The agony is great and yet I will stand it. Had I not loved so much I would not hurt so much. But goodness knows I would not want to diminish that precious love by one fraction of an ounce. I will hurt. And I will be grateful for the hurt for it bears witness to the depth of our meaning. And for that I will be eternally grateful. - Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
"You never get over the loss of a child."
I don't think anyone would dispute this, but I know there are people who experience loss during pregnancy and who feel pressure--sometimes unstated, but nonetheless present--to "get over it." To bounce back. To "try again" or "have another."
When I was six months out from my loss, a dear friend of mine wrote a well-meaning e-mail to me in which she said, "I thought you'd be better by now. I thought you'd be pregnant again by now."
She was trying to express her own confusion and grief about the sharp turn our friendship had taken (when I basically dropped out of it). I understood where she was coming from.
That e-mail almost ended our friendship. I was stunned and frustrated and hurt and I couldn't even begin to explain to my (clueless) friend what I was going through on a daily basis. I was barely making it myself; I couldn't coach my friend through this, too.
I told her as much, and we took some space and took some time and managed to maintain our friendship, although it still pains me the way things have changed--some of it, I'm sure, would have been inevitable even if Eliza hadn't died. People get busy. Having kids changes the amount of time we have for gabbing on the phone or going out to dinner. Still, I'll never know how much my grief sabotaged my friendships.
Another friend of mine who had dealt with the completely shocking and unexpected loss of her mom while we were in college told me that it takes 3-5 years to recover from this kind of loss. I nodded at her, my eyes filled with tears, because that timeline made sense to me. And yet I was so discouraged by the thought that I would be so miserable for 3-5 years of my life.
In my experience, I think it was about fourteen months before my grief felt a little bit different, lighter, more mangeable. Or at least I felt stronger and more capable of handling it. Fourteen months is a long time to drop out of life, and that is exactly what I did. I barely saw my friends. I didn't attend a single social engagement that involved more than six people going out to dinner. Going out to dinner happened rarely.
Eliza died in early December. In late January, about seven weeks out from her death, I went back to teaching. I taught two sections of a composition class. Each class met for an hour a day, three days a week. I had fourteen students in each section. So I was on campus teaching six hours a week, plus prep and grading time, which I did at home, and which was minimal since I'd taught the class several times before. I didn't hold office hours unless students made an appointment with me. I went into my classroom and I went home and that was it.
It was the most exhausting semester of my life.
Holding myself together for class was an exercise in self-control that some days I barely passed. I was calling upon my previous experience not in teaching, but in community and high school and college theater. My whole classroom persona was a charade (although, in the same way, it was also a bit of an escape). I could keep it together until my second class ended. Then I'd walk quickly out to the parking garage, where I would sob in my car until I was calm enough to drive home.
Worse than teaching was my job directing a reading program at a learning center--little kids, clueless parents, too much time when I wasn't actively occupied with a task. I was miserable at a job I had formerly enjoyed, and quitting a few months later was an enormous relief.
The internet was my lifeline, connecting me with other moms who'd experienced loss around the same time. E-mails and texts with them were the only things that kept me tethered to sanity some days. They reassured me that what I was feeling was normal because they were feeling it too. Sometimes I would literally spend Tuesdays and Thursdays (my non-teaching days) in bed, on my laptop, exchanging e-mails, reading blogs, and crying because I shouldn't have had the luxury of sleeping in and wasting my day away. But I didn't have the energy for anything else.
David and I grocery shopped together, which we hadn't done since our early days of dating and living together, when grocery shopping for two was still a novelty. We were long past the days of the grocery store feeling like a date instead of a necessity, but throughout that cold winter and painfully-late spring, neither one of us felt strong enough to venture into public without having the other person there to hold onto.
We quit church. Not because our church wasn't kind and supportive, not because they didn't reach out to us, not because we didn't like our minister. We quit church because there were kids and babies and families there, and every time we'd gone, I'd imagined bringing Eliza there. I couldn't go back there without her. I just couldn't do it. I couldn't bear to listen to messages of God's love when I felt so abandoned. I couldn't bear to listen to messages of God sacrificing his only son when my only child was gone. I envied people who found solace in their religion because church had become for me a place that simply reminded me of everything I'd lost, of a God who didn't answer my prayers for a healthy baby.
We skipped every holiday for a year. Refused to acknowledge them, got out of town, ran away. My first birthday after Eliza's death stands out as one of the worst days of my entire life. I felt so guilty and so miserable being alive when my daughter was dead. A suggestion from well-meaning friends that we get together to celebrate my birthday was met with me bursting into tears. The notion of celebrating the fact that I was alive when my baby wasn't... it nauseated me.
I went to therapy weekly and then every other week, and, eventually once a month. David accompanied me a lot of the time. I sobbed my way through every appointment for at least the first six months, probably longer. Sometimes it made me feel better. Sometimes it seemed to dredge up my pain when I'd been having a good week. But I went for the same reason that I read all the books on grief that we were given--because I wanted to figure out how to feel better given this new version of my life. Because I'm a reader and a researcher and it's all I know how to do and I thought if I studied it and tried to understand my grief from the outside, I could do something about how I felt on the inside.
The truth is that nothing helped but time, which was just about the least helpful information I could find.
And I had moments where I was okay. We went on a vacation to Florida over spring break and almost enjoyed ourselves. David and I started making small weekly plans so that there would be something to look forward to. It was almost always just the two of us, and the plans were usually to stay home and watch a movie and order in dinner. But they were something.
Eventually the fog of grief lifted enough that I started to feel I had a little more energy. I began repainting and redecorating the house, craving the distraction and the relief of having my focus on something--anything--besides my grief.
Interviewing for and getting a new job (the one I have currently) was something I almost didn't do--I didn't think I had the energy or the wherewithal to convince anyone that I was capable of doing anything but crying on the sofa (I was basically a black belt in that skill) but it ended up being the best thing I could have done. It helped give me the confidence that I was something and someone besides a grieving mother, that I could do something besides cry.
We started going to church occasionally--a different church. We needed to go somewhere that wasn't so full of the ghosts of what should have been. Reading When Bad Things Happen to Good People gave me a way to think about God that made sense to both my head and my heart. We weren't ready to jump back in to becoming active members of any congregation, but we were ready to sit in the pews and listen and think.
That summer we took a vacation to Vancouver and Whistler. I had desperately hoped I'd be pregnant by the time we went on that vacation. I wasn't. I was seven months out from Eliza's loss and I was still a wreck a lot of the time. It was on Whistler mountain, in the midst of a coniferous forest, that I took what I think was my first deep breath since Eliza had died. My mom bought me a necklace on that trip that said, "Have Hope" and I wore it like a talisman.
That fall I got pregnant again (I wrote this post two days before my positive test). It was a relief, a joy, a much-need hope that buoyed me up from the depths of despair. It was also not as joyful as I wanted it to be. I knew this baby wouldn't make up for losing Eliza, but I'd truly expected this pregnancy would make me feel happier. It did make me happy, but it also made me sad. Sad that I was so worried about the health of the new baby. Sad that I had lost so much time--I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd fallen so far behind my friends, when we'd all been starting our families at the same time. Now I was pregnant with what would (hopefully) be my my first living child and they were all having or planning for baby #2. As happy as I was to be pregnant, I was so sad to have to be doing everything over again for a second time, with nothing to show for my first round except anxiety and dread.
I was disappointed in myself for not being better able to celebrate with my best friend, who was pregnant with her much-longed-for baby after three rounds of IVF. I was also anxious because it was my first year at my new job and I was scheduling my day around doctor appointments. I was overwhelmed by the very idea of approaching Eliza's first birthday, and sometimes overcome by the realization of how different my life was from the life I had wanted and expected and planned for when I thought for sure I'd be bringing my first baby home from the hospital.
Fall turned to winter, as it always does. So much time had gone by, and it was still so very, very hard. The end of November nearly crushed me with grief. Her first birthday was full of gratitude and disappointment and heartache. It was quickly followed by our attempt at an escape to Mexico. Blue skies and sunshine and the ocean are remarkably therapeutic, but my second pregnancy seemed like it would stretch on forever-the end of June was so very far away from the end of December. And we returned home to the knowledge that David's beloved grandpa was dying.
We said good bye to David's grandpa in January, the same month we revealed that I was pregnant again. It was a mild winter and spring came early and I was so grateful to see the earth blooming with new life as I counted kicks and rubbed my belly and went to a doctor appointment every two weeks.
It was late February when I realized I wasn't so heavily weighed down with grief. My anxiety about the Deuce was a separate thing, and very real, but the darkest days of grieving for Eliza were mostly behind me. Dark days come back, of course. Sometimes when I can anticipate them (around her birthday and Christmas) and sometimes when they are unexpected (like the week before Zuzu was born). I wonder if my friend was right about the three-to-five year mark, and if I'll experience another lightening of my grief around that time.
I think back on that first year after Eliza died and it feels like it lasted forever. And yet now it's been two years--two YEARS and three months from her death and I can't believe it's been so long. It doesn't seem possible that so much time has gone by. I can remember those early days, the stress and fear and ache and the impossibly huge sadness of that time, and it still brings tears to my eyes.
Missing Eliza today is a quieter ache. It's a less selfish grief, if that makes sense. A good part of what I grieved for initially was the loss of my own expectations, of my own plans for my life, of my opportunity to have a baby and raise a daughter. I'm still coming to terms with this new version of my life, but I'm grateful to have another baby, to be raising a daughter. And still I grieve for the baby we never got to know, for a life that ended just when it was supposed to begin, for the people we might have been if Eliza had lived. I grieve for the months we lost to sadness. I grieve for the friendships that were changed. I grieve now for Zuzu, who will grow up without a big sister.
And just when I think I could get lost in all that grief again, I turn it around.
I celebrate the friends that Eliza brought into my life who make me laugh and who share my sadness in a way that eases my burden. I celebrate the little sister she brought to us, who lights up our world. I celebrate the closeness David and I have, the easy way we're able to prioritize what matters.
The year after we lost Eliza was absolutely the hardest, saddest, darkest year of my life. It's hard for me to go back and read blog posts from that year, especially the first six months or so. That pain was so close to unendurable, and those posts refresh the feeling of those dark times in a way that takes my breath away. Out of that darkness comes a kind of understanding, harsh and unwelcome and full of truth. I have a knowledge that I could not have had before, could not have otherwise gained. It's nothing I wouldn't have gladly traded to get Eliza back, but we don't get to make those bargains. So I can only take it for what it is, and hold on to it as something else of value that Eliza brought my way.
Two years and three months later, this process is still not easy and I know there will be more dark days to come. I'll still feel jealous and bitter and jaded and angry and sad, far more often than anyone should. But I can only remember that happiness and sadness are not mutually exclusive, that these things are not two sides of the same coin, but they can occupy my head and my heart at the same time.
So here's hoping that the days continue to get easier, that the light outshines the dark, that our greatest sorrow will one day be matched by our subsequent joy, and that we do all we can to choose love again, and again.