This Is Your Grief, by Jess Cary
Runner-up in the 'The Story I Needed To Have Read' writing competition
I hobbled back to my room on the maternity ward at the end of the corridor with my tray of dry roast beef and a chocolate bar I'd bought from the vending machine. I dumped the metal tray on the side table, and collapsed on the end of my bed.
The NICU ward exists in a time warp. 24 hours in there feels like several days. We'd been there for only a day and a half, but I already felt like a much older person than I did when we arrived. All up, I spent five nights in the maternity wing, but it felt like a month.
Nights in the maternity ward were hard. There was a big common room and kitchen, with plenty of table space to sit and eat at. I preferred to eat my meals in my room, alone, with the TV on. I always had the TV on. The constant noise helped drown out the painful thoughts, even if the volume didn't go up very high. Every so often, a booming voice punctuated the silence: "MET, MET. North building, level four, Platypus, room 417. MET." or "Code grey, code grey, North building, level one, Banksia…" You'd jump with a start, realising that there was a medical emergency in the surgical ward, or an aggressive parent in the mental health ward.
Each night, after a long day on the ward trying to learn the ropes, I'd struggle into my comfy old pajamas and beautiful new dressing gown. I'd force down a few bites of my dinner and speak to my husband on the phone, who'd usually only left the hospital.
Every evening at 7:30pm, the hospital's loudspeaker announced that visiting hours would soon be drawing to a close. By 8:00pm, the hospital was dark and quiet. By 9:00pm, I'd be ready to go and see my baby boy one last time before collapsing in tears and passing out on the bed.
It was mid-summer, and even with the hospital-grade air conditioning, I could feel the heat. I'd slide my feet into my black flip flops, loop the bright red lanyard holding my special VISITOR key card around my neck, grab my phone and take a breath. I'd push myself off the bed and limp my way through the rabbit-warren of corridors and lifts that would take me back up to level 5. Butterfly Ward. The NICU ward.
My son was a Butterfly baby, one of almost 900 admitted every year. They come from around the state, around the country, around the world. The care offered to the Butterfly babies is among the best on the planet. When we first arrived, we were intimidated; terrified. By the time we were finally discharged, Butterfly had become a second home and family to us. I wish I’d known how comfortable and safe I’d come to feel on that ward.
I would get off the lift at level 5, and shuffle my way down another corridor. On the right, there were a few display cabinets on the wall at thigh-level, holding art work from former hospital residents. I never knew how I should feel about them.
At the great big double-doors, I'd sanitise my hands and swipe my key card. The doors would sweep open with a creak and bring me face to face with a dimly lit corridor leading to a desk. More darkened corridors branched off from the desk. Visiting at night always made me feel like a character from some sort of dystopian movie. Except for the fact that the dark corridors led to sick babies, and my battle garb was a pair of old pajamas. And thanks to the excruciating episiotomy wound, I could barely walk.
I could let my guard down a little more on the night visits. No visitors, no bright lights, no specialists.
I missed my dogs. I missed my own home. I missed nights curled up on the couch watching movies, just the two of us. I missed the ignorant bliss of life before I fell pregnant. I missed seeing promotions for the hospital's fundraising appeals and thinking "how nice that this place exists for families that need it," never in a million years expecting we'd be one of those families.
And I was angry. That my baby was a few days old and I still hadn't changed his nappy. Or given him a bath. Or fed him. Or held him without having to contend with a bunch of cords and tubes attached to him. We hadn't even been able to dress him in one of the cute little outfits we'd bought before this nightmare.
That night, sitting in the navy chair next to my son’s crib, watching him sleep and the machines around him beep, I cried.
The nurse handed me a box of tissues and asked if I was ok. I choked out a snotty laugh in response.
"No. Nope. But I have to be, don't I? Not like there's a choice!"
"Darling, how much sleep have you had over the last few nights?"
"Umm… probably not a lot."
"Have you been here all day, or have you taken any breaks?"
"God, no. I've been here all day. I just wanted to come and see him again."
I started crying again and grabbed a handful of tissues. I mumbled something about knowing that I shouldn't be complaining, because everyone said that he would be fine, and that there were other babies who wouldn't be.
The nurse knelt in front of me and took my snotty hands in hers.
"Nope. That's rubbish. This is not something you can compare. If this is the worst thing you've ever been through, then this is the worst thing you've ever been through. You don't need to justify how you feel, and you don't need to play it down to make other people feel comfortable. Yes, he will get better, but you have a very long road ahead of you. It’s not a competition to see who’s suffering is worst. This is your grief. And you can call it what it is. It's shit."
The tears finally overflowed. Finally, my pain had been validated. Finally, I had permission to feel the full weight of what we were going through. What a relief to know it wasn't all in my head; now, I had professional confirmation that what we were going through was genuinely awful. Once again I had to swap my tear-soaked pillow out for a dry one half way through the night. But this time, my pillow was drowning in tears of relief.