My 8-year-old broke the news after a weekend with her father and pregnant stepmother. She was excited to tell me the name of her new baby brother-to-be.
“Gabriel!” she squealed. While she bounced up and down on her heels like Tigger, I felt my breath leave my body.
Once, years ago, when I was living in San Francisco, single and in my late 20s, a minor earthquake struck. For those few seconds when the books were falling from the shelves and cutlery was skittering off the table, I’d had the same feeling of utter weightlessness. Then it passed, and life reorganized itself.
A few years later, after I’d met my husband, I lost a baby boy at 22 weeks to a miscarriage. Life did not reorganize itself so easily then. The cracks in our marriage became too deep, and four years later, we called it quits.
Over the years, a chill settled in between us. We didn’t talk often, and when we did, it was never about the past, but now this inexplicable decision made me reach for the phone.
“You are naming him Gabriel?!” I demanded, practically shrieking.
“Yes,” he said, as nonchalantly as if I’d asked him what he was making for dinner. “We like it. Why?”
“Why?” The question took my breath away all over again. “You really don’t remember?”
“Remember what?” he asked.
“Our baby? Are you being serious here?”
If slamming down the phone were still a thing, I would have done so, but instead I pressed the disconnect button. My daughter would get a brother named Gabriel, after all? It was almost too much to believe.
When our son died three-and-a-half months before his due date, it was the worst loss my then-husband and I had ever experienced. But our grief didn’t bring us closer, it spilled out in heated arguments and eddied in sullen silences. One of our worst conflicts was whether to give our deceased son a name. My husband resisted; I insisted. If I couldn’t have any actual memories, at least I could have this — something to make him a little more real.
And so it was that he became “Gabriel.” But, for me, there was something more to it: Gabriel was one of God’s angels, and my husband was named for another. Perhaps, I hoped, the association would pry open my husband so we could share our grief together. It didn’t.
My despair was loud and relentless, his was quiet and intermittent. I’d read all the grief books — I knew the stages. I thought if I let my sorrow in fully, it would be over sooner. Wasn’t that how it worked? My husband believed that he could bury his sadness. We never really found our way back to one another.
“OK — you didn’t remember,” I said when I finally called him back an hour later, finally calm enough to try to understand what happened. I forced myself to speak slowly. “But now I’m imploring you: There are still months before he’s here. It doesn’t change anything?”
“No, my wife has a say in this too,” he replied sharply. “Don’t start with the drama, Sara.”
“At least tell me there is some part of you that is naming him after the Gabriel we lost,” I said. “Lie if you must. Just please tell me.” I held my breath.
He took a few seconds before answering. “I don’t have to lie.” His voice softened, and I could hear it catch. “I’m sure that’s true.”
“Thank you,” I said, exhaling. For a moment, I felt surprisingly tender.
Though my anger receded, the grief that had been churned up did not. It became a presence, a companion, a shadow of the baby I never had the chance to hold and the person I would never know.
I had worked hard to not think about Gabriel. At a baby shower a few years after my miscarriage, a relative had asked me, not unkindly, “You’re OK, right? Enough time has passed that you’ve moved past your loss, right?” I told her I was fine and made sure I carefully reapplied my makeup after I broke down crying in the bathroom stall.
Everyone in my life had wanted me to move on — not because they didn’t care, but because they didn’t want me to hurt anymore. Over time I’d learned to develop a kind of armor around the pain. Remembering felt dangerous — an abyss I needed to steer away from. But hearing Gabriel’s name again, now attached to a soon-to-be real, living child, threatened to widen the chasm yawning open within me.
When I was pregnant, our living room window looked out on a river, and I could watch the boats gliding by. Often, I found my gaze diverted to a playground in the park just below our window. I thought that playground would be Gabriel’s first. Though I actually entered it, I imagined myself there with him a hundred times.
A few weeks after the phone call with my ex-husband, I found myself standing at the edge of that playground. I hadn’t meant to go there — I’d had an appointment nearby — but my legs had somehow carried me there of their own volition.
I sat down on a bench and watched the kids climb and swing and slide, and I wondered how my Gabriel might look and sound if he had been there with me. Would he have held back shyly, or thrown himself into his playing with abandon? Would he have ignored me, or would he have looked over every now and again to make sure I was watching?
All those years ago in San Francisco, as I waited out the interminable seconds it took for the earthquake to pass, I remember the need to cling to something — the edge of a sofa, an end table — something more anchored to the ground than me. The first few years on the anniversary of Gabriel’s death, I felt the same vertiginous terror — the same need for something to hold onto. At first, I reached for my husband, but he was no more tethered than I was. Later, I reached for other anchors — my career, my two wonderful, living daughters — and gradually I felt myself reattach to life. But never fully.
When Gabriel died, I believed I could eventually move past my sadness. Instead, I’ve come to realize that his absence will always be a presence for me. To this day, I catch myself wondering what he would have looked like, what he would have loved, and how I might have been changed by being his mother.
I’ve learned grief can never be left behind entirely — just held a little more lightly. Perhaps my ex-husband actually learned that before I did. It was easy to believe that his silence about our son was indifference. It feels harder, but truer, to understand it as his way of dealing with his burden, and to feel grateful that we share it. In the end, I believe, my ex-husband did honor our loss by naming his new child Gabriel, whether he was fully conscious of doing so or not.
While our grief may not have brought my ex-husband and I closer when we lost our child, our conversation about Gabriel’s name did. Although it initially stirred up all those old feelings of despair, ultimately accessing softness for my ex-husband helped me access a certain softness for myself, too. And, although we mourned separately at the time, I’m aware now that I’m not alone in living with the tragedy of Gabriel’s death. Knowing that has helped strip the armor I built up around my pain. It’s made remembering Gabriel feel less like falling into an abyss and freed me to mourn in a different way.
People place rocks on Jewish graves as a marker of remembrance. When I was a kid, I imagined those stones must be there to keep the dead from floating up into the sky. Now I wonder if they are there not so much for the dead, but for us — those who have been left behind — so that we may stay rooted to the ground.
I left two stones on the bench before exiting the playground. One was for my Gabriel, the beautiful boy I imagined and loved already as I felt my belly swelling, watching the tugboats on the river. The other was for the life we would have had together. As I sat in the warm sun that afternoon in the park, the sound of children’s piping voices washing over me, I let myself remember Gabriel, and I didn’t float away.
Note: The names and some details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals mentioned in this essay.
Sara Dahl is the pseudonym of a mom with two daughters.