By Sara Gonzalez
Our journey with our son, Monroe Mirlo, was anything but straightforward even before he arrived on November 3, 2013. We got pregnant very easily, had a somewhat difficult pregnancy, and when he debuted six weeks early, we were also completely unprepared for his heart defect. I can’t tell you much about those first few days, because they were a total blur. I couldn’t hold him. I didn’t know if he was going to make it far enough to even have a surgery, and I felt alternating doses of numb and terrified.
I had a singular moment of clarity in the middle of the first night, this overwhelming possessive feeling of love. Yes, I could choose to be emotionally distant from my son, and it might be the easier choice, but that it felt overwhelmingly wrong. Monroe deserved to be loved. I might not be able to fix his broken heart, I might not ever be able to give him the lifetime of experiences that he should have had, but I could love him. So I did, ferociously.
Saying that the next ten weeks were a roller coaster is an understatement. Monroe recovered from his traumatic birth within a few days. We were able to hold him and feed him and spend a few weeks with him being a somewhat sleepy but otherwise relatively normal baby while we waited for him to gain weight and strength for open heart surgery. A surgery that despite the best possible medical care, did not go well. A subsequent surgery was successful, but left him weak. Infections, multiple organ failure, and many extreme medical interventions followed. He died, in my arms, on January 17, 2014. It was the first time I had been able to hold him in six weeks. Even typing that hurts.
As Monroe showed us, this story is about so much more than the sum of its parts. Yes, he was born very sick, but he was also the strongest person I’ve ever known. Against insurmountable odds, he fought so hard to be here, to be with us, to live. Is it hard? Is the sky blue? Yes. I have days where everything, literally everything, hurts. Mostly though, I feel grateful. I’m grateful that he was mine, that I was able to hold him, to see him, to love him, to know him. He was extraordinary. Our life is extraordinary because of him.
So, I felt very early on in our loss that we would have to live our lives in a way that would honor him. That meant getting help. A very good therapist gave us a nonjudgmental outlet for talking through our experiences and helped us make sure that we were being kind to ourselves and each other. That sounds really cliché, but it’s also true. I wanted so much to be gracious and to recognize that Monroe’s loss wasn’t just ours- our parents and friends and loved ones were grieving, too, but it wasn’t always easy to do that. I needed someone to literally give me permission to push other peoples’ needs aside so that I could take care of myself.
While I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, connecting with other people who were also grieving really helped. We had met another couple while in the hospital with Monroe who lost their son just twelve days before we did. It was terrible to bond with someone over membership in a club that no one wants to belong to, but it really helped to be able to talk to people that knew exactly what we were going through. They invited us to be part of a nonprofit that they were starting in their child’s honor and having that to focus on was invaluable. Helping others made us feel like we were really doing something to add larger meaning to Monroe’s life.
The first year after losing Monroe, I made it a point to say yes to everything I possibly could. Trips, experiences, trying new things. If someone invited us to do something and we could possibly make it happen, we did. It was easier just to say yes than to try to motivate myself to actually want it, because truthfully, I didn’t want to do much of anything. It made for an interesting year.
We traveled to Charleston and Vegas and Jamaica. I helped a friend refinish her dining room table. I saw movies that I never would have chosen on my own, and I even took a trampoline-based exercise class. (Never again.) I gathered up experiences because Monroe couldn’t. After a year, I was ready to start cutting back and being more selective about what I spent my time on, but constantly having something “to look forward to” gave me some much needed motivation to keep moving during that initial phase of grief.
I’d been loosely practicing yoga and meditation before I became pregnant with Monroe, and I started back up again a little bit after he passed. It helped tremendously. It gave me a way to channel my nonstop anxiety, taught me how to self soothe without going on a crying jag, and made me feel connected to the universe. It’s so easy to feel alone when you’re grieving, but human suffering is universal. Our experience might be unique to each of us, but everyone will experiences loss of some kind. Meditation helped me to find beauty, to focus on the love portion of grief instead of just the pain.
Finally, I recognize that not every relationship survives this kind of loss. I am so profoundly grateful for my husband. There’s no grand secret to surviving the loss of your child together. Juan possesses an inherent kindness that I try my damnedest to emulate. Our friends and family have been overwhelmingly supportive and lovely. Our pets are comforting. My job is rewarding.
We are lucky, in spite of our loss. So, I keep reaching for that light. I know it’s out there, even on the days I can’t see it.
Sara Gonzalez is a librarian living in Orlando, FL, with her former chef husband, Juan, and their pets, Joe and Sam. She blogs sporadically about grief and life but is most frequently found holding various cups on Instagram. She and her husband are proud to serve on the Board of Directors for Yellow Brick Road: The Holden Flynn Foundation, a Central Florida nonprofit focused on aiding families and children affected by congenital heart defects.