Living With Grief


Assessed (verb, past tense): Evaluate or estimate the nature, ability or quality of someone

The first verbal conversation you have with EVERY SINGLE PERSON after you’ve experienced loss, can bring a lot of anxiety. It’s why my phone might start ringing in my hands and I’ll just stare at it dumbly – that’s happened a lot. I’ve found it much easier to schedule calls instead.

It’s all because the person who’s grieving is acutely aware of every first conversation, because that person is readying themselves for assessment. What do I mean by that? Well, people are calling to see how you are, so it’s an evaluation system, you’re essentially being interviewed, assessed – over and over and over again.

Family and friends want to see how you’re holding up. They want to judge how you’re doing. From my perspective, people have greater expectations of the mother. People always seem to eye me up a lot more than they do James. Do people expect me to a bawling wreck the whole time? I think so. They expect tears, dammit I expect tears. I SHOULD be sad ALL of the time, shouldn’t I? I just lost another baby. Sadly, grief doesn’t work like that. I wish it did.

In the early weeks of loss, you really do look like you feel: a wreck. As time passes, you have to learn to function again: get up, get showered, get dressed, get back to work; it gets easier to disguise what’s going on inside. Not that that’s your intention, it’s just what brushing your hair does – it makes you look presentable.

On my first group video call after losing Summer a friend said “oh you look nice!” and although it was meant as a compliment, I heard surprise. She was surprised I was looking so well – I hadn’t straightened my hair or put on any makeup, but I did smile and talk a lot. Afterwards, I felt bad for that, like I’d betrayed my baby, and myself, for not doing Summer justice with my presentation of grief.

More recently we had a video call with some friends. I’m sure they would have hung up and said “oh that went well, they both seem to be doing ok”, but their assessment wasn’t complete. What they had assessed was our ability to have a ‘normal’ discussion; about the lovely weather, our impressions of working from home, our ongoing building work. What they didn’t assess is how we are actually doing. I think the only way to really judge that is to discuss the topic of baby loss. That’s how you’ll really know. Now I’m not suggesting that that’s appropriate every time, I just want you to be aware that you can’t judge that people are doing ok, if you don’t delve into the difficult questions. It’s easier for you – and me – If I am a bawling wreck, but if that’s the case, I’m not going to take a call, am I? In all honesty, when they hung up, I felt deflated. From my perspective, I’d had the nervous anticipation of the call, but then we didn’t talk about anything real.

I find that I’m getting better talking about this topic (this blog helps with that immeasurably), I can answer your questions on baby loss, because I think it’s important to. But if I transport myself back to that room, picture my baby, remember how short that time was, it’s still extremely painful. I think it might always be. Everything I have done since, is just a distraction, to keep me from revisiting that room. All of the beauty of it and all of the regret.

So yes, it’s a really hard one: should we be talking about baby loss, or not? I don’t know (sorry). I just wanted to give you an insight into my life and the situations I have to contend with. When your friends and family know it’s something you’re dealing with, call to see how you are, refrain from delving into it, then perhaps pat themselves on the back for getting in touch and concluding you’re ok (i.e. leaving you feeling like you’ve done yourself and your baby a disservice) – that’s what’s difficult. Perhaps the caller just needs to get their intentions clear; are you calling to provide a distraction or are you calling to ask some of the difficult questions today? One will tell you how we’re functioning, the other will tell you how we are.

It’s actually really simple: in lots of ways we are ok, in lots of ways we aren’t. How we are on the inside, cannot be judged by the outside. Please remember that, even when we’re smiling.

N.B. This blog has been extremely difficult to write. I’m not ‘happy’ with it. I have none of the usual relief after blog writing, I still feel in a muddle. I’d love to know what your takeaways are so that I can assess whether it’s delivering the intended message.

(11) Comments

  1. Kim says:

    Despite not ever going through anything like this; I am all too familiar with the passive “how are you?” And the expectation that we invariably reply “ I’m fine”.

    If you ask that question, I think you probably do need to be prepared for any number of answers and particularly to delve deeper.

    It’s such a superficial question we ask in every day life, multiple times a day. But do we really mean it?

    Don’t feel deflated. I don’t think there’s ever a right or wrong answer. But this is such a good topic to go away and think about. ❤️

  2. Kirst says:

    Anj, firstly – you write beautifully, as always. Given that you’ve asked for takeaways though, I will be honest. It feels perhaps a tad harsh on the people who love you, are trying their best to communicate with you and provide some sort of comfort- however imperfectly. I might be very wrong, but I think some people may come away from this post feeling a little unfairly judged themselves. I don’t think people are expecting tears all the time, or giving themselves a pat on the back and concluding that you’re okay after a call. It may be doing your friends and family a disservice to assume that they are approaching this from a rather one dimensional angle. The people who love you, know that you’re in pain and that grief is not a linear process. You said it perfectly – in some ways you’re okay, and in some ways you’re really not – I’m sure that people get that. We know it’s a painful journey, and wish (so much) that we could take that pain away from you. I just think… sometimes people don’t know exactly what to say, or how to say it – so the default may then be to just have a lighthearted chat, to keep in touch… to just BE there. As you say – it’s not exactly meaningful conversation a lot of the time, but people ‘showing up’ for a call in and of itself, says quite a lot about how they feel about you and what you’re going through. Anyway – it helps to hear how you’re feeling, and how you’re processing things. Hopefully this helps you too. Love you. x

    1. j s says:

      People Often don’t ask questions that are specific to the situation. Often they are only interested in giving their view and not really hearing the person who has suffered. Friends of mine have recently lost a child. If I didn’t have the courage to gently bring the subject up and ask questions and really listen, were they to indicate willingness, then I couldn’t really call myself a good friend. It takes courage but not having that honest and truthful conversation means that, like Anj, did, a bereaved friend would justifiably feel let down. You don’t have to get into detail but to not acknowledge what’s gone on or discuss it is not fair.

  3. Claire says:

    I have learnt so much from reading this post. In some ways, more than I have some of your other posts because it is something I had never really thought about. I understand your conclusion of “I don’t know” because you are completely right. Some of those conversations are distractions and some are to find our what is really going on right now. Some people will be able to provide one form of comfort, others only the other and then some will want to be there with you for both. I think it is incredibly difficult for both parties because no-one knows what the other wants or why they are there in that interaction
    . Of course, the burden of this shouldn’t fall on you as the one in the midst of grief.
    I remember the first time I saw you. I was really incredibly nervous coming to see you. Obviously I wanted to know how you were but the real reason I was nervous, is because I did know how you were. You had just lost your baby. You weren’t going to be anything but broken. When my family are grieving, it is all tears..completely and utterly, nothing else..until we meet. And then we are able to laugh and smile with each other and joke about the relationships we all had with the one we have lost. I love our family for that. It helps with the grief but it doesn’t take it away. I think anyone who has experienced grief, will mostly understand (although in the moment they may forget) that there are ‘lighter moments’ where you are distracted or you are enjoying reliving a memory.
    I hate that you have to go through those moments each time you have an interaction with anyone for the first time. I don’t know how to make that better. I wish I did. But you’ve opened the conversation and that is a step forward.

    1. Matt says:

      I think Kirst has put it really well. It would seem, to me, a tad superficial to qualify a conversation prior to having it. Also, sometimes the motive of a conversation is nothing more than a ‘checking-in’ exercise and a show of support. Sometimes the direction of a conversation allows for having deep and meaningful conversations, but without that natural course, sometimes the only way to delve a bit deeper is to ask the cruel, open-ended question, “how are you?” which feels insensitive and impersonal.

      Having had conversations with you, I know you’re, at times, struggling and at the conclusion, I don’t leave thinking otherwise because you perhaps laughed or smiled several times during the course of the chat, and I certainly don’t view that as a betrayal of Summer. Grief is a process – sometimes you laugh, sometimes you cry, sometimes you feel angry, sometimes you feel guilty, sometimes you feel nothing – and when we’ve spoken, I don’t come away thinking anything other than I hope I’ve helped, in some small way.

      I hope the above doesn’t seem insensitive, but offers another perspective. And I hope it helps in some small way, just as these posts continue to help and educate me in a much bigger way. I cannot tell you how proud I am of my friend – do not underestimate what an incredible, honest, thought-provoking and educational blog this is. X

  4. Jen says:

    Firstly, I think everything you’re feeling is completely normal and anything you feel is OK.

    I have also had exactly the same reaction in terms of pretty much having an ability to compartmentalise emotions to get what needs to be done, done. This can often come across as strange, even to myself when I wonder why I am not crying constantly and feeling depressed about everything. I am very much black and white. I do also know that this is part of a normal reaction to trauma. You are not doing yourself or your babies a disservice, you are simply finding ways of coping with a traumatic experience. It’s not even really within your control.

    I have two living children as well as having had 3 subsequent late miscarriages and I would say that a lot of the feeling of ‘judgement’ you’re describing could also be described as the strange parental initiation ceremony which unfortunately takes place as soon as you procreate. It goes something like this…. ‘welcome to parenthood, everyone else will now have a say on your thoughts, actions and feelings, please strap in for the ride, it’s going to be bumpy’

    I know from your past posts that you’ve struggled with the idea of whether you should consider yourself as a mother. This feeling of being judged should certainly be added into the mix when you are deciding on your parental status. It’s a key component of being a parent, probably the biggest, and the part that regularly has me pondering moving to a remote island 🙂

    All jokes aside, I’ve experienced a very different type of interaction/reaction with friends since losing babies. It’s the one that includes a quick ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’ and then no contact for months or in some cases, years. Even in the case of my best friend not allowing me to talk about a loss with her due to her own anxiety, I presume.

    I think that everyone means well, even those who can no longer face having a conversation with me. They just don’t know what to say, how to ask questions, what questions they should ask, whether they should ask questions at all, whether you need help, whether you should be left alone, whether they are doing the right thing or not and all sorts of other things which will be going through their mind.

    They will probably be judging themselves as much as you see them to be judging you. It’s an inevitable and inescapable part of dealing with feelings no one wants to have to feel or deal with.

    However, I’ve dealt with an awful lot of ‘judgement’ recently, and I have started to try to change my mindset on it to describe it to myself more as assumptions being made, rather than judgements.

    Assumptions are made all the time of us by others, and vice versa, often incorrectly and unfairly, but I now try to believe they are perhaps less commonly coming from a place of judgment and more commonly from a place of uncertainty.

    Of course I don’t know your friends, but I think they are there for you in the best way they know how. If you need to talk about your babies with them anytime, it might help to start the conversation if you can manage it, as others may not know how to start, but do still care.

    People almost always do the right thing when they know how. Or at least it helps me to believe this is true.

  5. Vicky says:

    This post has been incredibly eye-opening Anj, I myself am quite a closed book emotionally and been fortunate enough not to have experienced grief in any way near to the extent that you and Ruse have. These are (but by no means an excuse) perhaps a reason for the stumbling around in the dark approach as to what the best thing is we should be doing. I have no doubt that any shows of support whether just a small hello or gesture to a deeper discussion delving into the difficult questions, all come from a place of love and genuine concern for you. But if I am understanding this post correctly, sometimes yes you do appear happier or want to talk about something else which as many people have said is all part of the grieving process so that you can just get through each day. But that’s not to say that is how you are necessarily feeling and sometimes there needs to be the acknowledgement of the deeper pain that never goes away and give you the choice of whether you want to delve further into it or not.
    It may feel like people don’t realise this, it may feel like people are only superficially checking-in or assessing you but I do truly think it’s because people just have no idea what to do or say. In my case when we have talked in the past I would not come away thinking ‘I’ve done my bit’ and ‘they seem fine’ but rather feel a sense of guilt that I wasn’t brave enough to ask the difficult questions or the assumption that you just wouldn’t want to talk about it. Jen says it really well in that the assumptions people make are less commonly coming from a place of judgement and more commonly from a place of uncertainty. By you writing these blogs and providing this honest and thoughtful insight into your feelings it really helps to take away the uncertainty xxx

  6. Anjulie says:

    I feel I could write a whole blog in response to all your comments! I’ll try to keep it brief.

    I’m asking people to put themselves in my shoes, without putting myself in theirs – so thank you for the reminder. Upon reflection of the blog and your comments, I actually think this blog was less about how I interpret other people, but more about me and my guilt at not being sad every single second, about having “good days” and moments of joy. How can I expect friends to understand that, if I don’t understand it myself? It’s just all so messy.

    My key takeaway from your comments is regarding assumptions. Mumoirs is my story, but I need to acknowledge the stories / assumptions that I’m telling myself about others. I can’t tell their story on their behalf – I should remember that and give everyone more credit. Especially to those who keep showing up xx

  7. Victoria says:

    I don’t think this is harsh at all and you are totally entitled to feel how you feel. Of course people probably don’t mean to cause any harm, but how you feel is real and all that really matters in this situation. I also take from it the feeling of being the ‘elephant in the room’ people not knowing what to say or how to deal with it.

  8. Karen Palmer says:

    Thank you for this blog post as it’s made me think about how I check-in on friends, and my motivation for doing so ( ie is there a danger of it being a tick box kind of thing) – and I recognise me in some of your examples, wanting to come to assumptions quickly for my own comfort, rather than sit with the discomfort of hearing how things really are.
    There is no doubt that in grief, it can be completely gutting when the other people avoid the topic altogether. The day after my mother in law died ( she had dementia and for well over over a year, I’d been visiting her once daily, sometimes twice daily) we kept a previously held engagement to have dinner with friends. The wife is a counsellor, and so I went with the expectation of us being really cared for and being able to talk about Betty ( which was all I wanted to do). But they didn’t let us talk about her. It was such a strange thing. I have no understanding of what they felt they were doing that evening, when they so quickly turned the conversation round to other topics. It left us even more bereft.
    I do think one to one conversations are probably better for asking the difficult, uncomfortable questions. It’s harder to put someone “on the spot” when there’s an audience even if that audience is just one other person.
    Thank you, as always, for the encouragement to be thinking about all of this, and of how to be a better friend myself xx

  9. Claudia says:

    I often get the short end of the stick because I feel too much for others. Regardless of how I feel. When I had the first conversations with people I love I kept trying to make them comfortable being around me. Regardless of how I was feeling. And that was wrong of me. It was a disservice to my baby and to me. And clearly set the tone for how people react to seeing me.
    In my case, I am a people pleaser, so chances are I will be chatty and smiles. But just as we learn how to be, so do the others around me. And some start to pick up on your queues that you are open to talk about it.
    Because grief is difficult and different every day. Some days all I see is tears, others I am happy.
    And if we don’t know, how can we expect others to know what we need?

    But the judgement… that is there – as you know by my post and our conversation and that… that is actually what you are aiming at. Not how people look further into you. But the assumptions and judgements that come with light conversation.

    The assumption should always be – she is not OK, but she is trying. Hear her when she needs to talk. Show love and support.

    But that’s me – I’m all about the rants lately ahah x

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