Gradually, Life Returns to Normal (a.k.a. Grief Isn’t Linear)

It’s been eight weeks now since my pregnancy ended and we lost our baby, but it feels as though it’s been much longer. A lot has happened in these eight weeks, and at the same time not much has changed – in a sense, it’s as though life returned to what it was like pre-pregnancy. At the same time, we did go through more than half a pregnancy, so it’s not like things can just go back to the way they were before.

Taking time off

I was on sick leave for 6 weeks after the delivery in order to recover. It was like maternity leave, on the one hand, because it was after a delivery, but I didn’t have a baby to take care of, so it really didn’t feel like maternity leave. At first, I was surprised at my obstetrician’s suggestion to take sick leave (because the law doesn’t allow maternity leave until 24 weeks of gestation, and my pregnancy ended at 21 weeks). “Do I even need sick leave?” I asked. “Yes,” she insisted. “No work for 6-8 weeks.”

“Wow,” I thought, “Okay, apparently, this is a big deal.” And I’m glad I took time off. I was so exhausted those first two weeks, physically and emotionally. I look at my calendar for those days, and what do I see? “December 30 (2 days after delivery): Buy groceries.” Jacob, William, and I went and bought groceries together, and it was my first time out of the house (except for going to the hospital) in more than two weeks. It felt like such an event, and at the same time I was in a haze because of fatigue, shock, grief, etc. What a big deal it is sometimes to go out and buy groceries!

During those first weeks, I did simple things such as do some gentle movement, go for a short walk (started with 15 minutes), take a nap, talk to a friend. When I cooked a meal, I lay on the couch to rest afterwards. I also did things on my laptop such as making the annual family photo album (every year, I make an album with our favorite pictures for that year, and it’s super fun!) and the yearly review. The point is that it helped me to keep myself somewhat busy with pleasant activities and taking care of William, but I also took lots of time to take care of myself and to rest.

Beginning to work a tiny bit

After 3 weeks off, I felt I wanted to do a little bit of work again. I knew I didn’t have to, but I wanted to be making progress towards my PhD. I was still relatively tired, but I had more energy and was able to concentrate better. So I blocked out 2 hours per day (10:00-12:00) 4x per week to work on the chapter I had been writing. It seems like a very small amount of time (8 hours per week), but I was able to make some progress.

Most importantly, writing my chapter gave me the feeling that I was accomplishing something, and that’s what really mattered to me at that point. In a situation where I could control almost nothing, this was one area where I could actively focus my efforts, and that felt good.

I also made sure to do all the other things: do gentle movement, walk, nap, meditate, cook, and take care of the family. And sleep. Lots of sleep.

Returning to work

Two weeks ago, on February 14, I returned to work. It felt exciting! I had 3 months to finish my PhD, so I was (and still am) in go go go mode. Not feeling stressed, to be honest, but more in a “Let’s do this!” mindset.

Interestingly, my daily schedule remains similar to what it was before: I work (mostly write) in the mornings 4x week and avoid distractions at that time. Then, I have lunch and do some admin and tasks that require less focus. Afterwards, I cook or exercise, followed by a little walk on the way to picking up William from daycare. The self-care is still there, although I rarely take a nap anymore.

(Fun fact: It’s difficult for me to fall asleep for a nap, so I tricked myself into napping by listening to a meditation while lying in bed and falling asleep in this way. I did it every day for 50 days!!! Seriously! I got a 50-day streak in my meditation app, but since I don’t nap anymore, I’ve lost my streak… 😦 )

My amazing 50-day streak in the Headspace app.

I’m also feeling more social again, meeting up with friends and looking forward to chatting with colleagues as well. And I’m really into watching movies!! I’m re-watching all the Harry Potter movies, then all the Matrix movies and all the X-Men movies since Jacob loves those as well. (Tangent: Maybe I’ll re-watch the Lord of the Ring movies as well because I really don’t remember what happened there. My recollection is the following: hobbits partying, Gandalf shows up, they meet some elves and some dwarves, they walk a lot, then they go fight some other people, oh, and Smeagol shows up at some point, then there’s a massive fight with lots of people, and then Frodo is standing near some fire and looking at the ring… Yeah, I think there’s more to this classic epic, and I need to discover it properly.)

Grief as a part of everyday life

What I’ve been saying so far is that life appears to have returned to normal rather quickly for me, almost too quickly. There’s fun and joy in my days, there’s purpose in my work and taking care of William, and there’s also everyday, routine stuff that need to get done. But I’d be lying if I said that was all of it.

Take this example: I’m walking down the sidewalk, and I see a pregnant woman with a big belly. I look away. Good for her, I think. I do the mental math in my head: at this point, I should have been in the 7th month, and I would have had a big belly like her. But I don’t. Keep walking. Just keep walking.

A couple of friends and I got pregnant around the same time. My due date was May 9, and theirs are in May or June. I can’t imagine what it will be like to visit them and their babies once they are born. I try not to think about that. I also try not to distance myself from those friends. They are dear friends that I care about, so I try to stay open and meet up with them. I am happy for them and their babies, and I am sad for myself and my baby. The two feelings can co-exist.

I went to the dentist for a dental clean yesterday. I noticed the dental hygienist was a bit confused, looking at my belly. “It says here you are pregnant at 29 weeks…?” “Oh,” I say, “We lost the baby at 21 weeks.” She says she is very sorry and how hard it must be. “Yes, it is very hard,” I say. “But I’m glad we already have one child, otherwise it would have been even harder.” “That’s true,” she says. “But it’s still a very big loss, and it’s very sad.” I only nod. I am grateful that she acknowledged how sad it is and that I didn’t in fact need to soften the situation or make it more comfortable for her. We just allowed it to be sad.

Last Tuesday, on the famous Twos-Day (22-2-22), we had the cremation ceremony for our baby boy. It was done together with other babies who passed away before 24 weeks of pregnancy. We, the parents, got together and walked to a beautiful place next to the crematorium and spread their ashes. There were three rocks with lovely butterflies on them to symbolize the children who didn’t make it. We got to stay there for a bit and think about our babies who would never join us in this world, whom we’d never get to watch grow up, and whose personalities we’d never get to know.

This experience hit me harder than I had anticipated. It uncovered more sadness than I knew was there. It was the last time we had contact, in some way, with our baby boy, and now he really was gone, forever.

Beautiful butterflies symbolizing the lovely children that didn’t make it into this world.
At Crematorium Jonkerbos

Moving between everyday life and grief

My therapist, Linda Lansink, gave me this wonderful analogy. Imagine the infinity sign, the number eight lying on its side. Sometimes you’re living in one circle, which is everyday life, joy, fun, etc., and sometimes you’re in the other circle, which is your grief. It is healthy to be transitioning smoothly between the two circles, so normal life and grief become integrated. It can become an issue if you get stuck in one of the circles: either you are only living normal life, denying the painful experience the space it needs, or you become stuck in the grief, unable to live and enjoy life.

Life feels like the infinity sign right now, transitioning between sadness and joy, between the normalcy of life and the exceptionality of our loss. It’s strange how something as jarring as the loss of a tiny baby becomes part of life, integrated with the narratives of our lives. But that’s how it is.

The infinity sign, symbolizing
living with both joy and grief.
Source: Wikipedia

When self-care becomes non-negotiable

Perhaps surprisingly, self-care is not super easy for me. Most of the time, I manage to follow the priorities I set for myself, so my life feels like it’s in accordance with what I want. This may be relatively easy for me because I’m an Upholder according to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework, which means that I meet my own expectations as easily as I meet other people’s expectations. But that doesn’t apply with equal strength to everything.

One major point of difficulty is self-care. Self-care is a popular topic right now, being discussed by life coaches, health professionals, and writers. You might think that, as an Upholder, I wouldn’t struggle with this, but that’s not the case. I admit that I find it easier to do things for myself (such as find time to exercise or set aside me-time) than some other people, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely easy.

Lie down!

A week ago, I had a funky experience. I was doing my thing around the house, getting ready for work, when I got a sudden, sharp pain in my belly. Not a great thing when you’re pregnant. A few seconds later it went away, so I continued going about my business, but then it came back again. I thought it might be something, so I lay down and called my obstetrician. She told me to lie down for 20-30 minutes or until it goes away. She said it’s not super worrisome, but I should try to prevent it from happening.

After speaking to her, the first thing that crossed my mind was, “Lie down for 30 minutes?! But I have a plan for today, I have work to do!” My mind was in go-go-go mode, and I didn’t want to lie down, but apparently my body needed me to pause. When self-care became non-negotiable, I obliged, but it would have never happened otherwise.

Take breaks (again…)

Along the same line, I’ve known for a long time that I should take frequent breaks from sitting for the health of my back. Did I do this regularly in the past? Not really. I’d set a timer for 25 minutes and mean to get up and walk around when it went off, but it was so much easier to keep working–it’s just unpleasant to be interrupted. So I’d end up ignoring the timer and only getting up when I got stiff.

As I described in a post last week, pregnancy has forced me to change this behavior. Since my back is getting much more tired now, I really do get up when that timer goes off (okay, most of the time I do…) and walk around. But I’m only doing this because of the real possibility that I may get a trapped nerve in my back if I continue sitting all day without breaks. Again, the circumstances have made it unavoidable that I have to take care of my back.

Get more sleep (finally)

Big surprise: I’ve been needing more sleep since I got pregnant. I sleep 8.5-9 hours a night, and if I sleep any less, I wake up tired and groggy. This is crazy! 7.5-8 hours of sleep used to be fine, but that just doesn’t cut it anymore.

At first, I tried to make it through the day with my usual amount of sleep and maybe catch a little snooze for 15 minutes after lunch. Nope, that didn’t work; I was just irritable and tired.

So now I’m making sure I get more sleep. I start my bedtime routine at 21:00, get in bed at 22:00 (or 22:30 at the latest), put on my sleep mask and earplugs, and sleep until 7:00! I feel like a boring person for going to bed so early, but it makes such a big difference to wake up rested. I decided to enjoy good sleep for now while I still have the opportunity.

Is self-care selfish?

I keep wondering why it is so difficult to take care of ourselves even when we know we should. We all know we should make time for our own needs and health, but it feels harder to do that than to work, clean the house, or help a friend, for example.

I think it’s because we feel that we are the only ones benefiting from our self-care, and we’ve been taught not to be selfish. Technically, we’re not the only ones benefiting because we’re much better able to do our work or take care of others when we’ve taken care of ourselves, but this is often difficult to see because the benefits for other people are not immediately obvious.

Pregnancy has been a good reminder for me that taking care of myself means simultaneously taking care of someone else. Having this reason has made it easier for me to rest more, although I still feel guilty and like I should be doing more.

I recently came across a post from Molly Galbraith where she says that every woman has the right to take care of herself not because that makes her a better caretaker but just because she is worth it. This struck me. It applies to any human being: we shouldn’t need a reason to take care of ourselves; we should just do so because we inherently deserve it.

How to ensure we take care of ourselves

I think many of us are not quite there yet, although it would be great if we were. For all of us who struggle with self-care, it may be best to:

  • Find a good reason (a strong ‘why’) which leads us to engage in self-care (as pregnancy is for me right now);
  • Find an effective accountability system: join a group that will keep you accountable, find a buddy for a certain activity, or get a coach (in my case, it works when my husband says, “You’ve been standing for a long time, you need to sit down (or lie down) for five minutes” or “You’re tired, you need to go to bed”);
  • Find a system that works for you (such as my timer that tells me to get up and walk around).

While it would be great if we could take care of ourselves simply because we’re worth it, I believe that anyway we can get ourselves to engage in self-care is achieving the goal.

How do you take care of yourself? What do you struggle with? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Photo by Min An on Pexels