What We Talk About When We Talk About Grief

10 years ago

Unfortunately, my bright orange and happy icon deeply clashes with what I need to write.

On the day that Heath Ledger died, I had been spending the afternoon reading through the stillbirth and neonatal death blogs on my sidebar. Not, perhaps, how some people choose to spend their afternoon, but they are important stories to read. Not just to understand what another person is going through, but because the burden of being the sole keeper of someone's existence is a terrible weight and reading the story helps another person know that they're not alone in remembering their child.

Ledger's death was the front page story on the cover of the Washington Post and I'm sure his death and life were well-covered in newspapers throughout the world. As well it should be because in talking about him, we are all picking up a small piece of his life and holding onto that memory. Reading the stillbirth and neonatal death blogs, I was reminded of a thought from a book I once read where the census report was taken a year after the death of their child. Because this child was born and died between two census reports, her existence was never formally recorded in that respect, never counted. What a horrible burden to think that without your single memory, your child's life could be entirely erased as if it never happened, especially if no birth certificate or death certificate is issued as is the case sometimes with pregnancy loss.

My point is not to dismiss Ledger's life, but to take more of how we mourn adults and apply it to how we mourn children--including those who die in-utero. As a society, we do a mediocre job at aiding in the mourning process of widows and fall even shorter at understanding how to support childless mothers. The reality is that what we know about widowhood actually translates neatly into childless motherhood. A death is a death and while the relationship may have logistical differences, loss leaves a hole in the heart.

We click on the blog stories detailing the deaths of adults. We can certainly take a moment to click on the blog stories detailing the deaths of children.

The post that brought me towards the stillbirth and neonatal death blogs was actually by a woman who experienced a second trimester loss. In Life From Here, Luna writes eloquently about the "outer world of grief."

When I lost my baby boy at 21 weeks, it was unlike anything I had ever known. Nothing had prepared me for that experience or its aftermath. The complex journey through grief towards healing is long and hard, with no clear end. As I’ve learned, it’s a lifelong process. And it’s usually a solo journey. Grief can be shared, as when we gather to mourn a friend or loved one. Mourning is the external part of loss, the shared rituals we observe. But ultimately everyone must find their way down their path. The journey is ours alone. Finding our way through loss is the inner work of grief. Our culture seems to have an aversion to grief in general. Death makes people uncomfortable. As others have so eloquently said, there are many reasons why there is so little support for pregnancy loss and stillbirth. So often these losses are ignored and misunderstood by others. Without support, grieving is an even more challenging and isolating process.

It's an important post to read if you want to truly understand loss, sit with loss, and know how to help someone who is grieving. I think because we feel so acutely uncomfortable around death in general, pregnancy loss seems like an easy opportunity to avoid our discomfort. It is impossible to ignore that a grown man existed--there are photos, remembered conversations, appointments unkept. It is too easy to pretend that a baby never existed--especially one who dies in-utero--and I think this easy out creates this wall, makes people turn their heads and pretend not to see the grieving parents, hold their questions.

Tash at Awful But Functioning has a post explaining the far-reaching effects of grief--how it alters relationships, keeps one from being their old self.

I never finished my thank you notes for everything that everyone did for Maddy. A kind friend ordered me cards so I wouldn't have to, and I began sending them off to thank people for their thoughts and flowers and food and trees and money. In the beginning I was on top of everything, and it was rather therapeutic to sit down and have something to do, not to mention the instant gratification of having a neat little stack of envelopes at the end of the evening. But then it just hurt. It just hurt to thank people for being nice because my child was dead. I didn't know how to thank them for a tree when I really didn't want a fucking tree at all -- I wanted my baby. I didn't want to think about the NICU ever again, let alone write a thank you to someone for giving money there so someone else's baby might live. And slowly I quit. And the list piled up, and sits there on my desk, next to the empty cards, almost a year later, incomplete. And I feel guilty every time I see it. I've been told point blank by people who didn't receive cards that no one expects a thank you, but I'm not sure I really believe that.

I think what blogs offer are a peek into the experience and I use the term "peek" because I think we see slices of a moment that cannot capture the arcing ache that covers the life of a person mourning. Those are the limitations of words.

Lastly, dbm/gaa at deadbabyblog, a blog title that makes you look grief right in the face, writes this week about the creeping sadness that comes for her at this time of year.

I think I've reached some kind of plateau. I'm not in agony, but I still ache and think about deadbaby every day. This time of year makes it worse. Spring is struggling to bust out all over, and it all seems like a big, ironic finger from the universe: "Everything is being born, but your baby is still dead! Easter is coming, death and resurrection...whoops no resurrection for you folks! Chocolate eggs instead? No?" Every second just brings us closer to her birthday and I just don't want to go there. This combines with the knowledge that this will happen every year for the rest of my life and I don't really think I'm going to feel much 'better' about the whole situation than I do now. DBP wisely said that it feels like we either live with it or do something to eradicate it, and the only thing that would do that is to actively forget which isn't an option. So I guess we are stuck feeling crap this time of year forever.

I think this post best brings up the fact that loss is not resolved in minutes or days or even weeks. It is an ongoing process. This doesn't mean to only speak to someone grieving about the source of their grief, but in appropriate situations, ask questions that allow the mourner to know implicitly that you still recognize their grief, create a space for it to rest, and are interested in supporting them fully--not only in the moments immediately after the loss.

Like everyone else, I clicked on the stories of Heath Ledger and I read about his life. And now I'm going to ask you to take one step further into grief and visit these blogs, sit with their stories, and help them remember this person who existed--albeit for a short time.

Melissa is the author of the infertility and pregnancy loss blog, Stirrup Queens and Sperm Palace Jesters. She keeps a categorized blogroll of over 1100 infertility blogs and writes the daily Lost and Found and Connections Abound, a news source for the infertility blogosphere. Her infertility book is forthcoming from Seal Press in Spring 2009.

More from health

Health & Wellness
by Elizabeth Yuko | 8 hours ago
Health & Wellness
by Laura Williams | 12 hours ago
Health & Wellness
by Elizabeth Yuko | 12 hours ago
Health & Wellness
by Elizabeth Yuko | 12 hours ago
Health & Wellness
by Sara Lindberg | 15 hours ago
Health & Wellness
by Meagan Morris | a day ago
Health & Wellness
by Elizabeth Yuko | a day ago
Health & Wellness
by Caitlin Flynn | 2 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Monica Beyer | 2 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Elizabeth Yuko | 2 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Ashley Jankowski | 3 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Monica Beyer | 4 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Elizabeth Yuko | 5 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Catherine Conelly | 6 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Lindsey Hall | 6 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Elizabeth Yuko | 7 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Elizabeth Yuko | 7 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Megan Fu | 7 days ago
Health & Wellness
by Sara Lindberg | 8 days ago