Though I make all of my reading public online, my friends and family largely ignore it, and I’m grateful for that. Thus, I do frequently get asked what I’m reading by people I know personally. When people have posed this question recently, I’ve had to awkwardly respond that, during this very unsettling time in the world, I’ve chosen to pick up a grief memoir.
Still: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Motherhood was written by a mother whose son’s heart stopped beating the day before his due date. Then, on his exact due date, a day they eagerly anticipated they would be ushering a new addition into the world, Hansen delivered a stillborn baby.
Shortly thereafter on Emma’s blog, on which she had shared many details of their preparations for arrival of their son, named Reid ahead of time, she had to break to the news to her readership. She titled the post Born Still, but Still Born and it quickly went viral. A large number of women used the comments section to express condolences, but also to share their own experiences with stillbirth, a far more common occurrence than people may realize.
Hansen uses this book to tell her story, explain her grief process, and to honor Reid’s memory. In the aftermath, she chooses to study to become both a yoga instructor and a doula. She initiates the project #ninemonthswithreid, taking photos for Instagram over the nine months after his passing at significant locations where the expectant parents (as well as their friends and family) shared memories during Hansen’s pregnancy. As best as she can, she finds ways to cope. To forget, but also, more critically, to remember.
I doubt it would surprise anyone to acknowledge how heartbreaking this book is. The actual event happens early in the book and it’s beyond difficult to see this family go through something so unimaginable. A perfectly healthy pregnancy, a deeply wanted child. It seems like something so profoundly unfair that the universe shouldn’t allow it.
Reading a book like this during such a dark moment for our world is an odd choice, I admit. I got the review copy before the virus even took hold of patient zero and no one would have blamed me (or, frankly, noticed) if I silently gave it a pass. But not for one moment have I regretted sharing this experience with Hansen.
As I was browsing Twitter the other day (a horrible pastime, I don’t recommend it), I found an article entitled That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief. In it, the author suggests precisely what the title says: we’re all mourning right now. People are dying. Livelihoods have been lost. The economy is in free fall. People are going hungry. Small businesses have shuttered, some never to reopen. Families are separated. Everything exciting or promising has been cancelled. And we’re all deeply, deeply afraid while we look at the window and wonder if the world is ever going to be the same.
Toward the end of her book, Hansen notes, correctly, that dealing with grief isn’t something most of us (in the West, at least) are taught how to do:
Within my North American, largely non-religious culture, there’s so much discomfort around dealing with grief, and the death that brought it. I don’t understand why there is so little to assist us to feel it, carry it, and heal through it, and so much to help us ignore it. Movies that glamorize pain and substances to help numb it, rules put in place to eradicate the possibility of grief talk from our communities, no mention of death or loss in school systems. I don’t know why there is a lack of education about how to have a comforting conversation or give physical and emotional support when someone has suffered a loss.
And so, even after losing one of the most important people in my life two years ago, I stand frozen in the face of grief once again, unsure how to cope. I am, of course, worried for my life and the lives of the people I love, but I am heartbroken for all of us. I am furious that we lack the structures to protect people right now. I broke down in uncontrollable tears seeing news coverage of the lines at food bank in my city, my beautiful city of Pittsburgh, being inundated with people and stretching for miles.
I feel as though, most of all, we’re all grieving the before. You’ll hear many people say, “I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.” There are signs all over my city saying, “we’ll get through this, Pittsburgh!” Indeed, the lucky of us will, but we’ll be facing a much different world on the other side.
There is something comforting in sharing an emotional experience with another. Though I often feel like part robot, I am not immune to many normal human impulses. Reading Still in this moment of grief, allowing myself to feel the surge of emotions this time is stirring, felt like companionship. It felt like sharing a deep connection through loss. Not the same kind of loss on both sides, but loss nonetheless.