Grief. It’s a word we hear a lot. Mostly in reference to the loss of a loved one. In fact the google definition of the “formal” use of the word grief is “deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death.” Sometimes it gets thrown around in ways I’ve come to perceive as lightly, which can strike a complicated cord with me, now having a real experience with grief. Or in that phrase “(s)he’s really giving me grief”, which upon reflection, I really don’t get. The google definition of grief captures that usage as the “informal” usage, defining it in that context to mean “trouble, annoyance, bother, irritation”, etc. Grief is a LOT more than “a hard time”, an “annoyance” or a “bother”…I really think we should find a new word for those casual references and just leave grief for the more formal meaning. In that sense of the word, I had assumed I’d known grief previously. I was deeply sorrowful when my grandfathers each passed away, but I think too young to experience the depth and complexity of true grief. I’ve been deeply sorrowful over others who have passed, but perhaps not close enough to those people to be totally consumed by grief.
One way I know this experience has impacted me positively is that I understand and have a compassion now for others’ grief, whether it be the loss of a child, parent, sibling, or other close relative or friend. I hope this post will resonate with a wider audience than just other loss moms.
In my experience, grief is a lot more than an emotion. At least any other emotion I’ve experienced. It’s like a whole other being that takes up residence in your mind and body, sometimes controlling them completely. It is ever-present, ever-evolving, and often surprising. It’s impossible to define, but here are some ways my grief has manifested itself that have surprised me:
- What I’ve come to call the July/August fog. Time never passed so quickly in my life, yet I was doing next to nothing. References to the second half of July and the month of August basically mean nothing to me, and when someone talks about an event or something we did together during that time, my mind kind of goes blank. If I’m reminded specifically, I can recall doing certain things but only in broad terms, the specifics are totally lost.
- General forgetfulness. I’ve become horribly forgetful in my daily life too. I know I repeat myself to people all the time (and have been called out…gently of course), and I forget things people tell me. Both of those things make me really uncomfortable in conversations sometimes. I hate it because I used to pride myself on being the kind of friend that remembered what was going on in someone’s life and asked them about it. It’s not that I’ve lost interest, I truly just don’t form memories right now the way I used to, and I’m hoping that part of my brain will re-build itself. I also will never accomplish anything unless it’s on a to-do list or I do it the moment I think of it/am asked to do it. Someone tells me to do something, or I think of something I need to do, and I make a mental note, and my brain immediately puts it in the shred bin. It’s like that fleeting thought was all the room my brain had for that item, and as soon as it moves on to another thought the prior one is just erased. It jars me every time I realize I’ve forgotten something…it’s hard to explain, but it’s a phenomenon so different than any other type of forgetfulness I’ve experienced before. So lists and/or immediate action have become very important if I want to accomplish something time-sensitive or that someone is expecting of me.
- Somewhere I read that grief makes you physically cold, and it was like a lightbulb. Now I know why I’m constantly under blankets, bundled up, and I literally can’t deal with the winter weather (moreso than normal)! People have made reference to August and this past fall as having been hot, and it just did not register with me – I was seriously walking Maggie in sweat pants in August and completely un-phased.
- As I’ve built back up to more activities and busier days, I’ve had to re-define for myself the meaning of “productive” and learn to stop asking as much of myself as I used to. If all I accomplish in a day is a couple loads of laundry and preparing my/our meals, that might be my limit. If I get together with a friend for a conversation or have an event (like a doctor’s appointment or going to Jacob’s gravesite) that makes me emotional, all bets are off for cooking dinner, cleaning, or getting anything else done the rest of the day. Afternoon naps have become key to achieving any level of productivity in the evenings. Sometimes it’s the cumulative effect of a few days of going strong, resulting in a day or two mostly spent on the couch. In the past (even a couple months ago) I would have been very hard on myself and called this a “failure,” but I’m learning to be kinder to myself and appreciate what I DID do, and to remember that for most of these things, the world won’t end and no one will die if they wait until tomorrow. And as long as no one else dies on my watch, I’ll consider it a win at this point.
- In an odd way, I think I’ve become more even-keeled emotionally the majority of the time. I don’t get as worked up over little things as I used to (i.e., anxiety over Maggie peeing in the house and spiraling into feeling like I’m not qualified to be a dog owner if I can’t remember to let her out). I think grief (as it has developed, this was not the case in the very beginning when anything could set me off) has given me a sort of numb outer shell that has me coasting over the little bumps in the road of life that would have had me gasping and white-knuckling the wheel in the past. It’s just not worth my energy to freak out over the little things. HOWEVER, these little things can add up to reach a critical mass, or something bigger can happen to trigger me emotionally, and it all bubbles over, sending me into anxiety or sadness or darkness more intense than I experienced in the past. Maybe all my heightened emotional energy gets spent during these episodes, requiring the numbness to survive the rest of the time.
- A lot of the time I feel alone/weird/like an outcast who no one can truly understand. It is important to recognize that this is not for lack of friends and family who have been very dedicated in trying to include me, find activities that make me feel comfortable and safe, and give me the opportunity to express my grief. But I think it’s just inevitable. Thankfully these feelings grow fewer and farther between the more time that passes since Jacob’s birth and death, but to some extent I think they will always be with me. The reality is, no matter how hard devoted friends and family members try to walk with me and understand what I’m going through, no one (except another loss mom) is going to truly know what it’s like to be a mom who loses her baby. And frankly, though the commonalities I discover with other loss moms I barely know never cease to amaze me, no other loss mom is going to know exactly what it’s like to be ME living without MY baby. Group settings are super hard for me. I can make small talk or have generally happy conversations one-on-one pretty easily, but it’s hard for me to enter into those types of conversations in a group for some reason. It’s like I hear everyone telling their funny or happy stories, and mostly I even enjoy hearing them, but I don’t feel like I have a whole lot to add in that department. I just can’t help but struggle to relate when there really hasn’t been a whole lot that’s been light or easy about the last several months of my life. As Erik and I were at brunch this past weekend, discussing what we were going to say to an Ohio State journalism student coming to interview us about baby loss, I was distracted by the couple at the table next to us. They seemed to be on a first date, talking about things like celebrity crushes and first kiss stories. They were cracking each other up. I wondered if they were catching snippets of our conversation too, and what they thought if they were. I wondered if WE would ever talk about such light-hearted, trivial things again.
- Sadness over secondary losses. I’ve learned that when a grief-inducing event (in my case losing my son) shakes you to your core, you experience a lot of what I would call “secondary losses.” I don’t know if I read that term somewhere, or just made it up, but what I mean is things like: the loss of the “old me” that was more carefree and light-hearted (I know, if you know me well carefree isn’t exactly the first word that would have ever come to mind, but it’s all relative), the loss of the innocence of pregnancy and the ability to look at anyone’s pregnancy with pure hope and joy, the loss of the “it would never happen to me” mentality (which I don’t think I ever had to a large degree, but now I have to consciously work to not fixate on the worst-case-scenarios in many situations), and the loss of pure, unbridled happiness (I’ve seen past pictures of myself and thought “will I ever smile like that again,” “will that girl ever be back”?). I do have hope that the rough edges of these “secondary losses” will smooth with time, but for now they are very noticeable and, not to the extent of my grief over Jacob, but still, painful in their own rights.
Forgetfulness, cold, numbness, exhaustion, isolation and awareness of secondary losses have become commonplace in my life, which strikes me as so weird when I think of who I used to be. Those examples definitely don’t give a full picture of my grief, but they are the ones that come to mind as the most unexpected or surprising. They are the big differences I see in myself that no one could have prepared me for.
With this post, I hope to inspire others to feel free to talk about their grief. Like the above quote says, grief is just another form of love…the flip side when a great love has been lost. No one would expect you to hide your love, so no one should expect you to hide your grief either. Have you had an experience with grief (not limited to child loss) that impacted you in surprising ways? If you want to, please share in the comments!