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Grief Insulation: Or How I Got So Fat

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I got this note on Facebook yesterday from Sara:

“I need you to please write me a blog about how to be motivated to exercise and eat right when there is a death in the family. Trying to be good to my body, but fed my kids & myself popcorn for dinner last night. I need your inspiration today, please!”

Oh, hermana, I so understand. If I had had the guts, I would have written the same message years ago. I’m afraid I learned my lesson about eating and loss the hard way: it’s the reason I spent the last 16 years 100 pounds overweight.

Me and Carlos in 1998I had always told people that I was carrying around all that extra weight because I never lost the 100 pounds I gained in pregnancy almost 16 years ago with my son Carlos. But then about five years ago I was changing the picture in a frame in my office when a photograph dropped out from behind the one that had been in the frame for years. As I picked it up, I saw that it was a shot of me and Carlos from a carnival when he was about 14 months old. I stared at it, almost not recognizing myself. I looked good! But wait, I had thought I’d been fat since he was born…

I took the picture with me to my next therapy session, and expressed my confusion to my counselor. “What happened in the year after that picture?” she asked me.

“Well, nothing much. Carlos was a great kid, Doug and I were happy, and….oh.”

Me at 232 pounds, 2008?It was then that I realized it was a year after the picture that I had lost my second son in my 20th week of pregnancy.

I mean, it wasn’t like I’d forgotten about it: I will never forget about it, no woman ever does. But I had managed to block it from my mind when looking for reasons why for years after I was always tired and obese.

My therapist’s voice was even gentler than usual, “How much weight did you gain with the second pregnancy, Ann?”

Fifty pounds. Putting me at the exact weight I was in that moment, five years later, sitting in her office. Had I been keeping myself at the pregnancy weight to deny I had lost him? Or was the 100 extra pounds insulation from my grief? It was probably a bit of both. I broke down in her office as the delayed feeling of loss washed over me.

The hardest part? My two-year-old son had come with me to my doctor’s appointment that day to hear the baby’s heartbeat. When the doctor couldn’t hear it and went out to get another Doppler monitor, Carlos took my hand and said, “The baby’s gone, isn’t he Mommy?” They rushed me to the hospital for a sonogram to confirm the worst. He was indeed gone. 24 hours later I went through a mockery of the birth process and went home with my arms empty.

Who wouldn’t insulate themselves?

The realization was good. Though I was someone who had battled her weight all her life, the 100 pounds was excessive and now I had a sense of why. But adding insult to injury, weight loss didn’t follow once I knew. Five years of struggling with diets and exercising five times a week to no avail. Even with a daily dose of Lexapro, food was still my solace, my medication of choice.

So what changed in January when I was deep in the rainforest in Puerto Rico? Other than what I’ve already told you in my first article, I don’t know. Perhaps I just hit bottom, or, more likely, I found a foothold and started to climb up from bottom. But for whatever reason, when I came back I no longer used food as a crutch. It wasn’t easy, some days it still isn’t, but the interesting thing is, when I’m able to push through with the hardest work my trainer can put out, when I am able to pass by a bowl of chocolates without eating one, I’m reminded that I can get through anything, and come out of it even better than I went in.

I will experience more losses in my life. Will I comfort myself with a blanket of empty calories? Maybe. But I’m hoping that over the last 10 months I’ve learned that the most peaceful moments of my week are to be found at the gym. That there’s much more solace in a bowl of quinoa than in a bowl of ice cream. That if I could get through the loss of my second son, I can get through anything, and come out the other side a stronger, better person.

And Sara, so can you. Don’t fret about eating popcorn for dinner, but remember that you don’t need food or lethargy to insulate yourself. You will come out on the other side, and it is so much better to be healthy once you get there.


Me, Doug and Carlos, Summer 2012, halfway through weight loss


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About Ann Hagman Cardinal

  • Cori M

    Thank you so much for this, Ann. My cousin’s son was still born two years ago, and she’s been fighting her weight ever since. Recently she admitted that she can’t separate the weight she wants to lose from the pregnancy that changed her life so irrevocably. The baby who almost was. I’m going to send this to her as proof that she’s not alone.

    You’re amazing.

  • Ann Cardinal

    Thank you, Cori. As mothers it is so hard to separate what is us and what is them in general, situations like these can extend that confusion indefinitely. So hard.

  • Erica

    beautiful post, Ann. xox

  • Ann Cardinal

    Thank you, Erica! I feel like i’ve come a long way. I am now content to hold other people’s beautiful babies, like yours!

  • Nicole

    Oh, Ann. Wow. My heart goes out to you..what an amazing post. What heartbreak. I am so sorry.

  • Ann Cardinal

    Oh Nicole, thank you. I really did come to a place that everything happens for a reason, but it still does make me sad to think of what could have been. It all adds up to who we become, I suppose.

  • Winifred

    Oh, Ann, your post today resonated with me in a profound way. I lost my healthy son at 20 weeks in a botched amnio procedure 15 years ago. Like you, I had my other child with me at the appointment when the doctor couldn’t find the heartbeat. I am honored to be the mother of three girls, but there is an empty place in my heart where my son is supposed to be. Thank you for your heartfelt and honest posts. You inspire me.

  • Ann Cardinal

    Oh my God, Winifred. Your comment left me in tears and the parallels between our stories gave me goosebumps. I too have an empty space, but I feel better about it when I have interactions like this one. You’ve inspired me too. Thank you.

  • Joyce

    Beautiful post, Ann. Loss and grief can have profound effects on us. I lost an infant son one October and 20 years later went into depression the October our eldest daughter had moved to college. The fall foliage was the trigger that tied one loss to another.

  • Ann Cardinal

    Thanks for sharing, Joyce. It is alarming how many women have gone through this painful experience. Honestly, I wouldn’t have gotten through it at the time without women like you sharing their stories with me. It is also amazing what kind of a hold it takes on a person.

  • Mo Hourihan

    Oh, Ann, your post was so sad and so inspiring, too. I am shedding tears for you and Win and all parents who been in this particular hell. You are a profound writer and I am honored to be your friend. xoMo

  • Ann Cardinal

    Oh, Maureen, you’ve got me crying! thank you for your kind words. I’m honored by your support and friendship.

  • Hindy Bare

    honest and emotionally engaging- good writing !

  • Ann Cardinal

    thank you, Hindy!