Thursday, October 23, 2008

September/October 1998: Home alone (warning: another long one...)

September 1998 found me home alone and still trying to make sense of what had just happened to me. My parents had gone back home, & dh had gone back to work after three weeks off. His boss told him they'd give him a week as bereavement leave -- the maximum in the policy is three days -- but the two weeks we had originally booked off as vacation would still count as vacation. Some "vacation," huh??

As for me, I had a telephone chat with my office administrator about my leave. ("It's been hard, Elaine," I said. "It's a tragedy, Lori," she said firmly.) She told me that, because my baby was past 19 weeks gestation, I was entitled to the same 17-week leave funded by Employment Insurance (which, at that time, I believe was around half of your regular salary, but capped at a certain level -- around $400 a week, I think??) -- the same maternity leave benefits that any new mother in Canada got at the time. (However, I would not be eligible for the period of unpaid leave that usually followed. At the time the combined leave amounted to about nine months; since then, it's been extended to a full year. Fathers can share part of the leave.)

I told her that a handout in the hospital package had mentioned the EI benefits, and had also mentioned that I might be entitled to disability benefits. "Oh yes," she said, "and because of your long service with the company, I think you'd be entitled to up to 26 weeks on short-term disability at full salary."

26 weeks!! I told her I didn't think I'd need 26 weeks, but it was nice to know that I could take the time I needed and not have to worry about money. I told her that I would be seeing Dr. Ob-gyn for my post-partum checkup on Friday, Sept. 25th, and dh could pick up any forms that the dr needed to sign.

As the date of my post-partum checkup drew closer, & no forms had materialized, I gave her a call. "I'm going next week, and I can bring along any forms you need signed," I said.

"Oh Lori," she said. "I've been discussing your case with HR, and they won't let you take disability leave. You HAVE to take the 17-week maternity leave with EI benefits. There was a grey area in the policy... they're going to clarify it now, but they won't give you the benefit of the doubt."

She started explaining that this would mean taking me off the payroll, & backtracking for the time that I'd already been off work. Which would mean that I would return to work & still only be getting EI benefits to make up for the time I'd already been off work on full salary.

My head swam. I knew that, had I had the baby, I would have been on EI benefits by November -- but this was September, and I didn't HAVE my baby -- we had a funeral to pay for (plus, unexpectedly, a new furnace) -- & to suddenly have my income yanked out from underneath me, along with everything else I was dealing with, was profoundly upsetting.

I didn't want to go back to work right away. But -- if I took the full 17 weeks, dating back from the date of my loss, I'd have to return to work... right around my late November due date, and just in time for Christmas. Greeeeaaaat. I started crying.

"Leave it with me, I'll get back to you," she finally said.

A few days later, she called me back. "How long were you thinking of staying off work?" she asked. I said I wasn't prepared to return to work until I had clearance from Dr. Ob-gyn at my post-partum checkup on Sept. 25. Maybe after (Canadian) Thanksgiving in mid-October?

She told me the VP had a proposal for me: he was willing to keep me on the payroll at full salary -- call it a "special leave of absence" -- so long as I was willing to return to work after Thanksgiving (conveniently for the office, the beginning of our busy year-end season). If I felt I needed longer than that, we'd have to work something else out -- i.e., back to the EI maternity leave.

I thought it over & agreed, contingent on my ob-gyn's approval (he would have to provide me with a note explaining my absence). My leave now had a firm end date. I wasn't anxious to return to work, but I realized it WAS generous of the VP to give me this option.

At the same time, I was more than a little ticked off (& still am, when I think about it). I work for a federally regulated company, one of the largest in Canada, considered one of the country's top employers. Maternity leave laws have been around in Canada since at least the early-mid 1980s. And more than 70% of my company's employees are women, many of them in their prime childbearing years. You CANNOT tell me that mine was the first stillbirth they had ever had to deal with!!!

One day in September, my doorbell rang & a delivery man handed me a bulky package that clearly came from my office. "They're sending me WORK??!" I thought in disbelief. Actually, no. Inside was a sympathy card and a selection of current books they thought I might enjoy reading while I was off (in lieu of flowers). I was touched -- they knew me well!

I was, however, just a tad mystified/annoyed that the card was simply signed with the name of my department. When co-workers' parents had passed away, we'd always circulated a card for everyone to sign (along with an envelope for contributions). It seemed like just another example of the silence and avoidance surrounding the whole subject of pregnancy loss that I was beginning to experience.

Some time later, my co-worker/office best friend was away on vacation, & I was asked to find a document on her computer. In looking for the right file, I stumbled onto the note that was sent around, informing everyone of "the sad loss of the baby Lori & her husband Sam were expecting" and asking for donations to cover the cost of the books. There was a circulation list attached. I printed off the note and the list, so that I'd at least have a record of who my co-workers were at that time, & put it with the rest of Katie's things.

*** *** *** *** ***

People asked me what I was did to pass the time while I was at home (like I was on some kind of holiday). I find I never lack for things to do on the rare days when I'm home by myself. I don't drive, & although I could have taken a bus to the local mall, I preferred to stay close to home. I did try to get out of the house for a walk every day that the weather allowed. We have a strip plaza a short walk away, with a supermarket where I could pick up groceries, & I would take the long way around to get some extra exercise.

I started writing thank you notes to everyone who had sent us flowers & cards. I read. I cleaned. I picked plums from our loaded-down plum tree (fruitful in a way it had never been before, and never would be again -- unlike me...) and baked plum crisp and plum cake, and (non-plum) cookies and muffins.

I supervised the installation of a new bathroom ventilating fan, a new furnace, and had the carpets steam cleaned. I surfed the Internet, looking for reasons why this might have happened. I ordered some books about pregnancy loss from Amazon, including the classics "Empty Cradle, Broken Heart" and "A Silent Sorrow," and began devouring them as soon as the box landed on my doorstep.

I looked at a few message boards, but was hesitant to put myself "out there" on the Internet, which was still relatively new to me. One day, I found a site for a private e-mail list for women pregnant after loss, or planning or contemplating another pregnancy after a loss. This sounded right up my alley, & the closed nature of the list appealed to my worries about privacy. Long before blogs, the list became my daily lifeline.

I called the (real life) support group whose pamphlet had been in the hospital package. They explained that they had a monthly drop in night for newly bereaved parents, but they needed to fill a quota before they could start an actual weekly group. Once they had enough people, we would go through an intense few weeks together, talking & learning. And then that would be it. But first, they wanted me to come to their office for an interview. (!) Their office was in midtown in the city, which would mean a 40-minute train ride into the city, a 20-30 minute subway ride and a bus ride. I thanked them for the information and said I'd get back to them.

Then I called the social worker who had been so kind to us following our loss, to ask about another group mentioned in the literature, one that met weekly at the hospital. "Unfortunately, that group has been discontinued," she said (then why include the pamphlet in the package??), but then she added, "but I do know of one other group -- I'm on their board of directors." She gave me a number to call.

That's how I found our support group. I attended my first meeting on Thursday, Sept. 17th, at a church a few miles away from where we lived Dh had to study for an exam he was writing on the Saturday (at least, that was his excuse, lol), but drove me there & picked me up again. He did come with me to the next meeting, Thursday, Oct. 1st. And we've been there ever since...!

We returned to the cemetery office, and ordered a plaque for our daughter's niche. It was up when we went to visit on Sunday, Oct. 4th.

*** *** *** *** ***

Sometimes days would pass before I talked to another adult besides dh. One of dh's cousins dropped by one day with flowers. She didn't stay very long, using her sulky toddler as an excuse to leave quickly.

A few days later, on the Labour Day weekend, we went to a local waterpark with her, another cousin, dh's brother & their families. It was a hot, humid day, and we sat on the cement by the pool, watching as the kids splashed around & had a ball. I was still wearing maternity clothes at this point, since not much else fit me, & I have a photo of myself, all dressed in black, as if in mourning. We rode in his cousin's van, and drove past the cemetery where our daughter's ashes were interred. I pointed this out -- I think someone may have emitted a polite "Oh?" & that was that.

The next day, we went to another aunt's house for lunch. She handed me some towels she had bought for me (!), hugged me & said, "We won't talk about it anymore." (And she never has.) She's the soul of generosity, but her response is typical of dh's family, particularly those in the older generation.

Her younger daughter, newly pregnant with her second baby (born in April 1999, six months after Katie's November due date), hugged me & simply said, "I don't know what to say." "There's not much you CAN say," I remember saying. I talked a little bit about what had happened over coffee, as she & her sister listened with sad expressions on their faces.

I didn't see much of cousin/neighbour's wife -- a stay-at-home mom to two young girls, who had been so excited about our baby's impending arrival & had assured me she would be over "every day" to help me out. She invited me over for lunch, & I wound up spending most of the day with her on Wednesday, Sept. 16th. Another day, I walked over there with some plums from our tree. That was about it, between our Labour Day excursion to the waterpark and Thanksgiving. It was the beginning of a gradual disengagement between us, although we didn't realize it at the time...

I started getting calls. A former co-worker, now living in Cleveland, who had received the mass e-mail I had sent out (& had had a miscarriage herself) surprised me with a call. My (older, childless) best friend/coworker from the office left me a message one day. She started out brightly, saying she just wanted to see how I was doing. But her voice began to break as she added, "I was absolutely devastated when I came back from vacation & they told me what had happened." She came out to visit me, bearing (more) flowers. We sat on my front porch with iced tea & I told her the story of what had happened, as she wiped tears from her eyes. (She's always been there to listen & even though she has been retired for nearly two years now, I still miss her every day!)

Another friend & former coworker called one day. "Hey, I tried calling you at work. What are you doing at home?" "Well...I lost the baby," I said flatly. "Oh!" she said. I briefly outlined what had happened. And then she began to babble. I realize I caught her totally off guard... but one of the things she said has forever stuck in my mind as one of the dumber things anyone said to me, post-loss:

"Well, you know, Lori," she said, "you've had a pretty easy life up until now." I know I recognized right off the bat that this was a pretty odd thing to say, and I found it harder & harder to keep up my end of the conversation. After we hung up, I mulled the conversation over & over in my head. This friend hadn't had a very easy time of it in recent years -- her husband had left her, she was having difficulty dealing with a high-spirited teenaged daughter. I'd always been there to listen & encourage her. Basically, I felt like I'd been told that I'd had a pretty cushy life (in comparison to hers), so suck it up. And was I imagining it, or did I perhaps detect a faint note of glee, that I was finally sharing some of her pain -- perhaps even gotten what I deserved?

We have stayed in touch -- but needless to say, we have drifted apart & only speak to each other a handful of times during the year.

*** *** *** *** ***

Friday, September 25th -- my post-partum checkup. It was originally scheduled for 1:15 p.m. (I knew he saw all his pregnant patients in the morning), but the day before, his assistant called to ask if I could come at 11:30 instead. I also had a 10:30 a.m. appointment with my family doctor to have my postpartum thyroid levels checked.

I took the bus to the train station in time for the 9 a.m. train. As the bus pulled up, I noticed there were hordes and hordes of schoolchildren lining the platforms. What the heck was going on?? Then I remembered: this was the day Nelson Mandela was making a special appearance at the SkyDome (now called the Rogers Centre) in Toronto, to be attended by some 50,000 area schoolchildren. Needless to say, I did not relish the thought of sharing a train loaded with rambunctious grade schoolers, particularly this day of all days. Fortunately, they had actually commissioned special trains for the kids, so the regular train was blessedly quiet.

There were still a few pregnant women in the hallway when I arrived. Dr. Ob-gyn examined me , answered my questions, agreed I could return to work anytime I wanted, and provided me with the required note. Then I went to the social worker's office to say hello and thanks to her. After that, I went to a Kinko's shop across the street. I had found & devoured Toni Weschler's "Taking Charge of Your Fertility" & tore the page with the prototype chart out of the back to be enlarged & copied. Dr. Ob-gyn recommended we wait three full cycles, but after that, I intended to waste no time. It had taken us 2.5 years to get pregnant, doing absolutely nothing special. I figured I could cut that time considerably with a little targeted effort on our part. (Oh, such innocence!)

*** *** *** *** ***

That Sunday, Sept. 27th, dh & I went to church at the Anglican parish we had joined, in anticipation of starting a family. Our minister was a huge proponent of the Alpha program, and our special guest speaker was a young British pastor & his wife, who had helped to found the Alpha program for youth. They were en route to attend an Alpha conference elsewhere in Canada. His wife had brought a guitar with her & sang a few of her own compositions, in a beautiful, soaring voice.

At the end of the service, the young pastor stepped forward. In preparation for their trip, he said, his wife had been praying and had been entrusted with "words of knowledge" (something I had never heard of in my Anglican upbringing) -- images, visions, of people who needed prayer. There was a young woman, looking out a window at a field. A young boy with a tall hat.

"And there's a young woman with short dark hair. She's holding her stomach, or her womb. We can't tell if she's pregnant, or wants to be pregnant, but there's a lot of fear and sadness there."

If any of these images "spoke" to you, he added, please come see us after the service.

The choir stood, sang the last hymn, and processed out. People got up and started leaving. While I sat, frozen in my pew, thunderstruck. "What's the matter?" asked dh.

"It's me! I know it's me!" I whispered back to him. "I have to tell them!"

Dh gave me a weird "look" & said he would wait for me in the car.

I made my way to the front and eventually managed to catch the young woman's eye. "I'm your pregnant woman," I said. "I lost my baby seven weeks ago."

The woman told me that she too had lost a pregnancy, a miscarriage. "I'm so glad you came forward -- I could see this woman so clearly and I was so worried about her," she said. She held one of my hands & put her other hand over my now un-pregnant stomach and, as tears poured down both of our faces, she prayed for me, for my baby, for healing, for the knowledge of God's love to ease my pain. While her husband stood beside us, also praying with us, but also clearly uncomfortable, to my amusement. Even ministers could be typical men, I thought.

She gave me a hug & I went out to the car where dh was waiting. I've never been a huge believer in spirits and such... and in recent years, I've sometimes wondered whether someone from the parish (the minister, perhaps) had put them up to it, thinking I needed prayer. Whatever. Someone -- or "Someone" -- obviously felt that I needed some comfort, and sent it to me in a very unforgettable way. I have no idea whatever happened to that couple, but I hope she eventually got pregnant again and had a healthy baby.

*** *** *** *** ***

(Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend: my last weekend before heading back to work. My mom & sister went to Minnesota to visit my grandparents, & I talked to them there. BIL & his family came over on Saturday and we took a drive in the country, northeast of where we live. Cousin/neighbour had us over for dinner (cornish hen, instead of turkey) on the Sunday, Oct. 11th. The weather was clear, sunny and gorgeous, and the fall colours were at their peak.

Tuesday, Oct. 13th: 5 a.m. sure comes early when you've been used to sleeping in for the past 10 weeks or so. The closer I got to my office, the more dread I felt. The thought of walking in through the main door of my department gave me pause. I knew I couldn't do it. There was, however, another, less well used entrance, right outside the space I shared with my coworker/office best friend, so I decided to go in through that.

I'm normally one of the first people in the office, but today, she was already there. "Welcome back," she said, rising out of her chair.

I put down my briefcase and burst into tears. She hugged me. As the day went on, people dropped by my office to say hello. Some of the women asked questions about what had happened. Most of the guys, looking uncomfortable, just said, "Glad to have you back" & left as quickly as they could, lol.

I was prepared for my coworkers. They all knew what had happened. What I wasn't really prepared for was everyone else. I had worked for this company for 12 years, and in this building for 10. I knew a lot of people from other departments, including the one just down the hall from us. I saw a lot of the same people day in & day out -- the girls at the Second Cup outlet where I got tea every morning, the food court places I went to eat, the clerks at the newsstand where I'd buy magazines and candy. These people knew I'd been pregnant, saw my expanding belly. Then I was gone, & now I was back again, not pregnant. They just assumed I'd had the baby and now I was back. "What did you have, a boy or girl?" they'd ask with a huge grin on their face. And then I'd have to tell them, and watch the grin turn to an expression of disbelief and horror. I could only handle so many of those encounters in a day, & would go out of my to avoid people if I could sense one in the making.

Everyone told me to take it easy. Of course, it didn't take long for them to start filling my inbox as though I'd never been gone. Back to work, for the most part equals "back to normal" in most people's minds.

*** *** *** *** ***

Thursday, October 15th, my third day back at work. I was feeling crampy and PMS-y.

My telephone rang at the office.

It was my mother.

My grandfather was dead. Had slipped away peacefully while napping, as my grandmother read beside him, oblivious. He was 86 years old. I was 37. How many 37 year olds do you know who still have a complete set of grandparents?? I knew he wasn't going to live forever -- but why now???

I had always dreamed that my children would know my grandparents. As both my grandparents & I got older, I modified the dream. My kids might not remember my grandparents, but I could at least have the thrill of bringing great-grandchildren to see them. (Not their first great-grandchildren -- by the time my grandfather died, my two cousins each had a boy & a girl, & my one cousin was also a stepfather.) Now that dream, too, was shattered.

I called dh & he came up to my office & held me as I sobbed. First a coworker came upon us, & then my boss. "Her grandfather died," my coworker said, with a "poor kid, what next??" look on her face.

I went home. And started packing, & calling to find out about flights. I booked myself on a flight leaving the next morning. My dad & sister met me and together, we drove down to the small northwestern Minnesota town where my grandparents had lived, & where my mother already was. The cost (on top of the funeral, the new furnace, etc.) was horrendous, even with the special bereavement fare, but I didn't care. I wanted to be with my family. While my loss was not the particular focus (although many people gave me their condolences), it just felt good to be with family and in a place where I could wallow freely & feel buoyed by the mutual grief and the love & care of family & friends.

My grandmother, 84, who had mild dementia, was bewildered by this turn of events. She kept asking where my grandfather was and, when reminded that he had died, would ask how long they'd been married. My mother brought her back to the apartment from the nursing home to stay while we were there, & I got to share a bed with her. We crawled into bed & looked at each other & she chuckled and said, "How many years has it been since we did this?" Too long, Grandma, too long.

I did not get to see my grandfather again. They sent his body to be cremated, as he had wished. My mother, grandmother, uncle & his wife saw him, though. My mom told me she'd had him dressed in one of his plaid shirts, suspenders and the comfortable old grey cardigan sweater he wore constantly. "He looked good," my uncle told me. "He looked at peace."

While we were there, my mother's cousin (my godmother) got the shocking news that her best friend from growing up had also just passed away. Her funeral was held a few days after my grandfather's. Why is it these things happen all at once??

The ashes weren't back in time for the funeral on Oct. 19th, at the beautiful little Episcopal church my grandfather had attended faithfully for most of his life. Afterwards, people started drifting back to their homes and work. I stayed with my mother. Grandpa's ashes arrived on Wednesday -- in the mail, no less!! "Here's Grandpa, home for the last time," my mother said as she came into the apartment from the post office, carrying the box and wiping her eyes.

"Oh, & we don't even have his chair for him!" I said. We'd taken his easy chair up to the nursing home for my grandmother the day before.

In the afternoon, Mom & I took Grandpa's ashes with us, and drove, in a caravan with my uncle & his wife, my grandmother and a few of my mother's cousins, up to the site of the farm where my grandfather had been raised, a mile or two south of the Canadian border (and also close to the town, on the Canadian side, where I had been born, & where my dad's family had lived). It was a beautiful clear, sunny, autumn day. I stood there and looked around me, at the land my ancestors had come to in the late 1870s. In a lifetime of moving around from one place to another, this area was always the place I had returned to. More than anywhere else on earth, this was HOME.

My mother had brought Grandpa's mother's Book of Common Prayer, & we stood in a circle, near the site where the house had been, and read the prayers from it. Then we each took a handful of the ashes and scattered them to the winds. "I love you, Grandpa," I said as I released mine. Then we went to the cemetery, a short distance away, & scattered some more ashes on the graves of Grandpa's parents & grandparents. Mom took the rest back to the funeral home, and when my grandmother died on October 7th, 1999 -- almost a year to the day later -- they were placed inside her casket and buried along with her. Together forever.

At my grandmother's funeral on Oct. 11th, 1999 -- Thanksgiving Monday -- my dad's older sister, my other godmother, told me her husband was not well. He'd been mysteriously losing weight. Four days later, on Friday the 15th, I was at my parents' home and answered the phone when her oldest son, my cousin -- a big, tough city cop less than a year older than me -- called, his voice choked with tears. His dad had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

I returned home the next day, Saturday. On Sunday morning, my dad called, disbelief in his voice. My uncle had died that morning in bed, just two days after his diagnosis. He was 65 years old and had only just retired within the past year. His funeral was held October 20th -- his wife's birthday (!!), AND the same day my mother went into the hospital for a long-planned hysterectomy. Dad took her in, then went to the funeral while my sister stayed with her.

Do you see why October is a month that tends to fill me with dread & melancholy??

Back to 1998: I flew back home on Thursday, and went back to work the following Monday, Oct. 26th. Technically, I knew I was only "entitled" to three bereavement days. I had taken six. I overheard one of the administrative assistants asking my boss how she should "count" my absence. "Just let it go," my boss said. And I never heard about it again. Small mercies.


  1. Yes, I can completely and totally see why you might loathe October. You made me cry. Thanks for reminding me how much I treasure my life and my family.

  2. This past Monday (Oct 20th) was 18 years since I lost my dad to cancer... and I have had a hard time every October since. Just wanted you to know that you are not alone.... (((hugs)))

  3. Loribeth, thank you for sharing more of your story. I'm so sorry that you experienced the loss of your grandfather so soon after the loss of Katie. I'm heartened to hear about the people who were able to show you such compassion and help with your healing, and saddened to hear about those who weren't. I can understand why you don't like October and am sending you (((hugs)))

  4. This story is of great grief and trial. I'm so inspired that you can pick up the pieces and put one foot in front of the other. You have great strength and courage. I pray for your peace and understanding of these events. I'm so thankful that God sent you that British couple to pray with you. Just affirms that He is with us. No one can diminish the pain you suffer, but I hope in time you can enjoy the month of October and think of those you lost with only happy thoughts. When I start to think of my Daddy that I lost 9 years ago, my mind goes back to the tragedy of his death. I've taught myself to think about other times, the happy times. The times we laughed and when we said I love you to each other. I hope this thought helps you cope.

  5. Re: that friend you mentioned - there's a term - schadenfreude - some people just like to know that the so called lucky people have tragedies as well. Yeah, it was a dig, she probably didn't even mean to let it slip out - I feel sorry for her.

    I've felt sometimes that, well a lot, that life is unfair. Babies are lost to parents who desperately want them, babies are born to people who shouldn't have them. People we love die and leave us without them. Dreams are shattered and grief is always there. All we have are the causes we make and the struggle to fight for our happiness. You've come a long way, remember always to look ahead - for spring.

  6. I wish you could skip October. ((hugs))

  7. I'm sorry this month bring all this pain back so fresh for you. **hugs** It does seem sometimes that tragedies topple on one another in hideous groupings, rather than giving any of us recovery time.

    Every time I think about that comment your "friend" made to you, I just want to scream. Honestly, her insensitivity catches my breath. I hate that she added to your sorrow. I'd like to think she hates that she ever said it. Here's hoping she has some bit of remorse about it.

  8. I'm so sorry this happened, jeez it was so much like what happened to me vis-a-vis work and EI.

    And do you know that it still is a problem in so many workplaces? I've been lobbying for EI reform for so long I sometimes feel like a broken record. Drives me nuts...

    And the comments? I can definitely relate.

    Again, I'm so so sorry!

  9. Ok October is officially off the calendar. We'll call it something else. How about September: The Sequel?
    I can't get over that one "friend's" comment about what an easy life you had had up until that point. Does that mean that anyone with a so called easy life is due for something bad? Is that how it works? Geez.

  10. When it rains it pours, right? What a tough time for you. Reading about your experience at work reminded me of mine.
    I am still in awe sometimes that we are still here, standing, breathing, grieving, etc. Granted, you have been on this journey much longer than I, but I just find it amazing that any one of us has been able to endure this and keep going. Thinking of you!

  11. Small mercies, indeed.

    What the young pastor and his wife said that day in the church gave me the chills. Wow.

    Such a sad, sad time, Loribeth. I can understand why this might be such a heavy time of year for you. So much pain thrown at you in such a short period of time. So awful.

  12. It sometimes feels -- at least to me -- like life is an endless run of losses.