Saturday, November 15, 2014

The search for meaning

I remember a time at our pg loss support group where everyone was discussing what "meaning" we could derive from our babies' brief existences, and how they had changed us for the better.

My dh said he wanted to think that losing Katie had turned him into a better, more noble person -- but he'd come to realize that he was still pretty much the same person he'd ever been. Needless to say, his was a minority view.

A couple of years later, though, when the evening's discussion was heading in a similar direction, our longtime co-facilitator said reminded him of that conversation. And she said (something to the effect of), "You know, when you said that, I thought you were so wrong, that of COURSE I'd been changed profoundly by my daughter's death. But as time goes on, I have to admit -- I think you were right. Life goes on much the same as it ever did, and I'm still basically the same person I was before my baby died."

I thought about that conversation as I read this essay from the New York Times's Sunday Review:  "I Nearly Died. So What?" After her brush with death, the author discovered that her friends & relatives were "hungry for evidence of my spiritual or moral transformation... My stable of petty complaints and shallow concerns, most of them having to do with some combination of unsteady cash flow, real-estate dissatisfaction and constant low-grade career anxiety, would surely be dwarfed by my gratitude just to be alive."
Please don’t misunderstand me. I was grateful to be alive, physically and cognitively — and, to be honest, even more grateful not to have emerged from the coma alive but with severe and irreparable brain damage. 
But I also knew myself well enough to suspect that after a few months of smelling the metaphorical flowers, I’d probably go back to being the whiny ingrate I was before. And as friends came by with meals and groceries and showered me with well wishes and all manner of questions about my state of mind, the more it occurred to me that their hunger for stories of my cosmic transformation was rooted less in their concern for my soul than in their culturally ingrained need for capital-C “Closure.” Because they wanted this chapter to end for me, because they wanted me to go back to being as healthy as I was when I was a whiny ingrate, they wanted to make sure I was sufficiently transformed so as to never whine or be ungrateful again. It was as if the only way any of us could be sure that my body was clear of infection was for me to officially become a better person. 
Americans have always been suckers for stories of triumph over adversity. But increasingly, we’re obsessed not just with victory but with redemption...   
Crises, by definition, are chaotic. They don’t always impart lessons and, contrary to what we like to tell ourselves, they’re just as likely to bring out the worst in people as the best. But the redemption narrative, along with its corollary, the recovery narrative, is so beloved in our culture that even rational people tend to glom onto it — if only for the sake of making polite conversation. Equal parts bedtime story, love story and horror story, it’s a perfect example of the American preference for sentimentality and neat endings over honesty and authenticity. 
What do you all think? (I would encourage you to read the whole article -- and there are some interesting comments too.)  I do believe that going through loss & infertility has made me a more empathetic person. Death & grief are never things we want to deal with, but they no longer frighten me in quite the same way they once did. I think I have a much better sense of what to say & do and how to support a friend who is grieving. But I don't think the essence of who I am has changed much.

Beyond the debate of whether we are changed by what happened to us, I love what this article has to say about others' eagerness to derive some meaning out of our situation -- how we feel compelled to come up with narratives to make others feel better & tie up all that nasty, scary stuff with neat, pretty bow. (I'm reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich's wonderful book "Bright-Sided," which I reviewed here, as well as "Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us" by Nancy Berns (reviewed here).  

I think this pressure to come up with "meaning" and to fashion a story for public consumption that has a happy ending is why so many of us who are living childless/free after loss & infertility feel we need to "compensate" in some way by changing our lives in some dramatic way. What's wrong with deciding that (if you can look past the absence of the children we once assumed we would have) our lives are pretty good more or less the way they are right now?



  1. That article definitely resonates with me (4-time cancer sufferer that I am and now terminal). I too am still an ungrateful ingrate and have had no epiphanies in my many struggles with this disease.

    I still whine and grumble with the best of them and am unable to offer Closure to anyone - least of all myself. It definitely makes some uncomfortable but at this point in my life I'm not overly interested in the comfort of others.

    One of my oncologists calls me the least positive cancer patient he's ever met and says I've survived as long as I have through sheer bloody-mindedness. My official nickname on the oncology unit is kudzu because I'm so hard to kill. I'll take it. ;)

    That said, if others can draw positive things out of their own suffering I'm glad for them.

  2. For a long time after I had cancer, I woke up and was like "It's a new day!! THIS IS SO AMAZING!" But in time, that faded for me. As I've recovered from the infertility aspect of things, I find that I often forget about it and I feel just the same as I used to.

    The one thing that hasn't gone back to normal for me is the feeling that my time is limited and I must make the most of every single moment. Feeling like I'm running from death is exhausting. So, I think it's kind of better to go back to normal.

    I'm more in the moment now - which I view as a positive. I'm more focused on what's going on now then making far flung plans for the future. I'm easier on others and much more sympathetic than I once was... but, I complain and whine and get angry in traffic just like before.