Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dark and Ugly

I am not where I want to be.

Of course, there are two levels to where I want to be.  There's the want to be planning a first birthday party and buying a size 12 months Christmas dress and worrying about holiday travel and packing and naptime.  Where I really want to be is impossible.  What I want most of all is gone forever and there's no getting her back.  I'm starting to absorb that truth, as much as I hate it, as much as it sticks and scratches on the way down.  She's gone and all I want is to have her here.  All I want to be is parenting an almost-one-year-old and watching her take her first steps.  That can't happen.  I know.  I get that.  I've spent a year of reckoning and I guess at some point I came terms with the fact that I'm not going to get her back.  Not in this lifetime.

But even apart from that line of wishful thinking, I'm not where I want to be.

I want to be wiser, better, calmer, more peaceful, more spiritual, more compassionate, more giving.

I want my heart to be broken open and outward, not collapsed in upon itself into a ball of sharp and misfitting shards of anger.

I want to feel good about the way I have kept Eliza's memory alive in me this year. I want to know that I have grieved deeply enough, mourned intensely enough, loved her out loud enough to show how much she matters.

I want to be in a place where I feel sad, yes, but also hopeful.  I want to hope for brighter days, for healthy babies, for a future that isn't what I thought it would be, but isn't entirely miserable either.

I want to be able to report that at almost a year from my daughter's death, she has changed and transformed me into someone who is strong and capable and kind and honest.

I DO NOT want to sound like I'm fishing for compliments.  I'm just trying to say that I feel so far removed from where I want to be, from the way I want Eliza's life and death to have changed me.

I don't feel peaceful.  I don't feel hopeful.  I feel dark and ugly and sad and bitter and small.  I am doing the ugly cry again--driving home from zumba class last night (which I thought would make me feel better), sitting in my office at work today (I just locked the door and turned off the light even though it's technically my office hours), when David walked in the door from work yesterday (which is just what he needs at the end of the day--bless his heart, he does manage to give me a big hug BEFORE he gets himself a beer).

I am so angry that my daughter died.  I am so angry that there is no explanation for what happened.  I am so furious that my body betrayed me.  I am flabbergasted that all the research and reading I did failed to prevent her loss.  I can't shake the sense that I failed her both intellectually and instinctively--that if I couldn't know something was wrong, at least I should have felt it.

Instead of mailing out birthday announcements, I'm sending out memorial cards tonight.

Instead of feeling better, I feel like I'm farther away and missing her more than ever.

I know there's no justice in this world.  I watch the news, I read the blogs, I know that this life is grossly unfair all the time and to countless different people.

But I'm in a dark, ugly place where it feels like it's just me.

I feel so fucking sorry for myself I can hardly stand it.  Because it's not about ME, it's about her.  It's about a little girl who never was, because she was only and ever a baby.  It's about a baby who never opened her eyes, or cried, or grabbed my finger with her tiny little hand.  It's about Eliza, who was inexplicably denied all the joys and heartaches and jokes and birthday parties and swimming lessons and stuffed animals that should have been hers.

I really thought I was doing so well.  But yesterday the weather turned cold.  The month of November is about to run out.  And I'm still the same girl who got her life pulled out from under her without preamble or warning on a cold, dark day in December almost a year ago.

I want to be better for having loved her.

But all I feel is angry and sad because I miss her so freaking much.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Home Is Where My Dogs Are

My dogs stayed with my parents for a week so that we wouldn't have to kennel them when we went to Chicago.

For a week, my sofa was free of dog hair.  The mailman's arrival was not announced with unmitigated ferocity of barking.  Nobody burrowed under a blanket next to me only to fart (I've broken David of that habit, but haven't been as successful with Cooper).  There was no Little Mac howling to be let out in the middle of the night.  I didn't have to smell dog food with Parmesan cheese sprinkled on it (gag-o-rama).  No click-click-click of doggy toenails scratching our hardwood floors.  No growling when I open the closet door (near Mac's bed) in the morning.  No forty-pound dog stealing the covers at night.  No whining for treats.  No guilt-inducing puppy dog eyes when I don't want to go for a walk on dark, chilly evenings.

But also, for a whole week, there was nobody dancing with excitement when I walked in the front door.  No one trailed me around the house just so he could snuggle up next to me the instant I sat down.  No one wiggled with delight when I opened a cabinet door, hoping desperately I'd produce a treat for him.  No one fought the laptop for the real estate of my thighs.  No one was there to keep me company when David worked late.

I forget what good company they are, these obnoxious dogs.  I take for granted the way they abide with me, no matter how cranky I am, or how sad I'm feeling, or what I look like.  I get irritated with the barking, and tired of the dog hair, and annoyed by their (relatively simple) demands.  And then I live without them for a week and I just get lonesome for them.

So today, I'm so glad to have the dogs back where they belong.  You know, shedding on my furniture and farting under the covers.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanks, Chicago

Chicago treated us well.  We kept ourselves busy and even managed to enjoy ourselves a little bit.  We forgot the camera, so I now present my (slightly blurry) cell phone snapshots.

Proof that we were there.

This is why they call it the "windy city" - that's a rogue umbrella floating several stories up.

Oh, Eliza.  Always in my heart and on my mind.  Even when I'm just browsing in Crate and Barrel.

The Bean in Millennium Park, where we rested after we got weary of the Black Friday crowds on Michigan Avenue.

Models doing a photo shoot in Millennium Park.  I found this very exciting.

A happy snap.  Our third try.  The first one was a close-up of David's chin, the second one I was snarling.  This was the best we could do.  See how nice and sunny it is?  I don't know what people are talking about when they complain about winter in Chicago.  It was gorgeous all weekend.

The Husband.  What a dreamboat.  His lapel pin says "Teach" and a random dude at our hotel recognized it as coming with a set of Penzey's spices and then we talked about how much we love Penzey's as we rode the elevator with him.

Chicago skyline.  It's, like, a real big city.  Which I already knew from my favorite movie circa 1990:  Adventures in Babysitting.

Darling friend from the blogosphere, Brandy Wilson.  Met up for lunch and found her just as adorable in person as she is online.  Also?  She has perfect skin and shiny hair.  Unfortunately, this picture makes it look like I am wearing shoulder pads or like I am the hunchback of Notre Dame, but I swear it's just a weird angle.
Other highlights of the trip included our swanky hotel room (thanks, Priceline!), seeing a musical comedy at a theatre on Navy Pier, and going to IKEA on the way home.  And, because it's a small, small world, we grabbed a bit to eat at Harry Caray's restaurant on Navy Pier after the show and ran into one of David's former students who was there with his family.  He was thrilled to see "Coach Duck!" and joined us at our table for a few minutes, then continued to wave at us across the restaurant.  It kind of felt like I was married to a celebrity.

So, yeah.  It wasn't the Thanksgiving weekend it should have been, but it could have been worse, you know?

Hope you all found things to be thankful for this year.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Today is the anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination.

just before the assassination, picture from here
I fill up the empty time of my commute by listening to audio books (because I am a gianormous nerd) and one of the books I listened to recently was The Kennedy Detail by Gerald Blaine.  To be honest, I was not enamored with the prose.  It used a lot of stale phrases and got kind of repetitive, and the purpose of the book was essentially to explain (and defend) the actions of the secret service agents that day in Dallas, and to squelch the possibility of a conspiracy theory.  But the story?  Well, that was pretty fascinating.

I've been interested in Jackie Kennedy for a long time.  I remember when I was about twelve years old and my aunt Peggy took me shopping.  I tried on a pair of sunglasses at the Gap--big, dark sunglasses with round, navy blue frames that hid my face.  She looked at me modeling them and told me I looked "Very Jackie O."

I took this as a huge compliment, and was delighted when she bought them for me.  I'm sure that my dorky twelve-year-old self was totally channeling this level of style and sophistication:

picture from here
Lately, as you might suppose, I've become more interested in Jackie for other reasons.  Mostly because of the tragedies she endured.

Her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage.

Then she had a baby girl who was stillborn.  They named her Arabella.  There isn't a lot written about this part of Jackie's life, and I imagine she did a lot of suffering in silence.

Caroline was born the following year, just as John F. Kennedy's political career was really ramping up.

Jackie was pregnant with John Jr. during JFK's presidential campaign in 1960--in fact, she gave birth to him in November of that year.  I can only imagine how complicated it would feel to be pregnant and in the public spotlight, with all of the mixed emotions that come with a pregnancy after loss (even after having another healthy baby--it's not like the fear goes away, right?).

Jackie with baby John - image from here

It was three years later, in August of 1963, that she had another baby, a little boy named Patrick, who lived just two days.  He couldn't breathe properly when he was born, and died from respiratory distress.  (August was also the month that Arabella was born--a terrible coincidence).

By the time she was thirty-four years old, Jackie Kennedy had given birth to four children and buried two of them.

(And can I just say how much it must have stung to watch Ethel Kennedy popping out kid after kid?  Ethel and Bobby Kennedy had ELEVEN kids.  I'm just saying... it couldn't have been easy to be her sister-in-law.)

I knew most of this stuff about Jackie before I listened to the audiobook.  I knew that she'd lost Arabella and Patrick, and I'd already admired her for the grace and poise and dignity that she exuded in the midst of these tragedies.

What I didn't realize was that she lost her husband three short months after her youngest child died.

I didn't know that after burying Patrick in August, she accompanied JFK to Dallas in November to help him campaign.  That parade in November of 1963 was her first public appearance after the death of her youngest child.

I remember what three months out was like.  I remember how raw and fragile and vulnerable I felt.  I remember how I could hold myself together to teach class for two hours, and once I was alone in my car after class, all the tears I'd been holding back would come rushing out and I'd lean on the steering wheel, in the parking garage on campus, and sob.  David and I were still surviving on take-out food and frozen pizza because once we were both home from work, all we wanted to do was sit on the couch and hold on to each other.  It was still so incredibly hard to get through the day and I felt like a zombie so much of the time.

Would I have wanted to go out on the campaign trail and smile for pictures with my presidential husband?  People, even NOW I hold back from events that would require me to socialize with strangers.  But Jackie was three months fresh into her grief when she went to Dallas with her husband and watched helplessly as the back of his head got shot off.

In the days after Eliza's death (and even now), my greatest fear was losing someone else I loved.  She had felt so certain to me--a living, moving, kicking baby in my belly, sure to be bundled in a blanket and passed around to friends a family in just a few weeks' time.  And then, suddenly, with no warning, she was gone.  If my entire life could change so quickly--and so horribly--in the span of a single sentence:  "I'm sorry, we can't find a heartbeat," then what was to stop it from continuing to fall apart?

Everything suddenly felt shaky and uncertain.  If Eliza could die for no reason, when I'd been trying to take such good care of her, what was to stop everyone else I loved from dying also?  If my sleeping dogs weren't snoring, I'd check to make sure they were still breathing because it seemed just as likely that they wouldn't be.  Why wouldn't I lose my (healthy, active, young) daughter one day and my (healthy, active, young) husband the next?  Strokes and blood clots and heart attacks and car accidents, these suddenly all seemed so frighteningly possible--likely, even--that I could scarcely breathe if I thought about it, and I sighed with relief every time David walked in the door.  Exhausted, broken-hearted, but still intact.  I could still hold on to him.

The book I listened to detailed the blood and the gore of the shooting (which may have been therapeutic for the secret service agents, who got no counseling or personal leave after the assassination).  The secret service agent assigned to Jackie ran unbelievably fast to make it from his position on the running board of the agents' car to the presidential limo.  He leaped to the ground and started running when the first shot was fired, and got to the car just after the third (and fatal) shot was fired.  It took all of seven seconds.  He flung himself up onto the trunk and held on desperately as the driver of the limo sped up to get away from the square.  Meanwhile, Jackie was clutching her husband, covered in blood, pieces of his brain in her hands.  The secret service agent managed to climb his way into the backseat, throwing himself on top of the president and the first lady as the limo careened toward the hospital.

It was an absolute horror.  It makes phrases like "worst nightmare" feel trite and ridiculous.  To be so freshly grieving the death of your baby, and then sit next to your husband when the back of his head explodes from the rifle shot of a madman...  How do you ever recover from that?  How do you find it in you to go on?

I have to tell you, I don't know where Jackie Kennedy got to strength to survive the death of two children AND the trauma of witnessing her husband's murder.  But I would bet that she has no idea where she got that strength either.  None of us think we can live through such unimaginable horror until--holy shit--it's our life and we can't NOT live through it.

© Newsday Photo by Dick Kraus from here
It was Jackie's idea to put the eternal flame on JFK's grave at Arlington Cemetery.  It was also Jackie's idea to have her two babies transferred from the Kennedy family plot to be buried next to their father.  A lot of heartbreak on that hill in Arlington, and Jackie Kennedy seems to have shouldered more than her fair share of it.

So today I remember Jack Kennedy, whom I think was a great president (as well as a handsome man).  It's a travesty that our nation lost him as a leader, and it's a tragedy that his children lost their father, that his wife lost her husband.

Today I also remember his wife, who endured so much on this date in history, who must have felt herself pushed beyond the breaking point, and who managed to hold herself together through it all.

image from here
I realize now there were probably a lot of tears behind those famous Jackie O sunglasses, more tears than most of us will have to cry in a lifetime, but there was a remarkable woman there, too.  She might have started as my fashion inspiration, but Jackie Kennedy means something very different to me now.  While I doubt that she (or anyone) would ever have chosen to be admired for the way she endured such sadness, I'm grateful to her for demonstrating that it can be done.  And I'm so sorry that she had to do it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Ms. B's Advice on Baby Shower Invitations

Dear Ms. B,

One of my good friends lost her baby nine months ago.  Now a mutual friend of ours is pregnant and I'm co-hosting a baby shower for her next month.  I want to invite my friend whose baby died because she's such an important part of our close circle of friends, and I want her to know that we love her and miss her and want to include her in everything.  But I also don't want to upset her or make her feel like we expect her to be there if it's too difficult for her.  We (the pregnant mom and other hostesses) have talked about how we understand if she can't attend.  In fact, we're not really expecting her to be there, but we also wish very much that things were different and she could come.  Do we go ahead and send her an invitation?  Or would it be better to avoid mentioning the shower to her at all?

Shower Hostess

Dear Hostess,

The fact that you are worried about this speaks volumes to the sort of kindness you're extending to your friend who lost her child.  The best way to handle this may depend on the geography of the shower, on the personality of your friend, and on various other personal issues.  But in Ms. B's experience, open lines of communication are almost always the best option.

Ms. B would suggest sending an e-mail to your bereaved friend saying something similar to what you've said here.  She's obviously aware that your mutual friend is pregnant, and realizes there will be a baby shower for that friend.  She may or may not plan to attend it, but I think the kindest thing you can do is explain that you want her to know she's welcome, and straight up tell her that you don't want to upset her if an invitation would  be what they call a "grief trigger."

Your friend may respond that she would rather not see the invitation, in which case you can simply follow her wishes.  Or she may thank you for the e-mail and tell you to go ahead and send the invitation.

If she responds with the latter, one of the nicest ways to do this is to enclose the invitation with another note or card addressed to the bereaved mother that offers a few words of sympathy or encouragement.  You don't have to go over the top, but doing a little something to acknowledge that you didn't just slap a stamp on it, and that you were thinking of her personally when you addressed the envelope, would be appreciated by the bereaved mom.

As the hostess, it would also be very nice of you to offer to split a gift with the bereaved mother and tell her that you'll take care of all the arrangements if she'll just send you a check for X amount.  She may want to get something personal for her friend if she can't be there; on the other hand, she may feel sick at the thought of looking at a baby registry or picking out gifts, and sending you a check would be a a relief for her.

Of course, Ms. B is assuming your friend will decline the invitation and not attend.  The truth is that everyone feels differently about this, and your friend may decide she wants to be there.  Do keep in mind, though, that many (most?) bereaved parents find themselves unable to go to those kind of events for a couple of years after their loss.  Baby showers are a huge grief trigger for many mothers who crowed over beautiful gifts that then sat unused in an empty, silent nursery.  Seeing other moms receive similar items and plan to use them for their babies, well, it's incredibly difficult.  But it's also true that moms who had earlier losses, and perhaps did not get to have a baby shower for their little one, would find the idea of attending someone else's shower to be really hard--a reminder of everything they missed out on.

Not attending the shower isn't exactly a relief either--the bereaved parent will probably feel a lot of guilt about being a "bad friend," and a lot of sadness about missing out on "normal" life experiences.  Your sensitivity in this matter is really important, and Ms. B is confident that your bereaved friend will appreciate your kindness even if she cannot join you in the baby shower celebration.

Ms. B

Readers:  Do you agree?  Or would you rather be left off the invitation list all together?  Do you think there's a time frame of when it would be appropriate?  Two months out, for example, just skip the invitation?  Several months later, maybe you can send it with a note attached?  Does it depend on how close the friend is?  Those of you who are further out--can you comment on when (if ever) you felt comfortable attending a baby shower after your loss?  Did those kind of events get easier after a "rainbow baby"?  Or do you find they continue to be a grief trigger for you?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Brag Book(shelves)

So... I like to read.  And I have a lot of books.  Somewhere along the way, I collected a set of five cheap, mis-matched, particle board book cases.  I got three of them at a Container Store clearance sale, and two of them at an Office Depot clearance sale (I swear I got those two for $20.  For the both of them.)

Anyway, they did the job, but they didn't look especially great.  I shoved them all together in our back room and tried to pretend it had a "built-in" look. They did the job of corralling my books in one place (and displaying a crapload of framed photos) but when I looked at them with a critical eye?  They did not please me.  I wasn't sure what to do about it, though.  I mean, I love the books, and the look of full bookshelves.  Buying nice, real wood bookshelves looked like it would be more than I wanted to spend, and the truth was these bookshelves were serving their purpose.  I just wanted them to look purdier.

THEN I discovered Pinterest, and not ONLY did I suddenly want everything in my house to look cuter, I also wanted to DIY it into looking that way (behold the power of Pinterest).

So I did some research (by which I mean pinning), and I did some measuring and scheming, and I consulted with my in-house handyman about how confident he felt in his ability to use a miter saw to cut corners, and we decided to tackle this project.

Haphazard, mismatched bookshelves.  The three in the middle are from the Container Store, the two on each end are from Office Depot. All of them were purchased at least five years ago.
I had a vision of crisp, white built-in bookshelves, complete with crown molding and trim.  I also had a budget of $100, but truth be told, the entire project (counting all paint, primer, supplies, and trim) blew right through that budge and ending up costing us a total of somewhere around $250.   Still MUCH less than the cost of a single built-in unit!  And the whole project took about a week from start to finish, since we were working on it when we weren't working on our real jobs.

First, David took the shelves out and moved the bookcase frames and the shelves all out to the garage, where I primed everything with an oil-based primer.  I used Zissner's from Lowe's (because it was recommended on Pinterest).  It was kind of stinky, but actually not as bad as I feared.  I used a foam roller that I could just toss when I was finished, because I didn't want to mess with using mineral spirits for clean up.  I did all the priming and painting with the doors and windows open so it would be well-ventilated, but I also wore a mask.  And I wore my favorite old pair of yoga pants which I would still wear to yoga if I hadn't ripped out the butt of them (my mom sewed them for me, but they're still not really serviceable for downward dog) and my Thespians t-shirts from high school ("Act well your part, there all the honor lies" - Alexander Pope).  Oh, and because I wanted to avoid oil-based primer in my hair, I wore a very cute bandana doo-rag.  I assure you, I looked adorable.

I did two coats of primer, and then two coats of paint.  It took longer than I wanted to, but it turned out pretty well, considering that I was skeptical about how well I'd be able to paint particle board.  I also got to listen to NPR's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me TWICE, as they play it on Saturday and Sunday.

Once everything was primed, painted, and dried, we lined the shelves back up on the wall.

We decided to alternate the three matching cases with the pair of slightly smaller bookcases because I thought it would make the whole piece look more cohesive than having the two skinnier bookcases stuck on the ends.  David boosted the height of the two smaller cases a little bit by building a sturdy platform for them to sit on that raised them an inch or so off the ground.  The idea was to make the height even enough that we could cover the discrepancy with trim (you can see the unevenness in the above photo).  We had to be careful, because we couldn't raise the bottom so high it would show above the baseboard trim, but we needed to make it high enough that the trim across the top would cover everything.  Plus we needed to think about how we'd put the shelves back in so that we could try to make the variation in the levels of the shelves look deliberate.  It really took a LOT of brain power and some use of the tape measure.

A few years ago, I had taken the cardboard backing of the old shelves and covered it in wrapping paper in an effort to spruce it up.  But since I wanted these to look like real "built-ins," I decided to leave the backs open so the wall would serve as the back of the bookshelves.  I actually cleaned the wall with a magic eraser because it was kind of grody back there, having been hidden by the bookcases for five years.  We ended up removing the baseboard so the bookcases would sit flush against the wall, and we also attached all of the bookshelves to the wall, for extra stability.  It was definitely worth the extra trouble to get it all lined up and nice and even.  

And (after I primed and painted all the trim), David busted out his trusty nail gun (seriously, that thing makes me flinch every time he uses it) and we attached trim around the top, around the bottom, running down the corners, along the sides that meet the wall, and we used a small piece of trim 1.5" wide to run down the front in between each bookcase so you wouldn't see the seam.  Oh, and I also used some white spray paint I had on hand from the frame project to spray paint the little plastic clip-things that hold the actual shelves in place (remember: these are cheap bookshelves!).

See how the trim makes it look like one seamless piece?  Honestly, it turned out even better than I expected.  I was not quite sure whether David's handyman skills would match my Pinterest-inspired vision, but he did a fantastic job.

We bought a board to go across the top of the entire case ($20, but worth it), to add to the feeling that it was one solid piece of furniture, and to provide a smooth, even surface for displaying the old family photos I love so much.  I was really pleased with the way it all turned out in the end:

And the view from the dining room:

In this photo, I think it kind of looks like the floor is discolored in front of the bookcase, but it's actually just the glossy white being reflected in my gleaming floors.  I'm sure by now that reflection is muted by dog hair and grime.

The shelves are still what I like to think of as "comfortably cluttered"--I couldn't bear to put away many of the framed photos I have (although I did pare down the display), and the books are (nerd alert!) organized by time period and genre instead of size or color.  Victorian novels?  Right here.  British Modernism?  On the shelf above twentieth-century American literature.  Harry Potter?  Front and center, just above the four-volume Norton Shakespeare, and to the right of our travel books.  So yes, I chose practicality and sentimentality over aesthetics.  But I'm still pretty thrilled with the result.  It looks like a real bookcase, instead of like a bunch of cheap crap I bought while I was in grad school!  (By the way, the basket on the bottom shelf holds CDs (about half of our collection), because even though I only listen to music on my ipod, I'm still unwilling to part with the CDs I bought in high school and college.  It's a mild hoarding problem.  I get it from my dad.)

Once again, for your viewing pleasure, the before and after:


One of these days I'll tackle the other side of the room (where my desk is).  For now, I'm happy to curl up in that comfy red chair and troll Pinterest to get inspired for my next project...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Good News

You may remember that in early September, David's grandpa was diagnosed with cancer of the gallbladder and the liver.  And the prognosis was not good.  The doctors gave him two to three months, tops.   We did the math.  September, October, November.  We cried.

The doctor suggested he try chemo.  So here's the (vastly oversimplified) medical breakdown in my (very limited) understanding:  a normal liver has 39,000 healthy cells. David's grandpa's liver had 119,000 cells.  The extra 80,000 were (obviously) cancerous.  The doctor hoped that with chemo, they could get the overall cell count down to 100,000 or so, and maybe hold it steady.  But of course, all of this would depend not just on how his liver responded to chemo, but on how it made him feel physically.  No point in having a treatment that would make him feel worse than the disease, since the doctors weren't talking about the possibility of a cure.

In spite of the terrible prognosis, he went ahead and tried the chemo, and has been going every week or every other week.  Remarkably, in these last few weeks he's been feeling considerably better, even having enough energy to take walks in the evening (back in late September, this would have been absolutely impossible for him).  We weren't sure how to account for his boost in mood and energy level.  I mean, he's nowhere near what we would have said is "normal," but he's been doing better in the last few weeks than he has in probably the last year.

That snazzy red convertible is the Mustang that was also the getaway car at our wedding--it's currently for sale and on display in a car museum in Branson.
So he went to the doctor yesterday, hoping to get an update on how the chemo was actually going, and make sure the doctor approved of their plans to go out of town for Thanksgiving.  And they found the cell count on his liver is down to 50,000.

Unbelievable.  That's the kind of surprise you like to get from the doctor.

The doctor was really surprised, as he did not expect him to respond so well to chemo, given that his cancer appeared to be so advanced.

It's what the old me might have called a "miracle."  And, hell, it really is a miracle.  We don't know why it happened, or how, or how long it will continue, but we were so, so happy to hear that news.  We're kind of attached to this guy.  And we'd like to keep him around for a while.

Life-long Cardinals fans, celebrating the big win after game 7.  Go Cards!
The English department at my grad school always puts together a Relay for Life team for the American Cancer Society, and I had just made my donation to it shortly before David's grandma called to tell us the good news.  I also bought luminaries in memory of my Grandpa Vance, in honor of my great-uncle Lee (also known as Uncle Lee the Great), and in honor of David's Grandpa Gene.  Because cancer sucks.  And those three men are three of the best guys you could ever know.

And one of these days, I really think we'll find a cure for this awful disease.

If you're interested in donating, and/or buying a $5 luminary in honor or memory of someone you know, the English department Relay Team and anyone who has a loved one with cancer would welcome the donation you can make by clicking here.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ms. B's Advice on Friends Who Don't Write Back

OK, Ms. B. I've had something eating at my brain for a long time, and if you're really taking questions, I've got one for you: In spring 2010, my friend lost her baby. She had one girl, who was about 3, and she was expecting another little girl that April. I was also due with my second girl, in March. Oh, and to add insult to injury, her best friend was due with her second girl in April. 

Let me explain our friendship a bit. We were really good friends all throughout middle and high school. Once college started, we naturally drifted apart, but we tried to see each other about once a year. So unless we see each other on the very odd occasion, we’re like twice-a-year email buddies. But – we’re old friends. And we’re bonded. I feel like, even though we rarely talk, we’re still friends for life. If that makes sense. Anyway, we had met each other’s first children in 2008, when she came to town to visit her parents. Her daughter was 2, and mine was a newborn. It was great catching up. We emailed pictures of our kids over the next year or so. And when I sent her an email to tell her I was pregnant with my second, I just KNEW she was pregnant too. And with a girl. Sure enough, she sent me a response telling me so. OK, so both of us – and her best friend, who I’m also friends with – are all pregnant at the same time with our second girls. Isn’t life grand? 

Fast forward to March 2010. I email her to say I had my baby. I send a picture. I explain how my daughter got sick at 2 days old and we were in the hospital for 3 days in a row. It was the worst days of my life. Blah blah blah. Poor me. No response. Whatever – no big deal. In mid-April or so I email her, sure she’s had her baby by now. No response. And just as I just KNEW she was pregnant…I knew something was wrong. 

She finally responded and told me they had lost the baby a couple months back. I’m guessing the pregnancy was about 7 months along. I of course extended all my condolences and apologize for going on and on about my baby and how rough it was for me, when clearly she was going through the worst pain ever. We exchanged a few more emails, and she was actually (oddly) upbeat. She tells me the other friend had her baby and is really excited. So that’s how it goes. Emails drop off. But I’ve sent her probably three emails over the months. Just wanting to know how she’s doing. Letting her know that I remember her baby. Saying if she ever wants to talk, I’m here. And I have never heard back. 

I talked to our mutual friend, who said that apparently she just really doesn’t want to talk about it. So now I feel bad, that I’ve pushed her and bugged her. That’s fine if she doesn’t want to talk about it. I just wanted her to know she COULD. I figured that mentioning it isn’t going to make her pain worse – it’s already as bad as it can be! Did I send one too many emails and push her away? I don’t want to be that friend who abandons their grieving friend. I’m not a BLM, but I’ve read many BLM blogs and have taken everything to heart. Your pain is palpable. Hers must be to. I know from reading these blogs that BLMs need their friends to stick by them and talk about their baby and acknowledge what happened – not just ignore it. But I guess I’m not sure what to do next. Thoughts?


Dear Lainie,

I'm so sorry to hear about your friend's loss, and I'm sad to hear about the way it has complicated (and seems to be thwarting) your friendship.

Ms. B's assessment of the situation is that the action that you've taken is appropriate and kind, and she would assume that it has been appreciated by your friend.  For whatever reason, your friend is not currently responding to your e-mails and it seems like she doesn't want to discuss her loss.  There are lots of possible explanations for this, although none of them may feel especially satisfying.  Maybe she's hit a point in time that's triggering a strong grief reaction.  Maybe she is trying to get pregnant again and has not yet been successful.  Or maybe she is pregnant and doesn't want to make an announcement, so she's avoiding people.  Maybe it's taking her so much energy to go back to work or deal with a new (non-baby-related) issue in her life that she simply doesn't feel that she has the time or energy to respond to you.

It's unfortunate, but it isn't your fault.  I don't think you should feel that you've pushed her or bugged her by expressing your sympathy and getting in touch with her.  It may be that she's simply not comfortable discussing her loss with you, which sucks, but is her personal issue and, again, not your fault.  Maybe she only feels comfortable talking to other bereaved parents, maybe she only discusses it with her husband, or her therapist--hopefully she's talking to someone.  Maybe she's tired of hashing out how sad she feels, maybe she feels like there's nothing new to say, or maybe you're simply not her closest friend and you had a baby girl who lived and for those reasons (which you obviously can't control) she doesn't feel as comfortable discussing it with you.  It's not your fault that you had a baby, it's not your fault that you shared that news before you knew what happened to her, and it sounds like everything you've done so far has been out of a genuine sense of concern for you friend.  It sounds like you wish you could do more to ease her pain, but as the terrible old adage goes, only time will help with that.

Ms. B would advise that it's fine for you to continue to send occasional "thinking of you" e-mails if you'd like to do so.  If you want to wait to contact your friend until she makes the first move, at this point I think that would be understandable as well.  You have let her know you care and sympathize with her, you've let her know that you remember her daughter and are open to talking about her.  It would be very kind and generous of you to make a small charitable donation or do some other kind of memorial in honor of her daughter on her birthday, and that would offer you another opportunity to reach out to your friend.  There's honestly not much else that you can do.

As the last few blog posts here have acknowledged, the collateral damage that comes in the loss of friendships after the loss of a child is one of the saddest and most complicated aspects of this grief circus.  Bereaved parents (in general) can be pretty unforgiving if we think people are ignoring or diminishing our loss.  But sometimes our friends do everything right and we still can get so consumed in our grief that we neglect those relationships we need the most, and we don't realize until much later how much we'll regret that.  

So, if you feel capable, I think the best gift you can give your friend right now is patience.  If you feel that you are the life-long sort of old buddies, despite your relatively infrequent encounters in more recent years, then I think the kindest thing you can do is to realize that you can't quite understand where your friend is in her grief, and remember that it's not about you.  Most people really have a hard time with this, because friendship is generally a mutual endeavor.  But if you are really interesting in maintaining your friendship, then it may be that the only thing you can do is not feel offended if it's a long time coming before she's ready to contact you.  Ms. B knows that it's asking a lot to be patient with someone who is unresponsive to your efforts, and the fact is that a lot of people are unwilling to put up with a friend dropping out of their life after a certain point in time.  If you can be relaxed about this, and not put a timeline on your friend's grief, then hopefully the two of you will be back in touch eventually.  Ms. B believes that life-long, old-school friends can absolutely make up for lost time, and she wishes you and your friend brighter days in the future.

Ms. B

Readers?  As always, Ms. B welcomes your contributions.  Would you offer Lainie alternative advice?

Friday, November 11, 2011

On Friendship and Making an Effort

The comments yesterday really got me thinking about the other side of the letter.  I (in my standard obstinate fashion that I swear everyone who knows me finds charming and endearing, no, seriously!) still stand by what I think the bereaved parent should be able to expect from her New Mom friend (namely, patience and conversation topics that move beyond babies--at least, I know this is what I personally need and expect from my friends), but what didn't get covered is what New Mom should be able to expect from her bereaved parent friend.

What went unspoken in the advice to New Mom is the expectation that bereaved parents should try to be open and honest with their friends about their grief.  Certainly, at least once the darkest fog of grief has lifted, New Mom should be able to expect kindness and sensitivity from her bereaved friend, just as her friend expects the same from her.  I mean, we all know that friendship requires mutual effort.

So what is our responsibility, as bereaved parents, in regard to maintaining friendships and getting back into the routine of everyday life?  Is it enough to say "My baby died and you need to be okay with whatever I feel/say/do (or don't) from now until I say so?"

We may WANT to say this (in fact, I may have actually said this to one of my friends when I felt like she was being insensitive), but we all know it doesn't work that way.  Not if we actually want to maintain our friendships.  I mean, I know that I wanted everyone's lives to come to a crashing halt, just like mine did.  STOP EVERYTHING.  No one can move forward, no one can get pregnant, no one's baby can have a birthday, NO ONE CAN DO ANYTHING until I say it's okay.

Yeah.  That didn't happen.  So given the shitty reality we find ourselves in, what do we do?

In both Ms. B's reply and my post yesterday, I made the argument that bereaved parents deserve special treatment from their friends.  Honestly, I kind of thought that was a no-brainer.  But I don't exactly know what that means or how long it can last.  How long can I expect my friend not to talk about her baby?  How long do I get a free pass from participating in family holidays?  At what point do I need to get my shit together and get back in the land of the living, even if I have to grit my teeth and make it look like a smile?  And would that timeline be different if I had a living child before I lost Eliza?

I have no idea.  But I *do* think there's a point where we just have to deal with it by confronting the issue head-on, and having open discussions with our friends.  And I didn't say this in the reply to New Mom, because I don't think it's New Mom's responsibility to start that conversation.  I think that's the one thing we really owe our friends--an honest assessment of our grief and how it has changed things and how we feel about that.  For me, it's usually an apologetic e-mail that says something like, "I hate the way I'm feeling right now and I'm sorry I can't be the kind of friend you deserve.  Please stick around.  Other people who've been there promise me it won't be like this forever."

And yes, there comes a point in time when we can't just continue to avoid every child  under the age of three who is of the same gender as our dead baby.  We can't get away with not knowing what's going on in our friends' lives.  We can't use our grief as an excuse to get out of every personal and professional obligation from now until infinity.  And most of us don't want to!  I think the vast majority of us want to reach the point where we can be a friend as well as have a friend.  In the meantime, we need to acknowledge it's a long road.

So I'm wondering what the time frame is?  When do we have to get over ourselves and remember that the world does not revolve around us and our grief?

Even as I ask these questions, and I know there aren't straightforward answers to them.  I think we all know that.  It's not about crossing a line and being ready to jump back into your old life.  It's not about some subjects being completely off limits, and others being okay.  Really, it's about the kindness and empathy and mutual understanding that every good friendship requires.

We do not have to put up with those friends who completely check out in our time of greatest need because their own lives are demanding.  We need to cut our losses and move on from those people, and those are personal decisions we may or may not have full control over.  But I would say that even with bold talk about weeding out friends from our gardens of life, most of us find ourselves continually tolerating insensitive remarks and quickly forgiving unintentionally hurtful comments.  We do this because it's what friends do, and I think that most of us understand, even in the depths of our grief, that we're asking our friends to tolerate a lot of crap from us as well.

So rather than declare what I think people SHOULD do (don't worry, we'll save that for another day!), I'll just write about my personal effort (meager, I'm afraid, but earnest) to maintain one particular friendship.

My best friend from high school is pregnant with a baby girl and due in January.  As she said in one conversation we had about it, "I know, the timing is SO not ideal."  We both laughed ruefully at this, because seriously.  I think the reason our friendship has not suffered, as it SO easily could have, is because we openly and directly talk about my grief, her pregnancy, and how hard it all is.  We acknowledge that her pregnancy is difficult for me, and my loss is scary for her.  She says Eliza's name every time we talk and I guessed exactly right what she was going to name her baby when she found out it was a girl (and if you want further proof of our mind-meld, you should challenge us to a game of Taboo, because we would STOMP you).

Do we talk about her pregnancy a lot?  Um, no.  Not really.  Certainly not NEARLY as much as we would have if Eliza were alive (oh don't even get me started on how different this would all be if Eliza were alive...).  I don't think it's condescending or unreasonable to expect that she'll be able to think of other things to talk about when she talks to me, now and after her baby is born.  When I was pregnant with Eliza, she was trying to get pregnant, and I tried to be sensitive about her fertility issues and concerns, even though she made me feel like it was a non-issue for her in celebrating my pregnancy.  I may not have always done a stellar job, but I know I made a concerted effort.  I mean, I think that's what friends do.

Fortunately for us, subjects of conversation have never been in short supply.  But at this point in my grief, I'm capable of realizing that she also needs me to talk about her pregnancy at least sometimes because it's a huge thing in her life.  So we DO talk about it (in small doses).  To her credit, she almost always waits for me to bring it up first.  To my credit, I do.  Not because it's my favorite subject, but because she's my BFF, dudes.  And she's pregnant.  And I don't just want to drop out from her life.

I'm at a point in my grief--almost a year from Eliza's death, remember--where I can handle it (to a certain extent), and I can be honest with her about what's too much.  I can't be all "SQUEE!" with excitement, but I DO feel genuinely happy for her.  So I just try to be honest about how happy and sad and conflicted I feel, and she does the same.

I think for a while, even just a few months ago, I felt like I didn't need to do that because my friends who were new moms (or pregnant) didn't need my support.  They had everything that I wanted, and I had nothing.  They were happy and I was utterly bereft.  I had nothing to offer.  But my best friends have helped me feel something like myself again.  They've helped me remember that my identity extends beyond Bereaved Parent of One, even though that's obviously part of who I am.  And they let me know that even though my new self has changed, it doesn't totally suck.  I'm aware enough at this point to see that my friend has been making an enormous effort for me and I owe her the same, or, at least, the best I can offer, given where I am now.

So I asked her what she was going to name the baby (and then guessed correctly because I am a totally awesome psychic), and then I told her, surprised at the discovery, "It's actually easier for me to think about your baby now that I know her name and she's her own person, instead of a girl baby in January."

She has said to me, "I don't mind talking about Eliza, because that's your story and your baby, but it's hard for me to read your blog right now because it makes me think about all the other people you know and all the different kinds of losses."

It's not that either of us really likes hearing that stuff from the other person.  I'm sure she is sad about the fact that it's difficult for me to think about her baby sometimes, especially because she was so freaking excited about mine.  I hate that my blog makes her sad and scared.  But we survive this mess because we continue to be open and honest with each other about how shitty and complicated it is.  It's very meta, to have conversations about how we're handling loss and grief and pregnancy, in the middle of a conversation about loss and grief and pregnancy.  Fortunately, we try not to take ourselves too seriously.  I mean, we take the situation seriously, of course, but we can laugh (and cry) at the way we fumble through it.

But sometimes I don't want to have those touchy-feeling conversations, dammit.  I want to avoid my grief and their babies all together and just talk about the housing market, or Kim Kardashian's divorce, or what I'll want to pack for Mexico, because I don't want to acknowledge that I feel bitter or jealous or just plain sad.  I hate being the person who feels like that, and I'm so tired of processing how I'm feeling or thinking about my emotions, or just missing Eliza that I don't want to deal with it.  My friends and I had plenty to talk about before we had kids, and I think it's okay for us to talk about anything but kids, at least some of the time.

Most of our conversations involve lots of stuff besides babies--our parents and siblings, our jobs, our marriages, and all the things friends who have known each other forever talk about.  Sometimes we talk philosophically, sometimes we talk about our husbands' inexplicable bromances with Jamey Johnson.  Does this affect the closeness of our friendship, that I'm not all up on what's going down in her uterus?  Sure.  I mean, I'm unable to fully participate in a HUGE, life-changing event.  I hate that.  So I acknowledge it, and how much I hate it, and how sorry I am.  And so we stay friends and wait for things to get better and talk about superficial stuff in the meantime.  I mean what the hell else is there to do?

I know that I owe it to my friends to be honest about what I'm feeling so they'll know how far I've come, and so they see how far I still have to go.  They owe it to me to be patient and kind and sensitive, and to keep showing up for me, even when things are way less fun than they used to be.  And I owe it to them to try to reach out and meet them where they are, just as I expect them to reach out to me.

We talk about grief and loss to the extent that she can handle it (and she will say "I can't talk about this anymore right now.")  And we adjust our conversations to accommodate whatever baby stuff I feel okay with (and I will say, "Oof.  Let's talk about something else.").  I can't talk about birth plans and doulas, but I find that I can ask about plans for maternity leave, work, and daycare.  I can't talk about baby clothes, but I do want to know what books she's gotten so far, and we can talk about that without my stomach twisting up in knots.  Everybody's limits are different, but you have to figure out what they are and, sometimes, you have to make an effort to push up against them.

My pregnant friend texted me one day, "Do you want to see pictures of me pregnant?"

I thought about it, and replied, "Yes, but no ultrasound pics, please."

Do pictures of my friend all pregnant and adorable make me jealous and wistful?   Mm-hmm.  Do they bring back with a jolt exactly how I felt a year ago at this same time?  Yes.  Could I have avoided all those complicated feelings if I'd just said I didn't want to see pictures?  Yes.

But do I want to completely miss out on my friend's experience of her first pregnancy?  Can I just pretend none of this is happening and expect that we'll always be the best friends we've been since high school?  Nope.  I'm already missing out on too much as it is.  She's kind and patient and understanding, but she's also pregnant and super excited.  I have to be able to look at those pictures and text her to tell her how adorable she looks.  As my friend, I think she deserves at least that.  Really she deserves much more (like me co-hosting her baby shower).  But I'm doing the best I can here, and I need to make sure she knows that.

Would this all be different if I were three months or six months out from my grief instead of almost a year?  Would it be different if I were five years out?  Would it be different if my friend weren't so totally amazing?  Yeah, it probably would.  In fact, my response to my friend is much less about my own ability to extend myself and more about me responding in kind to the love she has shown to me.  But all I can do (all any of us can do) is be honest about where I am in the moment and what I'm capable of doing, and what I want to try to do better in the future.  And I do think we owe that to our friends.

To be honest, sometimes talking to my best friend is uncomfortable.  Sometimes it seems like our conversations are tiptoeing through minefields, so then we acknowledge that and try to laugh about it, or I just cry about how I wish things were different.  She'll say, "I don't want to upset you," or I'll say, "I don't want to make you feel scared," and we'll move forward.  We both try to remember that it won't be like this forever.  Grief will soften, families will grow, friendships will evolve.  I try to be honest with her about how much I hate the limitations that my grief puts on me, and how grateful I am that she's sticking around.  And I don't obsess with guilt over being a bad friend, because I know that if our roles were reversed, I'd do the same for her.

In the end, did I attend her baby shower?  No.  I couldn't do it.  Do I feel bad about it?  Yes.  Did I call her crying and tell her how bad I felt about it?  Yes.  Did she make me feel guilty about it?  No.  Did she miss me at the shower?  Well, I like to think so. Even though that also makes me sad.  Things are hard right now.  We both get that.  But it's not worth losing a friend over.  So we both keep trying.

I'm lucky that I can say to her, "How was the baby shower?" and she will respond, "It was good.  Really nice."  And we each recognize the huge effort the other person has made--me to broach the subject, and her to not describe every detail of it.  And then, I either find it in me to ask a follow-up question (nope, I didn't, because I'm a sucky friend!), or we start talking about something else (her little sister was voted queen at the last high school dance!).

My grief made it impossible for me to handle the idea of shopping for a baby gift (which sucks, because normally shopping for gifts is my favorite), so I just contributed money to a big gift that the hostesses were getting her.  BUT I'm also working on a handmade baby gift.  (Maybe I'll have it finished by the time she's actually born...)

This is actually a big deal, because after Eliza died, I thought I'd never touch my sewing machine again.  For months I'd only used it to make baby things.  The thought of picking out cute fabric and cutting out the pattern and making a gift for a baby when my own baby couldn't use any of the things I'd made for her, it just ripped me up inside.  It still could, if I let myself dwell on it.  But this is my best friend, dammit, and she deserves a handmade gift for her sweet new baby, and I'm going to make that for her even if it makes me cry.  Could I have done that six months ago?  Honestly, I doubt it.  It's not super easy to do it now.  But I'm sure it's not easy for her to not blab about her pregnancy (as she likes to tell me, "Pregnant women are the most narcissistic people in the world."  She's probably referring specifically to me during my pregnancy.)

I guess I'm like the guilty divorced parent when it comes to my friends these days.  Because I've been emotionally and physically absent from my friend's lives, I try to make up for it by giving thoughtful, well-meaning gifts.

So I've been totally out of the loop for your whole pregnancy!  Please accept this handmade treasure as proof that I've been thinking about your baby in my own way, even while I'm forcing you to talk about Kate Middleton's shoes and this Penn State craziness instead.  *  I'm sorry I cannot bear to discuss your adorable son!  Here, please take these Puma tennis shoes and charming children books as an indication that I still love you and want to be your friend!  *  I'm sorry that the last time you mentioned your daughter, I made that weird face and awkwardly changed the subject!  Here, please accept this Crew Cuts dress as an apology and birthday gift for your toddler!  

I used to be the chatty phone friend, and I suck at that now.  In fact, I know I'm failing as a friend on a lot of fronts, so I look for other ways to show I still care.  Here, please take these coasters I made for you.  I know it's totally random, but I've entered the crafty phase of my grief.  It comes somewhere between anger and acceptance.  And these are the only way I can say I'm thinking of you because I suck at actual conversation!  So please, put your beer on this coaster and think of me.

I figure, if I can't be involved in the daily minutiae of their lives the way I used to be, I have to do something else to show I care.  My friends aren't saints, after all.  They deserve a little something.  Like a set of coasters!

At the end of the day, I think it's okay to expect (and sometimes demand) special treatment from our friends and family.  I really do.

But I also think at a certain point (one that's different for everyone, but for me it's happening around 10-11 months out), we have to force ourselves to do things that feel difficult, or maybe even totally shitty, in the midst of our grief.  We have to be really honest with ourselves (Is it impossibly hard?  Or just uncomfortable?  Do we owe it to our friends?  Is the dread of it worse than the reality?) and we have to be really honest with our friends.  I can be here for this, but not for that.  I want to know if your ultrasound was good and the baby looks healthy, but not if the baby was waving at you.  I'm here anytime you want to talk about the stress of your father-in-law's illness, but we're going to have to lay off your struggles with breastfeeding.  It's much easier for me to talk about your baby if you're willing to acknowledge that mine existed.

It sucks to have barriers and limitations, but I personally haven't found a way to avoid them.  So we have to recognize they exist, and then demonstrate that we're making an effort to overcome them.  The question is what kind of effort we can make when we're still swimming in grief.  For me, since I couldn't attend the baby shower, and the holidays (and her due date) will probably make it impossible for us to get to hang out, just the two of us, I'm hoping she'll see this gift (and the accompanying note) as a symbol of everything I wish I could have been for her during this pregnancy.  It certainly doesn't come close to making up for all I've missed, but I think I'm incredibly lucky to have a friend who will see it for what it is--a real effort on my part, and the best I can do right now.  She gets that grief makes me a crazy freak, but that's not ALL I am.  At least, not forever.

In the past eleven months, I have done a spectacularly TERRIBLE job of telling my friends what I need, but I'm VERY good at getting upset when I don't get it.  And I'm a total FAIL much of the time at expressing how much I love and appreciate them.

In fact, I've spent a lot of time thinking to myself that it's really NOT FAIR that my best friend has to pregnant on the EXACT timeline I was on last year.  It's NOT FAIR that she's having a GIRL when I wanted her to have a BOY.  It's NOT FAIR that her baby and Eliza won't be BFFs.  It's NOT FAIR that she gets to be so happy and my baby died.

I know she'd agree with every single one of those statements.  Because it's not about being fair.  None of this will ever be fair.

But you know what?  She's my best friend.  And she's pregnant.  And she's not taking it for granted.  And I've gotten better at handling my grief after eleven months of practice.  So I have to make a choice to do the best I can to celebrate her daughter (even if I can't attend her baby shower).  I have to make a conscious decision to make her pregnancy exactly that:  her pregnancy, and not a personal affront on me and my loss.  As a self-absorbed, grief-stricken, hypersensitive individual, this is not always easy for me--and it would have been impossible in the early days of my grief.  But just as my grief isn't about her, her pregnancy isn't about me.  It's about a sweet baby that I'm going to love just as my friend loves Eliza.

So instead of being angry about the unfairness of it all, I think about our friendship, and how much I admire her, and how funny she is, and how well she knows me, and how much we've both changed and grown since high school, and how much I love her family, and how we laugh at the same stuff, and how I am absolutely going to adore and treasure her daughter, even though I'll be perfectly honest that I don't know when I'll feel ready to meet her baby for the first time.  So then I pick up the phone, or I send a quick e-mail, or I sit down in front of the sewing machine, and I do what I can do to be a good friend to her, even if it doesn't seem like much right now, even if it's not the way things "should" have been.  I do the best I can to accommodate my grief and our friendship. Not because it's easy, and certainly not because I'm an amazing super awesome martyr of a friend, but because she's my BFF and I love her, so I have to (and want to) make some kind of effort.  I mean, I already lost my daughter.  I don't want to lose my best friend, too.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

On Unfairness

Several of you responded (in comments or in e-mails to me) to one commenter's observation that Ms. B's advice seemed somewhat "unfair" to the New Mom.

I wanted to address that here, because I know the commenter in real life, and I know he respects both my opinion and my grief, and I know that he knows if he'd given me feedback on any writing that I disagreed with, I'd track him down and we'd hash it out, and it might end with me admitting that essay was a B+ at best, or it might end with him admitting he was mistaken in his initial judgment.  He's cool like that.

And so I say this.

Was Ms. B was totally unfair to New Mom?  Well, it's true that New Mom is in a totally shitty and unfair position.  She was thrilled, excited, delighted with the arrival of her new baby, and almost as excited about the fact that her best friend was going to be right there with her.  They were supposed to be walking down this path together, foraging through the adventures of being new parents, and keeping each other company in the madness that is those first few months of babyhood.

In fact, it's completely unfair for New Mom to be in the middle of her postpartum hormones, finally the hang of breastfeeding, and suddenly--WHAM--she gets whopped with the news that her best friend's baby died.  That fucking sucks.  Not only does she have a new baby who needs her attention every waking moment, she now has a best friend who is basically AWOL, disappearing in a spiral of selfish grief.  And, assuming she's not a sociopath, she probably grieves deeply for the baby who died, and feels intense sympathy for her friend.  Now New Mom is stuck in the completely unfair position of being really happy for herself, and really sad for someone else.  At the same time, she's trying to figure out life with a new baby, and cope with the disappearance of her old friend.  That's not easy.  Especially because the friend is saying things like, "Although I am happy for you, I am so overcome with sadness for myself that I can barely breathe.  Therefore, I cannot talk about your baby without it feeling like you are gleefully rubbing salt in the raw, open, festering, bloody wound that is my heart."

Life with a six month old is no doubt all-consuming.  I personally have no experience on this subject, but I did a shitload of reading about it before my baby died, so I think I can reasonably assert that sleep patterns can change unexpectedly as a result of growth spurts, teething can reek havoc on a previously-laid-back baby's personality, and any of this would be exhausting for a parent.  The transition to cereal or baby food from formula or breast milk can make for messy meal times, disgusting diapers, and anxiety about allergies.  Crawling babies suddenly mean a baby-proofing frenzy, because now baby can reach the bucket of filthy dog toys, the computer cord plugged into that outlet, the flip flop you slipped off by the front door.

I believe all this is absolutely true, and it makes perfect sense that a New Mom would be consumed by the subject of her child.

But I say this:  More consuming than a six month old baby is five month grief.

Going back to work, watching television, doing crafty projects, reading novels, writing novels, running marathons, doing volunteer work, these are not really distractions, although we call them that.  These are things we do simply because otherwise the day feels unlivable.

Talking to someone who is five months out from the loss of their child is not easy.  Because the only thing they want to talk about?  Is their child.  They are just as consumed by that baby as any parent is who has a living child.

The difference is that by the time I was five months out from my grief, I was painfully aware that other people don't want to hear me wail, "I want my baby!  I just want my baby!" over and over and over again.  Preferably while keening back and forth, and clutching her hospital blanket to my chest.

That kind of scene tends to make people uncomfortable.  It might even make them sad.  And as a bereaved parent, a parent who misses my child so deeply that I am never NOT thinking about that loss, I have the good sense and good manners to avoid subjects that my friends might find especially disturbing.  I save those things for my blog, for my therapist, for conversations my friends who have also lost children, and (of course) for my husband (lucky man).

I find other things to talk about, NOT because I'm not consumed by my grief, but because I recognize that if I want to maintain some level of social function, I need to find more appropriate subjects to discuss with people who--for whatever reason--don't want to hear about my grief.  I respect and accommodate their needs.

But even while bereaved parents are forcing themselves to act "normal," and find something pleasant to say (or remain silent, so as not to say something awkward), they are expected to smile and nod and make excuses for people who insist on talking about the one conversation topic they find incredibly painful.  That, to me, seems pretty unfair.

As far as I'm concerned (and let's face it, I'm coming up on one year out, so I'm basically an expert on the topic), dead baby unfairness trumps every other kind.

Therefore, no matter how consumed the new mom may be in her six month old baby, she doesn't get a free pass to check out on her friend, and to be completely absorbed in her own world.  (She can, and very well may, choose to do this anyway, but she'll be doing it at the cost of their friendship, which isn't FAIR but is REAL).  It may not be fair that she needs to turn on the Today show or subscribe to a magazine just so she has something else to talk about, when she has a perfectly suitable subject of conversation cooing right their on her lap.  But what's really unfair is that her friend doesn't have her five month old baby here.

Here are the facts as I see them:

The mom with the dead baby can't bring her baby back life.  The New Mom, with the six month old, can--and should--make a conscious decision to find something else to talk about. Ms. B stands by that assessment, and so do I.

Fairness be damned.  My expectation of fairness died with my daughter.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Ms. B's Advice on Baby Talk

An actual, real-life submission!  Ms. B feels very official.

Dear Ms. B.,

I had a baby a month before my friend, whose child was stillborn 5 months ago.  I wish she would ask about my baby more, because I really want to talk about him, but I don't know how to appropriately broach this topic.  We used to be so close (talked daily) and now I feel like she doesn't care about my baby at all.  I'm about to just tell her I can't talk to her anymore because it's stressing me out to have to watch what I say about my son, but I'm wondering if that's the right approach.  Can you help?
A New Mom

Dear New Mom,

Ms. B. recognizes the stress that comes along with being a new mother, and but she simply cannot agree with your assumption that your friend "doesn't care about [your] baby at all."  From what Ms. B can tell, you have no evidence of this whatsoever.  In fact, your letter suggests that your friend does ask about your son, just not as often or as extensively as you would like.

Ms. B would wager that this alone is sufficient indication that your friend cares deeply about both you and your son.  The problem is that every conversation about your baby is a brutal reminder of everything your friend has lost with the death of her baby:  the day-to-day experiences of parenting, the milestones of a baby growing up, the small victories and big celebrations, even the frustrations and sleepless nights.  Your friend feels isolated and set apart from all of that, and it was just five short months ago that all her hopes and dreams were suddenly and tragically thwarted.

While the collateral damage of close friendships in the wake of baby loss cannot be denied, it would behoove you to keep in mind that your friend has lost all the same things you've lost this year--the closeness of your friendship, the conversations about milestones and parenting strategies, the ease of talking to you every day.  On top of that, she has lost her child.

Five months may feel like a long time, but it's not.  Ms. B has been around long enough that she can assure you things will not be like this forever. Your friend must work through her grief at her own pace.  Five YEARS from now, it's quite likely that you'll be able to call up your friend and brain-dump about everything on your mind without thinking twice about upsetting her with the mention of your children.  But the question is whether you can be there for her in the meantime, so that when your friend's life is easier and she's back in the swing of things (and she will get there, eventually, in her own time), she will actually be interested in maintaining a friendship with you.

Ms. B wants to be very clear that as a new mom, you are undoubtedly facing challenges and struggles for which you need and deserve support.  You absolutely deserve a friend who can give you the support you need.  But your friend whose baby died?  Sweetie, she is NOT that friend.  She cannot reasonably be expected to provide support for you (or anyone) when she has been gutted by grief.  
Moreover, the last thing she needs is for you to make her feel guilty about not being the kind of friend you wish she could be.  Ms. B hopes that your friend is seeking out other people who can support her in her grief (online, in support groups, etc.), and Ms. B hopes that you are seeking out people who can be the kind of friends that you need as well.

Even though she's not capable of being the kind of friend you need at this time in your life, it's NOT okay for you to check out and not the be kind of friend that she needs.  Why?  Because she is dealing with the greatest unfairness EVER:  the death of her baby.  You are dealing with the MINOR inconvenience of not being able to crow (or bitch) about your good fortune.

Good friendships are all about give-and-take, and in this instance, it's your turn to step up and give.  Although Ms. B. would never downplay the stress and anxiety that comes with being a new parent, she can assure you that your friend's emotional needs are far greater than your own.  Your friend is still struggling to get through each and every day without her child.  She desperately needs the emotional support of friends who will assure her that her baby won't be forgotten, friends who will remind her that her grief has not transformed her into someone unrecognizable, friends who will extend a modicum of human kindness and do everything in their power not to cause her further pain in an already impossibly difficult time.

As for a solution to your "stress" problem, Ms. B would like to kindly suggest that before you call your bereaved friend, you call someone else so that you can chatter for fifteen minutes about your son and how great (or difficult) things are.  Then, when that's out of your system, call your friend.  Ask her how she's doing.  Ask follow-up questions to truly express your concern.  Talk about work.  Talk about your husband.  Talk about your wardrobe.  Talk about your in-laws.  Talk about current events.  Talk about celebrity gossip (anything but Beyonce's pregnancy, please).  Talk about home improvement projects.  Talk about what to get your sister for Christmas (assuming your sister's not pregnant).  Talk about the finale of Project Runway.  Talk about work.  Talk about yoga or Zumba or Pilates.  Talk about a new recipe that you think she'd like.  Talk about the new haircut that you hate (or love).

Ms. B would also like to quietly observe that if you find it stressful and/or difficult to avoid discussing your son, it may be that you need to expand your horizons.  In fact, she wonders if perhaps you shouldn't be feeling stressed out as much as you should be feeling dull and boring.  For heaven's sake, read a book, read a blog, turn on NPR, subscribe to a (non-parenting) magazine, leave the house.  If you fill your life with interesting things, you'll have interesting things to talk about.  Ms. B believes that this will help your sweet little cherub be one conversation topic among many, and she also hopes you'll gain the perspective and the wherewithal to consider your friend's needs above your own.

Ms. B.