A month ago, I started a PhD program at the University of Colorado. Many have asked what exactly I’m studying, since the program name (Technology, Media, and Society) includes just about everything, and the college it’s housed in (Engineering and Applied Science) doesn’t answer the question any better. Here’s the short answer: I study how people use the Internet to react when someone dies.
Depressing? Far from it. I’m watching people be vulnerable about their feelings, express deep love for someone, and celebrate a life that touched them. It’s a beautifully raw display of humanity in an otherwise frustrating cesspool of misspellings and uninformed drivel. Seriously, how often do you read a stranger’s musings on Facebook or Twitter and feel compelled to hug them? To help them? That’s what I get to focus on.
But yeah, I’m reading and thinking about death a lot. And as you probably know, I was recently grieving the early loss of my first pregnancy. So, despite being a “level-headed academic” (or whatever), some of the ways people talk about grief really piss me off. In fact, one of my projects is about “grief policing,” or ways that people reprimand one another for not grieving the right way… as if there is a right way. Weirdly, I see this happening a lot with women who have lost pregnancies.
For example, there are places online where people like to share their stories anonymously, and talk about them with strangers. (There are lots of reasons for this, and I made a video about it.) Naturally, some of the stories include, “I just had a miscarriage,” or “I just found out my pregnancy isn’t viable,” or “My wife just lost our baby.” Most of the responses are sympathetic, supportive, and touching, especially considering that these people are all strangers to one another. But scattered around the sympathy are things like,
“I really hope you didn’t tell anyone yet.”
“Before 12 weeks, this is really common. That’s why it’s a good idea to not announce until later.”
“Big hugs to you, especially if you already announced it. That would be a huge bummer.”
“THIS IS WHY YOU DON’T TELL ANYONE UNTIL AFTER 12 WEEKS”
I hate these responses. Who decided it was a “good idea” to keep a pregnancy quiet “in case something happens”?
When did strength become synonymous with stoicism, with buried feelings, with pretending that nothing is wrong?
Why do so many people insist on silencing women who are hurting?
A miscarriage is a deeply traumatic thing to go through. Yet all of these societal norms exist that tell women, “Keep it quiet, keep it secret, suffer privately, don’t tell anyone, hide until you can act like you’re ok.”
Any psychologist or therapist would agree that talking about a loss is a major part of the healing process. It’s healthy to put words to your feelings with people you trust. It’s necessary and good to not be silent in your suffering.
This has led me to believe that the common insistence that women keep a miscarriage to themselves is not actually to protect the woman; it’s to protect other people from feeling uncomfortable. That’s bullshit.
When I first found out I was pregnant, I knew that I wouldn’t listen to those weird norms for a second. I was so excited to share my news with my family and my best friends. Why deny them the chance to share in my excitement? Even if the worst happened, I knew I would need them.
And then the worst did happen. They were right there as I knew they would be, and I’ve never needed or appreciated them more. I took a week off work, and my boss was worried, so I told her what was going on. To be clear, my boss at the time wasn’t exactly a close friend. She’s probably the exact person that, according to a lot of people, shouldn’t know such an intimate detail of my life. I said, “Forget that. This is going to affect my work. She should know.”
That was five months ago. Not once in five months have I regretted telling my boss and coworkers what I was going through. Why? Because people are pretty damn amazing.
When I went back to work after my miscarriage, my boss was sensitive and understanding. She even found me crying at my desk one afternoon, and brought me tea. She wasn’t shocked or uncomfortable because she knew what I was going through. My coworkers noticed that I wasn’t quite myself, so when they asked what was wrong, I told them too. They hugged me, offered me cupcakes, made me laugh, and checked up on me over the following weeks.
If I had followed that “keep it to yourself” rule, I would have missed out on all of these little things that help so much. I would have cut myself off from a lot of love when I needed it most.
My work might have me thinking about death, but I’m also quite full of life: 14 weeks full, to be exact. I found out that I was pregnant (again) just before Thanksgiving. And for very different reasons than the first time, I was terrified. I told my mom, my sister, and my in-laws immediately because if the worst happened (again), I would need them (again). And because they knew what I had been through, they didn’t burst into excitement; they just hugged me. They understood all of the fear and anxiety that was mixed into the possibility of a new life.
So when Kyle and I saw a tiny heartbeat at 6 weeks, and when we saw an actual human shape moving around at 12 weeks, they were just as relieved as we were. There is something so shadowed about saying
“I’m pregnant again!” and not yet having a child. The excitement isn’t pure, the hope isn’t without dread. But because people know where I have been, they can walk through the dappled light and dark with me, right where I need them.
I’m not insisting that every woman should share about their miscarriages on a public blog like I did. Not every woman needs that outlet, or needs her entire list of acquaintances to know what’s going on. But every woman does need friends who know where she has been. Grief is not something that does well locked away in a silent corner. It’s too heavy. Don’t let anyone tell you to handle it alone. If you let people carry some of it with you, whether it’s your one best friend or a hundred acquaintances, I’m pretty sure you’ll see what I see: that people are pretty damn amazing.