We like to think that what makes us such a wondrous species is that we experience a wide range of emotions, a spectrum that covers everything from whimsy and joy to despair and regret. We empathize with animals that we think can also feel these things, but I think the depth of our memory is what makes our emotions unique. And, it is that depth that makes us creatures that can truly be hurt.
Earlier this week, Rob at How About Two? lost his son. The outpouring of sympathy in his post comments is beautiful. In many ways, it is the perfect example of the goodness that is possible on the internet, a form of communication usually just saddled with suspicion and fear. Even more, I can't help but think that for every post left for his family, there were three or four other people who stopped in and were simply too speechless or to broken up to leave their warmest thoughts and wishes for Rob's family.
I have a story about loss I also want to share. I don't intend to take away from Rob and his difficult time, he needs all the support he can get right now, but since learning the news of the passing of young Doss earlier in the week, I've spent a lot of time thinking about my own experiences several years ago. It feels like an appropriate time to share it.
My wife and I, after years of being childish ourselves, decided we wanted a child in our lives. Or, more to the point, we decided that we would just stop using birth control and see what would happen.
Almost immediately, she was pregnant. We couldn't be happier. For days, it was all we could talk about with each other, plans we were making, names we liked, ideas for how we would care for the child while we kept working. We couldn't believe it, how easy it was, how lucky we were to get our wish so quickly, when so many other couples struggled for months and years.
Only a few days after learning she was pregnant, she woke up in terrible pain, discovered she had been bleeding. Shaken, we quickly got dressed and rushed to the emergency room in the early morning hours.
The medical staff ran several tests. One of the last tests was an ultrasound and so I was able to see the small, dark circle that was going to be my child, before they told us that the pregnancy was ectopic and it would have to be terminated. Matters quickly got worse when we learned that my wife would need surgery to remove the "fetal material." It was too large to be treated with medication and if it was left, it would eventually rupture inside of my wife, causing internal bleeding and risking her life as well. The surgery was scheduled for later in the day and we had a few hours to wait, before she would have to be prepped.
We came home. We took a shower. We cried. We packed a few things for her surgery. In less than a week I learned that I would be a father, only to have that unrealized dream of our child about to be taken away. I desperately wished for something, some undiscussed procedure to save our child and my wife, but there wasn't anything to be done, other than what the medical staff had already decided on.
While sitting in the waiting room, I called my parents. I explained what had happened to my dad, who I later heard from my sister, was so upset he couldn't tell anyone else the news. All he could do was cry. I called my wife's mother. This was the first time anyone had heard we were expecting, but all they really heard was that something had gone horribly wrong. I called my boss and told him I need to take some time off. This all happened on a Sunday, so the waiting room was completely empty, dark, and I sat alone for what felt like days while I waited for the surgeons to save my wife by killing my child.
My mother-in-law came and sat with me.
My parents came and cried with me.
After several hours, it was done. My child was gone and my wife lost one of her fallopian tubes, but she would be okay.
Only, it wasn't finished. A week later they checked my wife's hormone levels and found out that they had been rising, despite the surgery. Her body still thought she was pregnant. I formulated a number of wild theories, desperate hopes that somehow we still had a child nestled safely inside of her, but the doctors explained that some of the material had broken lose during the surgery and was stuck inside of her. It would have to be destroyed with a shot of a chemotherapy medication, a shot which would make my already exhausted and physically weak wife, even more exhausted and even more weak.
The shot worked, but it took weeks. Every week we would go in, my wife would have her blood drawn, and we would later get a telephone call telling us her new hormone levels. It was the toughest time of my life, having to endure those tests, having to be strong for my wife when all I wanted to do was scream at the doctors and their winks, their accusations that we had been trying to get pregnant again, immediately after her surgery, even when we were told it would be dangerous for her. One of the doctors refused to believe us when we told her we had been abstaining, as we were instructed to do. Surely, we were lying to her.
After several months, it was finally over. People said a lot of stupid things, trying to comfort us.
I was told that it was no big deal.
I was told that what we experienced was easier than a miscarriage and I should consider myself lucky.
I was told that I would do anything to get out of work for a couple of weeks.
I was told that we could just try again.
But, I didn't want to try again. We lost our child, even if it wasn't yet a true child, and all I wanted was that baby.
We went to a memorial for unborn children who had been lost. I couldn't believe how many people were there with us, mourning, as confused as I was about how such a thing was possible. I hoped it would make me feel better, but it only made me more angry. All of my friends were having children and I couldn't stand to be around them. I was so bitter about what we had lost, that I couldn't congratulate them for what they had gained. One of our cats got sick and we had to put it down, and as silly as it is, it stirred everything up again.
We talked. My wife wanted to know if I was ready to start trying again. I told her I wasn't ready and that I wasn't sure if I would ever be ready. She said she felt the same way. Months later, despite neither one of us being "ready," my wife was pregnant with Chunk and I spent nine months expecting nothing but the worst, grieving still for our lost pregnancy, and hoping that this one would be alright. When he was finally born, I think I cried more from relief that he was fine, that he was perfect, than I did from the joy a new father is supposed to feel.
Even with him in our lives, I wonder what that other child would have been like. It wouldn't have been Chunk. It would have been its own person, maybe a baby girl, maybe an older brother for our son. I don't know. I still think about that child, wonder about that life we weren't able to experience. It still bothers me, but it has gotten easier.
I'm not sharing this story to serve as advice for Rob. Our situations, like all situations, are completely different. I would imagine that what he's going through is much harder than what my wife and I endured. Or, maybe its easier, given that they had time with their son, time to hold him, time they can cherish. I'll never know. Grief, as I learned, is a very personal, unpredictable thing.
Instead, I offer my story as advice for the people around Rob, or people who are facing a similar situation, left speechless with their own throbbing empathy. Understand that nothing you say will make someone feel better. Understand that grief can't be tossed aside with best wishes and hopes for the future. Understand that your simply being there will be enough, maybe not at first, but eventually. Understand that grief can take a long time and that there is nothing selfish in it. Understand that having another child doesn't erase the pain, but it does bring some joy.
Rob, you and your family have my most sincere, deepest sympathies.