When we lost our baby last year, we were forced to be incredibly open about it. Annamarie had been so sick that we just couldn't hide the pregnancy, even at early stages, and of course that meant that we couldn't hide what happened next. Since that time, and since starting this blog, we've had so many people open up to us about their experiences with miscarriage, or losing a baby, and various other seriously crappy experiences. It was tough to hear obviously, but we felt good that people were able to talk to us. Because this is the thing about pregnancy loss - I think people struggle to accept it as an actual "loss" since you never "had" anything to begin with. It can feel in some way "wrong" to make a big deal of it, and nobody will really understand it anyway, since they can't fully appreciate what went on inside your body and mind.
But the thing is, so many people do go through this stuff, and while they might not appreciate your exact experience (can they ever?) they do know what it's like to lose something. I had another friend who shared with me that he and his wife had an early stage miscarriage. They hadn't told many people, but because of what we'd been through, and because we shared it, he felt he could talk to me.
I'm not sure I was any help to these people, really. I didn't give them any sage advice or magically take the pain away. But I suppose one thing I did do (or that my experience did) was give them permission to talk about it. I recently listened to this podcast about loss and resilience with Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, and they talk a lot about how people are afraid to approach the negative emotions - loss, grief, sickness, pain - so we avoid it in every day conversation, even with people we've known and loved for years.
When we first lost our baby girl, I was afraid to bring it up with others, even though everyone knew what we'd been through. I didn't know how they would feel about it. Maybe they thought I needed to harden the fuck up and get on with life? Maybe they just didn't like talking about death and loss? Or maybe (and this turned out to be the most true by far) they had experienced something like this themselves in the recent (or even distant) past? I was afraid to "remind" them of that.
But here's the thing - if they were going to be reminded, that's already happened. Just by existing in their world, and having the experience I did, I've already stirred things up for them. I can't stop that, and neither can they. And is it a bad thing, thinking about someone you loved and lost? Does that have to be a problem? I felt uncomfortable and awkward when people asked me about baby TJ (still do sometimes), it feels raw to talk about it, and I always feel like I'm just having a big moan and that other people in the world have much bigger problems. But I've come to realise that's my problem - I feel like I've said it a thousand times, but for the person I'm talking to it's all new, and they're probably glad I opened up (I always am, when the shoe is on the other foot).
So talking is tough, but I feel a hell of a lot better than when people don't ask. It gives me permission (or maybe even forces me sometime) to talk about it, to feel the emotions rather than trying to cover them up and be all stoic and professional. I get the instinct to ignore it, I do. I used to skirt around the topic, because I didn't want to pry or open up wounds for people. I now know that the wounds are already open, that ignoring them is actually more cruel, that it can make the grieving person feel even more alone, like the thing that is always on their mind is not relevant or wanted by anyone else. That pain is shameful.
I used to work with someone who cried a lot in the office, in sometimes inappropriate circumstances. As a result, she gained a bit of a reputation for lack of resilience. But the thing is, she was super resilient. At the time, she was going through a major illness with her mother (who was in another country) along with boatloads of work pressure from projects and a challenging team environment. Through all of this she kept going, kept walking forward, rarely missed a day of work or let it affect her performance. But she cried sometimes - that was just her thing. Have a cry, get it out and get over it. But there's such a stigma about crying, it makes people feel so uncomfortable (especially in a work setting) that it became a potential career blocker for her. That's ridiculous.
There's a big movement now in the HR / Health and Safety world about "bringing your whole self to work", the thinking being that you'll be more effective, and build stronger bonds with your team and with the organisation if you can bring your full, authentic self into the office every day. But I think there is still a massive stigma both at work and in our social lives to "be OK" all the time. Look at Facebook - everyone is so relentlessly positive (apart from those sad sacks with the blog about pregnancy loss, yeesh) that Facebook only recently added extra reactions other than "Like". Can it really be true that all of our friends are that happy all the frigging time?
But here's the amazing thing that I've noticed. If you do open up, if you do talk about what's going on in your life, if you actually answer the question "how are you" honestly, and then honestly ask it back, good things happen. After my recent bike accident I walked into the office in a sling, which of course prompted immediate questions from everyone I ran into. While it was time consuming having to tell and re-tell the story over and over again, it did mean that I stopped and actually connected with those people. Many shared stories of their own shoulder injuries, or in some cases major car accidents from years gone by. I learned more about them, they learned more about me, and we built stronger personal and professional relationships because of it. Nobody felt uncomfortable, or shameful, or hurt (well, apart from my bung shoulder of course).
Why can't we do the same thing with emotional pain? If we can see someone is struggling today, if they have a bad reaction in a meeting, or they seem angry, or they just seem a bit flat today, why can't we ask the question? And why can't they answer? There's a great quote, and I can't find out who first said it, but I think it really sums up what I'm trying to say here: "Be kind, for everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about". Maybe it's time to ask.
I think Nick has captured everything thing I was thinking this week! So the only thing I have to add is that one of the hardest things I've had to accept over the past year is that grief scares people. My being so open about my grief has pushed people away. And initially it hurt to have people pull away from us, stop contacting us, unsubscribe from our blog or unfriend us on Facebook (I can only assume because they were afraid we would talk about it too much and that made them uncomfortable - spoiler: we don't talk about it on our personal pages).
After talking to my psychologist about it I've come to realise (and it goes back to acceptance again) that I can't control how people react to me. I am being open and true to myself, true to my journey and true to the baby girl we desperately wanted. If that stirs something up for other people or makes them uncomfortable, I can't change that.
So many people have told us how our openness has helped them, supported them and encouraged them. For that reason we will continue to share our journey. And because, quite frankly, it's helping us to make sense of everything. And to those who have felt uncomfortable about us talking so openly (though they'll probably never read this!): I'm sorry that our journey has been hard for you and if distancing yourself from us is something you need to do, then that's ok. But backing away from us and disengaging actually says more about you than it does us and maybe one day that's something you'll need to tackle. Talking about our emotions and supporting each other when we're struggling with our mental health is so important and if people don't feel able to open up & ask for help then the stigma will continue.
We are a family of 3. This blog is the story of how we almost became 4, why we didn’t, and what we are doing to recover from that experience.