February 1, 2018 “And welcome back, Rob.” Suddenly, for the first time during that hour-long staff meeting, my attention shifted to what was going on in the room. Everyone turned in their chairs and looked towards me. All 50-something of my colleagues adjusted their gaze in my direction. Then, applause. It was uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable. It was my first day back at work since losing Lila and I was nowhere near ready to “return to normal.” What the fuck was normal? Normal was shattered for me. Normal didn’t exist because I couldn’t remember what it looked or felt like. Normal was a luxury I lived with for years and never, actually, appreciated. The piercing memory of my beautiful, lifeless daughter in my arms was all I could see or think about as I drove into work that morning. That awkward look from the first colleague I encountered that morning that read “oh, geez, I don’t really know what to say and I’m not really sure if you want me to say anything” pretty much set the tone for my first few weeks back to “normal.”
There was a big sign on my office door that said: WE MISSED YOU in big, colorful letters. I forced myself to smile, even though I knew no one could see me, and walked into my office and closed the door behind me. I sat down and cried. Not loudly, not uncontrollably, but genuinely. I missed me, too. I missed the me that was there before my heart shattered. The me that had a daughter I was so excited to meet. Me that didn’t see the color change in my daughter’s face after two days. Or the blood come out of her mouth. That me I missed, too.
Once I gathered myself, I noticed the yellow folders on my desk. That was, in my office, the universal sign that something needed to be reviewed. For a moment, I thought there might be joy in immersing myself in a familiar, unchallenging task. Something that might soothe my mind and heart by occupying my focus elsewhere. At the time, I was working in Development in higher education. In those yellow folders were class newsletters that were nearing completion. Colleagues had been covering the classes I managed in my absence. Now that I was back, I could resume responsibility for those classes and finalize the newsletters by reviewing them for formatting consistencies and correcting any typos.
I opened the first yellow folder and went numb. I couldn’t feel my hands. Pictures of sleeping newborns. Multiple. Suddenly, it felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I desperately flipped the page and was emotionally assaulted by a family photo with an accompanying caption “We welcomed our beautiful baby girl into the world just before Christmas!” – truthfully, I can’t guarantee that was the exact caption, but it was something pretty close to it. I couldn’t believe it. No one protected me from that experience. No one had the foresight, or second thought, to consider what sort of pain those images might cause me. Now, I was back in the office, and “normal” resumed in whatever form that took. Sooner, someone wanted to stop covering my workload and give it back to me. All of it. Whatever it was, however it looked. Then, it clicked: I couldn’t count on anyone because everyone had moved on. Did everyone move on? I couldn’t be sure, but I had to embrace that assumption. How else could I protect myself? In that moment, I felt more alone than I ever had, or have, in my grief. It was the first time (of, eventually, many) I felt rushed through my grief. My time to grieve, in that context, was over and it was time to move on. The world kept spinning.