Taking off my grief glasses

We went to see Star Wars the day after it opened. Although of course it was a momentous day for geekdom, for me the evening packed a hefty dose of sadness and wistfulness, as too many things do these days. Zack’s boss had bought out the theater way back in March, when we were blissfully, naively just a few months pregnant. At the time I was a little unsure whether I should go, since Luke would have been just 3 months old. But Zack talked me into it, and so all spring and all summer I’d been thinking that it would be the first time we would leave Luke with a babysitter. Well, of course it didn’t happen that way. And so it was hard for me to fully enjoy what should have been a night of pure entertainment.

There was a trigger in the movie as well (spoilers): When Han says to Leia, “We lost our son forever.” Yeah. Us too.

Another movie we matched recently, Mad Max, contained an even more devastating trigger. It’s graphic and I won’t describe it here, but suffice it to say that it involves an infant.

We first saw the movie in the theater back in May in Chicago, on our babymoon. I was about five months pregnant and I’m pretty sure that when the scene came on, I must have squeezed Zack’s hand. I remember thinking, Thank goodness that will never happen to me. As we watched the movie this time around, remembering my naivete back then made the trigger scene doubly devastating.

These days, the triggers seem to be more and more prolific, and now I’m wondering if they will crest and eventually diminish. I’m hoping so, because it’s hard to navigate this planet without being walloped by a big, unpleasant reminder of tragedy at every turn.

I’ve also been trying to train myself to not experience these moments as triggers, but to reassociate them with whatever they were linked to before Luke’s death. An episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab, included a very brief reenactment of birth and a baby’s first cry. Of course I immediately thought how my baby never had that cry—but then I tried to remind myself that Zoe cried, and I cried, and Zack cried, and that live birth is completely normal and something that happens all the time, and the vast majority of people associate the scene with wonder and joy. I don’t think I really succeeded in reframing the moment, but I’m trying, at least.

My need to reframe also came into play a few weeks ago when I was in the office at Zoe’s day care picking up some paperwork, and a heavily pregnant teacher walked in. The assistant director said something like, “I wish you weren’t having this baby, like, right now.” It felt like a punch in the gut because I would have given anything to have my baby. (It also seemed insensitive that she said it in front of me; “I wish you weren’t having this baby” doesn’t seem like something you should say when a stillbirth mom is nearby.) But then I tried to remind myself that she wasn’t being serious (I think she said it because they’re down staff and had the holidays coming up) and people make jokes about pregnancy all the time, because most pregnancies turn out normal and result in live births. All the time, after all, is what makes normal normal.

Just yesterday, I saw that a Facebook friend had posted something about her dog’s death. I’m not one of those stillbirth moms who begrudge people who compare a baby’s death to a pet’s death; as an animal advocate and someone who still thinks every day of the dog she lost to cancer three years ago, I totally get it. For some people, pets are like children and their loss is devastating. That’s fine, and of course it was fine for this Facebook friend to post about her dog. But then I saw the number of likes and comments she received, and it was way more than what I received when I first posted about Luke’s death. Like maybe double. And that was a trigger for me to think about how many more people are remembering and honoring this dog than my son. But then I had to stop and remind myself that it’s just the nature of Facebook and how things play out in that fishbowl/popularity contest; it’s not a true reflection of human nature (which is why I try to stay away from it as much as possible).

Then there’s the pandas. One day after I delivered my dead baby, Mei Xiang, the giant panda at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., gave birth to twins. The Internet lost its mind, of course, and I wanted to vomit when I saw the front page of the Washington Post that day. One of the babies died shortly after birth. It seemed like people were sad about that for all of like two seconds and then it was just fawning and photos of pandas for days on end.

The whole thing pissed me off for a few reasons. 1) Mei Xiang got to have her baby. 2) The world cares more about her live baby than my dead baby. 3) No one remembers the dead panda baby.

Honestly, it still pisses me off to think about it. So I try to remember that the sole, simple reason people are acting so batshit crazy is that pandas are freakin’ adorable, and that’s all that it comes down to. It’s nothing personal; the world doesn’t even know about my dead baby. And Mei Xiang lost a baby, too, and her species is under siege in the wild, and I should make some room for compassion in my heart.

Sometimes, it’s good to have your grief glasses on, though; it can awaken your empathy and spark a deeper perspective. At Mass on Christmas Day, we sat near the front, close to the musicians. As the cantor approached the mic at the start of Mass, she raised her hands, announced, “Today is Christmas”—and started to cry. It was just a brief moment; she quickly composed herself and continued the announcement. But in that instant, I recognized her as a sister in grief. I don’t know who she lost—a spouse, child, parent, sibling—or how recently, but I know the loss was deeply felt. I also saw a few women wearing mourning veils, and several people sitting alone, and thought about who they would be missing at the table later that day. With my perspective of Christmas already irrevocably altered—and songs like “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” bringing incalculable pain—their quiet suffering changed it again, like a kaleidoscope of sorrow.

***

I posted recently about a vision of Luke I experienced during an acupuncture session. Shortly after, I had a second vision in which Luke, Zack, Zoe, and I were sledding and playing in the snow in cloudy purple moonlight. Though I don’t know if the visions were “real” or not, I can say that they brought a lot of comfort.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was sitting with Zoe on a park bench at a local playground. She’d just woken up from a nap and was grumpy and just wanted to be held, so I wrapped her up a blanket and rocked her and sang to her. When I closed my eyes, I felt like he was there too. I can’t really describe it, but I felt his presence. It was the first “waking” moment I felt like I had both of my children with me. I hope there are more to come.

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