The Great Humbling

I won’t mince words: Before knowing the unspeakable pain of losing my baby girl, I could be quite the judgemental jackass.

Generally speaking, I consider myself to be an emotionally amenable and compassionate person. I am usually quick to forgive and slow to become angry. Even in the wake of Leah’s death, I am often able to give people the benefit of the doubt and appreciate their good intentions when their words or actions may be less than tactful.

But it has always been a different story when it comes to people’s general abilities to “keep it together,” whether by controlling their emotions or managing the general logistics of their lives. I have long taken great pride in my unwavering abilities to meet deadlines, keep my commitments, and project an image of personal and professional collectedness despite any personal struggles I may be facing. Likewise, I have always reasoned that it is fair to hold my peers to the same high standards as I do myself: I’m always able to keep it together, so why can’t you?

For instance, as an educator, more often than not I would accommodate students’ requests for assignment extensions and accommodations, but in my mind I would frequently think: “I made it through four years of undergraduate studies while working to pay for my housing and tuition costs, and I never once missed an assignment deadline. You need to get yourself together.” Similarly, whenever a colleague or customer would express unbridled sadness or anger at the various jobs I’ve held throughout the years, I would usually think: “I always manage to be calm and collected in social situations, even when I struggle with anxiety and seasonal depression. Why can’t you keep it together?

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Needless to say, as much as I wanted to fully credit my individual work ethic and general resilience for my spotless track record of personal organization and self-control, I now realize that I never understood what it meant to really struggle. I did not know how it felt to stand by helplessly while one’s world crashes in around them, decimating any facade of control they believed to hold over their lives. I also could not have appreciated how an earth-shattering experience will alter one’s priorities, suddenly making academic deadlines and projections of emotional self-mastery seem utterly insignificant.

I will further confess that I maintained some of my delusions of self-superiority after Leah’s death. I considered it a small victory each morning when I managed to get out of bed, shower, get dressed, and trek through the day like any quasi-normal human on emotional autopilot. I similarly congratulated myself each time I maintained a cool exterior while passing newborn babies in strollers outside, their mothers seemingly oblivious to their good fortune of having a live, healthy child in tow. “You’re doing great,” I would think to myself. “You totally got this.

It’s safe to say that any remnants of such delusions have met their inevitable demise. It all started when I woke up one morning to find that my period had arrived after an unnaturally short 23 day cycle. This was a hard-hitting blow since my previous cycle had only been 21 days long. While I wasn’t expecting to be pregnant, I had been holding out for a glimmer of hope that my postpartum body might be making progress toward regulating itself. I indulged in a brief sob fest in bed before bringing my self-pity party out to the kitchen, all the while chastising myself for allowing my volatile hormones and emotions to get the best of me: “You are not the type of woman who cries because she got her period early. You’re better than this. Get yourself together.

I managed to suspend my crying spells long enough to get dressed and put on some makeup. While this was not the first day that I had to venture outside my apartment in a formal capacity since Leah’s death, it was the first occasion where I would have to actively engage with a group of strangers for the better part of an entire day. Still, even when I had been in the throes of my pregnancy stress and exhaustion, I was always able to keep it together when circumstances required it. Of course I could handle this social obligation.

And I probably could have. But then she showed up—in all her blissful, pregnant glory. I don’t know what her name was, yet I remember every detail that she jovially shared with the room at large: She was 17 weeks along. In two weeks they would find out the baby’s sex at the anatomy scan. Customers at work were starting to notice her baby bump. She was so lucky not to have had any debilitating nausea or fatigue.

Essentially, she was me not eight months ago, although it now seems like it was a different lifetime entirely. Suddenly all the memories of my early pregnant days came flooding back, and I felt a visceral urge to run up to this woman and join in the rousing banter: Yes, I also had an easy first trimester! I vividly remember when people started giving me quizzical looks after my belly “popped” at 15 weeks! I still recall holding my husband’s hand and shedding tears of joy when the ultrasound technician announced at the anatomy scan that my baby was a girl!

But of course I couldn’t share these things with this glowing expectant mama, because my baby is dead. I could not talk about my daughter because I am the statistic whose mere existence strikes terror in pregnant women everywhere, reminding them that things can still go terribly wrong at the tail end of a perfectly healthy and complication-free pregnancy. I knew that if I decided to share my experiences, I would not simply be a proud new mother who wants to shout her daughter’s name from the rooftops. Instead I would be the embodiment of a dark rain cloud, disquieting those around me because I had the gall to discuss the devastating reality that is my life.

So I didn’t join the conversation. Instead, I searched for sanctuary in the nearest washroom and proceeded to fall apart. I locked myself in a dingy stall and sobbed silently into mounds of half-ply toilet paper, all the while chiding myself for my inability to “keep it together.” Not only was it a profoundly humbling experience, but it was also incredibly enlightening. Suddenly I was acutely aware that sometimes people forfeit control because they are coping with life-altering, unspeakable tragedy and loss. Similarly, I finally understood that I had long participated in a culture that encourages people to privatize their pain and grief for the sake of protecting others from momentary discomfort. 

With each passing day I actively carry this knowledge with me, reminding myself that the people around me are complex and resilient creatures who are fighting a plethora of battles that I know nothing about. Likewise, I remind myself that people sometimes have perfectly valid reasons for falling apart in dingy washroom stalls, and my doing so on occasion does not make me weak or deficient. Rather, it simply makes me human.