So many normal slices of daily conversation seem so inappropriate now that I’m here: “How many kids do you have?” “Is she (pointing at three-year old daughter) your only child?” But one that is particularly thought-provoking and usually cringe-worthy is the ubiquitous “How are you?”
Right after Maddy died I suffered from extreme social anxiety. I couldn’t leave the house. I couldn’t talk on the phone, couldn’t email – even with my family. When I was forced to reclaim dog walking detail, I stared at the ground – I couldn’t bear to look people in the eye, even total strangers. I prayed I wouldn’t run into people I knew. Grocery shopping took every ounce of emotional reserve I had, and even then it was not uncommon to start sobbing somewhere along the cereal aisle. One of my friends astutely pointed out that it was a shame we as a society didn’t don mourning clothes any more to let others know why it was we had dark circles under our eyes, were continually weeping, or more to the point, why we weren’t carrying around the infant we were overdue to have just a mere few weeks ago. I actually thought seriously about getting a T-shirt made that simply read “My Baby Died”, figuring that would certainly get the point across, or at the very least, explain the flabby gut hanging over my waistband. It would save me the pain of getting those words off my tongue, and the ensuing (usually backwards) uncomfortable shuffle and stilted conversation of the person across from me. I also thought the people on the cereal aisle would then at least know why I was in a puddle and not assume I was strung out, or that my husband had left me. Those who found this an awkward subject to deal with could run, covering their children’s eyes, to the hills without engaging me first; those who amazingly can mete out compassion regardless of the situation could do so if they felt compelled.
What I grew to hate was the rote “How are you today?” lobbed at me totally indifferently from some sales clerk who really could care less what the answer was. I wanted to scream “REALLY FUCKING SHITTY! MY BABY DIED!” but thankfully decided this was probably rude, especially to dump on a total stranger, so I grew to rely on the oh-so-safe, “Hanging in there.” And for a while this was ok. But soon I realized this was a total lie. I was not hanging in there. I wasn’t even hanging. I was often flat out on my back in bed hoping that my toddler wasn’t investigating the knife drawer downstairs. I have no idea what it’s like to be gay and “in the closet,” but in a way I started feeling I was closeting my grief. For the sake of others I was trying to project the “ok” person, when really, I wasn’t in the least. And it hurt. And I guess on some level, I wanted them to know I hurt, and mostly, I just wanted to tell them the truth and not give a damn about how my answer affected them.
Part of my grief process (because there is no wrong way, right?), therefore, became brutal honesty. For the stranger who folded shirts or bagged my groceries, a simple “ok” or “hanging in there” would suffice most days, as I bit my tongue and swallowed the snark. But for those who KNEW, be it casual neighbor, friend, good friend, or relative, the answer became “Awful but functioning.”
Six months later, I’m still awful but functioning. The functioning part, I’m here to tell you, does indeed get easier. I can now peruse the carbohydrate content of multiple cereals at the grocery without getting verklempt, and most days can get up in a timely fashion and stay upright until my daughter falls asleep that night. (She doesn’t nap. Never has. Will probably dedicate a future post on this subject.) I’m still not on the shower every day plan, nor have I cut my hair or waxed my brows since February. I’m sort of back into caring about dental hygiene – if brushing twice a day, flossing once a month, and thinking about making a dental appointment is good hygiene -- but not so much with the dermatological care – if I wear makeup it’s a good day, and if I wash it off at night, an even better one. I’ve managed to secure a place for my three year old in a prestigious preschool, and I’ve somehow managed to survive potty training this summer. She can spell her name, count backwards from 10, and thank god, play well by herself. I think I’ve done ok by her, a few bad days in bed notwithstanding. She just waltzed into her first day of preschool this week with a simple “bye” and peck for mom as she motored off to discuss world domination with the child at the foam shapes table.
The awful part, I’m sorry to inform you, has not improved. It’s still just as fucking awful as the day it happened. Or the week it happened as it was. Sometimes I’m amazed I can function as well as I do while simultaneously feeling as though I’m being punched in the gut. I think the point of grief (or mine, at least) is to get to the point where the functioning becomes “normal” or “easy” again, and then eventually the “awful” starts receding. One of my books calls this process (though without my cool and catchy terminology) “integration,” and claims it could take two to five years. So! I have that to look forward to. In the meantime, I hope you join me for some cynicism sprinkled with macabre humor and the occasional dash of sentimentality. That and the rather fascinating mystery that our dead daughter seems to have presented the medical community. And it is fascinating, in an out of body sort of way, as long as it’s not your daughter.