Friday, July 17, 2009

Potholes of Grief by Rose Carlson

Earlier this week, I was reading the latest edition of the BPUSA (Bereaved Parents USA) newsletter that came to our office. For those of you who may not have heard of BPUSA, it is an organization that provides support to parents who have experienced the death of a child of any age. It is a national organization with chapters all over the country. I really enjoy reading this newsletter, even though the organization doesn’t specifically serve those who have had a baby who died as Share does. I always find that the stories, poems and quotes in it are universal to anyone who has lost a child, no matter what stage of pregnancy or life.

The other day, an article caught my eye because a box within it highlighted a quote from the article. It said “The best way I’ve found to deal with the potholes of grief is to just let them happen.”

Potholes of grief. That intrigued me, so I read the article. The author, Margaret Gerner, a social worker, talked about how out of the blue, random things such as songs on the radio take her right back to when her son died 26 years ago. She calls them potholes of grief because potholes are bumpy yet shallow places in a normally smooth road. She compares potholes to the grieving moments after the death of a child that come after you have “resolved” your grief, or think you have anyway. (Because, really, it’s a grief that is never completely resolved.)

I thought when I was reading it how the potholes you encounter while driving down the highway, blissfully unaware of the jolt your car is about to be subjected to, is a perfect analogy to the situations you often encounter after your baby has died, sometimes years later.

She didn’t write this, but I couldn’t help but think as I read it that just as potholes in the road come upon you suddenly and without warning, so do the potholes of grief. You finally get to the point where you are just happily tooling along the road of life, maybe thinking that you have dealt with all the really hard stuff, when all of the sudden you hit a hole. A hole you probably weren’t expecting, that jolted you out of your reverie of thinking you were fine, that you had dealt with your grief. That hole might be a song on the radio, a family event, or some other milestone. Whatever it is, it probably takes you by surprise at a time when you weren’t expecting it.

The next time you drive down that same street, the pothole may have been patched over and your car drives over it without so much as a bump. The same thing can happen with the potholes of grief. Depending on what is going on in your life at the time, the same situation may not have nearly the same impact.

I hit a pothole today.

It’s been many years since my losses. Sixteen since the last one. I’ve had three children since then. And hit many potholes along the way. I didn’t think of them as that at the time, but I like that description! I like how she describes them as shallow places in a normally smooth road. They are defiantly not like the deep pit you sometimes find yourself unable to crawl out of when your grief is so new, fresh and horribly painful. While potholes do hit you unaware, the pain is usually short-lived, and often, potholes of grief aren’t even painful…they are simply memories that take you by surprise with their intensity.

There have been many times, too numerous to recall, since I’ve worked at Share that I have encountered potholes in the form of situations that are so close to my own that I sometimes have a hard time talking to the mom on the phone; or reading a post on the message boards; or seeing a picture. There have been many times that a bereaved parent has called who is in a situation that is so similar to mine that takes me back, takes my breath away…today was one of those days.

There have been other times that even though the situation was similar to my own, I barely gave it a thought. I’ve learned to just go with the flow and if it is a situation that is upsetting to me for some reason, I have gotten to the point where I can realize that there is a reason why this particular person’s story had that affect on me at the time. I told Cathi about it one time after such a call, and she told me to look at as being my babies way of staying connected with me, that for whatever reason, I was supposed to be thinking of them that day, and that was their way of making sure I did. I like that thought.

So today, a mom called our office whose loss was so similar to one of my own, that I had a hard time knowing how to respond at first. Similar right down to the month she found out she was pregnant, the month she miscarried, and the month she was due. One of the reasons she was having such a difficult time is because she had just recently passed her baby’s due date.

I don’t usually share my own experiences with those I talk to on the phone at Share, but as we were talking, I realized that in a week, I will experience the due date of one of the babies I miscarried. While I’ve had four losses, this one, my third, often hits me the hardest because it was the only one I saw the baby on ultrasound. Also, this baby was due on my great grandmother’s birthday, July 25, and from the time I found out I was pregnant, I thought that was a good sign that everything was going to be okay. But it wasn’t, and I miscarried at 12 weeks. I had another miscarriage at 10 weeks four months later, and I always remember that time of my life as one of the hardest, most challenging times I’ve been through.

So back to my thoughts about potholes…like I said, it’s been many years since my losses….24 since the first, 16 since the last. Many years of small bumps in the road of life…many years of potholes, some bigger and more jarring than others, just as potholes on the highway are. I used to have a hard time dealing with them, wondering what was wrong with me. Since I’ve worked at Share, I’ve stopped wondering what is wrong with me and started accepting that sometimes, situations are going to come up that take me back to those hard days and weeks and months.

Today was a bit different. The baby that I miscarried who was due July 25 would be turning 16…a milestone that I know from the past kind of “got” to me. So while I was talking to this mom on the phone, I was thinking about that baby. And a funny feeling came over me…in the past, when I’ve been in similar situations, I have a difficult time knowing what to say. Today, though, I was on a roll! At first, I didn’t know what to say. Not only was I thinking of my own loss, I was thinking how ironic it was that I was the only person in the office at the time, how on a normal day, any one of four other people would been there, and I was thinking that for some reason, I was meant to talk to her.

After my initial feeling of not knowing what to say, something clicked, and by the time I hung up, she told me she was so glad she had called and said how much I had helped her. Many times, when I talk to a bereaved parent on the phone, I hang up thinking I really did or said nothing that was at all helpful. I’m not alone in thinking that as my co-workers at the Share office often say the same thing. I think it’s because we all want so badly to BE helpful that we worry and wonder if we really are.

But today…I hung up feeling really good, honestly, better than I have ever felt after I talked to a bereaved parent on the phone…like I really had accomplished something. I didn’t say anything that magically made her sadness and pain disappear. That is impossible to do.

Margaret Gerner wrote in her article, “They (potholes of grief) are a sign that your loved one is still in your heart and, no matter how much time passes, you will always miss him or her.” She also says, “Occasionally, there are pleasant memories that bring us a feeling of warmth.”

Today, I had a feeling of warmth. And while the memories of all those years ago is not pleasant at all, and no matter how many years go by, never will be, it was pleasant to feel the presence of a tiny little soul whose spirit was with me and helped make someone’s burden a little bit lighter.


Mama Fierce said...

Thanks for a wonderful post, Rose. What you describe is why I call my blog, My Yellow Brick Road Has Potholes. I truly believe that it isn't what happens in life that defines you; rather, it's what you do about what happens to you that makes you who you are. You have turned your experiences into a way to help others heal, and that makes you a beautiful, generous soul.

Mama Fierce (aka Cynthia Prest)

Salma said...

Sine I am so new in my loss and grief I feel overwhelmed with how to deal with all of these things.

I feel like this post is speaking to me. Today I was asked about the baby by the management in my building..I told them that he died. When they apologized, I found myself apologizing and I just wanted to burst into tears or disappear into thin air.

This was my pothole of the day. I've cried on and off since the encounter...7 hours ago.

Thank you for posting this.

Rose said...

Cynthia, thanks so much for your kind words. I love the name of your blog! I'd love to read it if you want to send me a link to it. And I agree wholeheartedly with what you said about what you do with what happens to you. I even wrote a blog post about it a month or so ago. LOL

Salma, I'm so sorry to have to welome you to Share. I'm glad that something I wrote spoke to you. And I'm sorry you had such a rough day to get through.

Cara said...

Rose - what a gorgeous post and true to the last word. I found my human-size pothole, the one that could swallow me up in the beginning, has shrunk to a managable, yet still heart wrenching, size where I trip and fall...then get back up.

I imagine we will never walk smoothly again.

Post a Comment