Category Archives: Support through Grief

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

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/

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…

 

 

Do. No. Harm.

I was recently on a Facebook group page honoring Ina May Gaskin, the pioneer home birth midwife. A mother at the end of her fourth pregnancy wrote about having nightmares after seeing a post about a baby who died at home. This mother was looking for comfort and sympathy. She never mentioned the specific post, but I had posted my home birth story and a photo of my daughter who died of trisomy 18 after birth months ago. I wasn’t sure if my daughter’s photo was the one that gave this woman nightmares, but I got upset, as did another mother whose daughter died a week after birth. As with so many of our social media forums, this post got ugly. A birth worker admonished the bereaved mothers to “do no harm.” We could grieve, but it would be more appropriate to go someplace else. Our birth stories that ended in death had no place on a forum about birth. Our pregnancies, labors and babies are not welcome here. One woman wrote that she believed the referenced post was meant to be incendiary and had been removed, but I’m still not sure.

The numbers of pregnancy and infant loss speak volumes. One in four pregnancies end in miscarriage. One million babies die each year before their first birthday in the United States. Where are bereaved mothers to go? Why is our reality not a part of our cultural discussions of new mothers? I believe that we can form strong alliances and communities where our culture becomes loving enough to celebrate our babies and their short lives. In my dreams, I am embraced in my grief, instead of ignored.

The Baha’i Faith speaks of unity. We cannot have Christianity without Judaism. We cannot have light without the complicated shadows that also live inside each human heart. There is no life without death. Bahá’ulláh says “Of the Tree of Knowledge the All-glorious fruit is this exalted word: Of one Tree are all ye the fruits and of one Bough the leaves (53). All mothers, regardless of outcomes are one body, yet we continue to put up barriers and separate ourselves from each other.

The cultural concept that pregnancy always ends in happy mothers nursing healthy babies does not serve us. We must be brave as we face each pregnancy, each child, because we do not know the outcomes. A healthy living baby does not have more value than a child who dies. I know. I have one of each. If we measure our lives with love, then each soul has a place at the table of the heart.

I have much to celebrate each day, including my sweet daughter, whose life continues to encourage and help others through my book about her impact on my life, Walking the Labyrinth of My Heart: A Journey of Pregnancy, Grief and Newborn Death. But my tender heart continues to grieve when I watch my son play alone, negotiating his reality of why his sister died. My eyes tear up when someone asks me again how many children I have.

I wasn’t sure if I should address this situation, and one birth worker, on my blog, but I was so disappointed in the way that the comments came rolling in, and I was not the only mother offended and hurt. This post is my response to the birth worker who believes bereaved mothers might upset pregnant women. First do no harm, she replied to me again.

I will continue to do no harm by speaking up and writing for my sisters who are infertile, for mothers with no living children, and for those of us who carry our deceased babies in our hearts every day and every hour. We are one body of human sisters and need to unite in community to support one another.

I will continue to do no harm. How about you, Sister?

 

To read my original post that I shared on the Ina May Gaskin Fan Page click here: http://www.diannavagianos.com/blog/?p=269

Work Cited

Esslemont, J.E. Bahá’u’llah and the New Era: An Introduction to the Bahá’i Faith. Wilmette, IL: Bahá’i
Publishing, 2006. Print.

 

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.

 

The Art of Grieving

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When I came across the grief workbook co-created by Mary Burgess and Shiloh Sophia McCloud called Mending Invisible Wings: Healing From the Loss of Your Baby (MIW), it became an important part of my initial grief processing during the postpartum period after my newborn daughter died of trisomy 18. Burgess and McCloud put together this book in order to create a way for others to cope with miscarriage and infant loss. MIW is beautiful from the cover image to the thick, blank pages inviting us to become artists and writers in our grief. The exercises include writing and drawing prompts, rituals, meditation, affirmation, breathing exercises and guided visualizations.

I created paintings and drawings, (one of which became the cover for my book), and wrote about specific aspects of my experience that were helpful. I wrote about the birth scene, my feelings during the pregnancy knowing that my baby would die and, through the exercises some beauty was created from my pain and grief. The exercises gave me the space to acknowledge my journey, while processing my experience.

MIW’s exercises gave me different lenses with which to view my experience with Mary Rose. I didn’t think that I could survive my pregnancy, but I did. I recommend the process of these exercises, but you don’t have to buy the book and go through it step by step (though a link to the book is in the Resources page of my blog). You can also create your own exercises to remember and process your experience.

Suggested Exercises and Tools to Heal Grief

Journal Writing: Get a blank notebook or journal. I like books with no lines so that I can sketch and write. You can decorate the cover of the book with stickers, ribbons, buttons, magazine photos or your own pictures. Record your feelings of grief periodically or daily. I often wrote a few lines, or drew an angel with a heart in her center.

Poetry or Creative Nonfiction: Take a poem that you love and find a line that resonates with you. You can use Jane Kenyon’s poem “Let Evening Come.” Use the same title and write your own poem. Another way to write through grief is to start a longer nonfiction essay by writing separate sections. Brenda Miller’s essays are good examples. You can write about the moment of diagnosis in one section, or the shock of the death in another. Write about the funeral or memorial service, or how there was none. You can build a much longer work through fragments and reflections.

Painting: Get a blank sketch book with thicker paper so that you can use watercolors, if you choose. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Think about your baby and your pregnancy. Think about your womb and your breasts. What images come up? Draw them. Paint them. Write about them. Create a mixed media work and dialogue with your body and your broken heart.

Collage: I made a collage of the sympathy cards that I received on a memory box for my daughter’s few belongings. However, a collage can be a poster, a canvas, a journal. I cut up cards, used color copies of artwork of Mother Mary, cloth butterflies and flowers, stickers and acrylic paint.

Yoga and Meditation Music: The yoga stretches accompanied by meditation music such as Wah!’s music allow the breath to change the moment. A yoga practice can be very helpful in the intensity of grief.

Dance and Movement: Belly dancing or other movement through classes offered in your community can be very beneficial. Getting back into the body after the trauma of miscarriage or infant death and postpartum hormones is a good way to heal the trauma. Yoga, belly dance, walking meditation and walking by a lake weekly. The repetition of the movement, the moments away from the daily routine and the actual physical work help us to reset our thought process.

Drumming: The rhythm of a drumbeat can be a very soothing meditation that can lead to healing. In many cultures the drum is used to transcend the reality of this realm and help the suffering person work towards healing. The drumbeat sounds like a heartbeat and connects us to each other, Earth and our ancestors. Shamanic healing includes drumming, and Sandra Ingerman has a few CDs and meditations that are helpful to walk through grief into a place of peace.

Chanting and Praying: Qi Gong and yoga chants have been very helpful for me to process some of the intense grief and weeping into new energy. The sounds of the Qigong or Sanskrit mantra carry higher vibrations as does the Orthodox prayer Lord Jesus have mercy on me repeated over and over. I pray Hail Mary again and again. The repetition is helpful in shifting from extreme grief into a space of quiet meditation or contemplation.

Garden: Create a memorial garden for your loved one. I have a tiny fairy sculpture in a container with a small fairy rosebush. You don’t need a lot of space or an elaborate garden to honor the life of your child.

 

This essay is adapted from Section IV “The Art of Grieving” from my book Walking the Labyrinth of My Heart: A Journey of Pregnancy, Grief and Newborn Death available at amazon.com. Eight copies of my book are available through a giveaway on goodreads.com this August 2016.

 

 

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

 

 

E-book Launch!

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We continue to promote Walking the Labyrinth of My  Heart: A Journey of Pregnancy, Grief and Newborn Death, and today we launch the e-book, which is now available on Amazon. This exciting news means that the book is now available around the world!

I am very grateful for the support of my readers. Each time you share my work with others, we are able to offer comfort and guidance to bereaved mothers. It gives me joy to know that in my small way, with this small book about my daughter, Mary Rose, I am able to comfort a sister-in-grief facing pregnancy and infant loss.

Please continue to help spread the word through social media. I have had feedback saying that there is no other grief book on infant loss like this. To read more about why I wrote this book please CLICK HERE.

An added bonus is that though the images in the print book are in black and white, they are in color on newer devices in the e-book. The Heavenly Garden memorial page honoring the souls of the babies and children whom I have met since my journey with Mary Rose began is here in color as a SAMPLE OF THE EBOOK

Look for more giveaways of this book on Goodreads in August to honor Mary Rose’s birthday and in October for Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Please sign up for updates on my blog so that you can read my guest blog post coming up with Spiritual Living about angels.

If there are any topics that you would like me to address in future blog posts, please send me a message on Facebook or Twitter or comment below.

We are in this lifetime together, and together we can grieve more fully to continue walking in the Light.

 

If you would like to purchase the ebook please CLICK HERE