Smacking Sharks

The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness. – Abraham Maslow

Blue ocean underwater sun rays background


I recently spent some time reading aloud to a family member who wasn’t feeling well.  Our selection was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, the true story of an Olympic runner who was in World War II. It’s not the kind of book I usually go for, but I plan to finish it as I’m finding it to be not just a page turner, but pretty darn inspiring.

The part we just finished (spoiler alert) involves the main character, Louie Zamperini, floating in a life raft after his B-24 bomber has crashed with the loss of eight men aboard.  He is one of the three crew members who have survived together on two life rafts.  After being adrift for 27 days, with the men in the throes of both intense starvation and dehydration, a plane appears overhead.  Unfortunately, it’s a Japanese aircraft,  which starts firing at them.  Louie jumps overboard to avoid being shot and the life raft begins to be riddled with bullets.

The area of the ocean where this takes place is infested with sharks, and as Louie enters it, he suddenly becomes the intended object of the next meal.  Weak and underwater, Louie is approached by attacking, open mouthed sharks which he fights off using the information he learned in a survival class (basically to widen his eyes, bare his teeth and bop the sharks on the snout with an open palm).

He goes back and forth between shark bopping and climbing back onto the raft in between the six passes of the plane and six episodes of shooting (plus a dropped bomb that did not explode).   When he climbs back aboard the raft for the last time he finds his two crew mates miraculously unscathed by the shooting.  The three of them manage to save one raft and patch the 48 bullet holes in it while taking turns pumping out water and clubbing the sharks that are now jumping out of the water to get at them.  Altogether a pretty intense series of images…


The story stirred up a lot of thoughts for me, and is currently serving as a marker of what a really bad day can look like.  It made me think, too, about how so many dramatic episodes in life seem to be a mixture of lucky and unlucky events.  Another take on the story could be that it’s a compelling message about not giving up in the middle of a crisis.  And it has definitely crossed my mind that I may want to invest in a survival class.

It also made me think about how in any challenge, no matter how dire or convoluted, we can only face our issues one step at a time.  We can only be where we are right then doing the little piece in front of us.  We can only be right where we are.

Louie had a bunch of things on his mind that day in the ocean and he was full of action, but he wasn’t really multi tasking.  When he was smacking sharks, he was smacking sharks.  Not dealing with starvation, dehydration, avoiding bullets, fixing the boat or trying to float to land.  He wasn’t even breathing.

If Maslow was right about the ability to live in the present moment being a component of mental wellness, and if all of those writers, meditators and therapists preaching mindfulness are also on to something, then our moment, our now, seems a bit more sacred.   What we are doing right now is what we need to be doing fully.  And all the moments coming will benefit from engagement with the one we’re having with now.

More aspirational than realistic as a way to be all the time?  Heck, yeah.  And what’s wrong with that?

I was pretty anxious during my last pregnancy, which occured after my two losses.  But I remember a point where I really started to appreciate that there were very few things in the pregnancy that were under my control.  I could try to eat well, take my vitamins, go to my doctor appointments and generally try to live a safe and pleasant life.   And that very short and humble list was the total extent of my control over the experience.

And sometimes, not all of the time, I felt the freedom of that humble list.  I could eat and think about eating (way too many bagels for some reason), take my vitamins and so on and those actions had meaning and purpose.  The rest of the time I could try to take up my now, whether that moment was about acknowledging and living with a moment of fear (which always passes eventually) or enjoying a moment of peace or hope.  Just like in meditation or any type of mindfulness, I didn’t stay in this place.  My mind would race away and I would have to circle back, but it helped.  It helped a lot.

In times of uncertainty, (which, realistically, is always) this is the only moment we have.  If we’re in a tough spot, breaking it down is likely to help us get through it.  If we’re in a great spot, it’s probably worth taking in.  Yes, we’re going to sleep through and space out through much of our lives.  But it just might help to notice that we can also jump in and roll around in a given moment.  Your right now experience may feel like a challenge, a gift, or pretty inconsequential, but by noticing it, you might live it a little more deeply.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In the Mirror

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“In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.”   – Erik Erikson


“Am I a Mom?”

“People look at me differently now.”

“I’m not the same person I was.”


Seeing who we are at this time helps us to orient to our moral compass, desires and place in the world.  It also gives us a starting place to connect and be known to others.  Social media is one example of how people put out who they are to both define themselves and be a part of something bigger.  In the vast world of blog and twitter profiles, people identify themselves by gender, race, sexual orientation, marital status, personality traits, profession, hobbies, geographical location, political affiliation, pets, etc.  (Part of the “etc.” I recently encountered was “peripatetic”.  If, like me, that word hasn’t been part of your working vocabulary, you may want to look it up- it’s a good one to have in your pocket.)

Sometimes life events may shift how we view ourselves.  Many of the men and women I see after a perinatal loss talk about feeling profoundly changed as a person as a result of the loss.  These changes may feel dramatic and difficult to describe.  There are the permanent aspects of a changed self (e.g. I had a baby who died), those that are more fleeting (e.g. I am physically recovering from a miscarriage) and pieces that may be much harder to categorize.

For example, a woman who has gone through the nine month physical and psychological process of pregnancy is certainly not the exact same person she was before she became pregnant.  If things have gone well up to that point, she has been attaching to a child and preparing to parent that child and her identity has changed accordingly.  Yet, if her baby dies at birth, she may wonder if a childless mother is still a mother or if she has become something else.  Additionally, when a woman experiences a traumatic loss at a hospital, the medical setting and focus may leave her feeling more like a medical patient than anything else- as though the physical challenges were the main issue instead of the crisis of losing someone dear.

Not everybody who has experienced a perinatal loss feels that he or she is a parent to the lost baby.  But for many, it is a clear and important part of who they are.  It has been noted by a number of people that there is no word to describe a person who has lost a child or children, whether during pregnancy or later in life.  Nothing along the lines “orphan” or “widow” or “widower” to indicate that someone is missing and that the surviving person is living with an absence.  Maybe this has something to do with baby and child loss previously being a much more common experience.  Whatever the reason, it can lead to bereaved parents feeling like outsiders in a world that does not recognize them or their baby.

Many people have spoken to me about the trouble they have answering the question “Do you have children?” or “How many children do you have?” after a loss.  The question can highlight a conflict or incongruence between how they see themselves- whether as a parent, bereaved parent, grieving person or a new, not as yet named category of being in the world- and how they expect to be perceived by others.  It may not always feel appropriate to launch into the longer explanation of our reproductive history and losses in the grocery check-out line or on the street, but I think it’s important to ask and attempt to answer for ourselves who we are now.

So, who do you see in the mirror today?  It’s probably a complicated question under any circumstances.  For those of us who have had our hearts broken by baby loss, the lens with which we view ourselves and the world may be a little (or a lot) different than it was.   You may be clear about who you are in the aftermath of your loss or you may be in the process of putting the pieces together.

You may see yourself as a person in a crisis transition, a grieving man or woman, a mom or dad missing a baby or in some other way.  Whether you want to announce it on Facebook, share it with close family and friends or just acknowledge it to yourself, you might benefit from asking yourself and listening for the authentic answer.  Seeing who we are right now is another way of respecting ourselves and our process.  It also often opens our eyes to others who are in the same place.  Making eye contact with that person in the mirror can help us to know our needs, communicate about ourselves and find our way in the world.

 

 

Worried Times

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“Who else am I going to lose?”

“How can I ever stand being pregnant again?  Or not being pregnant again?”

“Will this loss hurt my relationship with my partner?”


Perinatal bereavement is a startling juxtaposition of birth (anticipated or actual) and death (whether of a baby or dream).  It may feel like a dramatic roller coaster ride from an all time high to a record low in a very short period of time.  This extreme drop can leave us quite shaken and scared.  As C.S. Lewis said,  “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.”

As you probably know firsthand, anxiety comes in a variety of flavors and strengths.  This can vary from minor worries to anxiety disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (exaggerated worries about everyday things) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (anxiety reactions following and related to a trauma).  Most experiences of anxiety after baby loss are usually transient but can be quite uncomfortable.  Many factors, including if you are a bit of a worrier in general, may be affecting your current experience.  The details of your loss, including the level of trauma it involved and the meaning your pregnancy or baby has for you, will likely play a part in the level of your anxiety.

And although you might be worried about any number of things, there are certain concerns that commonly raise their head after a reproductive loss.  If you recognize any of the following, you’re in good company.  Many people have had these concerns after a perinatal loss and were able to successfully work through them.

What Other Bad Things Can Happen?

The world may suddenly feel like a precarious place.  Previously unimagined things have now happened.  What next?  You may be waiting for the next bad thing to jump out and mess up your life even more.  Especially in the early days and weeks after a loss, many people worry about something terrible happening to their partner or to their other current or future children.  It’s also common to just worry that the recent lousy trajectory of your life will continue and plow you into more pain-inducing experiences.

Luckily, having a terrible loss does not mean you are now on a course for more of the same.  It may be important for you to delineate what is happening now vs. what has taken place.  This means noticing that the painful event has already happened.  You are having feelings about your loss, but you are not having the exact same experience of loss forever.  Despite whatever anxious thoughts are going through your head, this stage of your life is not endless.

Anxiety usually involves some negative self-talk– those things that you say to yourself that raise your blood pressure.  You may need to find gentle ways to speak to yourself about what you’re feeling.  Examples may be something like:  “I’m grieving a baby I loved, and my life is really hard right now but I will get through this”.  Discussing your concerns with people in your support system, whether friends, family, therapist or support group (in person or online) can also be reassuring.

Should I Try Again?  If So, When?

This question is incredibly compelling and probably pretty stressful.   You may be filled with intense longing to have a baby.  You might also be convinced that becoming pregnant again is the only way you will heal.  You are probably also scared about being pregnant again.  Many factors can contribute to an anxiety-producing preoccupation with trying again.

You may need to give yourself permission to delay this big decision.  This probably sounds terribly hard to do.  Additionally, many of us feel the pressure of time.  Our age, known fertility concerns or other physical challenges affect our sense of how long we can wait to try to conceive.

Even with these realistic concerns, it may help to remember that you have time for something.  You have time for a breath and time to notice how your body is feeling.   You also have time to give at least a bit of thought as to what you need right now.  If you really feel time is of the essence, you may want to break down the decision into whether you can and want to try to conceive this month or whether you wish to decide next month.  This may give you at least a bit more time while not pushing the issue off too far into the future.

Can My Partner and I Get Through This?

Two grieving people don’t generally make for the calmest couple.  That doesn’t mean that you and your partner are headed for disaster.  It just means that the two of you may be facing some additional challenges in your relationship such as differences in reacting and coping.

It’s quite common for each member of a couple to react to the loss of a pregnancy or baby with different levels of emotion.  One of you might be more expressive and verbal.  This person might be more interested in talking about the loss and be more likely to find comfort in speaking to friends, family or a therapist.  The other of you might be less likely to cry or talk and instead find more relief in activity or quieter expressions of grief.

When you’re feeling depleted due to grief, it can hard to understand why your partner is having such a different experience than you.  However, finding a way to respect, accept and work with differences is far more important than trying to be “on the same page” in the grief process.  Hearing and validating your partner’s experience and supporting him or her in getting what he or she needs may do the most for both of you.  This may mean finding others who can listen to you when your partner is maxed out or acknowledging that your partner’s reaction, although different, isn’t wrong.


In general, if you are looking for ways to address your worries, it helps to start simply.  Break things down into whatever size pieces you need.  You can practice getting through your life one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time, or one breath at a time- all fine choices.  Whatever size you’re at right now, that’s all you really need to do.

If you’re experiencing a lot of worry, it’s important to remember that it will not feel this way forever and that there are steps you can take to decrease your anxiety.  Many of them are actions you can do on your own such as practicing relaxation exercises, yoga, meditation or any physical exercise that settles your mind and body.  Since self-talk matters, don’t forget to have some good conversations with yourself.   Topics could include what you are doing to help yourself, reminding yourself that your anxiety is temporary and that there is additional support out there for you if you need it.

 

 

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.

 

 

Comparing our Losses

“At least I got to hold my baby.”

“Her loss was later than mine, so it was much worse.”

“I don’t have a partner- no one can understand what I’m going through.”


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It is simply a human tendency to compare ourselves and our struggles to others.

For those of us grieving babies, this impulse can be one of the primary ways by which we attempt to orient ourselves and provide ourselves with comfort while walking around this new, unexplored planet.  We compare how far along we were in the pregnancy or how old our baby was, what we have experienced emotionally and physically, and how we are coping.  I did this the day I lost my baby twelve years ago, and I do this today as I write this.  It is both the most normal thing in the world and a potentially damaging bit of thinking.

Sometimes the comparison may bring us comfort.  I’ve heard women say things like “at least I didn’t have to make any decisions about ending my baby’s life” or “it would have been so much harder if I had been further along” or “at least I got to see my baby.”  It may give us a sense of perspective that our loss is not the very worst experience we can imagine or have heard about.  It may help us tolerate our own pain to acknowledge that someone somewhere is surviving a worse fate.

Unfortunately, comparing ourselves to others can also hurt us. This is because it’s never quite a fair comparison between our rich, complicated lives and circumstances to those of another.  Especially when the reality is we may not really know that much about some one else’s experience. Additionally, these comparisons may create distance between people who may be in a great place to support each other.  While leading multiple pregnancy loss groups for women, I had an up close picture of the different ways we use comparisons between ourselves and others in processing our grief after losing a baby.

In the pregnancy loss groups that I’ve led, some of the women had recurrent early miscarriages and some had later losses (after twenty or more weeks’ gestation).  A few of the women had delivered babies so prematurely that they lived only minutes or hours.  In some ways, it was a powerful link for a woman to feel that another in her group experienced a similar type of loss or losses.  To share the heartbreak of what it had been like to get the best news of one’s life, only to have hopes crushed with the onset of early bleeding, formed a bond.  Similarly, when someone had lost a baby most of the way through a pregnancy, a process often accompanied by physical and emotional trauma, it could bring comfort to them to hear that someone else had survived something similar.

But here’s the thing:  it turned out that these were not the only categories of difference that mattered to the group members.  Some of the women had living children prior to their loss while others did not.  Some had earlier life experiences of a pregnancy ending in abortion or adoption which affected how they perceived this perinatal loss.   A few had lost multiples and most had been carrying one baby.   Some of the women had known infertility issues while others had every reason to expect that they could easily conceive again.  Most of the women had partners, but some did not.  Most women were straight; some gay or bisexual.  Some of the women had severe physical or emotional trauma associated with their losses, while some did not.  Some had losses caused by factors (such as physical limitations or genetic issues) that would make future pregnancies potentially higher risk or more likely to result in a baby with severe medical problems, while some did not.  Some had subsequent pregnancies while in the group and some did not.

All of these differences mattered or had the potential to matter to any given group member at any given time.  It periodically made the group very challenging.  The feelings of envy, guilt and isolation were often expressed as people noticed a difference that they thought made someone else’s experience better or worse, more or less hopeful, or more or less survivable.

The glue holding the group together, though, was a simple bond.  All of these women were grieving a baby (or babies) to whom they were attached.  They all grieved someone for whom they had feelings of love and about whom they had been excited, someone for whom they were willing to try rearranging their lives, someone so small and yet so big that the loss had left them rearranged.  The attachment and loss had carved out a space inside them and they were somehow connected to one another through those spaces.

And that’s what made them people of the same planet.  This was a group of people who could understand each other’s language and customs, even if they were not immediate relatives.  These women shared many of the same feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, confusion, envy and anxiety.  Their self-esteem and identity had taken a beating because they had started out on the road of pregnancy and dropped off the map before reaching the place where they had a living baby.   They inhabited a planet where life without their baby was hard, sometimes seemingly impossible.  They were in a  place where life meant living in a body that was missing someone or something, with hearts that were split open, but where minimal tangible evidence of what was lost remained.  Seeing the shared pain opened up them up to feeling compassion for each other, which often helped them to foster self-compassion.   It gave them something to recognize, feel and tolerate together.

When comparing our losses, just like our lives, we are all comparing apples to oranges. Differences are real but they may not be the most useful thing to focus on.  In this time of your pain and vulnerability, it may help to notice who can bridge the difference and be with you where you are.  The bridge between you and another may be made by a shared life experience that shaped something inside you in a similar way or it may be the empathy and skill that enables another to come find you where you are.  Try to notice who is emotionally available to you.  Let that person (or people) help you by being in this with you.  You are like no one else but you’re not alone.

‘Tis the Season?

“What a beautiful, such a beautiful, beautiful wreck you are.” -Shawn Mullins “Beautiful Wreck”


hI was ambivalent about doing a holiday related post. There are certainly other places on the internet to find great articles that address the challenges of this time of year for those who have experienced reproductive loss. They offer useful ideas regarding how to cope with family members, find meaning in the holidays and ways to create your own traditions.  These articles can feel like lifesavers for those who are grieving babies during the holiday season.  If you’re interested, I would recommend looking at the National Infertility website Resolve or googling “pregnancy/infant loss and holidays.”

But as Thanksgiving approached, I kept thinking about a scene from the movie “Return to Zero,” a Lifetime movie that came out earlier this year.   It’s based on a true story about a couple coping with the loss of their stillborn son.

This particular scene takes place some months after the loss and the grieving woman, played by Minnie Driver, is in the midst of alcohol affected family Thanksgiving dinner.  At the table, family members start expressing gratitude for various things in their lives and making toasts.  Following her father-in-law’s elaborate and effusive toast “To Life!” (during which Driver’s character visibly sinks further into her own drunken sadness), she makes her own toast:

“I’m thankful that today I can see life for what it really is.  To know that just beneath the surface, just under the radar, is death.”  She says a few more lines and ultimately raises her glass “to Death!”

The words are sad, defiant, jarring and clearly disturbing to some of the family members, but make perfect sense to the bereaved couple.  The toast seems to me to be a kind of postcard from the upside-down version of the holiday experience, a version that needs to be acknowledged.  Certainly partly influenced by alcohol (which I don’t, by the way, recommend as a coping mechanism),  the character is giving voice to what is lost in her life.

The speech acknowledges the baby who is dead, the part of the grieving woman that feels dead and the character’s acute awareness of the thin line between her losses and the right side-up world of the others sitting around the table.   The couple is living in the season of grief, which overrides any other dates on the calendar.  And as sad as it is, their experience is just as real (and alive) as any version of a “Happy Holiday.”

Most of us probably spend the majority of our lives traveling somewhere between the sentiments of the two toasts- the over-the-top shout out to life and the dark nod to death.  But we are likely to spend at least some significant time parked closer to one or the other of these perspectives.  It may help to remember that someone is always parked near you as well as across the road and you will all likely be switching positions at some point.

If grief is a part of your season, you may notice that you are looking at the world in a very different way than you have in past years.   It also is likely to be very different than what you will experience in future years, despite any current conviction you may have that all of your future holidays will be as sad and painful as this one.

You know on some level that there are people all over the world who are also grieving right now.  People who feel just as sad and wrecked by a loss as you may be feeling.  Noticing them with respect may help you to respect and have some compassion for yourself.  This could happen just through shifting your awareness to consider them or something more hands on, such as volunteering to help others in need during the holidays.

Darkness punctuated by light of all kinds is a pretty ubiquitous sight at this time of year.  It reminds us of the drama and meaning in both sides of the human experience- cold vs. warm, drained of life or bursting with it.  We all want to live on the bright side, but since that’s not a permanent address, it may help us to keep our eyes and hearts open to toasts from both sides of the table.

Reviewing the Loss: Thinking and Feeling it Through

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“I must not have been careful enough.”

“Maybe I just don’t deserve a baby.”

“Of course it was my fault, I was the one who was pregnant. ”


I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth, termination due to diagnosis of a fetal abnormality, or infant loss who did not spend some time worrying that she had done something to contribute to the loss.  And by some time, I mean usually quite a bit of time.

I know I did this myself and I think it’s probably an inevitable part of the process of grieving a perinatal loss.  As a species, we like to make sense of our world.  Being pregnant or having a new baby is a huge responsibility.  When we are the one carrying the baby or caring for the baby, it’s pretty compelling to believe that we have control over what happens on our watch.

Drinking coffee or small amounts of alcohol, having sex, riding in an airplane, eating soft cheese, deli meat or non-organic food, exercising, not exercising, thinking too much or too little about the pregnancy or baby, feeling too positive or not positive enough about the pregnancy or baby are all often mentioned by women as possible causes of their loss.

Although medical advice may caution us about some of these issues during pregnancy, it is rare to have them actually contribute to a loss.  But, despite what we are told about the evidence, sometimes it just feels better to blame ourselves rather than to acknowledge how little control we actually had over something so important.

Pregnancy and giving birth can feel like a time when we are granted special powers.  Our body steps up to do amazing things in the way of hormone production, shape shifting and perceptual changes such as a heightened sense of smell and taste.  We are tasked with the mind-blowing job of growing a new human and are usually given plenty of advice on how to do it.  All of these factors help set the stage for believing we must be responsible for what happens.  If we’re not the ones in charge of things going right for our pregnancy or baby, who is?

And then something goes so horribly, painfully, wrong.  Despite all of our strength and intentions, we couldn’t stop it from happening.  We search the world for a loophole to reality or a chance for a do-over and we come up empty.  What does it mean about us?  If it turns out that we aren’t Superman, who could make everything safe, are we Lex Luthor (the arch supervillan) who did something awful to make everything go wrong?

Maybe accepting our part in what happened involves coming to terms with how, despite all of our strong wishes and abilities, when it comes to certain medical realities, each one of us is a perpetual Clark Kent with no phone booth in sight.   We only ever had a few things under our control, and none of them were enough.  If we could have made the world spin backwards and saved our baby, we would have.  It just wasn’t ever an option.  Unfortunately, great responsibility doesn’t always come with great power (to mix in a Spider-Man reference).

So when your brain leads you to do the review of what happened and why, maybe you can try to keep in mind who you’re actually dealing with- a loving, heartbroken person.  You’ve already been through a lot and beating up on yourself isn’t appropriate or helpful.  Start trying to speak to yourself gently, as you would to your best friend if she were going through the same thing.

Think about what you need.  Is there any information that might help you to logically or emotionally understand what happened?  If so, you may want to try to seek it out.

If not, or if the information is not that clear or helpful, work on accepting the story you have with the knowledge that you have.  Part of this acceptance is to acknowledge the limited or total lack of control you had over your loss.

As you do your review, don’t forget the parts of your story where you went to your prenatal appointments, took your vitamins and did your best to care for your pregnancy or baby.  Don’t forget any sweet moments you had while pregnant or with your baby.  And definitely remember that your desire to understand is because of your attachment to someone very dear to you.  That ability to attach doesn’t come with the ability to fly or change the past, but it’s a huge part of being an imperfect and loving human.

 

Returning to Work in a Post-Loss World

h“I can’t imagine going back and telling all of my clients what happened.”

“I was supposed to be on my maternity leave right now, how can I focus on work?”

“Two of my coworkers are pregnant- I don’t know how I can stand to be in the same office with them.”


 

Work can represent so many things to us:  part of our identity, part of our social world, and how we pay for our home and food.  After a miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death, we may feel like we are in a new world and the idea of returning to work in this changed landscape can be quite daunting.

Facing our professional lives after such a personal loss can certainly pose a number of practical and emotional challenges.  And, as weird as it may sound, returning to work may also have some benefits that help us in our healing.

Potential Challenges

If you have recently had a perinatal loss, you might be looking at the return to work date on your calendar and thinking, “What if I burst into tears at the office?”,  “What if my coworkers ask me stupid questions?” or  “How am I going to be able to concentrate?”

Different work situations- such as small or large office environment, culture (close and flexible vs. distant and rule-bound) and the population with which one works (e.g. teacher of young children vs. attorney working with other litigators and clients)- pose different challenges.  For instance, if you work in a big office or interact with a large number of coworkers or clients remotely, there may be a very long period of having others ask about your pregnancy or baby.  This can feel like an endless cycle of being emotionally triggered.

If your workplace culture is rather competitive, you may feel especially vulnerable or just “not seen” in your time of grief.  One example of this type of situation was an attorney who returned to work at a busy law firm after her child was stillborn.  On her first day back, she encountered many coworkers expressing awkward, brief words of condolences and then a rush to move on to business.  As evening rolled around, a male custodian came in, looked her in the eye and told her how sorry he was that she had lost her baby.  She suddenly experienced an intense rush of feelings.  It was only then that she felt she had had a caring, human interaction in her work day.

A small, intimate office place can pose challenges as well.  You may feel that everyone in the office has been so involved in the pregnancy and excitement of a baby coming that it will be especially difficult to return with no living baby at home to talk about.  Privacy or boundary issues may also be a concern in a small office.  Or maybe a co-worker is pregnant or has a new baby at home and the ongoing exposure to seeing her and hearing about her experience may feel overwhelming.

The role you play at work can also be an issue.  If you are in a “helping profession” such as medicine, teaching or ministry, you may be more comfortable doing the care-taking and quite uncomfortable being the one experiencing a high needs time.   If you are in a position of authority, or your work involves public performances, it may also feel like you have to be “on” with no room to be emotionally vulnerable.  These situations may leave you feeling that you can’t return to work in your changed and less than perfect (but perfectly normal for a grieving person) way.

Just the association of remembering your time being pregnant in the workplace, or that you planned to be on maternity leave at this time can make it upsetting to return to the work environment.  If the expectation was that you would be happily pregnant or home with a new baby and instead you’re spending your time at work, this may feel like another injurious reminder of what you are living without.

After such an enormous event, your perspective and values may also be shaken up and work may not feel as meaningful as it once did.  It is not at all uncommon to feel like a perinatal crisis coincides with ambivalence about your current job or profession.  This may be transient or it may be a crossroads where you decide to move in another direction.

hPotential Benefits

Although generating income is a need and not a choice for most of us, you may underestimate how helpful it can feel to do so.  Not the money itself, probably, but the idea that you can put in the effort and some payoff will be there.  After a perinatal crisis where so much has been outside of your control, doing something familiar and with a predictable return can be reassuring.  Self-esteem also tends to take a big hit after a reproductive loss, and doing something tangible and productive may help you to feel better about yourself.

If work is generally fulfilling, or a big part of your identity, it can feel rewarding to revisit that part of yourself, even if, like the rest of you, it is a somewhat altered version.  For many people, spending at least some of their time at work while they are grieving also provides some needed time of alternate focus.  It may, ironically, feel like a break in your day.  Additionally, some of the routine needed to maintain a work schedule can also be useful in making you feel connected to the world.

For many of us, work is also a supportive and social environment.  An example is a nurse who returned to her close knit hospital team after her infant died.  Her coworkers made a point of checking in to see what she needed emotionally and to make sure she could get extra help if she was having a tough time.  They also shared more about their own issues and the self-disclosure made her feel closer to them.  Although many moments were challenging, she felt that she was being supported in a way that helped her to succeed in her work and further supported her in her grief process.

What Can Help

The following suggestions come from hearing what has been helpful to my clients:

Expect to have a variety of feelings when you first return to work .  Having strong feelings at work may be very worrisome to you.   But if you give yourself permission to have the feelings and have a good support plan in place,  you will likely find that you can tolerate them.

-As much as possible, set reasonable goals and expectations for yourself (e.g. don’t plan to meet a high sales quota or do a big presentation your first week back).

Think about what you would like your coworkers to know regarding the details of your loss and how you are doing.  It’s likely that nothing will really feel OK, but it might help to think through whether you are more concerned about fending off personal questions or having people not acknowledge your loss at all.

Ask a point person to communicate on your behalf before you return to work.  This person can relay the information you would like your coworkers to know regarding what has happened and what would be helpful to you upon your return.  Sometimes the trusted coworker can set a tone and specifically relay whether or not you want to be asked personal questions about your loss.  They may also be able to pass on other suggestions regarding how coworkers can support you in emotional and practical ways as you make your transition back.

Be ready for awkward/insensitive questions and statements anyway.  If you don’t get them, that’s great.  But since it’s likely that you will, it could be useful to come prepared with a statement such as “thank you for understanding that I don’t want to talk about that.”

Consider (if possible) a titrated return to work schedule.  If you can initially return to work with a shorter schedule or some days when you work from home, this can help you to reorient and gain confidence.

-You may also want to have a brief, non-working visit to your workplace before you return officially.  This will allow you to have the first face-to-face contact with people before you are there in your regular working capacity.

Plan mini breaks/escapes in your work day.  Especially in the first few weeks, it can be helpful to plan walks, times when you can call your partner or have check-ins with a trusted coworker.

Consider short-term vs. long-term goals.  You may not be sure at this moment if you want to change where you work or if you want to start a new profession.  It’s OK to start in one direction and change later if that’s the right thing for you.

Check in with a mental health professional if you have questions about being able to return to work or feel that you could benefit from having a safe place to process your grief during this time.

As always, keep breathing and have some compassion for yourself.  You’ve survived a lot so far and there may be a number of things that have helped you along the way.  This is an excellent time to practice every self-care technique you know and to ask for help when you need it.

More and Less than Hope

Some of the time the future comes right ‘round to haunt me

Some of the time the future comes ‘round just to see

That all is as it could be

Like it’s there to remind me

We’ve got to wait and see. –Beth Orton, “Conceived”

 

dahlia-dahlia-174239_640“No one knows anything.”

That’s something I thought and said over and over after my first loss.  No one had known that anything was going wrong in my pregnancy, no one knew afterward exactly what had happened (some of the medical evidence was conflicting) and I was very sure no one knew what would happen next in my life.  My general understanding of how the world worked felt extremely challenged.

I also started having an ambivalent relationship with the word hope.

Merriam Webster gives us the following definition of this four letter word:

HOPE -Noun:  the feeling of wanting something to happen and thinking that it could happen : a feeling that something good will happen or be true

Hope is something others usually want us to feel after our loss.  It’s an understandable and generally well-meaning desire.  We, however, may struggle with the concept.  It’s not like we want to feel hopeless.  It’s just that what we are hoping for- to stop feeling so sad, to have another pregnancy or baby, or to back up to some pre-loss point in our lives- may feel outside our grasp.  We desperately want to feel better but don’t know how or if we’ll get there.  Statements of hope may feel like someone telling us to go swim across the ocean- unreasonable and frustrating.

In my office, I’ve heard of many well-intended statements said to grieving people and their internal responses to the comments:

“Everything happens for a reason.”

Really?  Do you know the reason my baby is dead?  Because there can’t be a good enough reason.”

“You’ll have more kids.”

How could you possibly know that?  And even if you are omniscient, do you think this loss will ever be erased or become a non-event in my life?”

“Time heals all wounds.”

What kind of time are we talking here?  Because I don’t know how long I can stand this.”

Rather than hopeful, thoughts after a loss are often along the lines of the following:

-Everything has gone wrong and it’s hard to imagine things changing for the better.

-Even if statistics show a likelihood for something good to happen in the future, it’s hard to forget being on the bad side of statistics in the past.

-Hope feels like a set-up for being sucker punched again.

-Superstitious beliefs make as much sense as anything else, and hope might bring about something bad.

-Positive feelings seem like a betrayal of the baby.

-The big good thing can’t happen.  The loved and lost baby can’t come back,  and therefore nothing else can really be OK.


 

So how can we possibly feel that something good will happen in the future?

Maybe the obstacle is seeing the “something good in the future” as an outside thing or event that we need to have happen.  The quick physical recovery, a different reaction from our family or friends, another pregnancy, etc. all may or may not  happen.  Additionally,  all of these ideas are likely to be pretty emotionally loaded.   Hope within that framework becomes a tricky proposition.

There is another possibility, however, that is easy to overlook while grieving and waiting to feel hopeful.  It’s that the positive, wished for thing that’s coming is you.  And you’ll show up when you’re good and ready.

Most of us are just not wired to sustain misery indefinitely.  I also don’t think we can (or should try) to snap back out of a loss of someone to whom we were deeply attached.  For myself, I know that I couldn’t feel better until I had thoroughly explored feeling terrible.  It was too big of a loss for me to not feel deeply about.

But I do remember one day driving a familiar route and wondering how a mountain suddenly appeared in the distance.  It hadn’t been noticeable to me for the past few weeks when I had been driving on that same highway in the same direction.  Suddenly, it was impossible to miss and I couldn’t figure out how something so beautiful could have ever been invisible.

Elizabeth McCracken speaks to this concept in An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, a memoir of her life carrying and grieving her stillborn son:

“Your friends may say, Time heals all wounds.  No it doesn’t, but eventually you’ll feel better.  You’ll be yourself again.  Your child will still be dead.  The frivolous parts of your personality, stubborner than you’d imagined, will grow up through the cracks in your soul.”

As I look back, I think there was something that would have been worth betting on in those early, dark days.  There was reason to think something positive would happen.  The good, wonderful thing that I could have hung my hat on was that I would eventually be able to see things differently and feel happy again.  Not because I have psychological training or because I’m so wonderfully resilient, but because, like most people, I am especially human.  And humans are quite adept at waiting out the pain and eventually attaching to other, good parts of their lives.

So maybe you’re ambivalent or resentful about hope and maybe that’s fine.  You might just want to experiment with the possibility that there is something waiting in you that is stronger than your fears and respectful of your pain.  It won’t come as fast as you would like, and I am truly sorry for that.  But if you can begin to consider that something in you can and will shift, there may come a day when you find yourself with a glimpse of something brighter again.  Anyway, it could be worth hoping for.

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.