First we change
Being an outsider to another person’s suffering is hard, especially when it’s someone close. A seriously traumatic, identity-defining event means that our life trajectory has branched off; the outsider can never be part of it in the same way as before.
Our relationship needs to be renegotiated, and the transition is marked by a long period where the outsider can do very little but watch us struggle with our inner demons.
The outsider can’t enter and live the experience with us, even if they might want to at times.
They’d like to make us feel better, but attempts to do this will often backfire.
We’ll be erratic in our responses to contact. Sometimes we might want to talk about what happened to us, sometimes it’s the last thing we want.
Everything will have the potential to hurt us.
We will close in, reminded of our tragedy in everything we see, losing focus of the rest of the world.
Being there for us is a delicate dance of being present but unobtrusive, of being open to heavy silences that might never resolve, of gently reading out the continuously changing signals beneath our outer numbness, and of gradually accepting to never be fully part of the new person we have become.
Being there for us sucks.
And then we leave
However lightly our outsider might tread (and most do not have the right instincts, skills or life experience to manage this deftly), our response to loss is to fall into patterns of interaction that push them away from us.
Having a child die around the time of their birth comes with challenges that might not be immediately understandable to those without the experience. Many of us will, instead, begin to seek attachment with those who have been through something similar.
Finding people who have been in our shoes is liberating. Not having to explain those challenges removes some weight from our great burden. Knowing that others react just like we do is an acknowledgment we crave so much that it hurts.
Having someone else put our confusing emotions into words brings sanity. Being able to cry, to scream, be afraid, complain, be furious – and yet to be fully accepted, is validating in ways that we might not have experienced before.
Learning that we can come to accept others in the same way brings out a special sort of kindness and growth.
And we close ranks
Support groups also have their drawbacks. A hallmark of a good support group is that people graduate from it – perhaps returning for short visits as the years go by – but the purpose of a good group is to give us the capacity to securely reconnect to our own worlds.
I am worried that some of the ways that we, the bereaved, help each other, unintentionally adds difficulty to connecting to people outside our ranks.
I am worried that our closeness is a double-edged sword, because, while we support each other in accepting what we are feeling, we rarely offer the same kind of compassion to those who have trouble understanding us.
I am worried that we might think our kindness towards each other makes us special – that we think we are the only ones with this capacity. That we start believing that personal tragedy is the exclusive path to depth, and also a guarantee of it.
This would mean that nobody else can understand us, and if nobody else can understand us, why bother trying to connect?
And I worry that this moment, when we begin to feel that we should be cut off from the rest of the world, carries in itself a seed of self-destruction.
And move further away
We like to insist that nobody knows what it’s like.
We often trade stories of awful things people said to us, telling each other how hurt we were. Sometimes we turn to outsiders to tell them that they hurt us. We don’t try to hear the distress and confusion behind their misguided words, the desperate effort to somehow fix this for us.
We assume, without checking, that those who resist bringing up our dead children in conversation do so in order not to remind us. As if we could ever forget, we like to say in our anger. But we never check if this is the reason. Perhaps they are simply afraid to hurt us even further.
Those who tell us we’ll have another child, we hate with a passion. We suggest to each other that they mean the child we lost is unimportant. It might just mean they wish that we were happy right now, with a baby in our arms – and that they are sad that it can’t be this baby.
We keep closing ranks, raising shields, supporting each other in this distancing, sustaining the belief that we are alone in this, that nobody knows our misery.
And maybe they do not. And let’s hope they never will.
Could we invite them in?
What we fail to see is that it is not our tragedy that gives our secluded club that special feeling. It is the capacity for listening and giving, for just being there when others need to lean on us. We already had these capacities when we joined. They were merely brought to the foreground when we came in contact with each other.
Many of our outsiders have these capacities as well, but have not experienced how to nurture and express them.
I wish we tried harder to extend this special, caring approach to the outside world. I wish we invited our outsiders in more often. Gently, and with their insecurities in mind.
We are still here, and they are still there. I wish we encouraged each other to head back to them, with all the rough patches this entails. Because we still need them. And they still need us, even if they might not know how to reach us.