To disclose or not disclose

Of the many social dilemmas I’ve grappled with on Planet I Delivered a Dead Baby, perhaps the toughest has been when to disclose the recent past to those who don’t know or with whom I’ve newly formed relationships.

For example, I’m going back to school to pursue a master’s degree in environmental biology. Which professors and fellow students do I tell? Do I inform the program director, whom I met with back in July, when I was 7.5 months pregnant?

At Zoe’s 2.5-year checkup in October, the pediatrician asked if there had been any recent changes in our medical history. I hadn’t anticipated the question and wasn’t sure what to say. After debating for a minute, I said, “My son was stillborn in August.” This was when it was still hard for me to say that without tearing up. Her reply: “Oh.” She paused, her pen poised over her clipboard. There was an awkward silence. I cleared my throat. “He was 37 weeks.” “Oh,” she said again. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t even know that could happen.” Her expression was one of horror. “What …?” She trailed off. “It was something known as maternal floor infarction,” I replied to her implied question. “Basically, a huge clot formed in the placenta.” “I never heard of that,” she said. “Is everyone doing OK?” That’s a loaded question, I thought—and one I’m never quite sure how to answer. After I made up a response, she quickly turned the conversation to other topics.

That’s when it hit me. This stillbirth, this grief that has become my day-to-day existence, this tragedy that has been burned into my soul and become normalized, from which I have no escape, is a thing of shock and horror to outsiders—just as it once was to me, in my days of blissful innocence. Her reaction was a preview of what I’ll face in the weeks, months, and years to come each time I utter the words, “My son was stillborn. He was 37 weeks.”

It was a sobering moment, and one that’s made me hesitant to share Luke’s story with new audiences. Fast forward a week or so, and Zoe and I went on a field trip to the local pumpkin patch with her day care. Right away we met up with one of Zoe’s little friends and her mom. I was very glad to see them there because Zoe loves this friend, so much so that she says her name whenever I ask her what happened at school each day.

But within a few minutes of meeting, the friend’s mom informed me that she was on maternity leave. She told me her son’s age and I was able to calculate that he was born just a few days after Luke, in the same hospital. Ouch. Sucker punch to the heart.

When she asked if Zoe has any brothers or sisters, I again was unsure how to respond, just like at the pediatrician’s office. How could I say, I had a baby boy too, just a few days before you, in the very same hospital, perhaps the very same room. Only my baby never took a breath. And instead of maternity leave, I’ve spent the past two months grieving.

Yeah—not exactly something you unload on basically a perfect stranger. So instead, I mumbled, “No,” and we proceeded with the field trip. The girls had a great time, lots of photo opp moments, but my mind and heart kept returning to the juxtaposition of my dead baby and her live baby.

Then it got worse.

We spent a couple hours at the pumpkin patch, taking a hay ride, picking out pumpkins, feeding critters, playing hula hoops, going down slides, and much, much more. Toward the end of the afternoon, the friend’s mom started looking at her phone. She was typing a lot and not saying much.

After a few minutes, she looked up and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m getting all these texts—my friend just had her baby!” And then she showed me her phone, with said texts, and photos of happy mom, happy dad, and live baby.

The horizon reeled. Somehow I forced a smile and didn’t walk away, though it took everything within me not to jump in the car and just keep driving, to where it wouldn’t have mattered, as long as it was far away from all the reminders of what could have been.

The experience got me thinking. As awful as the pediatrician’s reaction had been, if I had told this mom after meeting her, would she have been more sensitive to my situation? Would she have not showed me those pictures, salvaging an otherwise pleasant afternoon? I’ll never know.

We’ve met up with this mom a few other times outside of school, and I still haven’t told her. The opportunity just hasn’t presented itself. And it makes me think, what if the opportunity never presents itself? What if the moment just never seems quite right? These are questions writ large: How long do we allow new relationships to develop before disclosing this seminal truth, this point of no return that has changed us forever?

I suppose, like anything, it depends on the situation, the person. And perhaps it is something that will become easier, more comfortable, with time. For now, it’s the thought that surfaces each time I extend my hand and say, “Hi, I’m Angela. It’s nice to meet you.”

Then my mind goes on to finish the introduction, with words that never cross my lips: My son was stillborn. He was 37 weeks.

The biggest copout of them all

I haven’t posted on here much in the past two months. And that’s because in the midst of the greatest torment of my personal life, I’ve had to endure the greatest torment of my professional life.

In order to remain professional, I haven’t written about that, though I will share a few details in an upcoming post. Suffice it to say, that period is now behind me, and I am making a cautious foray back into writing.

I’m sure this will offend some people, but one topic has been gnawing and gnawing at me these past months, begging to be explored as more and more observations have piled up. And that’s that some people can be pretty fucking clueless when it comes to grief and sympathy. (I apologize, sort of, for the swearing – for the sensitive-minded, there’s a bit more of it in this post.)

Of all of the comments and sentiments that have been shared with me since Luke died, a few have been of the thoughtless variety. Saying that time will make things better. No, it fucking doesn’t. My pain is deeper below the surface, but it’s still just as intense. One person said they hoped my time off had helped me to heal. Well, after you bury your child, you never fucking heal. That shit haunts you forever. One person asked what was the name I was planning to use. Um, I wasn’t planning to use it. My son is a person and that’s his name. Someone referred to my stillbirth as a miscarriage. I don’t mean to diminish the anguish and grief of those who have experienced miscarriage, but I Delivered a Dead Baby, and it’s just another category all together.

But for all the insensitivity of these comments, I wouldn’t trade a single one of them for the alternative of no comment at all. At least I know those people made an effort, even if it was a careless one.

And that’s a sentiment I’ve heard universally from every one of the baby loss moms I’ve come to know. We’d much rather people say the wrong thing than say nothing at all.

We hold this sentiment so strongly that it has turned our minds into card catalogs where we mentally file each of our relatives, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances and how they have responded to our tragedy. It’s a Dewey decimal system for grief, of sorts, and it’s completely upended our social web from how we knew and experienced it B.L.-Before Loss.

Flip through the catalog to “People with Golden Hearts” and that’s where you’ll find the people who have written, called, texted, messaged, and emailed repeatedly in the months since our loss. I’m sad to report that it’s a really small number, especially on Zack’s side. His colleagues and almost all of his friends have fallen down terribly in this regard and I’ve written most of them off. I file those people under “Dead to Me,” though I’m probably much too polite to ever reveal these feelings in public.

Flip to “People Who Disappoint” and there are the those who acknowledged the loss in a card, email, or text but have remained uncomfortably silent in person. Or the people who inquired once, meekly, about our well-being, but never again. One evening Zack and I endured hours over dinner and drinks with people who basically made small talk and didn’t say one word about our loss. The anger and grief welled up within me and it was all I could do not to run into the bathroom and bawl and scream.

Then you get to “People Who Have Moved On” and there are those who seem to think that it’s four months out and I must be over it by now. At a recent gathering of friends, people clustered around and cooed over a newborn baby. Which is fine and understandable,  but not one of them came up and put an arm around me and said, “This must be really hard for you—how are you doing? I know Luke would be about four months old now.” And that really hurt. (Which made me feel guilty, because I really did want to be happy for my friend.)

Many people have said to me some variation of “It’s not that people don’t care. It’s that they don’t know what to say or are afraid of saying the wrong thing.”

That’s such a fucking copout and it makes me incredibly angry. If you know me and cherish our relationship, I would advise you not to ever say this to me.

Here’s the solution to not knowing what to say. THINK ABOUT IT FOR A FEW MINUTES. Or use fucking Google, for Christ’s sake. It’s really not that difficult.

In fact, for those who have asked what they can do for us, that’s it right there. Don’t make me a casserole or send me a gift card. All I ask is that you stop and think for a few minutes about what it must be like to unexpectedly lose someone close to you. Then understand that I’m not looking for people to deliver magic words that are going to reveal the heart of the universe and instantly wipe my grief away. In fact, there are no words that can do that. I just need to know that you’re thinking about me, and more importantly, that you’re thinking about Luke. I just need to know you care.

Those kind of sentiments mean the world and bring the lift I need to get through of the day-by-day, ugly, arduous, in-your-face slog of life on Planet I Delivered a Dead Baby. A colleague emails me periodically to let me know she thinks of and prays for me every day. One person reached out, after a brief encounter with her and her young son, to say she was sorry if the meeting was a trigger and made me sad. It was a beautiful display of empathy and I was incredibly moved.

I guess each of us is afraid of death to some degree and this is why it can be so hard for people to feel empathy in these situations. It brings them perilously close to their greatest fears. But there is no single more meaningful thing that you can do than to spend a few minutes of solidarity with me and other grieving individuals in our intense sadness. We don’t get to escape this planet, so the least you can do is come for a short visit.

If you acknowledge my loss, you’re not going to suddenly, unexpectedly remind me of something I’ve been trying to shove away and never think about. I think about Luke. All. The. Time. How could I not? He’s in my thoughts first thing in the morning and last thing at night. When I’m in the bookstore and see the happy, innocent couple with the 2-year-old daughter and the newborn son. When my friends are making a fuss over someone else’s baby. When pregnant women aren’t sensitive to my situation. When “Mary Did You Know” comes on the holiday CD I picked up from the library (I instantly changed the lyrics in my mind to horrible, awful words and had to skip ahead to the next song).

Saying you’re thinking of me isn’t going to be a trigger for my grief-it’s actually going to make it a little bit easier. NOT saying something, in fact, is more likely to be the trigger.

I don’t want years to pass and to end up thinking that Luke was just a figment of my imagination, to steal the title of Elizabeth McCracken’s stillbirth memoir. I want people to use his name. To write it on cards. To include him in their celebrations. To say it when they notice a fog of sadness creep into my eyes.

If you’re one of those people who didn’t say anything, or made a half-assed effort, or did something insensitive, things are not beyond repair. All you need to do is say, I’m sorry I didn’t call or write, I’m sorry I said or did this, I know it was a copout, I know I was a coward, I know I put my foot in my mouth. I feel really bad about that, and I just want you to know I think of you, and Zack, and Zoe, and Luke, and your entire family and I feel the pain of your son’s loss deeply.

That’s what it takes to have a golden heart.