Learning about grief

I don’t have a lot of experience with grief.

Today, one month after Sebastian’s death, I have been reading about the experiences of other “babylost” parents on two websites, glow in the woods and Unspoken Grief. There is a lot I relate to in the words of these bereaved mothers and fathers.

I’ve also been reading the book we were given at the hospital after Sebastian’s birth, called Empty Cradle, Broken Heart. It discusses the way you might feel and what is “normal” to go through after you lose a baby, through miscarriage, interrupted pregnancy, stillbirth, or infant death. It basically says that no matter what you are feeling, you are entitled to it. Grieving a baby is hard, and everyone who has to do it will do so differently.

One of the biggest topics the author addresses is Anger. Many mothers feel rage – at the universe or God or fate, for bringing them this misfortune. Others are furious at medical staff, or other people involved with their pregnancy or birth, people they blame for the death (sometimes genuinely, sometimes temporarily as a coping mechanism).

During the conversation when I first told my older sister that her second nephew had died, she said something that struck me as incredibly sad: “I live my life perpetually expecting things to go wrong, so I’ll be prepared when they do… but it doesn’t really work. I’m still not prepared.”

The idea of always expecting the worst seems like a tragedy in itself. But I’ve realized that I have, in a certain way, been doing the same thing for a long time.

I can’t remember a time when I was unaware of tragedy. (Growing up Quaker, one tends to develop a social conscience early.) When I was a kid, I worried about endangered species and starving children. I was full of fascinated horror over the Titanic disaster, my heart ached over burning rainforest, and I cried over Anne Frank’s plight. I knew that there were people in the world who lost their whole families in epidemics, famines, floods, earthquakes, and wars.

Personally, I had a very happy childhood, and my adulthood has really been pretty charmed too, up to now. In a way, I’ve been waiting for the bad luck to hit.

Hold on. I’ve always thought of myself as an optimist, but this sounds like I might be the opposite. I realize that the older I get, and the more people I know who have dealt with tragedy directly, the more I’ve been expecting my turn. I mean, nobody gets off scot-free, right? When my first son was born, he seemed almost too good to be true. I understood at once what moms say about having your heart suddenly outside your body. Part of me was – and is – afraid that this couldn’t possibly last, that I couldn’t deserve such an amazing, perfect child. So far, I haven’t lost a parent or a sibling or a best friend. Neither has Sean. We have been healthy and employed and able-bodied. We have each other and our son.

We were due for some tribulations.

If this sounds irreverent or dispassionate, it’s neither. I have often asked myself if it’s actually possible to go through life like this – as in, Do I really get to keep everyone I love until they get old? Well, is anyone that lucky? That doesn’t seem likely. I’m pretty sure shit happens to everyone. People lose loved ones far too young. People get diseases and injuries that put them and their families through immense pain. People suffer heartbreak and terror and abuse at the hands of others – others who have usually suffered the same things. There are so many sources of anguish; how can we expect avoid them all?

I have figured out a fundamental difference between me and many other grieving parents. This epiphany makes me feel fortunate, thankful – and also confused, and maybe somehow inadequate. Because I am not angry. I am sad, but suddenly I see that sadness is a much less ragged wound than angry sadness.

I once went through a memorable stretch of grief that included a lot of anger, and it was, in a way, much worse than this has been (so far). I lost my appetite and my enthusiasm. I would wake up at 3 a.m. and be unable to sleep any more, no matter how exhausted I was. I would feel claustrophobic and sick and find it hard to breathe. It was scary and lonely, and it made it hard to put my grief behind me.

When Sebastian died, I was afraid I would experience that same horror. I waited for it to descend… but it didn’t. I have had only a little sleeplessness, and not the heavy, walls-closing-in kind. My appetite has been fine. I do not blame God or destiny or my midwife or the doctors or nurses. I know everyone did their best… and everyone has to deal with heartbreak. This one is ours. I don’t know why I am able to accept this, but I am grateful for whatever threads in my life wove together to protect me from anger right now.

So, if angry is how I am not, the question follows (and has been asked many times): how am I?

That’s a tough one. It will have to be for another post.

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8 thoughts on “Learning about grief

  1. Kristin Lord says:

    I lost two of my grad school classmates early. One died from a cascading set of incidents that fall into the “This should never have happened” category. The other succumbed to breast cancer four days after her thirty-eighth birthday. Both were talented, attractive, and personable. Society is poorer for their loss. In the first instance, the passage of twenty-five years has not really dulled the pain, probably because there was no fully acceptable medical answer. I cannot imagine what the surviving relatives of these two women (the parents and brother of the first and the husband of the second) go through on the birthdays of these wonderful human beings. Sometimes what happens just does not make sense within the parameters of our human judgment. While I would not presume to speak for you, I assume that Sebastian’s loss falls into this category.

    When I was twelve, we had a new kitten, whom I named Moortje. You will be one of the few who knows where I got that name. When I explained to people that Moortje was the only one to whom Anne Frank bade farewell when she went into hiding, a fair number of them were upset. Why? They didn’t want to be reminded of what happened to Anne. I felt that it was important that we should be reminded. If the name of an enormous but very skittish cat (he was part Maine Coon cat and weighed some twenty-four pounds) led even one person in the direction of thinking “Never again, not to anyone,” then that moniker was more than worth all of the misspellings and awdward questions. Because our Moortje lived to be some seventeen years and several months, we had a lot of such explaining to do. When the inevitable happened, I was sorry to see him go, but life had unrolled for me in a way that it is supposed to do and did not for Anne: I had grown up and gotten another cat. (Moortje stayed with my parents; the new cat, who went on to live for nineteen years, belonged to Christopher and me, and ultimately to Helen as well.)

    What we are left with is “Never again, not to anyone.” If we can make the world better in any way according to that standard (and I do a terrible job at it), then we have begun to meet our obligations to those who have come before. I don’t think that there is a lot else we can do.

    • diblog says:

      I’m so sorry about your classmates. You’re right, many things don’t make sense. We talked a lot with our midwife about it – she’s from Iran and has experienced and witnessed more than her share of pain and loss. I agree with her in the belief that there is something better coming after our terrestrial lives, because otherwise life is even more unfair than we think it is. (As Dumbledore says, “Don’t pity the dead – pity the living.”)

      And what you say about people not wanting to be reminded about awful things – it makes me think of some of the online conversations I’ve been reading, particularly about the question “How many kids do you have?” Many bereaved mothers hate that question because they have to decide whether to tell someone (usually a stranger) about the death and make them feel sad and awkward and sorry they asked – or whether to basically deny the existence of their lost child. And you never know, until you get into conversation, who will be at ease speaking about pain and who won’t. (If your twelve-year-old self and mine could have somehow met… I would definitely have wanted to talk about Moortje.)

  2. Kristin Lord says:

    Many thanks for your prompt reply, which I really didn’t expect. Yes, Moortje was a great cat, despite his extreme skittishness. My mother commissioned a posthumous portrait from a photo I took. It hung in Helen’s room until she made her own decision about what to have there. I need to find a new spot for it. When I do, I will show it to you when you next come up here.

    Have you considered whether there is a charity to which you would like people to donate in memory of Sebastian, or whether would you prefer to leave that up to others. If you’d prefer not to answer that question, that’s fine, too.

  3. Carol Leigh Wehking says:

    you say you’ve “been waiting for the bad luck to hit” and you “were due for some tribulations” and that your midwife has “witnessed more than her share of pain and loss”. i don’t believe that there is some cosmic “fair share” and that some get less and some more and those who have less should be waiting for their share. i know you don’t mean something as simple-minded as that, but what i mean is, really, that pretty much no-one “deserves” a measure of pain in their life, just “because”.
    i believe it could be true that you are not experiencing anger about Sebastian because you have indeed had a very fortunate life, and are free of the sort of warps that lots of people have, for one reason and another. you are fair-minded and kind, and don’t go around trying to assign blame, though you are able to shoulder blame if you are at fault. i think this is a lot of what has “woven together to protect you from anger right now” – of course there are “many threads”, but your own choices about how you respond to life, people, and circumstances are a large part of it. and you are right, sadness is a much less ragged wound than angry sadness – you put these things very well, and your ability to express yourself is probably another factor in keeping your balance. i read every word; i feel for you and hold you in the light, and send loving thoughts your way. and i know that even in sadness, you are totally capable of recognizing and honouring your many blessings. sadness is huge and heavy, and it is a large measure of your life right now, and you are right to name it, invite it in, and give it hospitality as long as is necessary. but it is not your way of life. you (and i mean you three when i say that) are resilient, and your love for one another as well as for Sebastian is the firm ground that is your way of life. you will find a time when “all will be well again,” always with the special place in your heart for Sebastian, who knew no pain nor disappointment nor sadness nor hurt, but only love.

  4. Kim says:

    When you are ready there is wonderful book by Jan Hatanaka ( A Grief Specialist, who is no stranger to loss) called “The Choice”. Google her and see what you find. She has other readings too.

    You have an interesting blog. Came across it by accident and had a look. Not sure where you find the time/energy to put into it. Perhaps you don’t sleep! Best wishes.

    • diblog says:

      Thank you for reading, Kim, and for recommending this book – it looks like a really good one. You’re right – time is an issue with blogging, and I have to eke it out when I can (and you’re right also that sometimes I stay up way too late)… but as for energy, I get it from the writing itself. Best wishes to you too.

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