By Heather Carnaghan
I looked around, confused. It was dark; I needed to turn on a light, but where was the switch? I was standing in the dining room of my own house, a house that I have lived in for six years now. I have high-fived that temperamental dimmer switch a thousand times before, but today I forgot where it was. It occured to me that I might be losing my mind.
Grief doesn’t just take our emotions hostage, it also wreaks havoc on us physically. On October 21, 2017, I experienced the most traumatic event of my life. I say “in my life” because I sincerely hope that nothing can trump it. I was 38 weeks pregnant (that’s 8.5 months for those of you who only tie your own shoes before leaving the house each morning). My baby had been training in utero to become a parkour champion...until she just stopped. My baby’s little heart stopped beating. She was gone and I couldn’t imagine how my own heart could continue pumping so rapidly and not explode messily out of my chest. It didn't end there. You see, stillbirth isn’t one trauma. It’s a series of them. They come one after the other before you’re ready for them like balls hurtling from a pitching machine. Only you have no bat. No helmet to protect yourself. Labor. BAM. The silence. BAM. Telling my five and three year olds that their sister had died. BAM. Her due date arrived two weeks after I lost her. I felt utterly numb. I was broken and couldn’t form complete sentences that day.
“Researchers completed an intriguing study that illustrates just how profound and widespread the effect of negative personal events can be and how your brain reacts to grief. Three finance professors from major business schools tracked the performance of 75,000 Danish companies in the 2 years before and after the CEO had experienced a family death. Financial performance declined 20% after the loss of a child, 15% after the death of a spouse, and almost 10% after the demise of any other family member.” -Dr. Thomas Crook
Even though I felt lethargic and foggy, my brain was in overdrive. My amygdala, the part of my brain that is always on the lookout for pain, catalogues every instance of hurt so I won’t pick a fight with a tiger. When it detects imminent danger, it releases a chemical called cortisol. Cortisol elevates your heart rate so blood will race to all the muscles needed to protect yourself or run away from the source of alarm. The problem is, the amygdala doesn’t distinguish between physical and emotional threats of pain. When my doctor said that Charlotte’s heart had stopped, my amygdala logged this trauma and started firing like a trigger happy bodyguard. It fired every time I passed her empty crib or opened a sympathy card or saw a pregnant belly brimming with life. "TIGER, TIGER, TIGER!" Cortisol levels may exceed ten to twenty percent more than is typical during prolonged periods of stress. With cortisol constantly pumping blood to my fight or flight zones, there was little left for systems that weren't essential in defending myself against a giant cat attack. Digestion, concentration, memory. Arielle Schwartz, developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy & author of The Complex PTSD Workbook, says that “when stress cortisols are at their highest it is common to feel numb, cut-off, and disconnected.” Sound familiar?
I eventually found the dimmer switch and I know I will eventually find the strength to carry the loss of my daughter. It’s starts with telling her story. With each telling, I retrain my amygdala, reminding it that Charlotte is no tiger. My brain is resilient.
"Cultivating resilience is unrelated to the clichéd notion of time healing all wounds; overcoming is not the end goal. Instead of moving on, it's about living with what has happened. A resilient person is emotionally and psychologically flexible enough to allow the effects of a traumatic episode into her life, to "receive the shattering," and use those effects for healing. This means accepting the feelings of despair, but also remaining open to the possibility of love and connection." -Emily Rapp Black
Each time I remember her hiccups and how they felt in the base of my belly or recall the joy I felt when the doctor said that she was a girl, I replace a little bit of the fight or flight cortisol with a gentler, happier chemical called serotonin. I rewire my grief brain by reminding myself to look for the good, and there is so much good that is left. I only wish that Charlotte was here to witness it with me.
Heather is a teacher, poet, writer, artist, and most of all, mother of four. Her three boys inspire joy in her life and writing. Heather's eagerly awaited daughter was stillborn in October of 2017, which focused her creative energy on grief and healing. She created and maintains CharlottesPurpose.com, a website dedicated to dealing with grief positively.