Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Looking Back on that First Year

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.


  1. Oh, Brooke. Here's to lighter days, indeed...
    I am a lurker here - i don't know if i have ever commented before, even though i vist daily.. But i, too, was reminiscing over the last 2+ years and, since i have no blog, i headed over to Glow in the woods yesterday to read some old posts. And there i found you again, responding to my posts, always so gentle and warm and supportive and insightful. And i was struck all over again by how, even deep in your early grief, you sounded so strong and lucid and gracious. And you warmed my heart all over again. So i'm just delurking today to say thank you, to say that the the little print that Eliza (and you) have left behind is not all that small at all - there are the quiet, invisible lurkers out there, who like me are grateful to you both, and will always remember you.
    Much love you you all,
    Katherine (k)

  2. Oh, wow-- what a beautiful post. You are such a wonderful writer.

  3. Tears are streaming down my face as I read this, Brooke. Your blog has been to me what "An Exact Replica..." is to a lot of people. Your words have accompanied me from my first week of grief until the present moment. I cling to them for company, for companionship, for insight, and for hope. You'll never know how much posts like this have done to help me through my pain, and allow me to know that everything I'm feeling is ok, expected, normal, and won't always be as crushing. You allow me to know that even if I do bring more children into the world, finding some happiness with them will never erase my love or grief for my daughter Avalon.

  4. After you introduced yourself to me and told me a little bit about yourself, and your loss, I thought of this poem that I encountered years ago by a favorite poet of mine, Gwendolyn Brooks. I didn't know you well enough to share it with you, to presume that I even thought it might resonate with you in some way.

    But then I read this post today and it feels so similar, so here it is.

    "my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell" by Gwendolyn Brooks

    I hold my honey and I store my bread
    In little jars and cabinets of my will.
    I label clearly, and each latch and lid
    I bid, Be firm till I return from hell.
    I am very hungry. I am incomplete.
    And none can tell when I may dine again.
    No man can give me any word but Wait,
    The puny light. I keep eyes pointed in;
    Hoping that, when the devil days of my hurt
    Drag out to their last dregs and I resume
    On such legs as are left me, in such heart
    As I can manage, remember to go home,
    My taste will not have turned insensitive
    To honey and bread old purity could love.

  5. This is such a beautiful, and true, post. Thank you for writing many of the things I feel, but never write anymore.

    I feel a bit disconnected from my grief right now, but so many of the things you wrote brought back memories for me, too. I have a hard time reading what I wrote back then, or really just even thinking hard about just how awful it was. I am grateful for my new babies that he lifted much of the fog and sadness. But it never really goes away.

  6. So much of what you so beautifully wrote has been on my mind lately. It is challenging and interesting to see how my grief has evolved and changed me. I often find it is hard to put into words how I am feeling... then I read your thoughtful posts and see a reflection of what's been on my mind!

  7. What a beautiful post- thank you so much for sharing.

    My situation is different than yours, but grief is grief, and so much of what you said here sounds so familiar- people expecting you to just get over it, the need to become an actress just to get through a day at work- this is the place that I find myself right now. Reading this post has helped me see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak- it has helped me realize that while grief may always be with me, a day will come where it won't rule my every thought and dictate my actions. Thank you for that. :)

  8. Beautiful, beautiful post Brooke. I would like to send this to everyone I know to say: 'here. Here is what the year that you have watched from the outside and judged (however kindly) was like. Here is what I have been living.' Thank you for sharing this.

  9. Thank you for sharing this Brooke.

    Just finishing my first year out... and almost feeling I'm on a bit of an extended play with having this subsequent pregnancy come to an end so close to the 1 year mark...(however it ends, hopefully with a living baby), I don't know when I'll ever feel like I can take a look back.

    You've expressed so many things I've felt myself, and wish I could somehow let everyone around me know.

    I feel I did too much in this past year. Too many people were seen, too many appointments were kept. I feel like I should have literally crawled away, and hid from the world. I should have never gone to my sisters stupid wedding...

    I'm feeling like I want to do that now... as this next baby is approaching term... I want to hide away, and be sad (because I *am* sad). But it doesn't make sense to everyone else... I should be happy, relieved, over joyed...

    Thank you for writing this and making me feel like I have a friend who understands.

  10. It's funny how a few of us seem to be thinking about the same things at the same time.. I have been pondering my then and now a great deal lately, along with a burning need to write. Sending love and light your way tonight and always...

  11. I keep reading this post, then saving it to come back to when I have brillant things to say... I have none.

    It's so true. Every word. The heavy griefm the moments of reprieve... The wonderfulness that is Caro and the sorrow (and joy!) that is Eliza.

    Such a difficult year. During year one I never thought I'd get out alive. I was grieving then pregnant and grieving and... Yes, all of that.

  12. My first thought is to wonder what spurred this particular post, with no apparent anniversary or significant date, because this is a deep journey that took time, emotional energy, and guts to travel again. What I like about it is that it shows "YES, we carry it with us always. It's power waxes and wanes. NO, it doesn't have to be more significant than 4:00 on Tuesday for me to go back there. To feel it again, on any given level."

    Lately I've been feeling like there's something about the 3 year mark in which people who maybe gave you a little more leeway, who might have been sure to go the extra little bit to help you or be really present with you (like the OB on who's watch your daughter died), well, those people are kind of done with you. You're just another Joe again now. Which is ok with some people, but that OB? I want him to suck up to me forever. Along with some other key players. Anyway. I digress.

    It's uncanny, the timing of so many of your posts to events or thoughts of my own. Just a few days ago I was working on the broken relationship with my sister-in-law (due to her perceived inability to 'get' the significance of our loss) and she said, "I would read your blog and wonder, "How does anyone LIVE like that?!" And I think, well, YEAH - that would be the point, wouldn't it? It's HELL. And we have no choice but to (try and) live with it every day. Most of the time, that first year and into the second, it was more surviving than living. As you so aptly described.

    I resist any positives I have gotten out of Anna's death. Viscerally fight any indication (particularly from someone who hasn't suffered the loss of a child or similar) that there are gifts in exchange for not having her here. Even though...it is true. I actually do think I'm a better human being for having suffered her loss. But I think I just as quickly lose all my Better Person Points by thinking "I'd rather have her, even if it makes me more selfish and less able to relate to the great majority of people who've Really Suffered."

    You wrote "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. "
    Far more than anyone should...seems to me you do remarkably well. I know a lot of people who've suffered no such similar losses who embody these emotions regularly - I don't hang with them anymore, because who has the time or energy? Or willingness to indulge them anymore? I'll indulge you 'til your last days, my friend. I think those feelings come with the territory, in varying degrees with varying strength for the rest of our days.
    I wish I could somehow inject the sentiment of happiness and sadness living together into those who continue to not get it. At all. Like the flu shot! Be it the first year, the third, the thirty-third...life will be bittersweet, always.

    Thank you for having the courage to visit those days again, for sharing them with us, for putting into words what so many of us can't or don't. Is there such a thing as a BLM ambassador? Because I think you've been hired.

  13. This is really beautiful. I can relate to so much of it. I just passed my daughter's first birthday this past weekend. And I feel like I've had so many similar circumstances. Down to the friend who told me that I wasn't emailing her enough - a friend I have barely spoken to since. Trying to go on vacation, and almost being happy. Not having the energy to engage. It's all so familiar, I'm just months behind you. And now we're deperately trying for another little one, so I'm hoping that I'm just shortly behind you in that as well.

  14. Wow. Yes. I had no idea this was so NORMAL. I wrote on my blog that I thought I was suffering from PTSD from my own depression. It really is two separate existences. The then, and the now.