"Edited to Add"....

This started as a pregnancy blog when I fell pregnant in May 2009 after four years of finding a donor, doing all the counselling / paperwork / tests and trying.

And now, thanks to a 4WD which skidded onto our side of the road, killing our baby daughter at 34w and injuring me, my partner and two of my stepdaughters on 27 December 2009, it has turned into something else. We didn't want this something else, but apparently it is all we've got to go on with.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Close up with hope

(Andy Goldsworth, Sticks in cobweb Wales? May 1980, from here via the lovely Lis)

Recently, I've started feeling queasy about my own hope in the same way that I do with really corny advertising. It doesn't feel true. I know from experience that hopes can be shattered, even when you are being cagey, trying not to hope too much. I know at some level, that is why I hadn't finalised a name for Haloumi before she was born, hadn't found out her sex - I was trying to arm myself against hope. But I still believed in it - and attempting to guard against it was really just replacing overt hope with secret hope.

I've gone through life with a naive idea that things will work out, that if I'm calm and careful, it will all be okay. In that moment when the car stopped moving after the impact, when people had arrived on the scene and were helping us, when I'd been able to wriggle my toes, and didn't feel any pain in my uterus, I was so certain that Haloumi would be okay. I was good, I stayed calm, I did everything I could to cooperate with the paramedics and firefighters. I didn't even let the idea that she'd died enter my head - I kept my hand there, on my belly, inconveniencing all the doctors and nurses wielding dopplers and ultrasound wands, because I was trying to keep her alive by hope alone.

And I was so so wrong - she was so so dead - even by the time they got me in the ambulance. That doesn't mean that screaming and losing my shit would have been a better response - but it has taken me a long time to try to get my head around this broken hope. I know it makes no sense, but I'm so sad my hope wasn't strong enough, that it failed when put to the test.

So, I'm exploring a bit about hope, and Pema Chodron's suggestion - "if we're willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation".* That sounds quite stark, but I know from my story (and from most of yours) that there are no guarantees, that the ground can fall out from under you at any moment. So, this approach is realistic at least - there really is no hope that you could live your life with nothing bad ever happening to you. But is it 'psychologically healthy'? Wouldn't it be morbid and negative to be continually mindful of your complete lack of any security? It seems counter-instinctive that you could be both thinking about your 'groundlessness' and 'relaxing' at the same time. So far, though, trying out this groundlessness has been calming in an odd way. It is helping me drive the panics back a bit - or rather - to acknowledge them and sit with them rather than run around looking for something I hope might 'make it better'.

But I still find it very hard to embrace the idea that giving up hope is a good thing to do - or that it is a part of appreciating that life is full of impermanence and change. I like hope! I'm always hoping this, hoping that - for myself and for others I care about. So much of the culture I have grown up in is based on the idea that "things will get better", that the good life is normal. But there is also a big sense of relief in accepting that this is really a bit of a crock. Yes, there are heart-achingly beautiful, good things in the world, but they don't last forever, and death and cancer, and embarrassment and disappointment are part of the nature of being alive.

And this bit especially made sense to me:

"Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can't simply relax with ourselves. We hold onto hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. ... Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look....

We can drop the fundamental hope that there is a better "me" who one day will emerge. We can't just jump over ourselves as if we were not there. It is better to take a straight look at all our hopes and fears. Then some kind of confidence in our basic sanity arises."*

Now that I've started giving myself the tiny injections of the IVF drugs every morning (who knew they made such tiny fine needles! This is just like DIY acupuncture!), I know we're getting close to the extreme hope-dance that is an egg pick-up, an embryo-transfer. And I feel like I wasn't coping very well with hope for the last three cycles of TTC. So I'm going to try this groundlessness - to sit with the complete uncertainty at the heart of baby-making and do a bit less grabbing onto the hope of some other future moment making things better. Of course I want it to work. But I'm curious about how different things might feel if I just take each moment for the groundless, uncertain thing that it is.

I know this touches very close to peoples' belief systems and philosophy so I don't want to start any arguments, but I'm also curious about what you think - does this make sense to you? How do you deal with the hope thing - either around your grief (hoping it will get better, hoping you will hold your baby again one day) or TTC?

Fear is the other one I've been experimenting with, trying to get close up with. On the first day of our holiday we went white water rafting, and half an hour in, our guides pulled into a deep, still corner of the river, and pointed up. "See that little cliff?" they said, grinning. "You're going to jump off that". And we did. I felt the panic grip me and tell me to turn around, and I hesitated once, well, twice. But then I jumped, and the panic jumped with me and I screamed like a big girl and flapped my arms all the way down. The girls laughed their heads off. And I got to know my fear a little better.

(Someone else's splash, on a different river! Photo from here)

* Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart - Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Shambhala, Boston 2000, pages 44 and 41.


  1. hi hanen, was it Buddha who said 'life is suffering?' any way, the acknowledgement of this as well as having learnt to live in the moment after i had harvey, kind of eradicated the existence of hope from my life. not in a bad way, it just wasn't relevant anymore. i like what you have been reading, i think it will stand you in good stead. i think we should all just be present in all we do as the here and now is the only certainty we have. btw, i have only just realised that the email was from you, i'm really sorry that i didn't respond but your name was different and because of all that was going on i felt too vulnerable. sending love xxx anne

  2. hi anne, it is so funny, I have wrestled with this hope for so long, and felt so crushed again and again by it, it is such a relief to finally let it go! Exactly what you say - it is not relevant any more. No dramas about the email - have sent you another one explaining a bit more. lots of love to you too xxxh

  3. and strangely - the guilt seems wrapped up with the hope too. I think I felt so guilty when we had so many people hoping for us, and I didn't get pregnant. It seems silly now.

  4. This post really spoke to me, though I'm not sure that I'm able to put into words how. I've wrestled with fear/hope/loss all my life (I don't exaggerate when I say that, my mom has stories of toddler!me sitting out back at my great grandmother's [x] birthday, crying because she was old, and would likely die soon). In college, I made an honest effort to, well, not BE Buddhist, but to incorporate a lot of their thinking into my daily life. Meditation did help a lot, and I did manage to change a lot of how I thought, but was never able to completely let go.


    If I recall correctly, you guys are in VIC and not QLD, but I hope that all your family and loved ones are safe and sound.

  5. Really enjoyed this post. I struggle with hope too (though obviously not in the same way as I have not experienced a loss like yours) and it helps to read about you working through your struggle. Hope is absolutely crazy-making in TTC and I often wish I could just stop hoping altogether. I'm slowly learning to not put other things in my life on hold because of a hope that I'm one day going to lead a different (better) life.

  6. I have a lot of trouble with the truly Buddhist (and similar) approaches to hope. What (sometimes) works for me is a half-remembered snippet my mother used to have written on an index card taped to her bedside table, which I will butcher for you now.

    The effect of it was that we know we are supposed to build on the rock, but "we always build on the sand." Or maybe it was that we can only build on the sand.

    It works for me because it acknowledges the sand -- that the world changes and cannot in many senses be counted on -- but also the necessity of building.

  7. This made total sense, and although I have not experienced a loss like yours, I can relate. I think this is why I would get annoyed when well-meaning people who got pregnant easily would say things like " Chin up...it'll happen when it's meant to be etc." Of course they were right, but in the moment, when I was trying to be angry and sit with the groundlessness of TTC, I didn't like them pushing their hope on me. I'm sorry you felt so much pressure to conceive in the last few months, and I'm sorry if I contributed to that with my comments of "Good luck" etc.

  8. Hanen, when we were trying to have our third child, we went through a string of early pregnancy losses. I was desperately afraid to hope (I could be crushed) and desperately afraid not to hope (if I don't hope, will I ever get it). It just about drove me crazy. I remember when I started my lovenox injections during the pregnancy that resulted in our third son. I sat and cried my eyes out before I gave myself that first shot. That shot represented the hope and belief that this pregnancy might actually make it. It was so hard to cling to that hope and belief but I did it.

    Thinking of you and praying for success.

  9. I have tried to crush the hope out of myself, as I know that would be the sensible, less soul-destroying option, but I simply can't. Truly 'hope springs eternal' for me apparently. As you say, I just LIKE hope! Too darn much to give it up it would seem.

    I think I am the sort of person that has to hope, however foolishly, to stay alive. That's why I have to hope I'll see my little girl again. I'm a little fuzzy on the details of precisely how this will be achieved and yet . . . I still hope it will be so.

    Your description of those IVF needles has made my skin feel all prickly!

  10. Dear E - please don't feel you need to apologise for your lovely heart-felt good wishes for us - the guilt is all mine! This is something I'm still sorting out - to be able to accept people's love and good wishes for us without feeling that I have to 'perform' and be magically cured by their love in return. Because those good wishes and thoughts and prayers for us are all amazing gifts *in themselves* - and I feel lucky to have so many beautiful people thinking of us.

  11. Hi N - Oh, I loved your mum's story of you as a fretful little toddler! You poor little dear.

    I don't think I can completely let go either, but what I like about Chodron's approach (at least, the way I understand her) is the realisation that as human beings, we probably never will completely let go, but we can observe that grasping, and be gentle with it, and in observing it, the grasp seems to loosen a little.

    I felt very awkward about making this post precisely because I don't identify as Buddhist (and I do have belief, even if it is of a very fuzzy kind), but, like you, I think some Buddhist philosophies around mindfulness make good sense to me.

    And thanks for thinking about people in QLD too - so far no one we know is hurt, but it is a huge, awful thing, and it will take a long time to recover. I'm going up to see my Mum & brother & sister-in-law up in Cairns next week, but it is apparently all dry there.

  12. Bionic - Absolutely - there are bits that have always put me off. To swap a mother story for a mother story, my mum has long gone in for the "live in the now" thing, which she seems to have interpreted as "cash in all your super and spend it at 55". But I like the building on the sand metaphor. Because as long as you *know* you are building on sand, you can deal with that. It certainly doesn't mean it is useless to build.

  13. I read that book when my mum died. It helped, especially the bit about leaning into the sharp points of the pain.

    Another book I read, Stephanie Dowrick, said in relation to trust (which is a lot like hope) that it's worth being trusting even though you know that bad things might happen, indeed do happen, because you can also know that whatever happens and how hard it is you will get through it somehow. I find that idea of trusting in my own resilience really helpful.

  14. Hanen, thank you for this post, for writing this - I feel as if I should print it out and read it several more times before commenting (my brain is mush right now after a long day of hard grief...) but I wanted to express my gratitude that you wrote it (and also that you reminded me that I've got pema chodron's books on my shelves right now and it might do me some good to pull them off and look them over again...)

    sending love

  15. Sorenson, what you say about hope being like trust rings true to me.

    There are different flavours of hope, and I think the hope for good things is a gentler thing than the hope for perfection. I think experiencing the real moment with its uncertainty and pain is better than living in hope alone, but I don't think that means we need to let go of hope altogether.

  16. Kristin - Thanks so much for praying for us. And this is the same hope / afraid to hope bind I've been in too. There are a lot of times (ie most ART processes) where you have to accept something horrible in the now, in order to have any chance of the good thing later. But I don't think that necessarily involves skipping over the present moment on the promise of the elusive good moment in the future (though sometimes I think I've done that - close your eyes and think of a rosy future with a baby). If you can acknowledge the awful now, along with the fact that this does actually increase your chances of getting what you want later, then maybe it you can understand the present awful a bit better, and be with it.

    I guess the other bit of accepting change and groundlessness is that if you are in a particularly awful situation, you can experience it knowing that it will not last forever. And that, bizarrely, is a kind of hopeful thought. "this situation will change etc".

  17. Catherine - oh, I don't think I can let go of hope that easily either. I'm still figuring all this out - and I love Pen's thought above that there are different flavours of hope - surely there's at least one I can keep (and stay sane)!

    At this stage, I think I'm keeping the
    - "there are good things in the world (as well as hard things)" hope,
    - "I wish good things for people" hope (which maybe fits within the idea of loving kindness, as well as the idea of praying / wishing for people in other situations); and the
    - "this hard situation will pass" hope

    but loosening my grip on:
    - "hoping hard enough might make things happen" hope;
    - "if I hope to hard, I'll jinx it and prevent what I want from happening" anti-hope;
    - "when I don't get what I was hoping for, it means that I've done something wrong / I'm a terrible person / not good enough" and
    - "I can escape the horribleness of this present moment because I'm hoping I'll get a better one later on" hope.

    That said - I hope you see your beautiful girl again too!

  18. Sarah - aw - thank you. I've loved all the responses I've had to this post, and the way each has made me think further about this. And I have noticed more calmness since I've been exploring these ideas. Not that it stops the sadness, but when the sadness comes I'm a bit more able to be with it and feel it more fully (which also means it seems to pass more naturally). I know this is a really rough time for you, so I hope you are getting the rest and comfort you need (from Pema Chodron & everyone else). xxx h

  19. I think that mystical thinking (that our thoughts can jinx or force reality) can get a bit dangerous, and it's something I do all the time.

    This kind of personalised superstition seems to be based in fear rather than hope, even if it involves wishing for a certain thing, and fear is definitely not something we should live by. Learning how not to live according to fear is hard but definitely worth doing, I think. In some ways it's the opposite of giving up hope.

    Sending lots of love, dear one. x

  20. My initial reaction to your post was, but hope can't be a bad thing, can it? Because, really, what is the purpose of a life without hope?

    I related to your recent comment where you distinguish between healthy and destructive forms of hope. I guess I think of the former when I think of hope. To me, the negatives you list are based on anxiety, desperation, and superstition. That is not hope.

    Anyhow, I'm excited that you're on an IVF cycle. It's a possibility, not a guarantee, but it's a lovely possibility. :)

  21. I have such a complicated relationship with hope. As you know, I am a dirty hope junkie ;)

    I may have to come back and re-read this again and again to truly understand it :)

  22. Look at your process - you arr so beautiful H.
    I like hope. I need it. When I read Pema Chodron's suggestion it says to me something more like - accept that you are not in control, and then you can let go of the responsibility and stress that belief puts on you and appreciate all the wonderful things in your life despite the bad shit. When ned told me al was dead my head just stopped - for the first time ever - it was so complete, like being hit in the face with a brick screaming - "you are not in control - fuck you". there was so absolutely nothing to do...which of course didn't stop me from running around with the small hope that if i did everything perfectly, the 'death period' would eventually be done with and we could have him back....
    Now i hope like crazy for lots of things and for lots of people, but at the same time I am terrified every time the phone rings...

    so for me, i hope -alot - and i say fuck you to reality.

  23. Hanen, I always think of you and reading here makes me see how strong you are. I love every single word you've written here, and I pray that you will find peace in all of this.

    Thank you for your kind words whe I was pregnant, I never expect it from strangers.

    Good on you for getting to know that fear...

  24. i'm currently undergoing CBT to try and switch off my excessive worry and deal with my generalised anxiety disorder. apparently the overall aim is to get me more OK with dealing with uncertainty.

    i expect the best and the worst at the same time. i believe there is hope even when i believe there is none. it's hard.

    i've no idea whether i will be more hopeful or less at the end of this journey. i'm a bit scared, but i think i look forward to finding out.

    wishing you luck with the IVF.

  25. @Pomegranate - yes, I think you are right - those 'negative' forms of hope are really more about anxiety etc. For me, the most helpful bit of this process has been gently examining my thoughts around hope, not in a "must not" kind of way, but in a curious way. And yes, IVF certainly opens up some lovely possibilities. :) I'm trying to enjoy those along with the uncertainty.

    @Suzy - oh yes, me too! Feel free to treat this blog as your very own Hope Junkies Anonymous.

    @Nubrey - thanks darlin. I think that was a big part of my ability to add to my own misery - feeling like I had to be responsible for everything. And feeling like I had failed.

    So it is a huge relief to let go of that, and to remind myself that my little hopes can't fast-forward me through to a future moment - that I need to let each moment unravel itself. I remember that brick-in-the-face moment. It is awful - but there is that stillness when you realise that there is no more time left - it is all finished, over. This is all you've got.

    @ Salma - thanks for your lovely thoughts.

    @B - bloody uncertainty! I'm not very good with that either. I think some of the mindfulness techniques that Chodron talks about are pretty similar to CBT, but I like that she also talks about being kind towards yourself, and not judging your thoughts, just observing them with a gentle curiosity. That's not to say I'm terribly good at it, but I like the approach. Thanks for the good wishes.