Monday, February 27, 2012

A Happiness Project, Of Sorts

When we fled to Florida over spring break of last year, I purchased Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project on my Kindle and read it while lounging by the pool.

I read it with a particular kind of skepticism, because I knew happiness was no longer in the cards for me.  I was still seeking survival.  I wanted to be able to breathe without it hurting so goddamn much.  I wanted to be able to exist in my own skin, to get away from this place where I was either crying because I was alive and my daughter was dead, or I was temporarily distracted by something meaningless and inane--a television show, a magazine, work that had to be done.  These things didn't matter to me, but they were a blessed relief because at least they forced my mind to focus on something besides my own dismal existence.

So I read The Happiness Project thinking that even if I could never be happy again, at least I could be happier than I was.  I mean, I couldn't possibly be sadder.  There was really no where to go but up.  The only problem was, for the last three months, I hadn't had the energy for anything but the minimal level of functioning.  I could do the laundry but not the cooking.  I could get myself to campus to teach freshman composition three days a week, but often I simply moved from the bed to the couch on the other two days.  I showered on a regular basis.  I made myself eat because I knew I needed to be healthy if I wanted to get pregnant again.  The only socializing I did was seeing my acupuncturist and my therapist (yes, I realize this does not count as socializing).  Each night, I waited for David to get home from work so I could curl up next to him on the couch.  Those moments, with his arms around me, and Cooper's weight pressed against me, and the TV providing a mental escape were the only times I felt like I could breathe, but even then the sadness was a vacuum inside me and I felt so empty.

There was no way for me to make sense of what had happened to Eliza.  It did not fit into the story I had of my life, and I was so angry that I had to rewrite my narrative, that instead of having my daughter in it, it was filled with this ugly grief that made me feel misshapen and malformed and forever incomplete.  I couldn't wish it away or reason it away or meditate it away or pray it away.  I was too broken for any of that.  I turned to books--books that were helpful, books that were thoughtful, books that were comforting.

But for all the light that C.S. Lewis and Harold Kushner could shed on The Problem of Pain and When Bad Things Happen to Good People, their metaphysical answers were (and maybe still are) beyond the scope of my suffering.  I was desperate to understand what had happened to us, but I just couldn't figure out how to make any kind of sense of this in a way that would let me move forward.  It was exhausting.  It was just my brain running in circles, and it always ended with me sobbing and begging the universe for my baby.  Seeking answers was getting me no where.  There was no answer that I'd find satisfying, unless it was one that put Eliza back in my arms.  I finally decided that I needed to stop looking for answers.

Instead, I sought small, concrete things I could do that would give me the semblance of control in a life that had fallen to pieces around me.  I needed specific instructions:  What can I do to feel anything but this hollow sadness?

The first flicker of distraction came with the decision to redecorate the living room (perhaps because I was now spending so many hours there, in front of HGTV).  I found myself channeling my brain to think about paint colors and window treatments before falling asleep, because those subjects were safe and--dare I say?--enjoyable.

When I started Rubin's book, I was still at such a low place in my grief.  I knew that a project like this was not the key to happiness.  But I hoped that it would offer me a guideline to feel marginally better.  A goal that I could set and achieve.

As I read, I remember that certain moments were surprisingly painful--first of all, Rubin happens to have a daughter.  Named Eliza.  Also there was a chapter on parenting that I skipped.

But other parts of the book had me nodding thoughtfully.  I remember feeling particularly grateful for my marriage and the dynamic that David and I have.  I recognized in her some of my own tendencies--especially a desire for "gold stars," or for people to recognize and praise my efforts (probably why I was a student for so many years--it suits my personality!).  I also appreciated the way she was slightly self-effacing, acknowledging that she was not particularly unhappy, but she simply thought she could do more to maximize her happiness.  Here I was, as dreadfully unhappy as possible--grieving, depressed, anxious, distraught--and I simply wanted to minimize those feelings as much as possible.

I definitely did not feel like I could tackle goals one month at a time (I was still in barely-functioning mode), but the book helped me decide to go back to taking yoga classes, to make sure I was giving David proofs of love since he was giving me so much support, and to try to find one small thing to look forward to each week (even if it was just Chinese take out and Netflix).

When we were in Mexico over Christmas, I was reading on my Kindle and after finishing The Marriage Plot, I wasn't quite ready to dive into another big novel.  So, once again poolside, I clicked over to The Happiness Project and started skimming through it again.  I was so shocked to realize that I'd taken more out of the book than I realized.  It wasn't as much about maximizing happiness as it was coming up for air after the most devastating event of my life, but the strategies still worked.  I was on a different timeline, as it had taken me a few more months before I had the energy to try something new, to be a good friend, to "Be Brooke" (I was still trying to remember who that was).

It got me thinking about the earliest days of grief when everything feels so desperately scary, and then the early months when life is covered in a brown haze of sadness, and then the middle-of-the-year months, when you think that you should be feeling better than you actually are, while at the same time you feel guilty anytime you do feel better.  The advice I so often got from books about grief, and from other people who had been through this gut-wrenching process was to take things moment by moment, to just breathe through the day, to give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you're feeling, and assurances that it would eventually get easier.  This is brilliant and perfect advice that I much needed to hear.

But I also wanted more definite direction, not just a promise that it would get better.  I wanted someone to tell  me how to make it better.  Even just for a moment.  How could I feel better in the depths of all this loss?

I'm still trying to figure this out, and I'm still strategizing how a project like this could work.  I want to emphasize that this is NOT a "make lemonade out of lemons" situation.  This is advice like "Keep in mind that sipping hot tea can prevent you from crying because the warmth relaxes your throat."  But I want to figure out a way to present--in retrospect, because I wasn't always fully aware that I was doing it at the time--coping mechanisms that got me through the year after I lost my daughter.  And as I do this, I would absolutely love to hear ways that you survived and found your way back to pockets of happiness?  A level of existing that wasn't absolutely painful?

I hear occasionally from people who are so fresh from their loss and it just takes my breath away to remember where I was a year ago, not quite three months out from Eliza's birth and death, and not knowing how my life would ever be a place that I would want to inhabit again.  So I want to try to present really specific advice about things I did that helped, and of course hearing other perspectives would undoubtedly be useful since I'm assuming that what worked for me won't necessarily work for everybody.  So I'm brainstorming a name for this, and I'm thinking for now it will just be another page on this blog (a tab at the top) that will serve as a record for me (the original purpose of this blog) and maybe a resource for others who stumble this way.

Some things I'd like to know...  Does this sound ridiculous?  What's a word I can use besides "happiness" that speaks to the place we get to after surviving a tragic loss?  Is it worth discussing something like happiness when it seems so superficial in the face of the death of a child (or any major loss/personal disaster, for that matter)?  Would you have wanted to find something like this in the early days, or would it have just been too overwhelming?  (I'm not sure anything I read before I was four months out actually registered with me--I was so numb).

I don't want to make light of the grief journey, or to suggest that you'll feel better about the death of your baby if you just take a yoga class and reread the Harry Potter series.  I just want to explain how I survived the first year and even managed to find a few moments in it that weren't totally and completely bleak.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, but I imagine I'll plunge forward with it even if you think it's a crazy waste of time, because now I'm interested in trying to document for myself how I managed that--mostly because there are days when I DON'T feel like I'm coping very well at all, and it would help me to know that I've found my way out of that darkness before and I can probably do it again...


  1. Oh, Brooke, you are such a teacher, I love it. :)

    I need to think more on this for a few days, but I'll be back.

  2. Those early days and months. Ugh. I remember a book along these lines called Healing a Parent's Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas After Your Child Dies. I picked it up at support group and I found it helpful. Short, sparse instructions on simple projects or self-care that you could do. I found it very difficult to read anything lengthy in the beginning, point-form was about all I could manage, so this was perfect.

    For me, tangible things that helped me were self-care and lots of it: massage, accupuncture, reflexology and working out with a personal trainer (he and his wife coincidentally also had a full-term stillbirth so he was very understanding whenever I broke down in tears). Walking the dog and getting outside every day helped too - I made sure to go into the woods and breathe in the fresh air. Writing almost daily emails with other babyloss mamas who understood was my absolute lifeline, something about being in the same place in your grief and feeling normal and having a place to vent was what got me through the early days (thank you Sarah and Sally).

  3. It is so interesting that you post on this because I am just days away from sending out my first newsletter since Margaret died (almost 19 months). My website has just been sitting there untouched until this winter when I decided I needed to redesign it, and find my voice. In my old life, I wrote quarterly newsletters about various psychology topics for my counseling practice. This time J wanted one of the topics to be Comebacks. I know what he means, but it's the word I struggle with. You never come back. Except that maybe you do because we're still here (is existing a comeback?) but it's just not clean and pretty and you bring everything with you -- no fresh starts. You know what, I'm just going to email you now! xo L

  4. I think what helped me was to live in the moment. To allow myself to feel and not suppress things.

    To cry when I was sad without judging myself. To allow myself moments of happiness without guilt. To know that I wouldn't always hurt this much, but that it was ok to hurt this much now.

    And then there was my blog which was probably the best thing I could have done. I never really wrote anything before and was amazed at how therapeutic getting your thoughts down on paper (or screen)can be.

    As far as what to call it, that's a tricky one. I agree that happiness isn't the right term to use. Because I think we both know that we will never be happy about what happened.

    It's more like we learn to live and be happy in spite of our grief. We somehow embrace the grief as a part of us. In the beginning it takes over completely but with time we manage to integrate it into our lives. We somehow get to a point where it isn't overwhelming anymore.

    I'm not sure any of this helps so I will stop babbling now.

    Best of luck, I think this is a great idea.

  5. i don't think it's a waste of time at all.

    i think sometimes we channel our grief to make room for hope and to give our grieving purpose. i don't even remember those 1st few months. but i know after the heavy fog lifted i spent time doing things in his honor (trying to set up a local support group, and other such projects), and preparing my body for the hopes of getting pregnant again. that was pretty much all of my focus.

    when i did get pg my energy dropped dramatically. like you i was only able to do the bare min. go to work, teach my class, lay on couch (and eat constantly). i got a brief energy spike in the mid 2nd tri, but it wasn't long before my energy levels dropped again.

    but even after getting pg i continued to concentrate on doing things for Julius as a way to distract myself from worrying about my pg. so i didn't do much planning for our girls arrival/nesting. i'm finding i'm doing all of my nesting now.

    anyway, i actually didn't like that book (i read it about a month ago). i found it too patronizing for me (where i am in my grief now). but she does make valid points about doing things to make you happier.

  6. I like this idea, though I agree with you that the word happiness doesn't seem quite right. I'm not sure we have a word in English that actually fits. I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately, and it especially resonates with me today, which is the one-year anniversary of when my son Jeremy was born still. I continually find myself amazed to have survived this year and am also trying to capture some of the things that have helped along the way. While most things I think are more abstract (some of which you mentioned like accepting your emotions everyday and feeling them) I realize that one concrete thing that has really helped me cope was getting a boxer puppy. I did worry that people would think I was trying to replace my baby with a dog, but clearly that was not it at all. I found that I needed a reason to get out of bed, and it really helped me to have something that needed to be cared for. It helped to have tangible evidence that there was still innocence in the world when everything else felt so overwhelmingly bleak. There were definitely very frustrating moments, like thinking 'I was prepared to lose sleep for a baby, but not for a dog' but in looking back over the past year I realize how much healing this puppy has brought to my husband and me. Not sure this would work for everyone, but for me, I feel like it was helpful.

  7. This was a great entry. I have come to the conclusion that "happiness" isn't really in the cards me for a while, maybe ever. I am now seeking contentment. Happiness has too much judgement and expectation attached to it. It is also fleeting based on situation. Contentment feels easier, smoother, more attainable and less threatening. It is also feels like it could be a constant, unlike happiness which feels like a swift wind could change everything... Like it already did.
    Keep on writing!

  8. I'm excited to see where this will go. I think "happiness" is a tough pill to swallow in those first few months. I wasn't even interested in finding happiness - like you said, it was more about surviving. that is one thing I try to remember when I meet a momma new to this journey - don't give them too much hope early on because it might just seem/feel like a bunch of bs. You have to gradually find your way back towards happiness and feeling a sense of hope.

    Anyway, where am I going with this? I'm probably not really helping so as much re-stating everything you've already said, but not nearly as well.

    What helped me? Physically getting out of the house each day. Going on a walk. With my dog, my mom, my sister, husband, whoever . . .just literally putting one foot in front of the other made me feel like I was doing something, going somewhere.

    Also, starting a blog. I think that this can be accomplished in many different ways - journaling, attending support group, going to therapy, all of the above - but finding some way, to get your emotions out there - some outlet to be heard. sometimes you want to suffer in silence, but I feel you have to have an outlet at somepoint along the way in some shape or form.

    Lastly (for now anyway)finding people who had also experienced a loss - both those around the same time as you and those who are further out from your loss and at a place you want/hope to be. I clung to those people who knew my pain and gave me hope that I could survive and I clung to those who knew my pain who I could also help raise up. It helped comfort me to try to help comfort another.

  9. I just realized I didn't really answer your questions. but YES this is worth doing and I think it's something I would have been interested in during those early days. And is absolutely worth discussing happiness, but in a gradual fashion. First comes survival - and eventually happiness will happen, in small pockets, over a long period of time. I'm not sure what's a better word though - that's a tough one.

  10. This is a great idea and I think it's interesting to see all of the different things people do to try to not be overcome by grief.

    For me, in the first 3 months, the concrete thing that helped me was to take a grief book (I read every book about stillbirth or grief I could find!) to the outdoor community pool and lay in the sun and cry behind my sunglasses and spend the whole afternoon that way. Alone, but surrounded by happy people. It just made me feel a little better for awhile.

    In months 4-6 my concrete thing was wandering around Whole Foods and spending way too much money trying out new stuff from there. I didn't realize it was a reaction to grief at the time, but it definitely was.

  11. I didn't officially meet you at the Share meeting last month, but Angie talks about you all the time and I love your blog:) I'm sorry about your sweet Eliza. You have such a special way of writing and remembering Eliza. I think this is a great idea. I'm not sure about the word happiness, just as sometimes I cringe at the word "healing". None of it really fits, it's just doing whatever it is that you need to do to survive and make it through each moment. I think my situation was a little different because I had a 3 year old son. I don't think any situation is worse or better because of what you have or don't have, it's just different. I do think mine was different because I had my son to put a smile on my face each day. He was definitely my saving grace. Aside from that I felt like my life was absolutely completely out of my control and I needed to take some control back (being the control freak I am-although not nearly as much anymore). I didn't feel like I had enough strength to even think about how I could take control over anything in my life until about a year after my daughters' died. My journey to gaining some control and bringing something positive to my life began with weight loss. Really exercising at first. I always had so many emotions built up I just constantly felt the need to run (and I am not athletic). That turned into a weight loss journey for me. Obviously that is not something everyone needs, although I do think exercising for anyone can be a way of pushing through those emotions. Yoga really helped me too, although like you said may not be for everyone. I think journaling is important and I still get mad at myself for not journaling enough. I think because I have a blog it should be on there, but I don't share about 90% of my emotions right now. So even if it is a private journal. Really never being hard on yourself for your feelings and where you are. Like you said, at those different stages I remember feeling the same way. I feel like I'm just confirming what you already said, but I just wanted to offer my personal experiences. I'm interested to see where this goes.

  12. It is okay to be happy again. Just because you are "happy" does not mean that you don't love Eliza and miss her beyond words. Being happy does not mean that you are glad that she passed away or that you are are better off without her. It is okay to be happy again.

  13. I'd like to agree with anonymous above, and also to say - I don't think happiness is superficial in the least. It's very important to me that I live a life with joy, and if anything I think that is one of the ways I honor my daughter's memory. She was beautiful and important, and though I will always always always want wish she hadn't died, her death did not destroy me.

    As for advice...I'll have to think on it more. I agree that living in the moment is a very good approach. I let myself feel all the sorrow and joy as it came.
    - M

  14. Brooke,
    I think it is a great idea. I have read the book as well, and I don't think I agree with the author on the title all the time. For her, it was more like making her life more productive, easier (clutter clearing)and being a better person (being a good friend, parent,wife). She should have named it "Becoming better" or "Evolving", and I suggest you name it on those lines. If I were to start a project, my corner idea would be that, because many times pursuing such things may be like soul searching, and not give instant happiness; definitely happier in the long run though. guess I sound abstract. Just my thoughts.. from where I see things today.


  15. For me, on a really basic level, here are the things I remember that made me feel like life was at the very least "liveable" again:

    taking my dogs on walks

    watching Friday Night Lights on my ipad while on the elliptical machine that we bought after he died (I couldn't fathom going to a gym but knew I needed to exercise, an episode of FNL was the perfect length and just enough emotional content for me to cry, but feel hopeful all at the same time.)

    travel, with the caveat that you'll still feel sad, but in a different locale, is sometimes helpful - we took a trip in the first month after he died, and then again four months later. I actually considered trying to start a foundation that funded grief trips for bereaved parents.

    Say Yes to the Dress episodes (and friends to text about the show) -- because SYttD never had a storyline about babies, I could almost always count on it being a time purely to check out.

    planting and gardening. we planted over 200 bulbs in our yard the first winter after we lost Otis. They started blooming just as I found out I was pregnant with Owen. It felt like Mother Nature was for once conspiring and doing her best to show me some signs of hope, and man, it was beautiful in our yard. Plus, people would drive or walk by and comment on how great the bulbs were, and I could beam and tell them they were for Otis, and in a way I felt that glimpse of being a proud Mama, showing off her baby.

    And finally, blogging, and finding women who truly understood what I was going through, but also with whom I connected on so many levels, and could laugh about things totally unrelated to babyloss but still know that they knew and understood that my laughter never ever ever meant I wasn't thinking about or missing my boy.

  16. Keeping busy, but also having time to do nothing at all (and when you lose a first this is a lot easier). Finding your babyloss classmates and forming a strong bond with them. New projects, time away from home, treating yourself - maybe a new haircut?
    Mostly it was just time that got me through.
    (And Monique, thanks to you too. xo)

  17. Alrighty. I have thought more on this and am ready to respond.

    First, I think it's important to note that there probably won't be just one thing that works for everyone. Just like they say everyone grieves differently, I think people "heal" differently too.

    In the early days, I researched EVERYTHING I could find, trying to grasp WHY this happened to us, what could we have done differently, would it happen again, how could I prevent it from happening again, had anyone else been through what we had and then had a healthy baby...I LIVED on the pre-eclampsia forums. I read medical journals. I emailed medical journals to my mom and husband and best friend (which now is funny.) I'm not sure that it especially helped or hurt, but it sure did keep me busy.

    I threw myself into TTC again even before it was medically advisable. (Uh, luckily it didn't happen.) I think I knew that Olivia wasn't coming back, and I was just desperate for some hope, something concrete like a new baby. I know some people aren't ready to TTC for a long time, and I think it's probably ideal to take a good 6+ months to just grieve, but I felt guilty for wanting to TTC so early and in hindsight I see that that's normal, too.


    I also agree with finding "classmates" that have lost babies in the same time period that you did (and even better if you can both get pregnant with rainbows at the same time too), but I also think it's helpful to reach out and find (or hopefully they will find you) "mentors" who are farther out too. (I think support groups are generally good for this, plus it gives you time to sit and talk in a room of people who generally understand, which I've usually found a pretty reassuring feeling.)

    I read A LOT of trashy romance novels that required no thinking. I also watched a lot of trashy tv, a la Jersey Shore. (Uh, I still do.)

    I think those are the main things that I did..

  18. My word would be peace instead of happiness. I felt far from happy after we lost Carter, but there were times where I had an sense of peace about the situation. Not even acceptance...but just peace...peace in knowing that even though it sucked and even though I couldn't change it, I was ok and I was going to live.

    You are an amazing woman, Brooke. Today is 2 1/2 years, to the day, since we lost Carter and I still come here to read your insights and wisdom. One of my favorite things you ever wrote was that losing a baby is "so profoundly fucking unfair." I've used that phrase MANY times in describing losing a baby to people, it's all because of you and for that I am grateful. Another thing you wrote once upon a time was, "I'm learning we need to clutch our joy at least as as tightly as we hold our grief. Because the hard part never goes away, and if that's all we focus on, we miss out on so much of the good." So much truth in that statement.

    Thanks for sharing your journey with us/me!

  19. I need to get back to that book (in my half-finished pile). I can concur with much of the wisdom here already. I read about pregnancy loss voraciously, ordered tons of books from the Internet, & found comfort in sharing my experiences with other bereaved moms both online & in a support group. I didn't try yoga until much later, but it helped me through some rough times later, post-infertility treatment.

    I had to chuckle when Sarah mentioned "Say Yes to the Dress." During the time I was off work, I watched "A Wedding Story" almost every day on TLC (is it even still on anymore?). "A Baby Story" came right afterwards (of course) & I could not hack that, but wedding fluffiness was just my cup of tea & a pleasant diversion.

    Angie mentioned trashy novels ; ) -- I read Bridget Jones's Diary a few weeks after loss, & it was SO what I needed. I actually laughed out loud in certain spots, & that felt so good.