Interview with the International Grief Institute

 

It was my great honor to be interviewed by Lynda Cheldelin Fell of the The International Grief Institute to discuss Mother’s Day after pregnancy and infant loss. We discussed my pregnancy with Mary Rose, miscarriages, Trisomy 18 and grief.  The link follows.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eChpI__dMl0

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Holding Space: On Loving, Dying and Letting Go by Amy Wright Glenn

When Amy Wright Glenn asked me to endorse her new book Holding Space: On Loving, Dying and Letting Go, I agreed readily. Amy works as a doula and a chaplain, and though we might think that these two vocations are different, in fact they both await the breath. The first breath. The last breath.  Amy founded the Institute of Birth Breath and Death, and I am honored to be a member. This month Amy is offering 10 discounted spots on her advanced training on holding space for pregnancy loss. She has asked me to join her in an interview on April 11th to discuss the reality of the path we walk when we experience miscarriage and infant loss.

Amy’s book is a beautiful compilation of gentle, soulful stories of her clients and work, including her own early miscarriages and reflections of her upbringing and spiritual practices. This book is a resource offering care practices for pregnancy loss support as well. Amy writes “We can still be compassionately and mindfully present to what is, even if ‘what is’ is something that we would never wish to know. It is often terribly difficult to be open to grief and the transformation it ushers forth. However, in the process of acknowledging, integrating and honoring our losses, we may discover that we are grateful for the grief that reconfigures our very being” (53).

I am still surprised by the intensity of grief as I walk through the fourth year without my daughter. To say that it has reconfigured my life is an understatement. If, through trainings and books and education, we can soften the way our culture addresses death (or ignores it) especially when it is the death of the very young, then we can create stronger support systems to grieve and find joy together.

Amy Wright Glenn is offering ten spots in her advanced training on holding space for pregnancy loss this April at a fee of only $50 from $125. She is interviewing me on April 11th at 7 PM Eastern Time and a recording will be available to participants. Please contact Amy and mention this blog post for the discounted fee. The link for training is here:

http://www.birthbreathanddeath.com/advanced-5-hour-training-holding-space-for-pregnancy-loss/

I have also been invited to join Lynda Cheldelin Fell of Grief Diaries on Facebook Live on May 14th, 6 PM Seattle time.

On June 10th, I will be speaking with Mary Rose’s midwife at a midwifery conference here in Colorado. https://www.midwiferyclassroom.com/2018-winter-park-midwifery-conferen

Please share Amy’s book with those who can use her insight and support, and thank you for continuing to read my blog.

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The Dead Bird

It is March on the front range of Colorado, which means that more snow is coming, but today it feels like early summer. I moved to a new home in December and the gardens have secrets to tell. I do not know what will bloom this season or the next. I have a lot of work to do, and my son and I get started. We trim down the ornamental grasses. Tall stalks that surround the deck gave me a cloistered feeling from inside my house this winter, but it is time to make room for new things. And then I notice the dead bird on a small bare bush in one corner of the yard.

Look, a dead bird, I tell my six-year old son.

I will bury it, he says.

This past week my dear friend Corina, who is a child and trauma therapist, shared some important insight about my son’s development. His sister, Mary Rose, died when he was two and a half. The experience of watching me struggle through my sad second pregnancy and meeting his sister one day, only to have her gone the next day are blueprints of his life. Had she died when he was older than three, perhaps this would not be such a strong indicator of his behavioral patterns. Now at six years old, his understanding of life is concrete. He drew a family portrait at school with the three of us. He tells me that dead doesn’t count, that he doesn’t have a sister if she doesn’t have an earthly body. So I get plastic gloves and instead of talking about Mary Rose, we bury the bird together.

Tim gets a shovel and works hard to break into the cold earth under the grass. I reach for the small gray bird, but its feet are still hooked onto the bare branch. I pry them off.  The bird is holding on even in death. The bird is light. I carry it to the hole in the grass.

Dead is not bad, I say to my son, as I lower my hands. Just different. See how the body is still from no more breath?

The angel came to take the bird’s soul, he replies.

I lower the bird into the earth.

Do you want to say a prayer? I ask.

God help the bird’s souls, he says.

We cover the burial place with brown grass. My son reaches for the yogurt container that he was using to move dirt in the garden and shows me a brown rock.

I will put this rock here, so I can remember the bird, he says. And he does.

We read the book The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown a few months ago. Dear Judy Baumel sent me a pdf with the original illustrations by Remy Charlip. My son followed the story this early spring day. He even wanted to make a sign The Dead Bird on paper, as the children make a sign in the story.

Rereading The Dead Bird I wonder about the seeds of the book living in my boy who has known such loss. In the book Margaret Wise Brown shares a song that the children sing to the bird that they find and bury.

Oh bird you’re dead

You’ll never fly again…

We sing to you

Because you’re dead

Feather Bird

And we buried you

In the ground

With ferns and flowers

Because you will never fly

Again in the sky…

Little Dead Bird

She continues

And every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird…

Reader, do you have a song for your dead?

Last weekend Aniela’s spiritual mother died, but when she was still dying, Aniela asked me to pray because Eleanore was afraid. I sang Eleanore a song in the night that is almost morning. I sang Eleanore a song, because even though we never met, we are one creation living and dying and walking through the thresholds. I cried for Eleanore as the angels gathered to usher her soul to the Light, and I cried for the bird in my hand.

In church Alexandra tells me You do grief well. I held  life and death in my womb and in my hands. I cannot unknow what I now know.  I believe in life and I believe in death. They are both the reality of all who live on this earth. Some of us do not ignore death or the dead.  I remember the ones I love who left their earthly bodies as I sip my tea and sing my song. I clip away dead flowers and trim branches. But the branches of my red-stemmed bush are not dead. They are green inside and they will continue to grow and bloom and reach for the sun and the foothills.

And I will continue to sing for my baby girl and my miscarried babies as the years go by.

Please join me. We are living together, and we will not forget.

 

Illustration above by Remy Charlip.

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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 has 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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