The following essay is published at Journeys Through Grief presented by the Sweeney Alliance.
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.
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