Demeter: A Mother’s Grief Reaches the Belly of the Earth

evelyn_demorgan_demeter_mourns_persephoneI am thinking of Demeter again. I see an image of her roaming the earth searching for her daughter, Persephone. I am pregnant. My unborn daughter will die sometime after birth if I’m lucky enough to meet her alive. My pregnant body swells. My daughter moves for a few weeks and then I barely feel her. I put my hands on my small belly, Check in with me once a day. Please Mary Rose. Just once a day. I pray every night to St. Anthimos of Chios, a healer and relative who has been newly canonized, that she does not suffer, that I meet her alive.

I remember studying Greek mythology in school. I was in the seventh grade at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox School in Astoria, NY when we were assigned Edith Hamilton’s translation by Ms. Cathro, the teacher who taught me how to diagram sentences. I remember Persephone and Hades, the pomegranate, red succulent seeds. Now as an adult with my hormones raging I think of Demeter, the grieving mother.

I cannot nest. There will be no nursery. I change toilet seats instead and weep over toilet bowls. How is this my fate? When strangers congratulate me I stare at them blankly. And there in my mind is Demetra. She is raging. She wears loose robes that flow around her form. I hear her keening. Grief wells up inside of me and I sob and sob. I know what it is like to be grief-stricken over a child’s death though my daughter still lives inside me. Demeter wanders the earth looking for her daughter. Her grief dries up fruit. Her grief stops the blooming of the earth. Her grief is a force. I rage with her.

Only I have no place to run. I can barely walk from sciatic pain by the end of the pregnancy. I sit in pain. I limp. My form is crooked. My baby is moving less. She shudders inside me and I imagine that she is having seizures. I meditate and see an infant coffin before me. People tell me to have faith that she will be healed, that she could be born healthy. Everything I do for her is accompanied by weeping. My parents send her funeral gown, a Victorian baptismal dress with pink roses. My sister sends a small cross. I touch the silk and the tiny gold jewelry knowing that Mary Rose will be buried in them. I want to buy her something. What can I give my daughter when she doesn’t need anything from our earthly plane?

In Rachel Zucker’s poetry book Eating in the Underworld Persephone says “the body of my mother is everywhere.” Persephone is looking to leave her mother by entering the underworld. Demeter is everywhere looking and searching but not finding her daughter. There is power in this grief, but there is also madness. I start to intuit more, to see more. My eyes see prisms of light before a terrible migraine. I see my ancestors surrounding me. Matina. Yiayia. Mother Mary. They tell me that I can do this. I can face my biggest fear because my child will die. I am scared. I am grief-stricken. I am in awe of my daughter’s Light.

I birth my daughter two weeks late after 21 days of contractions. I hold her in my arms and look at her weak form and know that we don’t have time. Get my mother now, I tell one midwife, Bring my son. The other midwife looks at Mary Rose and says Baby Girl, Open your eyes and look at your mama. Mary Rose, whose limbs are splayed from no muscle tone opens her eyes and finds my face with her gaze. They are blue. I continue having contractions and then soon after I birth the placenta she slips away and I nestle my still baby wrapped in a blanket in my arms.

In Women Who Run With the Wolves Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells the story of Demeter and another Greek goddess, Baubo. Dr. Estes tells us “…she flew out over the land like a great bird, searching, calling for her daughter.” (337)

We bury Mary Rose the next day. My milk comes in the day after that. Your whole body is weeping says the midwife. She is a phantom limb. I wake up at night looking for my baby. My body asks Where is my baby? I wake up. I sit up. I look around. My body yearns for its offspring. My breasts pour their milk. Where is my baby? I am awake hours each night longing for that which my body created and grew.

Dr. Estes writes “Demeter raged, she wept, she screamed, she asked after, searched every land formation underneath, inside, and atop, begged mercy, begged death, but she could not find her heart-child” (337-338). In those post-partum months I wanted to die. My heart felt broken like bone. I was weighed down and I wanted the earth to take me into her so that I could be with my baby. Once after the “diagnosis” when I was 22 weeks pregnant I thought about throwing myself down a cliff near the lake in my neighborhood. It was a fleeting thought. It passed, but the grief is intense and it takes me to the belly of the earth where her heart beats and pulses through each of her creatures. We want all babies to live and be healthy. We even want them to be beautiful and smart. But one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant death. Every year one million babies don’t make it to that first birthday. The earth has my baby and I want to be with her.

In speaking of Baubo, the goddess who appears to Demeter when she is completely spent from exhaustion and grief, who laughs and ignites Demeter’s fire to continue her search, Dr. Estes says “we only need one shard in order to reconstruct the whole” (337). I am shards of shattered heart. How do I reconstruct myself?

It is Autumn and the earth is changing. Demeter must say goodbye soon and so she starts to withdraw her energy from the earth. Soon the plants and trees will be resting from their work. Soon winter will come and we will feel the naked truth: that life and death are irrevocably woven together, that to live on this planet we must let go again and again. We give our babies and our parents and our friends over to the spirit world and the depths of the earth. We weep like Demeter, but we won’t have them back for a few months out of the year. We howl. We keen. But at some point we laugh again sometimes in the presence of a goddess like Baubo who has no head and sees through her breasts. We brush off the dust from our dress and take one step. We gather our broken hearts and grief and walk until we can transmute the pain. Little by little some of the ache flies away like little birds learning to fly in spring which always comes again no matter how cold the winter may be.



“Demeter Mourning for Persephone” by Evelyn de Morgan.

Author: Dianna

DIANNA VAGIANOS ARMENTROUT is a published writer, teacher, workshop facilitator and poetry therapist. She graduated from Adelphi University’s Honors Program and earned her MAW from Manhattanville College. Dianna’s pregnancy with her daughter, Mary Rose, who died an hour after birth of trisomy 18, changed her life completely. Her blog, Walking the Labyrinth of My Heart, was launched in April 2015 as a way of offering support to others going through pregnancies with life-limiting and fatal diagnoses.

3 thoughts on “Demeter: A Mother’s Grief Reaches the Belly of the Earth”

  1. My heart aches! But even so, I am so blessed and thankful that I have met you and Mary Rose. I think you taught me a lot just by writing these letters. May God send mercy upon you! And like I like to say: Hang in there!!!!

    1. Your willingness to stand by Mary Rose in church and pray the Psalms the night of her birth will always touch me. I could not be there, but you were there with my baby’s body until we could lay her to rest. Thank you for your fierce love. Now we have another intercessor to pray to, to commemorate and to love. I am grateful to you.

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