From Expert to REAL Expert: Relearning Lessons in Grief
Let me begin by acknowledging that I never truly thought I would find myself here. As you read my story, you’ll find this ironic, because I have created a career specializing in grief and loss. However, I must be honest with myself, and therefore, with you who read this: I fell into that trap that so many of us do. I thought my life would never be touched by death.
As a young child growing up surrounded by a loving family, I often stayed up late into the night pondering the meaning of life and my own existence. What would happen when I died? Was there truly an afterlife? What did eternity mean, and what would happen to my soul when the sun died out, the earth turned cold, and there was no habitual planet to hold my eternal energy?
I realize that these are highly existential questions but I inherited a highly anxious, existential nature. By the time I completed college I was so consumed by these questions that I decided to work closely with death to better understand it. I embarked on a career in social work, specializing in death and dying. My early experience consisted of working with adult and child oncology patients, neonates, and survivors of horrific forms of trauma. I became intimately acquainted with the process of dying. I watched the young and old pass away before my eyes. I held their hands and said prayers with their families. I carried tiny bodies to the morgue. By the completion of my doctoral degree, not only did I consider myself an expert in dying, but I had comforted so many family members that I felt I truly understood the grief process. My dissertation about adolescent sibling bereavement was a testament to this. I knew there would always be important grief work to do, and I continued to feel called to it as I embarked on my new career as an Assistant Professor of Psychology at a small college. In my new community, I co-facilitated a local group helping survivors of loss. I created a specialized tool for our theological students working with those who are grieving, an anagram called “THRIVE” that encourages these burgeoning ministers to acknowledge their own losses, among other important techniques in grief counseling.
Isn’t it ironic that I included this: acknowledge your own losses, in my grief tool? How, then, could I be so sure that I would never experience my own loss? Much of it was ignorance, and having been blessed with a genetically healthy family, losing grandparents to the illnesses and complications inherent in old age and being very sheltered from other deaths by caring parents. Still, some of it was a defensive reaction: I needed to be immune to death to do my job, while also living with it very closely. I regarded death much as a colleague or scientific specimen to acknowledge and gain mastery over in order to be an effective clinician. I familiarized myself with the bereavement literature of the giants in the field: Kenneth Doka and disenfranchised grief, Robert Neimeyer’s contributions, William Worden’s tasks. Death was not an enemy: it was a permanent fixture in my life and work, and so I toiled alongside its eventuality, with the goal of comforting my surviving clients as best as possible. I believed, at the time, and still believe that this form of professional distancing is common and often necessary in order to be as attentive as possible to those who needed me. Finally, I think I was so steeped in the theory of loss that I never truly thought about my own practice of it. I was young, happy, and at the beginning of my career. Where would death fit into that?
It’s true, many deaths are expected. We hold vigils over the bedsides of the old, the terminally ill, the young who tragically fall victim to horrible circumstances. And still other deaths are more sudden: they traumatize us with their shocking immediacy, without time to prepare for the event. I suppose my loss falls into the latter category.
I was five months pregnant with our first child when we received the devastating diagnosis. Prior ultrasounds revealed a healthy, appropriately-developing and active baby boy. My husband and I were in no way prepared for the physician’s words when he told us that our son had a fatal, rare, and deadly birth defect. All of the plans we made for the birth, for the arrival of a healthy baby, disappeared. Our son died shortly after. To say that we were devastated, heartbroken, and crushed, would be an understatement.
I was plunged into a newer, deeper, more intimate understanding of bereavement than ever before. I found that all of my years of expert experience amounted to nothing. Having academic knowledge of bereavement, and even experience as a counselor, did not prepare me in the least for my own grief. The pain was deep, isolating, and physical at times. I could recall counseling so many other grief-stricken parents: “It’s normal to feel physical pain after a loss. Your body is exhausted. You have experienced the physical departure of someone you love. That loss is absolutely physical. And that emotional pain can be expressed as real, physical pain in your body”. Yet, still I was so surprised by how very much my entire body hurt. The muscular aches and pains lasted for well over a month, and occasionally these ‘grief aches’ come back, now over two months after his death. Below, I would like to outline some other realizations, or perhaps validations, of theories about loss that I experienced after the death of my son. I would like to add a note of caution here. I am making some generalizations based on my own clinical practice and the specific nature of my prenatal loss. I cannot apply these conclusions across the board regarding grief and to do so would be ignorant and insensitive.
- Peer support is invaluable. I was overwhelmed by depression, anger, and guilt when I stumbled upon an online forum for women who have experienced a similar type of loss as I have. I believe that the community I found there was a key factor in my healing process. I found nonjudgmental friends to whom I expressed my deepest, darkest, most honest contemplations about grief. They understood. They supported me. They normalized my experience and let me know that I wasn’t alone in my symptoms of suffering. There were many tough days when I posted just asking for support, with tears clouding my vision. I received outpourings of messages buoying me with strength, compassion, and unlimited understanding. These women truly “got it”.
- Men and women grieve differently. My husband was deeply saddened by my sadness in addition to the loss itself. Having not been pregnant with our first child, he was not as physically connected with our son. While we both grieved over the destroyed potential of our little boy’s life that would never grow before us, My spouse’s bereavement was enhanced by feeling he was ill-equipped to comfort me. Having spoken with other mothers in my shoes, I can acknowledge that many of them have noticed the diversity of ways their husbands grieve. They have noted that their partners appeared more task-oriented, and coped with the loss by resuming with the rituals and routines of life and work as powerful distractions. We women, on the other hand, were physically and emotionally immobilized by our grief. Our loss was intensified by encountering pregnant women at the grocery store so we preferred to isolate ourselves away from these painful reminders. Some of us found it hard to get out of bed, let alone go back to work immediately.
- There is a significant amount of guilt attached to healing. After I did return back to work, I began to immerse myself in the tasks of being a professor: creating syllabi, attending committee meetings, and making time for students. Though my son was a fixture at the forefront of all my thoughts, I found that at times, I needed to move his memory or my grief aside in order to focus on issues that arose around other aspects of my life. This was very challenging. I felt that if I was not keeping a constant mental vigil over my son’s life and death, I would somehow lose him, forget about him, or feel unfaithful to his memory. I silently apologized to him every time I looked away from his ultrasound picture on my wall to tend to an email. When my husband and I started talking about trying to conceive again, I felt I was betraying our angel boy. He warmed up my womb for 5 months. He could never be replaced. It took a significant amount of self-forgiveness and tenderness to move away from these angry and judgmental feelings. I was being critical and very hard on myself. It was not helpful in my healing process. These thoughts persist, but with more time, I have also come to realize that nothing and no one could make me forget about my son and that moving forward does not mean moving away from him.
- Time does not heal, but it does help in some ways. It is very commonly asserted that time heals all wounds. Antiquated grief theory tells us that our sadness should be resolved. Today, thankfully, counselors know better. We understand that grief is a process and those of us coping with loss often seek continuing bonds with our departed loved ones. However, I have noticed that as time has marched on, my loss has transitioned from a raw, open, and bloody wound to developing a protective scab. Though the pain is more like a dull but persistent ache, every now and then that scab is ripped off (usually by a hurtful comment or seeing a happy family with a new baby) and I bleed and throb out once again. But for the most part, with time, I am beginning to celebrate my 5-month pregnancy again. I am starting to reach for understanding and meaning related to my son’s death. The acuteness of it has started to ease.
- Loss can cause a reevaluation of close friendships and relationships in life. I was completely shocked and surprised by who was helpful and who was not, and my loss forced a serious recalibration of my friendships and relationships. My cousin, all the way out in California, whom I hadn’t spoken to in some time, emailed me every single day. She elicited my reactions and responses, and had a desire to understand. She took everything I gave her, and came back for more. Yet some of my best friends, who gently inquired at the beginning how I was doing, fell to the wayside and didn’t pick up the phone or write back. Some were even therapists themselves and had the same theoretical training as me. It was deeply painful, but I also believe it was painfully necessary to know who would be an advocate and a supporter during my time of need, and who only showed up in a superficial way.
Life goes on. Time passes. I am still counting the days since my son's death. He died on a Friday, and no Friday since then has been easy. But I do believe that, through my experience, I have become a deeper and more compassionate woman, professor, and therapist. Not only do I co-facilitate the monthly bereavement group, but I am a true member. I know better what to say. I allow myself to be comforted. And I promise my son that his brief life will not have been for nothing. His life, and death, have deeply enriched my own all the more.