Change of Life and Change of Tribe

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch

One life change, and everything in your life changes. How many of us can say we are exactly where we thought, at age 10, age 15 or age 20, we would be now? It is not a bad thing.

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At Sienna’s Walk, an event focused on promoting pregnancy and early infant loss, I met a woman who said she struggles with sharing her story. How often do we feel embarrassed, not because of how we feel, but because of how we think others might feel when they hear us? Will we make them sad to share what our life is really like? Will the conversation be awkward? Do we feel survivor’s guilt either because we have not suffered as others have or, we have, but came out on the other side?

She said the bravery of Elizabeth Severson, who organized Sienna’s Walk following the birth of her stillborn child, and the public nature of the event gives her courage to speak. I can understand that.

Before and after the debut of my first-born child, I suffered two miscarriages. My fourth-born child has a chronic illness. My fifth child was stillborn, diagnosed with a fatal condition in her 20-week ultrasound and carried to term.

In book marketing or online entrepreneurship, there is a lot of talk about one’s tribe. One’s tribe are the people who are committed to the things you are committed to. They are like-minded, have similar values and will support you.

I thought I knew who my tribe was. They were Catholic, they were Californian. Until I studied in Minnesota and then they were people who lived in Minnesota, who returned to California to be near family. They were married, had children, probably homeschooled. Before that, when I volunteered for a year a missionary work, I was with everyone who checked the boxes of my 18-year-old expectations of who my tribe would be, yet there were no artists, no poets. I found those in Ashland, Oregon.

Our tribe changes as our lives change. I saw friendships change, most drastically as I stayed bedside at UCSF with my baby. Then my tribe consisted of people who could be empathic, but not too empathic, never avoiding but never forcing the conversation, not afraid to wish my daughter a happy birthday or ask how my son was doing.

Again and again, the women I spoke to at Sienna’s Walk referenced the blessing it was to be with others who knew grief. “Everyone has a story,” Elizabeth Severson said. Like the #MeToo movement, Melissa Ahlem from Jessica’s House said others need to know they are not alone. There is silence around these stories, but no one is alone. Everyone has a story.

My tribe changed when I began to feel particularly at home with those who suffer. Those readers who have read regularly since I began this column will note how the tone has changed.

And change is okay.

It is part of life. We struggle with the fear, “what does this mean?” We struggle with the loss of identity, “I always prided myself with…fill in the blank.” Reliability? Cheerfulness? Being available to others? Intellectually and not emotionally driven?

The change in life signals an opportunity to grow areas of personality that have not had as much of an opportunity to grow. I learned about time management in college and I learned about patience in parenthood (sort of) and I learned about letting go in the hospital. I could learn these lessons in any of those cases, but one was needed more than the other at specific times.

Social media is helping make us more aware that the tribe is out there. Whether #MeToo for sexual harassment, a deaf actress teaching her family how to live in silence in “A Quiet Place,” an obese actress looking beautiful as Kate in “This is Us,” or children who grieve at Jessica’s House and parents who celebrate life at Sienna’s Walk. It is not comfortable to encounter someone from a totally different tribe. We may not know what to say. We may fear to say the wrong thing.

You do not have to say the right thing. If time permits, just ask them their story.

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