Grief Comes In Different Colours
Grief is something nearly all of us will experience at some point in our lives and most would agree it’s one of the most traumatic and harrowing of all emotional responses we can go through. Many of us feel that we know instinctively what grief is, and yet pinning down a single definition of grief is almost impossible. The various definitions available online and elsewhere may resonate more or less depending on your own personal experience, but here are a few of the top ranking results from my own internet search.
Great sorrow and unhappiness, especially at someone’s death. (Chambers Online Dictionary)
Grief is the natural reaction to loss. Grief is both a universal and a personal experience. Individual experiences of grief vary and are influenced by the nature of the loss. Some examples of loss include the death of a loved one, the ending of an important relationship, job loss, loss through theft or the loss of independence through disability. (Mayo Clinic)
Grief is the feeling of reaching out for someone who’s always been there, only to discover when I need her [or him] one more time, she’s no longer there. (The Grief Recovery Method)
Grief can be defined as the response to the loss in all of its totality – including its physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioural and spiritual manifestations – and as a natural and normal reaction to loss. Put simply, grief is the price we pay for love, and a natural consequence of forming emotional bonds to people, projects and possessions. All that we value we will someday lose. (Christopher Hall, Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement)
There’s nothing particularly controversial about any of the above definitions and, with the possible exception of Chambers, they are broad enough to cover a range of life experiences, including but not limited to the death of a loved one. So, if we all think we know what grief is, and most of the definitions acknowledge that grief can be a response to a range of circumstances, what is ‘disenfranchised grief’ and how does it arise?
To disenfranchise is to deny an individual or group a right or privilege generally available to others. It arises when society fails to acknowledge that the thing that is being grieved for had value in the first place. Grief may not feel like much of a privilege when you’re going through it, but, as with so many other forms of privilege, its value only becomes apparent when it’s denied to you. Because as awful and traumatic as the experience of grief is, it does have a purpose in helping us come to terms with the shock and loss we have experienced.
When loss is not accompanied with some sort of process that allows us to both feel and express our feelings of despair, vulnerability, disorientation and perhaps even relief, those emotions can go underground. But out of sight is not out of mind, they will come back to haunt us if we do not somehow find a way to accommodate and accept the loss that has taken place. (Dr Tian Dayton, Psychologist)
The disenfranchisement of grief is not exclusive to the involuntarily childless. Nor is it experienced by every involuntarily childless person. However, it has been my experience and the experience of many involuntarily childless people I have spoken to. When I finally realised I was never going to be a mother, I was broken-hearted. Friends and family knew there was something wrong, but seemed puzzled when I tried to explain my feelings. It seemed strange to them that I could grieve for something that never existed, something as abstract as a never-conceived child. But, to me, my never-to-be-conceived children and the life I thought I would lead as their mother felt tangible even though they never existed anywhere other than in my hopes and dreams.
Friends and family were kind about their confusion. Strangers, less so. I remember reading an article about the pain of childlessness on a newspaper website and veering from initial relief that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, to utter despair when I read the comments on the article. A number of people commenting argued that if childless people thought what they were feeling was grief, then they’d obviously never experienced ‘real grief’. And that to express their feelings in these terms was an insult to people whose actual, living children had passed away. Or else, they were mentally weak and probably not fit to be a parent anyway. Overwhelmed by guilt at the suggestion that my feelings of grief minimised the grief of people whose children had died, and nurturing a secret fear that the universe hadn’t given me a child because I wasn’t good enough to have one, I internalised those negative comments and pushed my grief down, tried to reabsorb it and carry on with my life. For a while that worked, but in the end, my grief started to leak out. I spent my days at work sobbing in the toilets. I couldn’t sleep or eat, watch television, enjoy a walk or even read a book. I couldn’t be around pregnant women or young children. I felt guilty about feeling like this, because I had a great job, a lovely house, a wonderful husband and family, dogs and cats I loved dearly and lovely friends. All of these blessings, but that suppressed grief was eating away at me, stopping me from enjoying the life I had.
One day, I was working at my computer at home and strange, involuntary noises started to come out of my mouth. The noises were guttural, almost like barking, and originated from deep inside me. I couldn’t control them. But then again, I could, in the way that you can sometime stop yourself crying until you’ve left a room and are alone, I could hold off the strange grunting, barking noises at work. But at home they were almost continuous. My husband said they sounded like howls of pain. I started to get the shakes. My torso, head and legs would jerk violently. Sometimes the opposite happened, and my body wouldn’t move at all. One day I was walking my dogs in a field and my legs just stopped working. I fell over in the mud and just lay there, unable to move or speak. I was referred for investigations and once any physical cause for my symptoms was ruled out – I wasn’t epileptic, didn’t have a brain tumour – I was referred to a psychiatrist. What I had was a psychogenic voice and movement disorder or, in other words, the extreme emotions I had been suppressing were manifesting as physical symptoms. My doctor asked me if I had been through any trauma and I told her I was grieving for my never-to-be-conceived children. She responded with words to the effect that I was just searching for a word to explain my feelings, but that what I was feeling wasn’t grief because I hadn’t been bereaved, and anyway, motherhood was hard so I wasn’t missing much. That is how you disenfranchise someone’s grief.
After a long wait, over a year, I saw a counsellor. She was the first person who did not disenfranchise my grief, but instead encouraged me to explore it, helped me to understand that my grief was real and valid and had a role to play in coming to terms with involuntary childlessness. Thankfully, my grief is much less intense now and my psychogenic symptoms are almost completely gone, except for the occasional glitch when an unexpected baby scan photo on Facebook or a friend I previously thought to be happily childless announces their pregnancy. But I’m a million miles away from that day I was lying in the muddy field, literally paralysed with grief, with my little dogs curled up beside me, and for that I’m grateful.
It’s worth stressing the point that disenfranchised grief is a double-whammy. Grief in itself is difficult enough to deal with, but a necessary and natural part of coming to terms with a loss. It helps you transform from the person you were before the loss, to the person who now must bear a loss. Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women, has described this process and its importance very movingly.
[Grief] healed my heart bigger. I am not the same person as I was before I grieved that loss. Because grief, like love, transforms us. We are never the same person again. What once was an open wound in my heart is now a scar – a tender spot – and it has changed me. (Jody Day, Will I Ever Get Over Not Having Children?)
The disenfranchisement of grief does real harm and it’s completely avoidable if only society was more open to different experiences of grief. If I had felt able to process my grief without feeling ashamed or misunderstood or weak I could have dealt with it in a much more open and healthy way. One thing I’ve thought a lot about is the suggestion that to acknowledge my own grief was an insult to those who have suffered more tangible losses, that naming my grief somehow minimises theirs. I can speak only for myself, but I would never compare my loss to that experienced by someone whose child has died (although there are many involuntarily childless people who have suffered multiple, tangible losses through miscarriage, IVF failure and stillbirth who may well feel differently), but that doesn’t mean my own personal loss is not worthy of being grieved. Two of the friends who have supported me the most through coming to terms with childlessness are mothers of angels and I am so grateful to them for never once disenfranchising my grief by suggesting its existence minimised the unimaginable bereavement they had suffered.
I like to think that grief comes in different colours. The grief felt for the loss of a child may be different to the grief felt for the loss of a parent, or partner, or sibling, or best friend or aunt, but nobody questions that each of those different colours of grief is valid or would suggest that one diminishes another. My grief for my never-to-be-conceived children might come in a different colour to the sorts of grief more widely acknowledged, but it is grief.
I grieve for the first time my child grabs my finger in their tiny fist. For their first steps and first words. For the expression of wonder on their faces when they see fireworks or Christmas tree lights. For first-day-of-term school uniform photos. For pride in them when they are kind. For Calpol and wet flannels on foreheads and wanting to sleep in our bed. For the nativity plays I will never attend. For exploring rock pools and poking sea anemones in the name of science. For eating peaches on the beach with sandy fingers. For red wellies on rainy days. For bedtime stories and endless viewings of Frozen. For questions about why the sky is blue. For shivering on the sidelines of football pitches. For the family dinners we will never have, caravan holidays we will never take. For helping with homework. For arguments over eating vegetables. For worrying when they ride their bikes to the shop on their own. For school proms and exam revision and loving them anyway no matter how well or badly they’ve done. For bailing them out if they do something stupid. For empty nest syndrome which I will never experience because my nest will never be full. For shopping with my adult daughter. For cuddles with my grandchildren and relief in handing them back at the end of the day. For the mother me, the mother I know in my heart I was always meant to be.
The motherhood I grieve for is romanticised, I know that. But it’s the only one I have. For me, what I was reaching out for my whole life was the hope of motherhood, the dream of my children. The hopes and dreams are gone now, there’s nothing to reach out to anymore. And although my heart is slowly healing, it is not an inconsequential loss, and I will grieve it no matter what society thinks.