How to honor a loss anniversary, and other thoughts

A local loss mom friend and blogger over at Surviving the Loss of Baby Sidney is approaching the first anniversary of her son’s death and recently sent an email to family and friends with suggestions for how to mark the occasion, including the following:

First, I am asking people to do something kind for themselves or someone else on May 4th. This can range from smiling at someone in the street or allowing yourself to sleep in, to donating your time or money to an organization that you believe makes a positive difference. I need to know that at least a little bit of good came from Sidney being part of the world for the short time that he was here.

Second, if you would like to, please send us a stone from a place that is meaningful to you, with a slight description of where you found it, so that I can put it at his grave (Jews traditionally leave stones when they visit graves of loved ones. While the reason behind this seems somewhat unclear, my favorite explanation is to indicate that the loved one is remembered and thought of, with an object that lasts longer/is more permanent than flowers).

Finally, do not be afraid to let us know that you are thinking of us, and to say Sidney’s name. Hearing Sidney’s name does not upset me–what upsets me is that he is dead. Instead, knowing that others remember him makes me feel like I do not have to carry him around in my heart alone. Lighting a candle in his memory (or sending us candles, trees, buying us stars, making a dedication in his name etc–I hope I have included everyone/everything) or simply reaching out to tell us that you remember him, has meant so much and will continue to mean so much.

I love the idea of doing something good in his name on that day, and wanted to pass it along as a suggestion to my readers for honoring any lost children that you know. I wasn’t aware of the Jewish tradition of leaving stones, but my daughter loves rocks and always leaves one at Luke’s grave, so I will have her pick one out for Sidney, and we’ll plant some flowers next to Luke’s bench in our garden as well, so our boys can be together.

In other musings …

The other day I was wearing a hoodie (before April suddenly turned to July) and in the pocket I found a memorial necklace that someone must have given me at some point, only I have no memory of receiving it. I received a lot of jewelry after Luke’s death, and it’s hard to keep track of who gave what, but I still feel bad about blanking on this one.

After spending so much time obsessing about fetal movement during Wyatt’s pregnancy, I thought for sure I would be counting phantom kicks for weeks after he was born. Strangely enough, though, that already seems like a distant memory, and I can’t even remember what the movements felt like, or what it was like to be chained to my KickCounter app.

Wyatt has been sleeping for longer stretches, and last night he slept through the night, until just after 5 a.m. So that’s obviously great if he starts doing that consistently, but now I also need to decide whether to throw in a middle of the night pumping session, because, well—holy boobies, Batman.

I took Zoe to her 4-year checkup last week, and when the nurse practitioner asked Zoe to list who lives at home with her, she named myself, my husband, Wyatt, and Luke, which made my heart swell, but then when I said, “Well, Luke lives in heaven,” the nurse practitioner said, “Awww, is that a pet?” and I wanted to punch her, but Zoe kept talking, and the moment passed.

I suppose it’s marginally better than my encounter at Zoe’s third-year checkup, when, after I informed the doctor of Luke’s death, she said she wasn’t aware that losses could occur that late in pregnancy.

At Zoe’s birthday party, while I carried Wyatt in a sling, I struck up a conversation with the mom of one of Zoe’s classmates. She is a perfectly lovely and sweet person, but I don’t think she knows of my loss, and she mentioned that Zoe’s friend was born when her daughter was only 2, and it was difficult to have two children of that age, and it’s so much easier to have a baby around when they are 4, and more independent. And I wanted to tell her that Zoe should have been 2 when her first brother was born, because normally I don’t have a problem telling people about Luke, but I just couldn’t figure out a way to bring it into this otherwise innocuous small talk, and so I didn’t say anything, which made me feel sad and also guilty, like I wasn’t honoring Luke properly. It also reminded me of how much of a gulf will always remain with other moms who haven’t experienced a loss, and how conversations can still catch me off guard, and break my heart.

Recently I’ve attended a few services at our local Unitarian Universalist congregation. I suppose I’ve been searching for something different, as our current church didn’t provide any support when Luke died, and his death also further cemented my agnosticism, wherein it’s difficult to believe in a God who would allow children to die, but it’s also difficult not to believe that some kind of being was responsible for this amazing, incredible universe. Anyway, the UU church actually cares about things like climate change, and people’s suffering, and everyone is really friendly, and the pastor (is that what you call him?) this past weekend gave a sermon (is that what you call it?) addressing a racism controversy among the higher ups of the national organization. His openness was refreshing and something I’m not used to. So I like it there, but when it comes to spirtuality, basically I am still kind of wandering.

 

To the friend who stopped calling

To the friend who stopped calling,

We exchanged texts when my second son was born. You expressed your happiness for me. And then you went radio silent.

And your silence hurts.

My grief didn’t end the day Wyatt was born. Luke is still not here, and he never will be. I held him in my arms, but I will never get to see how his hair would grow out, or what color his eyes would be, never got to hear his voice, never got to do tummy time, never even got to dress him.

You listened to me in the days and weeks after Luke died. Expressed empathy when I detailed my countless anxieties. Shared advice for how to deal with the shitheads at my last job, and when I should quit.

And then I started to hear from you less and less. Perhaps I remind you of your worst fears, or maybe it’s a hard thing to keep up, providing support to someone who’s grieving, day after day, week after week. The thing is, it’s even harder to be the bereaved one. Every day that you wake up, you must confront the fact that your son is dead. There is no escaping it.

The last time I saw you, I was 28 weeks pregnant. We had our kids with us (well, you had all of your kids with you; I had only two of them), and it was hard to really talk. But I mentioned the anxiety I was experiencing over fetal movement. It was like talking into an abyss. There was no comprehension there. And in that moment I was reminded, once again, how much of a chasm now exists between myself and people who have never lost a child. Of how the relationships I had before Luke’s death are, in a sense, gone forever, irrevocably altered by the worst thing to ever happen to me.

I don’t know why I haven’t heard from you again. When you have a child after another child has died, it’s an emotionally tumultuous and confusing thing. You are grateful for your rainbow child. But you can’t help but think that he wouldn’t be there if your first son hadn’t died. Likewise, you can’t help but think that your rainbow is here only because your other child died. You feel guilty that one lived and the other didn’t, that perhaps if you had exercised the same level of care the first time around, Luke would have made it. And as your new baby boy grows and develops every day, it hits you viscerally, in a way it hasn’t up until now, what you have missed out on with Luke.

So no, my grief didn’t end the day Wyatt was born. In some ways, I need your friendship more than ever. But I guess this is time to accept the fact that we can’t go back again. We simply aren’t the same two people anymore, ever since that day, 20 long and short months ago.

Hiatus

I haven’t written a word for this blog in months, largely because I’ve been so busy with school that I haven’t had a lot of time to stop and think. Over the summer I enrolled in two back-to-back intense undergraduate classes, first in chemistry and then in biology. The classes were three to four hours long, every day, and I would then come home and spend the rest of the afternoon doing the readings and homework.

I then started grad school in late August. I enrolled in two classes, by far the most intense I have ever taken. Every week I read hundreds of pages of the textbooks and scientific papers. I also read three books, gave four presentations, wrote an 8-page research paper in addition to five shorter essays, and took four exams. In addition, I spent the fall completing master naturalist training through the state of Maryland. For 12 weeks every Monday, I took 6.5 hours of training at a local nature center on topics ranging from tree identification, mammals, and reptiles and amphibians to interpretation, stream ecology, and humans’ effect on the environment. I’ll be an intern for the next year and then graduate to certified master naturalist, putting my training to use volunteering at the nature center and working on local environmental issues.

So there’s all that, but truth be told, there’s another reason I haven’t been writing on this blog. In July I found out I was pregnant again, and I’ve honestly been afraid to write about it, or even to tell many people, for fear of jinxing it. I’m a rational, scientific-minded person and I know it’s ridiculous to believe in jinxes. But just like those commercials from the 80s (or was it the 90s?), this is your brain on pregnancy loss. Scrambled and fried with heaping helpings of paranoia, fear, and anxiety.

I’m currently 27 weeks and 1 day, and it’s another baby boy. I’ll write more in a future post about how the pregnancy has been going (in a nutshell, fine, with the exception of my mental state). In the meantime I’ve been jotting down a few of the things that have happened over the last several months and wanted to share them here.

When we found out about our miscarriage in April, the OB who delivered the news was not unsympathetic, but she was also very matter of fact. And the office seemed to immediately kick into a precisely programmed, finely tuned sequence of paperwork and scheduling and instructions. It wasn’t that they didn’t care at all, but everything just seemed so … routine. And miscarriages are way more common than stillbirth, so that’s understandable to some degree, but miscarriages are still a big deal when they are happening to you. And it doesn’t excuse insensitive behavior. At the hospital, the anesthesiologist commented on our private room, as if we had scored some sort of sweet deal. Then he remarked on how nice the weather was and that he couldn’t wait to get home so he could go outside. This was right after the nurse had forced me to state that the reason I was in the hospital was for a D&C following a “missed abortion.”

In the weeks to follow, we received far fewer cards, phone calls, and messages of support from family and friends than we did following Luke’s death. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed since joining this sad club of women who have lost babies, it’s that people seem to have far less empathy for those who’ve had miscarriages. Apparently it’s much easier to empathize with someone who’s had bad luck versus bad DNA.

With this pregnancy, I was at the dentist a few months ago and after I told them I was pregnant, the inevitable question came up of how many children I have. Since it’s a medical office I felt I had to give full disclosure, so I stated that my daughter is 3 and my son was stillborn at 37 weeks. This was the first time I had seen this dentist, and right away I didn’t much care for him anyway. He had perfect hair and seemed like just another 40-something, white male toolbag. This impression was confirmed by his response to my disclosure, in which he, without missing a beat, replied, “Aww, that’s too bad,” and then in the next breath, “I’m sure she’ll love the baby. My kids are 5 and 2 and they’re best friends.” Shut up, asshole. Take your perfectly spaced kids and go f yourself. My daughter can’t be best friends with my firstborn son. Because he’s dead.

When I was interviewing to get into the aforementioned master naturalist training, one of the questions was to describe a time where something didn’t go as expected and how I handled it. All I could think was, “Well, I was pregnant, and the pregnancy had supposedly been going fine, and I was three weeks away from my due date, and then my baby died. How did I handle it? I spent the next year-plus consumed by grief and anger and anxiety. So, I guess I handled it pretty shittily.” I can’t remember what answer I gave instead.

On a related note, I was eating lunch with some of the other students in the training program one day when this annoyingly self-absorbed 20-year-old decided to embark on an elaborate retelling of how he was once called to substitute in an intramural college soccer game and had to dash across campus to catch the bus. He attends Cornell and, in true Andy Bernard fashion, is always reminding us of that fact, and as he told the story I got the sense that this close call with the stupid soccer bus just might have been the most dramatic thing that has ever happened to him. There was more than one person at the table, so I was able to sneak away without being rude, stuffing down the urge to mutter, “Man, that’s soooo rough. There was this one time I had to check into the hospital to deliver a dead baby. That tooootally sucked.”

Luke’s first birthday in August fell on a Sunday. We visited him at the cemetery and added a few items to his box. We brought cupcakes, mostly for Zoe’s sake, and read a few books. Because I’ve lived and breathed his loss every day since he died, it honestly didn’t feel that much different than every other day. It just felt like a pathetic little commemoration, and I wish we could have done more to honor him.

More than a year after Luke’s loss, most of the people in our lives have moved on. Only a few hardcore carers still ask us how we are doing. Hardly anyone included his name on Christmas cards, which were full of cheery messages that failed to acknowledge how shitty and sad we might be feeling given the huge hole in our family where a 1-year-old boy should be.

After a year of needling our hospital to acquire a Cuddle Cot so families experiencing perinatal loss can spend more time with their babies, the hospital finally installed one. They ended up paying for it so we didn’t have to conduct any fundraisers, which was great on the one hand, but on the other hand, the other loss moms and I who’d been working on this weren’t really able to participate much in the endeavor in a way that would have allowed us to commemorate our children. The hospital didn’t even coordinate the cot into their annual perinatal loss ceremony for Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month—at which they released balloons, which I hate, and despite my asking them not to, so I didn’t/couldn’t even attend. Maybe next year I’ll organize a ceremony of my own.

We recently attended a birthday party for one of Zoe’s classmates. It was at one of those indoor bouncehouses where the kids run around like maniacs for an hour or two, then retreat to the party room and eventually collapse into a sugar coma. In the waiting area before we went back to one of the rooms, an old codger walked up to Zoe and one of her little friends. I think he thought they were sisters or something. But for some reason he asked Zoe, “And where’s your brother?” Zoe didn’t know how to respond, and in my mind, I told him, “In the f’in ground. Now shut the f up and go away.” Why do so many old people lack filters and common sense?

Until next time …

This post is a bit of a doozy and contains cursing

When Luke died in August, I was already in the throes of a classic mid-life crisis. I had just turned 35 in July and was questioning what to do with the rest of my life. This stemmed largely from turmoil I was grappling with at work. The previous fall, my department had undergone a reorganization. My responsibilities expanded and I took on new direct reports. To put it mildly, the reorganization was not implemented well by certain managers, and things got real ugly, political, and personal. The team who felt they’d had things “taken away” from them not only were nasty to our faces, but they tried to sabotage us behind the scenes. Pettiness, gossip, and the worst of human behavior ensued all around; I myself, pushed to the brink, was guilty of this too.

This was at a large nonprofit where I’d worked since 2006 and had envisioned myself always working, for a cause I believed in deeply, and still do. I’d started at an entry-level position and, through hard work, moved up to middleish management.

In the spring, I’d found out about a master’s degree program in environmental biology at a local college. It sounded intriguing but was completely different from my first career track, journalism. It seemed too daunting to go back to school and I didn’t know if I was cut out to be a scientist. But as things got increasingly contentious at work, and as I found myself everywhere confronted by signs of climate change, I started to think about the master’s degree more and more. In July I met with the program director, asked her a bunch of questions, and began to contemplate if and how I could make it work.

Then Luke died.

Mean girls gone wild

First of all, let me say that—in contrast to the response over at Zack’s workplace—many, many work people provided so much incredible, appreciated support. They called and wrote beautiful notes. They checked up on us. They subscribed to my blog. They raised over $1,000 in Luke’s memory. Some went to the charity of my choice, the Star Legacy Foundation for stillbirth awareness. Some went to a food delivery service. And some went to a getaway for two at a birding hotspot, since Zack and I are nature nerds. The secret Facebook group of moms at my workplace rose up and showered me with letters and love. I still have a card from one of them taped to my bathroom mirror, reminding me every day to carry faith over fear.

Then there was the other team, the one that felt they’d had stuff taken away from them and didn’t want to share the playground nicely. Led by one particular individiual who was the worst instigator, and without asking me my wishes, they started a competing fundraiser, collecting donations in Luke’s name for an organization I don’t support. The instigator, who hadn’t said a nice word to me in months and had never once even bothered to acknowledge my pregnancy when Luke was alive, apparently sent a sickingenly sweet, and blindingly obviously insincere, email asking for money and saying how bad she felt about what had happened. Multiple people later told me they couldn’t believe she sent it and that it came off incredibly fake.

I never heard once from any of these individuals in the weeks after Luke’s death, not on email, not on text, and certainly not via that most personal of touches, a card in the mail. So it was really curious when I found out later from several sources that these people apparently dominated a group session that HR had set up with a counselor from our employee assistance program to talk with people about how to support me upon my return. The room was filled with people who actually cared, but my sources told me these individuals turned it into a session all about them. Which was just so typical, but it was heartbreaking to see that even after the worst of tragedies, they couldn’t put their egos aside.

Then, just a few days before I was about to come back to work, a card arrived in the mail. It contained a thank you note from the organization they’d sent their money to, the one I don’t support. And there was a card that they’d all signed. Except instead of signing it with individual notes like “I’m so sorry for your loss; please let me know if there is ever anything I can do”—you know, the normal type of thing you put on a card—they all just squeezed their signatures into the space under the text on the righthand side of the card. Seriously, the signatures were all just packed in there, surrounded by a ton of blank space. I couldn’t have dreamt up anything more insincere, with less thought or time or effort put into it. Then I noticed a bracelet inscribed with the words “Forever family” wedged into the envelope. My only response was to laugh out loud because clearly someone was playing a practical joke on me; these people had never once treated me like I was good enough to be part of their exclusive family.

But wait—there’s more!

A few weeks before I was to return, my team members reached out to me about what had happened during my leave. All throughout the acrimonious summer, we’d been meeting with a consultant who was evaluating our department’s structure and functions. The reorganization would be tweaked somehow, we knew—strengthened, we hoped. Among the options on the table were taking the reorg further in the direction that had already been started and sharpening the department’s focus on strategy by eliminating fiefdoms. Also, eliminating the conflict of interest wherein the manager of the team that didn’t play nice was two reporting levels below her husband, a C-level executive. Uh huh.

Before Luke died, I had just been hoping they would make the decision before I was out on maternity leave. Well, they ended up making the announcement on the day we buried him. I never in a million years imagined they would undo the reorg, but that’s exactly what the C-level executive—the very same one implicated in the conflict of interest—decided to do. As part of the changes, a new reporting structure did finally eliminate the conflict of interest, but everything else felt like punishment raining down on the whistleblowers.

And so my poor teammates, the very same ones who’d been reaching out and taking care of me in the ensuing weeks, had been, unbeknownst to me, also trying to fight for me and for them, trying to get the decision overturned—and trying to figure out how and when to tell me I’d essentially been demoted, my responsibilities cut in half and my team of direct reports decimated. Right after my full-term baby died three weeks shy of his due date followingly a seemingly normal pregnancy. Yeah. And they were having to do this last part all on their own because no one from HR, and no one from any of the mangement teams, was helping them do it. It seemed that to those folks, I was an afterthought at best.

In fact, it took several weeks before I was able to get an in-person meeting with our new department head, who took all of half an hour to meet with me, arrived five minutes late, and basically told me, in so many words, that I should quit. He said he would be really pissed if he were me and he would leave, and that was about it. This person also hadn’t bothered to send a card or to even once utter the simple words, I am so sorry for your loss.

Here comes the cursing

For a while after I returned to work, I was afraid of running into members of Team Mean in the hallway, because I just didn’t know what I would do or say. For a time, shouting Get the fuck away from me! was one of my fantasies. Eventually I decided I would just ignore them. Because I had withdrawn from virtually all meetings at that point, I ended up encountering Team Mean only once, when I briefly and awkwardly had to walk alongside its most openly mean member. Her response upon seeing me was to laugh. I’m sure that it was nervous, guilty laughter, but still! What. The. Fuck. Somewhat miraculously, I managed to not murder her.

So, even though I’m still not sure whether I believe in signs, it was hard not to feel that the universe was sending me a giant one, something along the lines of Get the hell off the Titanic as soon as heavenly possible. Especially after I had the vision I described in a previous post, in which Luke seemed to be showing me the planet and saying it’s urgent for us to save it.

And so I did. 113 days after I delivered a lifeless, beautiful, delicate baby boy who uttered no cry and took no breath, I got the fuck out of Dodge. I envisioned my teammates clapping and cheering for me on the way out. Some of them are not far behind.

That was a dark, terrible time that passed in a haze. On top of the crippling grief of losing a son, I was blindsided by the secondary grief of losing a job that I’d naively allowed to become part of my identity. It was hard to make the decision to leave. To leap from a career I’ve been mostly successful at into unemployment, full-time schooling, and a profession where I don’t know if I can make it.

I’m only six weeks out from that decision. God willing, my first classes will start sometime this week, whenever the D.C. area can dig out from the blizzard. But I can honestly say, to my surprise, that I actually haven’t looked back. I don’t miss the place. I thought it would be hard to let go, but in reality I rarely think about that hotbed of dysfunction. I miss the people I love and respect. But that’s it. Now I’m simply focused on the path Luke showed me. I hope I can make him damn proud.

(Oh, and also—I returned that stupid fucking bracelet.)

The forgotten soldier

I’ve wanted for some time to share Zack’s perspective on losing a child. He has endured some unusually bizarre and insensitive behavior from colleagues and friends, and I want to let the world know that it’s not OK to be an asshole like that, especially to a smart and kind and decent guy like my husband—a perpetual fixer who has found himself without any tools to repair or undo the most horrifying of tragedies.

Zack doesn’t think of himself as a writer, so I sat down with him and asked him some questions. Our interview follows. Caveat: Some readers may recognize elements of themselves in this post. If that’s you, as another baby loss mom recently wrote, it’s not too late to repair things.

But at some point, it will be.

How have your colleagues supported you after Luke’s death?

I went back to work just two weeks after taking the phone call, at my desk, that Luke had died. At that time everything was still so raw, and it was hard to talk about without bringing up all those emotions. I was just trying to make it through the day at that point. So right before I went back, I emailed my boss and asked him to put out the word that I didn’t want to talk about it.

I wouldn’t have ever guessed the consequences that this would eventually have.

On my first day back, I was extremely nervous—it was a feeling of blood pressure dropping, like getting really antsy your first day on a job. I didn’t know if anybody was going to say anything or if they would treat me differently or how they would look at me. I don’t know what I expected—just people being overly emotional or super concerned. And I couldn’t process my own emotions back then, let alone someone else’s.

But apparently my fears were unfounded. No one said anything. At all. Basically ever. It was like they went too far in the other direction. As time went on, it would have been nice for someone to at least acknowledge that something had happened, but only two guys bothered to do that even briefly, and they both had also lost a child. The office sent me a group card, so it seemed like they all figured they had checked off that box and didn’t need to do anything else to help a fellow human being in need and in pain. They were using my initial statement as a copout to get out of doing that hard work of being nice, caring people.

But they even got the card wrong: One signer addressed me as Mark.

Do you feel like Luke’s death is the elephant in the room?

Yeah. About two months after the loss, we went to dinner with a colleague and his wife, who was pregnant at the time. We endured several hours of conversation in which they did not once mention Luke. It really bothered me; even if I say I don’t really want to talk about it doesn’t mean you can’t say you’re sorry at least or express any kind of emotion about it or maybe ask what went wrong.

My coworkers also went beyond just ignoring the loss to having some really insensitive conversations within earshot. One colleague had a daughter just a few weeks before Luke was born and would talk openly about how she was keeping them up all night. And I would think, Good for you, because my kid’s not going to cry at all. And I would have to get up and go to my car for a few minutes just to get away from it. I can’t even begin to understand why not one person, especially the women in the office, would think that maybe it wasn’t OK to talk about these things so soon after our loss.

Around Thanksgiving, I sent a note to the office saying that in this time of thanksgiving, I wanted to express my gratitude for people abiding my initial wishes, and then I added that if anyone wanted to talk to me, I was open to that. I said, Please, no lookie-loos, and maybe that was my mistake. But still, no one came. I got only one response, a quick “Thanks.” I had thought maybe they were all just waiting for me to say something and if I sent this note out, somebody would say, Oh, thank you, I’ve been wanting to talk to you for so long but didn’t know what to say. Now nobody had any excuse for not saying anything, and yet still they kept silent.

After Christmas, two people asked me how our holidays had been. When I gave the honest answer that actually, it kind of sucked, they quickly changed the subject. I guess they really didn’t want to know. When we went to see Dr. Kliman, I left a note on my board that we had gone to see a placental pathologist at Yale. I wanted someone to ask me about it. When I got back to the office, two people did. One person said they hoped we got answers. The other person wanted to know how the drive was.

I’m disappointed, to say the least. It’s a subhuman response; they’re all just so wrapped up in themselves.

How have your friends outside of work responded to Luke’s death?

My close friendships have been forever altered. Friends I’ve known for a long time put up an initial attempt at support and then quickly disappeared. I know what they wanted—they expected me to reach out to them to start talking. But that’s just not the mode I was in.

I think for a lot of my friends, it’s because they’re introverts—at least, that’s what I’m blaming it on. But that doesn’t make me any less angry at them. Seeing a friend lose a child should force you of your comfort zone. We’re introverts too, but I think that if the situation had been reversed, we would have gone to visit no matter what the schedule looked like or what was going on. True friends just deserve that kind of support. For as Christian as all of my friends claim to be, none of them came to us in our time of need, and that bothers me more than anything.

Then there are the foot-in-mouthers. One friend’s initial paltry attempts at support included a lengthy email about how his son almost died shortly after birth—something about how he couldn’t have imagined not being able to take him home. Of course, he did take him home. I suppose it was an attempt at showing empathy and how he’d been in a dark place too. But that’s like telling an amputee you stubbed your toe. I’m sure an amputee would love to stub their toe again. Another friend asked us what name we were “planning” to use—as if Luke somehow wasn’t a real person just because he never took a breath. I’m sure the person didn’t mean it that way, but it’s just an example of people not thinking about what they’re saying. People don’t pay attention to the words they use when they say crap like that.

Still, saying the wrong thing is much better than not saying anything at all—it’s at least an attempt to show you care. When people don’t say anything, you feel like they don’t care about you at all.

I can’t ignore the fact that I’ve known these friends for so long, but at the same time, they’ve dropped several levels in my estimation. I’ll continue to see them, but it’s not like nothing happened. In fact, I can’t think of anyone I know without being reminded of their lack of support.

As one baby loss mom recently noted, it’s not that difficult. Google “what to say to someone that lost a child” and you’ll get 1.09 million responses. So there’s a lot of options there—including clues about what not to say.

A lot’s been written about the differences between how males and females grieve and the different types of support they need. What’s your perspective on male grief and how people respond (or don’t) to guys who are grieving?

I think people don’t think that I would feel long-term grief over Luke’s death because I’m a guy, or maybe they don’t want to find out and that’s why they didn’t say anything.

I read a book called Grieving Dads: To the Brink and Back. It felt like the author just wanted to write a bunch of stories about dads who have lost kids. There were points where it would talk about the grieving process and how nobody supports dads, but all the dads had people around them who cared and so it just wasn’t relevant to my situation. I don’t even really remember the aspects of how they got helped being in the book that much. It was just a big warning that Hey Dad, you’re probably going to be alone in this; these other dudes were and you can talk to them. But that didn’t help since I’m not the writing type; I’m not going to reach out and share my experience with a stranger. It wasn’t very solution-oriented.

Therapy didn’t help much, either. It seemed like the grief counselor just wanted to talk about how I could support you. I wanted her to tell me, do this and this and this. I didn’t want to talk about how it made me feel. My son died. It sucks. What else can I say.

At this point, five months out from our loss, what do you want to see from people?

I would love just an acknowledgment that something happened. That’s what I’m most upset about in the end. If there were one person who said anything at this point, they would go up in my book above everyone else who didn’t say anything. If they say it and it actually sounds sincere and then they never bring it up again, even that’s fine. But at this point, I would also be happy to talk about it openly and often, and to answer questions about it. The rawness has gone away and it’s actually harder not to talk about Luke. In the end, I just want my son to be honored and remembered.

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.