Heather Carnaghan | July 9, 2020
Early in their studies, someday-educators learn about how the brain absorbs new information. That magical gray matter takes in something new and then sorts it into an existing schema, meaning that we attach every new experience to something we already held to be true. We do not experience information in a vacuum “as it is,” but rather we experience information through the lens of who we already are and what we already believe.
When new information doesn’t fit into our existing schema, disequilibrium occurs. This is a fancy way of saying that your brain struggles to piece together a new truth. It can be uncomfortable and frustrating because it means reexamining everything you had previously sorted into that schema through a new lens. Sometimes this new lens reveals something unflattering about yourself or the world you were comfortable in. Profound grief has been the catalyst for the most impactful disequilibrium in my life and has provided a unique schema for examining the nuances of racism that aren’t inherent for someone with my particular privilege.
Three years ago was a simpler time in my home. My family’s biggest worry was deciding on a name for the little girl we couldn't wait to meet in a few more months and planning to take two toddlers and a big pregnant belly on an eight hour flight to see family in Northern Ireland. I knew Charlotte, who officially got her name on that trip, would change our world, but I had no idea just how much. When she died, two weeks before her due date, my whole world was sent into a tailspin. Less than 1% of births in the United States end in stillbirth and less than .01% of healthy pregnancies end in unexplained full-term stillbirth. We were the unlucky .01%. I didn’t learn until much later that my odds of having a stillbirth were actually significantly lower - by almost 50% in fact - than my similarly educated, professionally employed, healthcare-holding African American counterparts.
Racism is not new in the United States, but the internet has changed how we learn about it. Where racism was once sugar coated with blurbs in the history books about slave owners who took ‘good care’ of their slaves and news reports of ‘Black on Black crime,’ it is now possible to hear first hand from voices that were historically silenced, access infinite records and statistics, or even watch film of a racially profiled man as he pleads for breath.
The Bible (Luke 12:48), Spiderman Comics, President Roosevelt, and the French National Convention of 1793 agree that “with great power comes great responsibility.” The internet has imbued our generation with tremendous power and with it comes a responsibility to do the work of examining our own understandings and biases when we find that something doesn’t add up. I have been a public school teacher in extremely diverse schools for most of my career and the narrative I have been told about African Americans - that fathers are absent, that youth are aggressive, and that men are dangerous - didn’t add up to my experience. The countless families of color I had interacted with in my various school communities, the Black colleagues I had the opportunity to work with and learn from over the years, the Black students I had the privilege of teaching, and the Black friends I loved seemed to ALL be exceptions to this “rule”. In fact, in my 37 years on this planet, I have been presented with hundreds of thousands of “exceptions”, and perhaps one or two examples of “the rule”. It didn’t add up.
The first half of 2020 has placed racism front and center in American public consciousness. Social media has tipped the moral scales of typically lazy information consumers so they feel responsible to take a stand on this issue. I have been guilty of silence in the past, even when my heart told me there was a clear narrative of bias. That was my privilege, and that failure is a hard one to admit to. Today I lean on philosophy inspired by Maya Angelou’s always wise and beautiful words, "I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better."
As I read about and listen to more Black experiences with racism in America, I am struck with a deep sense of empathy that comes directly from grieving Charlotte. The child loss community hosts endless conversations about the exhaustion we feel. It's difficult to articulate how very tangible the weight of death is once you've experienced it in this profound way. Each morning you arm yourself with responses and coping mechanisms for the well-meaning, but piercing nonetheless, exclamations of "Three boys? Don't you just wish you had a girl?" or "It was a rough day, but at least I kept all my kids alive, right?!" Days are laced with glimpses of the children born at the same time - who lived - and quiet reminders of trauma in her siblings who no longer believe the Disney narrative that children are invincible and love brings families back together despite all odds. Nights come with nightmares - my own flashes of those moments, or those of my sons who are terrified of growing older because once death touches you, you forevermore fear for the living who are left. What is simple to someone else - listening to the radio, watching a film - can be the trigger for anxiety in grief.
Grief lives in a private place deep in our subconscious. Even the eerily insightful poets, the authors who expertly immerse their readers in this world, and the eloquent lecturers on the subject, struggle to truly articulate the complicated and deeply personal nuances of grief. Profound grief tints every conversation I have, every relationship I am a part of, and every experience I take part in. It is heavy. It is exhausting. It is so frustrating to have to explain this weight to others in every single moment that it is sometimes less exhausting to stay silent, adding that moment to the weight I already carry. This only works until the weight breaks you. And it breaks you again and again.
When I hear the Black community say "We are tired," this is what I connect it to. My exhaustion was only born three years ago and it overwhelms everything I do and think. This community's exhaustion was born 400 years ago. It has been shouldered by generations and has had four centuries to fester and grow in complexity. I have had shelter in my grief, but racism on a systemic level doesn't allow shelter. I cannot fully understand how it feels to be in an oppressed culture because mine has been so privileged, but Charlotte has taught me some nuances of that experience that motivate me to always keep trying to be better for, to, and because of the Black community.
Grieving mothers, this particular shade of empathy is uniquely ours.
It was born in us when our children died. It was fortified each time we silently decided whether to share her or hide away our grief, wondered what she would be today, or juggled the coexisting joy and pain of our “new normal.” This shade of empathy, our grief hue, is the lens through which we can begin to understand the nuances of how racism impacts individual lives. When George Floyd called out to his mother, he summoned all “loss moms” to stand with her. While our own privilege may prevent us from understanding the complexity of the Black experience in America, our grief hue gives us a deep understanding of what it means to always carry something bigger than ourselves on our shoulders. We can dismiss this connection to individuals suffering under systemic racism, or we can choose to lean into it and use it to build a future that is more equitable and kind to all of our children.
I choose to lean in with purpose and vulnerability because that is the example I would have wanted to set for Charlotte.
Heather is a teacher, poet, writer, artist, and most of all, mother of four. Her three boys inspire joy in her life and writing. Heather's eagerly awaited daughter was stillborn in October of 2017, which focused her creative energy on grief and healing. She created and maintains CharlottesPurpose.com, a website dedicated to dealing with grief positively.