Sunday, February 23, 2014

Liam Neeson on grief & loss

Anderson Cooper, who knows a little something about grief and loss, interviewed the actor Liam Neeson tonight on "60 Minutes." I'm sure the original intent was to promote Neeson's new movie, but the conversation turned into something much deeper and more interesting. Neeson agreed to speak publicly for the first time about the sudden tragic death of his wife, the actress Natasha Richardson, after a fall while skiing in Quebec five years ago.
“I wanted very much to have a conversation with Liam about grief,” says Cooper. "People don't really talk about grief and loss enough in this country, I think, and for those of us who have suffered losses in our lives, it's something we think about all the time. Not talking about it feels almost artificial.”
I've always taken a special interest in this particular story -- first, because I admire/d both Neeson & Richardson as actors;  second, because my heart goes out to anyone who experiences tragic loss as Neeson & his two teenaged sons did (in a very public way);  and third, because as someone who's taken a couple of knocks to the head in recent years -- scary experiences that took quite some time from which to recover -- I was frightened by Richardson's death. I couldn't help but feel that there but for the grace of God, etc. etc. I admire him for his willingness to share his thoughts & feelings on this highly personal subject.

The interview as broadcast can be found here. Additional footage from the interview, in which Neeson speaks further about grief and loss issues, can be found on the "60 Minutes Overtime" site, here.

Sobbing into my oatmeal this morning...

I don't know a lot about freestyle skiing, but many Canadians (especially those who have been following the Olympics) have at least a hazy knowledge of who Sarah Burke is/was. Burke fought to have freestyle skiing included at these Olympics. She's one of the main reasons why the sport made its debut in Sochi -- but she was not there to enjoy her triumph or contend for a medal. She died two years ago in a training accident.

The IOC, in its infinite wisdom, put the kibosh on the skiers' request to memorialize Burke with a sticker on their helmets -- but they (the skiers) have been paying tribute to Burke at these Olympic Games in other ways, as this Toronto Star article so poignantly describes.

I was emotional and teary-eyed enough at the thought of Burke's coach carrying out his stealth mission... but I broke down in sobs over my oatmeal this morning as I read to dh aloud:
As we left the room after speaking to Paynter, someone said, “I’m a little tired of the dead girl story.”
I don't know who that insensitive soul was -- but I suspect he or she has never experienced tragedy, never lost someone close to them in a traumatic way. Even almost 16 years after Katie's stillbirth, those words stung me in a very personal way. How many people have probably thought or said the same thing about me, behind my back? 

It's so easy to be "tired of the dead girl story" -- until it's YOUR dead girl, your dead teammate, your dead baby.

We may get tired of carrying the heavy burden of grief, sometimes -- but we will never, ever, get tired of thinking and remembering those we have loved and lost, and sharing them with those who are kind and patient enough to listen to us. They will be a part of our lives and who we are for the rest of our lives, for as long as we live, and maybe longer.

As the columnist said:
 The dead girl story doesn’t just remain relevant. It’s the whole point of coming. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Family Day weekend odds & ends

  • It's the Family Day long weekend here in Ontario. While I have my reservations about the name of this made-up holiday (as I've expressed in years past) -- it's a long weekend. In February. I'll take it. ;)  Fortunately, we seem to have been spared too much rhapsodizing or analyzing over what the holiday is supposed to be about in the press.
  • We've spent much of the weekend watching the Olympics -- live (thank goodness for the CBC & its partner networks!). I did manage to see the pairs figure skating final live at lunchtime on Wednesday -- as they often do for events like the Olympics & World Cup, they have set up big screen TVs in the concourse of my office tower.  However, when Team Canada is playing hockey, you can forget about watching anything else;  you know what's going to be on...! And the crowds will only get bigger as the tournament goes on.
  • Kicking off the long weekend, Friday was Valentine's Day.  Earlier in the week, a friend who is going through a nasty divorce posted something from Pinterest on Facebook that read, "Let's celebrate Anti-Valentine's Day... We can wear black all day and throw things at happy people." I was sorely tempted to comment, "Now you know how I/some of us feel on Mother's Day." (Or Family Day, for that matter.)   But I managed to bite my cybertongue.  ;) 
  • Dh & I generally don't fuss much on Valentine's Day, although we always exchange cards.  But this turned out to be a memorable one: Oldest Nephew popped the question to his girlfriend of the past five years or so. We knew he had bought The Ring & planned to ask her on Valentine's Day but it was still a bit of a shock when BIL called dh to say the deed was done. It hardly seem possible that that adorable baby I cuddled, that bright eyed toddler whose fingerprints smudged up my mirrors and TV set, that mischievous little boy, that gangly teenager, is getting MARRIED. And then I remember that he's 25, and actually older than I was when I got married. Erk. The Fiancee still has another year of school to go... I have heard fall 2015 tossed around as a date. (Which gives me some time to embark on yet another round of weight loss efforts, lol.)
  • "For sure she would have been a bridesmaid," dh said wistfully, referring to Katie (of course), as we talked about the forthcoming wedding. She would be 15 right now. I can picture her now, having fun with her two tall, handsome cousins. They would have taken good care of her. They only have one other cousin, on their mom's side (also a girl), & she will likely be a bridesmaid. It will be a bittersweet day for Sam & me, for sure. But since I will never be the mother of the bride, I am determined to enjoy being the aunt of the groom(s -- also when Younger Nephew's turn comes) as much as possible.
  • As if that didn't make the weekend exciting enough -- we Skyped with The Princess/PNGD and she told us "I'm going to be a big sister!"  Yes, by the time next Christmas rolls around, there will be a new little Princess or Prince to spoil.  "Someone's nose is going to be out of joint," my mother said. "I guess we'll just have to spoil her extra to make up for it," said I. ;) 
  • Awhile back, I mentioned that I would taking an "oral challenge" to see whether I still react to tomatos. Dh & I spent almost five hours at the allergy clinic last Tuesday, as I ate increasing amounts of tomato, waiting a half hour between samples to see if I had a reaction. I managed to eat almost an entire raw tomato... but my throat was becoming increasingly raw and irritated -- and then a hive popped out just above my upper lip. :(  I felt bad for dh -- I could tell he was starting to get excited by the prospect of bringing tomatos back into the house and onto the menu again. 
  • On the bright side, I DID manage to eat almost the entire tomato before seeing a hive. It's comforting to know that if I were to accidentally ingest a bit of tomato, I probably don't need to panic. (Even better, the allergist told me that Claritin, which works well on my environmental allergies, or Reactine or Aerius, will also work for food reactions -- no need to zonk myself out with Benadryl.)  And the hive disappeared on its own within an hour, without the need for antihistamines or epi-pens. (To be honest, the fact that I did have a reaction was somewhat validating -- i.e., my previous reactions weren't all in my head;  the allergist saw it too.)  But given that I did have a reaction, albeit a relatively mild one, her advice was continued avoidance. I'll probably go back in another year or two & try again and see if anything has changed by then.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


Dh & I went to see the movie "Philomena" this afternoon, starring the always-wonderful Judi Dench & Steve Coogan. If you haven't already heard about the movie, it's based on the amazing true story of an Irish woman searching for the son she bore as an teenager in 1952, who was taken from her by the nuns at the home for unwed mothers where she lived and worked, and adopted by an American family.

Philomena's story was not uncommon at the time, as Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who helped Philomena find out what happened to her son and wrote a book about it, wrote in an article last fall for the Daily Guardian:
I soon discovered that Philomena and Anthony were not alone in their ordeal. The Catholic Church-run adoption trade started in the years after the Second World War, when American servicemen at the end of their European tour of duty began to take adopted Irish babies home with them. 
There was no paperwork and no exact record of how many children were involved, but a report in the Irish Times declared that ‘500 babies were flown from Shannon for adoption’ in 1950, adding that ‘that number is believed to have been exceeded in the first nine months of 1951 alone’. In October of that year, 18 groups of children left Shannon in a single week. The numbers were undoubtedly huge and the sketchy official statistics, which guess at 2,000 children exported to America in the years after 1953, grossly underestimate the true total. 
I discovered there were numerous convents involved, not just Roscrea..... all continued to send regular parties of so-called orphans to the US for almost two decades. And no wonder – the trade was a lucrative one. The going rate for American couples wishing to adopt was between £500 and £1,500, a great deal of money in the 1950s.
"Philomena" is an argument for greater openness in adoption practices and records, if there ever was one.  And it's not a story entirely unique to Ireland:  in recent years, women in both Canada and Australia have been speaking out about the babies they bore in church-run (both Catholic and Protestant) homes for unwed mothers in the 1950s, 60s and 70s -- babies they say they were coerced into surrendering for adoption. 

One thing that struck me, watching the movie and reading Sixsmith's article, was: no wonder so many people outside the ALI community think that it's so simple to adopt a baby -- because at one time, it was.  Pay the "donation," pick out your "orphan," take him or her home and live happily ever after. Case closed. OK, I'm being simplistic here, but it's certainly become a much more complex and regulated process today.  

The moment that I think hit closest to home for me personally was when Philomena shows Martin the only photo she has of Anthony, secretly taken and given to her by a kind young nun. Philomena says something like, "What if she hadn't? It's all I have of him."

I thought of all the bereaved mothers, years ago, whose babies were stillborn or died at or shortly after birth, their bodies whisked away without any photos or cuddles or goodbyes, to be buried together in mass unmarked graves. I thought about my own precious collection of six crappy Polaroids taken by the hospital nurses, and a set of smudgy hand and footprints, the only physical evidence that my little girl existed. It wasn't all THAT long ago, but long enough. Digital photography, smartphones with cameras, specialized bereavement photography services like Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, all had yet to be invented (or at least popularized). How quickly technology and best practices can change!

"Philomena" may be difficult viewing for some, depending on your personal beliefs and experiences (take Kleenex!), but I am very glad we saw it. It's testimony to a mother's enduring love for her child, the corrosive effects of secrecy and shame, and the ultimate power of truth, knowledge, love and forgiveness to heal the most painful wounds.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Shades of fertility grey

I was flipping through this morning's newspapers & organizing the sections in the order I like to read them in (please tell me I'm not the only person who does this??), when a headline on the front page of the Insight section of the Toronto Star caught my eye:  "The hardest border I've ever tried to cross."

As someone who was born on the Canada-U.S. border -- which has become increasingly difficult to cross over the past decade -- border issues have always interested me, so I took a closer look. Imagine my reaction when I saw the subhead:  "A globetrotting correspondent comes to terms with maternal yearnings that may have arrived too late."  (For most of the morning, it was the featured lead story on the Star's website.)

Michelle Shephard is the national security reporter for the Star, a job that has taken her to places like Rwanda & Guantanamo. The woman obviously has guts. And it took guts to write such a personal article and put herself out there under her own byline, to admit her ambivalence about motherhood and yet her disappointment when it became increasingly apparent that motherhood might not be in the cards. She tells her story matter-of-factly but still conveys a good picture of what it's like to go through infertility, the obstacles, he humiliation, the decisions that must be made.

There was so much here I could relate to:
I don’t feel comfortable talking about this. Here’s the problem, though: no one does, and with silence comes shame. 
The struggle women face balancing careers and motherhood is often discussed — which is wonderful. But talking about the struggle to become a mother remains largely taboo. I understand why...  
It’s just difficult to explain why you dread going to a doctor’s appointment Thursday to decide if you’ll spend thousands of dollars and turn your body into a medical experiment just to, quite likely, deal with the disappointment again when the test comes back negative.

And here: 
By 2006, when I was 33, I was thinking about Mogadishu and Peshawar, not babies. People would often say, “Ah, I was selfish at your age too,” which I would reply to with a tight smile, making me more determined not to apply for membership in the parenthood club.

Oh boy, can I relate.

I will admit that I too was ambivalent about having children, to some degree. I have questioned, at times, whether I really did want children, want them badly enough.

And I believe that I did. Children were always part of the plan. But the timing was always a question. Throughout my 20s and early 30s, I struggled, I questioned -- was I truly ready -- financially, mentally -- to handle such an immense responsibility? (I've often said that too many parents leap into parenthood without giving the matter too much thought;  perhaps our problem was that we thought about it too much.)  We had very little money those first few years;  I was just starting a good job after years (and thousands of my parents' dollars) spent at school.  I was far away from my family and knew I wouldn't have a lot of help when the time came to have a baby. I was newly married to a man I had spent three years in a long-distance relationship with;  I wanted to spend some time with him first before sharing our life with a baby.

And perhaps, in the back of my mind, there was doubt. Not that I really wanted children, but that I was up to the task.

And -- getting back to Shephard's words above -- I will admit to having a bit of a stubborn/contrarian streak. I gave a few tight smiles myself after similar comments & nudges from friends & relatives wanting to know if I had any "news."  No frickin' way was I going to run out & get knocked up just because people were bugging me to, expecting me to. It was none of their damned business.

I struggled with the resentment I felt -- that I still feel, when I think about it. Why couldn't they show the same interest or excitement over some other aspect of my life? Why did I get the feeling that their primary interest in me was baby-related?

And so we waited.

Perhaps we waited too long. Perhaps the other issues uncovered during testing & treatment  would have prevented us from having a child anyway. We'll never know.

Shephard's closing paragraphs also resonated with me:
The numbers are cruel but not surprising: You’re 41. You’ve done two IUI’s. IVF with all the drugs will cost about $15,000. There is a three to 10 per cent chance of success.     So the decision is basically can you handle the disappointment when there is a 90 per cent chance the procedure won’t work. More important, can you live without the 10 per cent chance it could...   
Life has taught me there is really no black and white, and I’ve always loved exploring the shades of grey. I can live without the three to 10 per cent gamble. There is relief in moving on.

I've always been a "shades of grey" person too (& I'm not talking E.L. James, lol). And I'm not much of a gambler either, especially with those sorts of odds. We did three IUIs before deciding against IVF.  And yes, there is a certain relief in moving on. Eventually.

Thank you, Michelle Shephard, for telling your story -- because it's a story shared by so many women in their 40s and 50s right now. It is a hard thing to break the silence, especially in such a public way, but you have done it well.  Whether you eventually do adopt (as you hinted in the story) or continue to live without children, I wish you well.

The comments are about what you might expect -- caveat emptor.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Try to imagine (no matter how hard it is to do)

I've written before on this blog about the common thread that runs through all kinds of trauma. If there is one thing I have learned over the past 16 (gulp) years, it's that, deep down, pain is pain -- and if you know pain and grief and loss (no matter how you came to know it) -- if your life has changed in an instant (and not for the better) -- there is a bond we share, an understanding, that people who have known us for years & years may never fully comprehend.

That's why I was able to feel a shock of recognition in the words of a former Marine, writing in this past weekend's Sunday New York Times about the things he and his soldier comrades have been through -- and their frustration with other people's reactions -- particularly the comment “I could never imagine what you’ve been through.”
I know an airman who suffered a traumatic brain injury during training just a few years after being in a car accident where he watched his twin brother die. When he tells people about the T.B.I. and the accident and his service, he invariably gets the “I could never imagine” line. “It makes me angry,” he told me. Sure, he wants to say, you don’t think you could understand, but what if I want you to?
(Boldfaced emphasis mine.)

Now, I'm not a soldier, and while I've had a few nasty bangs to the head, I wouldn't call them traumatic brain injuries. But I share his frustration & anger.  "I could never imagine" is one of those phrases that people reach for when they don't now what else to say. It's a crutch. It's one of my pet peeves as a bereaved mother. I'll admit, I've probably used those words myself in the past. But, having heard them far too often for my liking over the past 16 years, I bite my tongue more often these days & search for something more meaningful and less clichéd to say.

Because when you say "I can't imagine" (even if you really can't), what I'm hearing is "I don't WANT to imagine. Not going there. Nope. Sorry, kid, you're on your own in this scary, scary place you've found yourself in."

The article continues:
If we fetishize trauma as incommunicable then survivors are trapped — unable to feel truly known by their nonmilitary friends and family. At a recent Veterans Day performance put on by Arts in the Armed Forces, Adam Driver, the organization’s founder, a former Marine turned actor, spoke of his feelings of alienation after leaving the corps. “Not being able to express the anger, confusion and loneliness I felt was challenging,” he said, until theater exposed him “to playwrights and characters and plays that had nothing to do with the military, that were articulating experiences I had in the military, that before to me were indescribable.”
Substitute "non-bereaved" for "non-military" -- does this sound familiar?
It’s a powerful moment, when you discover a vocabulary exists for something you’d thought incommunicably unique... 
(Sounds a lot like how I felt when I finally connected with other bereaved parents, in real life and online, and other childless-not-by-choice women!)
Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility — it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain. You don’t honor someone by telling them, “I can never imagine what you’ve been through.” Instead, listen to their story and try to imagine being in it, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that feels. If the past 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that in the age of an all-volunteer military, it is far too easy for Americans to send soldiers on deployment after deployment without making a serious effort to imagine what that means. We can do better.
Read the full story, and then tell me -- what do you think? Did this article speak to you & your experience in the same way that it spoke to me?  Do you think "I can't imagine" is a coping mechanism, a cop-out, or...?

Monday, February 3, 2014

Happily ever after... or not?

The story made headlines around the world last week: 
"It was the romance every Harry Potter fan wanted to see. Now JK Rowling has admitted she got it wrong by pairing off Hermione Granger with Ron Weasley rather than her franchise’s hero."
A blogging friend posted a Slate magazine article on Facebook today that argued Rowling's initial instincts were sound.  "J.K. Rowling Is Wrong. Harry Potter Should Not Have Ended Up With Hermione," the headline read. Why? Hermione & Ron were the best part of the books, the article argues. Their personalities complement each other. Moreover:
"Is it so difficult to believe that an intelligent, type-A woman would want to be with a kind, charismatic, supportive, but penniless guy? Does Rowling really think her wildly popular children’s books would have been better if they suggested that smart women are only well matched with traditionally successful men? (Harry, for all his personality flaws, is certainly traditionally successful—athletic, rich, famous.) The way that Ron and Hermione’s relationship defied traditional gender roles is part of what made it so charming. For Rowling to disavow it now is disappointing." [emphasis mine]

That paragraph comes close to reflecting my own feelings on the matter. While I honestly don't have a strong opinion about Ron & Hermione winding up together, there's a part of me that's happy Hermione didn't end up with Harry. Just because everyone wants to see it doesn't mean an author is obliged to write the obvious, stereotypical happy ending. 

I started thinking about other would-be romances that didn't have a conventional, fairy-tale ending. I absolutely adored "The Wonder Years" on TV some years ago, and while part of me was rooting for Kevin & Winnie & was disappointed that they didn't ultimately wind up together, I accepted it. (I was very glad that they still stayed the best of friends, though.) 

Likewise, right now, I am caught up in the final episodes of "How I Met Your Mother" -- but while Ted & Robin always seemed so good together, unless the writers pull a fast one and throw in a surprise twist of some sorts,  we all know how this will end in a couple of week's time:  Barney & Robin will wind up married & Ted will have (finally!!) met The Mother of the title. I'm finding that (for me, at least) knowing how things end isn't detracting from my viewing pleasure (although a few of the episodes lately have seemed like filler -- I just want them to get on with the wedding, already...)

As I commented to my blogging friend, "I guess it's the contrarian in me" -- (and then it struck me) -- "or maybe a reflection of the way parts of my own life have unfolded" -- (I guess I don't have to explain that further here...!) -- "but I like it when things don't always turn out the way you think or hope they will." 

Hey, I like fairy tales as much as anyone. But if I've learned one thing over the past 16 years, it's that fairy tales don't always come true.

And sometimes, the less conventional storyline & ending turns out to be more interesting anyway.

What do you think?