"How the fuck do you think I am?"
How many times have you wanted to scream that? Alternatively, how many times have you wanted to meet their eyes, all calm, cool, and collected, and say that? Just say it-- no forced smile, no nothing. No other escape routes we seem to want to provide. How many times?
And how many times have you actually said it?
Why is that, you think?
We've had some incredible conversations here at Glow the last little while. It's not that we haven't had them before-- we nearly always do. But the last batch, the last month or so, they seem to intertwine. A funny thing-- even after the thesis of this post came to me, a couple of weeks ago now, its themes kept echoing in new posts and in comments. (Or maybe it's just that once you buy a red car you start noticing them everywhere. I don't know-- you tell me.)
A quick mental experiment for you. Ready? Ok. So you are at a small informal gathering. Beer and hot dogs, that kind of thing. Elitist that I am, I am having a Leffe Brune, slowly, since I am enjoying every little sip. (Hey, it's my mental experiment. Just because I haven't had a real one of these in years is no reason not to throw one into a hypothetical, right?) And what are you drinking? So anyway, it's now like an hour and a half into the party, and who should show up but NM, with her three months old sleeping peacefully in the stroller, of course. She's a very nice person, and you have nothing against her. She apologizes for being late and goes on to say that she just doesn't seem to get anywhere on time anymore. Or into the shower, for that matter, most days.
This is now the part of the exercise where I ask you a question. Here goes: what do you think NM hears in return?
Personally, I am hearing encouragement and gentle teasing. War stories, of course. All driving at the same essential point-- oh, dear, a shower is a luxury, sleep is a dream, you are a blabbering mess starved for adult conversation but lacking mental capacity to carry one out. And it's all supposed to be like this. C'mon, taking care of a baby is hard work.
Sounds about right? Ok, so let me tweak the scenario a bit. The woman late to the party is BM, and her baby died three months ago. She apologizes for being late and goes on to say that she just doesn't seem to get anywhere on time anymore. Or into the shower, for that matter, most days.
Next question: how do you figure she's treated? And no fair making this a Glow reunion party-- this is just your regular old summer gathering.
I'm seeing a range of reactions. A couple of people look away, perhaps exchanging meaningful glances. Somebody, I am sure, attempts to engage her in conversation about the weather and local sports teams. If she's particularly unlucky, someone might want to sympathize by saying that her own three year old still wants so much mommy time that she has a hard time getting to the shower on weekend mornings. I wonder if someone actually tells her that she's lucky she can sleep in if she needs to. I wonder, also, whether the very concerned take her for a walk to tell her that she really needs to pull herself together, and that the people who just said those things that made her cringe? They meant well, and she's just being oversensitive. Or maybe they just whisper these things behind her back, shooting sideway glances at her, as she nurses her beer in the corner, looking a bit out of it to be honest, the poor dear.
Pity. I don't know about you, but what I'd really like to do it to tell the person pitying me just where and just how deep to shove it. Pity is one of the very few things about bereavement that make me certifiable angry. I don't want pity. I want empathy. I want it to be a genuine and universal response at that party to tell BM that it's all ok, that of course she's having a hard time, that grieving is hard work, and it's all so very new still. And yes, I also want world peace and a pony. Why do you ask?
I've known for a long time that I hate pity. But I've believed it to be all about me. I thought it devalued me, discounted me, separated me from the one doing the pitying. I still think that. But now I think there's more to it. I think it's also about how I want the worth of my child to be seen, how I want him to be valued.
I asked all of you here about self-care, and in the comments there ensued a conversation about putting on make up as some sort of war mask, a face to present to the world, to hide behind. Something to make yourself look presentable, functional. Sane?
Within days of that conversation, our very own Bon found herself at the center of a large and swirling shitstorm. See, Bon wrote a letter. A very reasonable and articulate letter to the hospital where Finn was born and where he died only hours later. She asked them to temper the looky at these incredible survivors here, don't you just admire their spunk, pluck, and tenaciousness tone of their fundraising literature when such literature is sent to bereaved families. (Can I get an Amen? And thank you.)
So what do you suppose happened when CBC picked up the story? If you said that the tone of the article (now toned well the hell down following pushback) made Bon out to be a fragile and possibly ranty woman on the lookout for perceived injustices to stomp her feet at, and that a bunch of readers piled on with comments to the same effect, suggesting, you know, grief counselling for the poor sad woman, clearly out of her mind with grief, ding-ding-ding you win. Grief counselling. To learn to, you know, manage your grief. To learn to contain it. To stop letting it pollute polite conversation. (To be clear-- I am not knocking grief counselling. I am knocking the people who believe that it graduates fixed people, happy people, completely over their grief, and ready to fully rejoin society, already in progress.)
A somewhat funny thing happened as the comments rolled on. A link to the original letter got posted. People came to stand up for Bon and to push back. And some of the knee-jerkers even clicked over to read the letter. And some even said something to the effect of "oh, well, the letter is reasonable." And aren't we all glad it met with their eventual approval?
And so here's my new hypothesis. I think we try to act like we have it together because we need to be seen as sane. Because in-sane people are easy to dismiss.
She's just insane with grief, can you imagine?
You can pity the insane and walk on by. It's totally allowed. You can even judge them. They are the other, not you, not one of the normals. You don't have to try her grief on in your mind. She's clearly lost it, and you would never let yourself fall apart like that. I mean, sad things happen all the time, but it's been months now. You'd think she'd be better by now, you know?
Sane people, on the other hand, need to be taken seriously. We interact with them. We're supposed to listen to what they say. Pay attention.
And so I think that some part of our need to be seen as sane is not about us. Not about our pride being hurt if we are pitied. Not about being infuriated because we are patronized with idiotic advice on how to make it all better. I think that some part of this is about the need to have our children, these little people we are grieving, be seen as profoundly cherished. Grieved by crazy people, they are invisible. Grieved by articulate sane people who are still hurting, they are suddenly important. Worthy.
I think we hold it together so that when we choose to talk about it, we are not dismissed. I think one of the things we most want others to understand is that our grief is not an overreaction, that our love for the person who died warrants the grief, that it's messy as all get out, but that the mess too is normal. Not an overreaction. Not an overreaction. NOT an overreaction.
Tash once found a sentence in her medical records: "the parents have been grieving appropriately." Yeah, I see your eyebrow. Mine did that too. So glad the white coats approve, right? But as much as it stings delivered like that, as a judgement, even if a positive judgement, I think I might want that on a t-shirt-- I am grieving appropriately. Now shut up, stop judging, and listen.
What about you? How much of your grief do you let others see? And what happens when you do?