“We’re moving your son into the intensive care unit. The ICU is the best place for him now, and there we’ll test for secondary infections that could complicate his already . . .” I didn’t hear the rest. All I knew was that my little guy’s situation had just gone from bad to worse.
He had only been with us for five weeks. In fact, the day he was labeled critical was his due date. He’d been born early, so I had planned to insulate him at home until his little lungs matured, a strategy that would also let me keep writing. It never occurred to me that I would need to take time off.
We knew our new bundle of joy was at higher risk for “things,” but we had no idea the common cold could threaten his very life.
He’d tried to cough but grew too lethargic to combat the bug. Soon, he wasn’t even able to breathe on his own.
For a week, in the ICU, my husband and I slept a total of a few hours and ate nearly nothing. Sure, we were tired and hungry, but our son was fighting for his life and nothing else mattered. A small percentage of parents know the feeling, and I’m forever bonded to those souls through the unique form of suffering my boy’s condition brought down on us.
The very last thing on my mind was client work. While in the ambulance that transported my baby from one hospital to the next, I had sent my clients notes to let them know what was going on, but I didn’t mention how my absence would encroach on my assignments.
I couldn’t. I could barely breathe, let alone think.
Deadlines came and went. I prayed constantly. As the baby slipped further and further from us, we began to do weird things. My husband left to move our vehicle and instead of just transporting it, he went a little crazy and detailed the thing. He spent hours finding and eliminating every particle of dust, scrubbing every surface, squeezing his microfiber cloth into every crevice, and vacuuming every square inch again and again.
I needed an escape too, but stepping even a few yards from buddy boy’s bed suffocated me with guilt. So I opened my laptop.
Image attribution: Tekke
A handful of tabs relaunched as the little computer tried to pick up where I’d left off. A quick glance told me I’d been working on an article for a client’s publication about rescue dogs. Cute.
I closed the laptop and went back to pacing the floor. Wasn’t there anywhere I could go without being far? I felt like a caged animal.
As I walked back and forth, a sentence from the blithe rescue dog project replayed in my mind. “There’s a better way to phrase that,” I thought to myself, and sat back down.
And I found the escape I craved.
For the next few hours, I researched dog-rescue statistics, trends, stories, and photos. I called a friend and interviewed him about his own rescue dog experience. I attacked the article’s very structure and reorganized all my arguments. At one point I scrapped the whole thing and started over. I worked.
A few days later, I lifted my head and did a double-take: My son’s face was pink. Pink! Not gray. He had life. There was hope. I couldn’t believe it. I called everyone and told them something had changed. I didn’t know what exactly was different, but I knew he was going to be OK.
The next few weeks were a mixture of joy and fear as our tiny tot grew in strength and our family tried to readjust at home. Close calls are a funny thing: In one sense you’re more grateful for every moment with your loved ones than ever, but on the other hand, you’re no longer comfortable in your assumptions about life. You’ve lost innocence. You’re forever different.
One thing I assumed is that I would jump right back into completing client assignments. After all, the trouble was over. All was well. It was time to resume normal life. Be productive.
But frustratingly, I kept hitting a wall. Because I had stuffed all emotion down, nothing could come through. I thought I would be able to put the scary episode behind me and “get on with it.” Especially since ours was a happy ending, I was eager to move on.
Disappointingly, though, I had some personal work to do before I could lend my enthusiasm to clients’ communications.
I reached a breaking point a month after my little dude came home from the hospital. Something silly—I don’t even remember what—triggered a flood of tears over what had happened. Until that point, I hadn’t let myself realize how big of a nightmare we had just survived. I grieved for all the preemie babies whose stories don’t turn out so happily, and for the people in the neighboring ICU rooms who hadn’t recovered, and for the nurses exposed to such troubling cases every day.
Image attribution: Steven Belcher
Turns out, “getting on with life” can be counterproductive, a fact pointed out by the mental health experts at nonprofit Helpguide. And the seemingly random bursts of energy my husband and I experienced during our kid’s scariest moments ended up being a normal part of grief. His detailing the car and my unexpected ability to keep writing? Totally acceptable.
Here it is: When I finally got honest about how I’d been disrupted, the ability to write others’ stories returned to me.
No, I hadn’t been “pretending” everything was fine, but I was willing it all to be fine. And clearly, the result was the same.
Another thing I learned to do is to give myself the benefit of counseling. Many traditional employers offer grief counseling as a corporate perk, but freelancers understandably tend to cut “unnecessary” costs as much as possible. The result is often a nowhere-to-turn feeling when disaster strikes.
Image attribution: Leonardo Veras
My best friends are supportive, my family is always near and emotionally available, but only a mental health expert can help me uncover invaluable emotional perspectives when I need it most. Today I devote a small portion of every paid invoice to seeing a professional for both normal “checkups” and inevitable catastrophes.
One funny thing about grief is that—contrary to popular belief—it’s not a process. The grief process is more like a jumbled array of experiences you can expect. There’s denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, yes, but they can happen in any baffling order, sometimes at odd times. I still occasionally get angry that I lost a loved one who died years ago, even though I’ve long accepted the reality. When memories trigger an unexpected setback, allow yourself grace to grieve all over again. Plan to have your writing assignments in early just in case you need some unplanned time away from work.
I wish I could say my family hasn’t experienced profound loss since the days our youngster was so sick. But we have. Thankfully, though, what I learned in 2014 stuck with me and gave me internal resources and tools for navigating the traumatic curve balls life sometimes sends.
Image attribution: Ondrej Lipar
You can’t deny it: Deep loss is part of loving others. Instead of dreading what’s inevitable, commit to making the most of every moment you have together.
And once you pull through, share your story with other writers. Not only can you combat the antagonistic forces facing them as they struggle today, you’ll also sense the goodness of talking it out. It took me three years to share my story, but I’m so glad I finally did. In fact, my only wish is that I’d done it sooner. My purpose here is to encourage other writers, but as often happens whenever I give something away, I’ve benefited most. And I hope you’ll consider doing the same with your story.
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Featured image attribution: Chad Madden