Category Archives: Connecting with Loved Ones in Spirit

“You Gave Her a Mother” and Meeting Anne Lamott

for Michele and Evelyn “Evie” Grace

I met Anne Lamott last year when she came to Tattered Covers in Denver on her book tour for her new book Almost Anything: Notes on Hope. For two decades I have been reading Lamott, and I wanted to tell her that her books were a light in my darkest time.

In 2014 after my newborn daughter died of trisomy 18, I cycled through several of Lamott’s spiritual memoirs. Her words comforted me late at night when everyone else was sleeping and I was alone with my deep, searing grief. She whispered the right words to me as I faced another dark night of the soul.                   

In The Three Essential Prayers, Lamott writes “Death will not be the end of the story” (23) and “If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved and in charge of so little” (27). Lamott tells us that her “…pastor Veronica says that God always makes a way out of no way” (54). My milk had come in, my baby was buried, and I didn’t know how to walk forward. So I read more of Lamott’s books.

In Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, I read the words “But what if the great secret insider-trading truth is that you don’t ever get over the biggest losses in your life?” (39) I knew that this was true. I knew then that I would never get over the moments of my pregnancy knowing that my baby would not live, nor would I ever stop feeling the emptiness of the space where my daughter once was. Lamott quotes Ram Dass who said that “ultimately we’re all just walking each other home” (6). In those weeks and months of walking through my life with one living child after my second full-term pregnancy it was Lamott’s books that were pulling me through, giving me a little hope that I could survive my cracked self and broken heart.

On that night of her book tour, Lamott filled a large Denver church and she made us laugh and tear up. She is such a good speaker. When the few of us who had books to sign lined up (because we had already received our signed copies of her new book before we sat down), I was nervous. I started crying when I stood in front of her. I told her about my Mary Rose and how much her books had meant to me in my raw grief. Annie hugged me and said “You gave her a mother… You gave her a mother…” as she hugged me, and I continued to cry. 

It is Mother’s Day again, the fifth one since my unborn baby was diagnosed with trisomy 18. I remember that first Mother’s Day when I knew that it would be our only one together. My daughter moved inside of me and I sat on a green metal chair on the lawn of our home in Suffolk, Virginia stunned and unsure of my future. I did not know how I would walk through the rest of my pregnancy. I did not know how I would birth my child only to give her up to death. 

There is always a way through, Lamott tells us. For those of us who are holding our losses so tenderly these days, those of us whose mothers and children have died, we have each other. And in our thorny world, thankfully the roses will be blooming again soon.

In her latest book, Almost Everything, Lamott reminds us that “Against all odds, no matter what we’ve lost…no matter how dark the night, we offer and are offered kindness, soul, light, and food, which create breath and spaciousness, which create hope, sufficient unto the day” (189). 

May it be so for all of us. Let’s have a warm cup of tea together.

This Holiday Season

Dear Ones,

I am thinking of you tonight as we face the holidays again without our children who have crossed the threshold of life into death. To you, the bereaved mamas and grannies and papas and grandpas, sisters and brothers, you miss your beloved ones who are no longer here in your arms.

The years go by, and the longing does not go away. Instead as we celebrate and love those in our lives, those in our homes and our hearts, we still want to smell the ones who are gone, to  hold them and tell them how much they are loved.

This holiday season, when people are cheery and you want to hide inside your house and cry, I want you to know that I understand.

We just walked through the Winter Solstice, and each day will give us a little more light. The love that you have for your loved one grows as you continue to grieve.

My great hope is that you are surrounded by people who can wrap their arms around you and listen. May you hear the name of your child on these dark nights. Eva. Naomi. Mary Rose. Siddha. Ryder. Bryson.

May your good soul and deep love reverberate through the days and nights of winter.

We approach another year, and another year without them, but they are here surrounding us with their Light.

And spring does come again no matter how long winter might be. I promise.

Wishing you sweet holy days and deep winter peace and rest.

Blessings to you,

Dianna Vagianos Armentrout

 

 

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.

The Myth of Rainbow Babies

After miscarriage and infant loss, we hear about rainbow babies. In the midst of grief and death and loss, most people are uncomfortable, so they talk. You’ll have another. You’ll have your rainbow baby.

I recently sent a copy of my book about my newborn’s death and subsequent miscarriages to a pregnant doula with a fatal diagnosis for her baby. You yearn for another baby, she wrote. You need your rainbow baby. There is no rainbow baby, I replied. She persisted, and it hurt.

What is a rainbow baby? A rainbow baby is the living baby that comes after pregnancy and infant loss. The myth says that after a loss, women and men are rewarded with magical, healthy babies. As if another pregnancy and baby are not subject to the random and karmic losses and illnesses around us. As if a mindset of positive thinking can change all our limitations and fate. And I must say one more time, that this implies that death and illness are our fault because of our thoughts, and I don’t accept blaming women who are suffering already in their grief. We are not causing miscarriages, infertility, fatal illnesses or stillbirth in our babies.

I believe in miracles, and have experienced many life-altering situations that felt like pure magic. But when it comes to fertility, not everyone gets the miracle that they want. I do not share the myth of rainbow babies because I do not want to hurt anyone who is grieving already. Instead I sit with people in their current situation, whatever that might be. Some women do not birth biological children. Many women experience multiple losses. I accept each of us as we are. Our culture encourages fertility treatment as a solution when the costs are astronomical and sometimes do not yield the results people want. I know a few families who have been through in vitro several times without the desired results. They are dejected, depressed and traumatized from the treatments and the loss of their expectations. One friend told me that the clinic where her sister went boasts photos of beautiful, healthy babies on their walls, but their actual success rate is about 33%. The numbers are in the single digits for women who are my age.

But, I have friends who have beautiful healthy children through fertility treatments, you say. So do I. However, I know more disappointed families, and as a woman in my mid-forties, it is not my path. People who tell me to seek fertility treatment to grow my family are not accepting me as I am.

My friend who had a miscarriage and a stillborn has no living children, and is perfectly intact. She is a mother still. For those who are infertile, we must take into consideration the pollution on our planet. We cannot control the effects of toxins and radiation on our fertility. No one is to blame when there is no “rainbow baby.” Instead of striving for this magical, perfect creature, I believe in opening our hearts to all possibilities while living in reality.

I am a member of a spiritual Facebook page that encourages fertility. What do I do in the midst of discussions of rainbow babies and unicorn mamas? I take a sip of my tea, take a deeper breath, notice the golden leaves dropping from their trees (and wonder what a unicorn mama is exactly).

Am I infertile, or do I function as a woman who is changing and growing and birthing? Should I focus on bringing another child into my family, or should I accept that if another child is meant to be mine, she will find me?

Reader, I don’t believe in myths because I believe in reality. The only reality I know is love. Love grows and blooms. Love is my fertility. And to the mother who has multiple living children and insists that I have a rainbow baby: I don’t deserve a rainbow. I deserve respect, and to respect me is to honor me as I am with all of my losses.

Rainbows do not appear only to those with pregnancy and infant losses. They surprise and brighten the skies of all who pause to see them. In our fractured sisterhood, may we embrace each other regardless of the path or the loss or the manifestation of fertility. May we accept our unique paths as they are, without imposing a solution to grief. No child can replace a child who has died. And death is not infertility. It is a new life in spirit, and I bless that life again and again and again.

 

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…

 

 

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

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

 

 

Angels in our Midst

Healing Companion400x800CaptionThis essay first appeared as a guest blog post for SpiritualLiving.com in August 2016.

http://www.spiritualliving.com/#!Angels-in-our-Midst/cmf6/579679c00cf2be2e0b931f15

Angels. We often use this word to describe babies, and I have heard people say that the dead have become angels. Are all babies angels? Does every soul earn wings when she dies? My newborn son who had colic and couldn’t nurse did not seem angelic, though he was, and still is, sweet. An alcoholic did not seem to transcend all that he was while living on Earth after death. Yet those who mourned him extolled his virtues, forgetting the empty bottle, the raised hand.

When I was pregnant with my second child, the routine ultrasound revealed several anomalies. My unborn daughter, Mary Rose, was diagnosed with trisomy 18. She would most likely be born still or live for a short while, though there are about 200 children and adults living with this illness in the United States. People began to call Mary Rose an angel baby. I wasn’t so sure. My friend, the artist Sindy Strosahl, painted Mary Rose behind my pregnant body as an angel before she was born in the painting “Healing Companion.” When my daughter was born in a pool beneath the painting, we noticed that she looked like the angel. She died in my arms an hour later.

One night my three-year-old asked me if Mary Rose is an angel. What do you think? I replied. I think that she is an angel with big wings. I feel her here, he said touching his heart center with his little boy hand. Mommy, does everyone who dies become an angel? he asked. I don’t think so, I said. My sister, Mary Rose, is an angel, he repeated. He knows of many ancestors on the other side of the veil: my two grandfathers, his paternal grandmother, my dear aunt. Yet, he only called Mary Rose an angel until recently.

I was speaking to my friend, Mary Frances last week. Her mother, Cubby, was my mentor during my pregnancy, and died in September. My son, now four, said, Cubby is an angel too. Then he said, But Heather and Holly are even biiiigggger angels. Heather and Holly are the daughters of my friend Terry who died of cystic fibrosis at 12 and 22 years of age. Does my son feel the angelic presence of these beings? Can he feel their work answering prayers and healing us and guiding us from the heavenly realms? When I was writing my book about Mary Rose I felt her on my right shoulder and Cubby on my left shoulder. They were helping me to gather the courage to finish laboring my book about my pregnancy.

I understand that newborn babies have a sweet, holy energy. They emanate unconditional love, as they come directly from the Creator’s hands. I also know that souls can be healed after death, that vices and challenges of spirit can be transcended as the soul continues to evolve. I can’t quantify the difference between a guardian angel and Mary Rose, but I know that they are both helping spirits from the angelic realms.

Angels are in our midst. We can channel their light into our lives and onto this great planet. Light shimmers and illuminates the darkness. It is far reaching. When we are in the presence of angels, such as Mary Rose, who was born and died on August 8, 2014, we are healed. We miss our loved ones and are broken open in our grief to love again and again.

I will continue to ask Mary Rose and Cubby for help. I will honor Heather and Holly in my prayers and in my heart. And I hope to be able to reach out my hand and offer love in the spirit of the angels to others who are grieving. Let’s do this together, with the angels’ help.