Capture Your Grief – Day 5. Empathy

Empathy has been defined as “your pain in my heart.”

True empathy can be found in that dark, scary place that all of us are afraid to go.  You know the place I’m talking about – the saddest, loneliest, scariest place in your mind, full of unpleasantries of every sort.  Embarrassment, fear, shame, hopelessness.  No matter our story, we’ve all been there, and we all hate it.  It truly feels like a god-forsaken wasteland of despair.

Yet, when someone bravely dares to sit with us in our own darkness, they are bravely sitting in their own dark and scary place at the same time, and that is empathy – courageously feeling the worst emotions in behalf of someone else.

For bereaved parents, finding true empathy is scarce outside of other bereaved parents.  Someone who has never lost a child simply does not have the capacity to understand.  In other words, it doesn’t get darker than this.

However, I am blessed to have friends who try to show empathy, and sometimes that’s enough.

1. They listen more than they talk.  90% of the time we just need someone to listen (or read) and just be there for us.

2. They don’t try to fix it.  It takes humility to realize they can’t “fix” us.  Some people want to be the ones to make us “feel better” by saying just the right combo of flowery words.  But there is nothing they can say to make us “feel better” about our child being dead.  Absolutely nothing.

3. They don’t use words like “At Least.”  Because there is no “at least” in child loss.  (See video below.)

4. They do say things like “I’m so sorry” or “I’m here for you” or “I love you” (and mean it).  These things are ALWAYS good to say to someone who is going through something awful.  You needn’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing if you stick to these words.  Just make sure you follow it up by being a good friend (see #1).

5. They let us be our broken selves without fear of judgment.  I can’t tell you how grateful I am for friends who have listened through my angry tears and have seen my ugly cry and have heard me say horrible things and acted out in unconventional ways to feel my pain.  They know we (as bereaved parents) are unfixable and unfathomably hurt.  But they see through it all and love us anyway, because ultimately I think they sense our courageousness to simply go on living after the Unthinkable has happened.

Finally, I think the following video best illustrates what empathy truly is, and what it’s not.

May we all practice empathy, and may the pain in our hearts turn to healing.

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The Darkened Shroud and The Bean Trees

A few months ago, a friend recommended a book to me called “The Bean Trees” by Barbara Kingsolver.  After sitting untouched on the shelf for a month, my husband found it in a half-hearted search for something to read.  He blazed through it during our recent beach vacation, and then lent it to his mom, who also read it.  Suddenly the two of them were engaged in a secret discussion, and then invited me to share in the family book club so I could weigh in with my thoughts, too.

While not intended to be a review, this book catches one in a subtle trap of simple words and old fashioned Kentucky slang.  The story is warm yet heartbreaking, and perhaps no one realized just how much I would get lost in the warm glow of a “Southern tale taken West.”  Neither did anyone realize how much I would identify with Esperanza.

She’s a side character with very little dialogue, and throughout most of the story, the reader feels indifferent toward her, then irritated, even frustrated, until her pitiable state is revealed: her very young daughter was kidnapped in their home country of Guatemala, and she has no way of ever finding out her fate.  She takes on the role of a bereaved mother in extreme grief – panic attacks, PTSD, even attempted suicide, until finally the reader is left to believe she finally “freed” herself and found resolution through a turn of events involving the daughter of the main character, Taylor.

When I finished the book and thought I had finished crying, I found my husband in the kitchen one lazy Saturday morning.  We talked about the story, the significance of the “bean trees,” the Kentucky slang, and the characters that strangely reminded us of people we knew in real life.

“I saw myself in Esperanza,” I confessed.

“Yeah,” my husband said sadly.  “I did, too.”

This bothered me so much, I could hardly talk about the book anymore.

While this was a work of fiction, my reality is not a book I can close and put back on the shelf.  The panic attacks I have are real.  They are debilitating, and frustrating to those around me.  I’m the character in the story with all the burdens of baggage, from PTSD to social anxiety to just plain social awkwardness.  And while I’m glad to be alive, honestly there were times I wished I wasn’t.  Nobody should have to feel pain like this.  It’s a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.  An incredibly lonely, isolating, darkened shroud.  An abyss.  A life in ruins.

But I don’t want to be a side character.  I want to be the protagonist.  I want to be the hero.

Some days it feels like a conscious choice, and on other days it feels like an impossible dream.  Lately it feels like loss defines me, written like a bio with my picture attached.  I’m tired of sympathy and pity, but I want do want support and encouragement.  I don’t want the rest of my life to already be buried in a grave.

So I rise up.  I fill my life with good things.  I chase every twinge of happiness, down to small whimsies.  I wrestle with self-pity and defeat it with helping others and showing support to those who are also trying to grow despite harsh conditions.  If nothing else, this darkened shroud is the place I go when I am called to show empathy, and thus it has become more sacred than ever.

Yet I still feel like I have to apologize for the way I stumble through the days, broken and tired and weeping and angry and bitter and haunted . . . and a mess.  “Sorry,” I think to myself in a self-conscious moment after I’ve done something incredibly vulnerable, “I’m just dealing with an unspeakable tragedy is all.”

But I think the most important lesson I’ve learned in the now almost four years, is that I must be patient and kind with myself.  I’m not a character, and this is not a story.  This is my reality, and as painfully harsh as it may seem, I’ve still got growing to do.

And if you’re here because you’re a survivor, or even a spectator, your presence is appreciated.  In the dark abyss of grief, every person with an open heart is like a light.

As long as there is light, I know I will never lose my way.

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pregnant women terrify me, and other confessions

I am ashamed, but it is true.

I can talk to rock stars.  Famous people.  I can even bring myself to look them in the eye and speak what I hope sounds like words.

But I have a radar for pregnant women and women with small children.  Round, full bellies induce panic.  Tiny babies with loud cries sound like music that suddenly turns sad and deteriorates into echoes of madness.  Even older-but-still-small children send me running in the other direction.   I cower in a corner and hide, praying they will all just go away.  Don’t talk to me.  Don’t acknowledge my presence.  Let’s just go on pretending neither of us exist.  Don’t pretend like you don’t want to, either.  I know what I look like to you pregnant moms.  I know I am the cautionary tale.  I am the black cloud that descends on your happiness, a reminder that Sometimes Bad Things Happen, and you’re scared to death it will happen to you, too.

Don’t worry.  You’ll be fine.  That statistic only seemed to be reaching for me.

There is a list somewhere.  A very sad, twisted list that only a person who has lost a child could understand, of all the things that scare me.  They aren’t things that make me simply sad.  They are things that haunt me long after the experience is over, replaying in my mind like a crime scene.

Here are just a few:

Do you have any kids? 

How am I supposed to answer that?  Well, it depends on who is doing the asking.  If we’ve just met, I swallow a rock the size of Texas and say “No.”  If we have already been introduced, and I feel in a sharing mood, I swallow something Moon-sized and say, “No, sadly, we lost our first child” and just hope they don’t come back and say something stupid.  Because stupid comments scare me, too.  Fortunately, I am not the recipient of many of them.

Jokes about dead babies/kids

Yes, these exist.  Hubby and I went to a movie last year and there it was, in all of its insensitive ugliness.  Needless to say, I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the movie.  In fact, I’ve largely tried to forget it.  I can’t even remember what the joke was.  But it left me crying and inconsolable on the way home, haunting me.  Another evening ruined by my depression.

People who try to pass their kids off on me

Now, some people are ignorant.  But some parents are also stupid, and I’m not sure into which category they fit.  I don’t ask questions.  I just secretly hate them for turning me into some kind of curmudgeon who hates children.  Anyone who remembers The Old Me knows I used to love kids.  I used to borrow people’s children, offering to babysit, and having more fun than even the kids themselves.  I used to be a big kid myself.  Turning down the offer to “babysit,” “look after,” “watch,” or otherwise be responsible for someone’s child breaks my heart and makes me want to throw myself in front of a moving train.  After all, do they not know I lost my own?

There are many things on this list.  Things like baby aisles in stores, a visit to the OB/GYN (I HATE THAT PLACE), or worse yet – running into someone who knew me in those six months I was pregnant, but haven’t seen since.  Hopefully, this fear has been put to rest with the passing of time.  But it happened more than once.  And there is no preparing for it.  It is a very awkward, painful conversation involving the question “Hey, didn’t you have a baby?!  Where’s your little one?” and trust me, BOTH parties are humiliated and wished they had never run into each other, and hope they never do again.

Now that I’m writing this, I see clearly why I hate crowds, and meeting new people, and new experiences, and otherwise leaving the house in general.  Because although it has been nearly two years ago, it still feels like yesterday.  It’s amazing Hubby and I can even function at all.

But I can’t live in a box forever, no matter how desperately I want to.  There are things to be done.  People that require some kind of interaction.  And there are events that I must attend, all with a little help, of course.  Help = bourbon.

The last time I was caught off guard was during the rehearsal for my best friend’s wedding.  The wedding party was lined up in the foyer to practice our entrance into the hall and the walk down the aisle.  As the maid of honor, my place was right before the flower girls, two of whom also happened to be my little nieces.  I will not go into the guilt I often experience for being an “absent aunt.”  But they are always so excited to see me, and I try to act excited to see them, too, even though their presence is a reminder that I don’t have kids of my own.

The eldest niece, who is six, proudly declared “I love your necklace.”

She was referring to the heart-shaped pendant on which my little boy’s footprints are engraved, with his name and date of birth on the back, accompanied by his birthstone and a large teardrop-shaped gem.

“Thank you,” I answered sweetly.

“Can I see it?”

I leaned down so she could get a closer look, feeling as if I was about to be beheaded.

The other flower girl (not my niece), who had to have been at least seven or eight, wanted a closer look too.  “Whose footprints are those?” she wanted to know.

“Those belong to my little boy.”

“Where is he?  Is he all grown up?”

Oh, God.  How do I explain this to a child?  I froze, unsure how to proceed.

In a split-second, I decided on the truth.

“No,” I said kindly.  “He died after he was born.”

“Oh,” exclaimed the little girl.  “That happened to my mom.  She had a teeny tiny baby, and when he came out they had to put him in a box, he was so small.  I can tell your baby was little too, because the footprints are so little.”

I supposed this logic made sense to a kid, so I didn’t bother to correct her.  In any case, I wanted out of this terribly tragic discussion, kid or not.  Not only was I trapped in a conversation with two young children, but I was trapped in a conversation with two young children about my dead child.  The roaring in my ears was starting.  I could feel the vacuum of despair growing stronger, and at any moment I would be sucked into the darkness of mind and emotion.

“I miss him very much,” I told both the little girl and my niece.

My six-year-old niece, who had been listening thoughtfully whilst wearing a pained expression on her little face, shifted her feet.  She touched my arm, and the words that came out of her mouth sounded so grown up, and strangely so comforting, that it nearly took my breath away.

“Yes,” she said.  “But we will see him again soon.”

The roaring stopped.  Surprise set in, along with the overwhelming sense of calm.  I was helpless but to pull my little niece into my arms and bite back the tears.

“Yes,” I told her.  “Thank you.  We will.  Soon.  And then you will have another cousin!”

She grinned wildly and squealed with delight.

Someone motioned that it was time to do my practice run down the aisle.  I stood up, turned around, and faced a new challenge: empty chairs that I knew would be filled with faces that Saturday, with all eyes on me.

But I felt, at least temporarily, that the dark cloud that hangs over me was removed.  That dark cloud that cripples me into isolation, and scares other people into silence.  With a few soft, heartfelt words, a six-year-old blew it away like it was nothing but dandelion fluff.

I was touched and amazed and felt a sense of rejuvenation.  I can do this.  I can get through this.  With enough help, enough kind words, and just a little empathy.  It goes such a long way with me.  It doesn’t even take much.  Any attempt to reach out to me, to save me from that vacuum of despair.  Any and all acts of kindness, even the little things, mean so much.  So much.

I’ve been so blessed to receive these little kindnesses, from friends I’ve known for years to friends I’ve only begun to get to know.  Even veritable strangers have extended this kindness.  It always catches me off guard.  It always surprises me.  And it is always cherished for the saving power that it has and is.

And it’s funny how sometimes it comes from the people I’d least expect.