Trauma, Grief, Engagement, Love: The Work-Life Balance after Losing a Child
I turned off my brain this weekend. I didn't have a lot of choice. When grief comes to the table, it's eat or be eaten. I have too much to live for.
I have spent a significant portion of my adult life defining myself by my work, partially due to being very good at it and finding unique, consistent value in it, but also due to my total inability to have children. Six years and one miscarriage later, my husband and I were well on our way to just assuming we'd be childless the rest of our lives, and the excruciating pressure of that issue was weighing heavily on me. I found solace in burying myself in work and professional projects, running myself ragged and burning out over and over again, still young and resilient enough that two days off in a row could get my head back on straight. I considered myself as belonging to the community.
When a successful IUI attempt saw me and my husband suddenly pregnant with twin boys, there was an explosion of support and happiness. People brought gifts enough to cover my living room. (I still, over two years after their birth, have never purchased baby wipes. Never.) And when the boys were born suddenly and traumatically at 33 weeks (May 12th, 2016) there was never any question that I would work from the NICU on my laptop while watching them slowly get stronger. My workplace rallied. My people rallied. I considered myself belonging to the community.
In October of 2016, less than 6 months after birth, my older boy by one minute (Thomas Jeffrey, after my father) was taken by helicopter to Valley Children's (where they told me he needed a heart transplant and shrugged) and then to Stanford (where he was given the highest quality of care imaginable) where he stayed the last eight days of his life. He passed away at 9:06am on Friday, November 4th, after a surgery to remove a tumor on his adrenal gland put him into full system failure.
My people rallied. My family was brought dinner every night for two and a half months. I considered myself belonging to the community. And I was back in the office by November 25th.
No one has ever once said anything (to my face, at least) except "take all the time you need" or, occasionally "go home, you need more time." But the definition was already set; part of my "normal" was being in the office, hearing the sounds of the building, the depth of focus and zen-like concentration I could achieve and yet the accessibility the world could have to me. I felt most myself in my office, working.
But normal doesn't last, and no one's "normal" is "normal." As my family shifts and changes, and the years begin to slide by, I am noticing distinct differences in the way I react to stimuli (positive and negative), the engagement I'm capable of adding to the project, and the value I place on being present and accessible in the workplace.
This weekend was a perfect example. Saturday was Elijah James' second birthday. (Thomas' younger brother by only a minute, and the scrappiest, sweetest boy on earth.) Sunday was Mother's Day. Obviously, on the surface, and assuming that trauma heals and life moves back to a previously prescribed "normal," I had much to celebrate. But instead, my Saturday morning went something like this:
6:30am: Wake up to sounds of the baby crying. Go get him and struggle him into clothes for the day. Feel exhausted. Then wonder if you could have possibly actually done this with two. Wait a minute to try and compose yourself while guilt washes over you. Fail. Cry.
7am: Go to cook breakfast and realize you're out of everything. Waiting until next paycheck for shopping. Can you finagle something he'll eat? Toast bread. Thinking about paycheck means thinking about work. Answer emails. Shut off phone angrily.
8am: Realize you haven't showered since Wednesday. Turn on a show he'll watch and leave the shower door wide open so that you can hear him if he cries. Think about how bad TV is for kids. Think about waking husband up to watch him instead. Think about how resentful husband would be. Think about how husband would just turn on the TV for him and then fall asleep on the couch. Realize once again that love does not mean perfect understanding. Cry.
9am: Wake up husband so that he can shower while you take the baby out for a birthday smoothie. Husband is resentful. He forgot he had to get up early. He forgot it was Eli's birthday. You watch him go through the phases of resentful, then begrudgingly joyful, then sorrowful when he realizes that that means he'll be thinking about Thomas without fail today, all day. He sits up and slips the necklace with Thomas' ashes over his head. He cries. You cry. Eli watches quizzically and then runs back to the living room.
In case you're keeping score, that was three times crying before leaving the house. I cried all day. And Mother's Day was equally difficult, a constant balancing act of love, understanding, celebration, fear, pain, grief, self-loathing, emptiness.
Through all of this, whenever I would attempt to process something difficult or sacred to my heart, my brain would redirect to work. I would get a nervous rush of adrenaline thinking about the program I was about to start, or feel disheartened at the memory of an unpleasant conversation. I checked my email at least ten times. And the internal struggle with guilt and engagement is ever-shifting and new to the moment, every moment. Some moments it felt like the only logical thing to do. Others it felt like a cop-out or a coping mechanism. Still others it filled me with a sense of vitriolic hatred, and still others with a looming dread, like I was trapped with no chance of escaping.
I love working and creating, and define myself by what I am capable of providing the community, which is valuable and hard-won. But I cannot belong to the community, not while I am figuring out how to belong to my family, what my family looked like then, and what my family looks like now. My balance involves more weights now, and more tightropes, and there are ever more pieces to uncover. It isn't impossible, but it IS harder, and the boundaries must be clear. Because when grief and love overtake you, there is not room for dislike or discomfort.
I do not belong to the community. I am the community. Intricate, complex, detailed, capable, taking time, sitting in the backseat, holding space, clearing room. I will engage where I am ready, and when I am ready. And the only person I need to answer to about it is myself.