The Give-and-Take of Grief

Michael Newland - Santa Rosa, California
As heard on NPR’s Weekend Edition, October 12, 2008
Michael Newland

When archaeologist Michael Newland's first child died after being born prematurely, he felt he might drown in the emotions of his loss. Now Newland believes fully embracing his grief helped make him a better father to his second child, a daughter named Caitie Belle.

Age Group: 30 - 50

I believe that grieving is good for you. As a culture, I feel we’ve forgotten how to grieve, and last year, I had the opportunity to remember.

My wife was seven months pregnant when her blood pressure spiked. Her liver started to shut down, so the doctors performed a Cesarean and our son was delivered to save both of their lives.

The first time I saw my son, he was in an incubator with nurses clearing his airways. He looked at me, like a dolphin surfacing to look at a fisherman, and then resubmerged when the team took him away to stabilize him. He was the smallest, most fragile baby I’d ever seen.

Over the next two weeks, my wife’s health stabilized; my son’s condition, however, deteriorated. The lungs of premature babies are as delicate and tenuous as a spider web, and they shred at the slightest pressure. I wanted to put him inside my chest and give him my lungs to breathe with. We went from holding him, to putting a hand on his head, to, at the end, with all the tubes and wires, only being able to lay one finger on the back of his hand. His lungs failed, and we had to let him go.

We never heard him cry. My wife and I, first-time parents, held him as he died, and we bathed him, washed his hair, and dressed him before he was cremated. In my mind, I could see an angel close her hand around my son like he was a gold coin and slip him into her pocket.

As each day passes, you close your eyes and let your grief slide through your fingers, one rough, cold link after another, until your loss settles deep inside you. It is a give-and-take between you and your grief, a tension that rolls your emotions back and forth. And at first you are certain that your life is going to capsize and you will drown. Eventually, the grief will ground you and give you stability in troubled times.

I am a better husband, a better father, and a better man for my loss—I’m kinder, more empathetic, and have different priorities. Our marriage was re-forged, the impurities burned out of the relationship by the furnace of our son’s death. To be with your child nearly every minute of his life is a gift few parents get, and my son died in the arms of people who loved him.

Ten months ago, my wife gave birth to our healthy daughter, and I am filled with a joy made greater by the loss of my son, because I know now what we have. The angel has extended her open hand to me. When my daughter turned to look at me for the first time, I picked her up and held her with everything I had.

Michael Newland is a staff archaeologist with the Anthropological Studies Center at Sonoma State University. He lives with his baby daughter, Caitie Belle (pictured above), in Santa Rosa, Calif. Newland wrote his essay as part of a hospice grief group.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.