When it comes to grief, memory can be a two-edged sword. Memory and I are frenemies. We all experience it to a point: you’re going about your day and, out of the blue, you remember something that you wished you hadn’t. What triggered it, why you remembered it at that moment is often a mystery.
Memories of something so traumatic such as when we lost Gianna are a little different. They often come up unexpectedly, prompted at times by the littlest things. But when they do come up, or when I willingly conjure them up, the experience is very mixed. Memories are all I have of my daughter – four days of them to be exact. I cherish those memories, and at the same time they stab me in the heart. I don’t wish I hadn’t remembered, but the pain is the other side of that same coin, inextricably interwoven with the cherished thread of memory.
I will never, ever forget the first time that I met Gianna. After she was whisked from the OR following her botched delivery I went to see her in the NICU. I was trembling as I scrubbed up and put on the gown. I knew things had not gone well, but I did not know what I was going to see. The nurses directed me to her crib… I saw her amidst a tangle of wires and electrodes, tubes and machines. She was lying there on her back, spread- eagle, like no newborn infant ever is. I felt like there was an invisible wall that stopped me about five feet from her crib. Her presence hit me like a blast of wind, leaving me breathless. I wanted to drop to my knees and just cry, and had I been alone there I probably would have.
When you work with people who have experienced trauma, you learn that you have to be very careful with memories: they often re-traumatize the person instead of bringing them healing. But the grief of losing a child as we did is full of memories that you can’t just suppress. You want to remember your child, but the very remembering brings you right back to the events that took her away from you. In a very real way it is like a complex trauma that continues to present itself to you in your mind because it is impossible to disentangle the pain from the joy.
This tells us something very important about ourselves: we don’t experience what happens to us so much as we experience our memory of what happens to us. The emotions evoked by the events we experience can make those memories last longer than others, or can be so devastating that they even cause them to be repressed. I can tell you that two years later the emotions attached to the memories of Gianna are still very real and very intense. Because we relive our experiences it is very important to find meaning in the events that happen to us. Sometimes this is very difficult, seemingly impossible. What happened to Gianna did not have to happen. It was a product of human error and who knows what else. Her death was meaningless, but it does not make her life so.
We have her memory to hold onto, and that is something – everything. It means the entire world to us when someone tells us they remember her, think about her, cherish her. These mental snapshots are so important, making someone who is gone to continue to be present. Maybe not to remember would be easier, but forgetting the pain would be to forget her entirely. Only great love can cause pain this great, and according to Shakespeare, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Gianna’s memory lives on in us, her parents, and in others, a Rose with only one thorn: her sorrowful absence, throbbing in time with the beat of our hearts.