Author Archives: Dianna Vagianos Armentrout

Bearing the Unbearable

I have two friends whose children died today. Terry’s daughter Holly died on November 27 of cystic fibrosis. Miko’s son Josh was killed in a car wreck that same day in another year. These deaths were many years ago, yet my friends still grieve their children. Dear Reader, do you still miss your loved ones who are gone from this life? Do you cry alone because people want you to be over your losses? Please don’t. Please don’t hide your love. Let’s give each other permission to grieve and love and cry and laugh, because we are living, and our love keeps growing.

Last week I sat in church next to a young woman Corrina whose father Timothy passed away suddenly. What do those of us who know deep suffering do when we are in the face of death and sadness? I hugged Corrina and wept into her shoulder as she cried on mine. I never met her father, who is a veteran. I don’t know Corrina well. Yet.

I told Corrina about Joanne Cacciatore’s book Bearing the Unbearable. It is such an important book because it gives us permission to grieve. Cacciatore, who is a therapist, writes this book 25 years after her baby died. She shares stories of many who need to grieve, but don’t know how to do so in our anti-death culture. Some of her clients initially went to her for therapy to “get over” the grief of a loved one. Thankfully, Cacciatore corrects this expectation of popular culture in her much-needed book.

Cacciatore tells us

When others call into question our grief, defy our perennial relationship with those we love who have died, treat us as anathema and avoid us, and push us toward healing before we are ready, they simply redouble our burden.

It almost seems that the only way to eradicate our grief would be to relinquish the love that we feel–to disassemble our loved one’s place in our lives. But checking in with the wisdom of our heart, we see that is impossible.

Grief and love occur in tandem (12).

I have been shunned because my newborn died. I know that I remind women that their children can die. But I walk the truth of my life. When people ask me how many children I have, I always mention my living son and my daughter, Mary Rose, who lived one hour. People are uncomfortable, but why? Why exactly do we fear and ignore the very death that awaits each of our bodies?

After her own newborn daughter Cheyenne’s death Cacciatore says “I didn’t know how to cope in a world that would acknowledge neither my grief nor my love for my daughter (40).” Acknowledgement is so important to each of us on our grief journey. Grief does change over time. However, it does not magically go away one day. This summer was the four-year anniversary of our daughter’s birth and death, and I was surprised at how much I grieved and cried and hid in my garden.

Cacciatore boldly writes

We have earned this grief, paying for it with love and steadfast devotion. We own this pain, even on days when we wish it weren’t so. We needn’t give it away or allow anything, or anyone, to pilfer it.

Through the grief and the love we can hold our heads high –even in tears, even shattered.

What’s ours is ours–and rightfully (31).

I cried when I read this passage. Of course I still grieve my daughter and my aunt and my friend and so many others who have passed away. These words of acknowledgement of the life of grief can heal many of us who teeter around socially in a world that prefers not to hear us speak our beloveds’ names. And grief can be a holy path. It unites us to each other. It allows us to comfort each other and share our love. Grief can be a path of salvation and purpose when it is transmuted into light and love.

I offer these words to my friends Terry and Miko on a difficult anniversary day. I give them to Corrina who is about to bury her beloved father. You are not alone. You are loved. And may the memory of Holly, Josh and Timothy be eternal!

On the Fourth Anniversary of My Newborn Daughter’s Death

          for Eva on her first birthday not on this Earth

Grief hits me as hard and suddenly as the hail storm pelting the garden I grew from seeds. Four-year grief builds with the moisture of the Gulf of Mexico that collides with the weather of the Rocky Mountains creating summer white groundcover of hail. My fairy garden strawberry plant sits in the white of hail. Tomato plants are pelted and bruised, limbs broken, leaves dying from the impact. Delicate string bean leaves with holes, sunflower leaves also broken. The 37 rose bushes on, what my son calls, Rose Way, look weak and sad. I am stunned by the fierceness of the winds, so many leaves from the trees down, but I get to work, my fingers frozen and muddy as I scoop out the round cold hail from newly planted strawberry plants. Will they make it? I wonder.

Later in the week I harvest three zucchini and cucumbers, a handful of string beans and the two strawberries left after the storm. Tender dark leaves of lacinato kale. My humble harvest. They are all marked where the hail bounced off of them with force.

And then as August approaches I weep uncontrollably in the darkness of the night, as I did when I was pregnant, and knew that my baby would die. My son is asleep after he asks me again if we can have another child, my husband’s c-pap machine whirrs. Why so many tears at the four-year mark?

My sister brings me a beautiful copper-plated aspen leaf ornament from Breckenridge. It’s not a birthday present, she says, It’s more of a remembrance.  Terry whose two beautiful daughters died of cystic fibrosis leaves a message. And as August 8thapproaches, all night I dream of meeting Lori, mama of sweet Eva, whose older brother lives and thrives though grief batters their family as well.

What do you do on Mary Rose’s birthday? my neighbor Angela asks, as her baby girl proudly toddles around the yard. I tell her I need quiet. I shore up in stillness and protect my heart with kindness. Only those who can love a mother bruised by grief can come near. I say no to volunteering at school this week though we are moving into a new building. No to crowds of people chatting. No. No.

But I have to get by, have to walk through the days. I remember feeling this way when the contractions swelled in my body for days, when I labored and then was emptied of my baby girl.

I have buried many this lifetime.

My son wants to make a pistachio cake with rose buttercream. Cake, I think. Cake for a dead baby’s birthday? I will make cake for my living son on my daughter’s birthday.

Dirt soothes me. I plant another rose bush, a butterfly bush, some coreopsis on Mary Rose’s birthday. I plan to thin the irises and surround myself in their bearded blossoms,  plant new bulbs that will surprise me in spring, but it takes hours to plant a few plants in the Colorado clay soil. I am limited in what I can accomplish this summer. I amend some of the soil with my own compost and planting soil. I bless each plant and hope it blooms in the coming years.

For those who think that this grief signals a lack of acceptance – life is not an either/or situation. I accept my daughter’s death from trisomy 18, and I will grieve her with my body and heart until I die because I am her mother. Because we are one with the Earth that also lets go and grieves. I am true to her memory and her daughterness. Though people would tell us that we should move on, I am here holding space for my daughter and my grief. Space for my living son with his losses and milestones. Space to do this work of grieving and being in the reality of both great joy and sadness simultaneously.

On my daugher’s birthday and every day I pray, Mary Rose, my daughter still, I love you.

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

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.

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.

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.

 

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…

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.

 

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.

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/