Category Archives: Grief and Change

Two Sides

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”  Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“I’m sorry, Gemma. But we can’t live in the light all of the time. You have to take whatever light you can hold into the dark with you.”   Libba Bray, A Great and Terrible Beauty


Last weekend I stayed at an off the grid hot springs establishment where the bathrooms were labeled “yin” and “yang”.  I’m used to figuring out that I’m supposed to head for doors marked “Damas” or “Cowgirls” etc., but this was a nice spin on the concept.  It turns out that sometimes a trip to the toilet in a beautiful and quirky location is a good opportunity to consider the relationship between the opposing sides of life.

Wikipedia gives us this:  In Chinese philosophy yin and yang (also yin-yang or yin yangyīnyáng “dark—bright”) describes how opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.  Sometimes people talk about the two sides as male and female, fire and water, passive and active, moon and sun, etc.  The symbol has, in the form of a dot, a little bit of the opposite color, reminding us that each side contains a bit of the other element.

The experience of expecting or having a baby and then losing that baby tends to give us a dizzying trip to both the light and dark side of life.  It’s often a steep drop from one extreme to the other:  joy-sadness, expecting-disbelief, hopeful-hopeless, assured-anxious, expansive-contracted, connecting-detaching, full-empty, beginning-ending.  Certainly none of these feelings are unique to baby loss.  But babies tend to bring out our strongest and most tender feelings, and the abrupt and dramatic shift related to attaching to them and losing them is particularly stunning.

The outlier moments in our life, those that are bigger– whether bright or dark– demand notice.  They take our energy and attention and become landmarks in our memory.  The two halves of the spinning, messy embrace we see in Yin and Yang symbol remind me of times when I have felt the opposing sides of my own life experience.

I have a memory of being five months pregnant on an Easter Sunday.  I was lying on a lounge chair in the backyard of my then home feeling the sunshine on my skin and the movements of my baby inside me.  At that moment everything felt connected and right.

I have memories of being in the hospital a couple of weeks later and feeling that I was losing more than I could handle.  People mentioned how beautiful the weather was outside and I remember thinking that they must be living on another planet.  I wondered if anything could feel OK again.

At the time, the two experiences seemed worlds apart.  As I think about this now, it seems clear that it was two sides of me loving and losing someone dear to me.  The memories now are held as interrelated and coexist as important part of my life.

When we are in a great place, it can help to remember a little about the other side and appreciate our time away from it.  When in a tough place, it can help to remember the light of past and future, and that it’s as real as anything else.  If we are in pain, it’s our time to breathe through the experience until we find another feeling.  If we are in the best of times, it’s time to breathe it in, noticing the hell out of it because we will need some in reserve pretty soon.

Whether it is a time of celebrating or grieving, thriving or enduring, I think there is something to gain in being aware of what lies on the other side of the line (and the dot that is a little bit on our side).   We can appreciate knowing there are limits to whatever we are feeling now, knowing at some point the game of tag will continue and the other side will be “it”.  Being aware that there is a  finite time when we’re in the worst of our pain makes it bearable.  And remembering that our time on the sweet side is temporary can help us savor it a bit more.

Looking After

“The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.” —  William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

 “She took a step and didn’t want to take any more, but she did.”— Markus Zusak, The Book Thief 

“It’s neither kind nor effective to bitch-slap yourself into a better way of living.”—  Your Exquisite Self-Care Inventory –101 Ways to Love Yourself More Deeply from Life After Tampons Blog by  Jennifer Boykin

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About a decade ago, there was a morning where I found myself eating breakfast in a hotel ballroom in another part of the country while a speaker (whose name I can’t remember) stood at the podium and talked about exquisite self care.  The audience for the conference was a mix of people who had experienced perinatal loss and those whose work focused on perinatal bereavement.  The woman doing the keynote that morning promoted the idea of exquisite self care as necessary for coping with grief and as well as for working with those who are grieving.  She spoke about accepting and validating increased needs after a significant loss, and suggested creative and heartfelt ways to increase both practical and emotional support in one’s life.

I remember liking the word exquisite being used in this way–  it added an element of relief to picture something of beauty, sensitivity and discrimination associated with what can feel like the belly crawling time of coping with acute grief.  I understood her premise to be that individuals can cultivate self-compassion and enlist it, along with other types of efforts, to stay afloat in the world.  It expanded my idea of the long hard slog people can have with the basics of eating, sleeping, safety and support after a loss.  The word exquisite made me consider space and grace seeping into the herculean efforts of those who are in crisis and who are attempting to get through the next moment or hour.

Exquisite self care also seems appropriate for attending to another need after baby loss, one that goes beyond the usual understanding of basic practical and emotional requirements.  It’s something less tangible and probably presents uniquely to each person.  I’m talking about how we care for the bits of involuntary interior remodeling of the self that happen after we lose our babies.

This remodeling may be big or small, have short or long term aspects and, sort of like the Winchester Mystery House, it may be ongoing.  For some of us, we may feel a permanent change in the internal landscape.  My own experience has been feeling that something was dug out inside me as a result of my losses and that the space has undergone many shifts.  Early on, it was more like a situation room.  Everything inside vibrated with intense feelings while plans were made, scrapped, and made again to deal with the circumstances at hand.

Now I think it’s more a room of requirement, a la the one found in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.  It fits the needs I have for it at different times.  Sometimes it is a place where I meet others to hear and feel their stories and sometimes it is a place for me to sit with my own memories.  It is simultaneously a space and an addition.  It is a part of me shaped by a painful and significant part of my history.

Exquisite self care sounds like an appropriate way to tend to such a place.  Some things are forever removed from the interior self post loss and some things should never be removed.  It is a place deserving of respectful tending, which means not overlooking it, fearing it or forcefully messing with it.  We look after it by gently looking inward.  Sometimes we may nod to the space, make a quick round with a dust rag or take a minute to notice the current furnishings.  Maybe other times we pull up a chair and sit awhile because something leads us there and it’s a fine place to visit.

Either way, a bit of tenderness and awe would not be out of line here.  We can show some deference for our selves shaped, but not taken down by grief.  We can remember our dreams and our babies and respect that we loved them and ourselves enough to make room for them.

 

Glimmers

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“But the truth is, the ten or twenty minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic. There is no adventure I would trade them for; there is no place I would rather have seen.” Ariel Levy, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia”

“You can close your eyes to reality but not to memories.”  Stanislaw Jerzy Lec


“I don’t want to forget her.”

“I can’t stop thinking about my baby.”

“Remembering and being sad makes me feel connected to him.”


Sometimes I get questions about what it’s like further down the road.  People want to know what it will be like after years have passed and they become older and are people who did or didn’t have more babies and who have had more life happen to them.  They wonder what it will be like after they have lived a long time without the baby they lost.  Will the memories of their baby or pregnancy fade away?  Will they remain all too vivid?  What will they feel about it all?

For any given person, I have to say that I don’t know for sure.   I can’t know.

There are things we know about what usually happens.  People don’t stay in the worst part of their pain long term.  Most people don’t get post-traumatic stress disorder after baby loss.  For those who do there is treatment.  Most people eventually return to their baseline of happiness. Again, help is available for those who need it.

And, as usual, life will continue to involve a lot of fluctuations between the zoom and macro lens view of our lives, including our losses.

When it comes to baby loss experiences, we tend to be ambivalent about our memories.  Losing the memories would mean that nothing remains of the relationship and experience.  The disappearance of a memory, as in the movie Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, would mean the disappearance of part of our lives and part of us.  And the too vivid version?  We’ve already lived that experience and were probably terrified of being stuck there.

A memory and its accompanying feelings can sometimes attack us with devastating intensity. This tends to happen more often in the early weeks and months, or in response to anniversaries or other specific triggers.  However, these strong, surprisingly painful “grief bombs” (as labeled by one of my clients) may be an ongoing, occasional, part of our lives.  These  sudden attacks can feel upsetting but they can also feel like a time of connection to the baby and an important part of our history.

Memories may also be sought out– by bringing up the baby in conversation, poring through pictures or writing down what we recall about the baby or pregnancy.  For some people, the need to honor and share about their baby is passionate, overt and embedded in their daily lives.  (An excellent example of being “out” in this way can be found in Cherie Golant’s article “My Baby Died and I Can’t Shut Up About It” on Medium.com.)

For others, the honoring and remembering may be a more private, although no less sacred part of life.  Support groups, whether online or in person, can often help such people in providing a safe place to express memories and feelings to those who are most likely to be able to understand and bear witness to the pain.  Yearly memorials may serve a similar purpose.  Others may find journaling or art to be the most effective routes to connect and think about their babies.

Connecting with and remembering a baby can also happen in very subtle ways.  Every spring, I look for the tiny blue flowers that were in bloom when my baby died.  When I see them I feel a small, strangely comforting sense of visiting the events of that time.  I think about the experience of carrying and losing her and the mixture of sad and loving feelings I continue to hold.

Memories can pass through and briefly light up something in us.  They can remind of us what happened and how our lives have been changed.   They might be reminders about connection, impermanence, enduring love, staggering pain or the capricious nature of the world.  They might be about living through hell and still living.

You will look back as you move forward.  Sometimes you’ll smell something, feel something, know something because of where you’ve been.  The part of you that loved and lost someone will still matter.  Like the feeling of warm concrete against bare feet after the sun has gone down, your senses confirm what you know, that the glow was there.

 

 

 

 

 

And Then…

“Grief is in two parts.  The first is loss.  The second is the remaking of life.”–              Anne Roiphe

“It’s the song that I sing because I have to.”–  Cary Ott,  I Wouldn’t Do That To You


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Unexpected loss shatters the story of our lives.  We are left to stare at the pieces, and at the new absence– twisting our heads to try to understand what happened and what can be done.  We hurt and we wander around inside ourselves.  And then?

Something else certainly follows, but I’m not sure that it happens in the way Roiphe describes above.  How does one remake a life?   Is a remake what we really need?  Might this second part of the grief thing be more about accepting and being in our changed life vs. remaking it?

Or maybe grief is never really any two parts, stages or any other neatly organized idea.  Maybe it’s just a hot, turning mess that we crawl, climb and pull ourselves through as best we can.  And maybe the weirdest part of grief is that it’s not outside of our lives at all, but just sharing space with everything else in it.

The book Knocked Up, Knocked Down (2010) by Monica Lemoine chronicles the lives of the author and her husband as they are hit by multiple pregnancy losses.  At the memorial for their stillborn son, Lemoine’s husband reads the following letter which speaks to the challenge of needing to both mourn and live:

Dear Son,

Forgive me when I cry.  It’s certainly not what I would have taught you to do.  Occasionally, I can’t help it.  I can’t help it when I see your mother’s face fill with pain.  I can’t help it when I replay her phone call in my head.  “There’s something wrong with the baby,” she said.  I can’t help it when times that were supposed to be so joyous are filled with crushing disappointment–the day of your baby shower, your due date, the three months of paternity leave that we would have spent together, all the baseball games that we would have watched and played.  Forgive me when I cry, and know that I’ll never forget the seven and a half months of joy you brought us.

Love, Dad

Dear Son,

Forgive me for the times that I don’t cry.  Most of the time, I can’t help but be happy, and it’s hard not to feel guilty about that.  I can’t help but be happy when your mother dances in the living room.  I can’t help it when family and friends visit and bring us food, prop us up with support, watch football and play ping-pong with us.  I can’t help but be happy that I’m married to your mother and knowing that we’ll make it, stay positive, and have more kids in the near future.  I can’t help being happy because it’s my nature, and your mother brings it out in me, as she does in everyone else.  Forgive me when I don’t cry, and know that I’ll never forget the seven and a half months of joy you brought us.

Love, Dad

This letter moved me the first time I read it and I returned to it later to consider what was so compelling.  I do find the immediacy of the grief touching.  But what stands out for me in a second look is that it’s a beautifully simple description of what it means to love, lose and then keep the door propped open to whatever feelings come calling.

There is no shying away from emotion in the words spoken by the Dad to his stillborn son.  Instead, there is an open acknowledgement of attachment and feeling.  He honors the baby who brought joy to their lives and the father-son relationship that exists (even without a living baby to make it tangible to others).  He also is open about his considerable pain as well as periods of happiness as he sits with a bewildering absence.

It’s so easy to do a “pile on” after baby loss– giving ourselves a hard time for having a hard time.  I hear this from the women and couples I work with in questions such as “am I dwelling on this?” or “how do I stop feeling this way?”.  Anxiety about “moving on” or “forgetting/betraying” the baby make emotional movement to the other side (feeling less intense sadness) a landmine too.  I remember feeling the same way.  There is nothing clear or elegant about the acute grief experience with all of the accompanying pain, fear and confusion.  It often makes a mess of us, at least for a while, and we want it to stop.  I wish I didn’t know what I look like when I cry and brush my teeth at the same time, but alas, from my time of living with the grief of losing my daughter, I do.  It’s just not a graceful time of life.

So I don’t expect anyone to have a composed or enlightened version of their grief.   I don’t find it useful to tell people how to feel.   But I am likely to suggest that they  notice what they feel.  I’m also likely to remind people that whatever our emotional state is right now, it will change.  The intensity of  pain we experience in grief doesn’t stay the same because it can’t.  And eventually, at whatever pace we need, some other feeling will appear.   The emotional song you are compelled to sing at any given moment may be one that makes you cry or one that makes you smile and the next song may be quite different.  It’s enough to keep a heart very busy.

Living with grief can certainly feel messy and chaotic.  It may make you feel a bit crazy to have your emotions become so unruly.  But it’s still you living a chapter of your life.  You may be flooded with feelings about your past and reliving memories sweet or tragic.  You may be full of  hopes or heart-fluttering fears about your future.  These are all signs of life.  The next chapter, whatever it is, is going to be more of you living, and by surviving whatever you feel right now in this moment, you’ve already begun.

 

A Partial View from Later

h“It gets better.”

– Slogan from the 2010 It Gets Better Project founded to give hope to LGBTQ youth and quoted in a pregnancy loss group.   The group member stated that the words also summed up her experience of how her life had changed in the year after she had experienced multiple pregnancy losses.


I received a postcard from myself this week.  It was sent from Burning Man, the yearly event in the Nevada desert devoted to art and self-expression, and was part of someone’s art/gift.  The idea was to invite people to write postcards to themselves from the festival so that they could capture their thoughts from the experience and ponder them at a later time.

The man who was leading the project said that he would send my card at a random date, which ended up being a little less than 4 months later.  Given that I had initiated this piece of correspondence and had done so in the fairly recent past, there wasn’t much about the card that surprised me. The only thing that gave me pause was my closing signature- “Love, D”- which seemed both kind of sweet and wholly unnecessary in a letter to one’s self.

Receiving the note, though, especially at the end of the year, led me to think about time and how, through effort and circumstance, we change and experience different versions of ourselves.  It also reminded me of how different my grief has felt through the years, and how I have heard this experience described by others.

As you may be keenly aware of at this point, the loss of someone to whom you are attached is not all felt in one brief episode of your life.  Although the most intense pain is usually experienced early on, the vibrations of the loss will likely be evident in various ways and intensity through the years.  There is a part of our love and loss that is put in our life for keeps.  However, the way we think and feel about it is likely to change quite a bit.

Losing a baby often sets a line of before and after in our personal story.  We change to a “new normal” and then we change again.  How the loss of our baby hits us emotionally and what it means to the arc of our lives may be drastically different 1 month, 1 year or 10+ years later.  Major loss is a crisis that shakes and breaks a certain story we have in our minds of what is supposed to happen.  The version of who we were and where we thought we were going is altered.

When I reflect on my own pregnancies and losses, I can recall very different versions of how I saw the world and my place in it.  There was a time when I looked at my future with the expectation that I would be raising a daughter.  There was another time when I thought I might never be happy again.  I was remarkably wrong on both counts.

Clients have told me of similar experiences in their lives.  One woman spoke to me about how she viewed a pregnancy loss that had happened years before.   Initially, she felt that the loss had hurt her in a way that would never be viewed as anything other than tragic.   Years later, rather than be entirely painful, she noted that the memories of that time had taken on a gentler, rather sweet quality in a richer life history.  In particular, she recalled the internal transition of seeing herself as a mother and expressed appreciation for understanding that she had that part of her inside.  Although the memories of it were still sad, she viewed the pregnancy as an important and tender experience.

The passing of time and introduction of new circumstances tends to soften some of the pain of loss.  It may also lead you to see how your values, priorities or sense of purpose were affected.  You may have decided to focus more or less on having a family or on an entirely different area of your life.  You may have found that you have more empathy for others suffering loss.  My guess is that you have learned more about yourself and pain than you ever cared to, and that some of that information might have turned out to be useful.

This isn’t a fancy way of saying that time heals all wounds. Rather, it’s that we change with time and interact differently with our grief.  The loss is not gone, or made insignificant, but we don’t stay at a fixed point.  We have had a wider set of experiences, including time spent learning to tolerate the loss.  If nothing else, as time goes on you may have more empathy for your former self who went through so much.  You might also feel humble when contemplating the twists and turns of life that your future self will encounter.

For my part, for this moment, I’m going to take a cue from my Burning Man self of last August and try to take a warm and welcoming stance toward my future self.  I wish her well and hope she gets a lot of great postcards.

Wherever you are in your grief journey, I wish you a big breath of peace today.

Happy New Year and all the best in 2015.

 

 

Touched

“A lifetime ain’t no time at all.” -Mary Gauthier, “Lifetime”


"Heaven in Woodwork” by Richard Easterling, 2014

“Heaven in Woodwork” by Richard Easterling, 2014

“I like to look at my baby’s pictures every day.”

“I used to go to the pregnancy and infant loss memorial every year.  I think I have a different way of remembering her now.”

“The day he was born is our family day.  We remember him and we think about who we are as a family.”


The loss of a baby seems to leave us with so very little and so very much.

In my office,  I’ve been handed slippery ultrasound pictures and had people hold up their iphones cued to pictures of sons and daughters wrapped in small blankets.   I’ve seen fresh tattoos of the names of the babies that can’t be physically present and heard the hushed and stunned words of parents speaking about their children’s memorials.

These moments for me are often beyond words.  They are reverent and touching.  They are heartbreaking.  And they are beautiful in their display of honesty, connection and love.

Sometimes we worry about what we are supposed to be thinking or doing after the loss of a baby.  Is it unhealthy to cry so much and to want to talk about the baby all of the time?  Is it OK to keep the pictures of our baby in view?  Should we repaint the nursery and get rid of the clothes?    What about laughing-  do we ever get to do that again?

There may be so many reasons for these concerns:  guilt about focusing too much or too little on our loss, social pressure to not make others uncomfortable and the burning desire to “get it right” with our grief process in order to find a way out of this staggering pain.

All very understandable…

Another understandable reason may be our fear of being changed.  Or maybe we already feel changed in such a scary or painful way that we want to rush out and prop up the previous trappings of our life.  Maybe we can form our face back into a smile, talk about the weather, work or if the Giants have a shot in the post-season this year.  Then maybe we can feel OK again.

When we attach to a pregnancy or baby, a lot of our being voluntarily or involuntarily commits to a wild ride.  And if we lose that pregnancy or baby, we are affected in all kinds of ways.  Yes, that high price for love and connection does have to get paid- we’re changed by the experience.

But that doesn’t mean we need to fear or fight the change.  You are crying and miserable and thinking about your baby because you are missing someone you love.  This isn’t some distorted or bad version of you, this is just you on grief.  You don’t know yet where that may take you, but I promise you it will change again.

You might be feeling being stretched beyond capacity and challenged, but you’re still here.  It may be extremely meaningful and important to kiss your baby’s picture every night.  It might be very healing for you to make a scrapbook or visit your baby’s grave every day.  And it may be wonderful and important to laugh at a good (or bad) joke and notice something pretty in the world today.  Maybe the only rule right now is to try to let your emotions show up most of the time.

Strong feelings about relationships indicate our ability to feel the pain and beauty of our messy lives and be touched by what we experience.  It’s not a detour from living, it is living.  It means we’re connected, even if we feel mostly broken.  It means we are still here and that there is more to come.