Leave This World Alone

First of all, I’d like to announce that this will be my last post for a good long while. It has been a great honor to write for this blog. I discovered it around a year and a half after my Roxy died, and it really gave voice to so much that I had been feeling, because it wasn’t all “angels up in heaven” talk. It helped me find my own voice, and really pulled me out of the writer’s block I had found myself in following Roxy’s death. I believe it saved my writing, which saved me. I can’t thank Glow and all the readers and writers, past and present, enough. Thank you so much for having me here.

I saved this song for my last post because it was written during a “where do we go from here moment.” A couple of years after Roxy died, we took a vacation to the gulf side of Florida. One evening I watched the shadowed sun go from the beach. The ocean was so forgiving and just looking at it made me feel some new kind of peace. All that nothingness. No sound but the surf rolling in and out. It was the first time I tried to say goodbye to Roxy. It was the first time I tried to let her go. I didn’t tell anyone, but I stared at the ocean and I whispered her name and I said goodbye and thanked her for coming. I sat there and watched and remembered the sound that the words made, barely leaving my mouth. I thought of some of the things she had given me as she left:

An understanding of loss. I could help others in their grief because I wasn’t afraid of them.

Gardening. I became a gardener when she died.

How little of the world mattered to me compared to my children.

Note: In the first verse of this song, I am speaking to myself. I am talking myself down. The second verse is my goodbye to Roxy, I suppose knowing she’d never leave me.

I heard the bats over the beach
I saw the ship sailing out of our reach
Come on, leave this world alone
And learn to hear the thunder all on your own
Once it hits you, it will ruin your clothes
It will kiss you with a death inside your bones
Honey, leave this world alone
And learn to hear the thunder all on your own
There’s a lonely cotton dress on the line
Hope I catch you off your medicine tonight
Is there anything left besides?
This is all so fucking frightening
Your silhouette against the lightning
And I remember when you came
And how you really, really tried to save me
So I could leave this world alone
And learn to hear the thunder all on your own
Every year your shadow grows
And the wind is howling like a distant trombone
With my fingers in the dirt, exploring
There is nothing left but work and mourning
Take this for what it’s worth, my darling
Every year your shadow grows
And the wind is howling like a distant trombone
Leave this world alone

I really appreciate all of you for reading and listening to what I've written, and I hope for some moments of peace for each of you. It's all we can ask for, I suppose.

lost in translation

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?

always hearing voices

If I’ve ever felt sadder in my 41 years on this unforgiving planet earth than I did when I wrote “Always Hearing Voices”, I do not know when it would have been. As many of you know, unfortunately, and as Elizabeth McCracken wrote, “grief lasts longer than sympathy” and this song was written in the sober realization of that singular, undeniable fact.  

One of the casualties of hitting the bottom of the well (which I tend to believe is a special place reserved for someone who loses a child), is that it hammers a spike right into the center of your life, and fault lines splinter out in every direction. They create divides between you and everyone, even (and sometimes especially) those that are the closest to you. The spike creates a hole through which every reserve you have is emptied. Every bit of patience, understanding, forgiveness and even, sometimes, love is sucked down the hole, leaving you a twitchy, angry shell, unrecognizable even to yourself.

This song is about feeling wounded by the people in your life who love you the most, and how lonely that feeling is. It’s about feeling lost in the dark, months after your loss. I did not seriously consider suicide because I had a living 4-year old in my house. It’s a pretty raw thing to admit, but if it weren’t for him I have no doubt in my mind that there is an excellent chance I would have eaten a bullet that night. I felt crazy, wounded, lost and completely alone. The concept of suicide was less scary to me that night than was living. It was as simple as that. Sometimes, continuing to draw breath is the bravest thing in the world. I fantasized about suicide, not as a real option, but in the same way someone might fantasize about a night alone with Johnny Depp or Scarlett Johanssen. It ain’t gonna happen, but man, it can be fun to think about.

At the time, I felt like those closest to me were limping away from the accident, not realizing that I was still trapped under the car. I couldn’t even scream, so I just wrote this song.  Grief can have a terribly selfish, self-absorbed face, and it can be as lonesome as lonesome gets.

On the phone, it don’t seem like she remembers me
Or the shape that I’ve been in
On the phone, making noises
I am always hearing voices
On the phone, in the hall and on the run
There’s a rattle in my brain
I am always hearing voices
And they’re flowering your grave
And they decorate your portrait
On the phone, beating hard and back to listening
Where’d you go?
In the dark, we make our choices
I am always hearing voices
In the dark and talking to the gun
And it’s funny how you laugh
How you laugh when nothing’s funny
And I’m picking up my map
And I’m hitting the high ground running
There’s a rattle in my brain
I am always hearing voices
And they’re flowering your grave
And they decorate your portrait

Ever been here? You're absolutely not alone. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

inside the broken

There are things which broke on that day which will never be repaired.

My ability to give a toss, for one thing. I walked out of the hospital wearing pyjamas, clutching a yoghurt. Less than an hour after watching my 11 day old son die, I left the building having forgotten to dress but feeling it was important to not waste the money spent on a breakfast yoghurt that my throat had been too constricted to eat.

A million times I have reconstructed that morning, imagined that I screamed and howled and refused to be parted from him, imagined myself cradling him - illegally outside a car seat - on the journey home. Imagined his breathless body in our home, loved by us all, for a few hours. Just a few. Long enough for all of us to hold him.

A piece of me broke when I laid the body of my child upon the bed, turned my back, walked away, left him forever. I went quietly. I walked with measured steps, climbed inside my car, composed myself for breaking the news at home.

I stared at the car in front of us, proclaiming in a jolly yellow sign "baby on board" from the back window.

I didn't cry, or snarl, or instruct my husband to ram their smug, unknowing selves off the road with their sneering, crowing, baby sign.

I don't miss the drama queen, nor the woman who put her own needs and wants first and had a baby to suit herself. She broke. She is long gone.

The mother who arrived labouring and optimistic was not the one who walked out empty armed and brokenhearted. I wonder at what became of her on those haunted corridor days, the long nights hovering above a SCBU crib. I wonder at the mother who left, grief already put to one side, able to turn her back to a beloved but dead son and focus on the living.

I would not have believed that I had that in me. I would not have believed that my soft soul, so often such a shaken and shifting thing, would have hardened, frozen, stiffened and done the deed.

I am not sure if I want to be the mother who walked away. It does not feel honourable nor does the walking illustrate the love, or the desire to stay forever, suck him inside of me, curl up upon that bed with him inside my arms and keep him warm with my warmth until we both grew cold.

But the one who arrived home. Broken, yes, but strong. So very, very much stronger than anyone believed. Least of all me.

There are things that broke inside of me that day; faith, trust, patience and tolerance. Energy for the small worries, some measure of mercy for human foibles are long gone. I do not wish to be troubled by the minutiae of petty irritations. I do not suffer them gladly.

What was left, when all that cracked and fell away, was new, pressured hardened, solid, changed.

I survived.

My son died, in my arms, under my gaze.

But I survived. I changed, changed deeply to my core, but I have survived. Sometimes, I rather resent that it is possible to do so.

Can you identify parts of your personality that have changed since the loss of your child? Are there changes you welcome in some way or do you resent them utterly? People talk about 'becoming a better person' as an aspiration after experiencing loss; is it possible for that to happen? Is it damaging to even try? In what ways has grief been a journey for your 'self', your character and how do you feel about it if it has?




I've thought about writing some version of this post many-many times over the years. The post where I'd let go and let fly about just how much I dislike-- scratch that-- how much I hate positive thinking. Because oh yes, I do. In my imaginary post, I'd rage on about how insidious the movement is, essentially blaming those who end up in unhappy circumstances for their own fate. Negative emotions, the story goes, cause bad things to happen. Staying positive, usually with the help of some set of specified exercises, will bring you all the good things you need. Money, health, everything. Bulltshit! A pile of crap. A big, stinking pile of crap.

And it stinks worse every time you try to poke a stick at it to see whether it really is a pile of solid crap, or whether maybe there's some substance mixed in or buried underneath. Because really, from where I sit, to tell people struggling with cancer and the effects of cancer treatments, or people in tough economic circumstances, or people-- let's just say, entirely hypothetically-- grieving their dead child that they "have to stay positive," to have the gall to tell people how they should deal with their own physical and mental anguish, well, one must be high. Perhaps on the noxious vapors from that giant pile of crap. Have to? You don't say! Because what? Puking ones guts out is supposed to be fun? Or enlightening? Or because worrying about making rent or having enough to feed one's family is just silly? Or because continuing to grieve is what? Preventing us from "moving forward"? Oh, I see-- because if you don't, you might succumb to the disease, make your economic matters worse, or not get to have another child (because remember-- children, much like purses, are fungible). Only if you stay positive will you recover, improve your money situation, or bring home that bundle of joy. Bullshit! And also? Insidious and just plain mean. 

And, unfortunately, all too common. It wears many hats, sometimes technicolor bright, making it impossible to miss what it's all about. "I ate right and exercised all through my pregnancy" it proclaims loudly on the playground, "I only gained 20 pounds, and labor was this transcendent experience, and he is just the healthiest baby I've ever known!" And sometimes it's a lot more subtle, whispering doubts into our fragile souls-- "maybe he died because I didn't want him enough," "maybe it's because I ate sushi," or "maybe I was so worried about having to take time off from work that I caused this to happen." No, no you didn't. (You know you didn't, right? Our thoughts don't make things happen. Not good things, and not bad things. You didn't cause this.)

So you know what? I hate positive thinking. Not only for what it does to the vulnerable people directly, but also for what it does to the social fabric that surrounds them (us). For some mind-bending examples of finding oneself in an environment where such thinking is normalized and even promoted you really can't beat Barbara Ehrenreich's 2009 book Bright-sided. The book was prompted by and starts with Ehrenreich's own experience of getting breast cancer and suddenly finding herself in the "pink ribbon culture," where there really isn't a word for a woman who never made it to "survivor" or has fallen off that wagon, so to speak, where "[w]hat does not destroy you.... makes you a spunkier, more evolved sort of a person." and where the book titles such as The Gift of Cancer: A Call to Awakening do not raise an eyebrow.  And what if you don't want to sing an ode to breast cancer, either because you see it as a disease that took a significant physical and psychological toll, or because you yourself are not and will not be a "survivor"? Well, then, you're doing it wrong.

Bright-sided came out when I was barely two years out from A's death and somewhat acutely sensitive to the positive thinking bullshit that kept popping up all around me. So I cheered the masterful takedowns of the individual piles of crappola, starting with the world of breast cancer and going wider and deeper. I found the history lesson on the roots of positive thinking in America to be fascinating. I found tracing of the role of positive thinking in bringing about the financial crash of 2008 fascinating too-- in a way that watching a slow-motion replay of a test car crashes is fascinating (except, of course, it wasn't dummies being crumpled by the financial crash). The chapter I thought at the time was the weakest in the book was the one on positive psychology.

I went back this week to re-read that chapter (and re-skim the rest of the book). This time it seemed less removed from the rest of the book, less like it was picking on an individual human with somewhat obvious character flaws, that person being the then-President of the American Psychological Association Martin Seligman. This time the chapter seemed downright prescient, much like that kid who pointed out the fairly profound lack of layers that a certain monarch was employing in his wardrobe. Prescient of what, say you, and why reread the chapter? Glad you asked.

Recently a friend pointed me to an article (which contained a link to another article on the same subject, this one much shorter) about a recent takedown by an unlikely band of takers-of-no-shit of something of a centerpiece of the discipline of positive psychology, advancing which Martin Seligman has made the defining mission of his tenure as the President of APA. What takers-of-no-shit took down was a seemingly super-important paper, published in 2005 and since referenced over 350 times, including in popular psychology books by one of the paper's authors, Barbara Fredrickson, a star of positive psychology if there ever was one, and by Seligman himself. The paper, see, claimed to have found a ratio of positive to negative statements or emotions that separates "flourishing" people and groups from "languishing" ones. The ratio was supposed to be, I shit you not, a straight up exact number. 2.91013:1.

You know what that ratio and the whole bloody cottage industry that grew up around it turned out to be? If you guessed crap-encrusted filet of crap with crap demi-glaze and some whipped crap on the side, you are absolutely correct. It was fake. A stopped clock derived from fudged messing around with equations of certain aspects of fluid mechanics. The paper that took it down was called in the original manuscript "The Complex Dynamics of an Intellectual Imposture." Sadly, the authors changed it to "The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking" before publication to step on less academic toes.

The person who first smelled the crap, and who was able to claw his way through enough complicated math to determine that the number was fake, is my new personal hero, Nick Brown, a then-50 year old master's student of the University of East London where he was studying, wait for it-- applied positive psychology. Yeah, he was paying money to study this stuff. And he is not the only one. Martin Seligman runs a one year program at UPenn that costs nearly nothing to attend, chump change really, a mere 45 grand. Yup, for one year. He is also at the heart of a project with the Army that is running United States taxpayers a cool $125 million plus, though it seems to have done nothing to reduce PTSD-- a prominent goal of the thing.

It bothers me to no end when science and math are misused. It undermines public confidence in the whole enterprise, making it harder for good research to be taken seriously. I've talked to my students many times about examples of bad research or bad reporting of research (or both at the same time). And more often than not I find that as I talk about these things my voice starts to shake. It's not nerves-- it's indignation. I guess I am still enough of a science idealist to think that doing research the right way really-really matters. And in this particular case, holy crap does this burn me! This is not a victimless little fudge, a small shading of data to advance one's career. This has real consequences for real people-- it spreads the reach of mandatorily bright-sided environment, making it more likely that more people will be told by some positive psychology devotee somewhere that they need to adjust their attitudes. You know, find 2.9103 positive emotions to counterweigh the bummer of their kid still being dead. And isn't that the kind of advice we all need more of in our lives?


This is my opinion. What's yours? Tell us, please.

Oh, and by the way, the articles I linked above are well worth the read. Enjoy!