One beautiful spring Sunday afternoon in the late 1970s, when I was in high school, my sister, two girlfriends & I were walking on a street near our home when some guys we knew pulled up in a car to talk. My sister & her friend P. sat on the trunk of the car. I'm not sure the driver was even aware they were there when he took off. Not fast, but fast enough that they were thrown to the pavement. (I can still see the stricken look on his face as he got out of the car.) My sister's girlfriend hit her head on the pavement & when she sat up, she was oozing blood from the forehead.
Our other girlfriend, E., normally never at a loss for words or confidence, was frozen. I was concerned, but felt oddly calm. I whipped a wad of Kleenex out of my purse & pressed it firmly to P's forehead. A neighbour -- who happened to be an off-duty nurse -- came out of her house & took charge. Someone drove us all to the hospital, where it was quickly determined that my sister was fine, just a little bruised & shaken up, & P would be fine too, but would require stitches to her forehead.
Somehow, I got elected to call P's parents from the payphone in the waiting room. I calmly explained there had been an accident & could they please come.
I hung up -- and promptly burst into tears. I headed for the washroom -- & walked into the men's washroom by mistake. This made me cry even harder. ; )
E. snapped out of her stupor & took over, putting her arm around me & speaking to me soothingly, guiding me into the women's washroom & helping me clean myself up before my own parents arrived. For years afterward, I marvelled at how I'd managed to stay so calm in a bad situation -- only to fall apart once it was all over & I knew everything was going to be OK.
I thought of that incident, some 30 years ago now (!), when I read this article in today's New York Times. The author writes about how she managed to hold it all together during both her daughters' serious illnesses -- but although they are both fine now, "grief averted," this "brush with the unimaginable" continues to haunt her. She suffers insomnia, palpitations and panic attacks -- post-traumatic stress disorder. Friends don't understand, and impatiently tell her to stop worrying -- after all, everything is fine now. She needs to move on.
I think it was the friends' impatient, "get over it" reaction, more than anything, that resonated with me, and got me thinking about the parallels to my personal situation, & that of people I know who have also suffered through pregnancy loss and infertility. Granted, both of her children survived. There is a part of me that, like her friends, is a little annoyed with her. She still has her two kids, for Pete's sake. She's only had a "BRUSH with the unimaginable." What about those of us for whom the unimaginable has become the reality we live with, day in and out?
Still, I can relate to her feelings of being misunderstood, of being forever scarred by a traumatic experience, even if it did turn out all right in the end. Katie was stillborn almost 10 years ago. The wounds are not raw & gaping anymore, but the scars are there, & from time to time, they'll still ache & ooze a little bit.
Over the past 10 years, both dh & I have had struggles with anxiety and panic attacks. We constantly ask each other, "Are you OK?" He can be extremely overprotective of me. It can get annoying at times (I probably have to check in with him when we're apart more than I did with my mother when I was a teenager…!), but I fully understand why he needs the reassurance. For dh, Katie's loss compounded by the loss of his mother to cancer in 1982 at the far-too-young age of 53, when dh was 25 -- followed by the cancer-related deaths of four of her siblings, three of whom died before reaching 60. I see how this has marked him.
I think about friends who have lost a child, but went on to have subsequent children, & how all their friends and family assume everything is fine now (it's not). I think of friends whose babies were born prematurely & spent weeks in the NICU. Yes, their babies are fine now, but the parents bear the scars of that time. I think about the bereaved parents we've met who were told to "get over it" and obligingly tried to suppress their grief -- only to have their feelings resurface, years later & in ways they could not have foreseen.
I've always felt slightly annoyed when people tell me, "Oh, I can't imagine what you've been through." I get the feeling they don't even want to try -- don't want to go NEAR there. I can't blame them for shying away, but in their words, I sense a certain smugness, the belief that such things will surely never happen to them.
No, they can't imagine, and I hope they never have to face my reality. This writer didn't experience the unimaginable -- but she stared at it in the face and was shaken by what she saw. In that way, I feel more kinship with her than with other people who seem more oblivious to the fragility of life. I am glad she wrote this story about her feelings.