I’ve still been seeing my therapist every two weeks or so for the past year. Earlier this week, I had my regular session and it was one of those moments that made me go, “hmm.”
Let me step back for a second.
My brother, John, has been staying with Brett and I for almost a month. He recently won his disability claim after nearly four years of waiting and appeals, and living in a several different homeless shelters in Wisconsin. It’s been a stressful and emotional time for him so his therapist recommended that he come out to visit us for a month or two so he can figure out what he wants to do with his life. He recently said to us as we were sitting on the back porch, “This is the first time I’ve felt safe in a long time.”
We moved to Massachusetts from Wisconsin almost seven years ago now. This is the first time he’s been able to see where we live. It’s nice having him here and to catch up with him again, but it’s been anxiety-ridden for me and a definite shift in our regular routine.
Particularly, it’s bringing to light a lot of “hidden” anxieties that I have. I’ve always felt safe with my older brother. We would go on amazing road trips every summer to Disney World from the time I was in sixth grade through my junior year of high school. But, after my adopted mom passed away when I was a sophomore in college, life changed drastically for both of us.
I had to make a decision about what I was going to do as an adult. For me, that resulted in moving to Boston for grad school, where I ultimately met Brett. For him, the grief turned his life (and his health) upside down. It’s been a constant battle to remain healthy for years and overcoming the demons inside his head.
An Illusion of Control
I’ve always thought that I’ve had control over everything in my life. However, it wasn’t until recently with my therapist, that I have come to the realization that this is a misconception, an illusion of control.
When we lost Emmett this is one of those times that was just out of our control. In my head, I thought that somehow I could will him to get better in my womb in that April that we waited. But, in reality, his fate of developing the multiple conditions was sealed relatively quickly after conception when his microscopic cells were just beginning to develop.
The fact that I couldn’t control that our son developed these chromosomal conditions has turned many of my little anxieties and fears into much larger ones during the past year.
For instance, I’m constantly on edge while driving, particularly with my brother. He’s from out-of-town and unaccustomed to the New England roads and drivers. (For anyone who has ever driven in Boston or Massachusetts, you know what I mean…) I’ve been finding myself literally white-knuckling it in the passenger seat and pushing down on an imaginary brake when he doesn’t leave enough room between the car in front of us. Even Brett has noticed me doing the same thing with him when he drives.
I’ve also become more protective of Dakota. Last week, we left him home and forgot to take out our kitchen trash bin. There was part of an old rotisserie chicken in there that he had a field day with. Immediately, I was afraid he was going to die from chicken shrapnel getting lodged somewhere in his intestines. I didn’t calm down until the 72 hours ended that the vet said we would be in the clear. I constantly worry that if anything ever happens to Dakota that I don’t know what I would do. I know one day he’s going to die but it can’t be this soon after losing Emmett. He’s my fur-baby and I should be able to protect him from everything, right?
A Traumatic Event
All of these fears have always been there, just bubbling up from below the surface. My therapist just says that after we lost Emmett, everything has become exacerbated. That part of my brain that feels that I should be able to control everything in life still wants to be in control…but it’s just in overdrive now. She says it’s a common reaction after a traumatic event. I want to be able to put everything right because I’m a “fixer” by nature. I need to have all the answers and know how to solve any problem. I want to save every puppy in those Sarah McLachlan commercials from whatever trauma they’ve experienced. In reality, I can’t fix it all. I’m only human and I have limits.
It’s weird to think of the loss of my son as a traumatic event. I’ve always associated “traumas” with events that you would see on an episode of “ER” like getting into a terrible car accident, drowning, or getting shot.
1. A body wound or shock produced by sudden physical injury, as from violence or accident.
2. An experience that produces psychological injury or pain.
Even though we knew what the outcome was going to be for Emmett, it was truly a traumatic event. For me, it was actually physical and psychological. I had to give birth prematurely to my son that resulted in a long, painful infection. And, emotionally, we went into that hospital knowing we were not going to go home with our baby. We had to just continue living our life, not understanding that the days and months ahead would be so terribly heart-wrenching and mind-numbingly painful. No one can prepare you for that onslaught of relentless emotions. As much as you try to control it, they come with such ferocity that you almost have no choice but to succumb to them.
An Equation for Happiness?
In our support group earlier this week as well, we discussed “happiness” of all things. Who would think a pregnancy and infant loss support group would ever talk about trying to be happy. What could we have to be happy? C’mon…We’re all at the support group because we lost a baby.
Our support group leader, referenced Google executive Mo Gawdat’s book “Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Happy,” which was written after the author lost his young son. The computer nerd in me instantly found assurance in how a technical engineer has created an equation for happiness.
Happiness occurs when your perception of the events in your life meet or beat the expectations that you have for those events. What that means is that you do have a form of control but it’s over your own thoughts, not the events themselves.
“Happiness happens when life seems to be going your way. You feel happy when life behaves the way you want it to. Not surprisingly, the opposite is also true: Unhappiness happens when your reality does not match your hopes and expectations.”
Not getting that concept yet? For me, I wish I could control how other people remember Emmett and that they would mention him more to us. However, I’m generally really disappointed, sad and upset when close family members don’t mention him. To them, they don’t want to bring it up because they think it’s painful to us or for whatever personal reasons. But to me, it shows me that they remember him, acknowledge that he was (and continues) be a part of our life and that they honor his legacy, too.
I wish I didn’t have to lower my expectation but that’s the reality. I’m just going to continue to be disappointed if I don’t reset my brain and my thinking. My happiness is one of these things that I can control. Whether it’s lowering my expectations or just trying to put myself in someone else’s shoes for a second, I can control my emotions but I can’t control other people’s emotions and their reactions.
Part of your happiness is also affected by six illusions in your life: thoughts, self, knowledge, time, control and fear. These illusions confuse your brain and make it harder to make sense of life. They can ultimately cause you to suffer longer.
As I started, one of the illusions that I’m struggling with on my current grief journey is the fear. While I’ve made strides in some other areas, emotions like guilt, the fear and uncertainty of the future is scary. We had to write down a list of things that we are afraid of during the support group meeting. This was my list:
When you peel back the layers to get to the root of all the fears on my list, they come down to: death or rejection.
Of all of those fears on the list, I have become hyper-focused on them. I think of them all constantly. But, I have a choice.
I can choose to continue to think about those things constantly, like divorce and people close to me dying and let it slowly eat away at me. Or, I can choose to think about the things in my life that make me happy, like Brett and Dakota, anything Disney, or otters (I have the crazy idea in my head right now, as well, that we can build an otter sanctuary on our three acres of land…)
I asked my therapist, “Will the fears ever go away?” She said to me that hopefully one day they will start to fade away as I continue to make it along this journey. One thing that she knows is probably my biggest fear is getting pregnant again. I’m so petrified that this entire experience will happen all over and that we’ll never be able to bring a healthy baby home.
But, she’s been seeing patients for more than 30 years. She sees something in me… how good a mother I am and have been to Emmett, and what a wonderful, caring person I would be to any other baby. I need to choose to not be afraid and let go of what’s out of my control, but choose happiness in trying again.