Roadtrip Conversations and the Power of Empathy

I had a powerful conversation this week with an old and cherished friend I hadn’t seen in far too long.  How is it that the movement of life can carry you along on your journey, seemingly away from those real and pivotal relationships, until one single rogue wave brings you right back in front of each other, and it was like you were never separated?  How amazing is that?  The best part is that it feels like no time has passed.  You pick up exactly where you left off, not missing a beat but just filling in the puzzle pieces of each other’s lives since your last encounter.

The rogue wave that thrust my friend and me back in each other’s way was the ragic and sudden death of our mutual friend’s beautiful 18 year old daughter.  She was killed in a car accident. (The photograph at the top of the page was the view from the site of her accident.)  Her truck hit the ditch and went up in flames.  ‘Just like Joan of Arc’ her broken but courageous mother said at the funeral.   This devastating news knocked the air out of my lungs as soon as I read it.  My friend and I connected almost within moments of discovering what had happened and agreed to travel the three hour journey to her funeral together.

Our road trip conversation started the minute we put the car in drive and none of it was frivolous small talk.  We got right stuck in about the important stuff.  We discussed the tragedy we were about to confront, how we felt about it, how our friend was doing, and what she might need.  We both had fallen out of regular contact with our her, but the idea that we wouldn’t be there at her daughter’s funeral to bear witness to her loss, her daughter’s life, and show our love and support was never an option.  We packed two boxes of tissue and had not worn mascara, prepared for the mess of emotions which would overwhelm us all day long.  We talked about this girl and our memories of her as a wee one.  We cried for her life that was too short and for our friend and her brother and father, who would all now live, missing her forever.  We talked each of the losses of our own babies, cried for them both and for own hearts which would also never totally heal.  We spoke of how these experiences changed us, and our views of the world.  We shared about our work and future passion projects just fledgling yet in our minds.

In a nutshell, we had meaningful conversations. We felt the other’s story, not just heard it.  We connected.  Just like we always have. It was affirming and energizing and brilliant, even in these most horrific of circumstances.  We marvelled at this experience of reconnecting.

“The key” said my wise and brilliant friend, ” is the heart connection.  And that happens because of a strong sense of empathy.” We agreed that this empathy is not common in people.  We are taught to be sympathetic, to look in from the outside with head a-tilt.  Instead of jumping into the fray and getting messy there, we stop.   We halt just short of getting too involved for fear we might let the other person’s experience affect us too much, and we might feel too much.  We don’t want to give too much.  The effect of that would be…..what exactly?  We might get real???  Our mask might drop, and then look out!  We would be exposed with our truth out on display.  Now that is scary.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer speaks about this in her poem ‘The Invitation’.

The Invitation

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shrivelled and closed from fear of further pain. I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own; if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, be realistic, remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself.  If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul.  If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy. I want to know if you can see Beauty even when it is not pretty every day. And if you can source your own life from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, ‘Yes.’

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.

What has become increasingly apparent to me over the past year, and what arriving into the open arms of my devastated friend showed again, is that empathy is so incredibly vital to healing.  It is a key ingredient.  In fact, I would argue that healing cannot happen without it.  Empathy is as vital to healing as is sun and water to a germinating seed.

Brene Brown conveys this message in an animated short film which is sheer brilliance.  See for yourself.


Now be honest.  Are you the person down there in the pit, or are you the one looking in from the top with the sandwich?


Making Peace with Anger

“Why is she so………..angry????”  Yup, you guessed it.  The “She” referred to in that question was Yours Truly.  It was posed to my husband after I had a rather memorable meltdown prior to the commencement of a small family reunion being held at our cabin during our summer vacation, only five short months since my sweet Samuel had died and then was born.  Thankfully, I was out of ear shot at the time, as I am fairly certain that my response would not have been very constructive.

I had been quite wound up preparing for the trip and  getting ready to host relatives coming to visit from overseas. The packing up had started at 7 am on the Wednesday and continued non stop until Saturday night at 11pm.  We and our four children, our dog, our minivan with roof box and silver equipment trailer stuffed to the brim, left the following Sunday morning at 4 am.  Yes, you read that right, 4 am.  We traveled as non stop as one can with four kids, our youngest with us now being all of two years old, and arrived at our cabin at 11 pm Sunday night.  “Epic” is the only word I have which effectively describes that effort.  To say that I was exhausted seems obvious.  We were all exhausted but we felt excited too.  We were finally on holidays!

Upon arriving, we started the grand unpack.  The kids needed some time to adjust to the new surroundings, and we began setting up our place to host the other families joining us.  I should preface this story with the admission that I am a bit of a neat freak, and really wanted to make a good impression on the extended family visiting for the first time in 15 years.   So, true to form,  I was cleaning like a maniac.  I can also be honest and say that my patience and tolerance for normal but annoying kid behaviour was waning as the day progressed.  Ok, maybe it had waned.  By mid afternoon I felt like I was living my own version of the movie “Groundhog Day”, doing the same series of mind numbing tasks over and over again.  I had become a dirt fighting Tasmanian devil, whirling around with vacuum in one hand and wet mop in the other, ranting at full volume as I went. But I didn’t really think that my fairly long-winded grown-up Mommy tantrum about the kids tracking dirt through the house, on the brand new couch and across the throw rug all afternoon was that difficult to understand.  When my four-year old reported to me that my two-year old had “done art” with felt marker on the couch upstairs, that was it.  I blew a gasket!

Now it is one thing to blow a gasket.  It is quite another to do so with witnesses, especially when the witnesses are your in-laws.  It is probably fair to say that anyone would have had a hissy fit in the same set of circumstances, except for maybe Mother Theresa herself, and that even others there found the situation quite challenging.  Unfortunately though, my rant went on and on………..and ON.  My husband rather exasperatedly “invited” me to take a walk for as long as I needed, to pull myself together.  Clearly the display was too much for him to mitigate as well.

As I walked along the beach, I reflected on what it was that was driving my intensity and marveled at why my family just didn’t seem to be very sympathetic.  It seemed so obvious to me!  Granted, I was upset and annoyed at the kids for constantly tracking dirt in the house, for their choice of art canvas, and most infuriating of all, their failure to listen to me.  But it was more than that.  I was driven to distraction, because while everyone else seemed happy and relaxed, I just wasn’t.  No amount of cleaning and preparing for company would make things seem quite right.  Because for me, the only thing that could really make me feel relaxed was impossible; my baby being physically there with me.  It was the most frustrating, infuriating experience ever.  That day, the dirt all over the floors and the felt marker on the couch gave me an outlet for that.  But no one else saw it that way.  It would have helped if I could have stepped outside of my overwhelming tirade for a moment, and been able explain that to them.  I am sure they would have understood.  But this is the other part of the grief journey that is really inconvenient.  When you are grieving, communicating about your grief is just really difficult to do.

Most people can list all stages of grief published by Kubler-Ross, and acknowledge that these experiences are both normal and predictable.  It is fascinating though how certain of those emotions are really more “acceptable”  when it comes down to it, and these feelings are released from their cages for all to see.     My experience demonstrates that truth; that sadness is by far the more popular of these two fraternal emotional twins spawned by grief.  I am not sure why,  although there is little doubt that witnessing an angry display can certainly feel like more of an affront.  I am sure my family could attest to that.  Maybe a grieving person seems more accessible if sad than when angry.  Perhaps the vulnerability of a sad individual is compelling.  Possibly people feel as though they can do something about the sad aspect of their experience,  although they can’t.  The sad feeling cannot be removed or changed or altered by anyone.  Oddly, it can coexist with other feelings, side by side, even with happiness.  I found this discovery very strange.  And sometimes sadness can be distracted from for a little while.  This gives the grieving person a momentary break from this emotion which makes taking in a full breath physically painful at times.  But no, nobody can really take the sadness away.  Yet somehow those who surround the aggrieved seem to feel more inclined to try to connect to the sad aspect of the grief experience than the angry one.  Even my husband admitted this. He said, “You know, if you were curled up in a corner, crying, they all would understand and sympathize.  But you aren’t.  You are really, really angry.  And it makes people uncomfortable.”

He was right.  Sadness is the most comfortable emotion.  It is more acceptable,  even to me.  Dealing with this part doesn’t require much thought.  I am sad, so I cry.  When I am desperate, I sob.  (And by sob I mean a big horrid messy ugly cry that even your closest friend couldn’t bear to witness without shock and horror.)  But this doesn’t surprise me.  I have accepted that doing so is the way to deal with my sadness.  When anger jumps into the picture, there is a whole different reaction.  Even those close to the one experiencing profound loss seem to understand that anger has a place in this whole unfortunate experience.  It seems most often however, they are even less equipped to accept this or to know how to deal with it than the person going through it.   Let me tell you, I didn’t want to feel the anger.  Not one bit.  I rejected it as long as I could.  I wanted peace, and acceptance.  I’d have even chosen the desperate pain of sadness before I wanted the anger.  It just seemed so negative.  But guess what?  The anger showed up anyway.  I tried all of the constructive methods I could think of to deal with the anger. I went to spin classes, ran, locked myself in the garage and screamed my brains out.  Then I went to counselling.  It all  helped, but certainly didn’t prevent the feeling from encroaching.  And it still doesn’t.  It didn’t prevent my all out display in front of my family either.  I guess that is because anger is supposed to be there.  It has a purpose in this whole experience too.  And I guess I am coming to realize that maybe anger’s role isn’t so negative after all.

Since losing my baby boy, I have felt innumerable emotions.  I know I am not alone in this experience.  Desperation, heartbreak, frustration and hopelessness carry you on an emotional roller coaster which changes trajectory every other moment.  But which feelings are really responsible for this upheaval?  Sadness and anger are.  The act of grieving seems to involve going through every variation and permutation of these two emotions over and over again.  They are at the root of every twist and turn.  And what I have come to accept, is that they both have a crucial and healing role in grief.   Sadness and I are on good terms.  We always were I guess.  But finally I think I have learned to allow a place for anger as well.  I have discovered that anger provides the energy which helps me to get up and keep fighting to live each day to its fullest, despite the loss I am enduring.  It is the part of the process that seems to help keep me moving forward.  Anger even has helped me to choose to see the good and the beauty, as it refuses to let the sadness take the limelight every moment of my day.  Letting anger out is like releasing the pressure valve that seems to get installed as soon as you lose your precious loved one.   Allowing a place for the anger to exist with my experience of grief has also helped me channel it in a less, shall we say, imposing way on those who surround and support me.  Anger has in the end, helped me find a way back to moments of peace and surrender.  How ironic is that?

By all accounts, the family reunion was a great success and the holiday was tons of fun.  Eventually I was able to let go a little, and relaxed into vacation mode surrounded by wonderful people, our crazy kids and the beautiful island paradise where we are so fortunate to spend time together.  Thankfully the effects of my outburst had limited impact in that regard.   To be honest,  I am not even completely sure how my husband answered the fated question in the end.  I didn’t ask.  I am sure he handled it graciously and with kindness.  He probably said something simple and to the point.

Because the perfect answer to the question “Why is she so……. angry?” is actually very simple.  It is, “She is grieving.  It is just part of it.”

“So…..are you back at work?” and other comments which drive me crazy

I swore I wouldn’t publish a rant post.  Really, I did.  Yet the material is just so abundant, that I am giving in to the familiar urge to just “get it out on paper”.  I need to release it – the rant – from its confines in my brain where is only serving to pollute my usually positive and glass half full, (albeit battered at the moment) self.  Perhaps this little commentary on things one should not say, will serve to gently educate the usually well-meaning general public, friends and family about what  grieving parents often experience in the aftermath of the loss of their child.  Ok, yes,  I am totally justifying my rant post as educational.  So, as long as I might be doing a bit of public good…….here I go!!

1.  “So………..are you back at work?”

This question drives me crazy.  I have been asked this question about 8 times over the span of a few days recently, which makes me realize that I have now passed a  certain undetermined milestone in the eyes of many which leads them to believe that this question is natural and not offensive.  The trouble is, when the onslaught of this question started, I re-engaged in a long series of sleepless nights again, just considering that this is what I “should” be doing.  I love my work and am quite grateful to have a career that gives me a sense of accomplishment in addition to a decent paycheck.  But right now, I absolutely have no desire to be there.  I don’t care about work, and unequivocally do not want to be there.  I just don’t have the energy or focus or concentration.  In a word, I am not ready to go back yet.

I totally get the question though.  It is a signal that the person asking it likely does not realize the length of time a mother losing her baby may need to fully recover.  They couldn’t possibly understand the roller coaster process of grief that you are trying to allow for whilst being a parent too.  They have no idea that although from the outside, your life looks exactly like it did before your baby died, that in reality your life has changed profoundly.  In fact, YOU have changed profoundly.   And while you are busy trying to just put the pieces back together, you are also trying to redefine what those pieces even ARE.  Counsellors call this “finding your new normal”.  The less offensive question or comment regarding work could just simply be “How are you doing?  It is good that you are able to take some time off from work to heal.”

One aspect of finding your new normal is redefining your family.  One assumes that this would be easy in our case.  We planned to have four children close together.  Then we had four children close together.  Then we were done having kids.  Everyone knew it.  I unabashedly gave away clothes and baby things, happy to pass them on to those friends of mine entering this delicious but exhausting stage of life.  I was sad to be finished having babies, but knew we were ready to move forward from this time of our life.

Then we got pregnant with our little Samuel.  He took us by surprise, completely.  He was a miracle, even breaking through all contraceptive barriers and showing us that our lives weren’t really totally in our control.  From the start, he showed us how to surrender to that fact and embrace the bend in our road with gratitude.  So we did.  Joyfully.  We were delighted that a new baby would join us, but after this I felt we couldn’t continue to risk having more kids.  My body had been through so much in 8 years with 5 pregnancies and an early miscarriage as well.  I was physically exhausted.  In January, my hubby booked the procedure.  I was relieved.  After our bonus baby came, we would be DONE….again.

Then, a week before my husband was scheduled for the vasectomy, I had a really random thought.  “Maybe we shouldn’t do it.  What if something happens?” The thought hit me like it wasn’t mine… it just landed in my mind and kind of smacked me sideways a bit.  I was alarmed by it.  I quickly dismissed it as weird but maybe normal.  My husband, begrudgingly, had the procedure. Then my due date came and went.  My body did not seem to want to go into labour despite two cervical rimmings and as much activity as I could manage.  I felt so depleted.  I didn’t feel the way I did close to my other deliveries.  I told my husband that I was worried because it felt like the baby didn’t want to come.  Something just felt different.  Everything looked normal, nothing was clinically a red flag, but the truth is, I felt different.

Then Samuel died.  Our worlds came crashing down with his loss.  This was like the sucker punch in a boxing match of a lifetime; the KO that you don’t see coming.  This one did it.  This has been the only time in my entire life that I thought I might not make it through something.  How does anyone make it through this? Somehow though, we are making it through, bit by painful bit.  The roller coaster of redefining our family over and over was about to hit a new low.  What now?

Well, now I don’t feel DONE anymore.  I would love to have another child.  I will wait for a few more months to see if I still feel the same as time moves along and as I work through my grief.  But it is complicated now for a number of reasons.

1. My husband is happy to be finished having babies, although to his total credit, he is willing to discuss it.

2.  I am now 40.  This is not the age at which I would have thought that I would want to have another baby much less be seriously considering it.

3.  Having another baby would mean another surgery, one which costs money even here in Canada.  It is not like they tell you this when they give you the snip, but that is a whole other rant!  This leads me to the next comment that I despise with everything in me.

2.  “You know, having another baby will not bring Samuel back……”

This is likely the stupidest thing anyone could ever think would be helpful.

“Nooooooo Wayyyyyy!!!!!!?”   I want to say.  “You are KIDDING!??  Here the whole time I have just thought I could just get pregnant, and he would just jump right back in there.  I am so totally grateful that you have enlightened me to how this works.”

This is of course my internal monologue.  I respond in a kinder and much more appropriate way, but sometimes I wonder why I have spared this person the truth of knowing how this suggestion affects me and likely most other women wrestling with the same question.  Having a rainbow baby as they are called; that is a baby born after a loss, can be a very healing and hopeful experience.  The urge to create new life is quite a natural and positive one in many cases.  It is also a very personal decision, and one that no one, no matter how close they are to the grieving mother, should adjudicate at all.  Ask questions, yes.  Be there to listen, yes.  Say comment #2,  never.

So there it is, my educational rant.  Ahhhhhh.  I feel much better having written that off my chest.  I hope that this post might provide some insight into why it is my cheeks and ears sometimes flush in frustration at certain well intended and seemingly benign comments, and why at times, I seem to shift into a darker mood quite abruptly.  Perhaps I have  written the words that others in similar shoes might be experiencing too.  Regardless, I know that I feel better just getting it out there.

Thank you for listening.