Lindsey, thank you so much for your words, for you love and support over this past year, and mostly for just showing up and being there. I don't think I could ever repay you properly, so I'll just bring you an endless stream of Berger cookies every time I visit Georgia. Love you so very much, friend.
I'm writing to you, dear Friend Of A Grieving Person. I'm sure you've got at least one grieving person in your life; if I've learned anything in the last year it's that there is no shortage of grief or pain in this world, and that grieving people are everywhere, disguised as “I'm ok” and “Thanks for asking” people. Think for more than 10 seconds and I bet you've already identified in your mind who your grieving person is. Maybe it's someone who lost a close family member? A friend whose husband died tragically young? Maybe, like me, it's someone who has experienced loss during pregnancy or a child's infancy.
A little background: I've been told that empathy isn't really my thing. I made it nearly into my 30's without realizing that I was indeed pretty unacquainted with empathy. Sympathy vs empathy, what's that even about? Feeling sorry for someone doesn't come easily for me either so for a long time I figured it was all relative. I'm sad to say that it's almost like I resigned myself to the thought that I'm good at other stuff, I don't have to be good at empathy. Grief isn't something I've had much personal experience with either. Three of my grandparents are still living. I've never lost a close friend or coworker. Truthfully, in sheer numbers, pets encompass most of the loss I've experienced in my life. I know now that there is no shortage of grief in my immediate circle of friends, and that grief is a pretty good teacher - empathy being the subject matter. Part of me wishes I was still in the dark about both of these things, because the only reason I understand them at all now is because someone very dear to me experienced a loss that rocked me to my core. I write these words to you now, Friend Of A Grieving Person, in hopes that I can shed some light on what the empathy journey is going to be like for you, if you are able to step inside your friend's house of mourning and open your heart to him or her.
I never expected to receive a text like this:
“Linds, terrible news. The baby was born unexpectedly this morning at home, and he didn't make it.”
He didn't make it...
He didn't make it?
I'll never forget what it felt like to read words that took the breath out of my chest and the sound out of my ears and how I just crumpled to the floor, clutching my phone and praying I was reading it wrong.
I wasn't reading it wrong. My dear friend had delivered her perfect baby boy, unexpectedly, too soon, at home, and he died. He died right there in her hands. His whole little 22 week long life was lived inside his mama's body and outside in his mama's hands. The beauty and gravity of that has been one of the comforts I have drawn when I think about him. And I think about him often.
When Nasrene texted me that Reece had been born and died, it's not an overstatement to say that my world was rocked. I have had other friends lose babies, and while it has been heartbreaking in a way each time I've heard of these losses, none of them came close to hitting me like Nasrene's loss. Because you see, Nasrene is one of THOSE PEOPLE. You know the ones... charismatic, inspiring, soulful, generous, successful, spirited, determined, pragmatic, kind, truthful, and most of all, a lover of life. She has done everything and been everywhere and chased dreams and surmounted obstacles and she lives life, fully. She is one of a kind. She is not someone who deserves to lose a baby.
But then, who deserves to lose a baby? No one, of course. It's just that if you've met Nasrene, you'd likely find yourself saying the same thing. “What? NASRENE lost a baby? Not Nasrene!” She seems to be a person totally capable of handling anything life could throw her way and at the same time the last person you would expect to have to experience loss and heartbreak because she is so full of life and love that you'd think it would just simply be impossible for them to happen to her. And that is something I've discovered recently to be one of the cruelest ironies of life: that the people we love the most and find to the be strongest, when they experience loss and heartbreak and become broken, our world gets rocked and we kind of don't know what to do next.
When Nasrene texted me those heartbreaking words, I tried to dig deep and find the “right” thing to say. I sat there for a minute or two, and finally texted back something like “Oh no. No no no. I'm so sorry.” I bet that helped a lot, right? Like me being sorry and wanting to deny it happened would be helpful. I'm so glad she was able to hear that I was trying so hard to say something, anything that would express what I felt, since my words were sorely lacking at the time. What she wrote back floored me:
“Can I call?”
Gulp. Of course she could. Gah, I wanted nothing more than to hear her voice and be reassured that my beautiful strong friend wasn't broken, that she was going to be okay, that this was not the life wrecking event I knew it to be. So of course I said yes. And then I ran and locked myself in my room so my kids couldn't bother me while I waited for her to call. And then I prayed, awkwardly:
“Please God, don't let her call until I finish this prayer.”
And then the phone rang. Ha, that God, what a kidder. I've gotten to know Him a lot better since that day.
I answered. We didn't talk long. It didn't take long for me to realize I was utterly unable to know what to say, and so we just cried. We just both cried, sobs for the baby, sobs for the distance between us, sobs for the fact that we both knew this thing that had happened had broken something in Nas that was going to take a long time, maybe forever, to heal. The last thing I remember saying to her, was an answer to her question, “How am I going to survive this?” All I could say was “I don't know, but I do know that you will.”
I've known all along that she would. But I had no idea what the journey really looks like.
I've been a doula for about 5 years now, and have met many mamas who have lost a baby along the way. It usually comes up casually when we are talking about how many kids they have, what were their births like, etc. Baby loss moms are always so gracious with those of us who don't know what we're talking about: “Oh, you lost a baby? I'm sorry to hear that. I've never had a miscarriage.” “I'm glad to hear that. It's very difficult.” “I bet.” Loss and grief and healing and the journey therein are very much misunderstood by those of us who haven't experienced them, something I've painfully come to realize over the last year. I was utterly unprepared for it when Nasrene lost her baby. Nasrene and I have been friends for close to 7 years now, and we had really bonded a lot over the course of her pregnancy. Lots of text conversations about appointments, milestones, symptoms, complications, etc. The usual “friends who are in the having babies stage of life” stuff. But because Nasrene is such a special person to me, I really came to love that baby she was carrying because I knew he was going to be something special. First of all, how could he not be, being Nasrene's child? But from the start I just knew this kid was going to be a big deal. He turned out to be a big huge major deal and not at all in the way I expected. Reece taught me about empathy and grief.
Empathy, when you strip away all the dictionary definitions and anecdotes and get down to the bottom line, is what happens when you feel someone else's feelings as if you were experiencing them yourself. It's the tight feeling in your chest when someone tells you their bad news. It's the ache in your belly when you see that someone you love is hurting physically or emotionally. It's the cold chill you get when someone tells you about their terrifying experience. It's the experience of being heartbroken over something that didn't even happen to you. And when it happens to someone that you care for a lot, the empathy response is amplified in a way you might not have been ready for if it's the first time it's happened to you.
I've been sad for people before. I've cried tears for people before. I have never, before Reece, been so sad or cried so many tears for someone else that my daughter felt compelled to draw a picture of a purple flower to cheer me up, and hang it above the toilet in my bathroom, because that was where I kept ending up sitting to cry so I wouldn't have to keep explaining to my family why I was crying again. I have never walked around in such a long lasting emotional fog, or looked at the baby asleep in the crib and felt guilt that my baby lived and someone else's didn't. Not even the most shocking news stories affected me like this loss. I was consumed. I started my period a week early, on the day I got the news that Reece was gone. Even my uterus couldn't handle the onslaught of emotions I was feeling with the new thing called empathy in my life.
When your friend loses a baby, you struggle to think of anything you can do to help. You know that anything you do is not enough, because enough would be getting her baby back. You know you want to help, but you know the help you can offer is so very lacking. But you do it anyway because that's what we women do, we do something - anything - whether it will really help in the end or not. So, in your inexperience, you put your game face on and you take her a bottle of wine, and trashy magazines, and chocolate, so she can escape her pain for 5 minutes by staring at glossy pictures of “Sexiest Man Alive: Bradley Cooper” and thumbing past “Who Wore it Better?” comparisons and you try to make small talk and ask if the nurses were nice and who was the doctor and the whole time you are sort of panicking because oh my gah you don't know what to say. You want to coo over her baby because you want him here, and not gone, but the only thing you can do is choke back the tears when she asks you if you'd like to see the pictures the hospital took, and you say yes because you do, you really really do. You want your friend to be wearing baggy maternity pants and the hospital mesh panties because she just went through a 41 hour labor and birth, not because she had to be induced to deliver a baby who would never get to celebrate his own birthday. And you want to say everything, all the right things, and in the end the best thing you can do is just sit and stay and listen and not be scared of her grief. I am so very grateful that the mama of a precious baby boy named Jeremiah shared him with me. Jeremiah was born into heaven a few years ago, and his mama taught me the value of just being a friend who is willing to enter the house of mourning. I wish I could go back to when he was born and be better for his mama, but I didn't know then what I know now, and his mama forgave me for it just like so many other baby loss mamas have forgiven so many other clueless friends.
Empathy to me now means taking a portion of someone's pain and carrying it around inside your own heart. Doing this probably doesn't make them hurt any less, but maybe it makes the burden feel a tiny bit lighter to have two people carrying it instead of one? I don't really know. I hope so.
Empathy to me now means thinking before I speak. This is a major shortcoming of mine. I never realized before Nasrene's loss how people just say things, words words words without thought thought thought. What is the saying? Listen twice as long as you speak? Something like that? I probably wasn't listening when the person was trying to explain it to me. How many times have I just let a trite cliché roll off my tongue when someone has opened their heart to me? Tried to tell me something really important and I respond with something dismissive? It's been largely unintentional on my part, but entirely regrettable. Reece's death taught me that words matter. It matters what you say to a grieving friend. It matters that you measure your words when they tell you the thoughts and feelings coming from the grief darkened depths of their heart. It matters that you try and say the right thing and also that you realize that you don't always have to have something to say. Out of the heart the mouth speaks, and empathy is a heart condition.
Empathy is what makes you cry, late at night, when you are laying sleepless in bed and it suddenly occurs to you to count up the number of women you personally know that have lost a child. And when the number hits the double digits you feel such a wave of grief come over you and you wonder how? How do they do it? How do they all get up every morning and tend to kids and jobs and husbands and not just stay in bed and cry? How do all these walking wounded mothers keep putting one foot in front of the other? You want to understand it and at the same time you are completely terrified that by letting the thought of a lost child of your own enter your consciousness. Do those of us who haven't lost a child really mean it when we say we wish we understood what it felt like? I'm not sure we do. But empathy makes it possible for you to take that tiny slice of hypothetical heartache and hold it for a minute and pray for the mothers whose babies are not with them anymore. And your tears dry and you fall asleep and wake up the next morning and are able to bound out of bed like it's any other day. But empathy tugs on your heart again and reminds you that it's Wednesday and that means there's a mama in Baltimore who is sitting, watching a clock, and waiting for the day to start. It is not any other day for so many mamas, and you wish there was something to be done or said to turn back the clock so they were able to have just one more day with their baby.
Empathy is what makes you refuse to delete your 1 gigabyte of text messages from your grieving friend, even though your phone is locking up and you can't store more than a handful of pictures, and you can't download the new Taylor Swift song until you clear up some storage space. You feel like deleting those messages would be a betrayal, like not being able to scroll back to the day it all happened and remember Reece's birthday in details would somehow mean you are letting him go into the past, permanently. Of course, time is going to march on with or without those text messages, but words mean something and if you can keep finding unused apps to delete, you aren't letting those messages go. Then the day comes when you carelessly swipe left and you cry because they're gone, but you realize almost immediately that it's not over. Your friend is still there on the other end, missing her baby. The text messages won't stop coming in, because grief isn't something with an expiration date. Empathy reminds you that you are still needed, and makes you almost relieved to get a “today is hard” message from her because you know when she's talking, she's healing. And you really really want her to be healed because she deserves to not have to live brokenhearted forever.
Empathy has made it possible for me to accept teaching and correction. I can't even begin to tell you how many times, how many “aha!” moments there have been in the last 10 months when Nasrene has said something and it suddenly clicked for me, bringing to my attention something hurtful I have unknowingly done or said to some other grieving person. I am so thankful for these hard lessons. I don't want to be the bull in the china shop. I don't want to keep thoughtlessly speaking in canned quips and quotes. I don't want to be too scared to apologize when I do slip up. I want to develop the courage to say “I'm sorry – that was thoughtless.” I don't want to be the idiot stranger in the grocery store who asks personal, probing questions under the cloak of manners. Nor do I want to be the friend who avoids hard topics, afraid of reminding someone of their lost loved one. How ridiculous is it, really, that we all are so accidentally self centered to think that us saying something would be the only reason they remember their baby died? That's truly ridiculous when you think of it. I know now that most people who are grieving a loss would rather you cry with them about the hard stuff than waste breath prattling on about stupid stuff. Empathy has injected a great deal of perspective into my life, and I'm so grateful. At the same time I wish so acutely that something much less tragic had been capable of catching my attention years ago. I wish I could've known. I wish I could've been prepared.
Probably the strangest thing about empathy and walking alongside someone in grief is that I battled guilt along the way. I am not given to a guilty conscience usually, so this was new territory for me. I felt guilty that my baby lived. I felt guilty that I didn't understand. I felt guilty for feeling so sad. I wondered if I was somehow wrong to be taking someone else's loss so personally, like maybe I was developing Munchhausen syndrome. I felt guilty for the time I spent crying, like I needed to toughen up and be strong for my friend. All this guilt demonstrates to me now just how little acquainted I was with empathy. I feel certain that there is little a grieving person wishes for more than to just feel like someone else understands. I can't offer a grieving mom the same solidarity as another grieving mom can – the sorority of baby loss Nasrene has written about makes a lot of sense to me now. I can't say “I understand” and be 100% honest. But what I can say is that “I can imagine how you feel.” Because I really can. I have imagined it, and it's terrifying, and I never want anyone to walk this path alone.
Empathy, if you are “a do-er” like I am, spurs you to action. You want to DO something. You want to FIX IT. It takes you about .03 seconds to realize that a) there is nothing you can do to fix it, and b) that isn't going to stop you from trying to think of ways to make it suck less. If you are a do-er friend or sibling or coworker of someone who is grieving, I have a secret for you: the best thing you can do is just show up. Show up and show love. You might be nervous, you might be lost on what to say, you might be scared that you will do the wrong thing. Love covers a multitude of wrongs and your grieving person will not begrudge you some mistakes along the way. Just show up. There will be so many people who won't show up. I don't mean you literally have to show up on their doorstep; consider first whether your person is a private person and needs space. But show up SOMEHOW, nonetheless, because it doesn't even have to be a physical in person showing up. Answer the phone. Respond to the text. Write an email. Send a card. Send a meal. Make contact with a local friend of your friend and find out how you can help her help your friend (follow? Hope so, haha.). Just. Show. Up. There will be so many people who don't show up.
This has probably read like a stream of consciousness essay and I'm okay with that. Grief is a messy process and experiencing secondhand grief makes even less sense at first. I'm also relatively new at the empathy thing and my description here may be sorely lacking. But in an attempt to summarize I want to say this, to you, Friend Of A Grieving Person:
You cannot possibly overestimate what a show of empathy will mean to your grieving friend. In fact, at some point in the journey, you will feel embarrassed by how little effort it really took to show them love, and you will wish so acutely that you had not wasted so much time being consumed by your own first world problems in the past. You will find immense personal satisfaction in the act of empathy, and it will open a window in your heart you didn't know was nailed shut. Embrace it. The world and your friend need you and your open heart. Get past the guilt of lacking grief in your own life and be a person that shows up.
Nasrene, what you have taught me in the last 7 years of friendship is that two people who are polar opposites can be not just friends, but also kindred spirits. We've crossed a lot of bridges and watched water run under each one of them. I have had some of the best and most memorable times, cackling with you around campfires in Indiana or under a carport while a Persian grandpa taught me how to eat crabs. I can think of no one with whom I would rather share a glass of wine or spend a Crocker Springs morning. I am here for the long haul, girlfriend. And though I would never ever have wished upon anyone a year like 2014, I am so incredibly awed and thankful for all you have survived. You and your baby boy have a place in my secondhand broken heart forever, and it is to both of you that I owe a debt of gratitude. Because on the morning of April 30, 2014 empathy was born in my heart and I was able for the first time to see the world through its filter. It has changed me. Thank you for having the courage and patience to let me travel alongside you in this journey. Asking me to write about it here is a gift I don't deserve and I hope I have managed the words.
If this were a text message I would end it with a heart and an anchor, for Reece.