Friday, September 2, 2011

You Didn't Upset Me; I'm Already Freaking Upset

I want to thank everybody who commented or e-mailed me yesterday.  That post was an explosion of self-pity typed in a low, low moment, and the comments and replies that beeped in on my phone that afternoon were like virtual hugs that I really needed.

I also want to add that although "Why?" is a question I have gone over and over again countless times, "Why me?" is something I have tried to avoid dwelling on for the simple reason that I know this didn't just happen to me.  I know that I wasn't singled out for this, because if there is one thing I have discovered since Eliza's death, it's that I'm not alone in this grief.  The real question is why would this happen to anyone?  And there's no answer to that question.

Well, Love's mom may be right when she says it's because life just sucks sometimes.  Such wisdom, that one!

At any rate, I know it may not be the last time that I'm in that situation, and at least now I know that I can come up with an answer and get it out without crying.  And that's not to say that I think crying is bad or wrong or embarrassing (my therapist says crying is not a negative behavior and I believe her).

It's just that this was a sweet kid who was trying to be polite to a professor, and I didn't want to have a total meltdown and make him think he caused it.  I'm sure he felt really bad when he heard my response (and it was sweet of him to stammer, "I'm so sorry,"--it's a hell of a lot more than I've gotten from certain health care and insurance professionals who've heard the same story), and I really didn't want him to think that he made me cry, rather than the situation itself making me cry.  You know what I mean?

I think this is the reason that so many people avoid mentioning Eliza or avoid talking about anyone who's dead.  Because we still tend to think that the mention of that person creates an emotional response instead of just releasing a feeling that's been there all along.

When I was in college, my friend Stephanie's mom died suddenly.  It was spring break of our junior year.  It was the first terrible thing that happened to someone I know and I had no idea what to do or what to say to Stephanie.  My heart was broken for Steph and for her sisters, and for her mom who wouldn't get to meet her future sons-in-law and grandkids.  I was so sad for them.  I was also freaked out because in my self-centered little world, it was incontrovertible evidence that someday I would lose my mom, too, and that it could happen sooner rather than later.  Which was something I did not want to think about.

When Steph came back to school after break, and tried to get back into the swing of things, I wanted to be a good friend to her.  And so, naturally, I completely avoided talking to her about her mom.

Why on earth would I do that?  Why would I try to pretend that his huge and terrible and life-altering event hadn't just happened to one of my best friends?  Why would I just carry on as usual when I saw Steph leave class in tears and I watched her pick at her food at dinner and I knew she had a hard time concentrating on her studies?  Why would I avoid talking about the grief that was obviously in her heart all the time?

You know why.  Because I didn't want to upset her.  I didn't want to make her sad.  I didn't want to make her cry.

Because I was completely clueless about grief and I just wanted my friend to be okay.

I realize now that I handled it all wrong, and I told Stephanie this and tried to offer this terribly belated apology when she came to see me a few weeks after we lost Eliza.  She shrugged it off with a smile and told me that it was okay--that she had some friends she talked to about her mom a lot, and some friends (like me) that she talked with about other things that were welcome distractions from her grief.

I wish I'd known how to be a better friend to Steph after her mom died, but I'm glad she had some people who were better equipped to step up and be the emotional support she needed.  I think it's a little bit like the threstrals in Harry Potter, which are mythical creatures only visible to those who have witnessed death.  Some people are intuitively sensitive and know what to say and how to talk with someone who is grieving.  The rest of us are too caught up in our own issues and we only learn how to handle the grief of others only by experiencing it ourselves.  (And of course some people never learn at all because they suck / are socially awkward / are selfish beasts.)

All this to say, that conversation at the salad bar was painful and horrible and I freaking hate that it had to happen.  But I don't hate that he asked me; I hate the answer I had to give.

I did make it through my afternoon class okay.  It was not my most sparkling teaching performance, but I'm pretty sure the students did not suspect I'd been sobbing in my office minutes before (thanks, Avon Waterproof Eyeliner and L'Oreal Voluminous Waterproof Mascara!  No, they did not sponsor this post, haha.).  I got home with a raging headache and cried some ugly tears.  It was one of those evenings when David walks in from work and gives me a hug with one arm while he's pulling a beer out of the fridge with the other because he knows he's in for an emotional hailstorm and he really needs a Hefeweisen to help withstand it.  (Also Project Runway came on, so that helped.)

Still, I'm proud of myself that in that moment at the salad bar, holding tongs full of spinach, with my heart pounding in my ears, I was able to say, "Thank you for asking," to let this kid know that he hadn't done something wrong by inquiring about my baby.

I'm proud of myself for not crying in the dining hall, for making it back to my office. I'm proud of myself for saying, "It's been rough" and not trying to pretend that everything's okay.

I'm even proud of myself for lying and making it seem like things are getting "back to normal" for me because he's just a college student I had in class last year and there's no need to burden a random eighteen-year-old with all of my grief and angst (after all, that's what you people are for).

But I have to say, that brief encounter was so emotionally exhausting that I think I've totally earned a 3-day weekend.  Hope you all find some peace and maybe even a pocket of happiness over the weekend.


  1. so true. i was clueless about grief until Julius passed away. i get that "i didn't want to upset you" line often. i remind people that they aren't reminding me that my son passed away, and that i actually like talking about his life. it's talking/thinking about his death that cripples me every time. :(

  2. I often think of the Maya Angelou quote "you did then what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better." I am comfortable around those in mourning in a way that I would have never been if Sam hadn't died.

    I am proud of you too, Brooke. It does get easier, if that helps. The first year is really the hardest. Hang in there, sweetie. Sending love.

  3. (And of course some people never learn at all because they suck / are socially awkward / are selfish beasts.) I love that!
    I feel like I was that person before I lost Liam that thought it was better to not mention someones loss because I thought it would upset them. Now I know I understand firsthand that it wasn't upsetting them talking about there loved one, just the fact that it sucks that the loss had to happen.
    Hope you have a good 3 day weekend!

  4. I was thinking of you yesterday, by the time I had read your post you had probably already started, if not finished, your class and I was really hoping it went okay. I'm glad you're feeling better today.

    Before my son died I was one of those people who didn't know how to approach grief and thought I was doing people a favor by just keeping my mouth shut, but Aiden has taught me otherwise. I'm still a bit awkward because I relate other people's losses to my own, and a baby dying is much different than say a parent or spouse. But now I know to just allow them to speak about their lost loved and give them a hug and it might help a little. xo

  5. It's so hard to know what to do, what to say. Some people don't want to talk about it, some people do. The people I appreciate the most looked me in the eye with a straight face and asked how I was doing. And when I said fine, they said, no how are you really doing. Not with poor you sympathy eyes, and a condecending sweetie on the end of it, but like they really wanted to know, and could take it whatever the answer was. It came from some unexpected people, but I always appreciated it.

  6. Umm, can we discuss Project Runway? The atrocities committed last night had me a little horrified. Bring back the good old days of Christian Siriano and the guy from San Francisco who truly knew how to do Avant Garde. The stuff last night was just crap I thought.

  7. This is why I sometimes find it easier to lie- when someone asked/asks "how many kids do you have?" or "is this your first?", etc. (which used to be "do you have any kids?")...if I was in a state of mind that I knew saying the cold hard truth would make me teary and the other person regret asking/upset too- sometimes that's just easier. (Not that you had an easy lie out in this situation.) I reacted the same way when my friend's dad died, it's hard to know what to do when you've not experienced a close family member's death. I hope you have a nice weekend.

  8. (Oh, and just in case anyone reading my comment thinks I'm a callous b for not responding to the more sensitive parts of this post:)

    Yes. My friend and neighbor whose son was stillborn 7 years ago refers to it as "shooting someone in conversation," that moment when you they ask a question and the answer just knocks you (and them) completely on your butt. It's so tricky. I've gotten "better" at not crying everytime someone asks about Otis, but even still, their shock and sadness at hearing the news often creates such a strange and sad dimension to what should have been a harmless, friendly chit chat of conversation...

    And yes, I too have learned so much about grief. I can't believe I was "that woman" to the woman I mention in the above paragraph, a close friend and neighbor whose son died at 40 1/2 weeks; I thought she just wouldn't want to talk about it, so I always kept quiet. It wasn't until we lost Otis that I realized my shortcomings, and apologized for not having been a better support for her during that time. I just think that until you've been on this side of grief, you have no idea what's going to feel best or right for someone in the thick of it.

  9. That's just it. When people ask or bring up or mention our babies, it's not them making us cry-- it's an emotional response that was already there, allowing itself to have a release. They aren't making us sad. We haven't forgotten about the reality.

    I have a friend who also lost her mom some years back. I came to the hospital and visited while on her death bed. I was at the funeral and graveside burial. But then, I disappeared. I never asked, commented, or brought up her mom. I recently apologized to her as she brought up and openly talked about my son with me. She wasn't afraid or uncomfortable under the influence of grief. She had experience. She knew what to say and do and I apologized for not having that in my mental notes when she needed it most. Again, she shrugged it.

    It won't be the last time, but doesn't it feel good to release? I know that after a good cry, I feel better. Not every completely better, but better for letting myself grieve and letting myself show the vulnerability and obvious love I have for my son. It's not a sign of weakness-- no matter what anyone assumes.

  10. i couldn't even get through this post, not for you lack of writing but because i could have written it myself though nowhere near as eloquently. when i asked why, also so boldly on my blog, someone wrote that it will never help me to know why. and i agree. what would an explanation, not that there is one, really do for me? BUT reason rarely enters into matters of the heart. your logical brain isn't screaming out why, why me?? it's your heart. and friend, i think our hearts will still be screaming with our dying breaths. there is nothing in life that could prepare us to assimilate these losses into ours, just as there is no explanation that would make things even a hair easier.
    i have about the same story as you with a friend. my best friend's mom died. my friend broke up with her boyfriend (it had been a long time coming) and moved back home. when she and her boyfriend lived together i was with them at least 3x a week, as id been with her and her family since we were 9. but, i couldn't handle it. i loved her mother so dearly and i too took the path of least resistance and clammed up and distanced myself. i feel terrible to this day about it and have apologized. but, gosh, moms are supposed to die eventually right? i couldn't even handle that. how can i expect the world to keep me any closer than arms length? i can't.
    love to you

  11. Yes you should be proud of yourself. It is so true- this paradigm shift that occurs when you lose someone in your life. Death opens a new door somewhere in our psyche. We learn to relate to others (bereaved) in a completely different way. I just wish that ability did not come at such a terrible price.

  12. I worked with a guy who lost his 6 year old daughter last year before we lost Cale. I didn't know him well, but saw his wife and him a week after their loss. And I commented on her pregnancy (as she was also pregnant with a boy at the time), and tried to be polite to them in the brief encounter I had, but I didn't mention their daughter. I felt bad at the time, but after losing Cale I thought about them often and was SO mad at myself for being such an idiot. For not saying something.

    He had since moved away, but I got in touch with him just to let him know that I think about them still and that I'm so sorry still and so sorry that I never said anything. He wrote back and was very polite (which of course made me feel like more of a chump), but also helped bring a little closer to me.

    It really does say something for those people who haven't experienced terrible loss, but who really step up regardless. The ones who say the right things, or at least say something.

  13. We had to learn so many harsh life lessons the hard way. I'm sure your friend Stephanie understands.
    Sending you so much love, Brooke.

  14. I completely agree with Caroline that it says so much about the people who step up and say something when they themselves have never experienced a terrible loss. I get the people who don't want to upset you thing. People don't want to see you sad or crying. But to me even though I'm sad to think about our horrible loss, I'm also so so happy that someone REMEMBERS my son. One of the few precious gifts I can receive for him now.