This, and all posts this week are in loving acknowledgement of our children that never got to be and of the dream and life we had to start to let go of on January 31, 2014.
The flickering candle light bounced off the twilit room as sounds of festive chatter surfed through the air. Just as I sat down again at “my” table, my behavior voice beckoned. “Come on S, you’ve got to get to ALL of your guests.” I rose up and dragged myself through the warm, celebratory party space.
As is common with someone who has been traumatized, the gut instinctively pulls you to where you are safe and away from where you may not be. And as is common for someone with such prolonged visceral experiences, remembering to think at all is your version of an afterthought.
When you are grieving an untimely life altering traumatic loss your outer world becomes secondary, an obligation of sorts as your inner world morphs into your religion, a dumping ground holding the rubble of unrequited love and that which is vibrant in your soul but will never be as you had so wanted.
On this night, and a joyous one at that, of outer world happenings, my inner being stepped forward as I made my way over to my table of less comfort. “Hey, you know that thing people get hyper over, profess until they are blue in the face, the celebrating what you do have thing? That is where you are now.”
Halfway to my destination, my inner world, detached from earth time, mulled this over. “Huh. So what’s all the fanfare about? I mean, don’t get me wrong, this is great and I’m touched so many made it to celebrate Julio and it’s wonderful this night is going even better than planned. But this experience, relative to grief and healing’s other “offerings” is paper thin. In other words, it’s easy.”
My husband turned 40 on January 9th of this year, so you have found me, dear readers, on the night of his party which we threw about a week later. And I went for it – hired a DJ, ordered balloon arrangements, had a champagne toast and kept an open bar. People were wonderfully responsive to the picture board I made and the speech I gave toasting my husband. It was a fantastic evening, and my heart was no doubt warmed by being able to give my husband some attention and a good time.
To counter my life long bad habit of selling myself short, I suppose I could admit, that in thinking about it, this party did take SOME moxy. With most things, my husband and I don’t totally “feel like it” these days, and being around large groups of people is, especially for me, anxiety provoking. There is, after all, no number of loving people that can fill the space left by our children who never showed up. And, like most things we do lately, we are never far from the sobering awareness that we are doing them less so because we want to and more so because we couldn’t have children. Had our last treatment worked we’d be chasing around a one and a half year old now, or two of them, if prior treatments had worked we’d have a toddler or toddlers in the mix. I’d have fallen into bed the night of his 40th birthday, exhausted after a trying yet fulfilling and gratitude laced day of rearing young children, whispering ‘happy birthday my love’ in his ear. We’d have tried to fit in a gourmet home cooked meal or a night out to celebrate at some frazzled point if we could have, but would not have sweated it if we couldn’t. For those who struggle to conceive, a deficit of “me” time and sleep unequivocally falls into the category of “small stuff”, if it even registers at all. So the party experience, like our other happy ones, was as usual accompanied by the backdrop of a prolonged wistful sigh.
And yet, there’s something that happens to a person when the unthinkable happens to them. From being so immersed in a lack of it, you come to a different understanding of luck. You come to know it as impersonal, fickle and without a cap in either direction. You’ve become “that person” after all – that person for whom fertility treatments didn’t work, that person whose children do not get names or faces or the drawing in of even one breath. And in doing so, you see more clearly all of the other “that persons” of the world, or you see a piece of yourself in them rather – those who, in spite of being good worthy responsible people got randomly saddled with a worst case scenario anyway. And in doing that, amidst all that you lost and all that cripples you and all you have to adjust to, you acquire a different relationship to that which you do have. That my husband isn’t dead today and that we aren’t sick today is not lost on me ever. A 40th birthday is no guarantee of a 41st birthday. Once the curtain of grief is pulled back even slightly, drinking in celebratory moments simply becomes the organic thing to do.
Those who have been spared, or who have tap danced around life’s harsher atrocities, seem rife with misconceptions regarding the processing of such assaults. That the presence of grief equals no presence of joy and contentment, that pain is a weakness and always requires diversion, that feeling leads to misperception, that focusing on the good somehow diminishes the bad, that “moving on” is a sure sign of strength……..I could go on. And worse, it often seems the misconceptions of the inexperienced are what have tragically morphed into our culture’s “conventional wisdom” regarding grieving and healing.
When I tell people in a matter of fact way that we are still grieving and things have been tough, a common response is for them to immediately launch into what a great husband I have. “Yes, absolutely,” I’ll often say. “It ALL exists,” I’ll add, somewhat facetiously.
It all exists, and it’s all important, theoretically, but life, or my life anyway, is not a theory, it’s an experience. And my experience has shown me that celebrating what you do have is relatively easy. Mourning that which you’ve lost? Well, not so much.
In the days prior to the party my anxiety skyrocketed. Reminders of what we lost are everywhere and at an event that is large (45 guests) and less routine, how these reminders will rear their ugly heads becomes considerably less predictable. Benign is always possible, but, at least in our situation, highly unlikely.
One of the other wives associated with our business arrived before the party area was ready. I offered to get her a chair to pull up around our clustered table. She politely declined and assured me the wife of another one of our husbands’ colleague’s was at the bar so she would go there. “That’s strange” I thought as I noted that I hadn’t even met this woman but yet there seemed to be at least a sense of familiarity between the one I do know and her. I went to the bar to meet her only to find her, the one I do know, and yet another wife associated with the business huddled together on bar stools. A sense of comradery engulfed the three as I inexplicably and automatically felt like an outsider. I was friendly enough, they were friendly enough, no one did anything wrong, but there was a sense of ease between them that doesn’t exist on a good day between me and the one I’ve known the longest.
And as I walked away, it hit me. They are moms. While they were getting pregnant, welcoming life into the world, nurturing it and bonding with each other over their good fortune and perceived “stresses”, I was otherwise occupied. I was going to endless doctor’s appointments, injecting myself, existing in the purgatory of waiting and the even more hard core purgatory of not knowing, crying, losing our children again and again, numbing out and protecting myself among many many other things. For years. All of it leading to the acquisition of heart and spiritual wounds so massive they forged me into someone vastly different from who I used to be, so different that it probably takes me 100 times more energy each day to work on recognizing myself than it does for them to get their children dressed.
They are the face of what I lost. And I need to point out that at least one of them cares deeply and has been as respectful as she can be of our losses. Yet it’s no wonder that in spite of the fact they are kind people, and that no one is to blame, getting to their table at dinner time required a good swift internal kick to my hot little sequined party skirt. And there too, sneaking under banter about our husbands’ driving, whirling amid small talk that is now only one of my many frequencies, was that feeling. Of isolation. Of being different. Of grief and loss – and thus wisdom – unacknowledged. That feeling that comes from witnessing what could have been had I not been tied up and held prisoner trying to make babies and grieving babies my husband and I could not make. Even if a few ounces of my perception are somewhat exorbitant, it’s fair to say the awkwardness was palpable.
The next day I mentioned my impressions to my husband who confirmed that some of the wives associated with the business have “gotten together to do things with the kids.”
Well how fucking convenient.
Not to mention a reverse testament of sorts to the unrelenting resourcefulness that has no choice but to accompany involuntary childlessness.
And so, along with the joy, contentment, satisfaction and gratitude that came with throwing my deserving husband a party, so was my ever present pain being thrown back up in my face. I decided to tend to it. “What is it really, baby? Come, sit with it awhile…..”
First I made my way through the usual rationalizations that, while providing a decent reality check along with proof that I’m only human, also litter the path to one’s truth.
“Yes, I KNOW you maybe wouldn’t have been in the group even if you did receive the privilege of children like they did. There’s a good chance you’d still be off to the side marching to the beat of your own drum, as that’s the stuff you seem to be made of. But that’s not really the point, is it?”
“Ok, NOW we’re getting somewhere. What are you angry at?”
“I’m angry because I didn’t get the choice. I was robbed of it and all cheap and thoughtless connections that can come through motherhood. I’m angry that they’ve had it easier than me.”
Before I really surrender, the “everyone has problems” rationalization swirls through my head. Truth be told I’m not a fan of this “argument”. I find it both dumb and minimizing. Everyone has problems? Well, they do and they don’t.
I remind myself: There are many who go through worse than you and lose more than you, no doubt. But not everyone suffers an untimely life altering traumatic loss like you did. Not everyone goes through a crisis that is not socially accepted or societally acknowledged as such, not everyone has experienced immense loss coupled with a lack of community. Not everyone loses their children, never mind parenthood altogether. And not everyone loses their children to the point of complete and utter obliteration, where the only means one has to parade them is via a Redbook article outlining their lack of existence lovingly and desperately thumb tacked to a picture board where their bodies and faces ought to be. Although they have their problems, these women you were sitting with sure haven’t.
And there I finally made it, shot out of the waterslide of cognition into my pool of hurt, that pool where what comes before and what may come after does not matter, that water logged place that is only about truth and feeling, where right and wrong cease to exist. That space where the presence of nice, caring people and an absence of bad intentions ceases to be a qualified nullifier of anger. Where the truth that being in the presence of people who easily have what I worked so hard for and was denied feels like unequivocal ass gets to playfully dive to the bottom for change and gracefully float on its back in the sun, regardless of the surrounding details, and furthermore, it’s OK.
And on and on it will go, this process, again and again with no warning of provocation, but with getting up in the morning the sure guarantee it will happen. The process of not only tapping into my pain but unabashedly allowing it to breathe and speak. THIS is the engine of healing.
There were a precious few at the party, my close supporters, who showed me, with words, hugs and glances, that they were with me. That they knew on a level I wasn’t celebrating INSTEAD of grieving, but rather, in the face of it. Their appreciation was meaningful to me and I do not discount celebrating what you do have (but only when you are damn good and ready). It’s actually quite a valid component to moving through a crisis I think. The problem is that it’s societally all too often pushed based on the emotionally unevolved belief that if someone is feeling and processing their pain, that is ALL they must be doing. And that by feeling their hardships they must be somehow stuck, their experience static, when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The first word that comes to mind when I think grief? Dynamic.
What I’m revealing is that celebrating what I do have, though I’m more than fine with any respect and admiration I might receive for it, is hardly my greatest source of pride. Honoring your good fortunes is nice. And important. Feeling your pain is essential. Mourning that which you lost takes mountains of courage. And skill. It’s just harder.
So when we, as a culture, jump for joy at someone’s “moving on” (the real term is forward, moving forward), should we also not stop and give a nod to how steadfast they were in sitting in all that was not ready to move? Not only sitting in it, but exploring it, loving it? As we continue to admire and respect those celebrating in the face of loss, shouldn’t we also have at least the same consideration for their mourning?
I quote from “Reframing PTSD as Traumatic Grief, How Caregivers Can Companion Traumatized Grievers” by Dr. Alan Wolfelt
“The dark night of the soul can be a long and very black night indeed. People struggling with depression and withdrawal after a loss are inhabiting that long, dark night. It is uncomfortable and scary. The pain of that place can seem intolerable, and yet the only way to emerge into the light of a new morning is to experience the night. As a wise person once observed, ‘darkness is the chair upon which light sits.’
The fifteenth-century monk Thomas a Kempis was an even earlier thought leader on this subject. ‘Levity of heart and neglect of our hearts,’ he wrote, ‘make us insensible to the proper sorrows of the soul.’”