Do. No. Harm.

I was recently on a Facebook group page honoring Ina May Gaskin, the pioneer home birth midwife. A mother at the end of her fourth pregnancy wrote about having nightmares after seeing a post about a baby who died at home. This mother was looking for comfort and sympathy. She never mentioned the specific post, but I had posted my home birth story and a photo of my daughter who died of trisomy 18 after birth months ago. I wasn’t sure if my daughter’s photo was the one that gave this woman nightmares, but I got upset, as did another mother whose daughter died a week after birth. As with so many of our social media forums, this post got ugly. A birth worker admonished the bereaved mothers to “do no harm.” We could grieve, but it would be more appropriate to go someplace else. Our birth stories that ended in death had no place on a forum about birth. Our pregnancies, labors and babies are not welcome here. One woman wrote that she believed the referenced post was meant to be incendiary and had been removed, but I’m still not sure.

The numbers of pregnancy and infant loss speak volumes. One in four pregnancies end in miscarriage. One million babies die each year before their first birthday in the United States. Where are bereaved mothers to go? Why is our reality not a part of our cultural discussions of new mothers? I believe that we can form strong alliances and communities where our culture becomes loving enough to celebrate our babies and their short lives. In my dreams, I am embraced in my grief, instead of ignored.

The Baha’i Faith speaks of unity. We cannot have Christianity without Judaism. We cannot have light without the complicated shadows that also live inside each human heart. There is no life without death. Bahá’ulláh says “Of the Tree of Knowledge the All-glorious fruit is this exalted word: Of one Tree are all ye the fruits and of one Bough the leaves (53). All mothers, regardless of outcomes are one body, yet we continue to put up barriers and separate ourselves from each other.

The cultural concept that pregnancy always ends in happy mothers nursing healthy babies does not serve us. We must be brave as we face each pregnancy, each child, because we do not know the outcomes. A healthy living baby does not have more value than a child who dies. I know. I have one of each. If we measure our lives with love, then each soul has a place at the table of the heart.

I have much to celebrate each day, including my sweet daughter, whose life continues to encourage and help others through my book about her impact on my life, Walking the Labyrinth of My Heart: A Journey of Pregnancy, Grief and Newborn Death. But my tender heart continues to grieve when I watch my son play alone, negotiating his reality of why his sister died. My eyes tear up when someone asks me again how many children I have.

I wasn’t sure if I should address this situation, and one birth worker, on my blog, but I was so disappointed in the way that the comments came rolling in, and I was not the only mother offended and hurt. This post is my response to the birth worker who believes bereaved mothers might upset pregnant women. First do no harm, she replied to me again.

I will continue to do no harm by speaking up and writing for my sisters who are infertile, for mothers with no living children, and for those of us who carry our deceased babies in our hearts every day and every hour. We are one body of human sisters and need to unite in community to support one another.

I will continue to do no harm. How about you, Sister?

 

To read my original post that I shared on the Ina May Gaskin Fan Page click here: http://www.diannavagianos.com/blog/?p=269

Work Cited

Esslemont, J.E. Bahá’u’llah and the New Era: An Introduction to the Bahá’i Faith. Wilmette, IL: Bahá’i
Publishing, 2006. Print.

 

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Grief Diaries Poetry & Prose

Following is my introduction to Grief Diaries: Poetry & Prose and More reprinted with permission of Lynda Cheldelin Fell and AlyBlue Media. As we close one year and open the next, our poems and words can be a great source of comfort. Wishing you blessings this 2017.

Stories and poems began with the first humans. Before there was a written language, we painted on the walls of caves and told stories around fires under the night sky. Some of this artwork survives to this day. We still read the earliest Sumerian hymns to Inanna written circa 2300 B.C.E.  We sing ancient hymns in our temples. We pray the same words people have been praying for centuries, because words can transcend a lifetime.

The contributors of this book find hope in writing. After facing tragic losses they turned to the blank page to process trauma, remember loved ones and offer their words to comfort others. Writing memorializes our ancestors. Words help others going through similar challenges. Poems become a healing balm for our own souls as we remember the ones whom we can never forget. As time passes, our words change. We never “get over” our grief, yet we transform our grief into the art of poetry and prose. We create a story about the lives of our daughters and fathers, even as we tell stories about our moments together, about death, about who we now are. We speak stories of our own illnesses, and the illnesses of those around us, and these stories become a light we offer to others. These stories say We survive. You can too.

When I was married to a mentally ill man who had a psychotic breakdown, I studied poetry therapy and bibliotherapy with Dr. Sherry Reiter in New York City. I drove Downtown from Connecticut one Sunday each month and listened to this inspiring mentor teach us about archetypes, therapeutic devices, symbols, metaphors, poetry, stories, but mostly about life and how to cope with its constant changes. Her own husband had suffered a stroke at a young age. When she looked into my eyes and told me that I could survive my husband’s unemployment and illness, she spoke from her own experience.

Twelve people gathered in a circle at Dr. Reiter’s Creative “Righting” Center. Throughout the training I volunteered to bring this therapeutic work to people in nursing homes, underserved communities and HIV positive women in a public health clinic. When participants told me that they could not write poetry, I promised them a poem at the end of our time together. I especially loved watching senior citizens write their first poems. One woman in a nursing home was blind. She told me that she would like to write, but couldn’t see. I invited her to stay, and when I gave the class their writing prompt from the poem that we had read, I wrote her words down for her. She clutched her paper afterwards. “I can’t wait to show my daughter my poem,” she said.

The beauty of writing is that it offers us an opportunity to transmute our pain into something beautiful. There is a turn in every good poem that surprises the writer first. We are taken somewhere unexpected. Writing therapeutically gives us a cognitive, spiritual and emotional modality to turn our grief and pain and suffering into something else. We release some of our pain through catharsis. Our writing which is often accompanied by weeping, allows us to change and grow and heal. And as that sweet woman in the nursing home, we too can show our work to others, if we so choose.

When I was 21 weeks pregnant and found out that my unborn daughter would most likely die soon after birth, if she was born alive, I wrote. I wrote in my journal to process my deep emotional journey. I wrote to save my life. I wrote to be the best mother I could be for Mary Rose. After 9/11 Americans shared poetry and stories. We wrote. We dug out a poem by Auden that resonated with that time period in American history. We write and we read poetry and stories, especially at tragic crossroads, because it is a part of the human condition. We are born with poems in our souls. If we allow ourselves the space to release these words, they often become prayers.

In poetry therapy, as in homeopathy, like cures like. For a grieving client we offer a poem on grief. After reading and discussing the poem, the facilitator will take a line or image from the poem and have the client write her own poem from there. Whether we write a journal entry, a story or poem, words heal. This book offers the stories and poems of its writers to you, Reader, as medicine. I would like to invite each of you to join us in this healing journey. Choose a line from a poem or an essay or blog post and write your own work. Honor your ancestors. Honor your own journey through illness and grief. You can do it. We did. You can too.

To purchase Grief Diaries: Poetry, Prose & More CLICK HERE

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Small Gestures with Great Love: Supporting the Bereaved throughout the Year

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The following essay is published at Journeys Through Grief presented by the Sweeney Alliance.

https://journeysthrugrief.wordpress.com/2016/12/06/bereaved-mother-armentrout/#more-50768

It is December and I am approaching my third Christmas without my baby girl. People tell me that I have to “move on” and “get over” the tragedy of my newborn’s death. These people have never held a still baby. They have never been pregnant with a baby that would die, but they have lots of opinions. The bereaved do not need opinions. We need truth.

My truth is that I am forever changed by my daughter, Mary Rose. Her brief life has broken my heart open – shattered it so that I am no longer the woman who naively thought that her second pregnancy would guarantee a second healthy child. The pain that I have experienced – walking through grief thick as molasses – has allowed me to help others going through an unspeakable loss. I started a blog and wrote a book about my pregnancy to comfort others. Mary Rose lived for one hour, and in that one hour transformed me and my beliefs about motherhood. Even without my living baby girl, I am her mother still.

When I was in a birthing pool holding my newborn with her multiple defects from a random genetic disorder called trisomy 18, I straddled life and death. As another contraction swelled inside my body, I told Mary Rose, Go and do your work, Baby Girl. I knew that she was not meant for this world. When people told me to have faith that God would heal her completely during my pregnancy, I stared at them blankly. I knew that I was called to witness her life and death. I wanted to honor her life, so I accepted her death. Powerless in the face of her condition, I offered her my love.

***

People sometimes ask me how to talk to the bereaved. My friend Kirsty told me that one of her clients lost her son a couple of months ago. He died suddenly at age 25. I visited her once, Kirsty told me. Now what do I do to help her? she asked. Since we are in the holiday season and we know so many people who are holding their broken hearts tenderly as the world around us decorates and sings and parties, I want to take a moment to address the bereaved. What can we do to help each other, support each other, become a stronger community united in love and grief?

I suggested to Kirsty that small things matter most when it comes to comforting our grieving loved ones. Mother Teresa said “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” If we use this newly canonized saint as our example, we can offer more compassion to each other every day.

Reach Out to the Bereaved

Send an email, text, or better yet a card. Your words do not have to be profound. They can be as simple as “I am thinking of you. I don’t know what to say.” I told Kirsty to write to her friend and let her know that she was especially thinking of her on Thanksgiving. Grief lasts much longer than people think. Even if you went to the funeral or memorial service and offered support in those initial days of mourning, grief does not disappear after the first year of milestones without the loved one.

Mention the Deceased Person’s Name

Some people stop saying the name of the person who died, because they don’t want to make us cry, but we cry anyway. When people mention my daughter, they acknowledge her existence, which in turn validates my role as her mother. For families facing miscarriage, stillbirth and infant death, this is especially true. What do we do with our profound love for babies who are no longer here? Babies who are not acknowledged by our families and communities?

Remember Holidays and Birthdays

The first Christmas after my daughter died there was a card under the Christmas tree from my sister and her family. They made a donation to Isaiah’s Promise in Mary Rose’s name and wrote us a note. Someone remembered my daughter and mentioned her name! I suggest a phone call, note, or a similar memorial gift on holidays and birthdays. There is a huge void where our loved one’s bodies once were. Remembering the loved one, lets us know that you are holding us as we live without their physical presence.

I was given a Christmas stocking for Mary Rose after she died. Last year I filled her stocking with chocolates for her brother and cousins. This year I have small angel ornaments to put in her stocking. Mary Rose’s brother and cousins will receive an angel with a rose at its heart in their favorite color. My son loves red. My niece, purple. A blue rose for my nephew. This is my small way of including her in the Christmas holiday, in keeping her memory alive as part of the Vagianos and Armentrout families. I also include her name on our family Christmas card. I add “and our intercessor Mary Rose” to our names.

Accept Death as Part of Life’s Cycle

There is a fear of death in our country. People avoid it all costs, even though we are all going to die. I hope that we can begin to change our attitude about death to one of acceptance instead of avoidance. If the bereaved are shunned, and we do feel shunned when people ignore our losses at work and in our communities, it is not something personal against us. It is the American way of avoiding something uncomfortable. Death is uncomfortable, and bad, according to our cultural messages. When someone dies we say, “She lost her battle,” with an illness. Instead of honoring the transition of life to another form and realm, we use the language of war for death. If we can accept that death comes to people of all ages, then we can accept the family and friends who are left behind. Perhaps it is time to return to ancient spiritual practices that accept and honor death as a part of life. In this way, we stay connected to our ancestors by knowing that they are spiritually close to us.

***

Love continues to grow even after death. Our great grief comes from great love. For those of us circling in the dance of grief, we know that we can laugh with true joy, and then weep surprising torrential tears in the same day. Processing grief is not linear. It is different for each individual. In a healthy society we do not face each day alone, but in a community. We share a bowl of soup, a memory, a walk together. These moments interrupt the loneliness and isolation of our personal sorrow.

This holiday season we can be more mindful of those suffering losses around us. As the darkest days of the year approach, let us be a light for those who are hurting. Let us offer some kindness, compassion and unity, for we each will be touched by death at some point in our lives. Remember it is the small gestures that show love. I will find some quiet moments to write to a few of my bereaved friends. I have a warm cup of tea waiting for you.

 

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Still Grieving this Holiday Season

picThese last weeks have been a whirlwind of motion, more so because in a few days movers will come to pack us up. I am finding things from my pregnancy with Mary Rose, who lived one brief hour. Essential oils of geranium and clary sage. Dried roses from my blessingway. Notes and sympathy cards. My mala beads that broke after so many repetitions of prayers and mantra. I am leaving the house of Mary Rose and it is harder than I thought.

 

cemetmg01My son has been asking for his sister. He asked me if he could go to the cemetery and dig her out and bring her home. This boy who is now almost five years old, sees babies all around him. Only our baby died, he told me last night.

In all of this emotional and physical swirling, I recently wrote a blog post for a grief website about how to support the bereaved through the years of their grief. Years. This feeling of something missing from my physical world is not going away. This is the third Christmas without Mary Rose and I cried as I selected photos for our Christmas card. I want my daughter on our family card too.

Something about this move and writing about grief has me thinking of so many of my friends who are facing another holiday without their loved one in the physical realms. I am thinking of Lakshmi’s Siddha and Sherri’s Bryson and Ryder. Carissa’s Millie and Fernanda’s Madison Rose. Isabel’s Grace Miriam and Audrey’s Zinia. Lauren’s Nora. Lynda’s Allie and Mary’s David and Jacob. Greg and Louisa’s Colin. The babies of many parents I have reached out to in the trisomy 18 community. In my introduction to a Grief Diaries anthology of poetry and prose, I say “But the death of my daughter is not where my grief begins . . . . My beloved aunt, Matina . . . . My friend, Jeanette . . . . Connie . . . Hannah . . . . Ginger. Nadia and Danillo. Mary. Masha. Pappou. Yiayia. Laura. Pauline. Cubby.” This holiday season feels more poignant, perhaps because of my move, perhaps because things are changing so quickly that we cannot seem to catch our breath, perhaps because of those dying around us.

In this life of so much loss I am also impacted by people’s behavior around the election this year. Regardless of political identity and belief, people have been nasty. The anger, the constant political jockeying and sharing and bantering has me down. One of my dear friends seemed ready to let our friendship go because of a Facebook post. When so many of us have lost so much, can we unite in a common love for humanity? Can we come together to honor humans regardless of religion and sexuality, of race and educational status? Is there someone in our circle who could use some kind words and love this day?

My son and I visited the cemetery this afternoon. I hate the cemetery. I haven’t been there since I took my parents last year a few days before Christmas. I needed to go one more time before I move west. I wanted my son to see the cemetery and remember it. Of all the last things we are doing, today’s visit is the most poignant. A child at his sister’s grave puts life in perspective.

It seemed fitting this evening to gather the stones and shells around my statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the yard for the move. My son who wanted to dig his sister out of the cemetery earlier was happy to help me dig a hole under the statue. I released my unstrung mala beads into the earth and buried them on the land where my daughter grew and blossomed into the baby girl that she became.

For those of us who have lost so much, for those of us who live on what Cheryl Strayed calls “Planet My Baby Died” we need peace and light and hope. If I lit a candle in my heart for all of the babies and loved ones and friends I carry inside, I would be ablaze.

For this one moment, this holiday season may these words be my offering to Mary Rose and this broken world. Before I bake a cookie or send a card for the living or board a plane to start a new chapter of my life, let me remember my dead. May this holiday season be lit from within with a love brighter than our most profound grief.

 

If you feel so moved, please comment with your loved one’s names and we will grow this memorial blog post.

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Poems that Honor the Postpartum Body Following Loss

amy-wright-glenns-articleAmy Wright Glenn’s article shares some of my poetry and offers wonderful resources for postpartum mothers who are mourning pregnancy and infant loss.

http://www.phillyvoice.com/poems-honor-postpartum-body-following-loss

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When Loss Occurs

tidewater-photo

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.

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E-Book Sale October 15 – 21

coverWhite Flowers Press is honoring our pregnancy and infant losses by reducing the price on the e-book Walking the Labyrinth of My Heart: A Journey of Pregnancy, Grief and Newborn Death for one week starting on October 15th both in the US and UK on Amazon.

 

In the US

October 15 – 17   $3.99    61% discount

October 18 – 19   $4.99    51% discount

October 20 – 21  $5.99    41% discount

 

In the UK

October 15 – 17   £1.99    74% discount

October 18 – 19   £2.99    61% discount

October 20 – 21  £3.99    48% discount

 

To purchase the book CLICK HERE

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October Book Giveaway on Goodreads

coverOctober is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, and to honor our losses, I am giving away four signed copies of my book about my pregnancy with my daughter, Mary Rose, who died an hour after birth of trisomy 18.

CLICK TO ENTER TO WIN A COPY through Goodreads.

 

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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.

 

 

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August Book Giveaway on Goodreads

cover

 

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

 

 

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