the outer world of grief, part 2
When I lost my baby boy at 21 weeks, it was unlike anything I had ever known. Nothing had prepared me for that experience or its aftermath. The complex journey through grief towards healing is long and hard, with no clear end. As I’ve learned, it’s a lifelong process. And it’s usually a solo journey.
Grief can be shared, as when we gather to mourn a friend or loved one. Mourning is the external part of loss, the shared rituals we observe. But ultimately everyone must find their way down their path. The journey is ours alone. Finding our way through loss is the inner work of grief.
Our culture seems to have an aversion to grief in general. Death makes people uncomfortable. As others have so eloquently said, there are many reasons why there is so little support for pregnancy loss and stillbirth. So often these losses are ignored and misunderstood by others. Without support, grieving is an even more challenging and isolating process.
People generally can’t appreciate the enormity of such a life-altering event — the magnitude of loss — unless they’ve lived it or been affected. It’s not real or tangible or visible to others as it is to us. They never knew our child. They don’t understand the loving attachment and physical connection we feel with that precious living being from the moment we learn of conception. They don’t appreciate the love we carried for that child, or how hard we worked to create him/her. People think you can just have another baby, just try again. We know it’s not always that simple. Nor is that the point.
People don’t understand that losing your unborn child shatters the hopes and dreams you held for that child. It steals your future. Further complicating our grief is the unknown (how/why did this happen?) and uncertainty (will I ever get pregnant again? will I ever carry a baby to term? will I ever be mother to a living child?). Ours is a uniquely invisible type of anguish and heartbreak.
There are no common rituals for miscarriage or stillbirth. Or infertility. There is little if any public acknowledgement or mourning. Shared rituals are an important part of finding closure. Not that we attain closure, since grief reflects a loss that never goes away. But a ceremonial act can create space to acknowledge our loss, to mark its significance. It can be cathartic. A personal ritual can provide a meaningful way to honor the past, recognize the present, and embrace the future. So we create our own.
Ultimately we find a way to hold our loss and live with it, often without the support of others. It is an isolating and lonely experience. We feel alienated from all that we once knew. We feel misunderstood. Alone. Abandoned. We may feel defined by our own loss, invisible.
When I was home on bedrest, my husband had to get my car from the doctor’s office. He called a close friend for a ride and told him what was happening. That our baby was dying and there was nothing we could do. The response? Awkward change of subject to some inane topic. I can only imagine how my husband must have felt in that moment. There he is, trying to take care of me, losing his only son, putting aside his own grief to keep his head straight, seeking some affirmation in a friend. Vulnerable. This was astounding to me. It’s no wonder we often feel safer in the comfort of our solitude.
Of course there were those who offered support — family who sat with me on bedrest, friends who called to check if we needed anything, co-workers and clients who tried to make things easier. Afterwards, I found comfort in the most unexpected places — flowers and thoughtful notes from colleagues, friends who dropped off meals, even a heart-shaped cheesecake covered in berries. Then there was the sharing of several “me too” stories. And yet. Where we expected some understanding or comfort, often there was little or none to be found. Close friends and even siblings who hardly acknowledged our loss. Or a quick call, then nothing.
The truth is, people don’t know how to respond. They don’t necessarily want to deal with a parent grieving their unborn child. They don’t know how. It’s unpleasant. It makes them uncomfortable. They’re afraid to say the wrong thing, so they say nothing. Or maybe they’re reluctant to engage in any depth. Maybe they think they said the wrong thing so they withdraw. They’re afraid to dredge up feelings. They’re afraid to feel it themselves. They don’t know how we feel or what we need, or how to be around us. Or maybe they just want to give some respectful space.
People don’t realize that a simple “I’m sorry” or “I don’t know what to say” is often all that can be said. Or a comforting hug that says, “I’m here, I’ll support you however I can.” Or, after some time has passed, asking “how are you” with a desire to really hear the response. These simple affirming gestures can go a long way.
A while back, there was a series of profound posts on grief that stayed with me. One was by Julia at I Won’t Fear Love, about how other bloggers were discussing the process of grief and ways to be helpful to the grieving. She described some of the stupid things people say to the bereaved and concluded they often say these things to make themselves feel better, or to try to “fix” the problem. She discusses the concept of “abiding” which beautifully captures what so often is truly needed. The concept is perfect in its simplicity: Just sit and be with us. Yet so few people get it.
As time passes, people expect you to move on. Sure, looking to the future may be for our own well-being, but I think it’s partly to avoid their discomfort too. People expected me to somehow “get over” it, to return to my life before loss. But there’s no getting “past” this. There is only living with it. I was forever changed by my loss. Part of me died with my baby boy, and part of him lives on in me. I am different in so many ways. I am more resilient and empathetic. I am more focused on what ultimately matters to me, and I have less tolerance for trivial or peripheral issues. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy being silly sometimes, but I try not to let insignificant things bother me anymore. I have less energy to deal with extraneous matters and even people. As a result, our circle of friends has become even smaller.
No one will know or remember the anniversary of our son’s death. Even if they did, they probably would avoid it, out of fear of uncovering painful memories or the grief they think I should have somehow resolved by now. What they don’t realize is this is all I have left of him. Talking about my angel boy honors his memory. His loss was not invisible and it will not be forgotten. Not by me anyway.
Telling our story helps me find my way through. And just maybe it can help promote some understanding in others too.