She was my 4th grade teacher and one of my all-time favorites--a bubbly, brunette, thirty-something woman with dimples that made learning fun and always wore the cutest high heels that perfectly matched her dress. She handed out Star Student certificates every Friday, signed in perfect cursive, to students who showed good behavior and boy, did I aim to please. That was my main goal at 9 years old really--to gain friends and the teacher's favor by laying low and being good at all costs. I was conscientious, polite, and on-task ALWAYS—a model student.
Until one day, when I made an uncharacteristically bad choice: when I thought no one was looking, I took a Sharpie to the head cheerleader’s jacket.
A little while later Mrs. S. called me out into the hallway. My stomach was fluttery and I felt a lump forming in my throat--she knew. When we were outside, just the two of us, she said “Krissy, I couldn't believe it when another student told me, but is it true that you were the one who damaged Ashley's jacket?” I silently shook my head yes as tears of shame filled my eyes. My teacher knelt down and her voice lowered. “I guess you’ve probably been frustrated with her for some time now, huh? Calling you names and joking to the other girls as you pass by?”
She knew?! I couldn’t believe it; I had no idea anyone knew. I thought I'd been successful in going unnoticed. I nodded as the tears started rolling down my face.
“Krissy, what you did today was very wrong and you will need to apologize—you should’ve used your words with Ashley. But next time, don’t wait until you’re this frustrated to speak up for yourself. Because what you did today, that’s not who you want to be.”
She was right. That was the thing about Mrs. S.—while I tried my best to be hidden, to blend in at all costs, she tried her best to allow me to be seen for who I really was.
One morning a few weeks later Mrs. S. came in smiling, saying she had some exciting news to share: she was expecting a baby in the summer and we would be having a substitute when the time came closer. I was so happy for her. But no more than a few weeks later, I walked into class to find the principal at the front of the room, saying she had something important to tell us.
“Unfortunately, Mrs. Shaw has learned she is no longer expecting a baby. A substitute will be filling in for her for a while until she can return.”
Not quite understanding how it all worked, one of the students raised her hand and asked what we were all thinking: “why will we have a substitute just because she’s not having a baby anymore?” The principal paused and then answered,
“well...because she’s just too sad to be here”.
Her words were like a brick in my stomach. Too sad to be here? I had heard of people too sick to go to school….but too sad? I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen anyone that sad before in my whole life. My heart ached picturing our bubbly, smiling teacher so distraught.
Later that day a group of us plotted in a small huddle on the playground to problem-solve Mrs. S's sadness. One girl said she knew where she lived and suggested that maybe we could all visit her at home and bring her things to make her happy, like chocolate or coffee. Another insisted that we go to her and remind her that school is where she is happy and refuse to leave until she comes back with us—a kidnapping essentially. We brainstormed all the ways we could think of to fix her sadness and bring her back to us.
Eventually the day came when I walked in to class and found Mrs. S. behind the teacher’s desk once again. Finally, she’s back! I thought. But I quickly noticed something was different. Rather than jumping up to greet each of us as we came in, she nodded half-smile hellos from behind her desk and then looked back down at her work. Her bright high-heels were replaced with black flats and her eyes seemed to always look tired. When I would ask her a question she would sometimes snap at me for reasons I couldn’t figure out. Our teacher was back, but she was different somehow. I wondered if maybe we should’ve gone to her house to cheer her up after all.
Almost 30 years later I found myself standing in the same shoes Mrs. S. had stood in all those years before, unlocking my own classroom door after being out for a week, wondering how I’d face the students who’d learned I was no longer expecting.
I thought about Mrs. S. and how badly I'd wanted to fix her sadness,
how desperately I’d wanted her to just be her old self again,
how I was too young to understand that the change in her had nothing to do with us.
I remembered how I’d analyzed her demeanor, her clothes, her tone of voice in an effort to see just how worried we should be about her. I’d better put on a smile, I thought.
But then I remembered something else Mrs. S. had taught me all those years ago during our talk out in the hallway: how I don’t have to be “good” or “perfect” all the time, just honest about how I feel…before it all builds up and comes out in ways that aren’t me; ways I don’t want to be. And I wanted my girls to hear that from me, too.
My usually talkative class was somber and silent as they arrived that morning and slowly walked to their seats and settled in. I could feel them studying my face just as I had studied Mrs. Shaw’s, trying to measure my sadness.
I asked them to come gather with me down on the rug and said “I know you all have heard that my family’s received some sad news.” I felt the lump rise in my throat and took a breath. “The truth is, I AM sad. I might be sad about this for a little while or a long while, I don’t know. But I also want you to know my sadness has nothing to do with you. In fact, being here with you all, and teaching….this is where I want to be because teaching you all makes me happy. So, even though I may feel sad, I’m choosing to be here.”
Their bodies relaxed and their faces softened. A few of them mumbled that they were glad to have me back, too.
Twenty or thirty years from now it would be fun to be remembered as the lively teacher with the cute shoes and snazzy certificates in perfect cursive--the way I remembered Mrs. S. for all those years.
But the reality is that every one of the girls sitting in my classroom will one day face their own great sadness, whatever it is, and I hope in those moments they remember me less for my shoes and more for those “hallway conversations”. Because, in my own moment of sorrow, that's when I remembered the things Mrs. S. taught me that really mattered.
How she pushed for me to be seen when all I wanted to do was hide in the background.
The way she encouraged me to be real about how I was feeling rather than stuff it down.
And her guidance to take the high road rather than lowering myself when I feel beaten down.
I think of Mrs. Shaw often and wonder if she ever started wearing her cute shoes again...if she ever went back to that old bubbly self I once loved. I hope at least a part of that spark came back, not just for her students but for herself. Because, while it's good in the sad times to let ourselves fully feel what we feel, it's also important to eventually let yourself allow the joy in again—to put your smile and your cute shoes back on, to get your zest for life back.
I can remember in my own shock of grief thinking “I’ll never smile or laugh again” simply out of respect for the love I’d lost. But I eventually learned that allowing in happiness doesn't take away from the gravity of the loss or dishonor the one you're grieving for in any way. You don’t leave them behind when you move forward, you carry them with you.
That’s what’s so amazing about the strength of a woman—she can carry her smile, her obligations, her losses, all of it along with her everyday, everywhere she goes.
Even in cute high heels.
I've never cared for small talk.
Small talk in the dentist's chair is even worse.
"So where do you work?"
"Where do you live?"
"Do you have kids?"
Meanwhile, I'm thinking the answers and then spitting them out in between suctions. Lovely conversational flow.
Through the broken small talk I manage to answer that I have a four year-old son and then the inevitable next question comes...the one I never quite know how to answer correctly:
"So, any plans for a second kid?"
I think to myself "Yes, there were plans and there was another child but he didn't arrive. And, yes, I still want another, but I'm scared."
I know this is NOT the answer she (or anyone else who asks in small talk conversation) is looking for. I know it would be too much and so I usually push the real answer away and, for the sake of keeping conversation going, just say what's easier: "oh yea, sure, probably one day here soon."
But I hesitate this time giving the canned response because even just thinking it brings up that familiar pang of guilt: I've glossed over my experience with my unborn (but not non-existent) second son as if he didn't matter--exactly what I feared would happen when we first learned we had lost him.
Maybe I had too much time to think in between suctions on this one or maybe I was just tired of trite conversation, but I decided to respond differently this time--to risk her possibly feeling uncomfortable in order to honor him and my own feelings. "We did want another and were expecting him this past February but we learned that we lost him early in the second trimester."
She didn't stiffen or stumble on her words; instead she stopped what she was doing, pulled her mask down, and leaned in close. She whispered, "I'm so sorry, I know that feeling, I had the same experience in between my two children. I'm so glad you said something because no one ever wants to talk about it." And that's when the REAL conversation began. The energy between us became completely different, we talked like two girlfriends at a slumber party: wide-eyed and leaned in close and finishing each other's sentences. Not because we're excited about what happened but because we found someone who could not only relate but was willing to talk about it.
When I headed out to leave we smiled and nodded to each other. We were no longer strangers but connected in some unspoken way.
The point is this: had I passed on TRUTH in favor of small talk and surface-level conversation, we could've talked for twenty minutes yet still left strangers. It makes me wonder if this is part of why so many of us feel disconnected from each other. It makes me wonder what would happen if we all traded small talk for being a little more real and vulnerable with each other. We'd probably find we have a lot more in common than we think.
This is one of my favorite pieces of wisdom because I’ve found it to be so true in my own life. Any problem I've stuffed down, pushed aside, or ignored, only came back stronger until I dealt with it.
The "escalating whispers" in my life have come in many forms over the years, but one I continued to ignore most was the call of vulnerability — to allow the world to see me as I was, the real me, flaws & all. I spent most of my life having only surface-level friendships but very few close friends...and never really a best friend because the criteria for being someone’s BEST friend is intimacy.
My biggest fear for most of my life was someone not liking me, so I made sure I acted in whatever way necessary in order to be well-liked. And, for the most part, I succeeded. I was well-liked, just not well-known.
My wake-up calls to make a change came in many forms: the fizzling out of friendships, the break-up of relationships, and the recurring loneliness that came with not having a best friend to call when things got tough (that would require admitting things got tough). But the whisper I felt most repeatedly—like a nagging that grew stronger & stronger—was the urge to pursue my passion of writing.
The desire to write in itself wasn’t the problem, the problem was I had no interest in writing fiction novels, poetry, or newspaper editorials. My desire was to write about my own life--thoughts, observations, and feelings about the lessons I've learned and also stuff I'm going through in real time--a very ill-fitted dream for an introvert that has difficulty being vulnerable. Maybe that’s why the desire was there in the first place...maybe my soul was screaming to run free and be authentic while my mind kept tight hold of the reigns. Eventually I surrendered to the nagging & started a blog.
But this would be a safe blog, I decided. I would be careful not to share too much and the way I figured I could accomplish this was to only write about my experiences as a teacher. This way, I figured, I could satisfy my desire to write without divulging anything too personal. I wrote with the intention of helping--I offered tips & suggestions and, looking back, the tone read a little like this: “here...I know a lot and I am going to teach you all I know.”
While I did have some knowledge and experience to share that had value, my writing was devoid of connection, realness, and personality (you know...ALL THOSE THINGS THAT MAKE PEOPLE WANT TO READ STUFF). I began posting and realized pretty quickly that the only thing worse than having people hate what you wrote is to have them ignore what you wrote. I hardly ever had interaction with the posts I published and my readership dwindled instead of growing.
This all changed through what I now see as an act of grace. One day I was feeling super frustrated with ALL the madness that comes with being a mom & teacher and thought “oh my God I’m going to explode if I don’t get all this off my chest.” I sat down and wrote for the first time with NO rules— whatever came to mind went on the page. It was the fastest I’ve ever written anything, the words just flowed. When I was done and read it back, something felt different...good. Despite my usual inclination to keep my shortcomings to myself, my gut told me to share the post. And what did I have to lose? Virtually no one was reading my blog and if I was likely quitting anyway, I may as well make this my last post.
A little under an hour later I picked up my phone and saw that I had over 20 notifications on Facebook (that was a lot for me). My heart sank. “Oh s**t!” I thought, “what the hell did I just do?” I logged on to my blog page and couldn’t believe what I was seeing: the post had gotten over several hundred views and been shared over 20 times in less than an hour. (Commence panic attack)
I immediately had what Brene Brown calls a “vulnerability hangover”. I was embarrassed and filled with guilt for sharing with the world my frustrations about my personal life as a teacher, wife, & mother. I also regretted putting out there to the world that I didn’t have it all figured out—far from it actually. I wanted to unpost it, to take it all back, but I knew it was too late. I dreaded reading the comments, where I’d surely gotten slammed for sharing so much.
But as I read them, I was shocked that not one was negative. Most were along the lines of “thank you, you put into words exactly how I'm feeling.” I realized that the vulnerability and realness that came through when I wrote from my heart is what people had connected with. That’s what had been lacking in my writing, and in my interactions with others, all this time.
Connecting with people in this way was more satisfying and fulfilling than I could ever put into words--that connection was what I had been searching for my whole life, I'd just been going about it the wrong way. Showing my imperfections, letting my guard down—the very things I thought would drive people away—drew them to me. And my writing became the one place in the world where I felt I could go and be totally free.
This realization changed the way I approached not just my writing, but the relationships in my personal life as well. From that point on I made it my number one objective to stop trying to be perfect and just be REAL. I retitled my blog as my full name and decided that the only rule I'd have for my writing this time around is that there are no rules. I knew I could trust myself to be vulnerable and share in a real way, while still knowing what what was to keep private, just for me.
The whispers and nagging stopped as my outer life began aligning with who I was behind closed doors. I thought I mastered that whole vulnerability lesson until a new opportunity presented itself to take it to a whole new level. Isn't that always how it works?
I am now testing the boundaries of just how vulnerable I can be by trying for another baby after experiencing a loss. Knowing what that pain is like and still saying "yes, I'll take the chance of going through that again to experience the joy that’s ALSO possible" has required a BIG leap of faith for me. The ultimate act of vulnerability for me will be to hold a positive test in my hand and decide to choose faith and hope every day for forty weeks over fear.
When I was in the process of reaching this decision, I happened to watch the biopic Jackie about the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. What I hadn't realized before watching the film was that she had actually been the mother of five children, not two. She miscarried with her first child, had a still born daughter her next pregnancy, went on to have Caroline and John, Jr., and then gave birth to a boy that only lived two days. What's even more remarkable was that she lost her husband only three months after her son's death.
And I'm worried about getting hurt again? I'm wondering if I'll survive it? It seems anytime I'm caught up in the drama of my own life, I'm humbled by someone else's story. That’s the power of sharing our stories, sometimes it puts our own into perspective.
Some may wonder why she put herself through this again and again after experiencing such loss. I believe this is the power and strength of the love that comes with being a mother. We lay our hearts out there (sometimes again and again) for our babies, despite knowing the pain that could come.
Loss aside, just the daily experience of motherhood in itself is a constant opportunity to practice vulnerability. I heard someone say years ago that once you have a child it’s like walking around with your heart outside your body. I don't know what the ending to my story will be, I just know there's a nagging that's whispering to my heart, once again, calling for me to be vulnerable as a mother this time...to let my guard down & take a chance on love.
Pregnancy loss is one of those events that makes you feel as if the world as you know it is forever changed in an instant. In that single moment, all the dreams and hopes you had for that baby and your life together as a family are suddenly gone. Like any other life-changing event, you begin to mark everything else that happens in your life in relation to when the loss occurred--there's the life you had before the miscarriage and the new life you've had since because, in some ways, you're a different person than you were before. Those differences may not be obvious to other people, but on the inside you feel the shift. Your thoughts, feelings, and the way you view life itself is forever changed.
The past four weeks since the loss have been a time of tremendous ups and downs as the grieving process continues and my body resets back to normal. Sometimes I feel as if my heart became a little more hardened that day. On those kind of days I've made up my mind that I will never allow myself to get hurt like this again. Other times I feel like my heart's been so softened it's as if I'm walking around with every nerve exposed...raw and vulnerable. On those days the tears feel like they won't stop. But as time goes on, most days just go along as normal, reminiscent of the days before the loss, where I go about business as usual. On those days something seemingly out of nowhere will remind me the baby won't be here in February after all and for a moment the wind is knocked out of me, that crushing weight on my heart is back. And after a few deep breaths of acceptance, I move along.
When I initially shared my pregnancy loss experience on this blog, it was only a few days afterward and the feelings were still very raw. I truly wrote it because I felt if I didn't get those feelings out they might eat me alive or swallow me up. I certainly didn't write it with the intention of helping anyone (what kind of help would I be in that state?) Yet I received many messages from mothers who had experienced similar situations saying that my words somehow did help. And what's funny is that their stories, in turn, helped me. Hearing so many heartbreaking stories of loss made me realize I'm not alone and put my grief into perspective. If it's possible that anything good can come from a devastating experience like this, I think it's that, through sharing our stories and being honest about our feelings, families who have gone through this can lean on each other. With that in mind, and with today being Pregnancy & Infant Loss Remembrance Day, here are 7 things, of many, that I've learned from my experience of loss that may hopefully be of some comfort to someone else going through it.
1) Miscarriage and infant loss is way more common than I realized. I was aware at 37 years old that my chances of miscarrying were higher, but I was not aware that even among twenty-somethings, the miscarriage rate is anywhere between 8 and 20 percent (some stats say 15-25%) and that 80% of losses occur in the first trimester. When I first learned of the loss, I was 17 weeks pregnant and felt like I must have done SOMETHING wrong to lose the baby this far along. But I later learned that the baby was actually only 13 weeks when he passed and that fact, paired with learning the statistics, allowed me to understand that this is a fairly common occurrence, which made me feel less alone and down on myself.
2) It helps to do things that keep your baby's memory alive. Moving forward in the weeks after a loss like this is scary because, as time passes and life resumes as normal, you worry that your child will be forgotten. We've been trying to make a conscious effort to do something at least once a week that will honor our baby's memory. It's different for everybody but, for me, grief counseling, writing, meditations for miscarriage, and attending events that honor pregnancy & infant loss have helped immensely. A dear friend of mine offered to make us a plaque to honor his memory that will be put on a bench that Todd built in our backyard garden, giving us a nice place to go to and think of him. It's important to us that we honor the 13 weeks he lived & the sweet memories we have of him, not just dwell on the negative experience of losing him.
3) I need to reach out of my comfort zone more when people are grieving. Prior to this loss, I was the person whose heart ached for anyone experiencing any kind of grief, yet my tendency was not to reach out because I didn't want to bother them or didn't know what to say. In the first couple of days following the miscarriage, it felt a little like a ghost town around here. And I get it now, people wanted to allow me some space to grieve. The few messages I did receive in the thick of it were mostly from women who went through this themselves and knew the emptiness I was feeling--pregnancy loss is a very isolating experience. And at times those messages felt like they were literally holding me up. A few days later I began hearing from loved ones and friends who nearly all said some version of what I used to always say "I've been thinking of you, I just didn't reach out because I didn't know what to say..." What I discovered after living it is, THAT'S THE PERFECT THING TO SAY! :) Saying something simple like "there are no words, but know that you are on my heart" may not seem like it would help much but, in my experience, every little bit of support, just knowing others were thinking of us, helped fill the void in my heart.
4) A vast majority of people are really, really kind. I believed this before the loss, but this experience reinforced it. Once I formally announced the miscarriage, the love and support we received were overwhelming. When people would look me in the eye and with tears in theirs say "I'm praying for you" I would say in return "I feel that, thank you", because I did. The messages we received didn't just feel like words, the love and sincerity came through and it really gave me a new appreciation for the kindness of people, many of which I barely knew. I've made a commitment to myself to pay it forward and reach out more when others are hurting.
5) Grief sucks (but it's necessary). Sorry, there's no nice, eloquent way to say it. When it wells up the first instinct is to run--zone out on a TV show, have a glass of wine, grab ice cream, distract at all costs. One of the blessings in this situation is that it happened to me after I had gathered enough life experience to know that I wouldn't be able to dip my toe in the water on this one--I knew that if I didn't want to carry an immense amount of pain around for a really long time, I'd have to REALLY go there and fully grieve the loss. So I did and, honestly, I wouldn't wish those moments on anyone. Those moments, the ways in which I grieved him, are one thing I won't share here--they were intimate, excruciating moments only between a momma & her baby. Those memories are etched on my heart like a tattoo--very painful going on and there forever. But it's only because I went through them that I am able to move forward with life in peace.
6) Grief brings ALL the feels and they come in waves. I learned pretty quickly that grief comes in & out like the tides--sometimes the tide is low and you are fine going about your business, feeling happy doing so, and sometimes the tide is high (usually coming from out of nowhere) and you feel knocked back under. I've now learned and accepted that all the emotions--happiness, grief, anger--come in waves and it's just part of the healing process. I've found this affirmation/prayer helpful when those strong waves of grief hit:
This is a moment of suffering.
I will be gentle with myself in this moment and allow the feelings to come.
This grief is showing me just how much (he/she) was loved.
7) I've been praying the wrong prayer all along. When I first returned to work, I was discussing the loss with a co-worker. I told her how the experience became much easier to bear after I began digging deeper into why the loss occurred and got some answers. Learning that there was a very high likelihood that there was a genetic reason he did not survive helped me to see that this was nature's way of taking care of things--the proof I needed that God was actually sparing us more pain by taking him when he did if he was, indeed, not developing normally. Her response to that was an "A-Ha" moment for me:
"Have you considered that maybe faith is trusting that God was taking care of things WITHOUT the proof?"
I'm not sure any experience makes you feel quite so vulnerable as that of becoming a mother--your heart is laid open and your biggest fear in life becomes not something happening to you, but something happening to your child. So my daily prayer after the birth of my first son and for the three years after was always some version of this:
Please God, I'll be good, I'll work hard, I'll be kind, just
please, please, please don't ever let anything bad happen to my child.
That's all I'll ever ask for, I swear.
As if saying that prayer granted me some kind of immunity. And then when the bad thing you prayed would never happen HAPPENS, you realize the obvious--that no one is immune to bad things happening to their child. Loss is just an unfortunate part of life and we all experience it at some point and on some level. I think maybe my prayer all along should have been:
Dear God, thank you for my child, this unbelievable blessing.
Should something happen to him, please give me the strength to bear it.
I have faith in your Divine Intelligence, even when I don't understand it.