Category Archives: Infant Death

“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.

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

 

 

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.

Interview with the International Grief Institute

 

It was my great honor to be interviewed by Lynda Cheldelin Fell of the The International Grief Institute to discuss Mother’s Day after pregnancy and infant loss. We discussed my pregnancy with Mary Rose, miscarriages, Trisomy 18 and grief.  The link follows.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eChpI__dMl0

Holding Space: On Loving, Dying and Letting Go by Amy Wright Glenn

When Amy Wright Glenn asked me to endorse her new book Holding Space: On Loving, Dying and Letting Go, I agreed readily. Amy works as a doula and a chaplain, and though we might think that these two vocations are different, in fact they both await the breath. The first breath. The last breath.  Amy founded the Institute of Birth Breath and Death, and I am honored to be a member. This month Amy is offering 10 discounted spots on her advanced training on holding space for pregnancy loss. She has asked me to join her in an interview on April 11th to discuss the reality of the path we walk when we experience miscarriage and infant loss.

Amy’s book is a beautiful compilation of gentle, soulful stories of her clients and work, including her own early miscarriages and reflections of her upbringing and spiritual practices. This book is a resource offering care practices for pregnancy loss support as well. Amy writes “We can still be compassionately and mindfully present to what is, even if ‘what is’ is something that we would never wish to know. It is often terribly difficult to be open to grief and the transformation it ushers forth. However, in the process of acknowledging, integrating and honoring our losses, we may discover that we are grateful for the grief that reconfigures our very being” (53).

I am still surprised by the intensity of grief as I walk through the fourth year without my daughter. To say that it has reconfigured my life is an understatement. If, through trainings and books and education, we can soften the way our culture addresses death (or ignores it) especially when it is the death of the very young, then we can create stronger support systems to grieve and find joy together.

Amy Wright Glenn is offering ten spots in her advanced training on holding space for pregnancy loss this April at a fee of only $50 from $125. She is interviewing me on April 11th at 7 PM Eastern Time and a recording will be available to participants. Please contact Amy and mention this blog post for the discounted fee. The link for training is here:

http://www.birthbreathanddeath.com/advanced-5-hour-training-holding-space-for-pregnancy-loss/

I have also been invited to join Lynda Cheldelin Fell of Grief Diaries on Facebook Live on May 14th, 6 PM Seattle time.

On June 10th, I will be speaking with Mary Rose’s midwife at a midwifery conference here in Colorado. https://www.midwiferyclassroom.com/2018-winter-park-midwifery-conferen

Please share Amy’s book with those who can use her insight and support, and thank you for continuing to read my blog.

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.

Are You Brave Enough?

Are you brave enough to sit with someone who has lost a loved one, and hear them tell you how much they miss their baby or mother or father who has died?

Is your  heart open to those with long-lasting grief? Grief that never goes away, though it changes as years and decades go by.

Are you brave enough to mention Colin, Mary Rose or Grace Miriam?

Is your heart open enough to hold grief and joy together with its pulsing beauty?

Will you open your arms and hug the bereaved who feel shunned and unheard this holiday season once again?

Please join me. Sit with them. Look into their eyes. Sit with me. See my tears. The Christmas tree is up, and some of us weep as we hold an ornament with newborn footprints from a brief encounter long ago.

Join me with a cup of tea. Hold the love and grief over the newly departed newborns Brigid and Eva. Please remember their parents and siblings and loved ones. This holiday season, let’s make a big web of comfort to catch people who are feeling lonely and sad. We are in this life together, with all its joy and blessings and losses. Together we can face another year of longing to hold them one more time, as we weave strong communities of light.

 

One Mother’s Response to Lockdown Drills in Kindergarten on the Five-Year Anniversary of the Newtown Shootings

At dinner my five-year-old boy tells me that he had a lockdown drill in his kindergarten classroom. He crouches down on our kitchen floor. I had to sit like this for a very long time Mommy, he says. My teacher told me it will keep me safe. Locks, lights and out of sight, he tells me. The kids did great, we heard in a voice mail message from the school later that night. Though I am grateful that my son’s school is following safety protocol, I am crying tonight because I can’t stop thinking of the Newtown shootings as my son approaches the age of the schoolchildren who were killed five years ago.

Five years ago on December 14th I held my baby boy as I read my friend’s Facebook post. Our son is safe. No other news yet. I waited to understand what was happening, and then I knew. I looked on in disbelief at the photos of young children slaughtered in their classrooms. Massacre. Bloodshed. Those sweet faces, in their last school photos smiling. Innocence and a few adult teeth. Bright eyes and Christmas coming. The children were about to turn seven or eight. My friend’s young son lost his best friend that year.

Why am I writing about Newtown on my blog about newborn death and miscarriage? When a woman holds her newborn baby as she cools in her arms after birth, she is changed. I am not afraid to speak my mind, and after one of my children has died, I am afraid to send my living son to school.

Terrorism. We use this word to describe people who look different from white Americans who violently attack others, but here in the United States white men commit acts of terrorism, though we do not use that word. Gun laws haven’t changed much since Newtown, and that city is close to my heart because I lived in nearby Shelton, Connecticut, for a decade.

On the first day of school this year I walked up hundreds of steps to the Shrine of Mother Cabrini, and prayed and cried asking for protection for our children. I hope that there is an angel at every entrance of my son’s school. And my niece’s school. And every school in our broken country. I hope that our wonderful teachers are safe, and that our children are safe. Recently, our priest discussed guns in liturgy after the church shooting in Texas. He declared that having weapons in church to prepare for an attack goes against every tenet of our faith. Some people opposed him saying that they should be able to protect the children. If God takes us, then we will be martyred for Christ, he said. Every liturgy he prays for the bloodless offering of the Eucharist.

I wrote a check to Everytown for Gun Safety this week. My donation was doubled by a matching gift. I have little faith that my donation or any of the petitions I sign will make much of a difference in our violent country. We play violent video games and watch violent TV shows and movies. Our news is violent. Violence has become the norm in America. The NRA is a stronghold in Washington and is working hard to pass conceal carry laws expanding gun use right now. More people can carry loaded guns in our malls, our schools, libraries and all public spaces. The new law will limit each state’s ability to control guns through background checks and other measures. I’m not sure why my fellow citizens do not see the manipulations of another lobby, of another big business. Americans feel safer with more guns. Americans believe it is their constitutional right to bear weapons. Americans call people like me liberal because I want my son to be safe in school where I cannot protect him from madmen with loaded weapons of war.

Reader, do you feel safe as you snuggle your child? Do you think that you have the right to bear weapons of war that are used for mass shootings? What is the intention of a citizen buying a semiautomatic weapon? And what happens if your daughter or son or niece or grandchild becomes the victim of gun violence? Would your belief about gun rights change then?

When my daughter, Mary Rose, died in my arms I thought that I would die from grief. I am not the only one grieving. Time does not heal the wound of losing your child. Ninety three Americans will be killed today with guns. Several are children. I do not want to own a gun to protect my family. I want to walk out into the day and night with confidence that I can be safe in Colorado, or in Connecticut or Virginia. I hope for a day when lockdowns are not needed in a kindergarten classroom.

This year my son started full-day school and took his class picture. He brings home math and art work. He reads to me. And as the school year has unfolded, I pause and remember Newtown often. I do not know the future of my boy, nor of our country, but sometimes I breathe in the scent of his hair and sweat so deeply I know that I won’t miss the time that we are given together. I remind myself that I only have this one moment of wet kisses, lego airplanes, Bob books and sweet chocolate treats.

I am moving to Littleton this month, and in the yard where I will garden there is a memorial tree that was given out by the city to honor the victims of the Columbine shooting that took place in 1999.

On the five-year anniversary of the Newtown shootings, I pray that we take control of our safety by stopping the very people who are profiting on death and mayhem. May our children live and thrive. May all their adult teeth come in.

This December I offer my words to the families of Newtown in solidarity and love, hoping that in the coming years Americans will change the laws and reduce the weapons that are killing, killing, killing. As citizens we have choices to make about our rights. I like to think that the rights of children in a classroom are more important than the rights of mentally unstable people who desire to own weapons of war. This December I remember each of those lost in the terrorist act of Newtown, each child and each adult. May the light of their souls shine brightly on all of us and show us the path to mercy…