Sadly, there exists an expectation with regards to grief. I remember first sensing a pressure around the six month mark. Conversations returned to normal topics and I felt the need to suppress it all in talks of the weather and Cardinals playoff games. I was thinking of her, (and of the pain) all the time, but it no longer felt safe to disclose. Of course life goes on, and of course no one ever said it to me aloud but I began to feel their assumptions, like a push from behind I hadn't expected. She's smiling. She's wearing lipstick again. She's okay.
It's just that I wasn't.
It is an impossible pain, to live without your child. To grow her and birth her and bury her within a years' time, and then return to... what? Life? What life?
But it's even more impossible to exist in a world that watched you grow her, birth her, bury her, and who assumes you could ever be the same.
After our next baby was born, these expectations intensified. Of course we are happy and grateful and relieved that he arrived safely. Of course I look at him and picture those tumultuous nine months; all the other outcomes I had planned for that could have just as easily happened. But of course it's still hard. Life is still incredibly lacking and incredibly prickly and incredibly hard. And in many, many ways, I am still not okay.
Last summer I met someone for dinner. She and I, though years apart in age, became close after our loved ones both suffered traumatic brain injuries. When my daughter died, she was there for me. Like, really there.
There were the friends who asked me to go shopping with them, or out to dinner, and then there was this woman who would sit with me on the phone, messaging for hours, talking about the most difficult things; things that scared me and things I'd been harboring and things that cannot possibly be sorted over lunch on the patio. This woman wasn't afraid of me. More importantly, she seemed to understand my grief, my bitterness, my disdain for normal life happenings, more than most people I'd known for decades.
When we met, we immediately began to catch each other up on the past 8 months. Terrible two's and retirement and the like and then, her newest granddaughter.
"I know you're happy for me," she said. " I didn't send a picture because I didn't want to cause you any more pain."
My eyes and my heart softened, and in that moment I realized something surprising. I WANTED to hear about her granddaughter. I wanted to see her picture.
It's strange how my pulse slowed then; how quickly my hands reached out in connection. How the moment my eyes met the screen, I felt something that pictures of little girls with little bows in their hair hardly bring me anymore. I felt happy. For her.
I am the farthest from perfect. In the past four years, I have disappointed more people than I could count on five hands. There is a stack of invites and unrequited text messages the recesses of my mind could never hope to count. I have let down my friends, my husband, my sons, but my life is a learning process now. How to breathe without her. How to stand upright. How to cope and to accept. How to forgive. And most recently, when others can place their feelings aside for what remains of my happiness, how to do the same for them.
And I'm learning that when your baby dies you need friends. You need friends who will call when you don't, who will reach out when you can't. You need friends who will tell you that your feelings are valid, and justified, and okay, even when they may not believe this to be true. You need friends who will show up the day after and four years later; who text on her birthday but also on boring Tuesday nights in April. You need friends who will hold your heart in theirs with every decision, as though it were the most fragile, most aching, most broken thing.
And you need friends who watch as your ice cream falls and melts on the floor, who will savor their cone in another room, for a time, until you're ready. Until your taste buds work again.