The Good Grief Club
"You can stay home," I tell Al when this month's support group meeting comes around. I don't need his support there now that I have Dawn, Heidi, Beth, and Darlene to lean on.
"Are you sure?" he asks, trying to look concerned for me, but obviously relieved for himself.
"Yeah," I laugh, surprised to find myself looking forward to the meeting tonight.
I grab a seat next to Beth and Heidi, and we begin with introductions, which, I discover after my turn, I'm getting very proficient at. As I sit listening to the anguish of a newly bereaved mother, an image flashes in my mind. I'm walking across a barren field, a red sky blazing overhead, an endless line of people stretching to my left and my right. As I turn to look behind, I see rows of men and women as far back as my eyes can reach. We march forward like soldiers, dropping one by one, yet the group goes on never looking back. This is how I feel about life lately. I'm muddling along, going through the motions, never knowing when it will be my turn to drop dead, or when I will suddenly lose another loved one. I shudder and force my attention back to the meeting.
It's Darlene's turn; I watch her closely. She's doing better this month. Beth told me Darlene has been spending time with her and Heidi during the long days.
Pat announces open sharing time. "David started school last month," says Heidi. "Brittany was due in August and I imagined taking him to school, pushing my brand new baby in the stroller. I dropped him off the first day of kindergarten, pulled the car over a block away from the school, and sobbed. It's really hard on David. He's asking if he's still a brother, why we didn't let him hold her, saying he wants to see her."
"I keep finding myself sitting in the rocking chair at night in the baby's room," I tell everyone, "thinking about Miranda and singing a lullaby I used to sing to Alex when she was a baby. Hush a bye, don't you cry, go to sleep my little baby…"
After a few others share what's on their minds, a new mother asks if it's okay to send birth announcements. "I bought some for Joshua from a religious bookstore," says Beth. "After sending them to friends and family, Jeff and I finally got some acknowledgement and support-cards, flowers, special notes. But I also needed physical support like meals and visits. The grieving rituals in this country are so lacking. People don't know how to support someone who's grieving."
"Other cultures embrace death as a passage into a better life," I say. "We, on the other hand, treat death as something unnatural, something to fear. And then when someone dies, we're encouraged by society to hide our feelings and get on with our lives. It's all so backwards. It's no wonder we're all struggling."
As the group shares a quiet moment, I realize my quiet habit has evolved from floor staring at the first meeting, to fidgeting with a damp tissue at the second meeting, and now I can look from face to face wondering who will speak next.
"I just quit my job here in labor and delivery," says Dawn. "I used to love my job, but lately it's gotten really hard. Multiple births are becoming more common. One day, my coworkers were raving about twenty-six-week-old twins saying, 'You should see their tiny little feet. You should see how cute they are!' I don't want to see how tiny their feet are. Shut up and leave me alone! I wanted to scream. Lately, I've been hearing about twenty-three-week-old babies doing fine. Why are they able to save other babies when they couldn't save mine?"
"Now that I'm not working, I spend more time at the cemetery," she continues. "I became friends with a woman whose daughter died of Leukemia five days before her sixteenth birthday and is buried near the triplets. We joked that her daughter, Andrea, was babysitting for my kids. I fill her angel birdfeeder for her, and she leaves surprises on the triplets' grave. I'll never forget something she said to me one day: 'It doesn't matter what age your child is when they die, it's tragic for all of us. It's no more tragic for me than it is for you. When a child loses parents, he's an orphan. When a woman loses a spouse, she's a widow. But there's no word for a person who loses a child. That's how awful it is. We're all equally in pain.'"
"After losing Nathan and Nicholas, I tried to go back to work when my maternity leave was up," says Darlene, "but I couldn't be around the same people I was with before-I didn't want to do anything I did before I was pregnant-and I quit after two weeks. I had to be around babies, I wanted to take care of something, so last month I got a job as a nanny for a ten-year-old girl and a one-year-old boy. The hiring manager knew I lost twins, and somehow I got through the interview without looking like a crazed mother who might steal someone's kids." Darlene laughs for the first time, and everyone joins in with her.
"Monica, you were talking about going back to work last month. Did you?" asks Beth.
"Yes, I did. It's been a good distraction, and I have a new friend who lost her dad and brother in a car accident, so we spend our lunch hour talking mostly about life and death and grief, but my interactions with other employees are so unpredictable. A woman in the bathroom told me how sorry she was and then as we were walking out, she added, 'Maybe it was for the best.'"
"Uh oh," says Heidi.
"Uh oh is right. I stopped and turned around to look at her. 'No. She was perfect and healthy. It was a senseless accident!' I told her. I know she meant well, but how can the death of any baby be for the best? Later, a woman from another department stopped me in the hall. 'You had your baby. Congratulations!' she said. Oh God, not again. Doesn't anyone in this building know my baby died? I thought to myself. This wasn't the first time I had been congratulated at work. She was embarrassed and felt horrible after I told her about Miranda. But she was nice and kept talking to me instead of rushing off with her tail between her legs. A woman passing by overheard me talking about the knot in Miranda's cord and suddenly stopped and said, 'When I was pregnant with my last one, we did an ultrasound a few weeks before my due date, and when the radiologist saw a knot in the baby's cord, they rushed me into surgery and did a c-section just in time to save the baby,' and then she breezed out the door. I felt like I had just been crushed by a giant boulder. I've been asking myself for three months if an ultrasound could have saved Miranda. I was angrier at that moment than when I opened a pregnancy book and read that it was impossible for an umbilical cord to have a knot."
After the meeting, a small group of us congregates in a huddle, sharing our ups and downs of the previous month while Pat makes her rounds talking to anyone who needs an ear or who lingers unsure of what they need. Thirty minutes later, Pat has her books packed up and is ready to lock up the room.
"I'm not ready to go home yet. Does anyone want to go to Omega?" asks Beth. Omega Restaurant, a Greek-owned family place, is a favorite among locals, offering everything under the sun from pancakes to pork roast, a bakery case that makes you want to skip dinner and move right on to dessert, and balloons for the kids. Everyone agrees, and one by one we pull out of the dark, empty parking lot in single file-Beth and Heidi, Dawn, Darlene, then me-like a midnight funeral procession.
Once seated around a large round table, Tony, a handsome dark-haired forty-something waiter comes to take our orders. "French toast," says Beth. "And a beer." Tony raises one eyebrow, I cringe, and everyone else laughs.
"What the heck," says Heidi, "I'll have what she's having. It's not like I'm pregnant."
"Me too," says Darlene. "It's not like I'm nursing a baby."
Tony, clearly amused, moves around the table one by one and finally stops at me. "I'll have French toast and orange juice." They give me that don't be a sissy look. "What? I don't even like beer!" I protest, and Tony winks at me as I hand him my menu.
"Do you remember our first meeting?" Beth asks. "Two months ago, I decided to go to that support group meeting with Heidi to help her out, thinking Heidi was such a basket case. But there I was bawling my eyes out with the rest of you, thinking how are we ever going to smile again, how are we going to go on with our lives?"
"And there was Dawn, having lost triplets, laughing with some friends," says Heidi.
"We all wanted to be like you," I say, pointing to Dawn.
Dawn tells us when she started coming to group the year before, everyone was newly grieving like her; there weren't any veterans who would come on a regular basis to offer support. So, as she rounded the corner of her first year, she continued going, not only for herself, but because of her need to let people know that they could get through this.
"I almost didn't come back to the second meeting," I confess. "The first one was so gut-wrenching."
"I tell people not to judge the group after the first meeting because it's going to drum up so many emotions, and you might be thinking this is not going to help me," says Dawn. "If you can't go back right away, give yourself some time, but don't just walk away after one meeting. Give it another try because each meeting gets a little easier. You'll make wonderful friends there that you can call anytime for support."
She tells us the story about a woman who came one night who had lost her baby a few years before on the same type of day, the same day of the week, and hadn't been to a meeting in a while. "I know you're probably thinking I'm supposed to be a good example, and here I am falling apart," the woman cried. "It's just one of those days. I knew I could come here and be safe. I knew I could come here and talk about it, and no one would judge me for it."
"It's really helped just to talk to other women who have lost a baby," I say. "Before my first group meeting, I called two women I didn't even know after I found out they had lost babies."
"When I was collecting money for a March of Dimes Walk-a-Thon," says Dawn, "I met a neighbor who lost a baby the year before me. We became good friends and took walks together around the neighborhood. Sometimes it felt like people were looking at us saying, 'Look, there's the women with the dead babies. It's so nice they found each other. But don't talk to them, it might be contagious.' But we didn't care what people might be thinking. We helped each other get through bad days and knew we could say anything about our babies without being looked at strangely."
Like Dawn and her friend, Beth and Heidi have been relying on each other for solace and sanity, as well. Heidi tells us a story about a summer night not long after Brittany and Joshua died. It was about 1:00 in the morning, they met at a park, and Beth climbed into Heidi's car. Heidi had in her lap a box with roses on it, about the size of a shoebox. Beth's box was wooden. With Heidi's homemade lullaby tape playing on the cassette deck, they talked and cried and shared the contents of their boxes-photos and mementos of Brittany and Joshua-when suddenly the glare from a flashlight poured in on them through the driver's side window. The policeman leaned over and peered in.
"You're not supposed to be here ladies. The park is closed. Can I ask what you're doing?"
Beth looked at Heidi. Heidi looked at Beth, and then up at the shadowy figure. "Well, officer, both of our babies died and we're sitting here having a moment."
"Um, okay ma'am, I'm so sorry, take as long as you need," he said and quickly left.
"Can you imagine the look on his face?" I ask. "People don't know what they're getting into when they start a conversation with one of us."
Heidi tells us that she, Beth, and Darlene sometimes go to another support group at a nearby hospital to get an extra dose of help between our monthly meetings. But they all agree the format is regimented, with predetermined topics, and although it prevents people from getting stuck and talking about the same thing all night, the meetings end precisely at 9:00 p.m. and someone usually gets cut off in the middle of a sentence. "We've been telling people you can talk as long as you want at our Share group. I guess we're sort of recruiting," she chuckles.
"So, they've become support group groupies," I say to Dawn, while grinning at Beth, Heidi, and Darlene as they laugh.
It's nearly midnight by the time Tony clears our breakfast plates and empty beer bottles, and we down the last drops of lukewarm coffee.
So begins a monthly ritual of French toast, beer-for those of us who can stomach it-and enough laughter to get us through another month until the next meeting. Unbeknownst to us, our round table at Omega will become a regular monthly event, and our group, which seems more like a club, will grow in membership.