Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Fish Food

I've been acutely aware this week of people peeking into the grief fishbowl. Not just me (although the tapping has been giving me a migraine) but us, collectively -- turns out EVERYONE in deadbabygrief-istan has good and bad friends, good and bad family. Even online there are those that get us, and those who don't. One day you're in, the next day . . . oh, you get the point. Perhaps a fishbowl's not even an accurate metaphor given that one extreme is not so much looking in as diving in along with us/me, checking out the water temperature, and gamely washing a few dirty coffee mugs while they're hanging around. The other extreme isn't so much peeking as glaring at the whole bowl tableau, wondering if the fish would drop dead already so they could use the space for a new plasma screen.

Why are we so fucking . . . weird? What is it with us that causes gaper block? the reigning theories, and they are probably correct are: people are put out or inconvenienced or (sigh) tired by our grief; and/or, people are freaked out by death itself. No small wonder in our culture of killing and guns and violent video games and television and the wildly popular horror-porn movie genre. Not to mention the never-ending barrage of babykilling lattes, tuna salads, spicy toro, cold cuts, tap water, and sips of Chianti Ruffino. What was my point? Oh, reasons why people wig out. I'm wondering how much this has to do with (the collective) our changing. Grief does change us (well, I'm being presumptive here -- it's certainly changed me), many have observed, for better and for worse. I went scrambling through Carole's writing for something she posted a while ago that didn't resonate until now:

I feel that from all of the heartache and pain with Joseph's life and death that I have emerged from this. Strong...beautiful...new...like a butterfly. A new creation. But I notice that those around me want their caterpillar back.

How could I ever go back to being a caterpillar?

There is no way that could happen. I can't unsee what I've seen. I can't unlearn what I've learned. I cannot pretend that this very significant thing happened in my life...and somehow I rose from the ashes. I don't even think I'm interested in scrubbing the ashes off.

(I love that Carole feels so positively about the way she's changed, even if it does drive those around her bonkers. I wish I could state my own change so beautifully -- I feel more like I've altered from something functional and forward moving into something with problems functioning that moves forward very slowly, and occasionally backward. I've metamorphosed from bullet train into a handcar?) I'm not so focused here on Carole's change per se (lovely though it may be), but other's reaction to it. WHY on earth would they reject the butterfly? (Or, frankly, had she turned from a Caterpillar into a slug, couldn't those who love her find that form approachable? Beauty? Skin? Deep?) But it isn't about Carole, it's about those outside, everyone outside the fishbowl, unable to deal with change. Trying to still cram you into the circle even though you're now a square. They didn't just need me/you in their life, they needed a cruise director/financial safety net/rock of support/funnyman/party animal. One of Coggy's friend's told her that she hoped Jacob's death wouldn't change Coggy. A naively wistful thing to say, but wretched and awful and false. There are those who will take the change in stride, and those who will flounder without the role you used to fill in their life. Some have the capacity to gracefully morph along with you, others are obstinately unable to do so.

There are people out there when confronted with someone like me/us, say "Crap, I really don't want to deal with this," and they're the ones hoping the fish dies so they can replace the entire bowl with something else and move on from fish. Gerbils perhaps? Or the aforementioned videotainment? Then there is the vast middle, I believe well-intentioned but insanely naive (like Coggy's friend), who hope if they bide their time, that we will pass through this period of sadness and return to who we once were. Sort of like we just took a round trip vacation, we'll be back with some photos and souvenirs and slip right back in to the routine after a rousing discussion at coffee break. (Watch me hop metaphors here! Hang on!) They stare at the fish, even feed the fish, but are really unsettled because they're hoping the red fades back into orange like when they bought it from the store. They say things like "I hope you've found some happiness this year" in their holiday card -- well meaning I'm sure, but more hopeful for our alteration than admitting what the holidays were probably like.

And then there are those at the other end who dive right into the bowl. They take the water temperature, make sure we're clean and well fed, and just hang out a while. These are the people who are patient and willing to be uncomfortable (if they are indeed) for a few moments while they do the right thing: acknowledge our dead children, acknowledge our grief, acknowledge our ongoing sadness and bewilderment. For some I don't think this is even "the right thing to do," but the only thing to do. They patiently wait through silence without taking it personally. They let us know how good it is for us to call them again without being sarcastic. They can express compassion without exuding pity. They can speak gracefully of Maddy without being patronizing or awkward. The sad thing is that I'm so thankful for people like this because they are so few and far between. Shouldn't all people be like this?

The fishbowl metaphor also extends to the blogverse. I'm sure for many of the well-intentioned middle, we're under the heading that they never want to contemplate, let alone click on and muddle through. There's a heavy sigh while they consider what lies within, but then the finger clicking takes them elsewhere. But some are willing to come over, not just to read, but to understand. Mel at Stirrup Queens wrote about Grief last week, and Ahuva wrote about Loss. They don't come over to this corner in order to ogle or pity or try and find common sympathy. They come because they realize life is like this, sometimes wretchedly ugly and painful, and the journey can end up right here, in this column. They come to understand, to discover ways to communicate, and to be better people themselves. And for that and them, I'm grateful. I know there are many of you who read who aren't affected by this sort of tragedy personally, and you have lovely things to say. You're included in this too.

I've tried so hard this week to understand why family would fall away when you most need them, and why friends could be so insensitive -- it doesn't seem a limited occurrence. It must be hard to have a friend who can no longer look to the future because the future is too painful and lonely to contemplate. It must be hard to have a friend who can't return your calls for a while. It must be hard to have a sibling who cannot express joy in your life -- they can't, in fact, experience joy at all. They must come to realize though, that this is not a place I like; all things being equal, I would love to coo over your newborn. But not only does it cut me like a knife reminding me of what I don't have, I cannot feel joy regardless. My own daughter hasn't brought me unadulterated joy in a year; I can't look at her infant pictures without thinking of what my other daughter would look like now. In boyfriend breakup language: it's not you, it's the deadbaby. Please don't take it personally.

And if you could spare one of those plastic treasure chest thingies to swim around? That would rock.


A year ago today, Bella turned two and a half. It was the day I had picked in the informal pool for the baby's birthday. My due date (and may I just say that I never really get how people have this nailed down to just one day? Maybe it's an infertile thing? Given that we never really knew when I ovulated, I had one day from the RE, and one from the OB and the maternal fetal people just created their own after looking at measurements -- had a multi-day period in which this baby was "due") was February 4 or 5, Bella had arrived a week early, and given the ol' second babies always come quick legend, I picked this day. It passed uneventfully. But unbeknownst to me, in another corner of the universe, Julia's world was starting to unravel. I'm so grateful to know her, and all of you, and so sorry we have to know each other. It's unfathomable how this fishbowl only expands.


CLC said...

You put my thoughts into words well. Lately, I have felt like a freak, mostly because I can tell most people are insanely uncomfortable around me now. I understand that they don't know what to say to me, but not only do they not acknowledge my loss, they don't even acknowledge me! Anyway, thanks for being able to express yourself so well. I get a lot of comfort out of reading your blog.
PS> Considering everyone I have met in Philly has delivered at the "baby hospital" where I delivered at, I am willing to bet the house we delivered at the same place. Starts with the state we live in!

niobe said...

I think I can pretty honestly say that I'm very close to being back to the person I was Before. My relationships with friends and family have suffered greatly or even vanished. But me? I don't really feel that much different.

G said...

I feel like a fish that has been plucked out of the water because they need me back. Now I am flopping around and sucking air.

Coggy said...

I marvel at peoples reaction to this. I just don't understand why grief causes so many to retreat. Fair-weather friends appear to have made up the majority of the people I know.

The thing I find amazing is that the people I would class as acquaintances have been the people that have adapted to me the most. Maybe because they didn't know me so well, they can allow me to be a slug instead of a caterpillar. Who knows. I just didn't expect this loss to mean I'd end up losing everything I have on top of my losing my son.

I am also amazed when I think of the women I know whose lives were unraveling as mine was. It feels like a continuum of loss that joins one woman with another, even if she doesn't know at the time. It is frightening how many of us can fit in this bowl.

c. said...

It's odd, every time I read a blog of another deadbaby mommy, I think back to where I was at the time her life fell painfully apart. Was I still happy then? Blissfully ignorant? Living contentedly in the bubble? For many yes. But for some, for those who have unknowingly followed me here, I wish. And that's the saddest part. That it never ends. More and more will join this club, yet most will have to deal with it misunderstood, alone, and as far from deadbaby blogger land as is possible. It is those women for whom I feel the most sympathy. They are different and mournful and don't have anyone in their lives that can understand and commiserate; the women who have become slugs but don’t have any deadbaby slug friends – online or IRL – to help them through this grief and the aftermath of how the world chooses to treat them.

Searching said...

You manage to get the words out of your heart and head onto the screen so well. I'm sorry the fishbowl is so cluttered and that so many would prefer to flush the whole thing down the toilet rather than hop in and see what the world is like from that perspective for awhile. It sucks to have such a small minority of real people you can count on. It's not fair.

Feb 5th is my mom's birthday. I will forever think of your Maddy around that time too.

Julia said...

Thank you for remembering.
I can honestly say that most of our friends have been very very good, at least in the beginning. Some forget now and say stupid things. A few (very few) are standing in the corner trying very hard not to look at the fish, whistling if they ever have to look this way. I don't count them as real friends now, but then they weren't really the ones doing remarkable things in the first days either.
I think because I/we have been able to participate in things and seem "normal" on occasion, it makes some people believe we are all better. This is the part that actually amazes me. It seems to me it must take willful ignorance on a part of a 30-something (or older) person with kids to believe it is possible to "get over" this. Seriously? And which of your kids would you be willing to bury and then get over it?
I am suddenly also afraid of getting to a point in a pregnancy (whatever one will get me to that point) where it is obvious. Because then I know there will be people, lots of people, saying stupid stupid idiotic things. I fear I will not be holding my tongue. What will that make me-- a fish going nuts and splashing water over the sides of the bowl?

Carole said...

This is so incredibly well said. I feel so honored to be mentioned in this post. I think most people in my life right now want to replace me with that plasma tv.

I think sometimes adults have become very weird about grief. But I don't think it needs to be that way. Zak told his friend one day (who is 7 just like him) that he was sad that his brother died...and she just put her arms around him and sat that way until he didn't feel as sad.

I wish the rest of the world could take a lesson from all of this.

Tash said...

Carole, that is so touching and heartbreaking. Only kids could do that -- be totally devoid of social nuances and just do what their gut tells them.

Antigone said...

I'm glad I found you guys here.

samill said...

So right. I went through all of this when my dad died - my relationships changed a lot then. With this, it's all still very early days, I'm not sure how it's playing out yet. I know that things will be different, but I'm not sure how. I actually don't really care who falls by the wayside, the ones who I really want and/or need in my life probably won't.

charmedgirl said...

this is a great post.

"it's not you, it's the deadbaby."

in my case, i think it IS them. i have been the one to retreat in those cases, and it's because i don't have the energy to deal with who they are as people anymore. i do have those who ask, "what's the matter?" but i think it's because i haven't changed much in their eyes. i think i've let them forget because it's such a private thing for me; no one's had to retreat, because if they're still around, i don't show them anything...they're just easy enough for me to keep around.

all i can say is, this here fishbowl is what's keeping me sane (i think?).

charmedgirl said...

(what i meant was, i think i'm sane? i don't know...)

Bon said...

it's funny, but i came late to the awareness that there were others in this fishbowl, and since then find it hard to venture back outside in any deep or meaningful way...like there really isn't enough oxygen out there anymore, for who i've become.

and yet, i'm struck by what Niobe said. i am almost sure that i seem 100% myself to those who know me. even to myself. and yet i am totally different in how i relate to those others, because i am forever seeing them from inside this fishbowl that none of them share.

Amy said...

The only thing that I can say is THANK YOU! Thank you all each and every one of you for being there or here or whatever!
When needing it the most, you are the ones I can count on to understand. IRL, there are few who do understand, there are few who are willing, compasionate, caring. Yet when I need the laugh, the "shoulder" to cry on you all are there. With metaphors and other words to make me feel less alone.
Not that I ever wanted to meet any of you, not in this way, but I am sure glad to have found you.

Beruriah said...

Wow. A perfect post.

I am so, so glad to have found you as well.

meg said...

I thought I had commented on this, but I was either blogging while sipping wine, or blogger ate it. I just don't know!

Anyhow, this post is spot on. I just don't know what to do with the person I am now...and the people around me, who are confused and annoyed by my grief. I am a totally different person than I was before. I don't recognize myself anymore and I seriously doubt that anyone else does either.

The Town Criers said...

It's a wonderful analogy. And one that I think would help the greater world understand how it feels to be on the other side of the glass. And I'm honoured to swim in here with you.

I think some of it comes from my own fear about forgetting. The general collective idea of forgetting. And it certainly applies to people I have known and lost. But it also saddens me to think of the burden a single family can carry when so few people are helping them with the remembering. Remembering is the only thing that continues the web. And once that web is severed, once material items are gone, the person is lost, free-floating, forgotten. And I really can't stand the idea of a whole life being forgotten. So I'm grateful that you let me help remember. And beyond that, I think all human beings deserve to have their feelings understood. And if they are not understood upon first glance--either because of a shared experience or a common reaction--then a person has a duty to keep standing there and listening until they get it. Human emotions are too large and too important to dismiss.

Sophie said...

Hi Tash,

Kalakly thought reading your blog might help me deal with my own grief. I hope thats ok. I thought it only polite to let you know that I am here and reading and can identify with much of what you are saying). I'm so sorry about Maddy.

Just so you know, my blog is at faradaysgarden.wordpress.com.



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