On Carrying Grief (And Carrying Each Other)

While Iliana was napping, Ian and I talked through the work he was planning on doing for the remodel. All of a sudden I looked up at him and was startled.

"You're going to cry," I said. softly.
"I am," he replied.

A moment later he was telling me about a dream he had the night before. In it, he was carrying Iliana through a drug store and asked directions to the bathroom. He needed to get the kiddo there pronto but the way to it was frustrating and strange. A bizarre flight of stairs led to a doorway; the doorway led to a field on the top of a hill. And that's when the dream socked him square in the gut. He put Iliana on the ground to let her walk in the grass, then saw that the child he was looking at wasn't Iliana after all. There was a family resemblance, but also a difference profound enough to take his breath away.

It was Christopher Robin he was watching toddling in the sunshine; had been carrying without even knowing. A moment later he was awake, raw and rattled.

While he told me about his dream, he cried. After he finished, he cried. Ian cried so many tears that I honestly didn't know what to do. I mean, I held him and listened to him and let him be heartbroken, but still. I'm usually the one who needs support and consolation. I always feel woefully ill-equipped to be on the other side.

While I've been openly crazy all over the damn place, Ian's grief is quieter. Just as intense, but more internalized. Closely guarded.

He has a box in his mind where his stillborn son is kept. He's there and he's known, but put away for safe keeping. Once in awhile, Ian brings him out, sits down in the middle of his memories. He cries every ounce as much as I have cried over the past three and a half years. But since he does it less frequently, he has to do it with that much more force. Later, the box is closed back up and Ian puts it back where it belongs. He carries it with him quietly. Consistently. But it still is a box, packed back up and put away.

I don't really understand Ian's method of coping. Like I said, I'm openly crazy all over the place; I've just got one big box and it's filled with twine that the cat has gotten into. My grief for Christopher Robin touched every bit of string curled around every piece of me there is. But then again, so has my healing. I've done a lot of processing over these past three years. Been through a lot of therapy. That kind of slow, plodding progress is the best way I know how to carry on.

Ian went with me to my first few therapy sessions, mostly because right then I refused to go anywhere without him. He was doing his best to support me, and stopped going once I could manage on my own. He didn't need that kind of structured room for grieving, he said. And really, he didn't seem to.

But not needing structure does not mean Ian doesn't need room. Obviously he does. Ian dreams about Christopher Robin more often than I do. He always has, and it's no wonder. That's when Christopher Robin can come out on his own, whether Ian has made time for him or not. It's when our son can say to his father: you have been carrying me around for long enough. Now put me down. Look at me. Then go and cry all of those tears you haven't been crying.

When he wakes up, Ian finds himself sitting in that awful space left empty by stillbirth. He looks at the son he has been quietly holding and feels exactly how much his heart is still broken. His tears seem almost as intense as they were three weeks after we lost our son, though it's been more than three years. But those years have been spent with his pain packed tightly away. It's no wonder that it still feels just as biting.

That afternoon I was struck by just how much I didn't feel the intense kind of anguish that Ian was suffering. Well, not anymore. I remembered months spent in active bereavement while Ian kept his pain locked quietly away. I carried our son's death with me everywhere, a great schism between me and the rest of the world. As I watched Ian carry on, able to do things like check the mail and get out of bed, it was difficult not to feel weak. Or melodramatic. Or completely alone.

But it's not that my husband is stronger than me. It's not that he has fewer feelings. It's not that he wasn't as attached to Christopher Robin or that he is less affected because he wasn't the one giving birth. He was every bit affected; every bit in pain. He wasn't able to carry on better than me. He was just carrying on differently.

We bailed on the remodel that day. Instead, I held Ian until Iliana woke up from her nap, then we spent the day just being together. It took a bit to remind Ian that every time I need to bail on something because of my grief, he says okay and makes it happen. And I'm not the only one who needs that kind of space. He gets to have those days too.

Grief takes up space whether you make room for it or not. It might manifest as fear or anger, anxiety or lethargy, but it will make time for itself. And it doesn't wait for you to make an appointment; to find a more convenient time. So you had things to do today? Too bad, it says, I have other plans.

Ian's always been there to help me sort through my box of twine, and boy have I needed him. A lot. I've always known that I am incredibly lucky to have him and his gentle way of encouraging without pushing; supporting without undermining. And while it's not exactly nice to know that Ian has boxes of his own, it is nice to know that he's just as lucky. And that I can help him, maybe not as often, but definitely just as much.

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Marty Tousley, ... said:

Your post is stunning and beautifully written ~ thank you! I've mentioned it on Twitter and my Facebook page, and added a link to it at the base of my own blog post, "Does Child Loss Destroy a Marriage?" here: http://j.mp/PzyFfc

celeste noelani said:

Thank you so much for your comment, Marty, and for sharing my post. I've checked out your site and your FB page. What a wonderful community! I'll definitely be bookmarking.