Category Archives: Grief and Children

Who Is Welcome at Your Table?

for Aniela

Sister, have you felt judged by other women? Growing up in a Greek-American family, one woman was frequently measuring another woman by her standards. Mothers versus childless women. A woman with three children versus a woman with one child. I grew up watching a hierarchy of women with grandmothers at the top not often supporting younger women who made different choices with their lives.

When I was in a fifteen-year infertile marriage, people often asked me if I had children. When I became a mother later in life, the question changed to how many children I had. When I was pregnant with my daughter Mary Rose who would die, I was asked if I would have an abortion, or later in the pregnancy, why I had not had one. The questions mount throughout our lives, and these very questions become fences between one woman and the next, between one family and the other family. 

I resist categorization. Though I am pro-life for my own body, I am also politically pro-choice. Though my baby would die when I was pregnant at 42 years old, I chose to have a home birth, and then I prepared my newborn’s body for burial on my bed. Our family chose not to use medical interventions to prolong our daughter’s life, though many choose otherwise. In life, as in death, there are choices to be made. How can we embrace each other when we make different choices? 

I wrote a book about my pregnancy with Mary Rose to address some of these issues. I discuss the pregnancy where parents have to decide to abort or carry to term, to choose life support or not, to plan a funeral while pregnant and later deal with mother’s milk when there is no baby to feed. My book has also been judged. One Catholic organization that could have used my book to support families going through pregnancies like mine, declined to support my book because of those few words “I am pro-choice politically.” Though I nurtured Mary Rose’s short life, I was told that I am pro-baby murder by people who never stood at the threshold between life and death. These same people who offer their opinions so freely have never walked my path.

When I wrote my book, I checked in with my publisher to make sure that everyone reading my book would feel welcome: women who have carried to term or chosen an abortion, the childless by choice or not, mothers of living children and mothers of no living children, and those of us with children on both sides of the veil. I didn’t want to exclude anyone from my memoir and story.

We have choices in our lives, and we live with the consequences of those choices. As humans we experience grief and joy. Can we accept each other as we are? Can we accept a woman equally whether she chooses abortion or life, has a hospital or home birth, allows a natural death for her newborn or uses medical intervention? Can we treat women equally whether they are mothers or not? How can we open our hearts and minds to each other?

Reader, who is welcome at your table? I think of the great big table at my grandparents’ house. The table was unmistakably Greek. It was set with feta and mizithra, olives and octopus, lamb and wild greens called horta. Children and grandparents, friends and cousins gathered often. I have been thinking of my heart as a table lately. I want all my sisters to feel welcome at my table, regardless of their choices and path. If we are a sisterhood of women, a community that can mother our children and our elderly, we must realize that we all have our suffering and joy, that we are in this life together.

My table is set with Greek mountain tea and not-too-sweet cookies. I hope that you will come and join me. I will bring out the rose jam for you.

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

 

 

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 Dead Bird

It is March on the front range of Colorado, which means that more snow is coming, but today it feels like early summer. I moved to a new home in December and the gardens have secrets to tell. I do not know what will bloom this season or the next. I have a lot of work to do, and my son and I get started. We trim down the ornamental grasses. Tall stalks that surround the deck gave me a cloistered feeling from inside my house this winter, but it is time to make room for new things. And then I notice the dead bird on a small bare bush in one corner of the yard.

Look, a dead bird, I tell my six-year old son.

I will bury it, he says.

This past week my dear friend Corina, who is a child and trauma therapist, shared some important insight about my son’s development. His sister, Mary Rose, died when he was two and a half. The experience of watching me struggle through my sad second pregnancy and meeting his sister one day, only to have her gone the next day are blueprints of his life. Had she died when he was older than three, perhaps this would not be such a strong indicator of his behavioral patterns. Now at six years old, his understanding of life is concrete. He drew a family portrait at school with the three of us. He tells me that dead doesn’t count, that he doesn’t have a sister if she doesn’t have an earthly body. So I get plastic gloves and instead of talking about Mary Rose, we bury the bird together.

Tim gets a shovel and works hard to break into the cold earth under the grass. I reach for the small gray bird, but its feet are still hooked onto the bare branch. I pry them off.  The bird is holding on even in death. The bird is light. I carry it to the hole in the grass.

Dead is not bad, I say to my son, as I lower my hands. Just different. See how the body is still from no more breath?

The angel came to take the bird’s soul, he replies.

I lower the bird into the earth.

Do you want to say a prayer? I ask.

God help the bird’s souls, he says.

We cover the burial place with brown grass. My son reaches for the yogurt container that he was using to move dirt in the garden and shows me a brown rock.

I will put this rock here, so I can remember the bird, he says. And he does.

We read the book The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown a few months ago. Dear Judy Baumel sent me a pdf with the original illustrations by Remy Charlip. My son followed the story this early spring day. He even wanted to make a sign The Dead Bird on paper, as the children make a sign in the story.

Rereading The Dead Bird I wonder about the seeds of the book living in my boy who has known such loss. In the book Margaret Wise Brown shares a song that the children sing to the bird that they find and bury.

Oh bird you’re dead

You’ll never fly again…

We sing to you

Because you’re dead

Feather Bird

And we buried you

In the ground

With ferns and flowers

Because you will never fly

Again in the sky…

Little Dead Bird

She continues

And every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird…

Reader, do you have a song for your dead?

Last weekend Aniela’s spiritual mother died, but when she was still dying, Aniela asked me to pray because Eleanore was afraid. I sang Eleanore a song in the night that is almost morning. I sang Eleanore a song, because even though we never met, we are one creation living and dying and walking through the thresholds. I cried for Eleanore as the angels gathered to usher her soul to the Light, and I cried for the bird in my hand.

In church Alexandra tells me You do grief well. I held  life and death in my womb and in my hands. I cannot unknow what I now know.  I believe in life and I believe in death. They are both the reality of all who live on this earth. Some of us do not ignore death or the dead.  I remember the ones I love who left their earthly bodies as I sip my tea and sing my song. I clip away dead flowers and trim branches. But the branches of my red-stemmed bush are not dead. They are green inside and they will continue to grow and bloom and reach for the sun and the foothills.

And I will continue to sing for my baby girl and my miscarried babies as the years go by.

Please join me. We are living together, and we will not forget.

 

Illustration above by Remy Charlip.