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.