Monthly Archives: December 2015

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.”

 

 

 

Bits of Crazy

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Grief seems at first to destroy not just all patterns, but also to destroy a belief that a pattern exists.  –Julian Barnes

It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.  –Colette

You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then to keep on crying;  and finally, grief ends up giving you the two best gifts:  softness and illumination. —Anne Lamott, Small Victories:  Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace


When I was in college, I lived for a time in an old house with four other women.  We were all students and most of us knew each other from volunteering together at the local crisis center.  One day the house phone rang and I answered it.  It was Skip, who was the boyfriend of my roommate Sheila.  Skip sounded uncharacteristically serious, asking me if I would please go check on Sheila.  He was very short on details, also uncharacteristic of him, but repeated that he would appreciate it if I would check on her.

I hung up and headed down to the basement that contained Sheila’s room.  It was dark down there– I never understood how she and the other woman who lived in the basement could stand it.  As I started to go down the creaky stairs I began to hear unnerving sounds– snuffling, ripping, swearing and crying.  I started to question my choices regarding communal living and answering telephones.  I liked Sheila very much, but I was not feeling comfortable with my mission and worried about what I would find in her room.

I started to call her name as I got closer to her door, softly, then louder when she didn’t seem to hear me.  After hearing a yelping sound that I thought might have been an acknowledgment, I opened the door.  Sheila, red eyed and wet faced, was sitting on the floor surrounded by pieces of white fuzz.  It seemed like the stuff was everywhere– stuck to her hair, her clothes and around the room.  It took me a while to figure out that she was destroying the thick fuzzy robe that Skip had given her.  It took me longer to figure out that Skip had just broken up with her and that as she was shredding the robe she was alternatively throwing the pieces around her room and blowing her nose in them.  It took me years longer to notice how Sheila had done exactly what she had needed to do, and a good job of it.

Crazy is a word that gets thrown around a lot.  Sometimes it’s used as a slang term for a person who mentally ill or behaving in a mentally ill manner and sometimes it’s just used to describe something out of the ordinary.  Sheila’s behavior to me was a big hit of that second kind of crazy– both regarding the range of her behavior that I had previously witnessed and what I had seen in general during my young midwestern life at that point.  But mentally ill?  Not hardly.

I often hear from those who are grieving a baby loss that they are worried about being crazy.  Sometimes they are referring to their behavior, such as making an angry comment to a coworker who has been complaining about her child or spending hours driving aimlessly, afraid to go home.  Sometimes it has to do with their thoughts, such as feeling hopeless about the future or being convinced that their previous mistakes in life are to blame for the death of their baby.  These are actions that they feel they wouldn’t have done before, thoughts and feelings that they can’t control as much as they would like and experiences they view as unacceptable.

When your life is hit by an unexpected and devastating pile of pain such as losing your baby during or after pregnancy, it’s pretty impossible to maintain your composure at all times.  Defenses, which both protect us and get in our way, are down.  General internal resources are taxed.  Big stuff is being processed.  The result can be a bit of psychological and behavioral off-roading and it can be unnerving.  People may scream and cry and fluffy matter may be thrown around the room.

On grief we are all shape shifters and it’s hard to know what shape you’re going to be today.  You are going to different places inside of yourself and sometimes it will show in unusual behavior, whether you’re alone or with others.  Sometimes you just don’t have it in you to be socially appropriate or to make others around you comfortable.  It might even be a small relief as you depart from your normal behavior of worrying too much what others think of you.  Whether it’s startling or not, all expressions of grief are movement.  It may be a rocky and unexpected path, but it’s still the path.  And pretending it’s better or different than it is will not take you through this, it just delays the start.

Baby loss is certainly not the same experience as a relationship break up.  But I think the fear of behaving crazy in the midst of grief is a common concern.  We notice we’re not drawing within the lines sometimes and it’s scary.  Of course if your thoughts or behavior are really worrisome or harmful, it’s time to check in with someone (friend, family member or professional) and figure out what you need.  I’m not saying that concerning or potentially injurious behavior never happens, just that in my experience it’s much more common that people worry about showing up in an unexpected way in the world, looking weird and being unacceptable, than actually being in a dangerous place.

From what I could see, Sheila moved through her grief and breakup with Skip just fine.  She was a sad version of Sheila and then she was just Sheila.  The last I heard she had a wonderful family, rewarding work and the same full-on approach to life.  My guess is that the flying fuzz incident doesn’t register as a terribly significant event in her past.  The time sitting on the floor with her that day, however, made a lasting impression on me.  It made me question restraint in the face of grief.  It made me want to be more me, whatever that meant, in the moments when I’m hurting.  It made me remember Sheila, letting her beautiful grief flag fly, and all the better for it.