The Unplanned Grief



We often associate it with death – death of a loved one, a friend, a pet - even. We never consider that grief could hit us when we lose a part of ourselves.

I still remember the visceral reaction I had while reading Sheryl Sanberg’s book, “Option B.” In this self-help book, Sanberg takes us through the sudden loss of her husband and the slow, heart-wrenching healing that followed. Her main message: life doesn’t always go as planned but we have to rock the heck out of option B. Not even 20 pages into the book, I recognized her pain immediately. My reaction was a huge gasp aloud, followed by the kind of tears that come with pellucid clarity. For so many months, I struggled to name the emptiness I felt pitting my insides but I never imagined it would be called grief. I realized in that moment that my issue wasn’t the grappling of my unknown future but instead with a loss of the future I imagined I would have. Similar to a breakup, I too had to let go of a life I’d planned out in my head and accept the life I carried in my belly.

In accepting new change, something has to die. It sounds a little morbid, I know, but with the realization that there’s a part of us or a part of our plans or expectations we have to let go of, comes peace. After I became pregnant, I felt the deep loss of some of my freedom, my control, the trajectory of life that I’d imagined for myself. I never once considered this feeling of total loss (mixed with something new to fill that void) was grief. We often associate grief with death – death of a loved one, a friend, a pet - even. We never consider that grief could hit us when we lose a part of ourselves. Think about the grief we experience after a sudden or difficult break up. If the relationship was serious enough, we probably envisioned a future with this person – maybe an infinite future. But when that relationship ends, that vision we shaped so thoughtfully and diligently over time is shattered in an instant. And all at once, we’re left with no vision at all – and that’s the hard part. As humans, we’re innately story tellers. Our brains release endorphins when we make connections, when we connect one piece of a story to the next, when we can come up with the beginning, the middle, and especially the end. When our brains recognize a complete story – start to finish – it rewards itself with hormones like serotonin (the happy hormone). And needless to say, when I became pregnant, every nook and cranny of the story of my life I was telling myself was shattered.

The Research

In the history of psychology, grief has been hard to diagnose and treat. Most of psychological research is based on grief as it relates to literal death but the complexity of every person and circumstance is where psychologists get stuck. But how does this apply to the kind of grief I’m talking about? A brief history and what we understand today about grief.

In the history of psychology, grief has been hard to diagnose and treat. Most of psychological research is based on grief as it relates to literal death but the complexity of every person and circumstance is where psychologist get stuck. But how does this apply to the kind of grief I’m talking about? It still applies in many ways but its slightly different since the loss of a human is tangible and the loss of an expectation is intangible. Let's take a look at what I’ve found. One of the most notable psychologists on this topic, after Freud coined the term “grief-work” - which I’ll come back to later -is Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1969) . She came up with a five stage model of grieving including: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Though this model became popular for processing grief, it’s worth noting that she wrote this during a study on bereavement where she focused on the processing of someone facing their own death, not the death of another. Regardless of that detail, she kicked off an era between the 1970s to 1990s where grief became understood as a “process” or “journey” to be conquered, and in many cases even an opportunity for growth. These phases, stages and task models became popular because they offered those who were grieving a sense of predicability and manageability over their grief. Freud’s 1917/1957 theory of “grief-work,” which argues that a person must spend a period of time working through the memories, thoughts and emotions related to their grief (and also that we must detach the lost person from our ego and reattach to a new person) has also been widely thrown out because grief today isn’t popularly accepted as a “project.” Alas, we all want control and an end in sight but as it turns out, grief is a lot more complex than that. Today, researchers recognize that grief can be influenced by a number of outside factors including: personality, experience and culture. Some people are actually benefited by suppressing these emotions and filling the void with distraction (see Attachment Theory) but this depends on attachment style. So where do we net out? In a 2011 article by Time Magazine which sets out to debunk myths around grief, they concluded, “Instead of rushing to prescribe ways to grieve, it would be more helpful to spread a different, more liberating message based on what the science is beginning to tell us: that most people are resilient enough to get through loss on their own without stages or phases or tasks.” They also pull 2002 data from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that finds the worst period of grief only lasts about six months. And despite popular belief, grief affects men more than women.

How I processed grief

I tend to agree that there is no direct path to processing grief. In my experience of mapping out the different phases of emotions I experienced over the course of my pregnancy, I found that that my processing didn’t exactly move linearly. While I did follow a pattern of shock to fear to abandonment to anger to acceptance to strength and joy, some of these emotions crept back up later in my pregnancy and even after I’d had Renley. My letting go of a need to control came in many waves - first in accepting the reality of being pregnant and then in accepting that I needed help and couldn’t move on so quickly. Pregnancy and postpartum motherhood also complicates processing because so many hormones are in play. There were also personal relationship and environmental factors that played a role in my processing.

So how did I deal with all of this emotional processing? Mostly, I refused to bury it. With a due date on the calendar, I became intent on understanding my emotions so I could prepare for Renley’s arrival. It’s funny to say that now because it’s almost impossible to prepare for the arrival of your first child yet I recognize that leaning into what you’re feeling is mostly important (I say mostly because it’s also important not to become totally absorbed and fixated on what you’re feeling).

Here are a couple of my learnings:

I had to accept this new reality.

"There is no reason to borrow struggles from tomorrow or the future. Just do what must be done today, and all will be well."

Present suffering is real pain we experience now and perceived suffering is the pain we anticipate tomorrow. We're given the grace to handle today's difficulty but tomorrow's worries (the stuff we anticipate but may never happen) is the suffering that overwhelms and collapses us. We can only focus on the present.

Read: i had to accept this new reality
I read this quote in my tiny book of reflections and it reminded me of some of the best advice I’ve ever received. During the beginning of my pregnancy I was completely overwhelmed with the news. How could I bring a baby into this world? How could I overcome this stress and anxiety? How could I handle all that the future will bring? As I was asking these questions, my head spinning after the shock wore off, a good friend helped me differentiate between present and perceived suffering. Present suffering is real pain we experience now and perceived suffering is the pain we anticipate tomorrow. We're given the grace to handle today's difficulty but tomorrow's worries (the stuff we anticipate but may never happen) is the suffering that overwhelms and collapses us. That's the suffering we can't handle and for that reason, we can only focus on the present.

By focusing on the present, I started to accept what was happening - to my body, to my heart, to my mind. I recognized that the more I focused on what if, the more I stayed stuck in the future that would never take place - which is internal torture. I focused on dismissing the unnecessary fears of today, praying into a place of calmness and reminding myself that I could not change what was happening so I might as well embrace it.

I had to work through the anger

Anger was one of the toughest emotions to tackle because it was linked directly to a lack of forgiveness towards self. It turns out that anger, for me, stemmed from a want to go back in time to control and change the past. It took me a long time to forgive myself for a past I couldn’t change.

Read: I HAD TO work through the anger

This was a tough one. A few months into my pregnancy, I started to become really angry. If I could pinpoint the anger, it was mostly that I couldn’t change the past, I couldn’t change my present circumstances, and I was angry at myself for making choices that led me to that point. I was angry that I had to give up my freedom before I was ready. On March 6th, I journaled:

A part of me wants to scream and cry and run with the fact that I am giving up this life that I love. What is the point of crying over a realty that is?

In reality, my life wasn’t all that wonderful. I lived in a beautiful place and did beautiful things but I still struggled with all the non-beautiful things. I was lost, unsure of my passion, disenchanted with my job. But I was mostly angry that I was alone and unwanted. A mentor at the time reminded me that feeling the full spectrum of human emotions at the time was very normal. He also reminded me that this journey would not be without suffering and the sooner I recognized it, the easier it would be. I made this my focus for months.

I also discovered something profound during this part of the journey. I realized that I sourced joy in the future, rather than in the present. Everything that brought me joy in life were these imagined “possibilities” of what could be. When I looked out at the ocean, I thought of the places I could visit or the national parks I could camp in. When I looked at my job, I imagined the way I could position myself best for the next one. Even in my day to day, I imagined all the creativity I could conjure and the things I could create - setting the expectation so high for myself that I could never reach it. Most of my happiness was perceived, not found in the present moment. I think going through my pregnancy was one of the only things that could have made me realize this because I was forced to focus on the present, and not the future. The future was completely blank in my mind. So my perspective shifted and I spent over a year relearning what it means to find joy, which slowly undid my anger.

I had to accept that I was enough.

With forgiveness came the need to accept that I was enough. I had to remind myself every day that I was strong, that I had courage, that I could continuing stepping forward for the little girl in my womb. With every day of my pregnancy, I learned that I was enough.

Read: I had to accept that I was enough
Naturally, I blamed myself for what happened. I was careless, I ignored red flags and I thought I was impervious to this type of situation. And with blame, comes insecurity. In ways, I felt unlovable, uncool and sort of like I had a third arm. At this point, I wasn’t showing but I had this secret. I couldn’t exactly keep living life exactly as I had and I had to learn who I was in this new situation. I experienced a sort of identity rebirth and so I felt like a shell of myself for a while.

Most importantly, I had to forgive myself for allowing this to happen.

When I was beating myself up, I reminded myself of two things: first, I couldn’t change anything so it was pointless to be angry with myself and, secondly, I had to stand proud in the decision I made. No matter what led me to this point, I made a deliberate choice to move forward, and in my darkest moments, I found that fact empowering. I clung to my belly in my weakness and was reminded of the strength within me. And in moments of strength, I wrote my unborn baby letters like these:

Dear baby,

This morning I’m glowing. Despite the hardship of my situation and the exhaustion I feel, I am glowing because I know you’re inside me. I already love you. When I don’t know what the future holds, I rest in knowing it holds you. And no matter what, you and I will fight unknowns together. When I am unsure of myself, I am sure that I will do everything in my power to protect you. When I am down on myself, I remember that I love you and that you exist within me. You help me to find love within. Though I can’t see your face or hold your hand, you give me hope. You are my light and for that reason, we will never face darkness alone.

I had to stand upright.

Decisions after decisions after decisions. All ten months of my pregnancy felt like non-stop decision-making. In the my weakest moments, I had to continue to stay mentally strong and make smart decisions. During the days where I was crumbling, I had to push myself to every bound of my resilience in order to think strategically about my future.

Read: I had to stand upright
In July (about midway through my second trimester), I began to crumble. The month earlier, I had decided to stay in LA to deliver my baby but the decision haunted me. Something didn’t feel right. My best friend got married and moved to San Francisco, I was living alone and the emotional support of my family was 2000 miles away. Yet I felt like I had to stick to my guns and make a run at maintaining my life in LA. I felt trapped and so uneasy that I once wrote in my journal that I felt relieved to walk into a cafe and find the restroom unoccupied so I could take refuge in it. I was penning desperate prayers into my journal, asking God not to abandon me. I was asking for a miracle. I decided in early July to take one last trip home to be with my family before I couldn’t fly anymore (prior to my delivery). In some way I felt I owed it to my family and I think deep down I hoped that being home would change my mind about staying. After two weeks of being home, having alone time to myself to think and pray, I decided I wasn’t going back. All of my stuff sat in storage in LA, my car sat in the bottom level of a parking garage in Korea town, but I said, To hell with it. I needed to be emotionally stable. Somewhere between those prayers and the time removed, I found my backbone. I made the decision to do what I knew was right for the betterment of my baby. I knew I couldn’t deliver her amidst this stress and chaos. I was going to stay home and I’d figure the rest out later.

I had to ask for Help.

Besides family and trusted friends, therapy was one of the most important self-help endeavors I took pre- and post-baby. Not only did my therapist affirm what I was feeling but she also gave me words to describe the emotional tidlewaves. Despite what some researchers might say, she helped me see crisis as an opportunity for deeper understanding and growth.

Read: I had to ask for help
For me, therapy was inevitable. I was processing a storm of emotions that I couldn’t sort through on my own. Though close friends were there to lean on and lend advice, I needed the words to describe my emotions. I saw a therapist briefly while I was pregnant and another three months after Renley was born. It was break through for me to hear someone tell me that I wasn’t crazy for what I was feeling and for someone to affirm my natural confusion. It was also important to talk out loud, to spit out my fears, to voice my despair. Therapy helped me realize so many important things - about my relationship, about grief, about kindness towards myself (and the lack thereof). She helped me to find positive affirmations and repeat them over and over: I have a beautiful daughter, I am set up to succeed, I have a supportive family. She gave me the tools to get myself emotionally, mentally and physically well and personal obstacles that were holding me back from doing so. She helped me realize that it’s okay to need help from others - that it’s not a sign of weakness and that we all need help from others at some point in our lives. Somehow the words from a third-party objective perspective held weight and took a weight off of my shoulders. She helped me to see crisis as opportunity and to ride my emotions out like a wave.

The most important thing I learned about grief from my therapist was that I just needed to ride it out, just like the wave of all my daily emotions. One of the mistakes I made during all my emotional processing was trying so hard to understand and conquer it. When I had hard days, I tried to pep talk my way out of them. My therapist giggled when I told her this. She told me to swap pep talks for pats on the back, and in turn, I giggled at her response. It turned out to be critically true. Just as the conundrum of grief exists amongst the world’s leading researchers, it also does within ourselves. I unfortunately can’t tell you there’s some secret, complex algorithm to getting through it. There is no right way to overcome but steps along the way to alleviate it and accept it, thus leading us eventually out of it. All along, despite the wave metaphor, it made me think of surfing.

When you learn to surf, you learn quickly after a few hard nose dives - after being pulled and held under the surface by the current - that you have absolutely no control over the waves. You can't find your way out, you can't think your way out, you just have to let go and let the wave pass before you can find your way to the surface. The waves always come, they always peak and they always crash. And then the next set arrives.

From my vantage point, I see grief as a set of waves. When each crash comes, it comes, and it's difficult to remember it will end. But eventually - crash and after crash - we learn to rest in the knowing that this one too will end. But the most profound thing I've learned is not just that it will end, but that beauty lies in the peak and in the crash because it always lends opportunity for courage, deeper understanding, and a new beginning. Even amidst grief, real growth takes place just below the surface, it’s just hard to open our eyes while we’re underwater.

Image by Tim Marshall

Alexa Hyman