Sunday, February 23, 2014

Getting back in the saddle: Part III - Processing another's grief and forgiveness

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.


  1. Wow. Awesome post, Cristy. So many amazing points that I had never thought about that thoroughly. Best of luck in writing your letter to Lucas - I'm so proud of you for being able to take a step back from it all and see both sides of the story and the hurt. That's something we ALL struggle with much of the time, whether we admit it or not.

  2. "Helpable"--- I love that, and it is so, so true. Coming off the news that our IVF failed and we had again miscarried I was not in the mood to be helped. My husband would try to find the silver lining and I could find something negative about EVERY word that came out of his mouth. Same with my mom, same with everyone. I honestly didn't want to be helped… I wanted to be miserable. You're so right, those of us suffering with grief have got to be helpable, or otherwise, the failed conversations are just as much our fault as theirs. I still have days where I just don't want the help, don't want the advice… I simply want someone to feel miserable with me. I think the hard part is giving voice to those feelings and saying, "I just want to be sad together… can we just not fix this today?". Great post!

    1. Yes!! This!! Absolutely can relate to all of this!!

  3. Great post Cristy. I have thought about this topic a lot over the past few years. I think more often than not, those who have never been through what we have, don't really know what to say and often end up saying things that we interpret as hurtful. I remember so many times over the past couple years where my feelings were hurt even though I knew the other person was trying to say something nice/helpful/supportive. Of course in the heat of the moment it's hard to tell myself they mean well, and even if I do I don't think it would stop me from having hurt feelings but I think it's important to recognize that our loved ones are not intentionally saying things to hurt as. But as I said, it's much easier to recognize and forgive when a little time has passed.

    I felt a lot of closure when I talked to a friend recently about how hurt I was by what she considered to be innocent comments. (You know, all the usual comments about how stress is what's really causing me not to get pregnant and that I'd probably get pregnant once I adopted.) You said "those of us who are grieving have a responsibility to help guide those who are trying to reach out and offer support." and I couldn't agree more. It's a learning opportunity for everyone involved and I definitely feel like I am better able to support grieving friends now than had I never gone though infertility.

    Thanks so much for sharing this.

  4. This is a really interesting post. I've been thinking about this a lot, especially since that post of Loribeth's, that REALLY piqued my interest and made me wonder if I was saying the wrong thing to people grieving all the time.

    I've ways wondered about the difference between pity, sympathy and empathy and what each of them look like and whether one person's perceived sympathy is another person's perceived empathy and so on. I wonder sometimes, if grief is something that can't be shared, and what that means for those of us who grieve.

    I have also been thinking A LOT about giving advice or offer support in times of stress or grief. Is there really a way to so this effectively? When I was struggling with breastfeeding everyone was trying to support me, but what that looked like was support of my choice to quit breastfeeding, because it was believed that I was pushing myself to keep breastfeeding even when I should stop and that if I had people telling me it was okay to stop, I'd allow myself to make that choice. Except I was really unsure that stopping was the choice I wanted to make. And in the end I felt almost as judged for wanting to continue to breastfeed as people assumed I felt for possibly stopping. Even in the midst of it I realized I didn't know WHAT I needed from my friends and family. I didn't know what I wanted them to say. I guess, in the end, I KNEW that they would support me no matter what I chose and that I would get no judgement from them, and that is all that really mattered. But I don't know if I was able to see that because is past struggle I've been through and knowing people aren't always sure how to navigate those hard moments, or their skilled support giving or some mixture of the two.

    I was accutely aware of how I'm still not sure how to navigate any of this when my cousin contacted me recently asking for advice on making the choice to stop breastfeeding, exclusively pump (like I do) or give formula. I was just so unsure how to proceed because I didn't know how to say that I supported either choice. How do I say it's a great idea to keep breastfeeding while also assuring her it's okay to stop? Can you really support both choices at the same time? And if so, what language can you use to do so? I hope I made it clear to her that either choice was the right one. It's all so complicated.

  5. This is a really great post, and I commend you for recognizing what steps you need to take. That level of reflection is sadly so seldom. I hope that Lucas responds well to your letter and that the breach is healed.

  6. Wow. So much to unpack here. I commend you for having healthy boundaries, for letting your friend pull back because of HER stuff, and you knowing you didn't do anything to hurt her. Hard as it was.

    I like the concept of helpable.

  7. There have been some great posts lately about grief and support, and yours is a wonderful addition. So often we don't know what will help us, but we know that we resent efforts to help us - or simple comments that hurt us - when they touch a sore spot. And yes, we need to be helpable, we need to be able to say what would help us. Or just ask for a hug, or an ear to listen, or a shoulder to cry on. And it would help us if we could step back and think "they're only trying to help" even if those attempts can misfire so badly.

    Or remember that "not everything is about us" which is what your friend needed to be able to recognise. But when we're in the midst of that pain (as you were, and she is), it is hard to be able to do that.

    I'm so glad you're mending fences with your BIL. I suspect at some stage your friend might be able to put things in perspective too. I hope so.

  8. Wow - this is a great post Cristy. Yes, one does have to be helpable... Something I have to remind myself of moving forward - to keep myself open to help and also that those in my life that I want to help can only accept my offerings if they open themselves to help.

    It sounds like you are in a good place - a place of acceptance, of forgiveness, of exploration and of letting go

  9. Wasn't able to finish my comment... But I wanted to add that I'm so happy for you and Grey. It really sounds like you guys are starting to heal after a gruelling road to parenthood. Congrats Cristy... The shock of the past few years isn't an easy thing to overcome.

    As a side note - thanks for the shout out! :)


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