I went back to campus for the first time two weeks ago. Since then (and actually really long before that), I have been thinking about the ways in which those who know what happened react to me. I have found that their responses can be categorized in four main ways, although the first and second are related.
The first is that people are simply empathetic. They may tell me something to try to make me feel better, or they may just sit with me, but they are trying to empathize, relate and support–of course, to varying degrees of success. But even when people say the wrong things, that they are trying and recognize the trauma and pain of my loss, usually makes me okay with this response.
Second, which I think actually relates to a desire to empathize, is when people tell me the worst thing that has ever happened to them, usually with a preface of, “I know this doesn’t compare but when X”. I have learned about multiple miscarriages, rape, marital problems, severe depressions, deaths of siblings, parents and other family members, a divorce, work problems, insecurities, and even about someone killing someone with his car (he was not found at fault but still had to live with that guilt). For the most part, I am okay with this response. I like learning about other people’s lives, like that they feel they can make themselves vulnerable, and feel a little more at ease in a world where everyone is broken.
The third response is that of pure awkwardness, not saying anything or not knowing how to react. When I arrived on campus, I had a colleague meet me at the car so that we could walk to the department together. When we arrived, we ran into another colleague going off to teach. This is a colleague who I like. He literally didn’t make eye contact with me, and only talked to the colleague I was with. Afterwards, he told her that he felt like an ass but that he didn’t know what to say. Surprisingly, I am okay with this response. His awkwardness was to me an indication that he did actually get how horrible Sidney’s death was, at least on some level. And in many ways, there really isn’t anything to say. Sure, it would be nice to have him say something like, “there are no words” or “I have been thinking about you” but really, I didn’t mind his discomfort. I went to donate blood in memory of a little girl who was born via emergency c-section and then died shortly after. I met her mother recently for lunch and a yoga class, but had never met the father. I didn’t know what to say to him, and felt awkward, even having experienced something that within the bigger picture of the world is somewhat similar. So I just said, “I wish we were meeting under different circumstances.” But thinking about my own awkwardness makes it easy for me to understand how people who care, and even get it, might not know what to say or how to reach out, so instead do nothing. Especially with colleagues, and people who I don’t know well, I am okay with that. I am trying to be more understanding of family and people of whom I have higher expectations. Their silence hurts me–many sent an initial email or called, but then nothing for four months. Rational me thinks it is awkwardness, not knowing what to say, or what to do–just like my colleague. I am sure it is exacerbated by me not really being a phone person, especially when I am not doing well. So I can understand that they don’t know how to reach out. But the silence can still hurt. And at least with the colleague, I can visibly see his awkwardness, so I know that he recognizes something big occurred.
The fourth response though is the only one with which I have real problems. That is the response that Sidney’s death is no big deal–and in this response, people don’t even use the name Sidney, or want to acknowledge that he was a real boy. This is along the lines of, “You should move on,” “pretend it’s just a miscarriage,” etc. Luckily, I haven’t had too many people actually say this to me. It is more reflected in surprise at the intensity of my reaction (which I don’t get. How do people expect me to react to the death of my son?). As written about earlier, the interim chair saying, “It wasn’t sure if you would just move on, but clearly you’re not,” someone well-meaning calling my parents because he was worried about how intensely I was reacting, a sense I get from some people that I should be doing more, moving forward. Luckily, I haven’t gotten too much of this, but this is the one that makes me angry. The only way it can make sense is if they are not thinking of Sidney as my real son, as a real baby, because otherwise, honestly, how do they really expect me to react? I don’t think I would get these reactions if an older child died. Rational me, which really is not around all that much anymore, thinks perhaps actually imagining what happened to me and Sidney, and what happened to many other baby loss families, is just too horrifying, so they don’t. Their way of coping is to pretend that Sidney was not real, because the horror that something like this could happen, did happen, is just too much. But even if that is the case, it makes me so angry, to deny Sidney’s existence, to deny the impact he had on me, on our family, is to take away the little I have left of him. So this is my least favorite response by far, the only one that really makes me angry.
A few other random thoughts:
I took Eli to his first day of Sunday school today. I didn’t expect to have any emotional reaction whatsoever, but my anxiety is/was extreme. There were way more people doing drop off than I expected, perhaps because the school goes all the way up to the seventh grade. I felt a slow tightening in my chest and just wanted to get out of there. So I rushed it, and now I am at home, panicked that he is alone and miserable, thinking of his little voice, saying, “Mama, stay. I don’t like the toys here.” But I just left. And I know I am being crazy, but I am scared that someone might attack the temple or something. I am just trying to make it until noon, when I can scoop him back into my arms. Luckily, the Sunday school for threes only meets once a month.
We took a nature walk yesterday and Eli found a rock. He said “This is for baby Sidney at the cemetery. I think he will like it.” I told him that he was a good brother to think of Sidney. It is bittersweet for me when he mentions Sidney on his own.
I have only been back to campus twice so far, and I will go again on Tuesday. I guess it’s been okay. I have had a colleague meet me at the car to minimize random encounters I might have on the way in, students who don’t know what happened, but on Tuesday I will make the walk by myself. Having meetings and talking to students, including my first PhD student, has been good for me, I guess, especially since I am doing it in such small doses. I agreed to be our department representative to the faculty senate, which meets for the first time Tuesday, though, so we will see how that goes.
I did run into a student from my global poverty class. He knew what happened, and said, “Can I give you a hug?” He told me the class was devastated, and that he was there for me, happy to help in any way he could, whether with research or support. It was kind. The graduate student who told that class what had happened said that she heard an audible gasp when she told them. I also met with an undergraduate who is doing an independent study with me. Most of the meeting we talked about her readings. But then at the end she started to get teary eyed, and said that she was always there for me, that she was on skype all the time. It was sweet. I know I won’t ever take her up on it, but I appreciated the gesture nonetheless. I will try to think of these acts of care when I feel all alone, when people on campus inevitably move on or do not understand why I am still devastated and broken.
I took Eli to starbucks yesterday morning. It was too much, a long line, lots of mothers sitting outside with their babies. “Figure out where your limits are” says the therapist. So at least, I figured out one. Starbucks on a sunny Saturday morning….