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How we saved our marriage after our daughter was stillborn

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In the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York, winters are long and dark. The thermometer outside my kitchen window often stays frozen below zero, and the snow accumulates daily. In the darkest of these winters, my husband and I buried our infant daughter.

When I entered the ninth month of a blessedly easy second pregnancy, my daughter June was stillborn. We had no explanation. Doctors and tests told us she was healthy. I was lost. Although most books about grief are for people who buried someone with whom they made memories, my memories of June are all acrobatics — her kicks, her rolls, her jabs — that took place inside of me. There was no manual for a parent like me. And out of all the books I consumed about grief, not a single one had a chapter called “How to Shovel Snow From a Baby’s Grave.”

What they say about people grieving differently is true. I spent the winter after June’s death combing through medical journals for stillbirth statistics and regularly shoveling her grave. My husband obsessively split firewood and logged hundreds of miles on his snowmobile. Our almost 4-year-old son started wetting the bed and asking us to rock him like a baby again. Our family was unraveling.

I believed June needed me to shovel her grave. She would be cold, she would feel neglected, and I needed her to know how much I loved her. Snow was my obstacle, and obstacles need to be removed. I believed that the more I shoveled, the less I would hurt and the more this unbelievable reality would become less real. This would become step one in my self-created manual on grief: shoveling snow. But it was exceptionally snowy that winter. I kept a shovel in the back of my car, and panicked if I missed a few days and the snow accumulated more than a couple of inches.

After one particularly heavy snowfall, I asked my husband to load our snowblower into the back of the car so I could plow a path to our daughter’s grave and build a tent to prevent all future snow from covering her. That snow was no blanket; it was a prison. I thought I sounded reasonable. I was her mother and I needed to protect her.

Surprisingly, my husband did not look at me as if I were insane. Instead, he drove me to the cemetery and we shoveled together. Two hunched bodies, both grieving, both shoveling. In the late afternoon, beneath dense clouds, we shoveled in silence. By the time we drove away, a fresh layer already covered the frozen earth.

Dear tech companies, I don't want to see pregnancy ads after my child was stillborn

Shoveling June’s grave became a shared cathartic ritual. It was our grieving parents’ version of date night. The cocktails we shared on these dates had two ingredients: pain and more pain. Morbid? Yes. But we didn’t care. There were no pitying eyes in the cemetery. No awkward attempts to console with comments about June being in a “better place” or this being “meant to be.” In the silence of the cemetery, our grief could be uncensored. We could shovel in peace, cry, shout, hold each other and attempt to process this tragic, unexplained loss. And we could simply love our daughter.

It was during one such grave-shoveling date that we began talking about our fears about a future pregnancy.

“What if this happens again? How could we ever survive it?” I asked.

“I don’t think we could,” he replied.

“So what do we do?”

The snow was shin-deep and there were no answers. We kept shoveling.

At the time, not a single person we knew had buried a child. We felt both emotionally and physically isolated. While other people were Christmas shopping, we were shoveling our daughter’s grave. While other couples planned spring vacations, house additions or even dinner, we were shoveling. This could not possibly be good for our marriage. Our extended family was worried. They thought we were visiting June’s grave too often, that our shoveling was preventing us from healing and moving on.

My husband would watch the weather report on the nightly news. “They’re predicting over six inches tomorrow night,” he would say.

“We’d better shovel before that hits,” I would reply. We never questioned whether what we were doing was healthy or unhealthy. It simply became part of our routine, no more exceptional than doing laundry or unloading the dishwasher.

I did think we were in trouble when, a month after June was born, we learned the results of her autopsy. This would be our first real day out of the house as a couple in close to four weeks. After hearing the autopsy results, we went out to lunch. Hardly a date, but I could tell our waitress thought it was one.

“Lunch date without the kids, eh?”

“Not really,” my husband replied.

It is still the only lunch date I have been on where I had to leave the table to sit in the car and cry. What I needed was the solitude and safety of the cemetery, not a chicken salad sandwich.

I remember reading that the divorce rate is higher for couples who experience the death of a child. I didn’t know whether this was true, but at the time I thought, “We can never get divorced. Who else would shovel with me?” With Gore-Tex gloves and fleece-lined boots, we methodically shoveled our way through the early stages of grief and somehow, miraculously, strengthened our marriage. The instinctual need we both felt to parent our daughter, even in death, even in the coldest of environments, brought us closer.

Those shoveling trips to the cemetery were as important for our marriage as the time we spent in our therapist’s office. In grief therapy, our bodies were still and we attempted to articulate our struggles. But in shoveling, we used cortisol and endorphins to battle the sadness, the longing and the questioning. The physical exertion forces one to be nothing but present. The Adirondack snow in mid-February is thick, heavy, cold and wet. Just like the grief.

Eight months after June’s death, under a hazy August sky, we sat on the grass next to her grave. I was pregnant again. We had just come from the 20-week anatomy ultrasound. We asked the sonographer to write the baby’s gender on a note card and seal it in an envelope. We knew there was only one place we could open that envelope. I fiddled with its edges.

“Are you ready?” I asked. We took simultaneous deep breaths and gently opened the seal.

On the grass of our first daughter’s grave, we learned we’d be parents to another daughter.

When I gave birth to our second daughter, a year after June’s death, I cried tears of relief. Relief that she had been born alive and healthy, and relief that I would be able to mother this child without the shoveling of snow. From the outside, my husband and I looked like happy new parents. A family of four untouched by loss. Yet just below the surface there were calluses, inside and out, from a winter of grieving and shoveling.

In the Adirondacks, there is no activity more therapeutic and more futile than snow removal. Despite your best efforts, it returns, blanketing the ground with purpose. Eight years ago, in a cemetery, my husband and I fought a losing battle against the accumulation of snow, but also created a shared path through grief. There was no manual for this. But there was an intense love to be found, between two matching hunched bodies, shoveling snow.

Kelsey Francis is a freelance writer, high school English teacher and mother living in Lake Placid, N.Y.

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