Gitte du Plessis lost her daughter Naia immediately after birth on December 17th, 2013. Below is the eulogy Gitte held for Naia at her commemoration ceremony on May 17th, 2014.
What I have just begun here is an impossible endeavor, because no words I say tonight will do Naia justice. During the last months when I have struggled with my new situation I have had great help and comfort in reading other people’s works on death and grief. These works have also helped me find my words here today. So I’ll start with a quote from the editors of French philosopher Jaques Derrida’s book The work of mourning:
“In mourning, we find ourselves at a loss, no longer ourselves, as if the singular shock of what we must bear had altered the very medium in which it was to be registered. But even if the death of a friend appears unthinkable, unspeakable, we are nonetheless, says Derrida, called upon to speak, to break the silence, to participate in the codes and rites of mourning. “Speaking is impossible” writes Derrida in the wake of Paul de Man’s death, “but so too would be silence or absence or a refusal to share one’s sadness.”
So we have invited you here today so we can share our sadness. But sadness is not the only thing we wish to share with you. To me, Naia is surrounded by immense love, and it is this love that we continue to have for our daughter, that we also want to share with you here tonight. We want to introduce you to her as best we can, and that also means introducing you to how Naia and her death has changed us.
Because meeting death up close and personal like we did on that night in December, changes you. Those first moments when we finally saw what a beautiful baby Naia had grown into being inside of me, and we felt the love as parents explode around us, were also the moments when we lost her, right before our eyes. In that moment, our whole lives took a new course that we hadn’t chosen but were forced to accept. When I suddenly couldn’t be Naia’s mother, I didn’t know who I was or what to do with myself. I didn’t know how to live without her.
We only know little about Naia. We know her heartbeat, we know her movements, her hiccups, and I got the sense that she was very considerate, that she always tried to make carrying her as comfortable as possible for me. I also got the sense that she had an enormous life force, she grew and grew, and she ended up weighing ten pounds and I weighed less after being pregnant with her than before. We know that she was beautiful. When she came out, she looked to me like a little chubby pink Viking. She didn’t seem marked by the birth, she looked like she was bursting with strength and health, and that she was merely peacefully asleep.
We got nine months with her while she transformed from two cells to a ten pound baby inside me, we got the 17 hours of birthing her, an incredibly challenging and exhausting, transformative and ultimately traumatic experience. We got the two precious and heartbreaking minutes of holding her, hoping she would start to breathe. And we got an important hour with her in the mortuary where we got to hold her and get a close look at her, and read letters to her. Since then her remains have been in this little wooden box down here, guarded by the monkey that had otherwise been tasked with entertaining her while she was in her car seat.
That’s all we have of her.
It was enough though, to transform us completely. She turned us into parents, and she did that by bringing about an enormous love. What really turned me into a mother was this growing love. It is a love that is bigger than me, and I’m not even sure where it comes from. I think that’s what it is to become a mother, you give your heart to your child and from then on you will forever be vulnerable and worried for them. It’s a deep, intense, unconditional love, and it hit me like a train. It also brought Matt and I together. During the nine months of the pregnancy, Naia turned into the most important thing in our life.
Naia also turned Matt into a father. He offered unconditional love and support to me during the pregnancy and birth, he listened to her heartbeat every night, talked to her, played music for her. I’m sure she felt his love. And his voice in those crucial minutes, a loving dad calling for his daughter to please take a breath, I will never forget that. And I am thankful for the beautiful and sincere way Matt has honored Naia, the way he has bravely stood by his love for her no matter how painful it was, the way he has supported me and been there with me, his gentle strength and wisdom. Thank you Matt.
Grief and love are indeed intimately related. In fact, one can’t exist without the other. Grief is love that has lost its home. When Naia died, all our love was still there for her, and we didn’t know what to do with it. We chose to give it to each other instead, and it overflowed our hearts, and so in the first couple of weeks of shock, Matt and I, and my brother Erik and sister-in-law Stine who were here with us, and all of those who came across us, huddled together as best we could in this incredible explosion of love for Naia. Our house was so empty because of her absence, yet so full of love. Thanks to that, Christmas will not forever be ruined for us. Naia also brought about a lot of gratefulness. Suddenly, the mere fact that Matt was alive and right next to me, flooded me with gratitude. It was a truly amazing experience, and she brought that about, our little girl. And for that reason, I will always be very proud of her. She was a powerful little force of love.
She still is. We still love her. She still makes me grateful for the good people and things I have in my life. And I will always be Naia’s mother. I feel that she has given me the hardest task a child can give its parent. I am a mother with no baby to show for it. This has been a hard new identity for me to begin to accept.
She left an incredible vacuum inside of me and around my body. Everything was painfully empty. Her car seat, her crib, her snuggle blankets, her diapers. Her stuffed animals looked so lost, like they didn’t know what to do with themselves now either, they had so looked forward to her coming out to play with them. It was a sad day when we had to pack all Naia’s things away, everything made or bought with her in mind. In the first weeks after her death, I had a strong physical longing; it felt as though my arm had been amputated. I was missing that chubby little girl resting on my chest or my hip. It was hard to accept that she had to be in the morgue instead of with me.
Today she would have been five months old. I can only imagine how she would have sat clenching and biting and drooling with her rubber giraffe. How she would have smiled at me. How she would have cried when she was tired or hungry. I will never get to see her first steps on wobbly legs, wearing a cardigan her great grandmother knitted for her. I’ll never get to read her a book, pick her up and comfort her when she’s upset, clean up after her when she throws up, walk her to school on her very first school day. I’ll never get to show her anything at all. I wont get to put a band aid on her knee after she falls, I’ll never get to laugh with her, meet her friends, watch her choose what she wants to be when she grows up, I’ll never get to meet her partner, attend her wedding or be the grandmother of her children. Because death is an unrepeatable event, we never get to worry about Naia anymore. Instead, every day, for the rest of our life, she will be missing.
How can I carry her with me, how can I be the best possible mother for her? I know that the only way to go about it is to keep the love alive, because not doing so hurts so much more.
I know that the only place Naia exists today is inside of us. She is only with us insofar as she is in us. She is the memory and the love we hold for her. She is with us, in us, in how she has changed us. So when I am loving and honoring Naia, I am loving and honoring Naia inside of me, and I am loving and honoring my own motherhood, that I didn’t get to put into loving practice. I think this is the only tolerable way to negotiate being the mother of a dead child.
Thank you for showing up with food on our doorstep, thank you for showing up with food and starting to cry on our doorstep. Thank you for all your flowers and cards and books, and gifts and letters, thank you for words of support and compassion. Thank you for listening to us talk about our daughter, for helping us sort out how to grapple with what has happened. Thank you for helping me get on with my work, to help me see that I am not only the mother of a dead child but also a PhD student who likes what I do.
When as her parents, we can’t get to feed or cuddle our daughter, we can arrange a night dedicated to her. So that’s what we’ve done. Thank you all for coming tonight. It means a lot to us to keep the memory of Naia alive. And let that be encouragement to never doubt whether it’s okay to mention her or ask about her. Believe me, we have asked ourselves all the hardest questions already, and she is always in our hearts and minds.