Bearing Witness

Grief and pain are like joy and peace; they are not things we should try to snatch from each other. Glennon Doyle

More than thirty years ago, someone I loved lost a baby just before the due date.

“You must call,” my mother said.

“But I don’t know what to say,” I protested. “What if I say the wrong thing? Or something stupid? What if I make the situation worse?”

“You don’t need to say much at all,” she said. “Convey how sorry you are. Then just listen.”

I was in my 20s, and this loss was beyond my experience and understanding. I hadn’t learned how common miscarriage is or discovered that bad things can happen to people who take proper precautions and do everything right. I didn’t yet know the full gamut of all that can go wrong with pregnancy and birth.

After circling the phone for more than a day, I finally got up the nerve to make the call. My housemates were out. The upstairs kitchen was quiet. I could just see the top of the trees through my housemate’s window as I stood gripping the handset.

I spoke first, explaining that I had heard the news and wanted to say how sorry I was. Then I listened as the words tumbled out, interlaced with sobs. I no longer recall what was said, what I else I said. What has stayed with me all these years is how scared I was. How the adrenaline coursed through my body as I cast about for a way to make everything better, to fix what had happened. The turmoil in my head as I searched for the right words to say, only to realize that there weren’t any. I could only stay quiet and listen. How small and insufficient that felt.

Time passed, and my memory of the conversation faded. I went to graduate school, got married, had my first child. Then I lost my second, a baby girl, to a miscarriage at eleven and a half weeks. I was heartbroken, but also shocked. How had this happened? My first pregnancy had been so easy and uneventful; I’d expected the second to be the same. I’d wanted three years between my kids and had managed to time it perfectly. Had I put the baby at risk somehow? Done something wrong? Was this all my fault?

I returned to my son’s preschool the following week, feeling awkward and embarrassed as though I was wearing my shame like a bright-colored coat. I don’t remember which mom approached me first, only that she was the beginning of a steady stream of women who bravely walked up and offered their condolences. Although some of the moms shared their own miscarriage stories, I didn’t feel as though a single one made the story about herself. Instead, they felt like gentle offerings. A way of saying, I see your pain, and I know this isn’t your fault. It’s a blow, and you will need time to lick your wounds and bury yourself in the pain. To stamp your feet over the unfairness and rage about the way the universe ruined your plans and stole your daughter. But when you are ready and able to begin again, look, there’s hope. Of another child, maybe even another girl. And even if this happens again, there’s more hope waiting beyond that.

I left school that afternoon still sad but lighter at the same time. I thought of that long-ago conversation, how tongue-tied and inadequate I’d felt, failing to understand with my limited life experience, just how wise my mother’s advice had been. I didn’t have the lived experience to offer any hope, the way some of the preschool moms had, and thank goodness, I hadn’t tried. But because of my mom, I had made myself face my loved one’s pain and acknowledge just how much it must hurt. It had felt wholly inadequate, almost meaningless, in the face of such a shattering loss. But it hadn’t been nothing; I knew that now.

Grief is so isolating. No one, not even those who share the same loss, can fully understand our pain, our guilt, our shame, our heartbreak. We apologize for our tears, our anger, our despair as if there’s something wrong with the way we feel. We pressure ourselves into trying to act normally, even though we feel anything but. We try to keep others from seeing our broken, hurting selves when that’s what we most need.

I used to think there was a way to relieve suffering, to rationalize away the what ifs and if onlys. I didn’t know that what we need most is to be witnessed. To have another human, even someone we didn’t know well, say, “I see your loss, your pain. I wish I could make it better, but I can’t. So I will sit here quietly with you, because the one thing I can do is make sure that for the next few moments, you are not alone.”

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