The Immediate Protocol to Dealing with Grief
By Kate Inglis
For anyone dealing with grief, Notes for the Everlost (Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2018) by Kate Inglis is an enlightening and motivational story. Inglis takes readers through her personal journey of losing a child and how she learned to deal with the grief and continue to support and care for her loved ones. This excerpt is located in Chapter 1, “The Immediate Protocol.”
A distant acquaintance called me the morning after her baby was found not breathing. I don’t know anyone else who’s been through this, she sobbed. I don’t know how to live anymore. This is what I said to her then, and in our conversations since.
Maturity teaches us to pause before offering opinion, even if we think we’ll be helpful. Especially then. Humility is in not telling other people what to do but in supporting others as they determine what they should do for themselves.
I’m not going to be humble right now. I have been to the same place, and I’d like to share with you some things I wish someone had shared with me. It might be helpful, if you’re a short time from your loss.
1. Don’t apologize.
It’s foolish to the point of reckless to be sorry for stepping on a land mine. Stop it. Don’t apologize for being sad. Don’t apologize for reaching for the memory and substance of a baby who barely—or never—drew breath. Don’t apologize for speaking to the dead. Don’t apologize for no longer fitting into the ideal. Don’t apologize for subjecting everyone who loves you to worry. They worry because they care. Don’t apologize for making other people uncomfortable with the fact that you’ve just gotten the lower half of your body blown off. I’m sorry. I’m a bloody mess. I’m so sorry.
2. Call upon your imagination to deal with dragons.
Honor all the snarling dogs, mouthless faces, and circling sharks that swarm in your head. They’re trying to tell you something. Listen. They are your story trying to find its shape, and they all flail a bit when they’re so new. Rilke said: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
Your dragons want you to remember how significant we all are, and how insignificant we all are. They are not against you. Consider them differently. They bring a heat that will become the core of some of the very best of you. Don’t turn away. They’re made of love. They reflect how badly we need to give and receive it. Imagination helps.
Some acquaintance in a grocery store lineup will say I can relate. My dog died last year.
A moment of big-eyeballed silence right now, seriously, for all the dead dogs.
Buff up your gallows humor. Share it with others who have had to endure the grocery store too. And the Thanksgiving tables, bridal showers, airport check-ins. Then forgive people for not knowing what to say, for filling the vacuum with every wrong thing. The quicker you realize most humans are artless thugs when faced with someone else’s grief, the quicker you’ll get over it when you meet one.
It’s easy to forgive the random jerks. It’s a lot harder to forgive friends and family who turned away from you. Or worse yet, who turned toward you to tell you to get over it, brushing your sadness off as a pregnancy gone awry. People may throw their own baggage and unresolved demons at you, trying to solve themselves by solving you. People may say Stop making everyone uncomfortable. They are uncomfortable because they are afraid. Forgive fear. Or at least, choose not to eat those rotten apples.
4. Know you don’t have to be whole to be normal.
By the time you’re an adult, you’re rare if you have any less than three or four sizable chunks gnawed off your body, mind, or soul by one trauma or another. An apparently whole-looking person is not a wizard. They are a con man hiding behind a velvet curtain. Wholeness is something to prize only if you care most about the superficial. Let go of it and revel in plentiful company.
Every one of your emotions, outbursts, or lapses in social grace is 100 percent normal. In this extraordinary loss, you are ordinary. This is good. Your rage is normal. Your speechlessness is normal. Your running-off-at-the-mouth is normal. Your inability to know what you need is normal. Your difficulty occupying the same body that let you down—that’s normal. Your falling out with faith—that’s normal too.
A couple of years after my baby died, I pulled my car to the side of the road, suddenly struck with the sound of Liam gulping for breath. I was shaking so badly I couldn’t drive. I leaned out the open door and almost threw up in a commuter parking lot. Years later my brain still hosts moving slideshows of Ben, Liam’s surviving twin, dying in increasingly ridiculous ways. A hungry shark at Freda’s Beach! A live grapeshot cannonball hidden in the grass at the old British garrison! A broken buckle, and he falls out of a roller coaster car! He is swallowed by a hippo. He is wearing safari beige and has a camera around his neck. He is crushed in the hippo’s esophagus. I see his eyes close and his face go down. The hippo coughs up the camera and swims away. I scream at the hippo, begging him to eat me too. He disappears beneath the water.
You are not broken, and you are not failing. Neither am I.
5. Happiness can’t be manufactured. Harmony can. Parent yourself to protect it.
Imagine a child who is urgently upset, tired, hungry, sick, or injured. As a parent or caregiver, you would step in: This needs to be taken care of and it needs to be taken care of now. You’d act with empathy and immediacy, without shaming. You would address whatever lapse or shortfall was unaddressed. Food. Sleep. A Band-Aid. You’d make it better. Are you tantrumming with upset? Losing your mind with exhaustion? Afraid of the dark? Parent yourself.
Grief is most intolerable when there’s a gap between what you need and what you’re getting. The gap is the discord in which minds and relationships fester. The gap is created when you’re too afraid—too committed to the illusion of wholeness—to say:
I need that day on my own.
I need to go back to that place.
I need help / antidepressants / therapy / a hot beach.
It’s time to do something with those ashes.
Don’t touch that urn.
Take a day off, a week off, a month. Give yourself friends or solitude, conversation or silence. Protect your needs whether it’s three months out, six months, one year, or five. You have total agency over your well-being. Keep yourself away from poison. Give bullies a wide berth. Parent yourself: simply make sure you, a beloved child, have your needs met.
We don’t judge a river for overflowing or slowing to a trickle.We consider the conditions: pressure fronts, storms, drought, rain, wind. None of it is abnormal. It is the raucous, relentless, and sometimes unscrupulous nature of nature. It does what it must. But when people start messing with a river—trying to divert it, alter its flow, use it for other purposes, change its course—it becomes a disaster. Nature, when protected and cared for and allowed to be what it is, can be perfectly harmonious as long as we don’t interfere with our agenda. So can grief.
Think of what you’d categorize as your worst moments: when you drank too much, overate, or self-medicated in a way you knew was not good for you. Think of when you said or did something you regretted or didn’t sleep for a week or dropped the ball in your career or curled up in a dark room wanting nothing more than just that. In those moments we bristle at grief and hate ourselves for failing at it. It’s a double-decker sandwich of misery. You are already dealing with empty arms, a flawed body, spiritual crises, relationship crises, identity distortions, sexual disconnects, survivor’s guilt, and social isolation. This is the baseline after a baby dies. This is plenty. Don’t add to it by being angry at yourself for not putting on a more palatable show.
There was never anything wrong with you. There still isn’t. The next day dawns. Your worst is not who you are. You are not defined by your despair. Your worst was a tantrum, the most justified of all. Your parent—the parent of you, within you—loves you anyway, always, unconditionally.
Most human beings acquire the truth fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic. There are very few who receive it, complete and staggering, by instant illumination.
—Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anais Nin, vol. 3
In the last moments, you looked at your baby and thought the same thing I did:
Please live. I don’t mind if you dye your hair Kool-Aid blue. I don’t mind if everything you believe turns out to be different from what I believe. I don’t care who you love or how you love, as long as you find some and give some. I don’t mind what you’re into, as long as you’re safe. I want to see the things that make you smile. I want you to have the chance to be. To be happy. Please live.
Then your baby died, like mine, and you received the most terrible and most effective lesson in unconditional love. You might have thought you knew what it was before, but you didn’t. Not properly. Now you do.
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