better, and she was going to live to see her grandson graduate high school. She was dead seven months after she got her first diagnosis.
Initially, I went to all of my mother’s oncologist appointments. I cried but rallied and eventually let my guard down because it was breast cancer, it was treatable, and because she was otherwise healthy. The oncologist said with so many things in her favor and such a strong support team my mom should come through this and have a lot of years ahead of her. I needed to believe it would all be okay because I was still coping with being a new mom myself, and wasn’t so sure about how to get through a normal day at the best of times. Trying to do it without being able to call my mom for support seemed incomprehensible to me.
In recent years my mom and I had had a strained relationship. She was a single parent and had struggled through years of raising us on her own, keeping us fed, clothed, housed and safe. When my brother died at the age of 19 I believe she gave up on the inside and half her heart died with him. At one point she told me that she had never forgiven herself for letting him die (it was not her fault, he had been overprescribed pain medication for a congenital spinal problem and he died due to an accidental overdose. He was no longer living at home and she had little to do with his medical care). His death forever changed the landscape of our lives and created an uneasy tension between us that didn’t heal until the birth of my son.
When my first son was born I had a glimpse into her world. I could not imagine how she had managed to keep breathing, moving forward, living after my brother died. The mere thought of my son dying still paralyzes me, robs me of my breath and chokes me with fear. But more than that insight, my son’s birth breathed new life into my mother, it gave her new purpose and someone to adore, someone she could dote on. We could all see flashes in my son’s face of the boy we had lost. My mom became a rock solid support for me when I began to spiral into depression. She held my hand, listened to me cry, and loved me.
When I heard about her diagnosis I felt robbed, cheated of my support, and so angry. How could this happen now? My fury was so selfish; I needed her, how could I be required to support her when I needed her to support me? What about my needs? But that fury soon turned to anger at her disease and after months of denying the true extent of her illness I finally accepted my new role as her caregiver and her support. I remember crying to my husband one night ‘I don’t know how to be a mother and a daughter.’ I didn’t know how to contain all the feelings inside myself so I put them aside and I held her hand as the cancer moved through her body and into her brain. My strong mother lost the ability to walk, then to use the toilet, the ability to speak went next and finally she slipped into a coma. Her last words were to tell me she loved me and her last two nights on this earth, I slept by her side and repeatedly told her she was loved, and that I was going to be okay, I was safe and she could let go.
Four months after my mother died I discovered I was pregnant again.
I was overjoyed, I was terrified, I was ecstatic and I was wracked with worry…how would I survive the postpartum period without her? How would I navigate the dark territory on the other side of my child’s birth without her there to hold my hand, without her voice on the other end of the phone in the dark hours of the endless nights? How would I raise two children who would never know her? How could I impress on them the vibrant woman she was, the depth of her joy when she knew she would have grandchildren? How could I give them her love?
I did survive it. Once again I survived it with the support of my husband who knew which signs of depression to look for, as well as when I could help myself and when he needed to intervene and find help for me. My extended family rallied around me and my aunts stepped in with their hugs, phone calls, visits, and stories. They let me cry out my fears, anger, and depression. I knew the warning signs this time and remembered to reach out for help, and this time I searched even further: I grabbed on to other mothers in my community, I contacted the Pacific Post Partum Support Society, and I found a counsellor who helped me to understand my grief, to give it a voice and an outlet, and helped me see that what I was experiencing was common, and that I could be healthy.
Grief, it turns out, is a close kin to postpartum depression and it is just as insidious and devastating. It is also hard to pick it apart and label it as one or the other. But grief is a process that can not and must not be denied. It is a spiral of experience not a linear road and requires space to deal with. Neither grief nor depression is our fault. We do not ask for this. We are not weak for experiencing it. We all deserve help and in both experiences the hardest part is asking for help. My second son is one now and I still have days where I am angry with my mother for leaving me. I have days where her loss is so raw it feels like I am breathing in razor blades. But I have days where I smile and laugh as I remember her and I know that I am healing slowly and that is okay.
If you, or someone you know, needs help working through loss or grief there are many organizations throughout the lower mainland that can help. A few suggestions are: