“Legitimate” Grief — or Why it Still Matters

[NOTE: This three-year-old post was imported from an old blog of mine. This month marks 13 years since the day I reference below, not ten.]


December 18, 2013, marks ten years since the worst day of my life. I can’t believe it’s been a decade since I lost my first child, since I spent the better part of a night in the emergency room, walking out into the freezing pre-dawn air in borrowed short-sleeved scrubs (my coat was with the rest of my clothing in a large plastic bag over my shoulder; don’t think about it too hard). The cold bit at my cheeks, I suppose, but I was too shell-shocked to feel it or to understand why my teeth chattered.

I threw the clothes I’d worn away. I could have saved them, probably, unlike the child I had carried for three months.

I have never felt so helpless, so completely and abjectly not enough, unable, incapable…as when I comforted my mother on the phone the next day after sharing my news. She so wanted to be a grandmother, and I realized in those unblinking horror-filled moments (fueled in part by poorly-worded comments the ER doctor had made about me to a nurse just outside the exam room) that I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to give her that.

I hadn’t wanted children, growing up. I was never one of those “let’s play house” girls. But when I discovered I was pregnant, after I had a chance to process the unexpected news, I was overjoyed. A whole new life path unfolded in front of me, one I hadn’t known I wanted until that moment.  Two months later, the dream, like the child within my womb, was dead. Gone so suddenly…

But that was ten years ago. Ten years. Surely I have “gotten over it” by now! After all, I have three awesome children; the first one doesn’t really count and barely existed anyway…right?

You know, I was originally going to write something to that effect, something people-pleasing and only tinged with wistfulness for what never came to pass. I mean, everything works out the way it “should,” and “everything happens for a reason.” (Can’t count the number of times I heard those in the weeks following my loss.)

If you have children, look at (or envision) one of them. Now picture your life without him or her.

“It’s not the same,” you say. “This child, I have come to know. I’ve held them in my arms for countless hours, watched them grow, watched their future begin to unfold. What you lost,” you think, “was merely the possibility of these things.”

It is, somehow, a loss that is LESS THAN. A loss that doesn’t really “count.” And if ten years is not enough time to erase that little “false start,” then perhaps I am heavily psychologically damaged in other ways, or just plain crazy. Maybe I should “see someone” about that, because feeling sad at this point is “patently ridiculous.” (All things I have also been told over the years.) A well-meaning friend told me a couple of years after the fact, “You really shouldn’t think about that anymore. It’s over. You’ll make yourself miserable.” The message was, why dwell on a forever-ago loss that didn’t really change anything, or (insinuated at the time) that actually made my life easier given the timing?

Why remember at all?

Because alongside the sorrow, there is anger — even as there is empathy and compassion for those who caused it. We say and do things that are further wounding or profoundly unhelpful to those who are grieving because we as a society do NOT talk about grief. It is a taboo subject once the mourners have gone home, almost a shameful secret…something inconvenient to others, something best swept under the rug. This is perhaps doubly true for a loss like miscarriage. There is no funeral (generally), no cut-and-dried finality. One day you’re pregnant; the next you’re lying bleeding in a hospital, with your once-bright dreams reduced to tears and ashes. I’m not bitter, but this is how it is. And how it is, sucks out loud.

I don’t know that I would even have the courage to put my thoughts and feelings out there like this, if it wasn’t for a good friend grieving the loss of his wife (also a dear friend of mine), who freely admits that his sorrow has not abated, even as life goes on.

For ten thousand personal and society-wide reasons, we are all reluctant to say, “I still hurt.”

One of my biggest reasons for not admitting my own pain more often is that, as mentioned above, my kind of loss is quieter and is treated as profoundly “less than.” Less important, less meaningful, less worthy of notice or sorrow. The message is hammered home, echoing from the rafters and every corner, so often and so well that sometimes I start to believe it — and that is a HUGE problem.

Loss is not a phallus-measuring contest. One person loses a grandfather, one a cousin, one a brother, a child, a best friend, an unborn baby, a spouse…loss is loss. I’ll say that again. Loss is loss, and our own personal deepest grief, our most profound loss, is not measurable by anyone else’s yardstick of validity or by their own deepest sorrow. It just isn’t. Grief has no expiration date and there is no “grief litmus test” to determine its legitimacy.

We have to stop [even inadvertently] making people feel bad for acutely feeling the depth of their losses, for grieving beyond whatever arbitrary window of time society feels like imposing today. Rather, we need to be cognizant of the beauty of loving someone so much that their loss leaves an indelible mark on our souls, and we need to approach others’ long-term grief with reverence and respect, with an open heart, accepting whatever that means for our interactions, for however long it does.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for me, I am NOT miserable.

My life is pretty darned good, and for that I’m grateful. I’m usually pretty happy; it’s my nature. I have three healthy children who keep me on my toes and also keep me laughing, and I love them more than life a thousand times over. I am delighted to be their mom.

I also am and always will be the mother of the child who is not here. And I admit it: I wish the sixth and final chair around my table wasn’t empty. I wish my six-passenger car was full every time we went somewhere, instead of having room for one guest. I wish, I wish, I wish. And that’s OK.

Grief these days takes the ever-present form of remembrance. This child is only alive in my remembering, after all. My thoughts are not constantly centered on or even touching her, but I do think of her often. Tears come only rarely, but sometimes in torrents when some little thing hits me at just the right time or in just the right frame of mind, as I wonder who she would be, what she would look like, everything about her. I clutch her name, the name nobody knows, closer to my heart in those moments.

Sometimes it’s like that, a sucker-punching sadness that she never got to experience any of this, that she never knew how much I loved and wanted her. I will never apologize or feel shame for those feelings.

More often than that, though, it’s a beautiful, brief musing and reflection. I might idly wonder what her favorite cookie would be as I bake with my three kiddos, and it brings a smile to my face as I suppose she’d be just like her sisters there. Then the moment is past and I stir the batter, laughing at a goofy expression on my son’s face or something hilarious he said, but my heart is a bit brightened for having had the thought.

In these small ways, she lives on, and this is me telling her in the only way I can that her too-brief life meant something. She counted, she had value, she MATTERED. She matters still.

It all still matters.