Yo Te Puedo Ver/ You are Seen

By Gloria Agosto

Yo Te Puedo Ver
Es casi como si el dolor te hace invisible. El momento más duro el cual no se puede entender,
nadie y nada parece brindar algún alivio y más bien todos parecen alejarse. La Soledad se
convierte en tu único sonido por que cuando alguien trata de decir alguna palabra la mayoría de
ellas vienen sin compasión causando más dolor, por que es que ellos no entienden, Ellos no
pueden verte. Hoy yo quiero cambiar eso dejándote saber que te puedo ver, puedo verte por
que al igual que tu he pasado por lo mismo, por que se como se siente el tener ese dolor tan
pesado que ni tú mismo puedes llevar. Yo estoy aquí para ti, para apoyarte, para escucharte y
si no hubieran palabras que decir que mi abrazo y compasión te de tranquilidad. Estoy aquí
para ayudarte

You are Seen

It's almost like the pain makes you invisible. The hard moment is not understandable, and no one
seems to be able to comfort and instead everyone seems to go away. The loneliness becomes
your only sound and when someone tries to say a word most of them hurt more than the silence
that has been around you from that day. Because, they don't understand, they can't see you.
Today I want to change that, letting you know that you're seen, I can see you because I went
through the same, because I know how it is and how it feels to have such a heavy weight that
you sometimes can't even carry on. I'm here for you, to support you, listen to you and if there is no
words to say may my hug and companion give you comfort. I'm here to help you and here to
understand you. I can see you.

 

How many kids do you have?

By Sara Barry

birthday-cake-380178_960_720.jpg

by Sara Barry

Lights flashed and the disco ball made shapes on the floor. Kids shrieked and balls and bins clattered. Typical bowling birthday party.

“I don’t know you manage with three,” said one mom of two. “I thought I wanted three or four until I had kids.”

The conversation unfolds with “You get used to what you have” and “Two is good for me” and “I always thought we’d have three.”

I don’t chime in. I don’t say, “I always wanted two or three. Three really, but as I got older and hadn’t started yet, two seemed more likely.”

I don’t add, “I wanted two or three and somehow I got two and three.”

I have three children, but in so many ways, I get only two.

***

A few weeks later, we’re at the lake for my girls’ swimming lessons. I point my little girl to a mom nearby with somebody in the same class and my big girl swimming to the side.

“So you have just the two?”

Pause half a beat.

“Yes.”

***

How many kids do you have? Since the day Henry died, that has been a hard question. He was our first, so I had one but none. I was not the person I was before he was born, but I didn’t fit in with other moms either.

A year later, my older daughter was born, and I re-entered the world of moms with kids. But the questions, How many kids do you have? Is she your first? Do you have other kids? still stymied me.

I know I am not the only parent who has lost a baby who struggles with these questions. There is no one answer. There is no right answer.

“How many kids do you have?” might be simple enough but for the follow up: “Oh, how old are they?”

I recently joined a writing group. We’re all moms, and one of the getting to know you questions was “Tell us how many kids you have and how old they are.”

I have three. 8, 6, would be 10.

And yet, “So you have just the two?” Yes.

Both true in their way.

I suppose I can explain my thinking sometimes. For the writing group, I’m going to write about Henry. I’m going to write about babyloss. He’s going to come up. That day at the lake, the meeting was likely a one-shot deal and I was tired. I wanted the short answer, not the essay answer that the question seems to require.

***

I give the full answer sometimes because I need to claim Henry. I need to keep him present in this world.

I give the full answer sometimes because a mom of three, one who died is who I am.

I give the full answer sometimes because I’ve learned that sometimes when I give the “three, one died as a baby” answer, I open a door for somebody else who may have an unseen child too. I open the door for people to say, “My sister’s baby was just stillborn” or “My best friend’s baby is dying.” And “I don’t know what to say to her?” or “What can I do?” And when that door opens, it pours light in on all the hidden losses, the tiny, powerful lives unseen.

***

I have three kids. My daughters are heading into first and third grades. My son died as a baby.

I have three kids, but I’ll only ever know what it is to have two.

I have two daughters that I love to the moon and back and a son I love and miss always.

How many kids do you have? Three, or just the two, depending on the day, my mood, the asker, the reason for asking.

It should be a simple question. It isn’t a simple answer.

I still pause when I get the question. And sometimes, some variation—How many kids did you want? How many do you have? How old are they?—still catches me off guard.

How do you answer the question: How many kids do you have? Would you answer differently here than you would at a store or the park? Do you have a set answer or do you decide each time what to say?

 

 

 

Why I Love the Gift of a Heart of Stone

by Sara Barry

“Here,” my 11-year-old neighbor thrust a bag at me. I looked at the birthday cake on the side, confused. It was over a month since my birthday.

“You don’t get to keep the bag. Or the scarf,” he said. I peeked in the bag and the “something” was wrapped up in a gold scarf. Whatever it was, it was heavy.

His mom shrugged. She didn’t know what it was either. So I reached in and pulled out the scarf covered item and slowly unwound it. I felt rough stone, and before I felt the shape, I knew.

Heart stone.

My Henry garden is dotted with heart stones small and large. So when he found the stone down by the river he brought it home for me. Later he placed it up in the garden for me among the other hearts there.

My heart stones come from the river we visit often and the beaches where I grew up. They came from a trip to Maine that first summer after Henry died and local trails just this summer.

The stones range in size from finger-tip dots to chunks big enough to need two hands to move. They are scattered everywhere. Henry’s garden, yes, but also my desk and dresser, the window sill in front of the kitchen sink, the mantle, the cup holder in my car . . . Every where I turn tokens of love.

I don’t remember how we started collecting heart-shaped stones after Henry died. The first presented itself to me, the heart shape showing up in the jumble of irregular shapes beneath my feet. It felt like a message, a hello from Henry, a reminder of love in the depth of grief.

They kept showing up on our walks and outings. My husband seeks them out, searches for them, though the last one he found he stumbled upon. He was traveling a trail he’s walked often this spring and summer, thinking about Henry when he tripped on it. “I probably walked over it a hundred times and never noticed it.” But he noticed it that day.

I love the ones that find you. I don’t seek out heart-shaped stones, but when I find them I pick them up, slide them into my pocket, the stone heart a talisman against my tender heart.

A few years ago, another boy, shyly thrust a hand at me and deposited a stone. This one tiny, but beautifully shaped.

“This is for you. I found it at the Cape,” he muttered before retreating. I love these gifts, both the token and the love inherent in them. And Henry remembered.

In the early days, I needed signs—the flash of a cardinal or the appearance of a heart-shaped stone. These days, I don’t need them, but I still smile these little reminders, these little hellos, these little messages of love.

Heart stones and cardinals are my Henry signs. Ladybugs, dragonflies, and red tailed hawks show up for other babies loved and missed. What shows up for you? Do others share their sightings or findings with you?

Still not over it?

By Sara Barry

In the lead up to Mother’s Day this year, I almost forgot it was coming. Almost. But my body knew what was coming even if I didn’t acknowledge it. On the day before Mother’s Day this year, I broke.

Anger seeped up. And sadness. This sense of missing that comes for Mother’s Day. It astounds me with its intensity. Every year.

“Focus on your girls. Enjoy them. Cherish them.”

“Count your blessings.”

I’ve heard these things again and again.

And I do. I look at pictures of them as babies, and I’m amazed at the strong, spirited people they have become. I love that they still want me to sing their songs at bedtime, the ones I made up when they were newborns.

I feel the warmth of their bodies, the solidity of them, the radiance, as we snuggle together to read. I marvel that they are both reading on their own.

I watch them run. I snap at their bickering. I spend time in their classrooms at school. A big hug from one of them or a quiet smile can change the tone of my day.

We sit together at dinner and tell three good things about our days. We count our blessings.

I see my blessings. I open expansively to my girls. I notice the details, the asymmetrical color of the eyebrows, the mole I always think is a tick, the gusto of one in a school show, the relieved and fully dimpled smile of the other after a presentation is over.

I focus on my girls. I enjoy them. Cherish them. I count my blessings.

Most days, Henry is there too quiet inside, like a sleeping baby who needs no attention. He’s a picture on the shelf, a short “Hey, bud” as I switch on the light in the morning.

Most days, from the outside it looks like I’m “over it.” Most days what it looks like is true—even to me.

But I know it’s not over, it’s through. You get through the worst of it. The darkest days, the heaviest grief. Some people would tell you it gets better. Others would say it gets different.

Either way, you come to a point where you don’t break down on each trip to the grocery store, where you don’t wake to a weight on your chest that gets heavier as you become more alert, where a baby brings a smile not an ache. You feel that smile rise all the way to your eyes. You feel the sunshine on you face and it penetrates all the way through you.

You open more and more to joy. And that joy is pure and full, even as it sits squarely beside grief. You simply manage to hold both.

And then one day you realize you don’t have to hold it all the time. It’s still not gone. You can put it down, but you don’t control it.

When a thunderstorm is approaching, our dog starts to pace and pant. He’s restless and anxious. The lead up to Mother’s Day was a little like that. Saturday before Mother’s Day, anger bubbled up in me, and tears of sadness. I felt tender and on edge, waiting for the storm to come, for the storm to pass.

“Aren’t you over this yet?”

We’ve all heard some variation on this question or an admonition to “move on” or “count our blessings.”

Most of the people in my life have been respectful of my grief process. They’ve understood that my grief wouldn’t end in a year or even two, that it didn’t go away with the birth of another child. Even so I’ve gotten nudges to look at the positive.  

But on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, I was the one asking the question.

“Aren’t you over this yet?”

Henry would have turned 10 at the end off this month. I’ve been grieving his loss for almost as long. And most days now, that looks pretty smooth and calm. Most days it looks like me smiling, on the inside as well as outside. Most days it looks like me eating breakfast with my girls or making up a story in their beds.

It looks like spelling words and “yes, you can go ride your bike.” It looks like coffee and a journal in the early hours of the day and tick checks and songs at bedtime. It looks like volunteering in classrooms and going out for ice cream.

It looks like a busy, full life. And it is. All of that is true.

And yet some days, usually around Mother’s Day and his birthday and around the day he died, I still break. And I ask, “Aren’t you over it yet?” Not because I expect to be, but because I want to be.

I don’t want the undercurrent to build in me in these months, my life an earthquake waiting to happen as the built up tension on the fault line of grief shifts.

But that tension comes unbidden, and often under the surface. That tension builds. I can’t control it any more than I can control a late frost like the one that killed last year’s peaches. I can’t control it any more than I could make Henry’s breathing easier or stave off infection.

That tension builds, and then I crack open. I snap. I cry. I release. And I settle back in to a life that is full and beautiful, a life where I cherish my girls and count my blessings, a life where one of my babies is always missing and I know that missing will bubble up again in time.

When Henry’s birthday passes this year, I will exhale deeply. And settle back into that life where love and joy and day-to-day annoyances reign. Until the next time, the anniversary of the day he died, some milestone I didn’t anticipate. Then tension will grow again and release. It is simply part of the rhythm of my life now, like it or not. Ten years later, you could say I’m still not over it, or maybe that this is what over it is.    

Talismans and Touchstones: What Gets You Through

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry


I found my forget-me-not charm the other day while scrabbling my fingers through a dish on my dresser for an earring match. The charm is tiny, the size of a baby finger tip. The silver-tone metal forms a five-petaled flower. Below it hangs a tiny green glass “emerald,” the birthstone for May, the month Henry was born.

At first I only wore it on the days I expected to be extra hard: the anniversary of his death, a grief group meeting, Mother’s day . . . I wore it, as a talisman on the days I knew I would need more strength.

And then I started wearing it every day, because it turns out that ordinary days were filled with lots of little hard moments and anything you can do to get through helps.

That necklace survived daily use and two grabby infants. Then one day, the chain caught on a low branch of our pear tree and snapped.

I could have gone to the store to get a new chain. I  could have put it on  another chain I already owned. But I didn’t. I decided to try not wearing the little flower.

I felt lighter without it, somehow, though that tiny charm couldn’t have weighted an ounce. I felt buoyant.

I noticed, though, that I kept putting my hand to the spot where my collar bone joins. The spot where for so long my forget-me-not sat.

I had gotten into the subconscious habit of touching it when I talked about Henry or a strong memory of him surfaced or grief washed over me in a wave.

My hand went to that tiny charm to steady myself when people asked, “Do you have other children?” or when I saw a child his would-be age or heard the name Henry.

It became a reflex to reach up, as if there were strength or magical solace in that tiny metal flower.

Whatever power that charm had, it’s gone. The forget-me-not charm is now just a trinket gathering dust on my dresser. I don’t need it these days. But for years it was my touchstone, something to steady and help me, a place to pause while I took a deep breath and found the words I didn’t want to say.

We always carry some piece of our children with us, and sometimes we carry something else with us too. Not a reminder—we don’t need that—but something to hold onto, literally, physically, when we feel like we’re drowning.

What do (or did) you carry with you, literally, as a sign of your child? Can you imagine letting it go?

How Grief Shifts Like the Lengthening Days

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry

Tonight, the sky was a bruise of color to the west, but still, the light lingered, even as dinner got done later than planned. It made me smile, that blue sky and lingering sun glow. I noticed that the light was staying later about a week ago, startled to look at the clock at 5:30 and see blue sky out my window.  

Since the shortest, darkest day in  December, the days have been growing longer the light staying more each day. One minute or two, each day.

On December 23 or 31, or even January 30, this change wasn’t noticeable. But those minutes add up. So suddenly it’s light at 5:05, 5:23 5:41 . . . I should be starting dinner, and it’s still light. I hadn’t noticed the lengthening days. The light crept up on me. The return of hope and joy in grief can be like that too.

Grief is so dark, so heavy it’s easy to lose sight of changes in you. It’s easy to think you will never come back into the light or that you will see it, but it won’t last. Yes, the overall effect of grief easing takes far longer than the turn of light from December to late February, but like the light, the change is slow, imperceivable.

Until one day you notice that your breathing doesn’t tighten first thing every morning, that you’ve gone a whole week without bursting into tears, that you say your baby’s name with more ease, more lightness. It still hurts. But there is a shift that has been happening that you hadn’t even noticed.

Working through grief is hard, exhausting work. It’s trudging drudgery. Sometimes we don’t see the change because it’s subtle, imperceptible. And sometimes we are so bowed over, we fail to notice what is happening around us.

I remember finding a picture of myself, from several years after Henry died. I was smiling, which wasn’t new. I knew how to form my mouth into the right shape even soon after he died. But in this picture, the smile reached my eyes. Perhaps it had been edging up there, inching its way like the growing light, until it reached all the way into my eyes.

You don’t get over grief. You don’t get to the end of it. But you get through the darkest hours. The light returns, however slowly.

I saw the light tonight and even though the wind is still biting and my kitchen is a jumble of boots and snow pants and mittens, I can see the day coming when the bulky clothes will be packed away, when I’ll run outside barefoot, sink my hands into the ground. I see the day coming when I’ll start dinner too late because the light tricks me into letting us all play longer than we should. I see the day when the light will lengthen and I’ll almost forget how early and how deep the darkness had come.

What shifts have you felt in your grief?  

When Joy Finds You on the Darkest of Days

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry

Some Decembers you don’t put up a tree. You let others do the shopping and the wrapping. You wait to get through the month.

Some Decembers you put up the tree. Brave the crowds for one whirlwind shopping trip, see the sign in the bank window Dec 22. Feel your hands get heavy and your arms feel like they will float away. That’s how grief hits sometimes.

Some Decembers you march into the month determined to do battle, reclaim the joy. Some Decembers you whisper, “Uncle” and admit defeat before it even arrives.

And then one December, you approach the month with less trepidation than usual and no false bravado. You look at the calendar and the to do lists, the events leading up to The Day.

And you stop there, before you even get to Christmas.

The Day. The day he died.

You take a deep breath. And you begin.

But instead of telling yourself December is hard, you look at each day as its own. You move through December 1 and December 2.

You run the 5K. You host the birthday party. You bake cookies to take to school and host another birthday party. You give space to the joy part of the month, the living part of the month.

This year, you don’t hold joy and sorrow all through the month. You leave space for the grief, but you don’t pick it up. This year you can choose to do that. It wasn’t always that way, and it may not always be.

This year you find yourself not feeling the weight of the month so much. Yes, you burst into tears reading one of the Christmas stories, the one about the man who’s wife and baby died. But you don’t find yourself bursting into tears at the store and the bank and the school parking lot.

You approach each event as it comes instead of trying to hold all of it. And so you find yourself on December 16, on the night before the day he died 9 years ago, not quite sure what is happening.

You sit by the fire in the glow of the tree. You feel mostly calm. Quiet. You turn off your email and Amazon and Facebook. You want to trust that you are OK. No, you know you are OK, but you want to trust that the weight won’t crash down unexpectedly. You want to believe that this year is different. Better.

You think that may this year you won’t crack open to the wild rawness that has filled so many Decembers.

You worry that you won’t crack open. You don’t feel him, and if you don’t feel the heavy grief, what is there?

You don’t know. So you wait to see what December 17 will bring this year. Whatever it is, you will let it come. Let it come.

The day comes with a snow storm that makes everything slow down. Your daughter’s basketball game is cancelled. You aren’t expected to be anywhere, do anything. You see this as a small gift.

You see the beauty of the snow, the beauty you were too numb to see to nine years ago. You breathe the cold air deeply. And still, you are restless, out of sorts.

You don’t know what to do with this day, so you do what you always do. You make space for memory, for grief, for love.

Each of these nine years it has been different. There have been years of distraction and deep focus on new life. Years when you could barely get out of bed. There was the year you brought yourself, surprised, to a holiday party. A small one. A safe space. One where people knew what day it was for you. One where people knew about empty arms.

This year you watched your girls build Legos and turned on a Christmas movie for them. This year, you said yes to dinner with friends who are like family.

This year, you surprised yourself again and said yes to night sledding. You walked with your headlamp following little legs running ahead. You trudged up the hill through the cemetery (not his) to the top of the sledding hill.

You watch the kids take the first runs filled with whoops and laughter. You look at the bare trees against the gray clouds. You breathe deep the cold again. You plop down on the saucer sled that was handed to you and start spinning down the hill.

You feel the cold air and snow spray on your face. You spin and tip at the end. You get up smiling and trudge back up the hill. You take a few more exhilarating runs.

Then you stand at the top of the hill, smiling. Your heart is pounding. You feel alive. And as you smile spreads, your chest expands too, with love and light and joy.

Nine years ago, eight years ago, even last year . . . you couldn’t have imagined yourself smiling at the top of a hill covered with snow on this day. Real smiling, whole body smiling. But here you are.

 

You Don't Have To Be Grateful...

Healing a Heart
By  Sara Barry

HenryHand.jpeg

You don’t have to be grateful.

 

We are thick in the season of gratitude. A holiday of thanks and abundance nearly upon us. There will be people—some who have no idea what you have lost, some who know intimately what you are missing—who tell you: Be thankful for what you have. Count your blessings instead of your sorrows.

If that brings you comfort, follow that advice. But for many people hurting at the core, missing so deeply it sears, that saying feels like a demand. It sounds like, “Stop whining about what you don’t have. Look at what you do have instead.”

Instead. That’s the problem.

Gratitude is tricky. You’d think it would be most present when life is going smoothly, when wonderful things are happening. Yet that’s when I find it easiest to forget, to get complacent. When times are hard, gratitude can be something to hold onto. But not instead of grief or sorrow or anger or fear. With it.

Now, nearly nine years after his death, I find gratitude easily if I stop to remember—and I practice gratitude each day. I’m thankful for two healthy daughters, a warm home, plenty of food. I’m thankful for family that laughs and cries with me. I’m thankful for music and dancing, letters from friends, green things growing in the spring and the stripped down beauty of November.

It’s not that I didn’t see these things in the early days after Henry’s died. I recognized the same warm home, but it felt strangely quiet without him in it (even though he hadn’t been here long). I wasn’t one of those people who found food tasteless in grief, so I cooked hearty stews and cheesy macaroni, filling myself with comfort food.

I was rich in friends. The one who called from New York every month to listen to wherever I was, whatever I was feeling. The one down the hill who met me for tea just as regularly. The ones who reported cardinal sightings and made donations and remembered me on Mother’s Day. The one who stopped in for coffee each morning with her kids who broke my heart and healed me at the same time. I am still rich in friends who stuck with me even though I couldn’t be a good friend for a very, very long time. I’m thankful for that.

In those earliest, rawest days, I was thankful for small gestures: a cup of coffee, a white rose on his anniversary, a niece who wrote his name a paper heart for a fundraiser.

But in the first few years, they were all muted by grief—or bright, so bright, but tiny in a sea of darkness.

Still I held on to my gratitude, however small.

I held on to the warmth of sunshine on my back on a muddy, raw, blue sky spring day.

I held onto the call from a friend asking, “How are you?” and giving the space to answer fully and deeply and messily.

I held onto the carrots I found bright and crunchy, still growing in the sodden March soil.

I held onto the laughter that broke me instead of tears when I got together with my sisters.

I held on to the memory of heft of his body lying on my chest, both our breaths slowing.

I held onto each note, each cardinal sighting, each thinking of you.

I held onto the meals dropped off, the cups of coffee sat over.

I held onto the hope of new life.

I held all of it in its fullness, and I held my sorrow and emptiness too.

We hear about a time to laugh and a time to cry. A time to dance and a time to mourn.

We are made to think these are two things. Count your blessings, not your sorrows. But we can do both. We can laugh until we cry. Dance even as our heartbreaks. And some days we can’t. Some days grief is just a steamroller knocking us flat. But inside, underneath, I think gratitude still lives.

I loved, and still love. I open again and again to joy. And still as much as I let go that sorrow is part of me.

It irks me when people respond to grief with a demand to be grateful, as if we don’t need to feel the hard emotions. As if you can’t hold both grief and gratitude together.

You can hold your thankfulness alongside the space in you heart where someone is missing. You can hold both even if your loss feels as big as the world and your thanks feel like a grain of sand. You don’t have to feel grateful in your grief but you can.

What We Let Go Of

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry

I let go of my idea of how my baby would be born.

I let go of the notion of holding him to my breast, nurturing him right away.

I let go of holding him on day one. And on day two.

I let go of the idea that babies are born, stay with their mother for a few days in the hospital and go home.

I let go of the idea that babies just breathe, easily and naturally.

I let go of slings and cloth diapers.

I let go of long walks with the stroller and being woken up in the middle of the night by a baby’s cry.

I let go of the ideal of health and the dreams of what we would do. I made new dreams and let go of those too as what seemed possible shifted and shifted and shifted.

I let go of living at home as a family. I let go of being the primary caregiver, turning that roll over to nurses even as I held fiercely to what I could do.

I tried and tried and tried to let go of fear—and expectation. Hope never let go of me.

I sang out his spirit as he died, never mine to hold or let go.

I let go of his body.

Slowly, over time, I let go of stuff. The stuff he never used. The things he and his sisters shared.

I let go little by little, inching my hands looser and looser, of the need to hold onto the sadness, though not the sadness itself. I let go of the need to remind people of Henry, his life, his death, my grief. I simply remembered and loved other people when they did too.

And now, nearly nine years later, what could there be left to let go of?

Last spring, I donated a pair of shoes. Tiny blue powder blue Merrells that had sat on my dresser, reminding me whenever I caught sight of them of the supposed Hemingway story: For sale, Baby shoes, never worn.

Henry never wore those shoes. He wouldn’t have worn them had he been well, had he lived. I didn’t have patience for baby shoes, and yet they sat there. A reminder. Until I passed them on. Never worn. To somebody who does have the patience for baby shoes. To somebody who may have a simple joyful experience of new motherhood or somebody who holds a babyalongside grief.

And just this week, I let go again. Every year since 2008, I have gone to Boston on the first weekend of November. I make my way down familiar streets past the hospital where Henry spent half his life. I enter a hospital owned building of meeting rooms and sigh deeply. The building is filled with grief—some longer sustained than mine, some raw and oozing.

Every year Boston Children’s Hospital holds an event for grieving families. Every year it breaks me open, wrings me out. I’ve gone back again and again. It’s my way to make space, hold that sacred space for Henry and my big emotions before I enter the heavy month of December and the approach of the day he died. This year, I got the invitation and I thought, “I’m going to let this go.”

I thought I was done letting go, but I let go of structure and tradition I had created within my grieving.

In a few short weeks, it will be nine years since I let sang out Henry’s soul and let go of his body. Since then I’ve let go of a lot. With each piece I let go of, I’ve worried that I’d let go of too much, that I’d lose the little I had. Maybe it’s time to let go of that fear too.

How do you hold on to your love, your hopes, your memories when you’ve been forced to let go of so much? What can you choose to let go of? 

What Can We Do

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry

What Can We Do? For people who want to help when a baby dies

Earlier this month at a family party, one of my husband’s cousins came up and asked if he could ask a sensitive question. While my girls splashed in the pool and burgers sizzled on the grill, he proceeded to tell about friends from their neighborhood and a baby recently stillborn.

What can we do?

He kept talking, wanting very much to do something, but at a loss as we so often are when faced with death, especially the death of a child.

Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Say the child’s name. Acknowledge the loss. I remember how hard it was in the early months to run into people and not know if they knew. Even now, when people mention Henry, I feel a burst of love.

Bring food (but maybe not right away). Food is nurturing. It can be comfort. And sometimes it is simply something you don’t have to think about.

Remember later. Send a note about seven weeks later. Send a card around the anniversary of the baby’s death. I tell people to put a reminder on their calendar; I do it myself. Because life moves on. Time moves fast, and while you may think of the person often, you need a reminder to act. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. I’m thinking of you. I imagine this is an especially hard time. I haven’t forgotten.

I mentioned Empty Arms. My husband talked about the tree somebody sent us to plant for Henry. One a lifeline. Another a symbol of life.

Later I talked to his daughter who had just visited the family. She said, “I didn’t say much. I was just there.”

Just be there. It’s hard to just be there sometimes, to not fill the space with words. But just being there matters. Show up, listen. Be open to tears or laughter or a messy mix wherever the person is.

Keep being there. I still have friends who check in with me in December, when Henry died. People still tell me, “I saw a cardinal and thought of Henry.” It’s been nine years, and I still appreciate it.

As we talked, tears welled behind my sunglasses. I still cry often when I talk about Henry. I cry when I talk about other people’s losses because I know how deep that hurt. And it’s okay. When I need to cry, I do. My final piece of advice: don’t be afraid of tears. They don’t mean you said the wrong thing.

What can we do? I don’t have the answers, just what stuck with me. Empty Arms offers more ideas about what to say and do here.

What helped you in the early days?

Round and Round Again: The Start of School Revisited

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry


You know grief isn’t linear. But what shape, what path does it follow?

 

For me, grief has been a spiral. I come round and round through the months and seasons, again and again and again.

Each spring, as I prep my garden, I flashback to a very pregnant me. I squat, bent over belly, and plant seeds. Lettuce. Carrots. Hope.

Each summer, early August, I sit in the late afternoon glow, turning the world golden and remember the golden weeks when we thought Henry was better. His heart had been fixed, and ours started to heal over the wounds of fear.

And each year, as we get ready for the school bus to stop in front of our house for the first day of school, I remember sitting with Henry on our neighbor’s first day. I remember waiting for it, lost and broken, that first September I knew he would never ride the school bus.

I come back round to the distraction of a new baby the following year.

The ravenous hunger of another pregnancy after that.

Chasing one, holding one, missing one.  

Waiting for his turn that would never come.

Smiling as his sister climbed the bus steps for the first time.

This year, I’ll put my youngest on the bus.

We’re counting down the days. And I’m here, back thinking about the bus as I do each year as August turns to September. I started writing this post and had a sense of déja vu, because I wrote about missed milestones already.

But we’re here again. I’m getting ready to send my daughters to 2nd grade and kindergarten. And Henry would be starting 4th grade. I updated a few numbers from last year’s , but has anything else really changed?

 

It has. Each time I spiral back round, the experience changes. In the first years, I relived a lot of moments. Then moved to remembering.

Now, it’s not so much revisiting the past as growing onto it. Each fall is that fall we waited on the porch and the one when Henry should have gotten on the bus and the one when his sister did. And the one right now, where we’re anticipating my little one going on the bus for her first time.

On the first day of school, I’ll turn off the memory lamp by Henry’s picture as I go to turn on the coffee. I may pause and look closely at that moment of him captured in time or I may bustle past trying to get everyone ready. Either way he’ll be with me when we wait for the bus, caught in a chamber of the spiral. I can be fully present with the milestone unfolding while holding the hoped for milestone and the missed milestone and the previous milestones.

And next year, I’ll wait again for the bus.

Do you spiral back to the same events? How have things changed from this time last year (or 2 years or 5 years ago) to this time this year?

At a Loss for Words

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry

In the first months after Henry died, my husband and I found it hard to communicate. We both struggled with our words. We couldn’t come up with simple, every day words like pencil or coffee or dinner. Our sentences would trail off as we poked around inside our grief swollen brains to find the name for something we were talking about. Often the other person found it first, but sometimes we’d stare at each other unsure what the other one meant.  

And then there were conversations where words simply weren’t enough. Words like sad and hurt, angry and unfair just weren’t big enough. But they were all we had. So we muddled through with half sentences and frustrated pauses.

Other people didn’t know what to say either. I don’t fault them for that. I struggle for words when I hear of somebody else’s loss. Every time I write a sympathy card, I recognize the inadequacy of the words “I’m sorry.” I still use them to mean “I wish this hadn’t happened,” “I hurt for you,” “I know this sucks,” and “I wish I could make this better.”

Even knowing that there are no words, even having sat through people trying to fill anxious, uncomfortable space with words, I find myself wanting to do the same. I want to make it better though I know I can’t. I want to offer hope even as I acknowledge the pain. I want to offer up all the things that didn’t make it better but that helped me muddle along.

But I try to bite my tongue. I try to listen. And I try to sit in that uncomfortable space of grief with people. I have met people who do this much better than I do. I have had people stand in that space with me, with few words, not because the words won’t come, but because they recognize that they aren’t what is needed in that moment, and because they aren’t afraid of the emotional fullness of that empty space.

How has your own loss changed how you respond to other’s loss?

The Invisible Sibling

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry


“You’re lucky you don’t have a brother.”

The seven-year-old we had just met on the trail grumbled to my seven-year-old. No response, but the one in my head:

“But she does.”

My girls do have a brother. They just don’t know what it’s like to have one who bickers with them and chases them and bugs them. They have never sputtered in a fit of anger, “I wish I didn’t have a brother.” They also don’t know what it is like to have a brother share his legos or chase them in a game of tag.

My girls do have a brother, and what that looks like has changed and morphed over time.

Back when we changed diapers before bed, my husband would pull a picture of Henry down off the shelf and the girls would say goodnight. Some days they’d ask for the picture. Some days they kissed it. It was a tradition I loved, but I told myself not to get too attached, to let them decide. One day they stopped asking for the picture. We stopped getting dressed in the bathroom or we were rushed and getting to bed late or their ideas changed. Like so many things, it was what we did for a while, and then it wasn’t.

“We have five people in our family. Two boys and three girls,” the little one likes to say. She counts them off on her fingers. “Mom, me, and Kathleen are girls. Plus dad and . . . “ Are you expecting her to say Henry here? It would make a sweet story, but really she says, “Roscoe.” Our dog.

Some days Kathleen will remind her to add Henry. Some days she doesn’t. I can live with this. They know he is part of our family even if he isn’t here to count. I can live with this because they’ve also said, “I’m sad I never got to meet Henry.” I can live with this because I don’t want them to be crushed by his loss, because I can’t expect them to hold the same space for him that I do.

Before they were born, early in my grief, I needed to know Henry wouldn’t be forgotten. I wondered and worried about how I would make him real to kids who had never known him. I looked to other people for their stories. When Kathleen came along, and then Elizabeth, I stopped worrying about how to introduce them to this baby brother they hadn’t met and would never know. We simply talked about him. We showed pictures like we did with lots of family members. “That’s mommy. That’s Nana. That’s Henry.” We named him. We told stories and visited the cemetery. I cried and told them why.

I don’t know what effect having a brother who died before they could meet him has or will have on my kids. I’m curious if his death will hit them some day as their concept of death changes or what being exposed to death so early means for them. I do my best to let them know that I love Henry even though he’s not here and that I love them deeply and all the time. I show them know it is okay to be sad and to express that sadness, and I share the great joy and beauty around us even with sadness. We talk about Henry simply as part of our family.

So when somebody asks, as a friend did not so long ago, “Who’s that baby in that picture?” my girls reply nonchalantly, “That’s Henry. That’s my brother.”

So, little girl on the trail, you’re wrong. My daughters are not lucky they don’t have a brother, because they have one. Even if they don’t really get to know him. But I know what you mean, because I wish they had a chance to wish they didn’t have a brother.

“You’re lucky you don’t have a brother,” still catches my attention, but my mind moved on by the time we caught up with the girls who had rushed ahead. Not so long ago, I would have cried or gotten really quiet. Not so long ago I would have wanted curl up in bed when we got home. Not so long ago, I might have answered that little girl aloud or seethed my answer inside. Instead I quietly acknowledge Henry in my own heart. My son. My girls’ brother.

If you have other kids, how has the loss affected them? How do you feel about the way your living children think about the baby they don’t get to grow up with? What questions or worries or wishes do you have?

Nobody to Blow Out the Candles—Finding Birthday Traditions after Your Baby Dies

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry

Last year, as I spread the rich chocolate frosting on Henry’s birthday cake, the smoothness that wouldn’t be punctured and punctuated by candles broke me open. I let loose tears that had been waiting for something to free them.

Birthdays are like that. Winding me tight, waiting for release, and as we move further away from the day he was born, that tension seems to happen under the surface. I almost don’t notice it. Until I do—because I’m snapping at my kids or crying over a song—or breaking down over perfect frosting.

Part of me is in denial that Henry’s birthday is coming up fast.

It’s OK because I don’t need to send out invitations or ask what kind of party he’d like to have. I don’t need to think about a present or hope the weather cooperates.

His birthday isn’t about what he wants, but about remembering him, celebrating his life. And to do that I fall back on tradition. Birthdays are hard, and not having to figure it out every year helps.

I keep it simple: on Henry’s birthday, there will be cake for breakfast, and I will work in his garden. 

We’ll eat chocolate cake and sausage with our neighbors—the once little girl who offered to sit with Henry on the first day of kindergarten and with her brother, who came in every day the winter after Henry died asking, “‘Enry ‘ome?” The tradition started with the living after he died, but we extend to Henry. He’s part of us.

I’ll buy something new for his garden and give myself space and the soothing work of weeding and tending.

These traditions evolved over the years as I settled into what felt the most right on a day that never will be.

The first year I was at a loss. I stressed about finding the perfect way to honor Henry’s birthday, convinced that it would be what we did every year.

I read about things other people did:

  • Planting a tree on the first birthday
  • Random acts of kindness in their child’s name
  • Balloon releases
  • Delivering bags to be distributed at the hospital
  • Buying and donating a gift for a child your child’s age
  • Fundraisers for causes related to the child or grieving parents
  • Taking the day off as a family

There were lovely ideas, but many of them were too much for where I was. I felt like I should do more, but I did what I could.

For Henry’s first birthday, we gathered with family. We released one heart shaped balloon and gave others to Henry’s cousins. We planted the peach tree that I had intended to plant for him had he lived—and a red flowering hawthorne that family had sent to us.

And we received a gift—a sign for Henry’s Garden. From that the lasting birthday tradition grew.

Henry’s Garden is a mishmash of perennials that people have given us and the I have selected each year. It’s dotted with heart shaped rocks. Each year on Henry’s birthday, I clean it up—weed it, move things around, plant something new. I’m at home in the garden, so spending time there is soothing for me. I’ve been out there in mist turning to torrential rain and in unrelenting heat. I’ve wiped away sweat and swatted at bugs. And through it all, my heart opens wide to my boy not there.

I’ve spent parts of Henry’s birthday eating burgers and keeping my kids from falling in a pool. I’ve set up for Science Night at school. I’ve read stories and breathed through meltdowns. But there is always cake. There is always time in the garden. Every year I hold space for my boy in a world that keeps on moving.

Do you have a birthday tradition? How do you honor—or just get through the day?

 

Is the Time Before Your Baby Died a Bittersweet Memory?

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry


The sun was bright in my face, the soil warm and soft beneath my bare feet. My belly balanced on my thighs as I leaned forward to pick up a clump of dirt. As I shook soil from the roots of weeds, the memory came as it does each year.

Planting holds muscle memory for me. Each year as I prep the soil to plant the earliest seeds, I remember May 2007, when my belly full of life balanced on my thighs, when leaning forward was a little harder. My neighbor did the hard work that year of digging and turning the soil with a shovel. I squatted and broke up the clumps with fingers and hand tools, tossing the weeds into a wheel barrow.

 

This year, like the last  eight, I remember that hopeful me, planting seeds for a garden I wasn’t sure I’d tend (I was going to be busy with a new baby after all). I remember that hopeful me waiting for new life, both a fuzz of green sprouts and the baby I had known for nine months but had yet to meet.

For the past eight years, the smell of freshly turned soil, the feel of dirt underfoot, the shaking and tapping of root-bound clods of earth brought me back to those last weeks before Henry was born. I’d remember the hope, the anticipation, the expectation—and how much went unfulfilled. What do you do with hope that gets stunted like that?

The earliest prep work in the garden with all it’s connected hope became one of the strings of bittersweet memories that followed me through the years.

But this year, as I bent my face away from the sun, clearing away weeds earlier than ever before, that muscle memory came back to me. But I stayed in that moment where I was squatting and leaning over my big belly. I stayed in that place of hope and expectation that all would be OK, and I realized what a gift this memory is. That moment is not tangled with beeping monitors at the hospital or the anxiety of waiting for surgery. It isn’t a moment of joy and love wound tight with fear. It’s love. It’s hope. That’s it.

Sometimes, I get tired of telling my story. I feel like I’ve felt it all, said it all before too many times. And then something new catches me. A new memory, a new angle, a new understanding. My beautiful, loving hope is as real as the grief that came after. They are connected in a way that can’t be severed, but I can sit with that hope and the love that surrounded it. I have sat with the grief, with the what ifs, with the won’t ever bes. I can sit with the before, the possibility, the pure hope and delight. I can sit and hold that memory too.

***

It took me a long time to see the gift in this spring ritual memory. For years it was a reminder of what I had hoped for—expected even—that didn’t happen, not the reminder of that place of love and joy and hope.

Have you been able to get back to that place, to cherish those memories, or is it too hard, your memories too tangled? What action triggers your memories most?

 

On Trying Again

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry

People tell me sometimes how courageous it was for us to try again. They wonder how we knew we were ready.

We knew we weren’t ready. I’m not sure there is a ready.

I knew I wanted the chance to hold a baby of my own again. Our ages didn’t give us a lot of time to be ready. I knew that grief was an ongoing process, and also that getting past the rawest, most exhausting part of it would take time we didn’t have.

Then came March with its mud and mess, raw wind and raw emotion.
Then came March with the diagnosis of the disease the would kill my mother-in-law.
Then came March and the start of hospice care for my sister-in-law.
Then came March and my need for some sign of life.

Every March I seek out signs of life—swelling buds, shoots poking out of the cold earth, the running sap in the maples. That March was no different, but that March I needed more. In the midst of illness and dying all around me, I needed—desperately—to be working toward life.

In March, three months after my son died, my daughter was conceived. I cried when the doctor calculated my due date and it fell on the one year anniversary of the day we buried Henry.

Had I thought it through, done the math, I wouldn’t have tried to conceive then. But life and death are not logical. The time was as good as any.

I was not ready—and it was the right time.

I was afraid to hope, but I held onto that hope even as I sat in the darkness of grief, even as fear wrapped itself around me. I worried about what we had been through happening again. I worried about all the other ways I had learned about that babies can die.

In that space I needed to talk with other parents who had been through pregnancy after loss. I needed to be heard by people who understood that numbers were not comforting. I needed to share with people who understood that I was happy and excited and anxious and sad.

So many people were delighted to hear that I was pregnant again, and I appreciated their happiness for us. But it was when people recognized that we were still grieving deeply even as we opened to the new life growing within me, that I could really embrace the hope. It was when people understood how very scary it was to go through another pregnancy, that I could breathe a little easier.

Subsequent Choices didn’t exist in 2008 when I muddled my way through, but I remember Carol holding hope for me, much as the the principles of the group say:

Feeling hopeful can feel difficult sometimes. Therefore, we hold onto hope for each other. We will have confidence that each of us has the ability to bring a new baby safely into the world. Know that you are not alone.

If you are thinking about what’s next or working through a subsequent pregnancy, let us hold hope for you—and let us listen to your fears and hope and joy.

 

What Gets You Through

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry

As I write this, I’m coming down off a sugar high from our first sugar shack visit of the season. Pancakes dotted with blueberries; crisp, salty bacon; hot coffee; and of course plenty of sweet, fresh syrup. Waiting for our pancakes, I stood with my girls as they took turns climbing the steps to look down into the evaporator where sap in different stages of transformation bubbled wildly. I breathed deeply, taking in the moist, maple-laden air. This tradition gets me through the long, tail end of winter and the messy start to spring.

Nine years ago, Brian and I muddled through our early grief by falling back often on “normal” or what we had done in our life before. Come the last weekend in February and every weekend in March, “normal” meant these pancake pilgrimages. But one weekend that year, we couldn’t quite face going to our usual spot alone when we thought we’d be there with a baby, so we modified tradition. We went to a sugar shack, but one new to us.

I remember my first visit to this sugar shack vividly with the blur and sharp particular details of early grief. I remember the long tables and loud hum of the busy, high ceilinged room, the steam swirling up and out from the evaporator on the upper level of the dining area. I remember Carol, putting a hand on my arm as we ordered at the counter. I had met her about a month before at my first Empty Arms meeting, and she scanned the room for me: no babies to trigger my fragile self.

Mostly I remember the sunlight that streamed through a wall of windows on the front of the building. I felt the brightness around me, but not in me.

Today, I sat lazy and satiated in the sun that poured through those windows. Daffodils raised their yellow trumpets on the table. The outside thermometer read in the 30s, but the sun inside and out felt warmer.

Nine years ago, I held onto every tiny speck of hope that spring would come, that grief would mellow. Today, spring seems imminent and grief is one thread woven into my life, one where my smile reaches my eyes as I look up at the bright sky, one where my lungs expand with the moist, syrupy steam and my heart expands with love and joy. 


In the early days of grief, I sought out little pockets of comfort and hope. In addition to our sugar shack visits, I kept flowers on my table all through the winter. I fell into the deliberate rhythms of my kitchen, cooking comfort foods, day after day. I stood in the cold sunshine and noticed the light even when it offered no warmth.

What got you through you the early days?

 

 

 

 

Joy Comes Back

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry

The first few notes of the song swelled. I felt the music, smiled, then felt my chest tighten with memory.

I wanna be ready.

Earlier this month, my husband and I went up to Ashfield to see Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem. The place was packed; the kitchen backed up; the crowd loud over the band during the first set.

As we waited for our burgers, I told my husband that the first time I had heard Rani Arbo was at the Green River Festival. “Remember that time when Kath had free tickets and Kathleen was a baby?” He nodded.

I had been reluctant to go. Kathleen wasn’t sleeping, and we were deep in the second year after Henry’s death. While my healing had taken a huge leap when Kathleen was born, I was still wiped out by early grief and learning to navigate the world with a baby who died and one in arms.

I was tired, physically and emotionally. And it was raining. But I went.

In a tent out of the rain, I listened to music, let it flow through me. And then this song started low and slow. It started with the weight of where I was:

I wanna be ready.
I wanna be read-y.
I wanna be ready. 
When joy comes back to me.

And then it exploded into its own joyfulness, and I couldn’t help but dance.

You know how a smell can bring you back? How one minute you’re washing your hands then the smell of hospital soap puts you right back in the NICU, the worry and fear alive again in your body?

Music can do that to. When I heard the opening notes of “Joy Comes Back,” for just a minute, I felt the lost, heavy feeling of that second year of grief. I had to take a deep breath. I stood still, letting it flow through me.

And then it left, as I knew it would. It’s been eight years since Henry died, and those core sorrow moments, still come, but they pass. They move on without leaving me searching for a chair or a dark corner to curl up in.

Back in 2008, when Kathleen had pried open the tight protective fist I had wrapped around my own heart, joy had seeped back into my life. That joy was deep, but I still wanted more joy, more light in my life.

I wanted to be ready. And I was.

I knew, even in the depths of grief, that joy would come back. I knew it even when I couldn’t fathom how or really conjure up what that might feel like. I just kept opening. I felt my sorrow fully, and I felt the joy that way too.

I write a lot about the moments that almost break me, the times when heavy darkness sits with me. I write about that because it’s where I need to work through things and because the sorrow is still here, eight years moving into nine. But it isn’t all sorrow. Joy has come back. If it hasn’t come back for you yet, be ready. Let it come.