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.
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.
Once I was married to a man who was having a psychotic breakdown, and in my distress I opened Stanley Kunitz’s poetry book, as some people open holy texts, to the poem “The Layers.” I was on the floor of my small apartment feeling such heaviness and despair and fear, that I did not know how I would live another minute, let alone another day. This poem saved my life.
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
I heard Kunitz read this poem at the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival when he was in his nineties. Many people gathered under a tent one autumn in New Jersey, and when Kunitz read the line “I am not done with my changes,” many of us cried. If he was not done, then those who are younger have much work to do. This April, which is National Poetry Month, I want to share “The Layers” with you.
April has been filled with troubling news on the national and international fronts, while many of us celebrated our spring holy days of Pascha (Easter), Passover and Ridván. Our world is precarious and sometimes appears to be teetering on the brink of darkness. During Holy Week, the week before Pascha, I began attending church at a local Orthodox mission parish. It has been years since I attended so many services because I have not lived close to a church for decades. In the dark, gathering with people who read and sang hymns by the flickering candlelight, I remembered my ancestors. For 400 years my people were enslaved to the Turks. Somehow they kept their religion for future generations by practicing their faith in caves at night. Those were dark torturous times, but somehow my people survived.
For those of us who have lost close friends and family members, especially children, we know darkness. The dark night of the soul lasts much longer than one night. But Kunitz’s poem tells us that we can live despite the litter, by embracing the layers and multidimensionality of life. We can face our challenges and walk through them breathing in light and hope, even when those around us cannot see it.
As April comes to an end, we are expecting snow in Colorado. Earlier this month the snow fell on trees that had already blossomed. Snow and flowers and cold in spring. In our feast of losses I am grateful that we can continue on as we process the many layers of our sacred lives. Thank you for being part of my tribe.
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.
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…
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
Esslemont, J.E. Bahá’u’llah and the New Era: An Introduction to the Bahá’i Faith. Wilmette, IL: Bahá’i
Publishing, 2006. Print.
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
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.
These 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.
My 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.
Amy Wright Glenn’s article shares some of my poetry and offers wonderful resources for postpartum mothers who are mourning pregnancy and infant loss.