Thursday, January 6, 2011

This Grief is Your Grief, This Grief is My Grief

I've recently had conversations with several different people about their own losses and grief.  They are always quick to qualify it, to acknowledge that they haven't lost a child and that their grief is not the same as mine (Thank God, right?).  Sometimes people feel like they don't know what to say because they have never been through this experience.  And it's true that talking with women who have been here, who have gone through exactly this experience of stillbirth has been tremendously helpful in a way that no one else could have been.

Some of these women would argue (and have argued) that no one else can understand what they're feeling.  I get that.  I do.  The grief I feel is not quite the same as what David feels.  The way we experience Eliza's loss as her parents is different from the way anyone else can feel about it.  The way it feels to lose a baby is unique in its horror and anguish, yes.  But the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that these other kinds of grief are not so different.

A lot of people say, "I can't imagine what you're feeling."  And if they've never lost a child, then sure, they can't exactly know what I'm feeling.  But actually I think most people could imagine it.  Anyone who has ever lost a loved one too soon can pretty well imagine what we're going through.

It feels pretty much like the worst grief you've ever felt.  Amplified and unending.

You feel sorry for yourself, sorry for others who also loved that person, sorry for the person who died, guilty that you couldn't do more to help them, devastated that your future with that person has been wiped away.  You feel lost, angry, confused, shattered.  The idea that the universe is an orderly place where things happen for a reason--maybe you never claimed to believe that anyway, but now you have to face up to the randomness and learn to accept it in a way you never had to before, when only grandparents died and not until they were in their eighties.

Someone outside this can't know the reality of it, sure, but I think anyone could imagine it.  They just don't want to. And who can blame them?

There are people who say, "I know how you feel.  At least a little bit."  And I think it's brave of them to admit that they have felt debilitating grief, that they have been decimated by a loss, even if it wasn't the loss of their baby.  I appreciate it when people share the pain that they've experienced and talk about how they worked through it, when they seek a connection instead of trying to distance themselves from the horror of thinking about a baby dying.

And I understand why someone would be afraid to do that--afraid of offending me, afraid of overstepping, afraid of letting themselves imagine how I might be feeling.  I think I would have been afraid, too.  But I am glad there are people who say to me, "This is what my grief was like.  Eventually it will get a little easier for you, too."

I also understand that some bereaved parents don't want that kind of response.  They need their grief to be recognized as unique and unimaginable.  Anything less would feel like its magnitude was being diminished.  But for me, I kind of need the magnitude to be diminished.  Not the magnitude of my love for Eliza, or the effect she will always have on our lives, but the magnitude of her death.  Of her death being the one thing that defines her and us--I want that to feeling to ease.  She is more to me than just a baby who died.  She's also my first pregnancy, my first daughter, the source of so much joy before all this grief.  And I have to be more than just a mother who lost her baby.  I feel horribly guilty for saying that, but it's true.

Losing a baby is different.  It's different because it's unnatural.  Because it feels rare and exceptional (even if the actual statistics suggest otherwise--1 in 180 births are stillbirths).

It's different because there is both an emotional desire and an instinctive, biological compulsion for a mother to make sure that she keeps her baby safe.  Her failure to do so means that there's probably more guilt mixed in with grief than most people have to experience.

But there are lots of ways to feel guilty--words left unspoken, the fight you had recently, past wrongdoings you thought you'd have more time to make up for, or even a terrible accident that you would have given anything to have avoided--guilt can complicate anyone's grief, even if it's a different kind of guilt.

The shock and trauma might be different, too.  A healthy pregnancy with the worst second worst outcome is incredibly traumatic in part because no one saw it coming.  The physical experience can be incredibly traumatic and the postpartum recovery can be agonizing in ways that are not the same for any other grief experience.  This is unavoidably true.

Still, death is nothing if not often unexpected.  No one expected a blood clot to kill an otherwise healthy woman during surgery.  No one expected a drunk driver to crash into their son's car on a Sunday afternoon.  No one expected their partner to go to bed Thanksgiving night and never wake up again.  Shock and trauma are not regulated to dead babies alone.  Mothers whose babies die at birth are not the only people who want to die when they lose someone they love.

And even if death is to be expected, even if it comes at the end of a long illness, even though we know our grandparents had long and happy lives, even when we admit that the person we've lost is no longer in pain, the aching sadness of loss is still much the same, though it must operate at different levels of intensity.

A friend of mine spoke about the waves of grief she felt after her fiancee left her.  She didn't want to compare her loss to mine, a break up is hardly the same as the death of a child.  I'd be the first to agree with that.  But some of the pain I'm feeling, she's felt that, too.  Because being a jilted by your fiancee is all about losing the future you had planned on.  The dreams and hopes you had, the idea of what your life was going to be like.  All of that is suddenly gone in an instant.

And that is what losing a child feels like--it doesn't just hurt because it's someone you love, it also hurts because it means an unending cycle of perpetual disappointment.  It's not just one instance that you can move away from and get some distance on.  All you planned, everything you looked forward to (birthday parties and prom dresses and wedding receptions and family vacations and reading your favorite childhood books) is suddenly blotted out of your future.  And you're sitting there remembering so vividly what it felt like to be happy just moments ago, days ago, weeks ago, and trying to reconcile the happiness you can still taste with the reality that it will never be yours at all.

I can imagine what it feels like to be the bride who has the dress and who has chosen the invitations and who ends up without a wedding.  The pain would be less and the future would be brighter, but in that moment she still knows what it is to be sad about the loss of someone she loved (even if he did turn out to be a total douchebag) and sad to lose the future that, by all rights, should have been hers.

I have come to think about this as the double edge of grief.  And I think anyone who has lost someone before their time must have felt it.  Not only do you miss that person specifically--her personality, his laugh, the way he would have reacted to a particular situation, the advice she could have offered--you also miss the experiences you should have shared with him or her.  The moments in your life that would have been brighter and sweeter if only you had been able to share them with your mom or your stepdad or your spouse or your big brother or whoever it was who shouldn't have died so soon.

I've written before about how I've been surprised by the fact that when I miss Eliza, I miss more than just the future we were supposed to have with her.  I love her and miss her in a way I did not realize would be possible to feel for a stillborn baby.  Sure, we projected onto her our own ideas of what she would be like when she was still our unnamed "Baby Duck," but there's also a way in which she was so intimately a part of David and me that I miss her.  The kicks and movements that felt like she was really communicating with me--keeping me entertained during jury duty, distracting me while I was trying to lecture about Oedipus Rex, or connecting with me during our yoga classes.  There will always be a place in my heart only she could fill.

We miss our baby girl and we miss what our life with her was supposed to be.  This is the double edge of grief.

And I think most people who have lost anyone they love can understand what that feels like.  I think most people who have any imagination at all can imagine what that feels like.  They can't know our grief, and I don't expect them too.  I wish that nobody had to know what it feels like to have their baby die.

But I don't think people should be afraid to share their grief experiences with someone who lost a child.  Of course it's not the same.  We all get that.  But still, I've had some of the best conversations with people who have started out talking about their own experiences with death and grief, saying things like, "When my dad died, I had to shorten my hours at work so I could cope."  Or, "When my stepdad died, people thought I shouldn't be that sad because he wasn't my 'real dad.'"  Or, "My brother was 21 when he died and I still miss him everyday."  Or, "When I found out my mom had a year to live, I was forty years old, but I still couldn't face it."

These are things that bereaved parents also experience.  Having to face something you never imagined dealing with.  Having to rearrange schedules so you can make it through the day.  Knowing you will miss your baby everyday for the rest of your life.  Sometimes being expected to get over it because you never "really" knew the baby.  (For the record, I have been fortunate enough to escape that kind of asshat comment, but I know other people have heard it.)

Grief is different for everyone.  Losing a parent or a sibling isn't the same as losing a child.  But I really think they are more similar than they are different.  Pain and loss are great equalizers.

If you've ever known anyone who died before you were ready to let them go, if you've ever ached for someone to be part of a celebration they missed, if you've ever had your heart broken by someone you thought you could count on being there for you forever, then no, you don't know exactly how I am feeling, but you've still got an idea.  My grief, your grief, it's not so different.

If there is one thing I have learned from this, it might be that we all walk around with holes in our hearts.

Everyone gets their share, sooner or later.  Because the alternative is to not love anybody.

And as much as we don't want the people we love to die, we also know that if we didn't love them enough to grieve their loss, there really wouldn't be a point to living at all.

So we're all connected by grief.

This is my big discovery:  the heart of the human condition.  I should write a dissertation on it.  Someone should give me a Nobel prize.  I have figured it out.  We are all connected by grief.

But even now, even plunging toward the bottom of what feels like a bottomless pit of grief, I have to admit the other side of that truth:  we're all connected by grief only because we're all connected by love.


  1. This is so true, very well said! I try never to presume that I know EXACTLY how another grieving person feels. But since the loss of my daughter, I find I understand their grief & am more certain of what to say & do, in a way I never would have been before. No matter why we're grieving, there's a common thread that binds us together.

  2. I came upon your blog in a wierd way and have been reading your blogs and I am so sorry about what you and your husband have been going through.
    I was visiting with my mother-in-law during the holiday's and she went through the same thing that you are going through and she was supposed to have a little girl and her name was going to be Elizabeth. Kind of eery if you ask me. In my talking to her she said it was the worst time of her life, but if that wouldn't have happened then she wouldn't have what she has today. Two wonderful sons and a now a beautiful granddaughter. I am thankful to her that she got through it because I wouldn't have my husband if it were not for it.
    I can only imagine your suffering because if I lost my daughter I don't know if I would survive. I hope that you keep writing because that is good therapy and someday you can move forward, but never forget.

  3. I stumbled across your post and found myself nodding my head while reading.

    Most of it I agree with....after losing my sister in a car crash, my mum the following year to ovarian cancer and then our precious four year old daughter the year after that I have experienced 3 different deaths.

    Grief is grief...the feelings are the same however with my daughter it is more intense and the longing for her and the unfairness that she won't live her life is more profound than that of my longing for my sister and mum.

    My sister left four children behind, 2 boys, 8 and 5 and twin girls 6 months old at the time of the accident. They are constant reminders every time I see them that my sister is missing out on so much as are they of her love! These feelings of grief I feel will never go away, sometimes they are more intense as the kids grow and she is not here.

    Thank you for such a well written piece and for sharing your honest feelings. I always feel comforted when I read someone else is traveling this same journey as me and can see the good in the world.

    with love
    Diana Doyle x

  4. So true, Brooke, and like the others above me have said, also very well written....

    The man who led our memorial service for Otis spoke about this very thing - that in Otis's death, we were all accessing so many levels of stored grief in addition to the grief of losing him - and I think he even said, "My grief is your grief is his grief is her grief," or something like that.

    I do find it interesting though, I feel like sometimes when I'm talking to people who haven't lost a child (but have, say, lost another tragically or unexpectedly), they try to disqualify their own grief (unless it is brand new - I have a friend whose brother just died and she never tries to disqualify hers as being "less" than mine). But in so disqualifying, I get this weird feeling like "Uh oh, I'm doing my grief 'wrong'" as it's like they assume that losing a child must be such a catastrophically more horrible grief, and since instead I see our common ground in grieving, I wonder if somehow I'm not grieving as thoroughly or as horribly as I'm somehow "supposed" to.

    (And even as I write this, I recognize the illogical nature of my thoughts, that there is no "wrong" way to grieve my child, and I can't possibly do it any way other than how I am.)

    The last few sentences of this post are absolutely beautiful.

    much love to you.

  5. So well written. I love how you can get your point across so thorougly, I can read it and say yes, that's exactly what I mean, that's what I want to say, but I can only get a fraction of that out verbally or on paper.

    I feel like I personally disqualify my own grief to others because I don't want to be the insensitive one. You know that one person who says something to you that you never forget and they just leave such a bad taste... I don't want to be the person who speaks too quickly and makes someone hurt worse.

  6. So incredibly well written & beautiful! I loved your last much truth there.

  7. you are such a beautiful writer and i am sending all of the love and comfort i have in me to you.

  8. This is beautiful Brooke.

  9. I found your blog through Emily at Our Little Buster, and came across this particular post, and it's so beautifully written and so incredibly spot on. We are all connected by grief because the majority of us choose to live our lives of love. Which of course puts us at great risk to lose eventually. I'm very sorry for your loss. You are a beautiful writer.

  10. Wow. I'm not entirely sure how I linked to you but we lost our baby, a son, and I've wading through the spiraling waves of grief since he died almost a year and a half ago. It gets easier and then it gets as difficult as it was that day we learned he'd never survive. And, with that in mind, this post is perfection. I reached out to a friend last week. She'd lost her husband, her best friend of forty years. I think the point where she is may - quite possibly - be the worst time to lose a spouse...someone with whom you've lived for decades, at the point in life where you're planning a "post-children" future together, young enough to rediscover each other all over again. And now that future is gone. And when she reponded to my message, her words resonated with me...she is reinventing herself, trying to discover her future without her husband in it. She knows it can be good, that there is much good in her life, but it's not the same good she'd always anticipated and THAT is devastating. And even though losing a baby and losing the hope of ever having a body healthy enough to grow another baby isn't AT ALL the same as losing your husband and best friend and father of your children, in many ways it is EXACTLY THE SAME. Loss is loss. Grief is grief. And, as you say, it is the one thing we all share. Figuring out how to move on after losing something we desparetly didn't want to lose.

    My favorite quote is from Orson Scott Card (even though I'm not Mormon) in his book "Shadow of the Hegemon," where a character says, "The grief is the joy." And that is almost what you've written here, so closely mirrored that it makes me feel as though I've truly put some of the "why me" answers together.