For a while now, I’ve been contemplating how grief has affected my stamina. I know in my case, it wasn’t just the trauma of losing someone I love, but also the physical trauma of having shingles, birthing a dead baby, planning a funeral for my child when I should have been sleeping and snuggling a newborn and losing two teeth, all within the span of 3 months, and all following on the heels of the loss of my sister. All of these combined exponentially, resulting in my body completely shutting down for several months. I typically refer to this shut down time as having been spent in a “grief fog” and I really can’t remember much of it.
After that, it seemed like anytime I tried to push myself to increase my stamina, I ran the high risk of pushing myself too far and having a reoccurrence of a complete lack of energy. Several days spent sleeping until the late afternoon later, I would slowly start the process of building up my stamina again, all the while wondering what was going on with me.
How did I go from being a person with energy and a busy schedule that I had no trouble maintaining to being someone who could barely get out of bed and considered the day a success if I could manage to function well enough when my kids got off the bus to make dinner and also converse with them? Who have I become? Will I ever have energy again?
To be honest, I haven’t spent much time researching this phenomena. I’ve barely had the energy to live through it. Sometimes I haven’t even had that. Then one day I came upon this article on one of my grief groups on Facebook and it just clicked with me.
“You see, stillbirth isn’t one trauma. It’s a series of them. They come one after the other before you’re ready for them like balls hurtling from a pitching machine. Only you have no bat. No helmet to protect yourself.”
No protection. No padding. Nothing with which to fight back. Not even a warning because you didn’t step willingly into this situation. Just a constant assault. Labor, or rather labor being induced when you’re a 100% natural labor kind of mom. BAM. The deafening silence. BAM. Telling my daughters their sister had died. BAM. Contacting the funeral home. BAM. The stupid hospital losing her body. BAM. Learning that we would not be able to embalm her because the hospital had lost her body so she would be unable to have a viewing and the funeral would have to happen immediately. BAM. Planning a funeral for my child. BAM. Finding an appropriate outfit for her, dressing her for the only special occasion I would ever dress her for, and bumping into a pregnant friend while looking for just the right outfit to bury my child in. BAM. Having the funeral on her due date. BAM. The hits just kept coming. And they didn’t stop coming after the funeral.
“Even though I felt lethargic and foggy, my brain was in overdrive. My amygdala, the part of my brain that is always on the lookout for pain, catalogues every instance of hurt so I won’t pick a fight with a tiger. When it detects imminent danger, it releases a chemical called cortisol. Cortisol elevates your heart rate so blood will race to all the muscles needed to protect yourself or run away from the source of alarm. The problem is, the amygdala doesn’t distinguish between physical and emotional threats of pain.”
When my doctor said my daughter’s heart had stopped, I didn’t believe her. I couldn’t. When I saw the ultrasound, I was in denial. I hoped it was wrong. I asked everyone I knew to pray and to ask everyone they knew to pray. I prayed harder than I’d ever prayed for anything in my life. But when my child was born, not breathing, all my hopes and denials evaporated.
My amygdala registered this as trauma and started firing like a startled porcupine. It fired every time I saw her car seat or walked into the room where all the supplies I had lovingly collected for her were stored. It fired every time I received a sympathy card or someone asked me “how are you?” It fired every time I saw a pregnant woman or heard a baby cry. It fired every time I heard a song that reminded me of Maggie or how I felt about her. It fired every time I saw one of Maggie’s stuffed animals or blankets in my other children’s arms or comforted them when they cried because they missed their sister. It fired every time I saw or heard something that reminded me of her, every time I missed her, every time anyone else around me missed her, every time the silence reminded me of the absence of my child.
Every time it fired, cortisol was pumping blood into my fight or flight zones and there was little energy left for anything but fighting or fleeing, which was unfortunate since the pain I felt could not be fought or fled.
So finally I understand. My body has been spending all its energy attempting to protect me from the emotional threat of pain that it did not have any energy left for anything beyond basic functioning. Whenever I would try to push myself too far or whenever I would encounter a new trauma (first holidays, milestones, seeing pictures of my friend’s baby who was due the same day as mine), my body would try to protect me from the emotional trauma by enabling me to fight it or flee from it, neither of which I was going to do, thereby wasting what little energy I had and leaving me with no energy for anything else.
“Perceiving loss and grief as a threat, the amygdala portions of this (limbic) system instructs your body to resist grief. You may experience strong instinctual or physical responses to triggers that remind you of your losses.”
My body has not figured out yet that, while remembering Maggie does hurt, it isn’t a hurt that can be fought or fled from. It’s a hurt that stays with me. It’s a hurt that has become a part of me. It’s a hurt that I have to learn to carry and live with, not a hurt that I can hope to conquer or escape. Instead of following my amygdala and resisting grief, I need to resist my amygdala and embrace my grief.
“Heading directly into our grief and allowing ourselves to face our painful emotions is the most helpful thing we can do. Talking about our child and the circumstances of the death crying when we need to and talking with someone who will listen non-judgmentally to our anger and guilt is the only way to successfully resolve our grief—and ultimately resolve the stress that is caused by the grief.”
I cannot stop the pain from coming. There will always be triggers for me, memories that hurt, days that are tender. I can embrace the pain and grow from it and learn from it. I can express the pain I’m feeling and share my story and my pain and my love for my daughter. I can continue to feel the pain and learn to live with it. I can let it help me become resilient.
“Cultivating resilience is unrelated to the clichéd notion of time healing all wounds; overcoming is not the end goal. Instead of moving on, it’s about living with what has happened. A resilient person is emotionally and psychologically flexible enough to allow the effects of a traumatic episode into her life, to “receive the shattering,” as Graham puts it, and use those effects for healing. This means accepting the feelings of despair, but also remaining open to the possibility of love and connection.”
I can accept the pain as the connection I have to my child and a bridge to remembering the love I have for her and cross over the pain instead of setting up camp in it and dwelling on it. I can miss her and feel the hurt and then redirect my mind to remembering the joy of feeling her kick and seeing the love my husband and children had for her. I can remember the happy anticipation for her, the building excitement, the longing to hold her. And I can hope that in remembering the good, I (can) replace a little bit of the fight or flight cortisol with a gentler, happier chemical called serotonin. I (can) rewire my grief brain by reminding myself to look for the good. And in doing so, I attempt to offer my amygdala a much needed break from “protecting me from the pain” and replace a stress response hormone with a feel-good response hormone.
Can I really retrain my brain to have a positive response to reminders of my sweet baby? Can I really get my energy and life back? There is certainly science to back up the concept of retraining our thought pathways and responses. How long that will take? I don’t know. I’ve been sharing my feelings and my story via this blog for months now. I share in grief support groups, with my friends and family, with people face to face. I’ve shared from the beginning because I’ve believed from the beginning that a pain this great cannot be wasted. That I am not just comforted to be comfortable, but so that I will be able to offer comfort to others.
So far, sharing has not stopped my body from its automatic fight or flight response, but I will keep sharing, keep reminding myself of the good when the pain comes to visit, and keep looking forward to the day when my brain is retrained to remember that the pain of losing my daughter can’t be fought or fled and my body starts responding accordingly. Until then, I’ll be giving myself grace and accepting my limitations. I just don’t have the energy to do it all. It is not all in my head, but it definitely started there. And until what is in my head catches up to what is in my heart and my body has the time it needs to recover, it’s a limitation I have to live with. That’s my reality right now. Thanks for listening.