Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Holding it together, falling apart

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.


  1. I can totally understand this. As I have repeated many times to the people around me, I am not the same since M died. Just not the same. And I have terrible anxiety. People just don't get it. My experience is that they see that the "event" is long past, and that is that. And that woman in the article, it is the same for her, she is suffering from the scars of her experience and people think the wound is healed and gone.

  2. Oh, I disagree with you about shying away and that being okay. To me, it reveals a profound desire to deny one of the fundamental, painful truths of life: suffering happens, we are all vulnerable, and once it's hit you, you can never go back. Their smugness is denial, the childish feeling that they are too good or too... something for trouble to ever strike them.

    I think it's so hard just to get people to see your pain, and to acknowledge it. That, and some gentleness from time to time, is really all it takes, imho, to be a good, supportive person.

    I am so deeply sorry that you bear these wounds. Anyone who has ever been wounded knows they don't just up and disappear.

  3. For that woman whose daughters had been ill, the fear never went away. I suppose she still fears losing them. It had been postponed, but it was never dealt with.

    I'm very similar in that I respond very well in highly stressing moments. I shut down my panic centre and just deal with matters at hand. And then I keep pretending that I am fine, just fine because everyone loves a strong person, right? My therapist told me once that I had been traumatized, not with a big capital T but a little one. We did some EMDR and it helped me get past one particulary distressing event.

    To find healing is more complicated than the crisis merely becoming the past.

  4. Something like a child's death is like an asteroid strike -- it permanently changes your trajectory.

    All else is mere space dust.

  5. Ironically, I think it's about at the time when others think someone should "get over it" when people need the most support. That's when they've had the chance to process everything and what they've lost really hits them. (And it doesn't have to be a physical loss - could be a loss of innocence, like the woman in the article. Or the loss of a dream, as in infertility.) Yet, that's usually also the time when the people with the condolences and casseroles have moved on.

    I think there may have been something to the fact that in the "olden days" people used to wear black while they were in mourning. A visible reminder to those around them that they weren't "over it" yet, and had every right not to be.

  6. Thanks for this post! You have made me feel like it's OK to still be affected by the scars of the past. I have always thought that I made it past infertility so now I just have to put it behind me and forget about it. I feel guilty for letting it bother me still. Your post helped me look at this in a different way.

    Thank you

  7. Loribeth, I saw that story too and had the same reaction. I hate the "everything's fine!" as though your kids are small appliances, and once you get them fixed or replaced, you should be just swell. But what I appreciate from your telling here, is how wide this net really is of not getting over a certain trauma -- that it just reverberates through our lives, whatever "it" is. Thanks for this.

  8. People hate acknowledging painful, scary parts of life. They don't want to think about how it happened to you, because then they have to realize that it could happen to them too.
    My grandmother had three stillbirths and one 18 week D&E.
    The one that was her breaking point was the last stillbirth: twins at 40 weeks.
    It was 50 years ago and she still brings it up nearly every time I see her. She HAS to tell the story over and over. I can hear the pain in her voice every time.
    The idea that we should ever be OVER something so traumatic is bizarre to say the least.

  9. Hi,

    You visited my blog in response to Shaz' blog and I've been addicted to your blog for the last hour. I read every entry and say "Me too!" and "wow, she's expressed the emotions so very well". This particular entry resonates so strongly with me. Thanks so much for writing what you do.