When Loss Occurs

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The following essay first appeared in Tidewater Family Magazine in October 2016.

http://www.tidewaterfamily.com/articles/parent-tips/when-loss-occurs

Our American culture doesn’t seem to know what to do with grief. Sometimes people reach out to the bereaved after a death, but as Elizabeth McCracken writes “Grief lasts longer than sympathy, which is one of the tragedies of the grieving” (80). For those of us who are bereaved, how do we navigate our grief in this fast-paced world when we want to stop and get off?

After my daughter, Mary Rose, died an hour after birth of trisomy 18, I processed my grief with therapy and art supplies. Others join grief and bereavement groups. Being with people who have gone through similar situations is comforting. They survived, and so can we.

I used a grief workbook by Mary Burgess and Shiloh Sophia McCloud called Mending Invisible Wings: Healing From the Loss of Your Baby. Through the exercises in this book which included meditations, writing and drawing exercises, I transmuted some of my pain into art. Instead of ignoring my grief or numbing it with behaviors that might not be healthy, using a sketchpad allows the bereaved to create something beautiful for our loved ones.

Many bereaved people reach out to others in their own grief. Heidi Faith created stillbirthday.com. Cubby LaHood and Nancy Mayer-Whittington co-founded Isaiah’s Promise to support other families. I started a blog and wrote a book. We can give back to this world by reaching out to others. Grief never leaves us completely. We cannot “get over” the death of a child or loved one, but we can find joy again. Spending time in nature, with my family and friends, I pause and notice the beauty around me.

And for those of us who know people who are suffering in grief, let us offer kind support. We do not know what to say, so many of us say nothing. If we are to be communities that support each other, we must nurture the bereaved. I have a few suggestions:

  1. Remember the loss. Write an email or send a note saying that you remember the person who died. Consider special anniversaries, holidays and birthdays. My sister gave me a Christmas card telling me that she made a donation in memory of Mary Rose on that first holiday without her. This meant so much.
  2. Say less. Don’t repeat platitudes such as “Time heals all wounds” (it does not) or “Be grateful for what you have.” A person who is grieving is not ungrateful. She has a broken heart. Instead of thinking in terms of one or the other (gratitude or grief) consider that the bereaved are both grateful for their blessings and mournful for their losses. The most comforting words spoken to me were “I don’t know what you are going through, but I am here for you.” Be honest. Speak from your heart. :Less is more. “I don’t know what to say,” is appropriate. It is your presence that matters most.
  3. Make small thoughtful gestures. Invite the bereaved for a cup of tea or a quiet walk. Stop by with a pot of soup or a book or plant. A quick email or text saying “I am thinking of you” weeks and months later means a lot.

In the aftermath of my own grief I realize that we have work to do to build our communities. It is my hope that together we can share our grief and our joys as we move forward after the tragedies that come to the living. I grieve, yet I love. I cry, but I laugh again. I hope that you will join me in reaching out to others and spreading love during the most difficult of circumstances.

 

Work Cited

McCracken, Elizabeth. An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination. New York, NY: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2010. Print.

The Art of Grieving

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When I came across the grief workbook co-created by Mary Burgess and Shiloh Sophia McCloud called Mending Invisible Wings: Healing From the Loss of Your Baby (MIW), it became an important part of my initial grief processing during the postpartum period after my newborn daughter died of trisomy 18. Burgess and McCloud put together this book in order to create a way for others to cope with miscarriage and infant loss. MIW is beautiful from the cover image to the thick, blank pages inviting us to become artists and writers in our grief. The exercises include writing and drawing prompts, rituals, meditation, affirmation, breathing exercises and guided visualizations.

I created paintings and drawings, (one of which became the cover for my book), and wrote about specific aspects of my experience that were helpful. I wrote about the birth scene, my feelings during the pregnancy knowing that my baby would die and, through the exercises some beauty was created from my pain and grief. The exercises gave me the space to acknowledge my journey, while processing my experience.

MIW’s exercises gave me different lenses with which to view my experience with Mary Rose. I didn’t think that I could survive my pregnancy, but I did. I recommend the process of these exercises, but you don’t have to buy the book and go through it step by step (though a link to the book is in the Resources page of my blog). You can also create your own exercises to remember and process your experience.

Suggested Exercises and Tools to Heal Grief

Journal Writing: Get a blank notebook or journal. I like books with no lines so that I can sketch and write. You can decorate the cover of the book with stickers, ribbons, buttons, magazine photos or your own pictures. Record your feelings of grief periodically or daily. I often wrote a few lines, or drew an angel with a heart in her center.

Poetry or Creative Nonfiction: Take a poem that you love and find a line that resonates with you. You can use Jane Kenyon’s poem “Let Evening Come.” Use the same title and write your own poem. Another way to write through grief is to start a longer nonfiction essay by writing separate sections. Brenda Miller’s essays are good examples. You can write about the moment of diagnosis in one section, or the shock of the death in another. Write about the funeral or memorial service, or how there was none. You can build a much longer work through fragments and reflections.

Painting: Get a blank sketch book with thicker paper so that you can use watercolors, if you choose. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Think about your baby and your pregnancy. Think about your womb and your breasts. What images come up? Draw them. Paint them. Write about them. Create a mixed media work and dialogue with your body and your broken heart.

Collage: I made a collage of the sympathy cards that I received on a memory box for my daughter’s few belongings. However, a collage can be a poster, a canvas, a journal. I cut up cards, used color copies of artwork of Mother Mary, cloth butterflies and flowers, stickers and acrylic paint.

Yoga and Meditation Music: The yoga stretches accompanied by meditation music such as Wah!’s music allow the breath to change the moment. A yoga practice can be very helpful in the intensity of grief.

Dance and Movement: Belly dancing or other movement through classes offered in your community can be very beneficial. Getting back into the body after the trauma of miscarriage or infant death and postpartum hormones is a good way to heal the trauma. Yoga, belly dance, walking meditation and walking by a lake weekly. The repetition of the movement, the moments away from the daily routine and the actual physical work help us to reset our thought process.

Drumming: The rhythm of a drumbeat can be a very soothing meditation that can lead to healing. In many cultures the drum is used to transcend the reality of this realm and help the suffering person work towards healing. The drumbeat sounds like a heartbeat and connects us to each other, Earth and our ancestors. Shamanic healing includes drumming, and Sandra Ingerman has a few CDs and meditations that are helpful to walk through grief into a place of peace.

Chanting and Praying: Qi Gong and yoga chants have been very helpful for me to process some of the intense grief and weeping into new energy. The sounds of the Qigong or Sanskrit mantra carry higher vibrations as does the Orthodox prayer Lord Jesus have mercy on me repeated over and over. I pray Hail Mary again and again. The repetition is helpful in shifting from extreme grief into a space of quiet meditation or contemplation.

Garden: Create a memorial garden for your loved one. I have a tiny fairy sculpture in a container with a small fairy rosebush. You don’t need a lot of space or an elaborate garden to honor the life of your child.

 

This essay is adapted from Section IV “The Art of Grieving” from my book Walking the Labyrinth of My Heart: A Journey of Pregnancy, Grief and Newborn Death available at amazon.com. Eight copies of my book are available through a giveaway on goodreads.com this August 2016.

 

 

August Book Giveaway on Goodreads

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Mary Rose’s birthday month is here and we are offering eight signed copies of Walking the Labyrinth of My Heart: A Journey of Pregnancy, Grief and Newborn Death this month on Goodreads. Enter to win a copy by CLICKING HERE:

Goodreads

 

 

E-book Launch!

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We continue to promote Walking the Labyrinth of My  Heart: A Journey of Pregnancy, Grief and Newborn Death, and today we launch the e-book, which is now available on Amazon. This exciting news means that the book is now available around the world!

I am very grateful for the support of my readers. Each time you share my work with others, we are able to offer comfort and guidance to bereaved mothers. It gives me joy to know that in my small way, with this small book about my daughter, Mary Rose, I am able to comfort a sister-in-grief facing pregnancy and infant loss.

Please continue to help spread the word through social media. I have had feedback saying that there is no other grief book on infant loss like this. To read more about why I wrote this book please CLICK HERE.

An added bonus is that though the images in the print book are in black and white, they are in color on newer devices in the e-book. The Heavenly Garden memorial page honoring the souls of the babies and children whom I have met since my journey with Mary Rose began is here in color as a SAMPLE OF THE EBOOK

Look for more giveaways of this book on Goodreads in August to honor Mary Rose’s birthday and in October for Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Please sign up for updates on my blog so that you can read my guest blog post coming up with Spiritual Living about angels.

If there are any topics that you would like me to address in future blog posts, please send me a message on Facebook or Twitter or comment below.

We are in this lifetime together, and together we can grieve more fully to continue walking in the Light.

 

If you would like to purchase the ebook please CLICK HERE

Rebekah Garvin’s “Almost” and Unexpected Grief

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for Vanessa Farnsworth

Grief has a way of looping around and connecting us to different people in unexpected ways. My friend Vanessa is a young widow and today is the one-year anniversary of the death of her husband Ric. He was 35 years old when he died suddenly, the father of a baby and toddler. She is working through her grief, as I continue to work through my grief. My newborn daughter died, and Vanessa’s young husband died. Different, but the same. We mourn, and we live simultaneously. We make meaning of thunderstorms and roses. We continue remembering, tears in our eyes.

Rebekah Garvin wrote the song “Almost” the day her unborn baby’s heart stopped. Garvin writes “I almost had you. / I almost held you. / We were almost a family.” She miscarried her baby. I said something similar about family to my therapist, Adele, soon after Mary Rose died. She said “Sweet Pea, you are still a family of four. It just looks different than you thought. You still have your daughter.” I have held onto these words over the past two years. Mary Rose is still part of this family, and Ric is still the father of his young boys. Ric will always be Vanessa’s young husband. Even so, how do we negotiate this life without our loved ones on the earth plane? It is hard not to wonder what would have been.

Garvin tells us “You were given and taken / just like that. / I’ll never be the same again / just like that.” I remember that moment of confusion during my routine ultrasound that revealed several anomalies. I started thinking ahead. I had to call my sister. I had to get a blood test. I had to celebrate my son’s second birthday because I did not know what our life would be like the following year. Vanessa’s life changed in one moment too. Her husband died unexpectedly. They were the exhausted parents of young babies who had plans for the rest of their lives together.

“Now I’ll never go a day / without thinking / about what we almost had,” Garvin sings. Even though I try to stay in the present moment I see my own expectations. I expect to live for a while. I expect my son to grow up and become a man. These expectations are hard to dispel. Only the present moment is real. I am typing in front of an altar. Photos of my two favorite aunts, one living and one dead. A photo of my grandmother cleaning wild greens. A rose. A shell. A pink bracelet from Cubby. An icon. My mind wanders and I wonder what it would have been like if Mary Rose had lived in her broken body, if her body had been whole and healthy . . .

In moments of sudden change, moments of death and letting go, not only of expectations, but of the ones we love, we tell them to go. I held my daughter’s limp body in a birth pool and urged her to go and do her work. I assured her of our love for her and she met my gaze. Garvin ends her song “fly baby fly / fly angel fly / spread your wings and fly.”

It is not only the ones who travel from this realm to the next who fly. The bereaved can also fly. We can release some of the heaviness of our grief by processing and transmuting it, flying back into this present moment, into living again with joy.

Here in Virginia the sun is shining through the pine trees. Tomato plants flower. A bright pink hibiscus blooms. My heart is beating this moment and will always carry my loved ones inside. Mary Rose and Ric have flown from their bodies. Until we join our loved ones on the other side of the veil, let’s be present and offer an open hand to someone else who is suffering in grief. Let our spirits be comforted with the knowledge that our loved ones are still with us, surrounding us with love and light, in sunny days and stormy nights lighting the Montana night sky on the anniversary of a loved one’s death.

 

 

Book Launch: Why Did I Write This Book?

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Book Launch: Why a Book about Mary Rose?

Books about grief, pregnancy and infant loss have already been written. Yet when I was a pregnant woman walking around in a daze of grief after a prenatal diagnosis of trisomy 18, I did not find comfort in books, the place where I have always found comfort. Other than Nancy Mayer-Whittington’s For the Love of Angela, no book was raw or honest enough. In my state of pregnancy-awaiting-death, I wanted truth. I wanted to know how I could survive carrying life and death inside me. I wanted someone to explain the madness of grief that lasted far longer than Mary Rose’s brief life. I wanted to know that my unborn baby wouldn’t suffer.

In my pregnancy I came up against people’s judgements and beliefs about pregnancies with life-limiting diagnoses and life support for newborns. I fought the system to birth my daughter at home and give her a quiet peaceful life. I prepared her body for burial on my own bed where we held her, where she died. In the aftermath of my grief, I came face to face with our culture’s ignorant ways in treating the bereaved. Many kind people comforted us, but once I left my house cocoon and reentered life, I felt silenced and judged for grieving. Some people think that I am angry, but I am not angry. I am writing to speak my truth. Grief can take a lifetime to process. Grief is also infused with joy, as we live again.

To get to that joy, we first need tender love, a way to process our grief (I chose art), and the truth that life and death are inextricably linked. They always were. They always will be. Babies sometimes die. Women sometimes miscarry. I write Mary Rose into a book and send her out into the world to comfort women facing pregnancy and infant loss. I write to support communities – real communities – that walk together through the joys and grief that comprise human experience. Mary Rose’s book is as raw as a pregnant mother buying a casket and planning a funeral. It is as real as breath and love.

Today White Flowers Press launches Walking the Labyrinth of My Heart: A Journey of Pregnancy, Grief and Infant Death. The numbers are staggering. One in four women miscarry. One million babies die in this country before their first birthday. We all know women who have had their pregnancy losses, but most of us continue to ignore them because they are uncomfortable. This book addresses the social awkwardness that we feel around death and grief. It addresses the grieving mother, but also the family and friends that surround her not knowing what to say.

Every page of this book was watered with my tears; I kept writing anyway. I did not walk my pregnancy alone, and I do not want anyone else to be alone in that sacred space. I had my mentor Cubby, my parents, my sister, my closest friends. A therapist. A few midwives. A homeopath and bereavement doula. A son. A husband. A priest and his wife. A shaman. And the blessed nuns who pray in their little rooms for this broken world. Not every woman has a midwife to accompany her to the scariest of doctors’ appointments. How long can my baby live? What do I do next? And so I write for my readers.

In her memoir The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch ends her book with these words:

Listen I can see you. If you are like me. You do not deserve most of what has happened or will. But there is something I can offer you. Whoever you are. Out there. As lonely as it gets, you are not alone. There is another kind of love . . . . This book? It’s for you. It’s water I made a path through . . . . Come in . . .

Yuknavitch is talking about art. The art of words and books and many media. I agree that art is a gift, but the gift is also truth and an open loving heart that loves our vulnerable babies who are miscarried, born still or die soon after birth.

After my pregnancy I did research and found out the most important thing. If Mary Rose had lived, she would not have suffered. Why didn’t my doctors tell me that? I was so anxious in that unknowing. I intend for this book to clear up the blur of getting a life-limiting diagnosis during pregnancy, for it to be a companion as we walk through the fog of grief. You are not alone. Many women have gone before you, walking this path, since the beginning of our myths and stories. And those babies who were miscarried, born still or alive, who lived a minute or a day, their souls are perfect and the stories of their lives will heal our own grieving souls.

Today on the launch of Mary Rose’s book please share this blog post, if our work resonates with you.

I am grateful for your help and support.

To purchase Walking the Labyrinth of My Heart: A Journey of Pregnancy, Grief and Infant Death please click on this link:

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Mother’s Day: Joyously Connecting with our Loved Ones in Spirit

IMG_2298for Nancy Eagle Spirit Woman

People are writing and posting about Mother’s Day and grief, about International Mothers’ Day for the Bereaved, which was celebrated last week, about the lack of response from our friends, family and community in remembering us during Mother’s Day. I have been thinking about how much importance we give one day, one holiday. I have decided to make a safe space for myself this Mother’s Day. I plan to stay home away from pregnant women and newborns who trigger my trauma. I want to be in my garden with mud underneath my fingernails. I want to be with my son, and I want to be with Mary Rose.

Instead of focusing on the separation that we feel from our loved ones in spirit, this year I will call Mary Rose to me. I will welcome her into my day as an ancestor of light and I will spend my day with both of my children. Lighting a candle is one way to remember our children. Planting a flower or plant is another. I will breathe deeply this Sunday remembering her small body, the sacred hour of her life here on earth, as I celebrate the life that she has now. I know that I will grieve my newborn’s death for the rest of my life, but I want to do so joyously. I cannot change the way that I see the world differently after holding life and death in my arms, but I can reinforce the love that deepens for my daughter. I will stay in a safe space where I can cry and remember my daughter while celebrating my continued role as her mother.

I am thinking more with my heart these days. My reality is shifting from a thinking place of lonely loss to a heart place of loving communion. This year I invite each of you whose children or mothers are not in an earthly body to celebrate anyway. It is my great hope that we can celebrate this Mother’s Day with tearful smiles and an understanding that the veil is thin, that our loved ones are still our children from their heavenly place, even the ones who were miscarried.

My connection to my daughter is deeper this year. She has been at my side as I wept and wrote her book that will soon be released by White Flowers Press. I have been through another year of milestones without her physical body, but she is here.

One night my son said to me “I feel Mary Rose in my heart. My heart is soooo big from the love of my sister.” She continues to be a part of our family. She continues to be my daughter. She is an intercessor helping us in our daily lives. I won’t be able to hear her whispers over the clatter and chatter in a restaurant, so I will be outside on our Earth celebrating quietly knowing that all life has its purpose and continues far beyond the life of the human body. I will listen to the birds’ songs, and notice the peony about to burst open. I too am open. Mary Rose, come…

 

Walking the Labyrinth of My Heart: A Journey of Pregnancy, Grief and Infant Death will be released later this month by White Flowers Press.

 

International Bereaved Mothers Day, Eastern Orthodox Easter and Mother’s Day

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It is May 1st and I am with my family celebrating Pascha or Easter. According to our tradition the Last Supper was during Passover and so our holiday comes after Passover each year. It is also International Bereaved Mothers Day, a holiday meant to support women whose children have died, started by Carly Marie. Today women who have faced miscarriages, the death of a child or infertility will be nurtured and remembered. Our Mother’s Day holiday excludes many including the infertile and bereaved, so Carly Marie started this new holiday. However, I’m not so sure that another holiday is what we need. Instead we can open our hearts as a community and remember those around us who suffer from losses with those who have not. If we are united as a community then my own grief is your grief, and we can share in love and joy and sadness together.

As I stood in front of the altar of Holy Trinity Church in Yonkers, New York, this morning, I lit one candle for the dead on one side of the holy doors and one candle for the living on the other side, my two children. I thought about my trisomy 18 communities and all the babies who died in the last few weeks. Some were born still, some lived for a moment. I remembered International Bereaved Mothers Day and I had to step outside the side door of church to catch my breath. I have been walking between the living and the dead for so long now it seems that the veil between the worlds is permanently thin. I live in a space with my living and my dead.

Next Sunday, May 8th, is Mother’s Day in the United States. I will stay home with my son and garden and go for a walk. I will remember Mary Rose and my son next Sunday, as I do every day. I cannot separate my own role as a mother to that of a bereaved mother today to celebrate Carly Marie’s day of remembrance, and then celebrate as a joyful mother of a living child next Sunday. I am one woman, and I wish that our culture could operate as one body where we can share our lives with our fellow co-workers, parishioners, friends, family, etc.

Who is the God does wonders? we sang in church today. Our God, our God, our God is so great who does wonders, we reply. Is Mary Rose a wonder of God? Is my dear, living son? I rejoice often that I was chosen to bear Mary Rose, and the grief that I live with, and will continue to live with, is the price I pay for being her mother. I rejoice often for my dear son.

We also sang Let us embrace each other joyously! this morning. This is my hope and my prayer for Pascha, for Mother’s Day. I pray that we can embrace each other joyously in both our sorrows and our joys. I pray that we develop communities that support each other united as one body, instead of comfortably staying in our cliques and rejoicing with new mothers of healthy living children while bereaved mothers and infertile women feel marginalized. We cannot only support people in their joy. We cannot only offer condolences in the aftermath of tragedy. Grief takes time to work itself through. We are all a part of this earth at this particular moment in time, and we can only heal together. May we learn to sit with each other in sorrow and in joy. May we offer love and tea. May it be so every day of the year.

 

For last year’s post Mother’s Day for the Bereaved click here: http://www.diannavagianos.com/blog/?p=95 I discuss celebrating with our loved ones who have died and connecting with their spirits.

#IHadAMiscarriage

miscarriage cardMy friend writes to me and tells me that someone she loves is miscarrying right now. As she writes to ask me to pray she tells me that the mother is twelve weeks along with her first pregnancy. I have never met this new mother who will not hold her baby, but I send her Sindy’s card “Healing Companion.” What do we say or do when someone miscarries? Our American culture tells us to do nothing. Say nothing. We do not send sympathy cards. We do not bring soup. We tell the woman who is bleeding You can have another or You already have one child or It’s for the best.

What I want this new grieving mother to know is that it is okay to cry. It is okay to stay in bed and weep and bleed and know that your child’s physical form is gone with every cell of your body. It aches. It changes everything. Please know that your baby has a soul that is perfect and intact regardless of the miscarriage. You are your child’s mother still. And when you are ready to get out of bed and look at the sky again, and think about another pregnancy or wait, that will be okay too. You will not betray your miscarried baby by  moving forward with your life.

I want to encourage each reader to open her heart to the bereaved mothers and families dealing with miscarriage and infant loss. No one stays in the initial intensity of grief forever, but while the loss is fresh I hope that we can offer support and bear some of the grief together. Elizabeth McCracken reminds us grief lasts longer than most expressions of sympathy. As the bereaved family gets to milestones and anniversaries, it is so helpful if someone remembers. There is the baby’s due date, the six-month milestone, the one-year milestone. I am thinking particularly of our parishes where there seem to be so many pregnant women and newborn babies. Is there a space to hold the sad mother whose arms are empty? Can we embrace both the pregnant families and those who bear much loss? I hope that there is room to show compassion and love to both. No one has to say anything profound. Following are a few suggestions:

1. I don’t know what to say but I am here for you.
2. Can I stop by and bring some supper?
3. May I share a cup of tea with you?
4. I’m emailing a poem that got me through a tough time.
5. Just checking in. I’m thinking about you.

When a woman miscarries she finds out that there is a vast sisterhood of others who have had a pregnancy loss or whose sister or mother or friend also miscarried. These babies are gone at five weeks, as my two were, or at eight weeks, 12 weeks, 16 weeks. Once a woman reaches the 20th week of pregnancy instead of miscarriage, we use the word stilbirth. Language doesn’t change the reality that we were pregnant and then we weren’t without the baby we had longed and hoped for. The sad thing about the sisterhood is that it is mostly silent. We don’t have a network of support readily available to us. Women don’t usually talk about their miscarriages. We hide them and cry silently and privately. Please create a space where we can be whole and acknowledge our birth stories and pregnancies and children regardless of the outcomes together. No woman needs to be alone as she faces her grief after a miscarriage or infant death.

I recently met with the poet Nicholas Samaras and he reminded me of his poem to his miscarried babies. These words comfort me so I send them out to you, Dear Reader. May the memory of our miscarried babies and our babies gone too soon be eternal!

I Think of My Children in Heaven (49th Psalm)
by Nicholas Samaras

Gone before we had a chance to give them names.
Gone before we could glimpse the grace of their faces—
like smoke and the lingering fragrance of smoke.
I sit in spring light and think of my children in Heaven.

How is it possible to give color to this absence?
How I pray for their lives, miscarried and missed.
My only comfort is faith their souls are full in conception.
How I feel their fledgling presence for the rest of my life.

Father of souls, I swallow hard to commemorate
each still day that is not a birthday.
Through each hour, I am a father who raises
my remaining children in this life we have left.

Nightly, the meager stars grow scant and fragile.
The stars still tremble in their glimmering light.
I hold my son’s hand that is so slender and trusting.
Tucking his tiny body into gentle sleep,

I check on his breathing throughout the dim hours.
Each breath in is my relief. Each breath out is my hope.
I imagine my children’s brothers and sisters equally
growing in Heaven, and pray they watch over us.

Gone and remaining, I hold their nameless names
deep within the hole in my heart.
A song for the reunion of our pulses in rhythm.
A psalm for our lives touches and lives imparted.

 

Photo from Dr. Jessica Zucker’s store at drjessicazucker.com. Dr. Zucker created a line of cards specific to miscarriage and infant loss.

Sources
Samaras, Nicholas. American Psalm, World Psalm. Ashland, OH: The Ashland Poetry Press, 2014. Print.

Navigating Through the Holiday Season After Infant Death: A Meditation on Joy, Interrupted

blog IMG_0163‘Tis the Season. For those of us who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth and infant death, how do we walk through the holiday cheer? It is the season for Christmas cards and sparkly cookies, parties and gifts. It is also the time of year when somehow the fact that the world keeps spinning without slowing down to acknowledge Mary Rose makes my heart feel a little more tender. This second year of holidays after my daughter’s death from trisomy 18 hurts. After two early miscarriages in July and October, the holidays feel raw and holy. I walk this path gently.

­My friend, Daniela, recently sent me the book Joy, Interrupted edited by Melissa Miles McCarter. I love the title: Joy, Interrupted. Even in the midst of my pregnancy with Mary Rose when I knew that she would die, there were moments of joy. Snuggles and kisses. Loving conversations. Moments of grace when those who love me did stand by me. A bit of community. Hugs. I continue to find joy even though it is interrupted by grief and longing.

In McCarter’s book she collects works of various genres including artwork. The stories of heartbreak and hope are poignant. I love the titles of the five main sections: No, Furies, Plea, Longing, Acceptance.  The editor’s own daughter, Maddie, died at six weeks of SIDS. She then experienced secondary infertility. McCarter’s pregnancy was not easy and it ends for her in the death of her baby. She put together this anthology to heal and offer healing to others. The book has a range of topics including infertility and death of the mother, as well as miscarriage, abortion, adoption, stillbirth, infant and child death. The essays by Gabriella Burman about her daughter, Michaela, who died suddenly at five years old, 12 days after her youngest sister was born, brought tears to my eyes. Michaela who had many challenges and delays is a beautiful girl and her eyes cut to my own heart. (There are a few photos in the back of the book remembering those whom the writers honor.) One essay by Gail Marlene Schwartz about her pregnancy with twins was also particularly touching. One of the twins has Down’s Syndrome. Instead of aborting Benjamin, who does not fit into his parents’ family, he is given up for adoption to a willing and waiting family. That which one does not want is another person’s miracle.

Reading this collection during Advent makes sense to me, because I keep pausing as I check in with my heart and inner knowing. I don’t want to be swept up into the insanity of this season without remembering my family in its entirety. Last December I was in a foggy daze, but I wanted to create a good holiday for my living son, so through my tears and heartache, I decorated a tree, took a family photo, sent out cards, and baked. But it hurt each step of the rocky, craggy path. It hurt and now I am here again. People say that time makes this pain better. I can say that I am not quite as shocked as I was last year. I can also say that I don’t cry hysterically as often, but my eyes tear up frequently as I open my heart again and again. With each opportunity to love another I open my heart to being broken again. I cannot build a fortress around my heart. As Marie Howe writes in her beautiful poem “What the Living Do,” “I am living. I remember you.”

Last year when I worked on our family Christmas card I included Mary Rose’s name on the card after my son’s name. The Armentrout family includes Mary Rose. Every time I sign a card with our family names without hers my heart aches. Perhaps I will change the wording this year to say something like “and Mary Rose, in our hearts” or “and our intercessor, Mary Rose.” I hope that for parents struggling with their footing on how to be a family with part of their heart in the heavenworlds that there is space to acknowledge all of the children, if that feels right, even if our family and friends do not speak their names any longer.

Our friend Annie made us our Christmas stockings last year. She knitted these huge, beautiful, homemade stockings and she knitted an angel on the back of each stocking to remember Mary Rose.  Mary Rose whose only Christmas on earth was that first year when I was newly pregnant with her. Isaiah’s Promise sent a handmade pink stocking with Mary Rose’s name on it and a small angel pin. This year I am thinking of putting something from Mary Rose to the other children in that stocking. If she is with us continuously and constantly, then what would be an appropriate gift to her brother and cousins? Chocolate? A sweet treat? Perhaps this will be a new tradition for me to keep her in the family, to weave her short life here into our longer lives on this earth.

Two years ago I bought a Christmas ornament from Brian Andreas and StoryPeople. It says “I carry you with me/into the world,/into the smell of rain/& the words/that dance/between/people/& for me/it will always/be this way,/walking/in the light,/remembering/being alive/together.” When I bought it I knew that my aunt would not live much longer. I unpacked the ornament last December after the year that changed everything. I wept because of the truth that now my daughter, that spark of life the previous December in my first-trimester was now somewhere else, not posing for photos under the tree, not growing, not here on this earth.

Last year my sister and her family made a donation to Isaiah’s Promise for Christmas in memory of Mary Rose. This meant so much. Perhaps this holiday season for those readers who know of a family who has experienced a baby death, a small donation and a card with the name of the baby could be offered. It is the speaking of the name, the acknowledgment of the life that we mothers seek. The comfort is in coming together as a community to celebrate our living and our dead, as we are intricately woven together, those still living on the earth and the ancestors of different generations here in their other-worldly presence.

As for the parties and the celebrations, I go to a few but give myself space to leave if I want to, to cry if that feels right. I was at a meeting this week and a tiny newborn girl with Mary Rose’s coloring was right behind me fussing and being a baby. I wanted to get up and leave, but I decided that I could make it through the two hours to be with my friends. Other times I just don’t face the world because I can’t. Cubby didn’t go near babies for two years after her beloved newborn, Francis, died. I navigate the best I can and hope that each of you readers has good support, warm tea, and the space to rest and grieve in your own time. It is so important to take the steps to rejoin the spinning world around us, but it is good to know one’s own limitations too.

This year as I prepare for Christmas, I am in a different space. I think of the Christ child whom we remember this Christmas. I think of Mary and how all mothers await their babies. I remember my anticipation waiting for Mary Rose.  A child is coming who promises peace and love to our broken world. Even in grief, the light settles in each day and a gerbera daisy blooms in December in my garden. Sister Evelyn of Mount St. Mary’s Abbey told me once, when my aunt was suffering from atypical meningioma, to look for the small miracles that surround the difficult situation. Around my aunt’s hospital bed many gathered. We shared chocolate. My son brought joy to her long days. She made us laugh until her very end. Indeed the miracles abound, but Sr. Evelyn tells us to look for them. It’s okay if our joy is interrupted by our grief, as long as we allow joy to come back again and again and again.