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Today, I was reading a post on the forum at Glow in the Woods, about how someone was now 23 weeks from when she lost her baby at 23 weeks, and she felt that she was under pressure from people to “finally be over it.” It seemed to her that, now that she had reached the amount of weeks her child had been alive, people thought that her grieving process should be coming to an end. That should she be returning to “normal.”
Which made me wonder – is there an expiration date on grief?
I don’t think so. How is it even possible to say that grief runs a course, that it has an end in sight? Whoever you’re grieving for will always be gone. You’re not going to reach a milestone and think, “Well, that seems about enough grieving. Time to stop feeling bad!”
By the standard applied above, I should have stopped grieving for Lauren long ago, nine months ago, really. How does that even make sense? What does it mean that I spent fifteen minutes or so this afternoon weeping for no other reason than that I realized she would be eighteen months old this week? That I’m weak? That I’m holding on to something that I should have let go months ago? How else am I supposed to feel, at this point in time when my daughter would be reaching a milestone? How does anyone feel when they reach the birthday of a lost loved one or an anniversary date that they’re celebrating alone?
Is this something that only happens to the babylost, this idea that grief has an expiration date? After a a year or so, is someone who lost their spouse or a parent supposed to magically start feeling the loss less? Do people really think a time stamp can be put on something as as personal as grief?
That’s the problem, I think. Grief cuts people differently. For some, it’s a wound that goes on hurting for years, healing little by little, with relapses and weak moments. No, I don’t cry every day over my lost daughter, but that doesn’t mean I miss her any less. It just means that I’ve learned to deal with it better. And every so often, I slide back down that slippery slope and find myself mired in tears and anger and guilt, all those charming hallmarks of early grief. It’s a struggle to deal with daily life sometimes, even on my best days.
I know what grief has done to me. It has made me unreliable, fragile. I have days when I feel that I could break apart at any moment, that I have only the barest thread of self-awareness connecting me to sanity. Just because I know it doesn’t mean that I can fix it completely. I can mend the rifts, but I know that there is a chance that they will break in the future. I know it, and I accept it, but I still live in fear of it. Nothing is for certain any more, nothing except that paradoxical knowledge.
Six months is way too early to expect someone to get over grief to the point where they can adjust back to “normal” life. I don’t care who they lost, whether it was a parent or a spouse or an adult child or “just a miscarriage.” I don’t believe there’s such a thing as “just a miscarriage.” It’s a loss, and that’s all that matters.
I get that it’s not easy for people to understand if they haven’t been through it themselves. I do. They don’t have to understand. They just have to be patient. They just have to be supportive. They just have to be gentle. And we, the babylost and the grievers, we have to tell them. We have to tell them when we’re hurting, because how else will they know? We have to stand up for ourselves, because grief is subjective. We don’t walk the path of grief with an end in site. No, grief walks with us. It is our companion now, and sometimes it does drive us in certain directions, but sometimes we learn to live with it. Because it will always be there with us, no matter how far we walk, no matter for how long.
Grief fades, but it doesn’t die. If it did, so would our memories of the one we’ve lost. So would our love. To stop grieving is to stop caring. It may grow smaller and less painful, but there is no expiration date on grief. Nor should there be.
You may have noticed that I do a lot of baking, but that I don’t seem to bake a lot of cookies. In fact, in the past sixteen months, I’ve baked a very limited amount of cookies, and they were all for Christmas or other celebrations. I haven’t really been able to bring myself to bake cookies for anything other than special occasions. It’s a little strange, because I used to bake cookies all the time.
No, actually, it’s not that strange. I have very good reasons for not baking cookies, and it’s only recently that I’ve thought about dealing with my anti-cookie mentality. You see, in addition to not baking them, I don’t eat them much either. But that’s mainly because the only cookies I’ll buy are Girl Scout cookies. And of those, I stick to the Thin Mints. I don’t see much point in buying cookies that I can make better. Except, I’m not making them, am I?
Here’s why: my daughter died.
A lot of my issues go back to that, don’t they? It seems like the perfect hang-up, doesn’t it? But I’ll tell you, this goes beyond mere grief. It goes beyond just feeling bad about not having my daughter with me.
As I said before, I used to bake cookies a lot. I even baked them when I lived in Japan, even though all I had was a tiny convection oven that allowed me to cook about a half-dozen cookies at once. It was okay, because I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed sharing American-style cookies with my students and co-workers. I even made cookies while I was pregnant. It gave me something to do. And while I was baking, I would daydream about the cookies I would bake with my growing child. I thought about all the family recipes I would share with her, about how I would teach her to enjoy cooking and baking, about passing along family traditions and lessons about eating healthy.
I did what so many mothers do: I daydreamed about my child and the experiences we would share. I had so much I wanted to do with her.
The Friday after what turned out to be our final pre-natal check-up, I became increasingly concerned about Lauren’s well-being. I’ve written of this, so many times, and it still hurts me to think of it. I remember those terror-filled days, those hours I spent confused and unsure and powerless, as vividly as though I lived them yesterday. That weekend was the worst of my life, three days of anguish, knowing that something was wrong but not wanting to believe it, not knowing what to do about it.
To keep my mind off my fears, I tried to distract myself by making peanut butter cookies. The process went slowly, much slower than ever. I had to stop periodically to grab tissues and cry out my frustrations. I tried to convince myself that making cookies would lift my spirits; I told myself that these were the last cookies I would make without my daughter as a helper. I imagined the nostalgic role peanut butter cookies would play in my life, the cookies I made before Lauren’s arrival. I imagined that she would be especially fond of these cookies.
I baked a dozen of them before I gave up, turned off the oven, stuck the rest of the batter in our tiny fridge, and crawled into bed to cry myself to sleep. The batter remained untouched all the rest of the weekend and on into the week. It was still sitting in the fridge while I was giving birth to my dead daughter, and it was still in the fridge when we came home with empty arms. My mother threw it away; I couldn’t even bear to touch the bowl.
Since then, I haven’t been able to look at a peanut butter cookie without feeling that hitch in my chest, that scratching my nose that is the warning sign of uncontrollable crying. I doubt very much I will ever eat one again. I certainly have no desire to.
Even now, nearly sixteen months later, I find if difficult to enjoy baking cookies. I manage at Christmas because they’re familiar traditions, and in the context of the holidays, they’re comforting in a way. But the making of them is not always enjoyable. The cupcakes I bake have no connection to Lauren when she was alive – they are monuments of my grief for her, separate from her memory – but cookies are like little mementos, reminders of what I had in my grasp, only to have it taken when I wanted it most.
Two weeks ago, I tried making lemon sugar cookies, and they failed miserably. They were not the soft and puffy cookies I had hoped for (and that were pictured along with the recipe); they were flat and crispy, quickly toughening up into a hard-to-chew disc of disappointment. Rather a fitting metaphor, I thought.
In another two weeks, the Tuesday with Dorie assignment will be cookies. I haven’t decided if I’m going to make them or not. Part of me wants to skip them, to not put myself through the trouble of it all. But another part of me wants to try them, to not give up on cookies yet. After all, these will be something I’ve not done before – like the cupcakes, they would be part of the healing process. That might make them worth the effort. Healing is part of grief. I know I will have to make cookies again sooner or later; I cannot live a life of avoidance, especially when it’s something as simple as a cookie.
Ah, but that’s just it. For me, there’s no such thing as a “simple cookie” any longer. And maybe not for a long time.
We’ll just have to wait and see.
Before moving to Texas, I would have said that freezing temperatures and snow were my least favorite weather.
It turns out I was wrong, because since moving to Texas, I have witnessed the most infuriating winds. I hate these winds. I hate them so passionately that it scares me at times. Sustained winds of 15 mph or more, gusts up to 40 mph or more. On Monday, we had sustained winds of up to 23 mph. There were isolated gusts up to 70 mph.
It’s not that I’m a stranger to wind. I spent much of my life in Florida, where winds meant storms, and storms were commonplace. These winds sometimes made me a little nervous, but I never hated them. They didn’t cause me any stress. I understood them, knew what they were all about.
Then I moved to Japan and experienced an entirely different wind. The karakaze (the “empty wind”) blows through Gunma in the winter, a strong wind so dry and so cold. I rode my bicycle to work, but not on days that the karakaze blew, because it was impossible. It was a struggle even to walk. And almost always, those days would be clear, sunny, bright. In Moriya, the city where I lived longest in Japan, there were also strong winds in the weeks preceding spring, but none quite like the karakaze.
I did not hate the karakaze. I considered it a nuisance, and I did not welcome it. At least it was not like the typhoons, destructive and accompanied by rain – but then, the typhoon winds were familiar to me. They were kin to the storm winds of Florida, brutal but never overly sinister. I never hated them either.
But this Texas wind, this wind that tears through the city – there is nothing familiar about it. It is not a companion of old; it is a tyrant, and I hate it. The Monday wind was the worst it has ever been. It loosened the sections of fence that had not been broken over Christmas. It ripped away patches of roofing paper, leaving more to beat against the roof even when the wind is not howling.
Today, a whisper of it is back. But even a whisper is enough. The unrepaired roof pounds at itself like a drum. The fence bends forward where it has come loose, threatening to break free if pushed too hard. Leaves from the churchyard behind our house swirl down into our yard, then back out again, carried away without thought. No birds take to the sky. If they do, they make little headway. The wind itself is loud, whooshing as it goes, leaving everything groaning and moaning in its wake.
And I hate it.
I know what has happened between now and then, and it’s so hard to explain. How can losing my daughter cause me to hate something as common as the wind?
I know also that it’s no good to worry about something I can’t control, and the weather certainly falls into that category. But even if I can’t control it, I have to deal with it. I have to deal with the damage it causes, with the madness it inspires as it shrieks around me.
And I must deal with the powerlessness it inspires.
I had thought that I was used to feeling powerless. That’s something else that comes with being one of the babylost. Control means nothing. But I have come to hate feeling powerless. I have grown so tired of feeling powerless. And here comes this tyrant wind again to remind me that power is nothing that I can claim. I have not chosen to give up control; it was never mine to begin with.
Must the feeling of being in control always be an illusion?
I can’t even control with the repairs will be made; that too is left in someone else’s hands. What can I do but sit and watch, powerless, as the wind thrashes around me and destroys that which I consider – for a time, anyway – to be in my care? This wind drives all sense of focus from me – all I can think of is what it’s doing and how helpless I am to do anything about it.
And I hate the control it has over me.
I hate that I hate feeling so powerless. I can’t let it go. I hate being at the mercy of this world, because it has no mercy.
That is what the tyrant wind tells me. That I can not stop it – or anything else – from taking that which I love. It reminds me that power is not mine.
And I hate it, because it speaks truth.
Hope is all I have. And even when the tyrant wind blows, hope whispers its message. It’s so hard to hear it. But I know that, when the wind stops, hope will still be there. The wind cannot blow that away.
Hope, too, speaks the truth. Power comes in different forms, varying degrees. To withstand the wind, to wait it out, to endure it – that is power of a kind.
When the wind is passed, hope will still be here. I will still be here. Weathered and worn, perhaps, but still here. Ready to pick up the pieces and put them back together and keep going.
Always, keep going.