Monthly Archives: December 2016

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

teacup-pansy-vintage-image-graphics-fairy2

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.