So often I hear people who are in the midst of their grief expressing frustration at what feels like taking steps backward after having made what felt like some small yet amazing amount of progress, as though each of us was walking a straight line of grief. Like any of us, I have not been immune to the backward feeling, but for me the idea that I was not making any progress because of that never felt right. For me, grief has been like a big round room…
Colorado, December 18, 1999 – My mind has fractured. My mind has split open and I am falling. I am falling backward off the edge of sanity, into this gigantic, new black place in my mind. I guess I have landed hard; my eyes hurt, my head is pounding, my ears are ringing, my heart is racing. There is an odd silence as all of our visitors shuffle out of the hospital room. I am holding my only baby, our precious daughter. She is dead.
None of this is expected. We were not prepared. How do you prepare with no notice? I hear the people in our room, the nurses coming in to confirm that the soul – which seconds earlier occupied this ruined little body in my arms – has left us. I look over at my husband, sending him pleading messages with my eyes to save us from this. He is wiping a tear from his cheek, I have never seen him cry. I love him more now than I ever thought possible. I am holding our baby, and I feel myself being pulled into the dark place in my mind.
I feel like I am in a gigantic coffee can with the lid peeled back. I am walking against the walls, seeing nothing but the darkness, sensing the enormity of this space. I find a little switch on the wall and flip it. Light. Looking around, I see that I am alone and I am in a big round room. There is nothing here, it is quite cold. I am wearing my hospital gown and I am barefoot. I turn around and around, looking at the blankness of this place, wondering what I am going to do next. Then I see it. There is a tiny wisp of light coming from across the room. As I get closer I see there is a door, and it is ajar. Peeking in I see a chair, but nothing else. I enter the room.
I find myself overwhelmed by physical pain. Everything hurts. The scar from my c-section surgery is like a siren in my ears. I am shaky on my feet from exhaustion and loss of blood. My throbbing breasts are engorged and heavy with milk for a baby who will never nurse. I start to scream at the top of my voice, “This is cruel! Someone please help me!” I kneel down on the floor, hugging myself. Feeling sorry for myself and wishing I was dead like my daughter. The tears come as if on their own.
I wake up some time later and see that I am back in the big round room. I am dressed now, feeling a little warmer and glad to have shoes on my feet. I look down to see my husband tying my shoe laces. The nurse is here with the wheelchair to discharge me. I notice she is pushing a cart full of flowers and a tray of lasagne that some friends brought by. You know something is not right when someone brings frozen lasagne to you in the hospital after having a baby. Oh yes, the baby. My daughter. She is dead.
A blur of hospital rooms, the elevator down, the looks from strangers who say congratulations. They see flowers and a teddy bear and think I am a happy new mother. The tears begin again, my body is heaving, which brings the physical pain once more. My husband is there with the car, empty carseat in the back. Empty like my arms, leaving the maternity floor. I can’t lift my legs into our SUV. I don’t feel very present. I close my eyes and see another door. I am too tired for this.
We drive away in silence. Red light. Sitting there in the center of town. We’re at the corner of Dry Creek and University Roads and its very busy. People loading Christmas trees on top of their cars, people laughing. How is it these people have so much to do? Where is all of this traffic going? Don’t they know she is dead? I recite in my mind the poem Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden and for the first time I feel it is my own lament.
I peek through the open door and push my way into the room. There is a mirror there in the middle, all by itself. I walk up to the mirror and see myself as things should have been. Holding my healthy new baby, kissing my husband as we stand together and just smile at her chubby pink face. I see us happy, I see her crawling, taking her first steps, waving hello, blowing kisses. I see a giant dark shadow begin to obscure these images in the mirror. I see myself as I am now, looking pale and tired, I have greasy hair. It is like a mask of me, I hardly know this woman in the mirror. I feel despair. Nothing good for us will come. Ever. I stare back at myself willing myself to die. Anything is better than this. Someone please help me out of here.
I wake up and find myself again in the big round room. Now there is a pillow on the floor where I was laying. My husband is saying something as he is helping me into our house, our empty house. All I want is to sleep. I am like a ghost of myself, I don’t know what to do. I am just too tired. I wander about the house, think I will stay home today, forever. Why can’t I stand up straight? Oh yes, the surgery. I hear a clapping sound in my ears, getting louder. What is that? Its now more of a crashing, am I hearing things? Oh, its that door. I push open the door and see a chair.
Haven’t I already been here? The pain washes over me and I just cry. This is a dirty trick. I went through this door already. Yet here I am dealing again with this amazing pain. When will my milk dry up? My arms hurt, its like an amputee getting phantom pains. I want to hold my daughter. But she is dead. I don’t even know where her body is right now. I step out of the shower. My husband is holding a towel for me. He is being so gentle, can he see that I am on the verge of just shattering?
We’re at the mall. Christmas shopping. I feel like I am floating above my body. Going through the motions. My husband is pushing me through the holiday throng in a wheelchair. I need to find a box. “Let’s go in here.” The box is for our daughter’s ashes. How big do you think it needs to be? “Can’t be that much, she was so small.” We see a friend who has heard the news. He is sorry but never says her name. I feel the call from the big round room in my ever present alternate grief reality. Not right now, please. I just can’t do this at the mall. I have the little wooden painted box in my lap, this is to be her resting place. I feel like showing it to him.
Jingle Bells, and Joy to the World reach my ears. The mall is decorated beautifully. My husband is talking to his friend. I push open the door and find myself back in front of that awful “what if” mirror. I see us picking out baby girl things. Overloading our arms with presents for our daughter who is snuggled here in her stroller. I rush out of there, back into the big round room, slamming the door behind me. I reach into my pocket and pull out a red marker, I write “CRUSHED DREAMS” on that door. Ahead of me, across the round room is the other room I have been frequenting, I quickly grab the knob and close the door and write “PAIN”. I almost feel like I have taken a small amount of control away from the power of this room. I look up and a pregnant woman is in line ahead of us buying a present for a living child and I have the overwhelming desire to tell her that our baby died.
A year has passed, how can that be? The big round room looks different to me now. There is an arm chair that has appeared next to that pillow from those first days, and there is a soft area rug underneath. Over there is a huge overstuffed sofa that looks way-too lived in. There are some pictures on the table of my daughter, there is a pile of journals that are laden with writing. Guess I have moved in. The light seems softer than it was at first, and I notice the room is so much larger than it had originally seemed.
There must be a thousand doors in this room. Some of them are open, and now many of them are named. Looking around I see that the “PAIN” door has been closed for a long time, and it has some cobwebs. The mirror in “CRUSHED DREAMS” is still active, but not nearly as much lately. I find myself being drawn into “ANGER” and “FEAR” often. There have been some days when I am able to step into the room I call “HOPE” where I get to sit and think about the new child growing inside me. And “HAPPINESS” where I get a glimpse of us finding joy in our lives again. But I can’t seem to find a way to stay there. Some of these rooms are locked. Some of the doors never close all the way. There is another big sofa in the “CRY” room. Many of the rooms have yet to be named or even entered. I get so weary with the thought of all this grief work, but it doesn’t allow for many rest breaks and it has so many faces.
It has now been almost six years. My journey into grief has been a rough, bumpy, and messy one. There have been times when I felt certain I would disappear into one of those rooms and never be heard from again. There were times I wished for just that very thing. Doing the work on whatever I am confronted with has helped me to find meaning in so much of this. On some levels it seems to be a lot easier now, and still at other times I feel like my daughter died yesterday.
My grief has not been a linear thing at all. The big round room still beckons me, sometimes at the most unexpected moments, and I find myself back in an old familiar space, or stuck in a completely new room where I am humbled by the lack of control I have over any of this. Grief tells me I have to feel whatever it is time to feel. I cannot predict which room I will be sent into next, although there are times when I do send myself into one on my own. Knowing now, from experience, that I do usually feel better when I shut one of those doors behind me and sit back down in the big round room.