I went to therapy for two years after Eliza died.
I don't mean grief group--which I attended just a couple times in the first year and once after Zuzu was born. I mean that I saw a therapist, first with David and then on my own, from December of 2010 through the fall of 2011. First it was weekly, then every other week, then, about halfway through my pregnancy, it was once a month. (I would have gone more often when I was pregnant, but I had so many OB and MFM appointments that it became unmanageable, and those doctor appointments afforded me their own kind of stress relief, so I did just fine).
After Zuzu was born, I went back to every other week for a couple of months. I worried that after all the trauma associated with birth that I could have some form of PPD. Even though that (thankfully) wasn't an issue for me, I was definitely glad to be able to talk to my therapist about the sneaky resurgences of grief and also the weird guilt that was sometimes associated with my newfound happiness. And then things were going really well, and I went to therapy and talked about that. And then I had an appointment that I had to cancel, and I didn't have time to reschedule right away, and then a month had gone by and I hadn't gone back and... I kind of missed my therapist (nice lady!) but I was okay.
I know therapy is not for everybody (or at least there are a lot of people who want to say it's not for them, whether or not they've actually given it a try) but I just want to take a moment to say that it was a really, really good thing for me. I had a great online support group, caring friends and family, and, obviously, this blog as an outlet, but I still needed help coping with my overwhelming, soul-sucking grief. I was not clinically depressed and I never took medication, but I have no doubt that seeing a professional therapist on a regular basis made a significance difference in my mental health.
At one point, about six months out from Eliza's death, my therapist and I discussed the possibility of taking antidepressants, but I was reluctant to do so because at that point I was trying to get pregnant again and I didn't want to worry about meds in my system. (Which is not to say that there even would have been anything to worry about--I have no idea--I was just super neurotic about it). I was certain that this new wave of sadness had a specific cause (I wasn't getting pregnant again) and required a specific cure (to get pregnant). My therapist was understanding and supportive of my decision (and about six weeks later, we discovered that I was right). However, I was glad to have someone I could have that conversation with who was evaluating my needs based on my needs, with no other agenda.
Therapy was the first place I went by myself after Eliza died. I cried my way through every session for the first few months. It's not like I enjoyed it--a lot of times I felt totally drained after a therapy session, and sometimes I wondered if it made me feel worse instead of better, especially in the months when life felt more manageable. There were times we'd I'd be feeling okay, and then I'd go to therapy and discuss all my sadness and anger and I'd leave feeling more tired and sad and angry than I had before I went.
But most of the time, I felt better after I left. Tired, sad, but a little lighter. I often left therapy and wanted to call someone--David, a friend, my mom--to talk about something that came up in therapy or something that I'd figured out or decided upon after talking it over with my therapist. My therapist didn't use words like "recovery" or "acceptance." She never made me feel like there was a time table for my grief. She sometimes asked me hard questions, but she always listened thoughtfully to my answers and validated my feelings. She reacted with shock and dismay when people said or did shitty things. She celebrated with me when I got pregnant again. She acknowledged the anxiety and the hope and the fear of pregnancy after loss, and offered practical advice for dealing with all of it.
She recommended some things I could never get into--for example, she is a big fan of meditation. The only time I'd tried meditating was when I was pregnant with Eliza and trying to prepare for a med-free birth, so meditation was just kind of off the table for me. But she also encouraged me to go to yoga, recommended books for me to read (including When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which helped salvage the little faith I had left at that point), and helped me form specific and concrete plans for handling difficult people or situations--everything from telling my boss I was pregnant (again) to coping with the first family get-together with the in-laws.
I know that you don't NEED to see a therapist to survive the loss of a child. But I don't really know why you wouldn't want to. I mean, I GET that it makes some people uncomfortable, but for me, nothing was more uncomfortable than the desperate sadness I felt after Eliza died, and I would have done anything to try and find some way out of that pit of despair.
It helped me to have a professional to help me process what was happening. I felt so crazy and so out of control and so unbelievably flattened by sadness that I needed someone objective to weigh in on whether this was actual insanity or regular grief. There were a couple of times when David and I were not seeing eye-to-eye and I was so relieved we had an objective but caring moderator to help us talk to each other. Sometimes I needed a pep talk, sometimes I just needed someone to listen without judgment or unsolicited advice.
I had support from my friends and my family and especially the community of bereaved parents I met online, but the regular therapy sessions I had were invaluable in a different way. They gave me something to do when I felt so helpless and out of control. It's not like therapy could fix anything that had gone wrong in my life, but at least it gave me a sense of being proactive, of doing something other than passively accepting what had happened to Eliza. It helped me analyze my experience, to be objective and subjective about what I was going through, and to also see my loss within a greater context of loss and struggle. It never made Eliza's death easier, but it made my life without her a little more bearable.
A friend of mine, whose brother died tragically a few years ago, told me that she admired the way I handled my grief by working through it, by going to therapy, by reading, by making an effort to keep myself healthy instead of handling grief the way she had--by drinking and smoking and eating to numb the pain. The truth was that any of those escapes would have been easier (and, honestly, preferable) to therapy, but I really freaking wanted another baby. And I needed to feel like I was fit to have one.
After wrestling for so long with the notion that I'd failed Eliza, I didn't want to be so screwed up by her death that I would fail another baby, too, even if it was in a totally different way. I needed reassurance from someone who was outside my situation, from someone who was getting paid to be honest with me about how I was doing. I needed to prove to myself, too, that I was willing to do whatever it took to get myself to a place where I was capable of managing a stressful pregnancy and--hopefully--eventually parenting another child.
Sometimes I get e-mails from people and they sound so desperate and when I reply to them and tell them that I understand and assure them that it will get easier to breathe again someday, I also ask if they've talked to a therapist. I always second guess myself when I ask those questions, because I don't want them to think I'm saying they are psychotic or something. I don't think that their grief is abnormal or scary or wrong and therefore they need to see a professional. I think that grief is normal and real and unavoidable, and it can feel so impossible and so overwhelming and a good therapist can help with that. Surviving the loss of a baby is hard enough with a good support system--I can imagine how much more difficult it is without the kind of support that I had and have. My therapist was such a great resource for me that I want everyone to have one!
I know that I got lucky in connecting with the first therapist I saw (she was recommended by my OB) and I cringe when I hear stories of people who had a bad experience because it cannot be easy to sit in a little room and tell the story of your heartache and then feel like you never want to see that person again. I also know that seeing a therapist can be prohibitively expensive or, in my case, a pain in the ass to submit to insurance. But in my opinion, it's still worth the trouble.
If you ask me what was essential to surviving the first year after Eliza's death, I would have to say it was the friendships I made with other moms who were grieving their own losses. But if you asked me if there was anything that made that year a bit easier for me, it was going to regular appointments with my therapist. Even when I left feeling sad (which was most of the time, because I mean seriously, I was seeing a therapist to cope with the death of my baby--it's not like there's much to NOT feel sad about), I also left feeling a bit more clear-headed in the midst of my grief fog.
I realize now that I didn't blog much about therapy while I was doing it. I don't know if I was a little embarrassed that I needed it when many others didn't, or if I just needed to keep some of that private. At any rate, I just wanted to say that I am glad I went and I know that it helped me.
I'm sure that I could have survived without it, but it would have been a helluva a lot harder than it had to be, and it was already hella hard. I don't know if I'll ever need therapy again in the future, but if life ever gets that bleak again, I won't hesitate to call someone and make an appointment. I will always be grateful for those therapy sessions and the small sense of stability and hope they offered me on the darkest and slipperiest days.