We sat across from her, an arrangement of flowers and a small analog clock sitting on the table between us. She was young, only a few years older than myself, pretty with a well-tailored black dress and an almost preposterously large diamond ring on her finger. Her office overlooked part of a very famous street in Los Angeles where the wealthy spend ungodly amount of money on handbags and diamond-studded watches. She was a psychologist or therapist, I can't remember which now, that we found via a referral from our OB after George died. There were five names on that list and I picked hers from the lot solely because she was the only woman. I naively believed that her sex would somehow imbue her with special counseling superpowers. I should have known better.
Sitting stiffly in the overstuffed couch, we told her all about how our life had gone from blissfully happy to utterly broken. I did most of the talking (between wiping away tears and my runny nose) while Leif sat beside me and quietly held my hand. I relayed the events leading to George's death and watched her reaction to it all with an observant eye. She furrowed her brow at the right times and nodded sympathetically when I had difficulty maintaining my train of thought. She said all the right things and reacted in all the right ways, yet something about the blankness in her eyes made me feel as if instead of talking about the death of a much loved baby we were discussing my disappointment over being passed over for a job promotion. It took all of ten minutes to conclude that she was an experienced actor and that she had little empathy for the ugly circumstance which had brought us in to see her. Forty minutes later it was over and I was writing a check to her for an absurd amount of money, thankful to be done with experience.
Back in the car we agreed never to go back to see her.
After that miserable experience I threw out all the other counseling referrals we were given and turned to the Internet. I tried every combination of words to find counselors who specialized in pregnancy and neonatal losses. Grief + infant + death + depression + counseling = the saddest collection of words I've ever Googled. The results were abundant and spanned the spectrum of mental health workers: from family therapists to psychiatrists and even naturopaths. I must have looked through those results dozens of times before gathering up enough courage to pick one and make the call to set up an appointment. Given how badly our first experience went it still surprises me that I somehow mustered the bravery (desperation, more likely) to even make another attempt.
Thus the Internet threw me a lifeline -like it has done for me on so many occasions since we lost George- and brought me Anne.
Anne was the antithesis of the first woman we had earlier met with. Her warmness was as welcoming as the first therapist’s disingenuousness was off-putting. Even their appearances were starkly contrasted. Instead of an expensive black dress and hair slicked back in a tight ponytail, Anne wore casual white slacks, a pastel sweater and a string of understated pearls on her neck. She smiled easily and it never felt inappropriate or forced. From the moment we began talking it felt like a homecoming and for the next eighteen months it became my refuge.
When I first started seeing Her I felt alone in my grief. As much as I had tried to convey to friends and family how lost I was or how deeply I missed my baby it was a language completely foreign to them. It wasn’t as if they didn't try to understand but there was something fundamentally lacking in their ability to interpret my words and behaviors in the wake of George’s death. Once I wrote in a blog post that it was incredibly painful for me to be faced with images of carefree pregnant women and a pregnant friend took deep offense. It made me feel awful, both because I had hurt someone who had been a good friend, but also because it made so very clear to me how alien my experience was to those around me. That was the last time I ever wrote or said anything of that nature outside of the safety of Anne’s office (and later the safety of private conversations with other baby loss people) for fear of offending someone who was not fluent in the language of loss and did not understand the consequences of post-traumatic stress. After a time I learned to hold back my words for fear that they would be falsely translated into insults or that they would make the impression that I was more depressed then I actually was.
It was incredibly isolating and not just a little discouraging.
To Anne, when I told her how much I hated hearing about other women’s pregnancies or how deeply I burned with envy at seeing birth announcements, I was completely normal. To a grief counselor I was just mourning the loss of my baby, my pregnancy, my previous life, and my self-image. She understood my language and there was no need for me to make any effort to translate for her. I did not have to soften the edges of my sharp and sometimes cutting thoughts. Every week I saw her it was an emotional and physical relief just to sit with someone and not need to filter or mold every word out of my mouth to either A) convey how devastated I was or B) avoid making myself sound like a black-hearted monster.
One of the most valuable things I learned from our time together was how to accept that no matter how eloquent the words I used to describe my grief there was always going to be something lost in translation for those people who were fortunate enough to have so far been spared any real tragedy in their lives. They would never ever totally understand (how could they) what I was feeling but the good ones worth keeping around would make an effort to try. She assured me that there would be people that I would find walking the same long and arduous road that I was on and they would not need any translation. There would be people who understood. I just had to keep my eyes and my heart open along the way.
Anne was the first person I came across after George died who gave me hope that I would not be alone in my grief forever. I found those other people she told me I would find, other souls who were slugging through the same muddy road as I was: other grieving souls who would become friends and for whom no translation was needed. Hope is an amazing gift.
Have you seen a grief counselor? Was it a positive experience? Was there someone else who you felt understood your grief when no one else seemed to? Has it been frustrating for you to have people not understand or misconstrue your words and/or behaviors in response to your child's or children's deaths?