Wednesday, January 21, 2015
taming the beast
Over the past eight months I've been reading up on grief. I've read books, articles, blog posts, scholarly articles, you name it, I've read it. And I still don't fully understand this painful process.
Grief is such a strange beast. I've always known that it's different for everyone and everyone processes loss differently, but I will admit I was completely blindsided and unprepared on how to manage my grief over losing Reece last year.
I've lost members of my family. Great grandparents and grandparents that I was very close to, who lived long and happy lives. Their lives were not without difficulty, but for the most part, they led long lives that we'd all be lucky to have. Prosperous, with family and friends, and well into the senior years, passing on surrounded by loved ones. When those deaths happened I of course felt a severe sense of loss. People who had been constants in my life were no longer there. There was a void. An empty spot that my whole life had been occupied by these specific people.
But as time passed my thoughts of them were mostly happy and not sad. I could tell stories of them without tearing up. I was appreciative for the time that I had with them. That there were no regrets, no stones left unturned. Memories were happy instead of sad. How could I be sad that both Sadira and I got to make memories with them for years, late into their lives?
Conversely I've lost friends and family members too soon. The sudden deaths of my Aunt Gabby when I was 13, and my friend Kelly when I was 18, shook my entire world. I was left saying, "how did this happen? I just saw her last week? I just talked to her yesterday?" The grief took awhile to set in. Because shock just stayed there on the surface for so long in the beginning.
Over time I had to play a more active role in the grief process in order to reach some peace about these sudden deaths. It felt unfair. Like I was robbed. Robbed of having them in my life, robbed of making more memories with them, and for the first time I realized that no one is guaranteed a nice long life. Anything can happen to anyone at anytime. Life is precious and fleeting.
I had to play a more active role in the grief process.
When Reece was born and then died, it took awhile for grief to even set in. It took awhile to even process that I had "a loss." And then when I did, the feelings that I experienced were SO foreign and new to me. I remember saying, "this can't be grief, I know what that feels like. This is some other other feeling. I can't even explain it. There is no word to adequately describe this feeling. This feels unnatural."
I've had several friends lose parents over the past few years. And while, thank God, I have not experienced that, I realize that they have made similar statements. That the loss of their parent was so much more overwhelming than they could imagine. The grief was much more monumental than they expected or were prepared to deal with.
I can only say that grieving Reece was a similar process, but different. It took so long to even be able to explain my feelings because they were so foreign to me. For the longest time I would simply say that grieving Reece was just such a sudden about face. A quick reversal of direction. You are planning for something happy. Excited about meeting this sweet, new, little addition to your family and then BOOM. Instead of a little bundle of joy that brings happiness and sweetness to the family, you are handed a broken heart ravaged in grief.
It felt like the most unfair thing in the world.
I couldn't explain this. It's partly why I had to take such a long hiatus from blogging. I couldn't put my emotions into adequate words. And for someone like me, that's scary.
And then one day while talking with one of my best friends, I came up with my analogy. It went a little something like this:
Just imagine you're going about your life as normal. Work, school, fun with friends, taking care of your family. And then you wake up one day and begin your normal routine, just like any other day. You get up. You brush your teeth. You start to get dressed. You come downstairs to make breakfast and BAM. There it is.
There is a bear in your living room.
Yes, you read that correctly. A bear.
And I'm not talking about a cute, cuddly, little teddy bear. Think about the most scary, intimidating beast you can possibly think of. This is a giant, rabid, snarling, growling, grizzly bear. Towering over you. Staring at you menacingly. Growling at you in your own home. You want to run, but you're frozen. You don't even know how you are going to walk past it to get to your phone and call for help. You don't know if it's going to try to eat you in the process. You're scared for your safety. You're scared for your life. How can this be fixed? How did this happen?
Your mind races with questions. How did this bear get in here? What am I supposed to do? Who do I call to fix it? How do I get rid of this? Someone, quickly, HELP!
When you finally are able to move out of your frozen-in-shock position, you manage to maneuver around the giant bear. You're trembling and scared because it's paws are huge and can take you out with one swipe. It's teeth are huge and intimidating. But somehow you manage to sneak around it, physically unscathed. You frantically start calling for help on your phone.
But when you reach the people you think will be able to fix it, they all say the same thing:
"Oh my gosh. What a horrible ordeal. I wish there was something we could do to help you."
"I'm so sorry you are dealing with this. But there is nothing we can do to change this."
"Unfortunately sometimes bears just show with no good reason. Sometimes these things just happen."
"I have no idea why this bear chose your home, I'm so so sorry. But you are just going to have to learn how to live with this."
"Sadly moving far far away will not change things. We cannot tranquilize it, it'll wake up eventually. We can't kill it, that's inhumane. Apparently this bear chose you for a reason. If you try to run away to a different home, it will unfortunately just follow you."
It seems crazy, right? Surely someone can do SOMETHING. Surely there was a REASON this happened. SURELY, right? How could this possibly happen unprovoked? I did everything I could to avoid a bear taking over my home!
And it becomes quickly apparent, that everyone you reach out to WANTS to help you. They want to take this bear away for you. But they can't. No one can. The bear is here for good.
So for the first week, you're just in a daze. How are you supposed to sleep when there's a monster living downstairs? You are scared for your other family members. How are you to protect your 7 year old daughter from this beast? You can't pretend it's not there. Something has obviously changed in your home. Somehow you find a way to explain. She is just as scared of it as you are.
Every day you tiptoe through your home. You're afraid to leave because you don't know if it will follow you and show up, but you don't want to sit there in it's presence because it's SCARES THE SHIT OUT OF YOU.
But as the week progresses, you start, just a little bit, to become accustomed to this bear. You wake up and remember that it's down there. You take a deep breath before you go down to face it for the day. You have to explain to your friends why you just can't see them or have them over right now, "you see, I have this awkward situation right now, that's just really hard for me to explain." They try their very best to relate. They are so understanding and kind. They tell you to take your time and reach out once you've tamed the bear.
But it feels like the bear will never be tamed.
But as time goes on, you fall into a habit. You learn that you can't walk straight through your living room, you learn to dodge and weave around it. You discover that if you throw the bear a little snack now and again you can keep it at bay, and it's not QUITE so menacing.
The bear, the terrible, intimidating, terrifying beast that once felt impossible, becomes manageable. You hate every bit of it, but you deal with it.
You become so apt at dealing with it that you fall into a routine. You know exactly how to maneuver around it and still continue to be functional throughout your day. You expertly toss it some meat to keep it quiet when it starts roaring with rage.
You start to feel like you're taming the beast.
For me, this is the best way I can describe what it was like to manage my grief. I was in a situation that I never in my wildest dreams thought would happen. I was unprepared. I was caught completely off guard. It was scary, and sad, and horrible, and terrifying, and affected not only me, but my family and friends. It affected my relationships with everyone around me. It affected whether I left my house or not. It affected every aspect of my life.
The bear makes you feel like you've been punched in the gut.
The bear sucks the oxygen out of your lungs.
The bear makes hot tears roll down your cheeks, without giving you any notice or warning.
And then one day I had to go back to work. My maternity leave was up. It was time to go back to my life before the bear invaded.
I naively thought that going back to work wouldn't be so bad. I remember feeling as ready as I'd ever be. I remember friends saying to me, "going back to your routine will be good for you." "It'll distract you." "It'll take your mind off of things."
Nothing could take my mind off the fact that I had a giant, beastly, grizzly bear metaphorically living in my home that I could not get rid of.
But I thought, "yes, maybe it will be good for me. This is what I need to do."
So I went back to work on June 11th, after losing my son on April 30th. I was super anxious, but feeling hopeful and positive.
I cannot explain the feelings I experienced driving back to my office. Pulling into the parking lot and parking my car, I instantly remembered, "the last time I did this, Reece was with me." I put my bravest face on and went in.
There were many people there who knew what had happened. People who worked closely with me who just wrapped me in their arms in hugs as soon as I walked in. There were lots of shared tears. No one asked too many questions, but they were all tremendously supportive.
Then I sat at my desk and tried desperately to focus on my work. Getting caught up on emails. Figuring out what I needed to tackle first. But the bear was always there, lurking in the back of my mind. I knew it could show up at any time.
Shortly before lunch I walked out of my office and ran into a co-worker I hadn't seen in awhile. His first words were, "Hey! Welcome back! How's the little one?"
How's the little one.
The question still burns in my ears. He didn't know. All he knew is that I was pregnant and then I was out on maternity leave. He didn't know Reece had died. There are hundreds of people in my office. Not everyone knew. I had to tell him.
"Thank you so much for asking, but our little one passed away. He was born prematurely." And then came the tears. I could tell he felt horrible. He fumbled through an apology. "I am so so sorry. Your family is in prayers." It was all I could do to say thank you and then disappear back into my office.
Not too much later after that a co-worker and good friend of mine walked by. She was pregnant and due in October. She caught my eye and we both started crying. She came in my office and hugged me for a long time, tears rolling down both of our cheeks, and she whispered into my ear, "I have thought about you every single day since you have been out. Every. Single. Day." And I knew she had.
It was just so surreal to think that just a few months before we were comparing pregnancy notes and talking about our boys being born within a few weeks of one another. And now mine was gone, but hers continued to grow.
I never ever ever in a million years would ever want her to have to experience that too, but as I stood in my office, hugging my very pregnant friend, after having just had to explain that my son was dead to someone who was just trying to offer congratulations, the bear was roaring.
I don't remember too much else of that day except for wishing and hoping that it would end as quickly as possible. I remember writing an email to that same best friend I had used my bear analogy to in the first place. I told her what had happened and how the day was a million times harder than I had anticipated, and how I was completely unprepared. I didn't mention the word "bear" but I remember when she wrote back there was just one sentence:
"I am so sorry that the bear followed you to work."
She gets me.
It was clear this bear was here to stay. I just needed to learn how to deal with it.
And so that is what I have tried to do over the past months. Learn how to tame this bear that can rear up and scare the shit out of me at any point in the day. I've learned to try to be proactive. To outsmart the bear and come up with ways to keep it at bay.
One of them happened last week.
I have a membership to a local massage therapy studio, but I haven't gone in over in a year. My usual masseuse, Anthony, is amazing, but is not a certified pre-natal therapist. So when I found out I was pregnant I told him and I switched over to the pre-natal therapist for pre-natal massages.
But then Reece died. And I haven't gone back since.
I was thinking that I needed to go back. I've been paying for the membership every month and have been racking up unused credits. Plus, I need to go back because it would a nice treat for me.
But I was afraid. I was afraid that I would go in and they would say, "so, the last time you were here was last March for a pre-natal massage! How's the baby?"
You THINK this wouldn't happen that often, but let me tell you, it does. Ask any babyloss parent how often they have to awkwardly explain their story to someone. People who once saw you pregnant and now see that you are not. A neighbor. The grocery story cashier. The barista at Starbucks. Every one of your doctors. Perfect strangers that you have to explain it to. It comes up all too often. And it's so hard to explain because every single time it brings that bear ROARING back.
So last week I marched into the massage studio. And when the receptionist was free I said, "I'd like to make an appointment this week with Anthony. But there's something I need you to know, and I would appreciate that you tell him for me as well." She was confused but she said, "of course, what is it?"
And with a deep breath I said, "well, I haven't been in, in a long long time, and that's because the last time I was here I was pregnant and getting pre-natal massages. But unfortunately my son was born prematurely in April and passed away. I haven't seen Anthony in quite awhile, and I would love if you could let him know for me. I'd hate to put him in the awkward position of asking how the baby was doing, or put myself in the sad emotional place of having to explain when I'm here for a relaxing massage."
I got it through the whole thing without crying, and I felt so accomplished. And then the receptionist gave me her condolences and assured me she would absolutely tell him for me. Then she looked up at me and said, "this may sound strange, but do you mind if I give you a hug?"
And I replied, "you are absolutely welcome to give me a hug, thank you!"
And then of course we both cried. A whole lot. But it was okay. It was really okay.
So today I went in for my appointment. And I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a small part of me that was worried that he hadn't gotten the message...but when he called my name to come back for my massage, he simply said, "It's been awhile. But I'm really glad to see you back here. We'll take good care of you." And he gave my hand a squeeze. I knew he knew. And I was so grateful that I had taken that moment to be brave and speak up earlier in the week.
And my massage was wonderful.
It may seem small and insignificant, but in the long term process of dealing with my grief it was huge.
Because for this week, I was able to tame the beast.
The bear was silent.