Healing’s Inherent Discombobulation
For the longest time, I have seen my children in other people’s children. For years, perhaps as many as seven, I have seen what I kept losing and then finally lost for good in other people’s children. There was no even imagining a day when this wouldn’t be.
And now, for the past couple of months, peculiar things have been happening. More and more, images of children seem to be computing as simply children instead of registering in every last cell as an unsolicited cannonball of all that I lost.
After the royal wedding this past May, images of the children in the bridal party kept vividly and fondly replaying in my mind – their organic natures, the precious obliviousness of some to the scale of the event, their individual personalities. Born quite publicly about a week after our third IVF failed, Prince George is technically a representation of that which my husband and I lost. You know, minus the title. And yet there I was, just taking in the moment mostly for what IT was.
This past June I attended a neighbor’s cocktail party following her son’s wedding ceremony. A potentially loaded situation transmitted as actually quite benign. Again I was in the moment, enjoying chit chatting with a few bridesmaids, observing the flurry of festivities, and watching the newlyweds pose for pictures. This was all bolstered of course by the fact that there were no young children present, all eyes were on the wedding, and the “kids” involved were in their twenties. Not to mention the fact that in spite of my life’s trials, I haven’t, as of yet, been traumatized by anything wedding/marriage related. But still, as I watched the parents and their twenty something kids pose for pictures, my “I will nevers” only whispered softly in the background.
Even when I met my brother’s girlfriend’s kids, who are around the ages ours would have been, my children echoed less than I thought they would.
And that’s not all. My reaction to Whole Foods, the bane of my traumatized first world existence, a newborn in stroller haven ornamented by the occasional public breast feeder, has been more indifferent recently. (And thank goodness. Though it sounds simple enough, I dare anyone to try food shopping with baby trauma triggers ALONGSIDE autonomic nerve damage. Really, be my guest………).
My recent occasional indifference has offered up the space for me to start to be a reasonable shopper again, retrieving the long lost skill set of paying attention to how much things cost and searching for cheaper alternatives when need be. This slow but sure dissolution of my current method of shopping – “grab whatever you need as quickly as you can so you can, for the love of everything worthy on God’s green earth, get the hell outta here!!!” – I did not see coming. I’ve been freaked out by shopping in Whole Foods since sometime after my fourth failed IUI in flipping 2011.
“I can’t believe I used to deal with this” I emphatically shook my head as my husband and I took a seat at one of the picnic tables. At the end of a therapeutic day on Long Island’s north fork, we stopped by a winery for the obvious reasons and to visit the top of our favorite bluff. People with children abounded – strollers at the bar, kids frolicking around the broad field that approaches an overlook to Long Island Sound.
Yes, one of our favorite natural places is at times invaded by that which we lost, and in the early days when my emotions would blow up and run amok, all I could do sometimes was just sit in it. Having to leave would have made me even more sad and angry. I still do prefer to sit at the picnic table with my back to it all, and I still roll my eyes, sigh and spew my usual sarcasims as I enter such a scene. But the pain has ebbed to a great extent. The emergence of a rear view mirror through which to view my triggers has been quite a profound experience. Within that rear view mirror lies an even deeper appreciation for that which I and people like me have been through.
All of the above are normal experiences for most – holding images of children with fondness, mindlessly food shopping, enjoying a neighbor’s wedding cocktail party, visiting a winery that happens to be swamped with people with children minus harsh emotional kickback. But for me these things have become complete oddities.
And that’s what truly, unequivocally sucks about traumatic loss. That which is joyful, normal, or even neutral to the mainstream registers in you as heart scouring and soul destroying. Traumatic loss gives you more, way more, than you can comprehend and assimilate in any given moment. Infertility in particular does this to you again and again and again. Given its insidiously perpetual nature it’s no wonder one’s processing lags behind, at least by non traumatized standards, for years. It’s also no wonder that I’m experiencing a level of perplexity over the prospect that I’m somewhat “caught up” in my grieving and processing, along with a twinge of bewilderment over this new layer of equanimity.
Is it that I’m no longer seeing my fading triggers as what I don’t have, or rather that my brain has met some success in integrating “I will never have that” into the bigger picture? Whatever the answer is or isn’t, I do know that there is no forcing either of these things. You do the work and they emerge whenever and however they do. As much as we’d like to think we have a say in the order and outcome of things, in many ways I am merely grief’s, trauma’s and healing’s passenger.
A side note on “the work” – I think it’s important to clarify, the best anyone can, what “the work” entails. For me on this hard, hard road, it has been a combination of things. First and foremost, writing my experiences and feeling my emotions while practicing non self judgement has been key. Making a consistent effort to acknowledge the depth of my losses and to not see anything as any worse, or as any better than it really is. Creativity. A contemplative physical practice. Actively mourning. Doing the best I can at any given point and time to give myself what I need, be it solitude or the presence of supportive people. Refusing invisibility, inauthenticity and conformity. Allowing new good stuff in while not expecting anything ever to make up for the loss of my children. Insisting on integrating my losses into my life and that those close to me integrate my losses into our shared realities as well.
Also important to keep in mind: Research has shown that, and I quote Dr. Marni Rosner here, “Trauma, and the potential for PTSD, is greatly mitigated when victims are able to share their stories without shame, when they are embraced by their communities, and when they are able to make an impact.” Involuntary childless people, and especially people who come out of any reproductive trauma without children, don’t receive the benefits of the first two things. The third is there but questionable on some levels. As if it weren’t hard enough, much of “the work” has to be done on our own without the proper ingredients from our fellow humans that facilitate healing.
So where does this leave me? I and probably you have been conditioned, in the face of life’s hardships, to imagine a marathon sort of serenade, a protracted, conveniently linear obstacle course where one guts it out and guts it out until – poof – confetti and people cheering at the finish line where all is again well and happy, reconciled and vindicated.
It’s a nice story, but grief and healing are not like that. They are rife with odd turns, sudden drop offs, mysterious crescendos and decrescendos. They are chock full of shades of gray and liminal space, or as I call it, the experience of nothingness. And I strongly doubt there’s a finish line, especially with the loss of an entire life track (such as parenthood and grandparenthood, for example).
In the absence, or at least partial absence of my triggers I experience an emptiness of sorts. They have been with me on one level or another for so long. They were one of the only pieces of proof I had that my love for my children was real, and as I wrote about three years ago in my Pain in Progess posts (here and here), when our pain fades, so does a level of closeness to that which we lost. These personal movements forward represent an ever growing separation from what should have been, they promote a sneaky severing of love in the form that you originally experienced it.
And they require us to recalibrate ourselves yet again to a different set of needs, capacities, limitations and visions. I find myself feeling somewhat relieved, freed, discombobulated, irritable and impatient, my innards flailing as I adjust to my eroding compass. I acknowledge my healing with gratitude. I bask in awe of my survival. I muddle through my confusion. And I weep for the distance between me and my children.
Megan Devine speaks to this in one of my favorite grief books, “It’s OK That You’re Not OK, Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand”.
Referencing her grief following the sudden death of her husband in midlife: “In some ways, I do miss those early days.” After describing some specifics of her husband’s gutting absence, she goes on: “Our life was so close to me then. And in that ripped – open state of early grief, love felt so close to me. It didn’t fix anything, but it was there; it was present. There was no mistaking the power of that time, dark and painful as it was.” She also concedes as to what she doesn’t miss about early grief’s purgatory and assured me greatly with this: “…the pain will eventually recede and love will stay right there. It will deepen and change as all relationships do. Not in the ways you wanted. Not in the ways you deserved. But in the way love does – of its own accord.”
“If I don’t see my children in other children, then where will I see them?” I wondered out of nowhere one day.
“You won’t, sweetie”, was the response that came up from deep inside of me. “It’s all changing form. Your children will probably re-emerge through your work and through the way you interact with people and try to live your life.” I was left gripped by the need to hang on and let go all at the same time.
As I continue to oscillate within the question of “where am I?”, I also try to remember to be gentle with myself. I have never been here, after all, so how am I supposed to know where this is?
I have no doubt that returning “back to normal” after a life altering loss is a mere illusion. The way my pre trying to conceive self perceived and interacted with the world – that girl is gone. This brief quote funneled to me by my friend from her widow community sums it up perfectly:
“You can’t unknow what you know.”
Megan Devine speaks to this incisively as well:
“You will not return to ‘who you used to be’. How could you? To refuse to be changed by something as powerful as this would be the epitome of arrogance.”
So as I occupy this blank space and wait I kindly remind myself, as I did with my towering emotions in early grief, “You don’t have to like it, but you do have to stand in it.”
My triggers took up a lot of room, and in the midst of this disruption a part of me can’t help but wonder what will come forth to use the extra space now available in my being. If I made it this far, after all, I may as well find out what comes next.