Bionic Mamas

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On Sympathy


Oh, internets. I am sad about something unbloggable. I don’t usually do unbloggable, though there are there are some subjects I’m not interested in having public discussions about (my relationship with Sugar, for a prime example). But this is is different. I have a robust sense of what stories belong to me, but apparently even I have limits.

After some consideration, I think what is bloggable about how I’m feeling has to do with sympathy. What are its limits? I don’t mean, when is it okay to not feel it, but more, is there such a thing as feeling sympathy to an extent that one’s own feelings intrude upon the right of the principally hurt party to be at the center of the concentric circles of grief (described here)? And how does one find the boundary line between the sympathetic part of grief and the part that is feeling one’s own, selfish sadness about a loss?

The closest situation to this one I feel I can write about now is not a perfect match, but it will have to do for an example.

At the time we were trying to conceive the Bean, a good friend of mine was also trying to conceive her second child. I had every reason to believe she would succeed first. She had sperm in the house and no diagnoses of anything problematic, whereas I was still thrown by finally really knowing I had endometriosis (which had made it very hard for my mother to conceive) and couldn’t even try every month. She had gotten pregnant easily twice before (with her daughter and with an unplanned pregnancy years earlier, which ended in abortion). I was excited to have a TTC buddy in the neighborhood, but I was also constantly having to check my envious nature.

Sure enough, she got pregnant first, during the period when we had stopped trying IUIs and were waiting to do IVF. I saw a pregnancy book lying on her bed, and suspected she felt awkward telling me. So, when we took a walk to go shopping together later that week, I asked her. She was a little sheepish when she told me, but I had already gone through the worst flames of jealousy before asking, and I think I responded well. That isn’t my baby, I remember thinking. Anyway, I felt hopeful about going to IVF, and it seemed likely enough that we would end up with children very close in age, after all.

We had a nice conversation and a nice time shopping. As we left the mall, she asked if I would sit with her daughter while she went back in to use the bathroom. I was feeling pretty happy about the whole thing by then, as I recall. She returned ten minutes later and said she has started bleeding. And I felt like the Angel of Death, like I had killed her baby with the poison of my unspoken envy.

This was one of those miscarriages that seem to go on forever, with hope always very tiny but not fully extinguished for weeks of OB visits and ultrasounds and so on. Her husband was out of town for some of it and came with her to other appointments; I ended up doing a lot of babysitting.

The appointment that was supposed to yield a definite answer was in the early evening, and I was so glad the daughter (who was two and a half or so) just wanted to watch videos on the couch. Periodically she would ask after her mother, and I would say she was at the doctor, but not sick. I grew up with a very sick mom, and that is a scary thing. And she would look doubtful, probably because I was clearly so sad myself. I’ve never been any good at hiding that. It was so nice, the rest of the time, that we could just be warm bodies together on the couch, and I could pretend I was hugging her in case she was scared, instead of because I was sad. Toddlers are really great sometimes.

After a few hours, her mom came home and said no, it was definitely gone. And I burst into tears. It was just like with the daughter: I should have been comforting her, and instead I was drawing focus, to borrow an acting term. I mean, I did try to comfort her, but of course she ended up comforting me, too.

The friend in that story is the kind of person who seems to like comforting people — it’s very close to her profession, in fact. I think she thanked me for crying, maybe because it gave her something to do, or maybe because it felt good to know she wasn’t the only one this felt like a loss for.

And that’s the thing about this situation and the current one. In both cases, I am genuinely sad for a friend. But in both cases, I also feel a personal, selfish sense of loss. In the case of that miscarriage, it was the loss of the vision of our having babies together, with all the sepia-toned imagery that entails. That is a loss, but it is nothing to the loss my friend experienced. The current situation is similar in that regard: I feel selfish losses, but they are not of the same magnitude as the loss my friend is experiencing.

I don’t quite know what to do with that feeling. Much of the loss I feel is one of prospective bonding, in the way that I imagined having kids of the same age would bring my friend and me closer, but arguably a deeper bond in this current case. That seems noble enough. But noble or not, that loss does not put me in the center circle.

Kvetch outward, I know. Keen outward might be closer to the mark here. But is there a place to grieve with the centermost party, too? I mean to be a careful person, but I am afraid I am sometimes just a weeping bull in a china shop.

11 thoughts on “On Sympathy

  1. Three people, a new friend, a dear old friend, and a childhood friend, have all got into this horrible position this week. I want to wail and cry but, oh, THEIR grief, their loss. And now I’ve made them be HAPPY for me into the bargain. Oh it sucks. I want to cry all over them.

  2. That wasn’t very coherent or useful, either. Damn it all to hell.

  3. I’m really sorry for your loss. And you do have something to grieve for, and your feelings of sadness matter. I’m not sure that it is selfish, exactly, to feel sad about losing something you had truly longed for and hoped for. When I have grieved great losses I sometimes really have wanted to feel sad with other people, but for some reason – you’re right – that’s often hard to do when you are at the center of the sadness. When you let your friend lead the way as best as you can, you might find some space for you to grieve together. I hope so. In the mean time, here’s a big hug and an imaginary shot of whiskey. I’m feeling terribly right with you.

  4. I’m so sorry for your friends’ losses.
    Maybe, depending on the situation, you could stop by and sit with them, bring chocolate/rum/whatever is appropriate, and make this a form of grieving with them?
    But yes, it is hard. So sorry.

  5. I am having a hard time this summer because I have two very good friends who have both had terrible terrible things happen, and I’m overseas and cannot help. And I feel like an ass for saying that I am the one having a hard time, but it is true. I am grieving too, but I can’t say that to them because their pain is so much more.

    Not helpful, I am sure, but you are not alone.

  6. I think sympathy is one of the hardest emotions but one of the most needed. And I think it’s okay to grieve. A loss can be (is) felt by anyone it touches and, as you say, if you pour the energy in you aren’t doing it wrong.

  7. Bull you can be. It’s about both losses- yours and theirs, but what is most important to them is theirs. I’m sorry you feel a loss. And I’m more sorry your friend is experiencing a loss. Both are to be grieved.

  8. I have no doubt that whatever your response to Mystery Friend, it will be compassionate and just right. Because of the fact that you are worried about not getting too central. And because I internet-know you, and you’re wonderful. Meanwhile, I am so deeply sorry about the tragedy that has affected all of you.

  9. 😦

    I can’t really muster up anything more insightful than that, but I’m sad for you and your friend.

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