I Was Warned About ‘Phantom Baby’ After My Baby’s Death. I Should’ve Listened.
If you lose a baby, they might warn you that one “side effect” of the death may be “phantom baby.” It’s a real thing. A psychological part of the grief process.
When my baby girl, Madeline, died, July 31, 2004, I was warned about phantom baby, too. However, I was thunderstruck during those darkest days, too numbed to understand anything they said to me. It wasn’t until the house was quiet, the casseroles were tucked in the freezer and the sympathy letters stopped filling the mailbox that I came to understand exactly what they had warned me about.
The first night she came, I was fast asleep and was awakened in the darkness to the crystal clear sounds of a baby crying in the distance. In the confusion of the moonlight, there was that moment, that split second when my heart told my brain that her death had just been a bad dream — it had to be, because she was alive and she was crying out for me. “Go to her!” my heart said. “Hurry!” So I got up in a panic to reach her, to comfort her, to stop her crying… and then, in one gut-wrenching bolt, as my feet hit the cold floor, it hit me. She is dead. Her crying stopped and mine began. Sobs washed over me until I could not breathe. I was left shattered.
That first year, she came to me often. Each time as devastating as the time before. My saving grace is that my husband and I were in grief counseling together. He was hearing her, too… our phantom baby. Otherwise I would have thought I was truly coming unhinged by my sadness. Despite the depth of my grief, and no matter how much I wanted her back, I never once believed it was truly Madeline reaching out to us from beyond, although I came to understand how easy that would be to believe. I always knew, in the light of day, that it was just my body’s way of trying to process her death. It didn’t make it any easier when it happened, but I understood what they had warned me about and why.
As the years passed, the phantom baby stopped coming at night. My heart was still broken and my grief was still raw, but at least the nights held less fear. That changed the year of the 10th anniversary of Madeline’s death.
It was the summer of 2014 and my husband was out of town. I had tucked my two living daughters into their beds, read my book and gone to sleep as usual. I was shocked awake in the darkness of night by a voice calling out to me: “Help me, Mama! Help me!” I sat up and raced down the hall, my heart beating out of my chest, only to find both of my daughters, lying still, fast asleep. I was so confused. I had heard one of them crying. I was sure. I walked back to my room and looked at the baby monitor perched at my bedside. I turned it on and off, wondering if it was picking up another baby in the neighborhood. Although I was still shaky, I lay my head back down on the pillow. As I drifted to sleep, the voice urgently called to me again. “Mama! Help me!” I ran like lightning to my girls’ rooms, faster this time, terrified. Once more, I was met with two beautiful little girls sleeping peacefully. I walked a second time back to the baby monitor and stood there in the quiet darkness.
It hit me like a lightning bolt. Phantom Baby had grown up. My Madeline would have been 10. There, in the darkness of my room, my fear subsided. I smiled. Ten. I felt the old pain, familiar now, somehow comforting. I padded back to my bed and cuddled in the covers, deep. I cried softly as I closed my eyes and whispered, “Goodnight, Madeline. I love you.”
This year, it has been 12 years since my Madeline died. I still miss her. I still grieve deeply, though not as often now. As we approach the anniversary of her death day this year, I wonder what tricks my heart will hold for me. Will Phantom Baby return or will the day pass with me quietly crying, remembering those raw moments after she died? I cannot know, but I welcome the pain as my last reminder of her.
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