Are You Brave Enough?

Are you brave enough to sit with someone who has lost a loved one, and hear them tell you how much they miss their baby or mother or father who have died?

Is your  heart open to those with long-lasting grief? Grief that never goes away, though it changes as years and decades go by.

Are you brave enough to mention Colin, Mary Rose or Grace Miriam?

Is your heart open enough to hold grief and joy together with its pulsing beauty?

Will you open your arms and hug the bereaved who feel shunned and unheard this holiday season once again?

Please join me. Sit with them. Look into their eyes. Sit with me. See my tears. The Christmas tree is up, and some of us weep as we hold an ornament with newborn footprints from a brief encounter long ago.

Join me with a cup of tea. Hold the love and grief over the newly departed newborns Brigid and Eva. Please remember their parents and siblings and loved ones. This holiday season, let’s make a big web of comfort to catch people who are feeling lonely and sad. We are in this life together, with all its joy and blessings and losses. Together we can face another year of longing to hold them one more time, as we weave strong communities of light.

 

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One Mother’s Response to Lockdown Drills in Kindergarten on the Five-Year Anniversary of the Newtown Shootings

At dinner my five-year-old boy tells me that he had a lockdown drill in his kindergarten classroom. He crouches down on our kitchen floor. I had to sit like this for a very long time Mommy, he says. My teacher told me it will keep me safe. Locks, lights and out of sight, he tells me. The kids did great, we heard in a voice mail message from the school later that night. Though I am grateful that my son’s school is following safety protocol, I am crying tonight because I can’t stop thinking of the Newtown shootings as my son approaches the age of the schoolchildren who were killed five years ago.

Five years ago on December 14th I held my baby boy as I read my friend’s Facebook post. Our son is safe. No other news yet. I waited to understand what was happening, and then I knew. I looked on in disbelief at the photos of young children slaughtered in their classrooms. Massacre. Bloodshed. Those sweet faces, in their last school photos smiling. Innocence and a few adult teeth. Bright eyes and Christmas coming. The children were about to turn seven or eight. My friend’s young son lost his best friend that year.

Why am I writing about Newtown on my blog about newborn death and miscarriage? When a woman holds her newborn baby as she cools in her arms after birth, she is changed. I am not afraid to speak my mind, and after one of my children has died, I am afraid to send my living son to school.

Terrorism. We use this word to describe people who look different from white Americans who violently attack others, but here in the United States white men commit acts of terrorism, though we do not use that word. Gun laws haven’t changed much since Newtown, and that city is close to my heart because I lived in nearby Shelton, Connecticut, for a decade.

On the first day of school this year I walked up hundreds of steps to the Shrine of Mother Cabrini, and prayed and cried asking for protection for our children. I hope that there is an angel at every entrance of my son’s school. And my niece’s school. And every school in our broken country. I hope that our wonderful teachers are safe, and that our children are safe. Recently, our priest discussed guns in liturgy after the church shooting in Texas. He declared that having weapons in church to prepare for an attack goes against every tenet of our faith. Some people opposed him saying that they should be able to protect the children. If God takes us, then we will be martyred for Christ, he said. Every liturgy he prays for the bloodless offering of the Eucharist.

I wrote a check to Everytown for Gun Safety this week. My donation was doubled by a matching gift. I have little faith that my donation or any of the petitions I sign will make much of a difference in our violent country. We play violent video games and watch violent TV shows and movies. Our news is violent. Violence has become the norm in America. The NRA is a stronghold in Washington and is working hard to pass conceal carry laws expanding gun use right now. More people can carry loaded guns in our malls, our schools, libraries and all public spaces. The new law will limit each state’s ability to control guns through background checks and other measures. I’m not sure why my fellow citizens do not see the manipulations of another lobby, of another big business. Americans feel safer with more guns. Americans believe it is their constitutional right to bear weapons. Americans call people like me liberal because I want my son to be safe in school where I cannot protect him from madmen with loaded weapons of war.

Reader, do you feel safe as you snuggle your child? Do you think that you have the right to bear weapons of war that are used for mass shootings? What is the intention of a citizen buying a semiautomatic weapon? And what happens if your daughter or son or niece or grandchild becomes the victim of gun violence? Would your belief about gun rights change then?

When my daughter, Mary Rose, died in my arms I thought that I would die from grief. I am not the only one grieving. Time does not heal the wound of losing your child. Ninety three Americans will be killed today with guns. Several are children. I do not want to own a gun to protect my family. I want to walk out into the day and night with confidence that I can be safe in Colorado, or in Connecticut or Virginia. I hope for a day when lockdowns are not needed in a kindergarten classroom.

This year my son started full-day school and took his class picture. He brings home math and art work. He reads to me. And as the school year has unfolded, I pause and remember Newtown often. I do not know the future of my boy, nor of our country, but sometimes I breathe in the scent of his hair and sweat so deeply I know that I won’t miss the time that we are given together. I remind myself that I only have this one moment of wet kisses, lego airplanes, Bob books and sweet chocolate treats.

I am moving to Littleton this month, and in the yard where I will garden there is a memorial tree that was given out by the city to honor the victims of the Columbine shooting that took place in 1999.

On the five-year anniversary of the Newtown shootings, I pray that we take control of our safety by stopping the very people who are profiting on death and mayhem. May our children live and thrive. May all their adult teeth come in.

This December I offer my words to the families of Newtown in solidarity and love, hoping that in the coming years Americans will change the laws and reduce the weapons that are killing, killing, killing. As citizens we have choices to make about our rights. I like to think that the rights of children in a classroom are more important than the rights of mentally unstable people who desire to own weapons of war. This December I remember each of those lost in the terrorist act of Newtown, each child and each adult. May the light of their souls shine brightly on all of us and show us the path to mercy…

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The Myth of Rainbow Babies

After miscarriage and infant loss, we hear about rainbow babies. In the midst of grief and death and loss, most people are uncomfortable, so they talk. You’ll have another. You’ll have your rainbow baby.

I recently sent a copy of my book about my newborn’s death and subsequent miscarriages to a pregnant doula with a fatal diagnosis for her baby. You yearn for another baby, she wrote. You need your rainbow baby. There is no rainbow baby, I replied. She persisted, and it hurt.

What is a rainbow baby? A rainbow baby is the living baby that comes after pregnancy and infant loss. The myth says that after a loss, women and men are rewarded with magical, healthy babies. As if another pregnancy and baby are not subject to the random and karmic losses and illnesses around us. As if a mindset of positive thinking can change all our limitations and fate. And I must say one more time, that this implies that death and illness are our fault because of our thoughts, and I don’t accept blaming women who are suffering already in their grief. We are not causing miscarriages, infertility, fatal illnesses or stillbirth in our babies.

I believe in miracles, and have experienced many life-altering situations that felt like pure magic. But when it comes to fertility, not everyone gets the miracle that they want. I do not share the myth of rainbow babies because I do not want to hurt anyone who is grieving already. Instead I sit with people in their current situation, whatever that might be. Some women do not birth biological children. Many women experience multiple losses. I accept each of us as we are. Our culture encourages fertility treatment as a solution when the costs are astronomical and sometimes do not yield the results people want. I know a few families who have been through in vitro several times without the desired results. They are dejected, depressed and traumatized from the treatments and the loss of their expectations. One friend told me that the clinic where her sister went boasts photos of beautiful, healthy babies on their walls, but their actual success rate is about 33%. The numbers are in the single digits for women who are my age.

But, I have friends who have beautiful healthy children through fertility treatments, you say. So do I. However, I know more disappointed families, and as a woman in my mid-forties, it is not my path. People who tell me to seek fertility treatment to grow my family are not accepting me as I am.

My friend who had a miscarriage and a stillborn has no living children, and is perfectly intact. She is a mother still. For those who are infertile, we must take into consideration the pollution on our planet. We cannot control the effects of toxins and radiation on our fertility. No one is to blame when there is no “rainbow baby.” Instead of striving for this magical, perfect creature, I believe in opening our hearts to all possibilities while living in reality.

I am a member of a spiritual Facebook page that encourages fertility. What do I do in the midst of discussions of rainbow babies and unicorn mamas? I take a sip of my tea, take a deeper breath, notice the golden leaves dropping from their trees (and wonder what a unicorn mama is exactly).

Am I infertile, or do I function as a woman who is changing and growing and birthing? Should I focus on bringing another child into my family, or should I accept that if another child is meant to be mine, she will find me?

Reader, I don’t believe in myths because I believe in reality. The only reality I know is love. Love grows and blooms. Love is my fertility. And to the mother who has multiple living children and insists that I have a rainbow baby: I don’t deserve a rainbow. I deserve respect, and to respect me is to honor me as I am with all of my losses.

Rainbows do not appear only to those with pregnancy and infant losses. They surprise and brighten the skies of all who pause to see them. In our fractured sisterhood, may we embrace each other regardless of the path or the loss or the manifestation of fertility. May we accept our unique paths as they are, without imposing a solution to grief. No child can replace a child who has died. And death is not infertility. It is a new life in spirit, and I bless that life again and again and again.

 

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Taking My Time Driving in the Mountains

I am driving to Divide, Colorado, to see the wolves at The Wolf Sanctuary. The indirect route is many more miles on a highway. Why would anyone want to go out of the way? I decide to take the local route. But I’m an East Coast woman, with no experience driving in the mountains. Now I am driving on a winding mountain road through Pike National Forest. If I look down as I wind around tight curves going under 20 miles an hour, I see that nothing is protecting us from careening down a steep cliff, except my attention to this 44-mile road. My nephew and son are oblivious to the way that I am clutching the steering wheel. My husband falls asleep.

We pass the remains of forest fires. At first I only notice what seem to be corpses of trees. I have never seen such a landscape. Hills and deciduous trees surround me. Then a field of burnt forest. Then living trees again. An invisible line seems to separate the trees that were spared and the trees that once blazed with quickly spreading fire. By the time I see my second or third field of burnt trees, I notice that there are green grasses growing, and if I look closely, I see that some forest fires are not recent. Life is coming back where fire ravaged and destroyed the land. I begin to notice a chronology of fire by looking at how high the growth is between the remains of the trees. Here the land is barren. Now I see grass and bushes. Another area has taller shrubs and saplings. Life comes back.

I am still adjusting to altitude after eight months here. A deep spiritual energy fills the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I walk up the stairs at Mother Cabrini’s Shrine in Golden and look out at mountains and the traffic of cars traveling west. I drive up to Georgetown, one of the first Rocky Mountain towns. The first time I am terrified as cars and trucks pass me. The second time is much easier. I pass some trucks this time. I’m only a little scared when the Georgetown train takes us on a narrow bridge over a precipice of two mountains.

My life holds many contradictions. On the one hand, I want to sit quietly and meditate on hills and God. On the other hand, the speed limit is 75 miles an hour in some places, and I am a 60-mile-an-hour-driver. How do I hold my yearning for peace in this crazy world? My son started school, and we are already fundraising. I have to market my book, go on a virtual blog tour, finish my novel. Will I ever get to the grant application with a September 1st deadline? I want to sit quietly and close my eyes to the world with its constant noise, emails, texts, and social media posts playing in a continual loop.

And with grief, people tell us to get over something that has burned our very hearts. It is time, they say, to get over your daughter’s death, your husband’s suicide, your mother’s illness. Who decides the timeline of the heart? Who can dictate my speed limit? More than ever I am driving slowly up the mountains. Slowly around the bends of the roads that offer no barriers to protect me from falling. My eyes are fixed ahead on the road, wherever it takes me.

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A Transcendent Experience of Life and Death

I was interviewed today by Kelly Meehan-Tobatabo of Spirit Baby Radio. We shared our perspective on grief and loss and moving our pain towards the light. Click on the link below to listen to our conversation.

http://spiritbabyradio.libsyn.com/

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To All Women on Mother’s Day

To All Women on Mother’s Day

To the infertile woman.

To the daughter whose mother has died.

To the mother who has miscarried again.

To the mother whose baby has died.

To the women who hate pink flowers and pink ribbons.

To the mother whose children cannot afford to buy candy and flowers.

To the daughter whose mother isn’t loving, understanding, kind.

To the children who have no mothers.

To the only childless sister.

To the woman who isn’t sure she wants children.

To the woman who is getting older and doesn’t know if she has time to have children.

To the teachers, nurses, caretakers, aunts, and all women who mother throughout the year.

To the children who desperately need mothers.

To the homeless, destitute, addicted, incarcerated mothers. To their children.

To the woman who does not get a flower at church or at work or at home, because they think that she is not a mother.

To the mothers of paintings and sculptures and poems and essays and collages and all art.

To all women, let us unite this day, because motherhood should not divide us.

 

 

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Living in the Layers

 

 

 

Once I was  married to a man who was having a psychotic breakdown, and in my distress I opened Stanley Kunitz’s poetry book as some people open holy texts to the poem “The Layers.”  I was on the floor of my small apartment feeling such heaviness and despair and fear, that I did not know how I would live another minute, let alone another day. This poem saved my life.

 

The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

I heard Kunitz read this poem at the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival when he was in his nineties. Many people gathered under a tent one autumn in New Jersey, and when Kunitz read the line “I  am not done with my changes,” many of us cried. If he was not done, then those who are younger  have much work to do. This April, which is National Poetry Month, I want to share “The Layers” with you.

April has been filled with troubling news on the national and international fronts, while many of us celebrated our spring holy days of Pascha (Easter), Passover and Ridván. Our world is precarious and sometimes appears to be teetering on the brink of darkness. During Holy Week, the week before Pascha, I began attending church at a local Orthodox mission parish. It has been years since I attended so many services because I have not lived close to a church for decades. In the dark, gathering with people who read and sang hymns by the flickering candlelight, I remembered my ancestors. For 400 years my people were enslaved to the Turks. Somehow they kept their religion for future generations by practicing their faith in caves at night. Those were dark torturous times, but somehow my people survived.

For those of us who have lost close friends and family members, especially children, we know darkness. The dark night of the soul lasts much longer than one night. But Kunitz’s poem tells us that we can live despite the litter, by embracing the layers and multidimensionality of life. We can face our challenges and walk through them breathing in light and hope, even when those around us cannot see it.

As April comes to an end, we are expecting snow in Colorado. Earlier this month the snow fell on trees that had already blossomed. Snow and flowers and cold in spring. In our feast of losses I am grateful that we can continue on as we process the many layers of our sacred lives. Thank you for being part of my tribe.

 

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Life’s Little Equations, in memory of Amy Krouse Rosenthal

On March 13, 2017 the beloved writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal died. I don’t know how many times we have read Little Pea, Little Oink, Cookies: Bite Sized Life Lessons, and her many other books that lift us up and help us be better people. You can watch Amy’s videos and see how delighted she was with this world on her website. Amy shines, and in doing small acts with great kindness she teaches us that we can light this world up too. I love the image of the tree where she hung one dollar bills and waited to see who found them. She left notes on ATM machines, according to one article. Her book for grown-ups, Textbook, is an interactive book where I texted her number and received a few different gifts. My most favorite was music for her closing pages. Through that book’s interactive feature I met two of her readers who live in different parts of the country. Her life and actions brought people together, and still do.

After I heard that Amy was dying through her viral Modern Love essay published earlier this month, I requested her books from the library again. It’s been an Amy Krouse Rosenthal festival in our house. I told my five-year old son that this writer was dying. We talked about why her books are so good. We talked about death. We talked about how people can make this planet a better place through their work, especially in community.

On the night that Amy died, my son and I were snuggled in his bed reading this plus that: Life’s Little Equations and her poetry book, The Wonder Book. I wonder if Amy can see all the people who are reading her books tonight, I whispered to my smiling son.

In this plus that she offers us some life equations:

yes + no = maybe

somersaults + somersaults + somersaults = dizzy

anything + sprinkles = better

chores + everyone = family

cozy + smell of pancakes – alarm clock = weekend

 

I recently learned of two stillbirths, both first children. People tell me these stories because they know that I understand pregnancy and infant loss. I offer a copy of my book. I pray. I hope that these families will be okay in the aftermath of their great grief. I write about grief and love and life more since my newborn daughter died, but grief was always there. Amy’s equations have me thinking. Could life be likened to a big pot of soup? If love is broth, what flavor is loss? Sausage or onion? Every life equation includes loss, but after great grief and loss, we can live and love more. Amy loved the word more. Who doesn’t appreciate the living more after one of our beloveds dies? Who doesn’t hold her breath, then breathe in the sweat and smell and noise and texture of the child who lives?

I’m writing my own equations these days:

love + loss + more love = grief

grief + sunlight through trees = joy

5 minutes of rain + first green grass in high desert = spring

breathing + holding hands + missing you every day = my life.

What is your equation? What makes your heart sing?

I leave you with one more equation from Amy’s picture book.

(every star in the sky + the sun + the moon) x my heart = love you to the infinite power.

 

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How the Bereaved Celebrate the Living

Since my daughter died, we have celebrated birthdays and holidays, our son’s milestones and my husband’s retirement from the military. It is two and a half years later, and it still hurts. We feel the emptiness of the space where her body once was. How do the bereaved celebrate the living when our hearts are sometimes still heavy with grief?

In December we moved across the country to the Denver area. We left Mary Rose’s house. We left the place where our toddler became a boy, and now at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, we celebrated our son’s fifth birthday. We celebrate with an excavator cupcake truck at a party with his first cousins. But we miss Mary Rose. We continue to mourn, even as our love for her continues to grow.

How do we celebrate life after loss? My heart is a basket that feels hollow after my loved ones die. How can I fill my basket? How do we gather the courage to celebrate joyously for the living and the dead?

I cry almost every day, remembering Mary Rose and the others. But I also cook and write cards. I spend time outside walking and breathing, noticing my surroundings and the creatures that share my habitat. I breathe in the dry mountain air in wonder. I think of my bedridden aunt who died before Mary Rose, and I am grateful that I can walk. I am grateful for my living family. I bake. I read. I treasure my relationships, especially getting to know my sister again now that we live close to each other for the first time in 14 years. I do all this while I remember. I celebrate the living and the dead, because they are all in my heart.

I teared up when we sang Happy Birthday to our son because he is growing up, and because Mary Rose never did. I feel her close to us, but I still long to hold her in my arms. It is hard to be on this earth and be joyful after a death, but we can do it if we walk together in unity with all those we love, living and dead. It takes great courage to hold both grief and joy in our heart. I suspect that as the years go by, grief does not become easier. It feels like being in the ocean where you never know when there will be a big wave or calm sea. I still can’t predict a riptide that takes me back to the rawest grief.

I’ve been missing my aunt as much as Mary Rose through this move, the holidays and our son’s birthday. Tonight I told my son a story about her while we snuggled together at bedtime. I told him that our Thea Matina was a principal of an elementary school, and that the children had a hard time with her name, Cacomanolis. I told him that the kids sometimes called her Ms. Cacamanolis. There is no kaka in my name, she told her kids. They laughed, and they said her name correctly. My son laughed and laughed until no sound came out, and she was there with us in that moment.

This is how I choose to walk. I carry the ancestors into our future through our stories and memories, through prayers and love. Each new celebration and milestone includes them, as long as we remember, and give thanks. If our friends and family could join us in weaving our dead through our lives, we will be more whole and connected. Crying is just fine, because there is so much joy around us…

 

 

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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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