Category Archives: Support through Grief

“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

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…

 

 

Do. No. Harm.

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

Work Cited

Esslemont, J.E. Bahá’u’llah and the New Era: An Introduction to the Bahá’i Faith. Wilmette, IL: Bahá’i
Publishing, 2006. Print.

 

Small Gestures with Great Love: Supporting the Bereaved throughout the Year

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

https://journeysthrugrief.wordpress.com/2016/12/06/bereaved-mother-armentrout/#more-50768

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.