Compounded Grief is like a Long Hike

Someone asked me recently if loss was easier the second time around. I wasn’t prepared to answer then, but after some months of reflection, I’ll attempt to describe my experience now. It’s important to think about multiple experiences of loss in terms of compounded grief because each subsequent experience of loss or grief shortens the fuse or capacity we have to navigate the experience of any one of those isolated losses.

I used to live in Colorado. It was one of the best seasons of my life where I learned so much about myself in my early adulthood. I was one of many Midwestern transplants in my graduate program and we all thought Colorado was the best place to live out our twenties. We loved to go explore the mountains and often filled the weekends with back-to-back hikes followed by a brewery as reward for our tired legs. We naively set out with little supplies and were wholly unaware of how harsh the environment and elevation could be on our bodies. One time we even got stuck in a blizzard with snow up to our hips. We learned a lot of lessons the hard way that first year, including that one hike a week was sufficient based on the head-to-toe aching of our muscles. I suppose mountain adventures are a nice analogy for a lot of things in life, but in particular now, they feel most fitting as an analogy for our fertility journey.

Grief the second time around is a lot like having to set out for a long hike down the mountain when your skin is already raw from the way up. You know from the outset it’s going to be uncomfortable, but you have to go anyway if you want to get home. You see, when you’ve walked through grief before you know there’s no way around it. Maybe you can postpone your trip for a bit, but inevitably you have to set out. It sucks the enjoyment right out of the journey when you’re in pain. You stop paying attention to the breathtaking scenery along the way because it’s all you can do to keep putting one foot in front of the other. You just want to get off this god-forsaken mountain. Despite knowing where you’re going, the way down the mountain is always harder physically and mentally. The initial novelty is over, you’ve exhausted the energy you started with, and it always takes longer than expected.

From the moment I felt that first pregnancy symptom this July, my excitement was muted. To protect myself, I ignored the symptoms and carried on as usual. After about 10 days of persistent symptoms, however, I decided to take a test and it came back positive. I shed a solitary tear of relief and announced half-heartedly to my husband that we were pregnant again after our miscarriage in 2020. We hugged, smiled at the seedling of hope tucked away in our hearts, and held our breath. However, a few short days later, I started having severe cramping and bleeding. Just as soon as hope started to take root, it shriveled up and died. I thought this was God’s answer to my prayers. I thought this pregnancy would help me move on from how hard this past year has been. Instead, it’s left me questioning everything. If I’m honest, two losses have shaken my foundation a bit. I feel insecure about trying to conceive (TTC). When I’m feeling extra self-protective, I hate to admit I’ve even asked myself, “Am I meant to be a mother? I’m awfully good at my job, and there was a time when I didn’t have a strong desire to have children. Maybe I should just stick to my strengths, then my heart wouldn’t hurt so much.” I know that’s a lie, but when you’ve lost two pregnancies in a row, it’s a cheap comfort to reframe your desires away from what you fear you can’t have. Even if it’s only for a moment.

Everyone seems to talk about peaks and valleys, but rarely do we focus on the path between the two. For my husband and me, between pregnancy loss and getting to our rainbow baby, the road has been long and winding. There has been a series of medical complications since our first loss, culminating in scheduled reconstructive hip surgery and a second miscarriage. Over the last several months, hope has felt like the sun dipping behind the mountain and casting a long shadow of doubt in its place. I know the sun will rise again, but the night is long and we still have a long way to go.

This fertility journey, as with hiking, has some incredible highs, but between those mountain top moments of knowing there is life growing inside you, there are a whole lot of putting-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other stretches. Stretches of wondering if you have the emotional wherewithal to try again only to be potentially devastated a second or third time. As I started the descent into my grief around our second pregnancy loss, I wasn’t sure what to expect. When we aren’t well acquainted with grief, our tendency is to rely on media portrayals. The low hanging fruit: depictions of hysterical crying, emotional eating and numbing out with substances. Grief can be those things too, but compounded grief for me has been more like numbness and disillusionment. A sense of detachment from circumstances that feel so cruel they certainly cannot be part of my story. Knowing that grief requires vulnerability, I pushed it off in hopes that it might pad the landing. When I let my emotions catch up, I felt deep disappointment and embarrassment for thinking that this pregnancy would last. Those emotions quickly turned to anger toward God. Why would God let me conceive again just to lose the baby so quickly? I began to doubt my body, healthy and strong up until 2020, everything now seemed to be falling apart. This time I told few people about the loss, aside from my husband. I took months to process what it all meant for us now and although that thought process is still evolving, this is the where I’ve landed for now:

I gave in to that long descent into the vulnerability of grief in order to get to the destination I most desire. You might think the destination to which I am referring is having a baby, but let me be clear, I cannot will myself to get and stay pregnant, and a biological child is not a guarantee for me or for anyone else. We are simply not in control of those details. No, when I say the destination I most desire, I mean my truest self. I recognize that the path down this mountain is mine alone to walk. I’d been hopeful for a rescue by way of a positive pregnancy test, but for now that path is under repair. Instead, grief has a way of clearing the path to your inner self. I can see who I desire to be more clearly and get quiet long enough to hear her. For whatever reason, God has not yet seen fit to bless us with a living child. I’m trusting that He is still good and that as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, we will see this prayer answered in one way or another. However, there will be no baby this year, and that cannot be the destination. Instead, we will go ahead with my hip surgery and hope for a rainbow on the other side. In the meantime, I’m learning not to avoid walking the path of grief for quite so long, to prioritize my physical, mental and spiritual health, and to remember to look up and enjoy the beauty before me even in the midst of pain.

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