I had never heard anything quite like it before, yet there was something familiar about it. It was almost songlike, this noise, punctuated with agony and mournfulness. When I came around the side of my house that cool morning in May looking for the source, I knew exactly why this birdsong played like a melody I knew all too well.
Lying beneath the maple tree amongst a pile of wet leaves that had survived the long New York winter was a bird’s nest on its side with three small eggs beside it, each splintered from the fall. The mother bird darted frantically around the nest, wailing, and bowing her head beside each egg, desperately searching for any sign that all hope was not lost. But in moments like this, hope, much like life itself, is fleeting. A mother’s grief is unparalleled, and I recognized it because it was my own. Her song was my song.
I sat down in the grass, unsure of what to do in this moment. I wanted to help, but how does one comfort a bird? How does one comfort a mother who has lost her babies before they are even born? And I tried to remember, how was I offered comfort? There are no words that will ever ease this kind of pain, no proverbial Band-Aid that will make it all better. All you can do is be there for them, sit with them. Make them feel a little less alone as their world crumbled around them. And so that’s what I did. I sat, one grieving mother beside another.
I was twenty-one when I first became a mother, although I never knew my child. A single drop of blood and I knew she was gone. The ER doctor confirmed it abruptly, as if she had no concept of the weight of her words: no heartbeat. A few weeks earlier I’d seen her for the first time and heard her heart beating, fast and strong. Now, nothing. The absence of sound is deafening—the kind that drops you to the floor and has you writhing in a pool of your own tears. Ask any soon-to-be mother with a silent womb.
How had this happened? My mind flipped back through the events of the last couple weeks, like a movie reel in reverse, trying to make sense of it all. Was it the snowstorm he’d locked me outside in, wearing just my pajamas? I had pounded on the door, screamed at him as he stared down at me through our upstairs apartment window, emotionless. The downstairs apartment was dark and still. Without a phone or even shoes on my feet, I sat down on the concrete step outside our door, pulled my bare legs to my chest, wrapped my arms tightly around them, and rested my forehead on my knees. I cried for her and for me in this moment and forced hot air into the tiny pocket I had created to warm us both in between my sobs.
Was it the stress of another woman accusing him of cheating on me with her? Or the fall from my desk chair he’d knocked me out of when I questioned him about it?
I didn’t eat for days after leaving the ER and just lay in bed staring at the ceiling counting the speckles in the tiles. When I would lose count, the tears would come, so I would start over and keep counting until it was just me and the speckles again.
I finally got out of bed, or rather was ripped from it, a few days later. He held me by my throat, pinned against the wall, feet dangling, screaming that I had ruined his birthday with my “moping around” and that I needed to “snap out of it.” But how does one just “snap out of” something like that? What kind of person demands that out of someone? In that moment, I felt a small weight lifted because I knew where to place my blame. His toxicity, his abuse, had poisoned me, and ultimately killed our unborn child. I blamed him.
I packed up my grief that day and left. I wish I could say I never returned, but a month later, when he called to say I still had some things left at the apartment, I went back and found myself staring down the barrel of his rifle. I secretly dialed 911 behind my back and when the SWAT team carried him out in handcuffs, I knew I needed a fresh start.
I scraped together what money I could, packed my things, and moved out of state. A toxic relationship is easy to leave once you feel empowered enough to do so, but an empty womb is hard to outrun. Despite all my efforts, my sadness still managed to stow away in my luggage.
After sitting with the mother bird for a few minutes, she grew quiet and sat down beside the broken pieces of her home and family. We stayed like this for what seemed like forever, for grief is nothing more than a faceless clock, infinitely ticking away, yet never changing, never moving forward.
I wondered if an animal, a bird, processed grief in the same way we do and was reminded of the Emily Dickinson poem, “I Measure Every Grief I Meet.”
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes —
I wonder if It weighs like Mine —
Or has an Easier size.
Sitting here with this mother bird, I found myself wondering just this. Is her pain like mine? Do birds, or any animals for that matter, feel grief? It looked a lot like mine. It sounded a lot mine. But did it feel like mine?
Can one even compare grief? Can I say that mine is greater than anyone else’s, even a bird’s? I’m not sure there’s any way to measure the weight of grief one carries, especially when you can’t just set it down when you need a break. Even a feather begins to feel heavy if you hold it in an outstretched hand for too long.
Do some carry their grief around on their backs? Over their heads? Or perhaps, like the feather, with outstretched arms? For me, it’s like an anchor tethered to my ankle in the middle of the sea. If I tilt my head back just right, my lips kiss the surface long enough to take a quick sip of fresh air.
Mother bird lost her babies all at once. Three gone in an instant, whereas mine was spread out over years. Does that change the weight of grief? Is it compounding?
My second child was lost years after the first, with no indications this time, aside from a feeling that I could not shake. I attributed it to fear after having lost my first baby, so I did everything by the book with this pregnancy. I avoided caffeine, took my prenatal, avoided stress and deli meats, ate lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. I was in a loving, happy marriage completely free from the toxic environment I’d previously been in. And still, on our second routine ultrasound, I heard the same words I’d heard that day in the ER: no heartbeat.
We were devastated. How had this happened again? I was the only constant variable and so this time, I blamed myself.
Did mother bird feel this way too? Here in these moments sitting together beneath the tree that she considered a safe place to build her home, did she regret this decision? Was she wondering what would have happened if she hadn’t left the nest that morning? Did she feel guilty? Responsible? Is an animal even capable of this sort of reflection? I sincerely hope not. It’s a kind of mercy I pray is hers and yet long for myself.
It was a couple years before I felt ready to try again, but after a year of trying unsuccessfully, I needed a break. My heart couldn’t take the disappointment. I focused all my energy into my work and a few months later was shocked to find out I was pregnant again.
I longed to be one of those women that enjoyed every moment of being pregnant, but instead mine was filled with fear. I spent the next nine months in and out of the hospital, over analyzing every slight change in my body. And eventually, after weeks of bed rest for preterm labor, we welcomed our beautiful daughter into the world and chose a middle name that reflected exactly what she had instilled in our lives: Hope.
Mother bird sat quietly beside her broken babies and I wondered if this was all she knew of motherhood. Had there been others before this that she had nurtured and loved and helped learn to take flight? Or was this it? A glimpse at the fragility of both life and a mother’s heart?
I’ve found that a mother’s heart can shatter into pieces so small, so sharp, it perforates the soul, allowing tiny pieces of you to slip through and become lost out in the universe. This kind of heartbreak only comes after you’ve known what it feels like to look upon your child’s face for the first time, to watch the rise and fall of their little chests as they drift off to sleep in your arms, to feel their tiny hand wrap around a finger as they smile up at you for the first time.
We lost our next child on our daughter’s second birthday and instead of celebrating this day with her, I spent her birthday crying into a cold, plastic hospital pillow, mourning the loss of her younger sibling. This time hit me differently than before because for the first time I knew the true weight of the loss and it was soul-crushing.
I’d been filled with hope this pregnancy and never anticipated another loss. I’d foolishly assumed that was all behind us because we had already welcomed one beautiful and perfect little girl into the world. How had this happened again? Why fill us with such hope and promise, only to deal us another devastating loss? I was heartbroken, but also furious. This time I blamed GOD.
How could he give me a child to love and nurture and then take another one away from me? What sort of sick, twisted game was he playing? What had I done to deserve this?
I don’t think most people know what true darkness is. Something so deep, so black, that no light, no matter how bright or how strong it is, can penetrate it. True darkness is a state of nothingness and it’s where I lived for months after we lost our last child.
How does one navigate through something like this? People aren’t designed for this kind of all-consuming darkness. And what of mother bird? I’ve heard that birds use the Earth’s magnetic field to help navigate so maybe she could find her way through the shadows and back into the light.
The only thing that pulled me out was love. My husband carried me from the abyss and as we ascended, I could see my daughter, arms outstretched for me and backlit by the sun, forming a perfect halo around her caramel curls. I’d had it all wrong.
All these years my grief had stripped away pieces of me, striking a heavier blow with each loss. I’d blamed a toxic man the first time and although I broke free from him, I carried the effects of his negativity and the isolation he’d made me feel while processing my grief into my marriage. I had blamed myself the second time, feeling like a prisoner inside a body that had betrayed me. And then I blamed God, the ultimate feeling of hopelessness.
And yet, here in front of me, was this perfect little girl and a man willing to walk into hell itself to pull me from the fires. Had I not left the toxic man, I would never have found my husband and appreciated the depth of his love and support. My body had not betrayed me; it had given life to this angel. And God was here in all of that.
Call it hysterical blindness, if you will, brought on by my grief because I couldn’t see all the blessings I had. I was so focused on what I had lost. To be honest, I’m not sure if mother bird was part of it as well.
To this day I cannot remember what she looked like. Sometimes when I think about her I envision her as a robin, other times a sparrow. I don’t know for sure. But her song, that tortured melody, is burned into my brain and I can’t help but wonder if she was simply a projection of my grief. Her three eggs, my three lost babies. Her song, my mournful cries.
She flew away that day and I never went back out to check on the nest. I figured it was now their headstone and her place to visit them if she needed to, a place that only lives inside my heart for my babies. I visit it every day.
I don’t know what became of mother bird, if she truly did exist, but I like to imagine that she too had a chance to experience the joys of motherhood. I hope the weight of her grief had not kept her from flying.
As for me and the weight of mine, I’ve found that it’s not something you ever break free from. You can let it weigh you down and keep you anchored just beneath the surface of the water, stealing small bursts of air between the waves, or you can let it condition you, making you stronger.
Each day I grow stronger and the weight of my grief becomes a little easier to carry. I will never be free from it, but in a way, I’m not sure I ever want to be. It is a reminder of my love for each of my babies and to let it go completely would be like losing them all over again.
I envision myself like the mother bird, flying high with the anchor that once held me beneath the icy surface of an unforgiving sea, floating weightlessly behind me. And with the wind beneath me, I would soar to where the skies kiss the heavens and sing my babies a sweet lullaby, full of love and joy and hope...