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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tertiary Mourning

After I finished reading Elizabeth McCracken's book, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, I felt very quiet. We had planned on watching either Love Actually or About a Boy after I finished the final few chapters and now suddenly that plan felt very wrong.

The only thing I could relate this stillness to were two deaths that occurred in our community.

The first was the death of Zoe, Allison's daughter. She had already lost Lennox. I remember reading the news and then going down into the basement where Josh was watching a movie or sports. I stood there for a moment and just stared at him and then I said, "Zoe died. Allison lost Zoe." And we both just stared at each other and then I started crying.

The second was the death of Devin, Natalie's son. I can still remember all the small steps that brought her to that night. First she was on the blogroll under "in the beginning." And then she was doing IUIs. And then it was IVF. And finally, the night I learned about Devin death, it was raining very hard. We had been to a craft store to buy stickers and we came home completely drenched. We had walked through puddles and we were all shivering. I had plans to write the Roundup after the twins went to bed and instead, I wrote the news that I had just read. I sat in the living room, crying while looking at this shaded window. It just seemed unreal.

And this is the deeper point; the mourning for a child you not only don't know but a mother far removed. Yes, I know Allison and Natalie in the sense that we chat via email and I read their blogs and I would feel comfortable allowing either to stay at my place without worrying that they were really axe-murders. I know these strange intimate details from reading their blogs and yet, we all collectively admit, we don't really know each other with the exception of those who climb through the computer screen into our real lives--such as the TOOTPU women for me.

There are the primary mourners--the parents--and there are the secondary mourners--their friends and family. And then there are the rest of us--the tertiary mourners who simply don't know what to do with these huge emotions we feel at hearing such terrible news except to write it out in a blog post, place a candle on the sidebar, send a letter through the mail, make a donation in someone's name.

How can we not cry or feel quiet in the face of such tremendous grief? I think it not only comes from transporting ourselves to that terrible space; testing out the grief on our own life, feeling for a moment how it would feel to be the carrier of such horrific events (because we do that instinctively--it is why we stare at car accidents, I think we're trying to take in the details so we can paint an accurate mental image of our own personalized imaginary car accidents) but also truly a collective heart. When you care enough to take the time to read the story, to commit yourself to reading post after post (or, in the case of McCracken's book, page after page), you come to a place of true affection. And it breaks my heart to think that someone I wished well did not receive my cosmic request.

What can I say about McCracken's book except to say that it was gorgeous. It literally ached. It was beautiful. It hit its mark perfectly--to show a happy life where someone is also missing. And it made me feel incredibly quiet for her.

It is the next selection for the Barren Bitches Book Club. The sign-up post is below this one, so please scroll down if you wish to join along. Safety in numbers and this is definitely a book that benefits from reading it together rather than alone.

What are your thoughts on tertiary mourning? What is the place of the tertiary mourner? As someone grieving, how do you view the tertiary mourners?


Martha said...

Beautiful, heartwrenching, aching in its' truth post.
I have been an tertiary mourner and created true connections of support. I think of tertiary mourning as honoring our common humanity, offering a hand, a small gesture of comfort in dark times, the "kindness of strangers" as Mr.Tennessee Williams put it. It is a privilege and honor I do not take lightly, but I give freely.

I have been the recipient of tertiary mourning, twenty four years ago (Pre Internet, well pretty much Pre PC!), when all 35 of my college classmates from a Critical Thinking class signed a sympathy card for the death of my brother and mailed it to my home.
My parents and I were incredibly moved, still are even after all this time.
I think tertiary mourners are the Greek Chorus of our tragedy, our comedy too.

Alexa said...

I LOVED Elizabeth McCracken's book. Loved it, loved it, loved it. I've read it three times now, and I am really excited to read all of the posts it inspires.

As far as tertiary mourning goes...I know I have talked about this before, but seeing the posts pop up on other blogs after Ames died--and reading the comments people left on mine--helped me so much. Not only did it remind me how supported I was at a time when I felt very alone, but for me, when something terrible happens, there is a sense of unreality. It can be incredibly disorienting, especially when it seems like the rest of the world is just chugging along as usual. Seeing other people react (or rather reading other people react) assured me that yes, this had really happened, Ames had been real and he had died. That probably sounds crazy, but there you go. And it has helped me just in the last week or so, as I creep up on some difficult anniversaries--no one in my real life, with the exception of my husband, has made any mention of last year, and it is comforting to know that there is a community of people who remember with me.

And I have mourned for others as well. I still check Mary Ellen's site, and wonder about her. And Zoe's death, as you mentioned, was absolutely gutting. And there are a few other bloggers I have followed who had similar stories to mine, but lost BOTH twins, and I think of them often, and feel so much sorrow--and, if I'm honest, guilt--for all they have been through that I was spared.

Oh my, I didn't mean to hijack your comment section. I guess I just wanted to say that at least for me, as someone on the other side of the tertiary mourning, that mourning really means something. So thank you.

I'll stop now.

Rachel said...

Your post really touched my heart. The tertiary mourner, that is what I feel like has become my job, I just didn't have a title for it.

Hillary said...

What a beautiful post! I think you put words to feelings that I've often felt silly for having/displaying because I didn't really "know" the person. Like going to a man's funeral (whom I had never really interacted with) at church because I just wanted to be part of the support community... but then balling my eyes for him because of all of the lovely things said about him and knew how much his family was hurting. At the time I wanted to hide my tears because I was not a "true mourner". Thank you for putting words to the powerful way we can share grief with others.

Kristin said...

What a beautiful post. Since finding the ALI blog community, not only have I been a tertiary mourner but I have also been a tertiary celebrant. Like you said, when you care enough to read, how can you not care enough to mourn or celebrate with them.

I like what Martha said..."I think tertiary mourners are the Greek Chorus of our tragedy, our comedy too."

Lindsay said...

I echo Kristin's idea that we are not only tertiary mourners but also celebrants. At the heart of our community we are eachother's unchosen family. I say unchosen because you never know who will stumble upon your blog and offer that one bit of kindness, or laughter or wisdom that keeps you true to your journey. By keeping a blog, you're opening a door to others. You just never know who will walk through. And that is the beauty of all of this.

Thanks Mel for your post and inspiring us to think more on our role in each other's lives.

Julia said...

I think this community mostly contains people who are tertiary mourners in a real sense that you describe. I have been, on many occasions, grateful for the comments from tertiary mourners, and in turn I try to be there for primary mourners as they walk their individual paths. Sharing experiences, affirming that the child, the baby I've never met, mattered and matters, just listening, just being there to share the darkness. This, to some degree, recapitulates the validation inherent in the communal aspects of mourning (such as, for some of us, the minyan required for saying Kaddish would be in real life) in cases where many in society, society itself in large part, do not consider the person lost worthy of mourning. Or a person.

On the other hand there are people (not usually in this community-- and my examples are from a different place altogether) who are not good at being a tertiary mourner. These are usually friends/acquaintances of the primary mourner in real life who says the dumbest things in person or on the blog. Things that all boil down to "I hope you feel better soon because it hurts me so to see you in pain." See the problem? The emphasis is on self-- please feel better so I don't have to feel bad, so that my world is neat and orderly and just once again. Well, dumbass, I am sorry for bumming you out. Think it's fun being me right now?

Ahem... sorry about that. I just get a bit worked up about these faux tertiary mourners. I think they cause real harm. What's going on in your head as you grieve is bad enough. To have someone also place responsibility on you for making them feel better is just too much.

niobe said...

I've gotten a lot more support and comfort from tertiary mourners than secondary mourners.

Friends and family, in many cases, are too invested in getting things back to normal, in making the relationship the way it was before the Bad Thing happened. Friends and family, in many cases, pull away or become angry that the mourner isn't getting over it quickly enough.

Of course, a mourner expects more from friends and family, so their job is more difficult.

A mourner generally expects little or nothing from tertiary mourners, because their pre-loss relationship was more limited or even non-existent. I know that I was amazed and grateful when an acquaintance or coworker or drive-by commenter or emailer said or did anything at all.

calliope said...

amazing and touching post. You say it so well.

I sometimes worry that I mourn more than is appropriate for internet friends. As if I shouldn't impose myself on their grief. But you express this emotional connection we all have to each other so perfectly.

Thank you.

Erin said...

Tertiary mourning--that's exactly it. I often find blogs popping into my heads at random moments, wondering how the writer is doing, wishing that it hadn't happened (when talking about mourning), and wishing I knew something more to do beyond a note on a blog, a candle on the sidebar, etc.

I think that being a tertiary mourner has actually helped me be a better secondary mourner as well. I've had more words for people, been able to show more support, and not been so afraid to ask how the person was doing for fear of upsetting them (something I used to do; how ridiculous, of course they were already upset. Sometimes talking about it helps). I've had several friends IRL who've had miscarriages. Before, I might have only said "I'm sorry" (and might have added a completely inappropriate "At least was early" or "You can try again"--shudder), now I say "I'm so very sorry. I know how hard it is, and how much you already loved the baby. Is there anything I can do? Do you want to talk?" And then I listen or do whatever they need.

While I wish there were no mourning, I'm honored that people share their stories with us, and hope that the little words that I can give from so far away can help a little. And I thank all of them for helping me be a better friend to the people I do know IRL.

m said...

I have found so much comfort in peace among this community in the last few days. Our gain/loss is still so fresh and it is hard for me to interact with people IRL. Especially those like Julia and Niobe mention, that (knowingly or unknowingly) transfer the grief away from you and back to themselves (gosh mom, I'm really SORRY you have a headache from crying and gee dad, I'm feeling really BAD that you got up at the crack of dawn to drive down here so you can sit in my hospital room and tell me how much warmer it is in Delaware...)

Needless to say, I don't know what I would do without you as tertiary mourners, in fact, saying tertiary makes it feel more removed than it really is. I still remember Zoe's death and how it touched me so deeply then, and frankly, I have been going back to those posts over and over again to gain strength and understanding for myself now.

I completely agree with Alexa. I have been shocked at the number of comments that have come on to my site. I read every single one. And seeing them does help, in exactly the way that she describes.

All of this to say thank you. For mourning with us, for celebrating with us, for helping me through this moment. I know I am not alone.

Allison said...

Goodness! Not the post I was expecting when I checked in last night. It took me awhile just to be able to read past the first three paragraphs.

I can honestly say I'm not sure I would have survived those early months without the true tertiary mourners. Even now, when things hit particularly hard, this community is often one of the first places I turn. There is a quality to this shared experience of ours that has generated a level of empathy so deep. Even if you haven't gone through the loss of a pregnancy or infant, I think the loss of innocence, of normalcy that struggling to build a family gives an insight into the more extreme grief that "normals" don't have.

For me, though, the most important thing is that it means that Lennox and Zoe are not forgotten. Because everyone shared in the journey to create them and the ups and downs of my 24 weeks of pregnancy and then bore witness to Lennox's two days and cheered every little milestone Zoe hit before she lost her battle means that they still go on because all of you remember and understand.

I guess I've been lucky to not have too many encounters with the faux mourners.

Today, of all days, thank you all for all you did and all you do. I'm particularly missing Zoe and Lennox these days, today especially.

Kalei said...

i am visiting through Martha and I couldn't agree more. I recently had a co-worker that was using me too much as his counsel when his sister was murdered. I found that I became so affected and depressed about his loss, beyond that of a sympathetic by-stander.

MrsSpock said...

I feel a responsibility as a tertiary mourner to comment on a blog, and then continue to do so long afterwards. It seems that there is usually a huge influx of support after a terrible event, and then it dwindles down as weeks and even months pass. I think of widows who want their loss to be remembered 6 months after the loss, but everyone else has moved on. I try to fulfill that wish by hanging in there and continuing to comment later.

Stacie said...

Beautifully said, Mel. (ug. I have so much I want to say, but I can't seem to get the words out. just know that this post touched me deeply.)

Dora said...

Beautiful post, Mel. It seems several of us are thinking similarly this week.

Totally agree with Mrs Sprock's comment. Don't go away. Grief has its own screwed up timetable.

Tara said...

This is a beautiful post, Mel. I am a tertiary mourner today - maybe you know her over at Infertile Ground. My heart aches for my blog friends. I feel like I have such a connection to these women who I may never meet in real life. Thank you for explaining exactly how I feel but have not been able to articulate!

I'm in for the next book brigade.

Waiting Amy said...

I too think you expressed this dynamic so very well. I've been so touched by those who supported me in times of difficulty, and there are many that I still try to keep tabs on and support.

I loved what Martha said -- the Greek chorus -- so perfect.

luna said...

this is a lovely and important post, mel. I wished I had the blogosphere when we lost our son. but I know the support of women from the boards I visited then was critical at the time. true though, when it tapers off and people move on, grief continues to be a lonely process...

I do feel that having my own space to re-tell the story and process the lingering effects is important. as I said today, writing is just a part of that. having others remember with me -- even though they didn't even know me then -- is incredibly powerful and affirming. I think knowing that others are abiding, even virtually, can have a profound effect on the grieving. saying a name, lighting a candle, holding someone close in your thoughts and heart...

that said, I do agree that there can be unintended harm when people try to say things that are not particularly helpful. I've also heard others say it upsets them that 100s of people only know them because their children died. who wants to be "that" person, you kwim?

I think the hardest thing for me was hearing from others how it would get easier when they had gone on to have other children and I could not. my ongoing grief for my son was compounded by grieving my fertility with each failed cycle... there was just no comfort to be found...

excavator said...

Hi, Mel. What an interesting concept, tertiary mourning.

I know that experience you describe, of becoming very quiet inside when reading someone's tragic, heartbreaking post.

For a time I worried about it being voyeuristic of me to go to those blogs. But I didn't feel like my motive was sensationalistic; rather I felt "called".

It was later that it came to me that we 'tertiary mourners' have a very important and complementary place in the scheme of human emotion: we bear witness. As someone who has also grieved I think that there is immeasurable peace in knowing that someone Sees. Where as a mourner I may feel uncomfortable with the length of my process (for the people immediately around us get 'over it' so much more quickly than us, the primary mourners, and may expect a similar recovery from us. And then we find ourselves out of step in our communities.), but the online community is a safe place to take the time I need.

As you were saying Mel, the online friendships are very unique. I think it's as close to telepathy as we humans may get, to experience this intimacy through our thoughts. (I met an email pal this summer. We'd corresponded for at least a year. It was so interesting to finally meet this woman and technically be 'strangers'--it almost felt like a blind date-- yet know each other so well.

The internet has expanded our pool of opportunities for empathy and empathic communication. It gives us an opportunity to See, and be Seen in ways we long for, but often aren't available in the people around us (well intentioned as they may be.).

I'm about to go to your post to sign up for reading Elizabeth McCracken's book.

Bea said...

Great post. I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes the tertiary mourners were the only mourners, so perhaps there should be a different name. But I know exactly what you mean, and that these mourners were/are so very important.