I teach biology. Which means that in an average workday I can be counted on to discuss properties of living things, ask students whether something we're talking about is alive, expound, as I frequently do, on why and how life requires energy input from outside the system, and generally utilize words rooted in the word "life" roughly bazillion times. I am good at this thing. And most of the time, I am good at staying with the immediate subject matter, even in my head. While I am talking of these things, my mind doesn't replay scenes or talk to me of how quickly alive can turn to not. Not that things like that don't happen to me anymore. They do, just not usually at work. Not, usually, triggered by work.

Except. Except every time I teach Intro, there is this one day, the Population Ecology day. The day I talk about survivorship curves. And the funny thing is, given that I just told you these things bring my life right into the classroom, funny thing is that I love survivorship curve day, and I love survivorship curves.

Even the whole tossed salad of personal and professional aside, I am sure such strong attachment to things inanimate is ever-so-slightly weird. It's ok, you can say it-- I can take it and I know you love me anyway. Yes, I fly my nerd flag at all times, but even I can appreciate that one might maybe, possibly, however unlikely that would be find it a bit out there to gush like that about a curve. You know, infinite number of points on a plane. But hear me out and see if you don't come to share my feelings, or at least appreciate them. So, without further ado, here they are, survivorship curves of Types I, II, and III.

They are also known as Late Loss, Constant Loss and Early Loss survivorship curves, respectively. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the word loss, right there in the title. Imagine that, in a science classroom. And sure-- it's not there for the emotional meaning of the word, but for the very cut and dried actuarial one, but still-- it's there.

So what do these actually depict? Glad you asked, 'cause I am bursting to tell you. First of all, these are three different curves, superimposed for easy comparison. So each curve tells a story of what tends to happen to the young of a group of species. On the graph, the horizontal, x axis is essentially passing of time, usually in increments of age heading towards the highest possible for a species. The vertical axis simply marks numbers of individuals surviving. In each case, the curve starts in the top left corner with a number of individuals, all born at approximately the same time. We call that bunch of individuals a cohort.

So we can think about these curves as stories of what happens to a cohort. Starting from that highest point, and moving to the right, the curve shows the number of individuals from that starting cohort decreasing as time goes by. In other words, dying. We call these graphs survivorship curves because for any time point, its corresponding point on the curve shows how many from the cohort are still alive. 

So why, you might ask, are there three kinds of curves? Because, see, different species reproduce in different ways, and their young have different likelihood of surviving. Type III curve, for example, the Early Loss curve, that one describes species like fish, and frogs, and bugs, and plants. Finding Nemo notwithstanding, all of these species produce a lot of young, but do not tend to invest heavily in raising these young. If you've ever seen fish runs and results thereof (and here I mean fertilized fish eggs covering all sorts of underwater surfaces, and not layers of leftover fish sperm on the surface of the water), you know what I am talking about. Type II, Constant Loss curve, is usually the province of birds-- the kind of species where whether a predator gets you or not doesn't seem to depend too much on how old you are, just that you were in a wrong place at a wrong time.

Which brings us to the curve of type I, the Late Loss curve, the one about us. Us as a species, not us an individuals. Mammals tend to be described by that curve, as the kinds of species that have relatively few offspring at a time, but invest heavily in the care of those few offspring. So we feed our young, and provide them shelter, and, in at least one species of mammal, electronic devices as well. And toys, and clothes, and books, and playdates. The curve is called Late Loss because see, most individuals die in old or at least older age. Fish eggs are food for whoever cares to scoop some up, and grown fishes do much better, being mobile and all. Our curve is the opposite of that-- our young, in general, are fairly well protected, and it is individuals past their prime who tend to go. But that's in general, not for every individual, and the gentle incline of the first part of our curve testifies to that.

So do you see it yet? The reason why I love this curve? It is because when relatives and friends and the whole damned world have forgotten, the curve remembers. The curve, unlike people, doesn't pretend our children were never here. They are there, right there, in the curve itself, in the bend of it, in the gentle slope. They are all there-- those who died before labor ever started, those who didn't make it through birth, those whose parents had to make that awful choice in the NICU, and those whose parents where spared the choice, but not the outcome. SIDS babies are there too, and heart babies, and cancer babies. And just to the right-- older babies and toddlers, the two year olds who died in freak accidents; and farther yet teenagers who were killed by a drunk driver or a stray bullet, and those who tragically made the choices that resulted in their own deaths-- the drunk drivers who met trees head on and kids who squeezed the triggers one day, and ended up on the wrong end of a gun another. They are still and forever part of their respective cohorts, and so, in the bend of the curve that reflects their being no longer alive, they are there.

I don't say any of this to my students. I talk to them about science, not about grief. But that is what I see in survivorship curve of Type I-- oceans of human grief behind every itty-bitty fraction of a degree of incline of the curve. But I also see commonality. I see understanding. I see fellowship. We, who remain to love and to grieve, we recognize and support each other. Because while the world prefers to forget, we know how sadly many of us are there, and how, sadly, more join our ranks every day. And the curve, it knows too.

Do you have a curve of your own-- something in your professional or personal life that doesn't mean much to many others, but speaks to you about your experience? Do you feel fellowship with bereaved parents whose children died when they were older? What about people grieving other losses?


Here’s what’s in my stash.

A tiny pendant of a round and zen-like angel given to me by my mother-in-law immediately after it happened. Lorraine is sturdy and Yankee and Catholic. I love that she reached out to me this way. It came with matching dangly earrings, but metal makes my ears inflate and turn purple.

A wonderful “your heart in my heart” pendant made for me by Barb. She lost her baby boy around the same gestational age that I lost my Mae, and she makes pretty things. I ordered it as soon as I realized that I was going to need her name next to my skin all the time.

A slick, wire-wrapped crescent moon of tiger eye. Brian bought it for me at a country fair last August. We were wandering through the tents in the late summer light, and I was in a mood. A dark and golden stone for my dark moon baby. I strung it next to the heart pendant.

One of those bronze, semi-industrial, semi-romantic tiny tags (love. angel. mae. 2-28-09.) strung with a heart and more e.e. cummings. An unexpected gift from lovely Paige, only a few weeks ahead of me on this grief journey.

My Mother’s Day surprise from Tina. A group of us were swapping “bouquets” – anything with a flower theme – and now my bouquet hangs around my neck. Three little flowers and the word “mama.” Her initials. Her birthstone. Her dates. I’m spoiled.

My tattoo. I think of it as back-up. I don’t wear a necklace every day. Sometimes it doesn’t go with the outfit. Sometimes I just forget. But I never wanted to forget and then feel guilty. I never wanted panic myself into the deep, dark, sobbing missing of her for lack of having her name on me somewhere. So there is the strawberry—almost bruisey red at the bottom, white and not quite ripe near the stem. Her name is hidden in the veins of the leaves for me to point out to you. Or not.

Photo by marie-II.

“I like your necklace.”

“Gee, thanks!”

That’s usually as far as it goes. Unless I know you’ve caught the significance, and maybe I can see you’ve got one of your own.

A soccer mom approached me at the fields the other day, she and her husband both round and grey and fair. Their junior high girl was playing center forward, and their younger boy was kicking dirt, impatient. Both kids had dark skin, sleek hair. Cambodian? I wondered, and tried to remember if Cambodia has had an active adoption program. Because that’s something I might have recall of, now that I’ve been infertile for two years. And I wondered about her journey, and if they had lost anyone. Because that’s the kind of thing I might reasonably wonder about anyone now.

She keyed in on my necklace immediately. “That’s so beautiful!” She peered closely, trying to read the cryptically stamped metal. I casually place my hand over the pendants, blocking her view.

I could have told her my story. She was perfectly nice. Maybe she would have understood. But I deflected her glance.

On a recent class trip with a boat load of moms and 6th graders, someone was talking about “appropriate dress. I brought up, unprovoked, my tattoos and how someone else in our family would have to deter my stepdaughter from inking herself as a teenager. I even pointed them out – one on my shoulder, the strawberry on my ankle, god knows why.

The very sincere woman sitting across from me asked how I selected images that I knew would be meaningful to me forever. I blinked at her slowly and changed the subject.

* * * * *

I question myself. Why wear a necklace out in public, right there above my cleavage to dangle and attract attention, if I don’t want to talk about it? Why flash my big red tattoo in the summer? I feel subversive. This jewelry is just for me, and I’m wearing right out there in front of you. Look away! It’s weird.

But sometimes a moment opens unexpectedly. I started a new job a few months back. My boss and colleagues know little about my personal life, but lately I’ve had the urge to let them in, if only for honesty’s sake.

At a recent meeting my boss and our consultant simultaneously zeroed in on my necklace. They asked what was written on the charms, and I told them, along with the 60-second version of my daughter death story. I think it was the directness of their questions that did it – I didn’t think, I just answered. They ooohed and ahhhed and looked surprised and made sympathetic noises and then restarted the meeting. They were jittery and unfocused for a while after that. But I didn't feel scrambled at all.

That moment, and ones like it, has been good for me. Some families have a strong and open instinct to speak of their missing little ones. Not me—I’m more likely to hide, to protect. But often, when I’m forced out into the light, it goes better than I think it will, and I feel a little stronger for it, a tiny bit more whole.

Maybe that’s why I keep wearing the bling. It’s hard for me to create those moments of openness for myself. But sometimes, if the light is just right, my necklace will shine, and I’ll speak.

* * *

Do you wear any memorial jewelry or tattoos? What does it mean to you? How do you respond to comments and questions about it? Where are you, these days, on sharing your loss in public or with those outside your immediate circle?


Two months before my world went supernova, I got laid off from my job. At the time, we laughed about it. We were just married and just post parent-cancer-scare. Brian was himself post-operative (hernia), and my pregnancy was troubled. Oh, and it was Christmas. So of course I lost my job. Ha, nice one, Universe! What else have you got for us?

We found out, of course.

But then I was so grateful to be out of work. I couldn’t imagine going to an office every day – facing other human beings who knew who I was, and what had happened. Who, God forbid, needed something from me. Lilly, my stepdaughter, was the only person on the planet allowed to need something from me then. I appeared in public only at her school recitals and soccer games, wearing Liz Taylor sunglasses and carrying a bag of knitting projects to bend my head over.

I tried to imagine myself in dress slacks with an armful of file folders where a baby should be and felt nothing but relief at the idea of letting my career slide into oblivion. I collected unemployment. I found freelance work. I stayed home.

* * * * * * * *

There are mile markers on this grief trail. Anniversaries, firsts, a certain number of good days in a row. They exist, I think, to light my path towards some sort of normalcy, and to let me know I’m not out here on the road alone. But when I see one of those markers coming up I just think: No, no, no, fuck no! And I try to slow myself down, but it’s no use. The clock ticks, and my body zips by.

But my heart is torn out all over again—it’s back there in the dark behind me, heels dug in, staring down that marker, refusing to budge. No way. No, sir. I am staying right the fuck here. Because who wants to move one single inch, one single second, further from the last moment they held their baby in their body, in their arms?

So I curse and cry and stomp around for a few days. Eventually, mysteriously, my heart lets go and, in slingshot motion, snaps back into my body, and forward we go. Because, oh hell, there’s nothing we can do about it anyway, and someone’s got to get dinner on the table.

* * * * * * * * *

I did not want a job. I wanted to be home with my baby. With that option gone, I stayed home with my grief for two years. What do you call that? Stay-at-Home-Griever? So when Brian showed me a job listing over Thanksgiving, my reaction was: No, no, no, fuck no! Mile marker ahead.

Photo by mirimcfly.This was a job I could probably get. And if I got it, there would be no reason not to take it. The hours and pay were good. The commute was short. The organization did nice things, like feed homeless people. And it had been almost two years, after all. So I began:

Resume updating (reluctant). Phone interview (heart with heels firmly dug in). In-person interview (denial: I don’t think they liked me). Call back for second interview (Dammit, tears). Job offer (There’s a recession on, so who I am to turn my nose up?). First day (Actually, this could be good).

Thus I have a new job. It’s part-time, with some hours from home, which suits me nicely. The place is chaotic and full of well-intended people who know almost nothing about me, which suits me too. There are no dress slacks to be seen, but I do wake up and put on my game face, and pour a to-go mug, and schlep out into the snow to get some work done in the service of another cause. And it’s kind of fun.

I do worry about my bad days—about being productive through tears, about looking like a mad woman, about one day waking up and being unable to get out of bed. Failing them spectacularly at some critical juncture seems inevitable. And I feel a little guilty—like I am putting my daughter into Griever’s Daycare.

But overall I thought this would be harder. I thought taking a job meant I was putting more of her behind me, or trying to get back to a time before she existed. Then again, I always think that sort of thing when I pass a marker. My heart panics, but when it catches up with reality, everything becomes clear: she is still with me, she is still gone. No more, no less. Wherever I put my heart and my energy now, it is because of her and what she has made me. She can’t possibly be left behind.

* * * * * * * *

How long did it take you to go back to your job (or, unpaid work like volunteering, helping your church/synagogue, sitting on boards, etc.)? How has loss changed your relationship to your work? Has work been a respite or a burden? What your strategies for coping with grief at work?