Jeannette suggested the title for this blog post and I thought it was entirely appropriate. First, let me say that I am making myself vulnerable and writing this to help other people who are grieving. I think our experience was rather normal and what most people experience after the death of a child. However, in our society, we expect people to endure an unimaginable loss and still go on and function after the three days that most jobs allow for “funeral leave”. We do not allow crying and wailing and we certainly wouldn’t approve of falling on the floor and screaming in pain. We tell people to calm down, take a deep breath. Get themselves together. Focus on the positives. While this sounds like good advice, the truth is that is impossible to do. In order to heal we have to realize that grieving is tough work. It’s messy. It’s not pretty. It’s the sobbing, snot flying, screaming temper tantrums that can release some of the pain in our hearts. And it takes a long time. There really is no appropriate time frame. Still, a year and a half after losing Abigail I am still not able to do the same things I was capable of before our loss. My dear and wise mentor Dr. Martin told me it will be three years before I feel like myself again. I believe him. I think this process of grief applies to loss of any kind, not just a child, although losing a child is most people’s worst fear.
I am going to make myself vulnerable and share just a few of the really dumb things that we did after Abigail died, in the hopes of helping others who are grieving the loss of a loved one and are struggling. Again, I do not feel our experience was at all abnormal. I think this is the normal for grieving families but our society somehow makes us feel weak, at fault, abnormal. I tell grieving families often, “You will feel like you are going crazy. It’s ok. You are. But you won’t be forever.”
1. Last fall the trash truck stopped picking up our trash bags. At first we thought it was just a fluke. By week three, we had several trash bags piling up in our shed and we realized we had NEVER PAID THE BILL! How embarrassing! We were always the type of person to keep track very diligently of these things.
2. Despite multiple LARGE notes on our calendar on the fridge as well as the actual bill clipped to the calendar and waving in the breeze every time the fridge door was opened, we forgot to pay our taxes on time last year. A day after the due date we thankfully realized it and scrambled to get the check mailed in……only to open the checkbook and discover that we were out of checks altogether. That was one of those moments when I just sat down on the floor and cried. We ended up paying the penalty fee even though we were only a few days late. It just felt like more salt in a gaping wound.
3. I could not cook a real meal for months. I am not quite sure what we ate or how we survived but we did. I suspect it was meals cooked by my mother or my sister. I remember making mini brownies for a Fourth of July picnic and I was so proud of myself. I finally made a simple meal of chicken and pasta in late summer. I burnt it but it was quite the accomplishment. I was previously the woman who could cook several meals at one time in order to freeze meals ahead of time.
4. I had to be very patient with myself when I went back to work. Initially I was seeing only 4-5 patients a day (typically I would see 20-30). At first I worked half days. I will be forever grateful to Family Practice Center and my partners and colleagues for allowing me as much time as I needed to heal and picking up my work until I was again able to safely function. I looked everything up, not twice, but three times. I double checked doses of medicines I could have prescribed in my sleep previously. I knew my brain was not working properly so I triple checked myself. I wrote many, many notes to myself. That took tremendous energy and effort and was exhausting. Before our loss, I had a remarkable memory for the things my patients tell me about their lives. I remembered when and where they went on vacation, what was going on in their childrens’ lives, where they like to shop, etc. In those early months, I could not remember even seeing people for an office visit, let alone remember the minute details of their lives. That lack of memory is a VERY unsettling feeling, even now. There are several months from the spring and summer of 2012 of which I have very few memories at all. Again, this is very normal. This is our brains’ way of shutting down when it is overloaded. Thankfully, my patients were loving and supportive and patient with my healing process. And, I took great precautions to make sure that I was providing them safe care.
5. All this did not come without cost. I basically had enough energy to get through the week. Just the effort of interacting with people- and yes, answering their questions and receiving their heartfelt sympathies- was the extent of my physical and emotional energy. I was not able to do anything on weekends other than hide out. I read a lot of books (don’t ask me which ones though). I took naps. I hiked in nature. I holed up with my husband and my family. I could not entertain. I could not cook a meal. I had trouble concentrating on more than short conversations. In October I travelled to Connecticut to be in the wedding of a friend. This was a major accomplishment for me. It required me to focus and engage for an entire weekend. It was a turning point in my healing.
6. The holidays were exquisitely painful. We respectfully turned down invitations. We did mostly online shopping. We didn’t participate in any of our usual traditions. We didn’t even get a real tree. I didn’t really decorate much and we avoided painful situations (like Children’s Mass at church). We tried to make new traditions. I will always be grateful to my sister, who brought her family to us and stayed overnight with us on Christmas Eve and Day. Being with my niece and nephew were a balm to my heart.
I hope that hearing about our experience of grief may help other families who are in the process of grief. People used to say to me, “Be kind to yourself.” I didn’t know what they meant but I understand it now. If you are grieving, don’t feel bad if you can’t do everything you used to do. Don’t feel bad if you have to eat out often. Don’t feel bad if you can’t entertain your friends like you used to. Don’t feel bad if you have to turn down invitations (especially to things like children’s birthday parties, baptisms, baby showers). Don’t feel bad if you forget things or singlehandedly keep the Post-It Corporation solvent. It gets better—I promise—but it takes time. Unfortunately, there is no way to rush this process.
Please feel free to comment and share your experience of grief, if you are able. It helps all of us to know that we are not alone.