Friday, August 1, 2014

Uncensored

It is the rawness of grief that forces us into hiding, I think. My sister said that there is something especially terrible about a child's death that strikes too close to the fears that most people don't want to acknowledge. Losing a child is so far outside how we instinctively feel life should be: it is proof that the worst can happen, and I live in a time and place where no one wants to hear, or see, or witness that the worst can happen. Americans are allergic to evidence of suffering. We are all supposed to be "fine", or at the very least "okay". We don't want to hear that sometimes everything isn't okay. Those of us who aren't fine learn quickly to don the masks; we learn we may not disrupt other people's fine-ness.

I read C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed last night, straight through without stopping. It is the first book that has spoken to my soul since losing Livia and Lucy, and my heart breathed relief upon entering into the raw grief of someone else. Lewis's grief was uncensored– not sanitized, not "Christianized," but intimate– and as messy, I found, as my own. So much of my own heart stares back at me from the pages written by a man who lost his wife almost sixty years ago. Losing your spouse is different from losing your children, I know this, but the mushroom clouds afterwards might look similar.

Lewis knew what it was like to feel alien because of his grief. Perhaps he felt it worse than I do, just because he was a man, and a man living in a culture where men weren't supposed to cry or show deep emotion.
An odd byproduct of my loss is that I'm aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they'll "say something about it" or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don't... Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.
The online magazine Still Standing that I've been following, and some of the other resources for parents who have lost children, are just that– virtual leper colonies, for people like me desperate to hear someone else say, I know. I know. I know what you carry, every single day; I can see what is invisible to everyone else, or what embarrasses them when they do see it. You are welcome here– we won't be embarrassed. We are like you. Is it any surprise that the friend I've been talking to most lost both her parents in her twenties?

I have been avoiding social situations. I have never enjoyed small talk, but now it feels absolutely impossible. There are the people who care, I know, and yet still they teeter between their own embarrassment and mine– theirs at not knowing what to say, and mine at being the cause of their discomfort. And then there are those avoid it all together and say nothing, and that's worse. It feels like a slap in the face– as if the fact that the last time you saw me I was pregnant, and now my baby daughters are dead, is too disruptive to your own little comfort bubble, and you'd rather just not go there, so you'll pretend like they never existed, like none of it ever happened.

We need a manual, a guide– we need the old fashioned rituals of mourning, the rules about the wearing of black and staying out of society for certain periods of time. I thought all that Victorian stuff was silly until now; at least they tried to have some kind of acknowledgement of how grief goes on long after the funeral is over. We modern Americans just stuff it under the rug and say we're fine.

I've learned to absolutely hate the question, "How are you doing?" Unless it is asked by someone very close to me, someone who I know beyond a shadow of a doubt really wants to know– and asked in a quiet place, not in a social situation– it is a bad question to ask. Someone asks me that, and my brain panics. My train of thought is something like this:

How do you think I'm doing? 
My babies died.
How am I supposed to be doing?
What is this person going to expect/want me to say?
...cannot be rude...
Is this the obligatory question which they are uncomfortably getting out of the way and I'm supposed to answer "ok" or "fine" or some other completely nondescript word which will excuse them from further questions or from getting too close to my grief for their own comfort?
Do you mean how am I doing at this exact moment? Or today? Or every day? 
If this person really does want to know, do I want to share? Is this someone with whom I feel safe? 
...possible ways to escape– quickly...
My babies are dead. My heart is broken. Thank you for asking.
I want to avoid all social situations from now on.
... too much hurt... too raw...

And then I mumble, "I'm okay."

I know instead of just venting about the problem I ought to be part of the solution, like this blog post I found: offering grace and alternatives, trying to help educate, to help make aware. I hope someday I can write a gracious post. There's a reason I'm not putting all of these grief-processing posts on Facebook.

But here are some better things to say. Much better than "how are you doing?"

What does your grief feel like today? You know the person is grieving. This takes the burden of acknowledging it off her. It's also specific and much easier to answer than "how are you doing"– and it shows your willingness to enter into her emotions.

Is this a hard day today? Surprise! There are days that are harder than others.

I am praying for you/ I prayed for you this morning/ I will pray for you tonight. Simple, and all the bereaved person has to do is say "thank you."

Is there something specific I can pray for you? Kind, and more intentional than the previous statement.

Is there something special you do to remember Livia and Lucy? Don't be afraid of saying the name(s) of the person your friend lost, especially if she lost a child. As a mama, I love it when someone besides myself says my daughters' names and shows interest in them.

If you are up for it, I would like to get together sometime. I would love to hear about your daughters if you would like to tell me about them. I understand if you're not up for it, though. Don't be offended if the person isn't ready to share or get together. But even if she's not, this lets her know that you want to pursue her whenever she's ready.

I know I don't have the right words, and I know that there are no words that can make your grief less. I just want you to know how sorry I am and that I am mourning with you for Livia and Lucy. 

Any of these questions or statements can let us, the mourners, feel welcomed instead of alienated, invited in instead of kept at a distance. We long to be uncensored, to feel that our grief isn't a curse that people want to shun or a disease that they don't want to catch, but rather a heavy burden which others are willing to help us bear. 

2 comments:

  1. Your honesty is so refreshing and full of life and truth Meredith. I am so grateful for the ways you are willing to wade through the double misery of attempting to share your grief while you work through it on your own.
    It is all so hard and there's no way to really safeguard yourself against the awkwardness or pain, but I am so glad to read that you're feeling able to try to press into the challenge, even if just for brief moments here and there.
    I know our stories are different (I was so struck by your words about friends who are just pretending Livia and Lucy never were - I wished more friends knew about selah but at least I didn't have to encounter that kind of cold awkwardness. That sounds so awful.) but I remember the sort of pained relief I felt when someone would try to muddle through the asking/listening process. I felt that it was always horrible the first time, but both of us getting through the first conversation made every one afterwards so much easier and more real.
    I hope that for you, sweet friend.

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  2. I remember walking across campus after my parents died and having students whisper as I neared, pointing me out to one another. I knew what they were whispering, and I hated their secrecy and embarrassment. It got to the point where I wouldn't go anywhere alone--I couldn't bear the awkwardness alone. And yet here you are, gracefully facing the awkwardness, braving the embarrassment, pursuing the openness. Thank you for sharing your heart, sharing ways we can love you and other mamas, and having the courage to process your grief with others. You are a blessing, and as I've said many times, I am so glad for how articulate you are. :) I will never tire of hearing about Livia and Lucy and never tire of telling their story and how their lives impacted me and made a mama out of my sister. I love you. <3

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