This post has been one that I've been mentally writing for about 6 months, going back and forth with how exactly to write it to articulate accurate the thoughts that have been swimming in my head. I've also gone back and forth a lot about whether or not to publish any of this as at first glance it could seem as an attack. I promise it's not my intention at all. So, bear with me as my thoughts on all of this are still jumbled and I'm fairly certain I won't get this right on the first time.
It's no secret that grief and infertility/loss go hand in hand. Ask any person who's been on this journey for any length of time and they can easily educate you on the grieving process (5 stages and all) as well as share personal accounts of moving through them. Over the past 3 years I've read countless posts about grief, ranging from the grief due to shock of finding oneself dealing with infertility/loss, grief due to a failed treatment cycle or BFN to grief due to loss of a child, stillbirth or miscarriage and even grief due to coming to the end of one's TTC journey without the ending they wanted. The themes are always the same: unfathomable pain, feelings of isolation/shame, anger and always an effort to try to understand why. All valid and all understandable.
The problem arises, though, when grief and pain are compared. That somehow someone's experience is negated because their pain is consider "less" than another's. That somehow there's a scale to measure pain and if we don't fall on it, then one should simply suck-it-up. Similarly there are experiences that few want to even imagine exist. Simply talking about these makes those around them uncomfortable and it's not uncommon to hear explanations or simple platitudes as if somehow it will make everything all better.
But there's one other level to all of this that I hadn't considered until as of late. This idea that somehow we should all be able to understand another's grief inherently. That when someone else is hurting, there should be no need to explanation and that one false step condemns the offender for even trying. It's something I most certainly have been guilty, but it wasn't until I was on the receiving end that I realized how guilty I've truly been.
About three weeks ago, two posts in particular have had me thinking more and more on this subject. The first from Northern Star @ Constant in the Darkness explores processing another's regret over the decision to enter the adoption process. She does a nice job of not only exploring boundaries but also how another's regret over decisions is not reflective on her. The second post is from Loribeth @ The Road Less Traveled as she explores this idea of "I can't imagine" as a way to invalidate someone's grief. If you haven't read either of these posts, I really recommend taking a moment, especially the comments section for Loribeth's. But the thing I took away from both posts is that there's this tendency for ownership of grief to be passed. That when a connection is made with the grieving party, we should somehow inherently understand exactly what they are thinking and feeling in the moment.
Here's the thing that I'm learning, though: this misplaced definition of empathy is next to impossible. There's no way that anyone of us can truly understand all the thoughts and emotions of someone who is grieving. We most certainly can try and, many times, we can get to a point where we are close. But we are all unique individuals with unique life journeys. One individuals tragedy is another person's bump in the road. Someone's pain may be nonexistent for another. And it is wrong of any of us to assume otherwise.
The spark behind all of this is two separate situations. The first is my relationship with Grey's brother Lucas. The last place we left things was with a letter where we were both trying to express how the actions of the other had caused pain and anger. The truth of it all is that my anger over my losses was placed on him and his wife Moon as they were easily able to conceive and birth a daughter during the period where Grey and I were losing our pregnancies for no explanation. I was angry over the unfairness of it all and I blamed both of them for their lack of sensitivity towards us as we were struggling.
Before the Beats were born, I made a conscious decision that all of this needed to be worked out. I needed to be at peace with his family prior to our babies arriving and I needed Grey to allow me to openly communicate my feelings. It took a bit, with many drafts going between Grey, David and myself, but that initial letter was meant simply to get the conversation off the ground. And off the ground it did, with Lucas writing a well thought-out response that was respectful though valid.
Then the Beats were born and everything was put on hold. The whole experience strengthen the bond between Grey and Lucas, with them exchanging countless texts about everything one could imagine regarding twin parenting and the frustrations/fears/anxieties of those first few months. But outside of those exchanges, Lucas and I certainly haven't talked. And though I began to understand first-hand some of the complaints and hardships that he had previously talked about with Grey, I still felt some residual anger that he failed to understand all we had been through to even get the Beats here.
What changed all of that was a second situation. Around the time the Beats came home from the NICU, another friend who had struggled with RPL finally birthed her child. Though a very happy occasion, it was clear there was still a lot of stress with adjusting and learning how to care for her. In addition, I suspect she was also struggling with postpartum anxiety, a close relative of postpartum depression. All of this happening during a period where both Grey and I were struggling with severe sleep deprivation, fighting to get breastfeeding off the ground (a difficult thing to do when the babies first learned to eat from a bottle and we were unknowingly dealing with tongue-tie with She-Beat) and a looming contrast MRI.
The details aren't important, but the day of my MRI, I made the mistake of venting to her all my concerns. I was tried, struggling with anxiety from the experience of being in the MRI machine, suffering from hallucinations from the contrast agent and feeling like a failure from the news that She-Beat wasn't able to transfer milk while on the boob. I was told immediately that I needed to quit breastfeeding, as this is something she had just done, and that I needed to hand off the Beats to Grey for an evening for him to care for solely so I could sleep.
The short of it is that I knew this advice wasn't good for my family. Grey was also incredibly sleep deprived and had just returned to work, so an evening of him solely caring for the Beats would have been disastrous. In addition, I wasn't ready to give up on breastfeeding. Things up to that point had been working and there were a few other avenues I wanted to explore. It's not to say that I don't think those who feed formula are somehow doing something wrong, but that was not the choice I wanted to make for feeding my babies (and I still had that choice).
So I ignored her. Sloppily responding to the texts as typing was next to impossible as I was blacking out from the MRI experience. And then I spent the next 2 weeks working with Grey to figure out a sleep schedule we could both live with, working with Renee Beebe to resolve She-Beat's tongue-tie and ultimately getting to a place that was better for my family.
What happened after that shocked me. I knew things were potentially tense with this friend, but I wasn't expecting to be accused of judging her because I refused her advice. That I would be labeled as a bitter and selfish person because I had vented that day. That somehow my decision to continue breastfeeding suggested she was a horrible mother for her decision to formula feed. Never mind the fact that I vocalized time and again that I believed this was the best decision for her and her family. Me not joining the club meant I was judging her and somehow I should have known better. Add in a comment how I needed to tell Grey to start stepping up and be a father (because she believed he wasn't) and I was instantly pissed.
And just like that two things happened. The first being that I knew for the sake of my family, I needed to allow her to end the friendship. If it was between her and the Beats, my babies had to come first. The second was I immediately understood how unfair I had been to Lucas and Moon. Because what this friend was doing to me is pretty much what I've done to them.
Let me be very clear: in no way am I excusing the standard exclusion and minimalism your average ALIer faces from society. Comments that are meant to invalidate someone's pain/grief are never acceptable. But what I'm also learning is that those of us who are grieving have a responsibility to help guide those who are trying to reach out and offer support. That failed attempts from someone who is genuinely trying is not a reason to villainize that person or throw them into the same category as those who clearly don't care. To do so not only furthers the rift and actually perpetuates to myth of the bitter infertile.
In other words, as Grey likes to remind me during moments of impasse, one has to be helpable. Otherwise there's no winning.
The end result of all of this has been me slowly drafting a response to Lucas's last letter, trying to express all of this and to ask for an apology. I'd be lying if I said this was an easy thing for me to do. But the truth is, in order for all of us to move forward and for me to help them better understand all we've been through, I need to ask for forgiveness. I need to acknowledge that it was not their responsibility to own any of my grief for our losses nor the pain caused by them being able to do seamlessly what we struggled with for so long.
“Mirrors” – a short creative fiction
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