This post was originally published on Medium on April 3rd – it was written 2.5 months after having Jonah. I decided it should live here on Letters to Jonah, too. So here it is <3
I’ve noticed some things since losing my first baby, Jonah, about grieving in our culture. I’m sure it varies across families, religions and ideologies, but there are some common themes that I’ve seen and heard about from others in the throes of grief. Frankly, it’s bullwacky.
Growing up Griefless
Up until three years ago, I was blissfully ignorant about grief and grieving. I hadn’t yet experienced any monumental losses. I remember being extremely awkward around friends who lost grandparents or other loved ones — being socially awkward anyway, I had absolutely no idea what to say or expect, or how to act around the bereaved.
Why is it that death of a loved one tongue tied me so much? Is it really just because I had never had the misfortune of experiencing it? Talking about death is such taboo in a lot of families, so naturally, my rather quiet Wisconsinite, Lutheran family wasn’t about to sit on the couch together and have a casual chat about death over our tuna noodle casserole with potato chip crumbs on top.
Throughout college, I became much less shy, but still would be silent around the bereaved. It was just something that wasn’t in my vocabulary…it was beyond what I could imagine, and frankly didn’t want to imagine. So, I just didn’t.
Therefore, I know exactly what it’s like for my griefless friends to be around me. It’s difficult and awkward, and I get it. I really do. So before you read the rest of this, please know that I am judging no one for their reactions to me and my grief.
It’s our society that made us this way, but we can overcome, whether you’ve experienced deep grief or not.
Losing My Mom
My mom died suddenly and unexpectedly during a cold November night in 2014. This was my first real experience with grief, and it was a doozy. Nothing can prepare you for the sudden loss of someone so essential to your life. I was thrown into a world of pain that was nothing like I had ever felt before — it felt as if a piece of me was suddenly missing. There was a black hole in my soul that tried its hardest to suck all of me into it, and it times, it succeeded.
Especially for the last couple of years, I had become a pretty no-nonsense kind of woman. If something ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If something is broke, what the hell are you waiting for?? Fix it! So, my approach to grief was one of logic. I took a week off of work, then thought “well, I guess I just go back to work now and move on with life”. Grief was still so foreign to me — I didn’t know how to handle it, how to live with it, how to feel it. I did my best to rebel against it by pushing it down as far as I could from the surface. I didn’t want to be “the girl that lost her mom,” I just wanted to stay me.
What I didn’t understand at the time is that each grief changes you. Something so monumental can’t crack open your life and leave you the way you were before it happened.
So, I went on with my life, doing my best to “move on” and keep those scary and terrible feelings at bay.
Being pregnant for the first time without being able to talk to my mom was hard. Being pregnant with a baby with a potentially fatal heart condition without my mom around was really hard. Losing my baby without having my mom to support me was devastating. Luckily, though, I have lots of supportive people in my life that have been there for me no matter what throughout this entire experience.
As soon as I got the terrible news that my baby boy’s heart had stopped, I knew that this was going to be a different kind of grief. This was going to be the kind of grief that could be the end of me if I wasn’t careful. Losing my mom was a terrible tragedy; losing my son was absolutely crushing. I’ve never, ever felt such pain, and I hope with all of my heart that I never have to again.
I was induced that night and gave birth to my sweet Jonah the next day. He was so beautiful, and so mine. He was such an essential piece of me that I feel incomplete and empty without him. This grief is all consuming.There’s no going back to work a week after this one. There’s no chance of pushing it down, of ignoring it.
This kind of grief is my new normal.
Being the Broken One
I see you over there, looking at me with those sad eyes. My story is very sad. If you’re an empathetic person, you’ll feel this in your heart. For that, I thank you. There is no greater support than that of an empathetic person.
Let’s talk about this, though. Whether you feel empathy or not, if I was telling you this story in person, what would you say to me right now? Would you say “I’m so sorry” then try to insert some small talk? Would you ask questions? Would you try to end the conversation because you feel so awkward?
Before losing my mom, I probably would have fallen into that last category. Yes, I’m incredibly empathetic (even more so now), but I just wouldn’t have known how to comfort someone in this position.
I think that’s a problem.
Is death of loved ones so taboo that, as parents, we can’t teach our kids about comforting someone who is crushed under the weight of an impressive grief? It’s like we just don’t have the words to explain and teach this sort of thing. It seems that experience is the only way you can learn what to say and how to act with a grieving friend.
Being the broken one, I can see all of these grief issues in our society. I can see how some people look at me, how uncomfortable they are
talking about my losses, and how awkward they feel because they feel that they don’t have the right words. For this reason, here I am on my soap box. I almost feel like it’s my duty to write this, to teach all of us who haven’t yet learned how to be around grief.
I am grieving out loud. I’m writing about my most raw of emotions on my blog for everyone to see. I will not keep my grief quiet to make sure everyone around me is comfortable. I will talk about Jonah, I will talk about grief, I will talk about loss, and I will do it loudly.
My losses have changed my life forever. I am fundamentally a different person. How could I keep quiet?
Because I’m grieving out loud, you’ll probably think I’m “strong.” It’s natural to have this thought. Really, though, just living after a loss is really, really hard. You don’t see me in my quiet moments, when the tears come and the anxiety makes my breaths shallow. You don’t see me hugging a bear instead of my son with the ferocious grip of a bereaved mother. I and others experiencing deep grief look strong on the outside, because we choose to get dressed and go grocery shopping and live. On the inside, though, we do not feel strong at all. We don’t know how to respond when we hear those comments, because it’s truly not how we feel at all. We carry broken souls.
How to Comfort the Grieving
I can’t finish this without telling you how you can help me, and those in your life who are grieving.
Say the names of the lost. We want to hear you mention our loved ones, because they’re constantly on our minds and we’re scared that they’ll be forgotten. You saying their names will be incredibly appreciated.
Listen to our stories and ask us questions. For the most part, we don’t want to stay silent. We want to tell you about the lost. We have stories, and you asking and listening will comfort us.
Do not use the words “at least”. Nothing can come after those words that is helpful.
Ask us how we’re doing. If we smile and say “good” or “fine,” ask again. Those are automatic responses that we sometimes default to, even when we’re not good or fine at all. Society has taught us this — let’s break it open.
Honestly, you don’t have to say much besides “I’m so sorry” and “How can I help?” Those two things will get you far.
Most importantly, open your heart and feel our pain. No, it’s not comfortable, but it’ll make you one of those people who comfort us the most. We will see it in your eyes when you let yourself feel a piece of our pain, and it will be exactly what we need.