I woke at sunrise, my internal clock overriding the realization that today was a day off from work. I walked quietly down the wooden planks of my hallway, nearly tip-toeing past the bedrooms of my my three children sleeping soundly in their beds.
My three children.
My daughter arrived home from college last Friday night. She’s been gone since August, with occasional visits home since the summer. My heart was both exuberant and relieved to have her back in our safe space again. When I have my children together, I feel whole.
Even thought it’s three and not five.
This morning, I read an article in The New York Times written by Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, as she shared news about the loss of her second pregnancy, the child that will never be. Her story immediately brought me back to 2002 when I was in my sixth year of teaching, living in Tennessee, more than 800 miles away from friends and family back home.
I was pregnant with my second child.
I was in my second trimester.
I had heard the baby’s heartbeat and had ultrasound images to document the start of this incredible journey.
I was wearing maternity clothes for the belly that would no longer stay hidden. I had revealed my pregnancy to my mother-in-law for her birthday, giving her a beautiful gemstone bracelet which included the birthstone of her next grandchild-to-be. We were excited to discover if it was a boy or a girl and my students actively brainstormed baby names in their writing journals.
And then, without warning, the baby was gone.
There are no words to sufficiently describe the devastation I felt in the moment of learning that my body had betrayed me. I can’t articulate the depth of pain and inadequacy I felt becoming another statistic of miscarriage, or the confusion I endured as the doctor tried to explain that my situation wasn’t “normal,” but rather a “missed abortion” where the baby had died, but my body missed the memo.
I had to make difficult decisions in the moment with the risk of infection looming and possible infertility in my future. My tower of stability was crushed in an instant.
I was twenty-nine years old.
I felt completely alone in my sorrow and grief.
How does one recover from the worst news they’ve ever received?
When I lost my second child, and subsequently my third in the same teaching year, I struggled each day to maintain status quo. An educator’s life is a parallel existence of work and home. You are constantly in the public eye as you serve the needs of students and staff with an expectation to care for others at all times, even at the cost of your own well-being. If you are connected on social media or in the spotlight from your position of leadership, you have another added layer of public consumption, which is sometimes brutal and disparaging.
At the same time, you are trying to live your private life to its fullest potential. It inevitably brings forth highs and lows, moments of great celebration and times of unbearable turmoil. The ebb and flow has no definitive timeline other than waves rolling in and riptides pulling out.
You try to keep the parallels of public and private separate, but you are human. The lines intersect and what was private suddenly becomes known. The rules of engagement shift; people you considered close friends become onlookers, while others on the sidelines rise up to meet your needs.
When I reflect on that time in my life more than eighteen years ago, I am reminded not only of the pain and suffering of loss, but the kindness shown by others with three simple words:
“Are you OK?”
These words, when spoken with love, care, and concern, reveal the raw and vulnerable side of connection. They are an invitation to set aside the facade of keeping it all together and share the truth of experience from one’s own perspective.
They are words that offer the grace of a listening ear.
They are words that provide a foundation of trust.
They are words that are not shared often enough.
I am appreciative for those who checked in during that time, who made a point to reach out even when my siloed silence created an invisible fortress around me. I discovered that sharing my journey with a select few actually lightened the load and created pillars of strength for us all.
As we enter a season of Thanksgiving with gratitude shared for those around us, make sure to notice those who are struggling below the surface. Let them know that they are seen. Remind them that you are there as a confidant should they need a shoulder or a listening ear.
“Are you OK?”
It’s OK to not be OK.
We can get through this together.