Friday, March 20, 2009

The strong one

There is a certain expectation of men in society regarding emotion. Crying is certainly not allowed, and showing sadness is a sign of weakness. Growing up, I was told that it was okay to show emotion, yet it was not particularly well demonstrated by the male role model in my family, my dad. When things went well, sure, he was great at displaying positive emotion, but I can't really remember seeing him sad. He does admit now that he was a bit emotionally distant during my childhood. Apparently it has something to do with being in an alcoholic family. It's not particularly relevant right now though. Society in general expects the man to be the strong one for his family during tragedy, so it's not like I was raised with any unusual values.

When it became obvious that our baby was going to die, I started trying to build up my strength to  be able to get through this situation as the strong one. Believe me when I say I am not known for holding up well during stressful or awful situations. Inability to handle day to day stress has plagued me for many years, and only last fall did I finally start taking anxiety medication to make life seem less overwhelming. Knowing how poorly I handle bad situations made me believe that if I ever lost a child I would pretty much go completely insane. My kids are my purpose in life. I never thought I could survive without one of them. It never occurred to me that this form of tragedy would strike with a new baby. So when Sydney's death became imminent, I resolved that I would not fall apart. I would be the man I needed to be and keep my family going for my wife and my other two children's sake.

This was a monumental error on my part. By trying to remain "strong" and force a sense of normalcy on my family, I both created the illusion that I was an uncaring bastard to my wife and robbed myself of precious grieving time. It occurs to me now that in my greatest intentions to help my family, I flopped miserably. Don't get me wrong. I did what I set out to do. I made myself normal for the most part. I held it all in and kept things going, sort of. I was able to tell my children myself that Sydney had died without breaking down too badly. I was actually proud of myself for being able to do it myself. I never thought I could be strong enough to handle that kind of responsibility. What I didn't realize was that it wasn't strength. I was merely holding back the emotions. I was stuffing a blue whale-sized amount of pain into a hat box. This has serious repercussions that I'm paying for right now.

Once we left the hospital for the last time, I felt like a different person, like a bucket of water had been thrown onto the fire of my emotions. At the hospital I was very emotional. Every time I saw my poor Sydney I couldn't help but break down knowing there was no life left in that little body. And knowing that I would never get the chance to do all the great and not so great fatherly tasks just made it worse. Yet the change when we left the hospital was instant. I almost thought I had left my suffering behind. Not even close.

The first signs of my "strength" waning were actually physical. My mother says great amounts of stress and depression can take its toll on your immune system. Well, now I believe her because a week and a half after Sydney died I got pneumonia in my right lung. I've never had it before, and it pretty came out of nowhere. It also had the wonderful timing of hitting me right as I was supposed to go back to work on Sunday. As unpleasant as having pneumonia was, part of me was relieved. I couldn't go back to work until Wednesday. I could stay home another couple days. Part of me was also annoyed. Work was just the distraction I had been hoping for, even though I wasn't thrilled at the thought of not being at home for my wife.

More signs of the emotional wall cracking were more crying fits, more angry outbursts, a greater desire to be alone, and deeper depression. My grief had built up inside me and was shooting out of the cracks in my "strong man" illusion. Unfortunately, by this time I had gone back to work. Day to day life had picked back up. I didn't have time to mourn now. I had work, and taking care of the kids, and trying to tidy up the house a bit. My wife had gone back to work, and she puts in way more hours than I do as well as go to school, so most of the domestic stuff falls to me. So when I wanted to be alone, I couldn't because I had to make dinner. When I wanted to have a crying fit, I couldn't because I was at work and they don't really like that kind of thing there oddly enough. When my depression wanted to take over and I just wanted to sleep, I had to get some laundry done or pick my wife up from work. So again, I had to either keep my grieving limited, or just stuff it back down again.

And that's where I am now. This blog is one way I've decided to start releasing those feelings. And trust me, the wall of text above is helping quite a bit. However, I still feel rather limited in when I can tackle my feelings head on. Working at a major department store like Sears means I have to deal with people with new babies quite a bit, not to mention my own "danger zone," the baby department. I want to run and hide when I have to deal with these things, but I can't. And if I do, I have to have a good reason, like looking for stuff in the stock rooms or going on lunch break. Overall, though, a lot of my emotions have had to stay bottled up inside. If only I had two more weeks to do nothing but feel.

My wife was pretty much convinced that I was "over it" and just didn't care anymore. She didn't think I still felt pain. When it started coming out, she was skeptical. I don't blame her. I did a lousy job of sharing our sorrow. I thought it would help her. I didn't want to burden her with my misery too. I've learned since then that my misery actually helps her not feel quite so alone. Now I feel like a moron.

If any dads in this situation actually made it to the end of this post, my advice to you is grieve your baby. Let the feelings out. They won't go away, and they'll eat you alive. They will threaten to destroy your life if you let them. Your wife or girlfriend wants to know how you feel, and wants to share your pain. It will make her sad, but it will also comfort her more than you could understand. It will also make returning to your "normal" life a smoother process. Trust someone who botched it up good doing the opposite.

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