Category Archives: Gratitude

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.

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.

 

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…

 

 

When Loss Occurs

tidewater-photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Work Cited

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

August Book Giveaway on Goodreads

cover

 

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

Goodreads

 

 

Book Launch: Why Did I Write This Book?

cover

Book Launch: Why a Book about Mary Rose?

Books about grief, pregnancy and infant loss have already been written. Yet when I was a pregnant woman walking around in a daze of grief after a prenatal diagnosis of trisomy 18, I did not find comfort in books, the place where I have always found comfort. Other than Nancy Mayer-Whittington’s For the Love of Angela, no book was raw or honest enough. In my state of pregnancy-awaiting-death, I wanted truth. I wanted to know how I could survive carrying life and death inside me. I wanted someone to explain the madness of grief that lasted far longer than Mary Rose’s brief life. I wanted to know that my unborn baby wouldn’t suffer.

In my pregnancy I came up against people’s judgements and beliefs about pregnancies with life-limiting diagnoses and life support for newborns. I fought the system to birth my daughter at home and give her a quiet peaceful life. I prepared her body for burial on my own bed where we held her, where she died. In the aftermath of my grief, I came face to face with our culture’s ignorant ways in treating the bereaved. Many kind people comforted us, but once I left my house cocoon and reentered life, I felt silenced and judged for grieving. Some people think that I am angry, but I am not angry. I am writing to speak my truth. Grief can take a lifetime to process. Grief is also infused with joy, as we live again.

To get to that joy, we first need tender love, a way to process our grief (I chose art), and the truth that life and death are inextricably linked. They always were. They always will be. Babies sometimes die. Women sometimes miscarry. I write Mary Rose into a book and send her out into the world to comfort women facing pregnancy and infant loss. I write to support communities – real communities – that walk together through the joys and grief that comprise human experience. Mary Rose’s book is as raw as a pregnant mother buying a casket and planning a funeral. It is as real as breath and love.

Today White Flowers Press launches Walking the Labyrinth of My Heart: A Journey of Pregnancy, Grief and Infant Death. The numbers are staggering. One in four women miscarry. One million babies die in this country before their first birthday. We all know women who have had their pregnancy losses, but most of us continue to ignore them because they are uncomfortable. This book addresses the social awkwardness that we feel around death and grief. It addresses the grieving mother, but also the family and friends that surround her not knowing what to say.

Every page of this book was watered with my tears; I kept writing anyway. I did not walk my pregnancy alone, and I do not want anyone else to be alone in that sacred space. I had my mentor Cubby, my parents, my sister, my closest friends. A therapist. A few midwives. A homeopath and bereavement doula. A son. A husband. A priest and his wife. A shaman. And the blessed nuns who pray in their little rooms for this broken world. Not every woman has a midwife to accompany her to the scariest of doctors’ appointments. How long can my baby live? What do I do next? And so I write for my readers.

In her memoir The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch ends her book with these words:

Listen I can see you. If you are like me. You do not deserve most of what has happened or will. But there is something I can offer you. Whoever you are. Out there. As lonely as it gets, you are not alone. There is another kind of love . . . . This book? It’s for you. It’s water I made a path through . . . . Come in . . .

Yuknavitch is talking about art. The art of words and books and many media. I agree that art is a gift, but the gift is also truth and an open loving heart that loves our vulnerable babies who are miscarried, born still or die soon after birth.

After my pregnancy I did research and found out the most important thing. If Mary Rose had lived, she would not have suffered. Why didn’t my doctors tell me that? I was so anxious in that unknowing. I intend for this book to clear up the blur of getting a life-limiting diagnosis during pregnancy, for it to be a companion as we walk through the fog of grief. You are not alone. Many women have gone before you, walking this path, since the beginning of our myths and stories. And those babies who were miscarried, born still or alive, who lived a minute or a day, their souls are perfect and the stories of their lives will heal our own grieving souls.

Today on the launch of Mary Rose’s book please share this blog post, if our work resonates with you.

I am grateful for your help and support.

To purchase Walking the Labyrinth of My Heart: A Journey of Pregnancy, Grief and Infant Death please click on this link:

ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=diannavagiano-20&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=0982117647&asins=0982117647&linkId=ZLH3BXNGWZNPQLNF&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true

 

Mother’s Day: Joyously Connecting with our Loved Ones in Spirit

IMG_2298for Nancy Eagle Spirit Woman

People are writing and posting about Mother’s Day and grief, about International Mothers’ Day for the Bereaved, which was celebrated last week, about the lack of response from our friends, family and community in remembering us during Mother’s Day. I have been thinking about how much importance we give one day, one holiday. I have decided to make a safe space for myself this Mother’s Day. I plan to stay home away from pregnant women and newborns who trigger my trauma. I want to be in my garden with mud underneath my fingernails. I want to be with my son, and I want to be with Mary Rose.

Instead of focusing on the separation that we feel from our loved ones in spirit, this year I will call Mary Rose to me. I will welcome her into my day as an ancestor of light and I will spend my day with both of my children. Lighting a candle is one way to remember our children. Planting a flower or plant is another. I will breathe deeply this Sunday remembering her small body, the sacred hour of her life here on earth, as I celebrate the life that she has now. I know that I will grieve my newborn’s death for the rest of my life, but I want to do so joyously. I cannot change the way that I see the world differently after holding life and death in my arms, but I can reinforce the love that deepens for my daughter. I will stay in a safe space where I can cry and remember my daughter while celebrating my continued role as her mother.

I am thinking more with my heart these days. My reality is shifting from a thinking place of lonely loss to a heart place of loving communion. This year I invite each of you whose children or mothers are not in an earthly body to celebrate anyway. It is my great hope that we can celebrate this Mother’s Day with tearful smiles and an understanding that the veil is thin, that our loved ones are still our children from their heavenly place, even the ones who were miscarried.

My connection to my daughter is deeper this year. She has been at my side as I wept and wrote her book that will soon be released by White Flowers Press. I have been through another year of milestones without her physical body, but she is here.

One night my son said to me “I feel Mary Rose in my heart. My heart is soooo big from the love of my sister.” She continues to be a part of our family. She continues to be my daughter. She is an intercessor helping us in our daily lives. I won’t be able to hear her whispers over the clatter and chatter in a restaurant, so I will be outside on our Earth celebrating quietly knowing that all life has its purpose and continues far beyond the life of the human body. I will listen to the birds’ songs, and notice the peony about to burst open. I too am open. Mary Rose, come…

 

Walking the Labyrinth of My Heart: A Journey of Pregnancy, Grief and Infant Death will be released later this month by White Flowers Press.

 

For Nora, Who Gives Us Hope.

428881_3634519710730_691058417_nA few months ago  Lauren contacted me on my blog and shared her home birth story about her daughter, Nora, who had trisomy 18. When I wrote back I assumed that Nora had passed away like the other babies with this illness that I know. Nora is fifteen, Lauren replied. I was surprised and grateful that Lauren answered my questions. Yes, Nora has full trisomy 18. Yes, Nora breathes on her own. I was so touched by the story and by Lauren’s openness with me that I dedicated a blog post to Nora. “Trisomy 18: The Range of Possibilities” for Nora, who gives us hope.

Lauren wrote to me on Easter Sunday to tell me that Nora transitioned to her next life on March 16th. She passed away peacefully at home, where she was born, surrounded by her mom, dad, brother, and sister. We laid her out at home afterwards, Lauren wrote. Nora was buried in a natural wood cocoon decorated by her family and friends who visited. (See below.) I sense Nora’s gentle spirit and I love the  way that her family handled her body and burial. Soft. Holy. A gentle ritual for a beautiful daughter, sister, friend.

nora cocoon

My book about my pregnancy with Mary Rose is almost done. I hope to turn in the very final draft by the end of this week. Nora is a part of my book because her life touched my life in that special we-are-one-with-everything-in-the-universe way that the mystics speak of in different spiritual traditions. I used to be surprised by the synchronicity of my life, but now I just smile and say, Thank you. I am now friends with my Isaiah Promise mentor Cubby’s daughter, Mary Frances. I am friends with Laura, a woman I had seen at the Farmers Market when I was pregnant with Mary Rose. Everywhere I turn I am connected to others by beautiful threads of light.

It is not only the Hindus who say that life is a dream. My maternal grandmother used to say, Η ζωή είναι ένα όνειρο. Life is one dream. It won’t be long before we are all together with our loved ones on the other side of the veils. Until I meet you at the holy gate, Nora, please give Mary Rose and Cubby a hug from me and Mary Frances. Thank you for your far-reaching Light and presence in our lives.

 

Photos used with permission of Lauren Sample.

Blessed Nativity, Thank You & One Request

IMG_1897As we come upon the Nativity of Christ I am thinking about the excitement when a baby is coming. What is it about a new soul entering our broken world that brings tears to our eyes? This holiday season there is much to be grateful for and much to ponder. I was recently listening to Krista Tippett’s unedited interview with John O’Donohue and he told her that it’s not the soul that is in the body, but the body that is in the soul. This has stayed with me as I remember my daughter, Mary Rose. Her soul was certainly bigger than her tiny body.

As we prepare ourselves in the way that humans in the West prepare for Christmas there is much doing. Christmas cards and cookies. Shopping and pageants. We Westerners have created a maddening spinning wheel called the holiday season just when our bodies want to slow down and understand the deep energy of winter. Yet in the midst of all of this I have found many quiet moments of deep breaths and tears, liturgical hymns and more tears. This second Christmas without my daughter I still weep remembering what could have been, what was and what is.

My family is coming as they came in the summer of 2014 to meet my daughter, only she waited weeks and they went back to their homes and their jobs, except for her granny who held her and saw. My family is coming again and this year we await the Christ child, the holy child whose Mother is mother to us all. I have cleaned a chandelier and vacuumed my car. I baked cookies and finally ordered Christmas cards. Once again a child is coming and people gather to worship the birth in churches and temples, around the tree, around the table.

It has been nine months since I launched this blog and birthed this book for Mary Rose and for mothers with fatal or difficult “diagnoses.” I want to pause at this moment to thank you, Dear Readers, for making this blog so successful. With no advertising we have had thousands of views and every day a steady stream of visitors are reading these words that struggle to make sense of what cannot make sense. Thank you for trusting me to do this work, for inviting Mary Rose into your hearts and homes. Thank you for your time, for your kind comments and messages, for your stories about your own loved ones in spirit. I have been thinking hard on the names of your babies and I want to honor them and you.

If you would like your baby’s name who has had a fatal/difficult diagnosis or who was born still or was miscarried in my book that is coming out this spring, please comment below with your child’s name. You can also send me a private message on Facebook or Twitter. The links are on this page. Please do so by January 11th.  I am hoping to arrange the names at the end of the book as a tribute. I have started a list. Ryder Chance, Bryson James, Grace Miriam, Siddha, David Isaac, John Gilbert, Zinnia Wild Grace…

You are in my heart as we continue to walk our path.  Today on the Solstice we pause, and then walk toward the Light. We have much work to do and we are blessed that we have each other to rebuild our communities, to hold each other’s hands and to breathe together the love that abounds all around us, from this earth and from the heavenly realms.

Many blessings to you as you breathe through the intensity of these days. We are one.  With all our children and loved ones who have moved into the heavenly realms, we are still One.

Thanksgiving, Gratitude, Grief & a Book Review

free-clipart-thanksgiving-jixEMo9iEIn Sunday’s New York Times, Arthur C. Brooks’ op-ed “Choose to be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier” cites research about gratitude and “greater life satisfaction.”  Gratitude stimulates the brain. He writes “Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things.” This is something that most Americans agree with, but where do grieving mothers fit in? Is remembering our children who are no longer here a sign of ingratitude? Last night I read Angela Miller’s post “Grateful and Grieving” from her blog A Bed for My Heart. She eloquently discusses her grief and how grieving is not a sign that we are not grateful.  Miller writes “It’s not one or the other. Yes I’m still grieving because I love and miss my son with every molecule in my body, but that doesn’t mean I’m not also deeply thankful for my blessings.”

Recently my mother went to a family gathering and an aunt asked her “Is Dianna still sad?” The answer is yes. Dianna is still sad. Others offer my mother advice for me. “It is time for Dianna to find closure.” “She needs to move on.” “She has a son.” One woman told me that I have to look at what I do have, not at what I don’t have. I have a living son and a daughter on the other side of the veils.

Two years ago I was newly pregnant at Thanksgiving feeling first-trimester sick. I was not thinking too much about the abstraction of who my baby would be. But I did think This is my second pregnancy. I’m done child-bearing after this. I imagined that I would birth a healthy child. I imagined that all would be fine. Now two years later that assumption no longer exists. This year I prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday with a gluten-free America’s Test Kitchen pie crust recipe, and my heart still hurts.

Brooks’ op-ed made me smile because I am so grateful for so many things like this cold New York evening and red leaves almost gone from their tree. I am grateful for my family and for my friends. I am grateful for my readers and this blog and the publisher who is waiting for my completed manuscript. I am grateful for Mary Rose, but can I also be grateful for trisomy 18? Can I be grateful that she had the life that she was given by God to fulfill her mission in this life and the next? Her 42 weeks inside me, and one hour outside.

I was recently asked “How old would she have been?” at my MOPS meeting. My eyes opened wide because I stopped my brain from thinking those thoughts. I do not let myself think about how many months Mary Rose would be or what she would have been doing. In August my husband said “She would have been walking.” And I turned to him and replied “But she would not have been walking.”  I cannot separate my daughter’s body from trisomy 18. But I quickly did some math in my head that Wednesday morning and answered with tear-filled eyes, “She would have been 15 months old.” My friend Terry came for a visit on her daughter’s birthday last week. We spoke about grief and life and anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder and our children. “Heather would have been 46 today” she said. Angela Miller writes about the empty chair “where my seven year old should be sitting…” And here we are living in this world of juxtapositions and paradoxes. Of reality and imagination. Of our children, who are still our children even though they are now ageless.

In Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, she writes about her first son who was born still at 41 and a half weeks. Her pregnancy was a happy time.  There were no complications until he died in utero. McCracken stays on the practical, tangible side of her grief. She does not believe in God, which does not bother me per se, but when she speaks of her dead son, it is difficult for me to process death without the spiritual dimensions.  However, this book is valuable as an academic’s journey through grief. The writing is good and it is not a sad book. McCracken is honest and talks about her travels, her pregnancy and her expectations for her son. Some of her insights are so true and important, though I cannot relate to her decision not to take a photo of her son, or not to have her husband present at the delivery, or how instead of giving the boy one of the names that they picked out and were considering, they put Pudding on the death certificate, which was his nickname through the pregnancy. I chose a different path, but there is value to McCracken’s book even if she walked her child’s death differently. In truth we each walk this path the best way that we know in the moments of our grief.

In discussing her grief and other people’s sympathy, McCracken writes that “grief lasts longer than sympathy, which is one of the tragedies of the grieving” (80). Is that what this is? I think. The world moves so quickly around me and people want me to stop talking about my daughter who died even though she is still my daughter while I listen to them speak of their many living children. What negates my own daughter’s existence? And yes, my heart is still tender and raw and I do seek comfort. I want to make sense out of this trauma and grief and I cannot do it alone. McCracken speaks about the social aspect of the grieving parent after mentioning her pregnancy or her stillborn son to others. She writes “People changed the subject. They smiled uncomfortably…They didn’t mention it. They did not say, I am so sorry or How are you?” She goes on to discuss how surprised she was when people didn’t mention her son or pregnancy (92).  When I saw my uncle for the first time in over a year he did not mention my pregnancy or my daughter. Chit chat. Small talk. When someone asks how many children I have, I always mention Mary Rose. The person then looks at me in horror. A dead child! How could I speak it?

Later on McCracken beautiful and honestly writes

I’ve done it myself, when meeting the grief-struck…To mention it by name is to conjure it up, not the grief but the experience itself: The mother’s suicide, the brother’s overdose, the multiple miscarriages. The sadder the news, the less likely people are to mention it. The moment I lost my innocence about such things, I saw how careless I’d been myself.

I don’t even know what I would have wanted someone to say. Not: It will be better. Not: You don’t think you’ll live through this, but you will. Maybe: Tomorrow you will spontaneously combust. Tomorrow, finally your misery will turn to wax and heat and you will burn and melt till nothing is left in your chair but a greasy, childless smudge. That might have comforted me (94).

I was speaking to my friend Jenn about this very thing this summer. She says she doesn’t want to bring up the dead baby at work because she does not want to upset the mother. But the mother is never going to forget the baby. We remember our children living and dead, and for Jenn to tell her co-worker that she is thinking of her child is to acknowledge the child’s existence which is all we want.  We don’t get the milestones, the parties, the graduations, the holidays, so can our world give us that one acknowledgement of the existence of our children? This Thanksgiving, can we open our hearts to be grateful for the living and the dead? Can we make space around our tables for the memories of our children and other loved ones who have passed away? We remember the grandparents and parents and aunts, but when it comes to the children we do not want to speak their names. As McCracken says “The dead don’t need anything. The rest of us could use some company” (138).

There is one more thing that McCracken says that strikes a chord with me this holiday season. She speaks of her pregnancy to her second son, Gus, and says “there was nothing in my life that was not bittersweet. Every piece of hope was tinged with sadness; every moment of relief was lit on the edges with worry…. Of course [Gus] does not erase his older brother’s death” (183). So when we gather this holiday season, please don’t chastise a grieving mother or father or sibling for not “getting over it.” Please don’t insist that living children should fill the empty space of where the other child used to be. Let’s offer a smile and some kind words instead. There is no getting over the death of a child. Or anyone else for that matter. As Lucie Brock-Broido writes in her poem “Pyrrhic Victory,” “Some grief is larger than my body is.” Certainly this grief is larger than a month or a year, even when we are so grateful for so much.