Ought and Should

Way back when I first started blogging, I ran across a discussion on some of your blogs about a stupid letter to Dear Abby. In the letter, some rude women who worked with a woman who’d had a still born child complained that the picture of that baby she had posted in her cubicle made them uncomfortable. Oh and by the way, the woman was also mean and bitter. I don’t mean to drudge up that old conversation, but I’m annoyed that I’ve now been wasting time checking Dear Abby frequently online to see when the editors will print the responses to that letter and haven’t seen it yet. And then last week, I read on Jill’s blog about a reality television show in Australia that featured a woman who had lost a preterm baby being forced to do a task that involved taking care of a fake baby, and she broke down. Jill writes about some of the feedback to that show, including comments by a woman who claims the grieving contestant seems to be lying about her loss because she was reticent about the details, while women who’ve really lost babies dwell on the details. Besides all the other aspects of that paragon of screen art – reality television – that irritate me, it now made me think about all the ways contemporary culture makes experience generic. How even as it makes us think we’re learning diversity, it maybe just makes difference banal.

But since this is my blog, not my dissertation, and as a grieving person I tend towards narcissism (just the self-centredness, not the love part), I leave the analysis there and move on to how it all makes me feel.

When I was in the hospital, even when we still had hope, we realized no one could possibly understand what we were going through. I wanted to be left alone. I didn’t want visitors, and I knew I wouldn’t want visitors for the duration as I faced what should have been many many weeks on hospital bed rest (okay, I realize what should have been would have been that I never ended up hospitalized in the first place, but I’m starting my thoughts from these moments). I liked having the rabbi and cantor visit, because somehow they were comforting. But talking to anyone else was stressful. I’m sure some people would think that was wrong. I’m sure some people would react differently. They would be wrong. Or rather, they might be right for themselves, but wrong for me.

Afterwards, when we sent out a message telling people what had happened, we did so only in the barest of details. I still cannot stand to replay my labor and delivery in my mind. And, again, I’m sure some people think that’s wrong, or that it would be healthier if I replayed it in some sort of psychoanalytic fashion. But again, they would be wrong. I don’t want to. Living it once was enough. When I try to think about it – like we did for Dr. K last week, I find I don’t want to think beyond the barest of necessary facts. I can’t push myself to retell the event in a narrative fashion. I guess in the way some of us don’t like to say our babies’ names, but others of us say
them as often as possible, we all have different coping mechanisms. I have to keep that full story private, at least for now. It is what makes me feel too vulnerable, too exposed. Some of us can post pictures of our babies, and even write our blogs as letters to them. I can’t do that, even though I can say Natan’s name practically daily, and it brings me comfort to do so. I think about him all the time, but my communications with him can only be in my mind.

I’m not asking for confirmation this is all okay, because I certainly don’t think that it’s not. Blogging helps me feel less lonely, even though in reality people in my life have been overwhelmingly supportive, and even though I can see that other women are coping differently from me, and at times in ways I admire and wish I could emulate.

I do wish that I could analyze, as a person and an intellectual and an historian, why we so often see and hear about people pontificating about how others ought to or should act or feel. Or why so often other people are so clueless and unable to relate to others’ pain. But honestly I don’t think there’s a person or a source out there that can do that to my satisfaction. Generalizations about our culture not dealing well with grief don’t help, because as I look back in time or across geography, I don’t really see much that is better. Unless we’re talking about some people or place or time we’ve over-idealized as being better about something than we are. And because I know for damn sure that in the past, overlooking the fact that I might not have lived anyway, I’d have even fewer forums for acknowledging my loss.

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11 responses to “Ought and Should

  1. LeRoy Dissing

    Your loss and how you cope with that has no right or wrong moral judgment to it in my opinion Sara. I am sorry you had to experience such a tragic loss and obviously wish there was more (anything) I could do to help. All I can do at the moment is acknowledge what has happened and tell you that I can not ever know the depth of what you must have and still are going through…and then to just listen respectfully.

  2. It’s also important that you only see one part of someone on their blog. For example, I’m not nearly as sad and pathetic as I seem. I even laugh daily. :o)

  3. I didn’t want anyone besides my husband and the minister we asked to come either. I say that not to confirm that you were “right” but just to let you know that I understand and shared that feeling. My mother was present much of the time, but not really because I wanted her to be. But I also couldn’t bear to hurt her by asking her to leave. I did however insist that she not be present for the delivery. I wanted those moments only for my husband and I.

    In my personal experience, for the most part, the people I know who have experienced a significant loss are the least likely to judge how someone else handles theirs. I know that is not universally true, but I would like to think it is true more often than not. I would like to hope that once you have been in that place of pain, you would never again presume to tell someone else how to handle theirs.

  4. I hope I can resist the urge to check on Dear Abby now. I had assumed that they wouldn’t print responses because they wouldn’t want to be shown for the asses they are. Would you tell me if they actually print them? 🙂

    If I can wax philosophical here without killing too many metaphors, I think the problem isn’t any one culture, but more the human nature. To grossly generalize, I think we all would like to think that every problem has a solution, or at least a way to minimize the problem. So it’s not surprising that people would think there is a “right” way to handle grief. Someone else’s, at that. I agree with Lori that people who have been in that hole themselves are less likely to do that. (There are also some thoughtful people who haven’t experienced this particular flavor of grief, but have thought about it and understand not no judge anyone’s way of dealing.)

    So while every culture will have it’s own flavor of prescription, I would be very surprised to find a culture that does not hold *a* prescription.

  5. What is striking about the loss you and other women who have experienced preterm labor and stillbirths have sustained is that it is so out of the ordinary. For that reason, people try to understand it by comparing it to something more ordinary, like a miscarriage. When I first read about that reality tv show, the website I was reading actually said that she had had a “miscarriage” and it wasn’t until I read further that I realized it was actually a stillbirth. Even the media f—s it up, and probably only someone who has experienced it realizes that there is a difference between losing a fetus and losing a baby. I can’t say I completely understand because I have never even been pregnant, but when I think about it in those terms, the difference seems pretty stark.

  6. Lori, I hope you’re right. I hope at the very least I’ll be more compassionate about others’ grief from now on. I’m glad to know I’m not alone in having wanted to be alone, because even the nurses were suggesting visitors might help and I just couldn’t see how playing the hostess or watching out for other people’s feelings would be helpful.

    Julia, Actually, I really appreciate your thoughts that people might prescribe grief because of a tendency to think there are solutions to every problem. Thing is (and you know this) the problem is that my son is dead, not that I’m heartbroken over it! But it makes sense that I’d be especially annoyed at that tendency because solution finders and advice givers have always been among my pet peeves. I’ll let you know about Dear Abby if I can tolerate looking at that column much longer.

    Emily, I know some people dismiss the pain because Natan died so soon after being born. I’ve experienced that with some people we know (no names though…). But even miscarriages hurt like hell, and leave women grieving.

  7. I have to say that what bothers me most about other people’s rules for how to mourn is that they seem to think that there’s an expiration date on grief.

    Even a couple of weeks after my loss, my family kept asking me (in so many words), aren’t you over it yet? Now that months have gone by, they seem astounded that I’m still sad.

  8. Well, I suppose it’s worth asking what would count as being able to understand, sympathize with, express concern for, or relate to others’ grief. Much of what you say throughout this blog suggests that it’s either an all-or-nothing affair: that is, either people ‘get it’, or they don’t; either people respond appropriately, or they don’t.

    I don’t think that’s correct, and I’m pretty sure that you don’t, either. So my suggestion for thinking about the very good questions you ask is to start by reflecting on the range of responses one might make to another’s grief.

    Something else that I find significant is that our culture seems to lack in rituals or – I don’t know what to call them besides something like “cultural mechanisms” – for dealing with grief. Let me give an example. When someone is sad or grieving, one of the stock responses is “I’m sorry.” This phrase truly rankles some people because they think it ought to be reserved for responsibility-taking and forgiveness-asking. I have no problem with that, though I do think that the phrase has a wider usage. My point, however, is that if one does restrict the phrase, what does one say to express sympathy? “I feel grief on your behalf” or “I can sympathise” or anything similar sound so artificial it’s absurd. I don’t think we actually have too many expressions available to us. Likewise, apart from the stock sending of flowers or cards – which also annoys some people – there aren’t too many actions expressive of sympathy.

    These suggest to me that perhaps people are not entirely as clueless as you sometimes suggest; instead, they’re hampered by a lack of cultural tools. As a philosopher, I can’t believe I just said that.

  9. I have two thoughts on this post. The first is deals with my personal thoughts on handling death and dying while the second is on society.

    I tend to not want to talk about family death or disease beyond my family members or those who have been through the process with my family. I’ve never had to deal with something as sad and tramatic as loosing a child, so maybe if it did happen to me I would react differently. Anyways, the reason for not going beyond who is directly involved in the death or disease comes from watching the parents at the funeral of an aquaintance who passed away right before our senior of high school. These poor parents had to comfort hundreds of teenagers when they needed time to take care of themselves and their other children.

    When I have had to announce a death to another person, I have a hard time dealing with the feelings and emotions of the other person. I sometimes feel panicked when someone breaks down. When I am hurting from my own loss, I do not want to deal with the feelings of other people or have to explain more than I have to about the situation surrounding the loss.

    The second thought I had about society and death comes from growing up in a portion of the US that is heavily influenced by Asian and Pacific cultures. In both cultures death is something that is a part of life and mourning can appear to go on for years, but is not dwelled upon. For instance, in the Japanese Buddhist customs my father’s family follows, it is not usual for family members to have a service every year up around the anniversary of the person’s death to 49 years after a person dies. Death and death rituals are talked about casually even by people who are young and healthy back home. Even in the southwest US, where I lived for a couple of years before coming to the midwest, there seemed to be an understanding that death was not something you had a time limit to deal with. In the mid-west it seems that people avoid death and talking about death until they have to deal with it, then stop thinking about death as soon as the funeral is over and expect others to do likewise.

    In both the place I grew up and the Southwest, there was not the emphasis on showing grief although both places are changing with the influence of the US popular media. It is even frown upon for the family to show intense emotion at a funeral back home, especially in Asian families even those like mine who are more American than Asian after so many generations in the US. However, it is okay and encouraged to remember the person AND their death. There is no time limit like I feel there is here in the midwest on when to stop thinking about the deceased and their death.

    Needless to say it was a bit a shock for me to see how my mother-in-law, whose family had been in Ohio for many generations, carried on a few months after I met her when one of her grandaunts died. It seemed that my mother-in-law felt she had to show intense emotion in order to demonstrate to her family that she was grieving. A couple weeks after the funeral, my mother-in-law stopped talking about the deceased unless she was asked. It was a culture shock to see someone in my new family act this way about death.

  10. Sara, I totally get it. Thank you for blogging and often expressing what I feel and can’t often say myself. Sometimes just from lack of strength and sometimes from wanting privacy. Our culture is insensitive. It sucks.

  11. J.V., I think you misunderstood my post. I was responding specifically to sentiments expressing that someone is grieving or handling a difficult situation incorrectly.

    In other posts that respond to comments made to me, I have never suggested that it is all or nothing when it comes to sympathizing with us. In real life and on this blog I have taken many supportive comments with which I disagreed, or that I did not find comforting, and accepted that they are well meaning. If I think back to comments I have vented about, I can only think of complaining about 1) being told that everything will be okay, 2) being told that what happened to me is no big deal and means nothing for the future, 3) being told that this pain was somehow “for the best,” 4) having my concerns dismissed by medical professionals, 5) certain people expecting that I will be over Natan’s death already. People have responded to our loss in many ways that I wouldn’t, and said things that I wouldn’t. I tend much more towards appreciating the sentiment than I do towards categorizing people as either “getting it” or not. In general I’m mostly satisfied when anyone at all acknowledges that my heart has been broken, however clumsily they might do it.

    This is my personal blog, even when I’m talking about non-personal events, I’m never prescribing a more general response or attitude.

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