Monday, November 16, 2009

On Levity*

“Now, I will always be the woman whose baby died.” I stared into the red, desperate eyes of my husband after the ultrasound tech, the doctors, the midwife, and the nurses left us a minute to catch our breath and process the fact that they just told us our baby was dead. We howled for minutes, held on to each other, stared at each other and began crying again. But then, as though marking off a checklist of realizations, I laid my head on his shoulder and murmured in his ear, “People will whisper about me when I walk in the room. Nobody will tell jokes in front of me. I’ll always be that woman people pity. I will be a walking bummer.”

There is absolutely nothing funny about grieving your baby. Believe me, I have tried to make light about my current state of being. Noting that most of my friends haven’t called, or the majority of my own family has not even mustered an “I’m sorry for your loss,” I mentioned to a friend, “Yeah, being a pariah is not all its cracked up to be.” Ha, ha, yeah. No response. Everything meant to bring levity just sounds pathetic and bitter. I am that woman laughing at her own feeble existence, while younger, half-full type people pityingly clench their teeth in an almost smile. “If we laugh, we will just encourage her.”

The only thing remotely funny about my grief is that sometimes I cry so much I hiccup. It is hard not to laugh at inappropriate hiccupping. “Sometimes hiccups make me want to shove an ice pick into my diaphragm,” my sister said once during a pause in an especially frustrating cry/rant about Lucy’s death. I giggled a little, and then it took hold of me. The laughs rolled in, gaining momentum, and then we really lost it, like we were crazy or drunk. Inappropriately guffawing at body noises was about the only buoyancy we got in the early days. But it wasn’t the kind of levity I craved.

The death of my daughter meant my personality suddenly gained the kind of gravitas that made me feel like someone’s shell-shocked great uncle. It’s all about the Great War now. Being in babyloss world feels a lot like what I imagine it feels like to hang out in the VFW, though we are veterans of a different kind of war. You don’t have to speak of your trauma to have it understood. You can really only joke about the Nam if you have been there and lived through it. We all were in the shit together, and that is why when one of us makes inappropriate jokes about our dead babies, we are the only ones who get it. Anytime you begin a statement, “See, that was funny because…” you have completely nullified any possibility of humor. And, well, I’ll admit I have said that more than once this past year as I tried to describe a funny dead baby blog post to someone outside of this community.

In the in-between time of finding out via ultrasound that my daughter’s heart had stopped and giving birth, I spent twenty-four excruciating hours in the labor and delivery wing of a hospital that births over five thousand babies a year. At some point, during the pitocin drip, I begged for television’s mindless comfort to drown out the occasional scream of newborn baby. “If there is any justice in the world, Raising Arizona will be somewhere on cable today.” It was three days before Christmas. It was all touching welcome home stories, angels, Christmas trees, and gift-giving. Bloody hell. Reminiscing less than a year later, what was I thinking? I was literally hanging all my hope on a comedy about infertility, baby kidnapping and loss. But maybe I was searching those channels for something to remind me of what I was twelve hours earlier, what I could be again—someone irreverent, goofy and light. Somewhere someone was making light of the shit life has to offer a young couple. I wanted to memorialize the visage of who I once was. And yet, isn’t that part of what we lose? You know, besides our babies, some of our friends, our safety, our belief in a just universe, our semblance of normalcy, our joie de vivre—we lose our levity.

The truth of it is I lived months of torture—grieving my child, keening into the abyss, swirling in dead seriousness, literally. I must have laughed in those early weeks, but I cannot remember doing so. I stopped searching out humor. Every priest walking into a bar no longer indicates the beginning of a joke, but everyone’s inherent need for a stiff drink. I just surrounded myself with the heaviness of my life. I read memoirs of grief and loss, watched movies with maudlin titles and sadder endings. Even small talk had the power to floor me. An off-the-cuff joke or light comment had the weight to disable me for days on end. Flippant comments about how hard it is to parent two stung like someone called me fat and stupid in the same breath. I used to be able to make small talk, participate and blab on about nothing in particular. Suddenly, small talk felt like daggers on every inch of my bruised soul. I couldn’t fake or conjure levity; it just remained an unattainable goal.

Upon reflection, what I was really saying in the first minutes after finding out my daughter was dead, what I was immediately beginning to miss about my personality, was my lightness of being. Would I ever be funny again? Could I crack a joke at my own expense? I have a sacred cow now. Something I will never think is funny. There are no such thing as a funny dead baby joke to me, just cruelty by people who have no idea. I have one thing now that no one, no matter what kind of shocking comedian they are, will mention at my roast in forty years.

Now more than eleven months later, I am finding room in my grief for humor—not humor in my daughter’s death, but humor in my life. When people say time heals, I absolutely disagree. Time doesn’t heal. Time changes grief. It allows for space. Time allows for levity. And that brings its own kind of comfort.

* Monica asked me to contribute a column for Exhale Magazine under the issue theme of levity. Exhale is going through some internal changes and the next issue will come out in January. I have been thinking about this topic so much since I wrote it, I wanted to share it here first and find out what you think about levity.


  1. My dad has told me that his nearly immediate response after I had called my parents from the hospital to report the news, was to turn to my mom and say 'she'll never laugh again'. He's been relieved to know that I still can laugh, but his remark was awfully prescient.

  2. Just yesterday, Alan and I realized that although we have had many pleasant moments in the last few months, we are hard pressed to remember the last time we had any actual fun. You nailed it, Ang.

  3. i laugh, but not like i used to. there is a photo of myself at my wedding, dancing with my husband, and we're both laughing. and a picture of myself laughing at my baby shower. i wont ever laugh like that again.

    i agree, you nailed it.

  4. i can really relate to this post angie. i have definitely lost my lightness of being too. i can get so triggered by the slightest things- what someone says or doesn't say to me, even the way they smile at me or hug me. small talk, stupid comments, all of it can still send me off for a while.

    time doesn't heal but does change our grief. and in the last few months or so i've noticed that i can go from being triggered, angry and sad one day to smiling, laughing and even feeling a little bit like my old self again.


  5. ps. but it is true, as beth said, it is not the same kind of laughter or smile i once had. i also look at old photos and think about how joyful i was, never suspecting my first born baby would die. the layer of sadness and grief is mixed in with the smiles always.

  6. For me in the early weeks, I did laugh and have fun at times but I couldn't understand how I could do that. I felt like everyone else was sadder than I was. Shock was protecting me from the pain. Shocks gone now.
    My friend had a party for her little girls 1st birthday. While we were there her husband was telling us about how his daughter loves playing with her dolls but one doll in particular is so life like a few times he had walked past their lounge room and thought there was a dead baby on the floor. As soon as the words were out of his mouth you could see he just wanted the ground to swallow him up. I felt sorry and bad for him. But yeah, dead baby jokes aren't funny.

  7. Brilliant post, Angie. I find that while I actually laugh an all-out laugh much less often, it's a deeper, bigger, completely different laugh than before. I guess it makes sense, life is lived more at the extremes. I may laugh harder, but I cry harder too.

  8. This post is hitting the nail on the head! Sometimes I feel like my laughter sounds so desperate nowadays. As if I need to convince myself that I am having oh so much fun. That I can have my easy life back.

    But in the end our levity is gone. Forever. And it doesn't help when people say things like: Just let go of the grief and have a good time. If it only would be that easy...

  9. I laugh and smile but if you look at pictures of me, the smile doesn't reach my eyes like it used eyes are still very sad and hold a lot of pain...I doubt that will ever change.

  10. Great post.

    I can laugh, and remember having good times just four or five months after our daughter died, but I also recall coming straight back down to earth either during or shortly after these spells of merriment.

    Nearly a year on, these corrections can still happen anytime, though maybe not as sharp as before.

  11. I think I've always been somewhat on the serious side (or perhaps taken myself too seriously) but I think I understand that horror of being the 'walking bummer.' A sense that I would now have to be solemn and dress in black for the remainder of my days.

    In the immediate aftermath, I had several people enquire after the 'wrong' twin. Which always resulted in the solemn response 'still dead' and for some reason, this always cracked me and my husband up. I guess sometimes you just have to laugh.

    But levity as opposed to gallows humour. Hmmmm, still lacking. Or more lacking than I would like it to be. I suppose it is one of those elusive qualities. If you try too desperately to grab at those moments, you just end up squashing them.

    What a lovely post. I'm glad you are finding humour returning to your life.

  12. Levity- that is a new word for me, I actually had to look it up! As others have said, you've nailed it right on the head. There is laughter still, but there is heaviness in my heart that makes everything different now.

  13. I can smile and laugh but like MK said, in photos that smile doesn't reach my eyes. I miss that.

  14. So many things you've said in this post resonated with me, Angie. Everything from thinking, oh God, can we ever feel happy again to feeling only other dead baby mummas get me to your last point that time doesn't magically erase your's all so true. We like to laugh but sometimes right after I laugh I think of our babyloss and cry. Like Beth says, looking at photos from our life before our baby died I feel as though I'll never be that person again. Beautifully written.

  15. I think that this post is so true to the experience of losing oneself in the loss of their child. I don't remember laughing in the early days, I do remember people telling me over and over that to laugh would not be doing an injustice to Peyton. I hated them for that, for thinking I, as a grieving mother, was making a choice about how to feel. You don't control your grief, your grief controls you. It tells you when it is okay to laugh. It tells you when you can take a full breath. I think that this post/column is perfect as is. Exhale readers, I am sure, will too. I so wish it was possible to laugh the way we did before all this loss, I don't think it is possible though. That woman, the one before the death of her child, she doesn't exist anymore, and the one who has come to replace her, well, her perspective makes it more difficult to find moments of humor.

  16. This is great, Angie. Thanks for bringing this little piece of Exhale levity here. Nice way to start off my morning.

  17. Isn't it weird how these thoughts seem to be universal at these momemnts? Thanks for hitting the nail on the head.


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