You know the symbol:
opposites working in conjunction with one another to form a whole. (And by the way, one of my childhood friends who spoke Mandarin INSISTED "yang" was pronounced with a short-a, not a long-a.) The oreo cookie of philosophy. The symbolic Romeo and Juliet. The contradictory yet delicious salsa of jalapenos and pineapple. And so forth. (Oh hell, Wiki says it better than I can.)
Back in February, "oppositional" seemed to define the gendered division of grief at la casa Awful. Mr. ABF rose to the occasion magnificently while I cowered sobbing in the corner. He made the phone calls, filled out the forms, and took care of the cremation. I could not be bothered to speak to anyone, and so he bravely stepped forward to explain the ugly details to neighbors who trickled over wondering what was going on, and then to accept gifts. He fielded calls from my immediate family when I blew them off for about two months. He was very much the public face of our family for quite some time, while I was a splotchy mess who didn't get out of her pajamas and couldn't be bothered to leave the second floor.
I slowly inched out in public, much to his relief. But I realized by this point that we were grieving very, alarmingly differently. How could he do these Herculean things -- walk to the fence and speak to someone pushing a baby stroller while I felt sick and ran into the house? How was it he could talk so evenly about "it"? And not break down and cry every five minutes? And take time and care to shave and cut his hair? We went to a few sessions of grief therapy together, and then due to scheduling began going separately. Mr. ABF would arrive home with a smart, tidy dissertation about his organized three-point session and lessons learned, and I stared in amazement: here I showed up at the therapist's, cried inconsolably, blathered, and left. I was somewhat hoping all the crappy books were crap, but apparently we were conforming to the jello mold of grief right down to the canned mandarin oranges, man and woman expressing emotions in separate spheres. Do men and women really grieve that differently, I wondered? Are we the quintessential Mars/Venus of deadbabydom?
Summer happened, and I regained a little more functionality including the ability to travel, talk with extended family, socialize with my neighborhood, and -- get this -- go in semi-public wearing a swimsuit. Instead of facing the ass-iversary alone, I decided the weekend of my daughter's birthday and our anniversary that I would throw not one but two parties. A year ago this weekend we had announced our pregnancy to our family, and not wanting to repeat the site or gathering or audience, I invited a cast of thousands (ok, more like 30) over to share what in any other year would have been modest if not private affairs. I simply needed the social support around me. Left to my own dining room and family reminiscing, I knew I would become a puddle.
And then the babies came. On Mr. ABF's side of the family.
At the end of August, rather suddenly, Mr. ABF began shutting down. Not speaking to family. Craving quiet with Bella. Tearing up when discussing a memorial bench for Maddy. I've tried moving my therapy sessions to "the next step" and his intellectual discursives are suddenly unspeakable, heavy, and brooding conversations about Maddy. When I ask how they went, I no longer get the methodological rundown on his mental health sessions, but an exhale followed by "pretty brutal."
Grief is not linear, that we know. You don't just constantly improve until you're over it; you meander, go down alleyways, occasionally speed through the express lanes, and often grind to a halt for what seems like eternity. And grief seldom operates in a vacuum -- typically, you're grieving a child right along with your spouse. Our therapist warned that couples often grieve oppositionally -- that is, if one spouse is dysfunctional for a while, the other steps forward (somewhat unconsciously) to fill in. So, what appears to be happening is that I'm finally functioning at a level that is giving Mr. ABF space to grieve, and grieve hard. We're not so much grieving differently as we are grieving at different times. This rather sucks. I'm finally ready to do some things (look at me email and call the person in charge of memorials! Whee!), and suddenly I'm propping Mr. ABF up while doing so. I'm finally in a position where I'm cooking meals again (Hey! Look! Roasted Chicken and Lemon, NOT toast and eggs!), and Mr. ABF eats in silence.
Far be it from me to complain: Mr. ABF was remarkable while I ate nothing out of the coffee food group, and he stood strong while I left the room sobbing any time the word "memorial" popped up. I realize now that we're not alarming in our differences, we're alarming in our ability to keep the family together during this shitstorm while taking time out to grieve individually. We appear to be, as a couple, rolling along as one black and white circle, each filling in for the other depending on what needs done when and who feels shitty when. We're the proverbial oreo cookie rolling along the counter. Dibs on the cookie part.