Category Archives: Talking to Others

Little Revelations

“The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” 

Mary Catherine Bateson

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“Have you watched that show?”  “The character had a miscarriage and her whole family reacted like it mattered.”

“There was an article in the paper about someone who had a similar type of loss as mine– I’m glad that the topic is getting some attention.”

“Reading that book was powerful— her story was different from mine but I had the same feelings she did.”

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My friend John is a movie buff.  During a conversation a few months ago, he encouraged me to see Roma on the biggest screen possible because the location and style of filming are so stunning.  Although it was playing in a nearby theater, I watched it instead on my laptop, reminding myself as I started that I could slam the screen down at any time.

The part I was worried about getting through was the frank depiction of a stillbirth, first pointed out to me in an email from a past leader of neonatal loss groups.  She had loved the film but also wanted to give people a trigger warning about the content.  I believe that such warnings can be very helpful in minimizing or avoiding trauma through re-exposure and can also just give information that guides us in deciding what we are up for viewing.  I’ve found it useful at times to know something about what’s in a film and to make a decision about whether I want to watch it at all and, if so, when and under what circumstances.

Of course, most of life doesn’t come with warning labels.  We may feel great pain watching a commercial, driving past a hospital or hearing someone being called our baby’s name.  Our movements through the world are going to take us into difficult feelings, despite our best efforts. It makes sense for us to take care of ourselves as well as we can, including protecting ourselves when we have the ability and need to do so.

I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have wanted to see Roma in the early months, maybe years, after my losses.  I remember being cautious about what I saw and how strong my reactions were when I went outside my comfort zone.  I also recall when members of the pregnancy loss group that I led spoke about how affected they were when watching the kid movies Finding Nemo and Up because of their themes of loss.  Even the stories that are designed for children may not feel safe enough.

In considering Roma though, I felt pulled toward both the story and a scene with a version of baby loss that so many people were viewing.  I wanted to know if I would see some reflection of myself or maybe of others I’ve known.  I wanted to see if there would be meaning for me or if I would just need to pull away.

I didn’t end up slamming down my computer screen or fast forwarding through the stillbirth sceneI couldn’t even look away, although I somehow don’t think I saw everything.  It was gut wrenching, heartbreaking, and I can see why some in the loss community wanted to be given a heads up about what was coming or for the scene to be different.  I’m also glad I saw it.

I certainly felt a lot of emotion watching Roma, just as I have when watching other movies or shows involving a pregnancy or infant loss.   But after the repeated holding of my breath and crying throughout the very long scene in question and then sitting through the rest of the movie, I felt strangely calm.  For me, seeing a realistic depiction of loss from the outside made something inside me feel a bit more revealed and settled.

It strikes me that, similar to warning labels, life doesn’t always come with healing labels either.  I’ve had people tell me about TV shows, movies, articles, books and other information floating around in the world that resonated with them emotionally and provided some relief from feeling isolated in their experience. Sometimes stories give us hope, deeper understanding or connection with another.  They may give us some of the solace that we seek.    

This is absolutely not a recommendation for anyone to expose themselves to provocative and upsetting material, only acknowledging that between people and even within the course of an individual life, what is distressing or helpful may vary.  It is also an invitation to consider that since so many images and stories are offered to us on a daily basis, we might want to bring awareness to the types of information on baby loss that’s out there and see if any of it is right for us.

When others take on the subject of perinatal loss, whether in popular culture, clinical material and, in some cases, politics or news, it invites us to glance at our memories.  It can be another way to look at and maybe integrate our loss into our lives a bit more as we see it from yet another place in time or point of view.  Grief is a long road, with lots of opportunities to see part of our inner experience mirrored and distilled.

As a society, it seems that we’re showing more interest in going to these places than we did in the past.  We see miscarriage, stillbirth and other types of neonatal loss shown as an impactful and real life event in our more recent television (This is Us), movies (Return to Zero, Don’t Talk About the Baby), and memoirs that give us first person reports (The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy and Poor Your Soul by Mira Pticin).  On the road more irreverently traveled, occasionally someone tells their story with humor firmly intertwined with the pain as with Monica Murphy Lemoine’s Knocked Up, Knocked Down.

Some books on pregnancy and infant loss have been clinical, and they explain and speak to a relevant part of the journey, often including instructive and meaningful case examples that may speak to us.  Coming from a different angle, articles on the racial disparities of perinatal outcomes have been informing us that African-American women experience miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm birth and infant death at a significantly higher rate than white women in our country.  These pieces sound an alarm about our need to better understand medical and social factors that contribute to these tragedies.  For many people, the articles may resonate with their own medical past and emotional pain.

Some writing on baby loss includes poetry, which may feel appropriate and useful for describing some of the “beyondness” of something bigger and more awful than our daily range of experience.  In a time where we may feel at a loss for words, this type of writing may provide comfort and way to describe and more fully understand our experience of baby loss.

The proliferation of blogs has also included significant contributions as well.  Writers in this medium offer individual versions of miscarriage, stillbirth, loss due to prenatal diagnosis and infant death, often with an unvarnished presentation of the shorter and longer term experience of living after these losses.  In addition to the many individual blogs, Still Standing is a site devoted to writings about child (and perinatal) loss and the overlapping topic of infertility.  The site Modern Loss has a section just for miscarriage and stillbirth.  In our time of the “Me Too” movement and social media, it seems fitting that we have more immediate and overt ways of stating what previously was often kept hidden or minimized.  One way or another, our stories are coming out.

This week I finished reading The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a novel that is and isn’t about pregnancy loss.  Like certain moments in watching something on a screen or hearing a conversation, it moved something in me related to grief.   It’s set in a rural Alaskan landscape of the 1920s, a world far removed from mine.  The story seemed full of cycles, and reminded me of how many times in our lives, voluntarily and by accident, we turn toward and away from memories and feelings about our loss. Ivey’s description of bereavement in harsh and beautiful circumstances was quite vivid, and I think it will stay with me for a long time.

Leaning

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“I think about calling a friend sometimes, but I’m not sure anyone wants to spend time with me right now.”

“My coworkers look nervous when they ask me how I’m doing.”

“My family was really supportive at the beginning, but now they don’t even mention the baby and what happened.”


Humans are social creatures.  We need each other.  We mingle in all kinds of family and work groups and have developed complex interdependent systems to take care of each other when it comes to food, healthcare, entertainment, safety and emotional well-being.  Just to get through a routine day, we usually require quite a bit of assistance from other people.  We need them to drive the bus to work, sell us coffee and go for a walk with us at lunchtime to discuss the new Star Wars film.  We depend on family, friends and professionals to help us stay upright and healthy in the world.

During pregnancy, and in anticipation of birth and the early time with a baby, we generally receive an even higher than normal amount of practical and emotional help from others.  This often means more contact and attention from loved ones as well as the healthcare system of doctors, midwives, doulas, etc.  People often meet us with high energy and open hearts during the exciting time of transitioning to becoming parents or extending a family.

When something goes wrong, however, the team of friends, family and professionals that was very well prepared for a living baby may not be as up to the task of coping with a loss.  People may be awkward, show up at first and then back away pretty quickly or they may have trouble offering anything at all.

There are probably lots of reasons for this.  We don’t expect the early end of a pregnancy or death of a baby and each person struggles with his or her own reactions to such events.  We also live in a society that tends to minimize grief in general and baby loss in particular.  There is discomfort and confusion about the significance of losing someone who was not really well known to the world.  Those who were eager to help with a new life may not be ready to help with pain and emptiness.  This can be challenging on both sides, meaning that it can be tough to both give and receive support after baby loss.

Challenges Related to Providing Support

Because of anxiety, mistaken assumptions or just feeling at a loss, it can be hard for those in a position to help after loss to do so effectively.  Family and friends might wait for cues that they either don’t see or misread.  Medical providers may also feel challenged in this situation.  They are not always comfortable with the shift in focus from more routine pregnancy and baby care to the raw feelings and needs displayed by someone experiencing perinatal bereavement.

The discomfort from members of the potential support system is often relayed through unclear or unhelpful communication.  “Let me know if you need anything” can feel like a pretty vague statement to someone.   If  “I should wait for her to bring it up” is used as a strategy, it may translate to a grieving person as indifference.

Euphemisms can also be less than helpful during this time.  Euphemisms hide or distort direct meaning and in some situations can make information softer or easier to hear while still conveying something useful.  When we read a sign that says “please do not throw feminine products in the toilet”, we understand the underlying message and that it’s not a concern about our pitching lipstick or Adele CDs into the loo.  But when, after a heartbreaking loss, people speak to us about “letting go”,  “moving on” or “closure”,  what does that really mean?  Implying that there will be an end to feelings about the permanent loss of a loved one can be confusing and painful to someone in the throes of grief.  It might just make a person feel misunderstood or alone.

Challenges Related to Receiving Support

As far as making the effort to reach out for help or accepting support, that can be tough too.   Most of us are horrified by the thought of being the neon lit person of the recent tragedy.  It’s tough to be that person in the social circle, even as a temporary identity.  It’s one of the many things you probably wish wasn’t happening right now.

Since the emotional and physical ramifications of baby loss are not often discussed, you  may not feel socially entitled to being seen and treated as a bereaved person.  People in your situation often have trouble letting others know their feelings or needs.  Sometimes, as often happens with a miscarriage or termination due to a devastating medical diagnosis, they may not even let others know that it happened.

Increasing Your Support

Losing a baby means losing someone dear to you, often in an unexpected and traumatic manner.  When this happens to you, it’s a high needs time.  Maybe you want to talk and maybe you don’t, but you need something.  Maybe it’s someone to help you deal with your insurance paperwork, walk your dog, take you to your appointments, bring you groceries or sit with you in silence.  Maybe you don’t know what you need, but that doesn’t make you less needy.  You’re hurting and it’s your time to lean on others a bit.

If someone is offering help, take him or her up on it.  If it seems extra hard, start with something very small.  If someone has to be told that you need them, consider doing so.  Sometimes people appreciate the information and can step up when prompted.  Many people are anxious and uncertain about how to be helpful or if their help is even welcome.  Letting them know what you need may make them feel more comfortable as you’ve given them the option of directing their energy in a useful manner.

When your medical providers are not able to give you what you need at this time, consider giving them feedback and/or switching to someone else for your care.  At a time when so much is out of your control, remember that you still have choices in this area.  Because it can be so hard to process information at this time, and the information you have may be incomplete, you may also want more than one medical professional to help you understand what happened and what it may mean for your future.

If a friend or family in your support system is awkward or insensitive in their help-giving, consider trying to forgive them.  Take a break from them if you need to, and try not to make any long term assumptions about the relationship.  None of you are in the best place right now.

Maybe you will want to break ties or change your relationships with someone based on their current behavior, but it may be helpful to wait before assuming estrangement with a friend or family member.  I recently found out that a decades long rift between two now deceased members of my family was caused by “something to do with pork chops”.  It’s hard for me to believe that this fight and the feelings of upset needed to result in the extended separation and tension in the family.  Although it can be very hard to forgive emotional injuries, whatever the cause, it may be worth it because it may help you feel better and more peaceful in the long run.

Ask those who are closest to you and who are the most competent to engage others further out in your support network.  If no one is local, try using the phone or internet.  If you really can’t find someone to help you in the moment, remind yourself that you deserve it anyway and keep looking.  As Les Brown said, “Ask for help, not because you’re weak, but because you want to remain strong.”

 

 

 

Talking About It

talking about it

 

“If we knew each other’s secrets, what comforts we should find.”  John Churton Collins

“You know what truly aches?  Having so much inside you and not having the slightest clue of how to pour it out.”  Karen Quan, Write Like No One is Reading


 

Years ago, sometime after I became an adult, but before I had experienced much in the way of loss, I had a doctor’s appointment with someone who was covering for my regular provider.  I wasn’t there for anything urgent and I don’t remember many details about the visit.  I do, however, remember one thing very clearly.  In the midst of the chit-chat between me and this 40ish physician, she mentioned something sweet that her daughter had done.  She then gently added “she’s passed away since then.”  After this comment, she continued to talk and move through the rest of the appointment in a calm, warm and professional manner.

I’d like to tell you that I said something kind, respectful and connecting in response to the doctor’s statements, but I highly doubt it.  I just remember being floored by the mention of a dead child.   I felt stunned, sad and awkward.  It probably showed.  It was hard for me to imagine that this woman had gotten up that day, had breakfast, dressed for work and was keeping a not all that consequential appointment with me, all while her daughter was dead.  It was also startling to me that she could talk about her daughter in such a natural and beautiful way.  After all these years, I still think about it.  It was a challenging, memorable and helpful moment for me.

“Talk about it.”  It’s advice often given to the bereaved.  We probably all have ideas as to why this is a good idea.  It can feel relieving to share feelings instead of having them bottled up inside.  Talking about the loss can also be a way to connect to others and to feel less alone.  Better talking than acting out in some more negative fashion such as overworking, drinking or drugs, right?

It may also be an important way for us to take another look at ourselves and acknowledge who and where we are.

In the pregnancy loss group I used to facilitate, whenever a new member joined, each member, beginning with those who had been in the group for awhile, would tell their baby loss story in whatever level of detail they felt comfortable doing so.  Sometimes this brought up anxiety for people as they anticipated what it might feel like to revisit the events that they experienced as so acutely painful.  There were usually tears and sometimes trembling voices.

However, as time went on and people retold their stories, they would often comment on how their stories changed as they revisited and shared them.  There were still tears and sometimes trembling voices.  But there were also different details noted as more or less important and changes in emotional resonance.  Over time, group members seemed to hold their loss less as a “hot potato” or cut-off portion of their lives and more of an integrated part of their history.

That single comment made by someone I met only once helped me because it challenged the way I thought about grief and what it must be like to lose someone so critical to one’s identity and happiness.  It felt like a significant dispatch from one woman’s experience in the field of grief.  The doctor helped me consider the possibility that a person can live with a profound absence in her heart without having her heart close down entirely.  She showed me an example of a person respecting her own grief, her lost child and her ongoing life.

Of course, I don’t know what the physician’s mention of her daughter and her loss did for her.  But that one encounter made me think that an ongoing conversation about one’s loss may be the way to go.  The conversation may be a lot of monologues interspersed with dialogues.   The audience may be one or larger.  It may have many twists, turns and moods to it.  It may make people uncomfortable.  If may help them immensely.  It may do both.  It may help connect some dots and fill in some colors to help others understand us.  It may give us a clearer view of ourselves.