Grief is kind of like childbirth.
“Push past the pain,” my midwife told me.
I could feel the tiny head emerging, like a soft cone, but then slowly retract after every contraction subsided. I could cup the tiny little head in my hand as I pushed. I could feel the tuft of thick hair waving in the warm water of the birthing pool. Out and in, out and in, over and over. The pain kept coming back, trying to get the baby out. Each time I pushed until the urge was over, but could never get past a certain point. It was not quite satisfactory, but I just wanted relief from the pain.
Relief came between contractions, when I could rest my head against the side of the pool and try to relax. But those contractions kept returning and seizing my lower back with waves of pressure and pain.
“Harder!” I commanded my husband, whose hands attempted to press away the pain in my lower back. Pain was coming at me from all directions. I writhed to find escape from the incredible internal ache in my lower back and hips. Simultaneously, my hand eased the pressure of the baby’s head stretching me, burning, trying to push through. Tremulous moans attempted to release the pain through my mouth. When contractions came, they seized all of my being. I knew the only way to escape the pain was to birth my baby. But my cautious pushing was just not quite enough.
I don’t know how long this continued. Eventually, the baby’s head started retracting much slower than at first—some progress, however minute. Finally, as the final urge began to subside and I prepared to relax, the midwife suggested, “Try pushing into the pain.” The burn was greater than before, but I knew each push until this point had never been quite enough. So reluctantly, but determinedly, I leaned into the pain, pushing longer, harder than before, reaching to feel the rest of the head emerge, hoping I wouldn’t tear. It worked. Just as I realized with satisfied relief that the baby had finally crowned, the rest of her body gushed out of me in one giant “swoosh.” It was over.
The pain was over. No more burning, no more giant cramps in my back, no more shuddering moans. I could lean back and hold my baby.
Grief is kind of like childbirth.
The natural human tendency is to shrink back from pain.
When we first received the diagnosis that our second baby, like our first, also had the same combination of malformations known as the VACTERL association and would likely not survive, I threw myself into all the fun I could—camping trips, gardening projects, play dates for our 5-year-old. If life was scheduled to bring us more pain and grief, then I was determined to enjoy every minute I could until that point.
After the stillbirth of our daughter Portia, I rested and recuperated by sitting and working on puzzles. I didn’t drown myself in mind-numbing TV, but instead buried my mind in a puzzle. Something I could solve. It gave my reeling brain something to focus on, while sheltering my heart from reminders of anything painful. A puzzle could suck me in as I focused on finding just one more piece to place. When I was tired, I could leave it at will and come back to where I left off whenever I chose. I had no power to change the outcome for any of my pregnancies. No power to give myself a living, healthy baby from my own womb. Working on a puzzle gave me a small sense of control.
As my body healed and my energy increased, I returned to small household tasks. Dishes. Laundry. Sweeping the floor. These required neither brain power nor an investment of my heart. I could bury myself in busyness and not think. I could feel fine, normal, even happy. Happy to have a tidy house. Happy to be on top of the laundry. Happy to return to a normal routine after the craziness of birthing, losing a child, and receiving visits, flowers and food from family and friends.
And then there was food. Comfort food. Cookies, apple pie, strawberry cheesecake, and more cookies. I excused my indulgence this time—many times—days and weeks of snacks, meals, in-between snacks, bedtime snacks. Because I was hurting and I deserved some comfort.
All of these examples were ways I avoided the pain of losing my daughter. I shrank back because it was easier to just be “fine” and act normal. I could corral my loss in the back of my mind until quiet moments—maybe a few silent sobs alone in the shower. Or I could walk through the day with a sadness underlying my happy face and cheerful conversations; all the while desperation was slowly building in the recesses of my heart.
That first day—showering after delivering a dead baby, resting and taking some food after the birth, visiting with family and the midwives—all I felt was the relief that the birth was over. The hormones coursing through my body carried me that first day with the elation that I had survived labor, that I had conquered my fear of childbirth, and that I had earned my badge of full-fledged womanhood . I had just lost my baby, but wow! The triumph of having the birth experience I longed for—peacefully at home and without complications—felt great.
Grief had not even begun. I joked with the midwife’s assistant as she helped me out of the shower and cleaned up my blood that wouldn’t stop dripping. I wondered how sacrilegious that must seem to her, to have a sense of humor right after losing my baby. But in that moment, I wasn’t in the mood to grieve. I wasn’t ready. I knew that would come later. Maybe days or weeks later. But in that moment I was fine. I had to deal with other things first.
A healthy handling of grief does require comfort, distractions, and escape from reality for a time. But those can’t be the sole means of dealing.
It wasn’t until, weeks later, I picked up a book that a dear friend had sent that I realized I needed something to usher me into the grieving. I had been closed—fine, but closed. I needed something else. Something painfully raw that could connect to my experience, arouse my empathy, and release my fountain of grief locked deep underground. Browsing the first few pages of that book over my lunch, I was pulled in to read one more page, and one more, but those pages brought tears.
“Push into the pain,” my midwife had urged.
To read this book required a commitment to weep, to sob, to grieve however I needed. So I set aside that next Sunday afternoon to lay in the autumn sunshine in the back yard, alone, and read, and to let the tears come as they may. Page after page, that raw account of another couple’s infant loss elicited deep, shoulder-shaking sobs, and even deeper strangled moans from my throat. Each page opened up the floodgates of grief a little more. As far as text difficulty goes, this book was a quick, easy read. But emotionally, it was exhausting. It summoned forth dormant emotions I didn’t realize I had been holding inside.
Not every day, not every moment after loss, is supposed to be spent in tears. (In fact, sometimes we can’t “push into” all sources of pain equally or at all times. We do have to know what we can handle. Today I can read a book about loss but I cannot stand to look at pictures of friends’ babies. Maybe I can handle that another day.) But avoiding the pain of recognizing, of FEELING, the raw depths of loss can delay healing. When I don’t give myself time or space to grieve, all the little things that are wrong in my life build up even if I ignore them, adding exponentially to the enormous loss I am trying to cope with. Then the pressure builds up in my chest and behind my eyes, and either comes out in anger or impatience, or more likely, in tears over “nothing.”
That emotional pressure to be “okay” and to keep myself together in front of others physically hurts, like rocks piling up on my chest. My eyes burn with the tears I keep inside. My throat aches, feeling constricted by unseen forces. My chin wobbles, the final sign that big feelings are about to spill over, either in vulnerability before others or in private, if I can escape. Tears reach a point of no return when the pressure has built and has nowhere else to go but out.
When the tears come, when I ALLOW them to flow freely and give full reign to my misery, my grief, my pain, my loss, my anger at the unfairness of it all, THEN I feel cleansed. Free. Sweet like the refreshing coolness of a shower following a hot, muggy summer day. I am renewed, strengthened, empowered to go on in contentment or even joy for the next moments, hours, or even days.
Avoiding the pain, hiding from reminders that bring it all back, does not keep it at bay. It just prolongs it in a muddy mess of denial, misery, effort to feel normal, being mostly okay but never completely fine. Pushing into it, CHOOSING to come face to face with all the ugly reality and emotions of loss, releases the tension that builds up in our bodies and brings another level of healing and peace, at least for that day. This release may have to be repeated again another day, but there is a happiness, a relief in dealing honestly with the depths of the heart. There is a certain ironic comfort in tears.
Blocking the thoughts, shoving emotions to the back can actually add another layer of loss. This happened to me when my grandfather was killed in a head-on collision during my second month at a new, stressful teaching job. The next day I had to perform well for a scheduled observation by my principal. Then I had to prepare detailed lesson plans for the sub for the two days I took off to attend the funeral and spend time with family. I felt I must keep tears at bay to attend to my responsibilities, or else my grief would incapacitate me. But after the stress of that week, I could not find the tears I longed to cry.
I don’t want that to happen to you.
Grief is hard. Uncomfortable. Miserable. And desperately painful. But, as you are able, “push into the pain” anyway. It will bring relief. It will speed healing.