The Rule of Thirds

“Keep in mind the rule of thirds:  one-third of your friends will be supportive of your need to mourn, one-third will make you feel worse, and one-third will neither help nor hinder."

--From Alan D. Wolfelt, Healing A Parent’s Grieving Heart:  100 Practical Ideas After Your Child Dies

A good friend who lost her husband very suddenly to a brain tumor in ’04 sent me this book last year after Maddy died.  She liked the “Spouse” version, and being cut of a similar cynical edgy sports-lovin’ foul-mouthed cloth as I, thought I might appreciate Child version.  I did, it’s the griefbook I appreciated most, and still find myself picking it up a year later.  One thing I really like about this book is that every page is a topic with a few bullet points, so you can open it randomly and discover something, and if something sits wrong on a particular day you can just flip to the next page and see if that feels better.  (Or put it down, and pick it up months later.  I find it to be rather timeless that way.)  No need to sit and feel like you need a few hours to go through something linear.  I also like that, for-all-intents-and-purposes, it’s genderless and can be applied equally to a husband or wife -- and let’s face it, very little out there on this subject can be.

I'm sure I read this particular passage long ago, during the first pass, but wish it had stuck.  It did not.  And so I am constantly amazed at those thirds who fall at the ends of the spectrum, the ones who surprise me with their understanding and kindness, and the ones who floor me with their inability to show even a modicum of compassion.  The other surprise for me was that this “third rule” included family.

Let’s start with the innocuous middle third.  There will always be those who will treat your life-altering experience as a vacation:  you were gone for a while, you came back, maybe shared some pictures and stories, people mingled around the water cooler for a few days to follow up, and then it got dropped and life moved on.  At some times I’m a bit taken aback at what appears to be complete ignorance (“Did I tell you?  You do know that my kid died, right?”) and yet 30 seconds later am so fucking relieved to be deeply involved in a conversation about how maybe I should pay attention to the  Penguins in the playoffs this year.  Aback that they wouldn’t say anything, relieved that they said nothing, all the while rather pleased that they don’t view me as some bad jinxy hex that needs avoided altogether (although I may be missing some crucifix and garlic waving when I turn to leave).  And frankly I’m at the point where I’m rather pleased that I can go places and talk to people WHO KNOW about things like books and dogs and whether the Steelers did right in the draft (another quarterback?  really?).

I’m constantly surprised by the bookends.  I’m blessed to have some very good friends and family in my life that I knew would be supportive, and they are, but I’m always so impressed by how much.  These are people who have such grace, they make it seem so effortless to say the right thing at exactly the right time.   I end up thanking them, they are just so meaningful and classy, and they look at me as though I’m thanking them for breathing or combing their hair – they simply can’t understand what it is they’re doing that warrants praise when it is simply how they are.  And I realize:  I probably wouldn’t be one of these people if I were on the other side of this mess.  I’d be tongue-tied, never knowing what to say, not horribly sure of my own emotional sanity, and probably wind up in the innocuous middle chatting about the NFL draft.  

But I know I give thanks, and am so surprised by the outpouring of kindness, because of the other end of the spectrum where people shock me with their unsympathetic cruelty.  I don’t think in a million years I would’ve thought that someone could turn my baby dying against me, but indeed, some have.  If someone had told me the day after Maddy died that friends and (gasp) family would not just behave awkwardly around us but actually treat us poorly I would’ve scoffed.  No way.  People are not that stupid and cruel, are they?  (are they?)

Um, yes, gentle reader, they are.  It really began in earnest around six months after.  And suddenly  people began leaving signs in fluorescent paint:  enough.  Stop.  You’re wallowing.  Party poopers.  Isn’t it time to move on?  How dare you suck the life out of someone else’s joyful event.  Don’t want to call me?  Well, two can play at the game.  Apparently six months is about the time when the people of little patience move into that end of the spectrum, and begin a not-too-subtle dance of pushing you, hurrying you, belittling you, ignoring you.  I think it dawns on others, if you’ve ignored them for this long for other reasons (say, they have children that would’ve been the age of your deadone and they haven’t been horribly involved anyway, staying in the middle third for so long), that you’re avoiding them.  No, you’re angry at them.  They develop a complete psychosis about how you must feel about them, without them asking you.  And if you’re unlucky, someday they’ll dump it on you – like one of my neighbors did.

Perhaps most surprising and upsetting to me was that family fell into this category of the “make you feel worse” third.  I should add a disclaimer here that I do have a couple family members – one who I assumed would handle the situation poorly given past experience, and another who had a baby shortly after who we ceased contact with – who have flabbergasted me with their solid appearance in the front end of the spectrum.  They are patient, articulate, compassionate, and the latter even defends us against the detractors despite the fact that we haven’t seen them much since the birth of their son.   But to think your own flesh and blood would grow tired of your grief -- tire of hearing of their relative!  Maddy!  Don’t you miss her too? --  impatiently try and hustle you along through the alleged grief steps (“They must be in that anger phase”), wonder if you’d ever snap out of it.   And then do things like fail to show up at a memorial service for your daughter after promising they’d be there, refuse to answer your calls (even on holidays) after telling them they were disappointed, and as Julia so eloquently put it a few days ago:  refuse to check their shit at the door.  It’s not about them, none of this.

I’m torn; while I’m relieved to look around the blogverse and realize other people’s families let them down too and we’re not the only dysfunction to arise from the ashes of a deadbaby, I’m also saddened that it seems to be such a pattern.  There’s a dissertation to be written here, about the pressures such tragedies put on extended families and how they deal with them long term.   Are they more invested in our happiness than our friends, neighbors and coworkers?  Or does the law of averages simply say that a third of the people you run with, no matter their relation to you, will fall over there, off the edge into a pit of selfishness and denial and ignorance?

But when they get me down, I flip over and revel in the wonderful part of the spectrum again, and wonder why it is that everyone isn’t wired like that.  I would like to think behaving that way is human.  It’s clearly not.