During our kitchen renovation last year, we moved one of our favorite paintings out of the way, but stupidly not off the floor. And when the reno was done, we clearly didn't hang it back up fast enough because one day we discovered the glass had shattered.
My husband had given me a bunch of old maps of our neighborhood for Christmas '06 -- two months before Maddy died -- and told me the map store guy recommended a small, "doesn't really have a storefront" framer. Said he was the best in town. Of course, I never took my maps in, they just sat and collected dust, but I dug up the name of the framer when I needed my picture fixed two years later.
I called the number, and was greeted with a recorded message: he was currently scaling back his hours due to his wife's death. He left an email on the message, so I sat down and composed what I thought was a fairly simple note: You were highly recommended; I have this painting with broken glass; and I'm so very sorry to hear of your wife's death. I may have added a sentence that I understood completely the need to scale back hours, and realizing that I was a new customer anyway, I would come in at his convenience.
He called back within hours, and after arranging a time to bring in my picture, he said "Thank you so much for your words about my wife." I said again how sorry I was to hear of his loss, and he went on to tell me it was after a struggle with cancer. I asked how old she was -- in her 50s. Ugh.
When I went into the store, he had a small picture of his wife up on his desk. We chatted again, I asked how he was doing ("You're very understanding," he said appreciatively at one point), we talked about her battle. And then the story spilled out: as it so happens my house, for a few decades in the mid-1900s, was a school of sorts. He saw my address, and confirmed which house was mine, and it turned out he went to this school. He eventually taught at this school. He met his wife at this school, in the building that was now my home.
My heart broke in two. I invited him to please come over some time -- we'd love for him to walk around and point out what was where as he remembered it, and place some of the ghosts in their appropriate rooms. But to think, if I had not been so engulfed in my own grief, I would've made this trip much earlier -- two years earlier -- and they both could've come over and relived something together. For some reason I felt miserable. (During this entire discussion I never once mentioned Maddy, though I may have alluded to "a personal tragedy.") We spoke some more, he fixed the glass on my painting, and I have yet to take in my maps. I need to call him.
My mom was really quiet on the other end of the line. I asked how she was doing, and she said, "I guess I'm just getting used to the idea that my mom isn't here anymore." For some reason, I blurted out, "Grief isn't linear."
Which sounded too pat. So I started gently explaining that in my opinion (trying desperately not to sound like I had written this a million times in a million venues), that perhaps you went through the stages, but not with any rhyme or reason. It wasn't better, better, better every day until suddenly . . . . all done! You went through a stage, sometimes really fast, but maybe you circled back around and did it again a few months later. I pulled out my traffic metaphor: sometimes you're in the express lane, sometimes you find yourself stuck in traffic. You can be humming along only to make a turn and find yourself lost, or in a dead end.
"That makes a world of sense," said my mother. "Thank you."
I discovered a neighbor's father had died during August, my personal month from hell with the endless houseguests and my own grandmother dying. I ran over a card on which I wrote (after saying how sorry I was) that I was looking forward to hearing some stories about his father the next time we got together. And to please call if he needed anything.
I have given up thinking that I am to find or gain something positive from Maddy's death. It was brutal and ugly and senseless, and I've decided I really don't need any "silver lining" in order to move forward. Maybe it will slowly hit me one day, maybe not, and I'm fine with that. I've stopped looking or caring, in any case.
But some things have certainly changed in my behavior and mind's eye, and some of those things I would venture to say for the better.
I can now talk about death. I am completely comfortable talking to people now about all things grim reaper.
There is no way I could've had any of the above conversations prior to three years ago -- I would've been tongue-tied, perhaps mumbled an "I'm sorry," and maybe listened, but probably in hopes they would soon change the subject so I wouldn't have to. I remember standing around a funeral for a father, a distant relative, and being so crushed for his wife and children, and having absolutely nothing to say. Nothing. Seeing the vacant miles of space behind his teenaged-children's eyes, and not knowing how to acknowledge that I saw it, too. Just standing arms akimbo, feeling very lost and removed.
Now, I'm right there with them. I listen attentively, as long as they need to talk. I ask questions. I don't state platitudes. I am not so bold as to say I am empathetic -- I don't know cancer, I have never lost a spouse, my parents are still alive. I only have the briefest of experiences with dementia, and second- and third-hand relationships with hospice. But I know grief. I know the contours, the expressions, the varieties -- each with a differently shaped leaf. I can sense now when to simply be quiet, when people don't want to talk, and when they need to dump. I am no longer fearful or awkward around graveyards, or DNR discussions. I am no longer afraid when people cry. I know this. This I can do, for them.
I can -- usually -- rather easily feel what other babyloss parents are feeling, even if the circumstances are wildly different and their reaction is polar opposite from my own. I know the language now, all those words about "loss" and "never," "why" and "beautiful," but mostly "sad," "crushed," "hopeless." Certainly it hurts to read of new deaths in some respects, but I feel a sense of obligation to bear witness to the stories, to roll the name(s) off my tongue, and simply (virtually) sit with the parent for a few moments. A few moments -- that's all it hurts me any more, but I know for them the moments will stretch and multiply and crawl until it seems they're drowning. It's the least I can do now that I know I can do it.
Some would say this is a skill, or even a gift, that I didn't possess before, and I suppose I should be thankful and consider it a positive consequence to my own journey through hell. But there are days I wish I didn't have it, this ability to sit and be with death, and that I still felt fear, awkwardness, and taciturn bewilderment. Because it would mean none of this ever happened.
Have you experienced a death or another person's grief (outside of babyloss blogs) since the loss of your child(ren)? How did you handle it? How did it make you feel? Is it easier or harder or unchanged the way you acknowledge others' loss?