Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Dancing With the Dwarfs of Grief

Elizabeth McCracken says that when tragedy comes, talk to the Dwarfs of Grief. 

McCracken had just given birth to a stillborn baby in a French hospital, and the midwife asked if she and her husband wanted to talk to a dwarf. Mistranslation. The midwife’s word was nun not dwarf (nonne vs nain). Edward thought it odd, but he also thought that speaking to a dwarf might cheer him up. They theorized that French hospitals in Bordeaux kept dwarfs in the basement for the worst-off patients. (I assume they are referring to the dwarfs of folklore, the mythical race of short, stocky creatures, along the lines of gnomes, trolls, elves and leprechauns.)

I think they’re on to something. When grief hits us hard, we don’t want to talk to authority figures because authority has let us down. If we have followed the rules, then we expect Authorities to protect us from tragedies. What we want are humble, compassionate people, people who sit with us in grief, who listen and hold our hands. We want the seven bumbling, stumbling dwarfs of Snow White with their great big hearts.

Or maybe Elizabeth and Edward were referring to the dwarves of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the ancient creatures led by Thorin Oakenshield, who showed great courage in fighting against despair and can’t-do as they battled to reclaim their lost home.

(Why do we say dwarfs and not dwarves? The plural of scarf, the noun, is scarves. The verb is about gobbling up food. Grief is both a noun and a verb.)

“Grief lasts longer than sympathy.” McCracken says.

In McCracken’s book, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, she takes us into the world of her thoughts and expectations that led up to the birth and then the feelings that permeated her world after. 

For those who don’t know, stillbirth is a term used when a fetus dies after 20 weeks of development. Up until then, a fetal death is called a miscarriage. 

There are several differences between miscarriage and stillbirth. When a mother miscarriages, the pregnancy may not be far enough along for other people to notice that the woman is pregnant. With stillbirths, everyone knows and is waiting for news of the birth, and the parents are forced to tell each person the story of what happened. Doing this forces them to dive back into their sorrow, when they just want to not think about it for a moment.

What she says about grief for her baby will be familiar to those who has lost anyone close — there’s a hole in your life, you will always grieve this person, and you will always wonder if you had done something differently, then maybe this person would be alive. 

After her first son died, McCracken wished she had cards to hand to people who asked how she was doing– “My first child was stillborn.” That would convey the needed information without having to talk about what has ripped your heart apart. For people who don’t know what to say when someone dies, being handed a card would allow them to politely nod and go away without saying something clueless.

I can imagine a whole set of Grief Response Cardsto deal with different situations: “Yes, I’m still grieving.” “Grieving person here, give me space.” “Don’t ask how I’m doing if you don’t want the truth.”

We carry our dead with us because we have to.

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