Category Archives: Holidays for Bereaved

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

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.

 

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.

 

 

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…

 

 

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

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.

 

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.

When Loss Occurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Work Cited

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

August Book Giveaway on Goodreads

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

Goodreads