A Pastor and the loss of his child.

The following sermon was given during Lent of 2016 by The Rev. Nathaniel S. Anderson - Pastor of Church of the Epiphany-Christ the King in Wilbraham. Pastor Nathaniel and his wife Carolyn Starz are the proud parents of Inga, born February 2017 and James, stillborn at 34 weeks in November 2015.

As a part of your seminary training, Lutherans and Episcopalians (and pretty much every stripe of Christian) spend one summer as a hospital chaplain. Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE as it is called, is a bit of baptism by fire - you’re thrown into patient rooms with nothing but a prayer book and a name tag. As the low chaplains on the totem pole, your first unit of CPE usually means being on call once a week during the overnight hours. You sleep in the hospital, usually with one eye open, as you wait for the pager to wake you from some very poor sleep. I spent roughly a dozen nights on call and I saw everything from sudden deaths and traumas to an urgent call from a nurse in the Emergency Department who was convinced a patient was possessed by the devil. Literally 5 minutes into my first ever night on call, I walked through the doors in my collar, and was immediately asked, “Father, would you please perform an exorcism?” My classmates still laugh about that one. Despite quickly becoming experienced at handling intense situations, I was still anxious just about every night I was on call. Each and every night I prayed the same prayer, “Please God, don’t let a baby die tonight. There’s no way I can handle that. I won’t know what to say.” I never expected that one day I would be standing over Carolyn’s bed after we lost our son James, facing a just-jostled-from-sleep chaplain intern confronting that very situation.

Everyone knows there are certain things you just don’t say when a baby dies. Especially as the chaplain. Silence is preferable to easy answers or saying ‘something.’ I’m pretty sure every chaplaincy department drills that into you on the first day. And yet early that morning, the chaplain that met us apparently didn’t get the memo.

“Well,” she said, “Though we can’t say how, we know that this is a part of God’s plan.”

Normally, when a chaplain utters such a simplistic and insensitive platitude, those on the receiving end rip them apart. And yet, seeing her discomfort, the deer in the headlights look in her eyes, her complete inability to do or say anything else, Carolyn and I could only feel sorry for her. This chaplain was completely overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do. And I’m almost certain if I had been in her shoes during my first year of seminary, I wouldn’t have done any better. Ideally, I would have just kept quiet. But I don’t know.

When I first came back from my leave of absence, I said that it would be a while before I could talk about what happened with James. And quite frankly, I’d rather not talk about something so raw and painful. But with this morning’s Epistle from 1 Corinthians, I feel compelled to address this. Because, unfortunately, these words from St. Paul are so often misunderstood and used to perpetuate incorrect and unfaithful interpretations of how we deal with tragedy. This reading brings to mind several unhelpful and grossly incorrect sentiments. These include:

“God is testing you.”
“You must have done something wrong and are being punished.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
And, “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.”

Most pastors have a very specific theological term to describe these type of sayings:

Bullshit.

“God is testing you”

First, I’d like to address the notion that God tests or punishes us. Jesus himself dismisses these claims out of hand in our Gospel reading. Jesus recounts a couple of recent tragedies - Jews that were killed by Pontius Pilate, as well a freak accident - the tower of Siloam falling and killing eighteen innocent people. The common thinking at the time was that such events were not accidents or simply the actions of an evil man, but rather were retribution for some affront against God. Jesus asks the crowd, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than [anyone else]?” Jesus decisively answers his own question, “No, I tell you.” Jesus is clear - such tragedies are not punishment for sin, but rather death is an inevitable reality of our existence. In addition, we need only look at Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, our reading from two weeks ago and a central theme to our Lenten observance, to address this notion that “God is testing you.” Jesus is brought into the wilderness and tempted, not by God, but by Satan. And when the Devil encourages Jesus to test God, Jesus replies decisively that we are not to put God to the test. While events and issues in our lives may test our faith, that is in no way the same as God himself doing the testing.

“God won’t give you anything you can’t handle”

Next, and somewhat related, the middle part of 1 Corinthians 10:13 may bring to mind this trite expression. Paul writes, “And he will not let you be tested beyond your strength.” It’s important to note that this tangental section of 1st Corinthians comes about when Paul is discussing one of the many controversies in the church at Corinth. Specifically, is it ok to eat meat that was previously sacrificed to idols. Paul is describing the temptation to eat food that is not kosher. This is far from a struggle with crushing adversity. It also must be said that Paul had nothing close to our modern understanding of mental health — no one was overdosing.  And when you consider all that Paul did not experience — how privileged he was as a Roman citizen, how he wrote these words before enduring his most arduous trials, we must consider the obvious possibility that Paul was just wrong. Never let anyone tell you that “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.” Because it isn’t God who causes us to suffer, and there are indeed situations, circumstances and illnesses that are far beyond what any one person can reasonably be expected to handle. If you feel overwhelmed and without hope, ask for help. Seek treatment. Look for support. This is not evidence of a weak faith but rather a courageous step toward healing and wholeness.

“Everything happens for a reason /
It’s all part of God’s plan”

And of course, this unhelpful sentiment uttered by that chaplain. Such a view implies that God wanted our son James to die. That God wants children to go hungry, and cancer to kill and addiction to ravage. All to fulfill some greater purpose. Brothers and sisters, I do not believe in that God. Instead, I believe in a God who takes all that is evil and wrong in our world and transforms it into something good. I believe in a God that took something as horrible as the death of Jesus on the cross and transformed it into the means of our salvation. I believe in a God who promises that the dead will be raised, that war will cease, that the hungry will be fed and the poor lifted up. The Easter promise is one of redemption — of God transforming our world and our lives. The work of our Lord Jesus, who, as our Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says, “Will change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.”

Those who have been there

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t hold up the beginning part of verse 13. “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” This has been one of the most striking realizations following James’ death. As horrible as the experience has been, we are not alone. I have found great support in the nearly dozen women within our very parish who have suffered a stillborn loss. And many others who have struggled with miscarriage. Beyond this specific type of loss, I’m amazed when I look around this church and see so many who have lost a spouse or a parent or a child. Amidst the fog of our grief, I wonder, “How do you keep going? How have you found that ‘new normal’ in your life?” I have heard from so many of you who know exactly what we’re going through, or who have experienced something equally as devastating, and heard that, “It gets better. It takes a long time, but it gets better.” And I find great hope in that. That though death and loss and suffering are an inescapable part of our human experience, that somehow, and by the grace of God, we move forward.

The chaplain who met with us in the hospital didn’t know what to say — and she didn’t need to say anything. Sometimes there is nothing you can or should say. The death of our son continues to be a struggle for us. When I preach words about the hope and promise of God, at times I believe them stronger than ever — and at other times I’m preaching to myself and need to hear these words as much as anyone of you in the pews. But in many ways, I’ve come to the realization of my ultimate and overwhelming dependence on the Gospel. How I really need to believe this stuff. Really need to place my hope in these promises. Before this, life was easy, I had never suffered any major setback, it was easy to be happy and carefree. I can no longer say that. Like so many of you I have suffered and cried out to God in despair. My faith has been tested. And yet I know that it is not God who tests me, but rather God who stands by me and supports me. God who hears my questions and my anger and my praise. God who promises that at the last day, our beloved James, and all of us, will know God’s ultimate redemption. Amen.

Our Stories: Our daughter, Emma Elizabeth Dias

Empty Arms is highlighting our beautiful community members and their babies. We're so grateful that they're sharing their stories with us! 

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Tell us about you.
My name is Kate Dias. I am a registered nurse, born and raised in the Pioneer Valley.  My husband (Jon) is a teacher, also born and raised in the Pioneer Valley.  We are the parents of two daughters, one who is with us and one who is not. Our missing baby remains in our hearts and is very much a part of our day-to-day living.

Tell us about your baby or babies. What do you want people to know about them?
Our first daughter, Emma Elizabeth, was 6 lbs 4 ounces, 20 inches long. She had a perfect little nose, flawless skin, big hands and feet, and a little crooked toe on each of her feet. She barely had any hair, just a little bit of peach fuzz that was kind of reddish in color. She was due December 17, 2014 and had been a very active baby in utero. I used to joke that the first thing I would do was grab her feet to get a good look at the weapons she used to kick my ribs.  I went into labor December 7, labored for 28 hours, and in the morning of December 8 things inexplicably and unexpectedly changed. Emma had been handling labor “perfectly,” but then she didn’t. I was rushed to the OR for an emergent c-section but Emma died before she could be delivered. We were able to hold Emma and have her body with us for 38 hours after she was born. That was instrumental in our grief journey.  Those are the moments I cherish the most with her.  I was able to spend time dressing her, holding and kissing her, talking to her, and just feeling her close to me and in my arms.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was so incredibly important and really shaped the memories of and connection I have with her today.  Emma’s grandparents, uncles, aunt, and extended family members were able to come see her, hold her, and show her how much she was and is loved. We had Emma cremated and have her ashes in a beautiful glass urn. We were able to receive hand and foot castings, ink handprints and footprints, and professional photographs of our baby. We display our Emma mementos and her urn in an area of our house dedicated just to her. We also have some really beautiful photos of Emma sprinkled in rooms throughout our house. She is very much a part of our daily lives and is mentioned daily in some way or another. Emma has shown us what truly matters in life.

Our second daughter, Grace, was born April 2016, 17 months after Emma was born. Grace came sooner than expected, but much to my relief she was born alive and healthy. She was 6 lbs 8 ounces and 19 inches long. We chose the name because we felt like she was a gift of grace during our grief. Unlike her older sister, Grace had a head full of wild hair.  She looked a lot like her older sister, even having the crooked toe on each foot. We had some feeding issues immediately after birth, and Grace developed jaundice and required light treatment for it, but everything eventually got back on track.  I remember asking why things had to be so challenging after her birth. Hadn’t we already paid our dues? I felt like we deserved an easy road after what we had already experienced with Emma.  It was frustrating.  Also, I wasn’t ready for the comments people made assuming Grace must make Emma’s death a little easier to deal with.  That angered me the most.  Grace is our second child--a continuation of our family.  What I wish the most for people to understand is that although she followed Emma, Grace is not a replacement for the baby we lost.

How did your baby and your grief journey change you as a person?
Emma’s arrival and her death have changed my perspective on life. Certain things that once bothered me now seem insignificant. Material possessions now have no meaning.  I also feel like I have little to no sympathy for people who choose to create and focus on drama that they willingly create for themselves.  Conversely, what I have found is deep empathy for those who are experiencing terrible things that they have absolutely no control over.

Another way I am changed is in my ability to give any of myself to other people.  My job requires an ability to provide compassionate care and support to patients and their families.  It requires a lot of energy and a certain amount of emotional reserve to tap into when need be.  It was particularly difficult for me to provide emotional support to anyone (family, friends, or patients) in the first year after Emma died. It was hard to give to others when my own emotional reserve was depleted. It has changed somewhat over time, but I find it sometimes is still hard.

Is there a way that you can pinpoint a change in your healing and grief journey because of your relationship with Empty Arms?
I know that I felt like I had been dropped into this deep, black abyss the day Emma died. Everything that I thought was my life now looked completely different. I remember being in my hospital bed thinking, ”I am supposed to live after this?”  Any thoughts of healing or putting a shattered life back together seemed insurmountable and impossible. Our first contact with Empty Arms was through their companion program, when Carol came to our hospital room the evening of the day Emma died.  She introduced herself, sat down next to us, shared her story, and shared with us the ways Empty Arms can help. I don’t remember what exactly she said, but I remember how it made me feel, which was less alone and hopeful that I could maybe, someday, be in a place where I, too, would be a survivor. It meant so much for someone to come into our room, look at our baby, and see past the fact that she was dead.  Carol commented on her little face, and how beautiful she looked. She validated our baby’s existence. I could see that I  was facing was painful and hard road, but there was someone who could hold onto the hope that I would eventually be living a meaningful, functional life again, even though I felt like it could not  possibly exist.  

The Empty Arms support groups have been instrumental in my healing as well.  It is healing having a space where I can talk about my daughter, not be judged, and say the things about baby loss that my non-baby loss friends could never relate to.  Coming into a group and sharing my feelings and experiences, then having other people in the group share that they have had similar feelings or experiences has helped normalize a lot of the ways grief affects me.  

Another way Empty Arms helped was during my subsequent pregnancy with Grace.  I was terrified throughout the entire pregnancy. I was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak.  It felt like death or tragedy was right around the corner.  I had no pregnancy milestone to pass where I could take a deep breath and think, “We’ve made it farther than we did with Emma.”  The only time this pregnancy would be different is if Grace was born alive.  I participated in the Subsequent Choices support group with several other loss parents. Having that space to voice my grief for my dead baby and the tempered excitement over our new baby was instrumental in helping me make it through the pregnancy.  Many non-bereaved people I knew couldn’t understand why I was worried or so anxious about this pregnancy. Someone actually told me, “I have never heard of this [meaning stillbirth] happening twice.”  Yes, it does happen, and yes, I was worried about it.  Many of the other people in the group worried about it, too. We all had common fears and feelings regarding our subsequent pregnancies. It was helpful to have that support.

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In what way do you think your connection with Empty Arms and its members has reached outwards to impact other people in your network?
One of the ways Empty Arms has allowed us to reach outwards and affect others is by allowing us to have a fund in our daughter’s name that is designated for a specific use.  In lieu of funeral flowers, we asked that donations be made to Empty Arms. We didn’t have a specific plan for the funds at that time, other than we wanted to give back to an organization that had been helping us from day one.  A few months after Emma’s funeral, Carol talked with us to see what we would like to have the donation money put toward.  Her thoughtfulness and willingness to incorporate us into the decision making was a huge gift to us.  My husband and I decided to create the Emma Dias Fund (or Emma’s Fund) to serve two purposes.  The first is that we really want to help cover costs of the photography printing and delivery for families.  Our personal experience with this was hard. We had a few hoops to jump through when we tried to get photographs printed for Emma’s funeral. In between crying and lying in bed waiting for the days to pass, it was very difficult to make phone calls or try to get things sorted without outside help. My husband and I decided we wanted to make it easier for families to have that type of service available (if a family feels like it would be helpful to them).

Our second purpose for the fund is to help educate nurses on compassionate caregiving regarding perinatal loss. Nursing education is something near and dear to my heart, and I felt like providing this education to future nurses would be valuable to both the nurses and their future patients. The hope is that all local nursing schools will make space for this lecturing. Right now there are several schools who are utilizing this service. In addition to nurses, Emma’s Fund recently helped support education to OB-GYN residents at an area teaching hospital.   

We were able to create Emma’s legacy, which we hope will help our community and those who are thrust into the club no one wants to be a part of.

What else would you like to see Empty Arms accomplish? How do you envision the organization could make that happen?
It saddens me to know that there are some area hospitals, OB GYN practices, and other medical facilities that do not utilize the services provided by Empty Arms. Whatever the reason, it is important that these services be available for bereaved families. It was really so important to my healing that someone came to me, in my hospital room, on their own time, to offer their help and guidance on the worst day of my life. The support continued through the following weeks, months, and now years.  To not be aware of this organization and its resources is a real disservice to our entire community.    

Day 9, TLCF

I'm here at Turkey Land Cove, gifted with endless hours of time to think, discover myself, and create. There's no doubt I've learned much about myself during the past 9 days I've been here. It's been over 12 years since I've been by myself and as many of us know, there's no better way to learn about what we do every day than to go somewhere else. 

I imagined, before coming out here, that I might spend hours revisiting years past, connecting to my own identity as a bereaved parent. Instead, I've poured myself into my work: creating for Empty Arms. I imagine perhaps this is because this is the way I've reinvented myself as a bereaved parent. I've taken that energy, once expended on planting flowers in Charlotte's memory garden and blogging furiously about my loss, and turned it into outward work. I have given her life purpose, and my motherhood purpose. 

But that is not to say that there is not an unhealed part of me, because there certainly is, and there always will be. When I picture the wound that is Charlotte's loss, it's the wound from a week- old burn: shiny and smooth, but still red and angry. Graze that spot against anything and it could open easily, the pain fierce. I carry that wound tenderly, careful not to disturb its edges. I've learned well over the years. 

At night here, it is silent, a drastic difference from my home in Westhampton, where the river roars outside my window and cars pass with regularity. Here, the sliding doors to my bedroom remain open at night, and while on warmer nights the frogs call to one another, some nights it is purely silent. I have learned to sleep alone here, something that took me about five nights to accomplish, and now that I sleep, I dream. I dream deeply and meaningfully. Last night, it was this. 

 My beautiful bedroom overlooking Great Edgartown Pond

My beautiful bedroom overlooking Great Edgartown Pond

I am with a therapist, a woman in her fifties, with round glasses and bobbed hair. She is warm and kind, and as we walk into her office, she offers me a seat at the low, round table. The chairs are molded plastic, the kind you'd see in a kindergarten room. I sit, and as I ease down, I am filled with relief that I am finally here. Here, with a woman I somehow trust, and she will listen to me. I feel anxious to talk to her because I know that I need her to understand. I need her to understand how this experience drowns you, how it colors every single thread in the fabric of your life, I need her to understand how inescapable it is. I'm not sure what the intended focus of my therapy is, but somehow I know this is what I need to communicate to her. 

I'm so glad to be in therapy. I know I've needed this. I can feel myself sinking into the chair, ready to ease into the experience of sharing myself and learning about myself. But then she says something, and I'm standing up, and I'm pacing around the room. I'm looking at her while I'm walking, and I'm telling her this: I think I thought of Charlotte once every minute for at least the first four years. I'm not kidding. And I had three new babies during that time, I tell her, even though I know this is not true. I am exaggerating because I want her to believe me, to see that new babies do not erase those who are gone. I tell her then that even now, 13 years later, I would be surprised if ever an hour has passed where a thought of either that baby, or the aftermath of her death, or my wounded identity, has not crept into my thought. I'm trying to make her understand. 

And then, it's over. People are walking in. Suddenly this is a school, it's a classroom, and it's time for me to leave this room and gather my living children, who are waiting outside. I'm thrust back into the busy-ness of my daily life, and I'm not sure she understood. I'm not sure I was validated. I'm not sure she believed me. 

Is this what my life is now? An unconscious desire to advertise what roils inside me: a loss so incomprehensible that I wouldn't be able to get someone to understand its depth even if I tried? Is this dream describing perfectly what happens when I start to contemplate my loss, that life interrupts and gets in the way? Is it communicating to me my subconscious wish that all of my friends, many of whom did not know me at the time of Charlotte's birth and death, would somehow understand the depth of what I've experienced and look upon my life with deep reverence? 

And then I take the step back, and I think about those who have survived war, and those whose personal losses are far more numerous and complicated than my own. And I must remind myself that my own dear baby's death was the one that was the most important to me, and I have a right to feel the need to be seen. I have a right to still be reeling, recovering, and trying to figure out what this means, even now, even 13 years and 23 days later. 

On Teaching.

I used to be a teacher. Way back, when I was "passing the time until I could have a baby". As a young, enthusiastic post-grad, I got a fellowship to Smith College, was handed my Master's degree. I went off to teach kindergarten at a local private school. It was a beautiful way to pass the time.

How I adored tying those shoelaces, blowing noses, and getting hugs and kisses every day from those sweet little faces. I did drink in the challenge of teaching children the mysteries of decoding text and exploring unfolding monarch butterflies, but most of all, I just wanted to nurture them. I wanted to hold them and settle them and ground them in the world. I think what I really wanted to do was mother them.

And then, only a few years in, we decided, to heck with it. Let's just have a baby. And we did. My kindergarten class watched as my belly got bigger, and bigger, and bigger. They clustered around my ultrasound photos and helped me choose names. A few days before my due date, we all gathered around a huge cake to celebrate, and I cried when I said goodbye to them. 

I'm sure not a single one of them will ever forget that their kindergarten teacher's baby died. But she did, and strange as it was, I crept back into the school the next fall. This time, the children held me. They settled me and honored me with simple phrases such as, "You must feel really sad", and "Charlotte was really cute." Their honesty taught me so much. They were the only people in my life who did not expect to get the "old me" back. They accepted that something was changed, and they thoughtfully explored what things were like for me. They asked questions that would have sounded shocking coming from the mouth of an adult, but they were the questions that I longed to answer. I was grateful to go to work every day. 

Those little children shepherded me through that next year, and through my pregnancy with Liam, with their honesty and their love and their small, wet kisses and sticky, dirty fingers. I could never appreciate anyone more than I did those children, that year. Those children represented the truth of what my life had become. I knew they had so much to teach me.  

And now I am back to teaching, in my own way. It has become one of my fiercest passions to work with the community of caregivers who will one day be faced with a frozen-faced mother who is learning that she will never take her baby home. It's become a hunger for me to determine what tools I can possibly provide these caregivers with so that they will be able, like my students, to lovingly but thoughtfully take someone by the hand and speak honest, true words in the face of an unthinkable tragedy. Those children taught me so much. And I'm trying to pass along their legacy. 

I was pleased, then, to receive an email recently in response to a small class I offered to a group of aspiring midwives. 

I just wanted to write to thank you so much for sharing with us today. I feel so honored to have had the opportunity to share a space with you. You were filled with so much wisdom and honesty, I was so wholly grateful for your presence.  

A few weeks ago, we had a class on Pelvic Exams. Our instructor got on the floor - whipped her legs apart and very relaxed, introduced us all to her vagina. It was astonishing - and definitely set the stage for comfortability with our own bodies following. It struck me while you were talking at one point today - that you were doing the exact same thing on an emotional level. Even more so than the pelvic exams, I truly cannot fathom the courage that takes, and I am ever so grateful to you for it. Your expression of accessibility and honesty was such an example for ourselves to be just that to ourselves, for each other, and for the women we will one day (hopefully) be caring for. Thank you so much for coming to talk with us -  It was truly a 'life-thought' changing day, and I am so thankful to you for it.

So perhaps, then, I am figuring out how to bring myself down to the level of a five year old, who has no long skirt under which to hide her emotions. She doesn't have the tools to try to mask the pain or the awfulness of what's happening. If I can demonstrate this, then may be some of the truth of it will seep through to those I am teaching. 

I can only hope. 

A reflection on a life.

Saturday afternoon, I had the heart-wrenching and soul-expanding experience of attending a memorial service for a girl in my son Liam's class. I'll call her B, and a year earlier, she had been diagnosed with cancer, a battle she lost at the close of 2015.

B was born just 8 weeks before my Charlotte, and I'd met her as a baby-- a baby who was a girl, a peer of my baby girl who had died. When I first saw her,  I took one look and I fled, leaping over chairs in desperation to avoid such a trigger, finding myself in another room with heaving sobs, out of breath and panicky. However, B kept re-entering my world, and at the age of 6 she became an everyday fixture in my life when my son joined her K/1 class. 

For years I watched B grow, and I felt an intense fondness for her. There were other girls present, yes, of course. They, too, were Charlotte's age mates, and I could have easily latched my quiet, private sentiments onto them. But I think the fact that I had seen B as an infant caused me to see her more clearly and realistically as Charlotte's peer. I also knew, from mutual friends, that B had experienced some difficulty early in her infancy, and I imagined that her parents viewed her with a gratitude, relief, and devoted love that I was able to honor. She was Charlotte's peer, but her parents recognized the miracle that was B, and so she was safe. 

It seemed a terrible, awful, and unbearable coincidence when B was diagnosed. I imagined, at first, that she would survive: doesn't it sometimes seem like other people always dodge the bullet? When it became clear that she would not, I could hardly think of it. I did not want to open the box, deeply tucked inside of my heart, that contained the anguish that I once experienced it every day. It would not be my sadness for her, though of course I would miss her. It was knowing what her family would experience, and on a completely different level. What would it be like to have 12 years, and then face death? I could not even contemplate the idea. 

When she died, that box cracked open for a moment, but still I was shocked at my own dissociation from grief. I felt awful, I felt disbelief, I felt horror for her family. But I could hardly get the tears to roll down my own cheeks. What had happened to me? How was it that I had become so practiced in holding back pain that I could barely experience it anymore? 

The memorial service gave me the gift of being able to grieve this beautiful soul, this lively, unique girl, and also mull over my own connection to her, and to Charlotte. Her parents created something so deep, so meaningful with personal readings, music from her brothers, and dozens of stories that brought B right back to life in the room. I know each person who attended, whether 6 years old or 60, left with a strong sense of gratitude for B's life, with admiration for her amazing courage and humor while she was dying, and deep sadness that she was no longer here. 

I was experiencing all those feelings as I began to leave the church, walking down the stairs from the choir loft where I had watched the ceremony. I was full of so many big, huge feelings: among them giggling to myself about the funny stories about B, feeling bowled over by the intensity of how brave she was, and reflecting on how small her family looked to me without her there. Suddenly, I remembered that it was B's birthday. They had waited until this day to hold her celebration of life, and suddenly something clicked in me. 

The box opened, all the way. 

I realized that B and Charlotte began at about the same time. B had filled up all the space in between, she had been there, vivacious, honest, herself, while I had lit candles on 12 cakes where there was no girl to blow them out. I had sang my sad, quiet birthday song to Charlotte with tears rolling down my cheeks 12 times, while  B was out there living. But now she had no 13th birthday to celebrate. With that one thought that those two girls who started out life so differently both had no 13th birthday to celebrate-- the box opened. 

Huge, wracking, heaving sobs overtook me. What could I do? I hurried back up the stairs to the empty choir loft, I dug a handkerchief out of my purse, and I cried in a way that I have not cried for probably a decade. I could hardly breathe. The photos of B at the front, with her wide, joyful grin, suddenly yanked me down somewhere deep and dark. Some element of guilt crept in, because I knew my tears were also for myself, and not just for B's family.  I was taking a moment to feel that desperate, awful sadness that had once consumed me on an hourly, daily basis. It was what her family was feeling, what they were living. The sadness, though also for me, was some sort of connection.

When it comes down to it, I think that anyone who has experienced deep, all consuming, life changing grief has a point of reference for being present with another who is experiencing that same thing. There is a primal, animal way that the desperation for another person and the hopelessness of facing life without them can swallow us whole, leaving us certain that we will never survive the pain. Yet, somehow we do. Somehow we do. 

I am grateful today for the life of B, and for the many, many ways that she brought me closer to my own baby girl. Through her life and through her death. she has continued to bring me back to my original child and my original experience of motherhood. I am also grateful that I have learned over the years to keep my grief in a safer, more manageable place, but it felt strangely fulfilling to have that box flipped open wide that day, to experience and remember what my days used to be filled with and to be aware of how much has changed. 

Thank you, B. 

Being alive, afterwards.

I wrote it in the year after Charlotte's birth, when I found writing in the third person to be the easiest way to tell my story. I called myself Clare, keeping the number of letters and the initial consonant the same, but otherwise foisting my story off on someone else. I think it speaks to survival. 
~ Carol McMurrich, Charlotte's Mother & Founder of Empty Arms


Clare’s memories of coming home were snapshots: scattered, disheveled images with no distinct chronology or organization. She had described these recollections to somebody once, comparing them to the memories one often has of early childhood, when pictures of faces, smells of grass and apple juice, or the taste of saltwater can tie a person to a frozen moment in time, a memory one can be certain is real even when there are no surroundings to it. Clare felt just this about coming home, although there were so few reminders to tie her there.

Clare had been told that there were probably a multitude of reasons why she could not remember the self that had emerged from the hospital on that warm May afternoon. First was the birth itself. Perhaps as an evolutionary advantage, there is often an amnesic quality to the aftermath of birth, or even the experience itself. Many mothers over time have experienced this; some who have had extremely difficult childbirths cite their hazy memories as the probably cause of their subsequent children whom they had sworn off having during their labors.

But in addition to the birth experience, Clare had been told, her mind was sheltering her from the intensity of the painfulness of her experience. Clare had become, in a heartbeat on that May day, the survivor of an unbearable accident: one that left her alive and her daughter dead. This accident was too unbearable to recall in its full clarity, lest her already gaping wounds begin to bleed again.

But as much as Clare’s mind fought to protect her from her own history, her heart longed to remember. Knowing what her life had been like in the aftermath of her daughter’s death somehow seemed like a tie to her little girl, another way to make Charlotte’s brief life more real to Clare. And so, on the long winter nights of that December and January, Clare fought her subconscious, fishing for the memories that might help her to piece together the remains of her broken heart.

There was the light. It was May, and the days were long, the sun rose early, and their house seemed perpetually filled with light. But the heavens poured with tears, for nearly three weeks after coming home it rained ceaselessly, and so the light in the house was not pure, it was a filtered, bluish light, cold and grey. Clare rarely looked out the window intentionally, but the light was there, casting the reflection of the steel-grey sky onto all the surfaces in her home. For may weeks it was the color of her world as the rain tumbled down.

The sounds in the house were still ones. Clare recalls almost nothing about the way she or Charlie sounded or interacted but she can hear the others. They are padding around in the kitchen, stealing out onto the sun porch over the creaky old floor, they were washing the dishes intentionally, trying not to knock cup against plate or spoon into glass. They whispered in hushed tones, Clare knew they were talking about her but she didn’t care. And every so often, there was music that Charlie put on . There were two CDs they could listen to. Clare liked the sad ones, the ones that gave her a new reason to cry. There was one about cutting down wisteria and another about lost dreams and they had listened to them again and again as the seconds of their new, unwanted life ticked on, and the rain poured down.

Clare could taste the sweet, sticky taste of that May’s strawberries, mixed with a hint of cinnamon and cold lemonade, The smell of lilacs drifted through her mind as she thought back to herself then, a self she could not bear to be.

And Clare could feel her body-- her ravaged, miraculous body, both lacking in the life that had once dwelled within her and swollen with the insatiable desire to sustain that life. Clare could close her eyes and pull herself back to the weakness she felt as she moved, the instability when she rose from her seat, the pain when she lowered herself down. But mostly she could feel the emptiness, the hollowness of her abdomen, the stunning lack of movement, the flatness of her once rounded body. And that body, refusing to believe, not knowing where Charlotte had gone, futilely working, converting Clare’s strawberries and cinnamon buns and lemonade into the rich, perfect milk that filled Clare beyond her capacity, spilling down her front, staining her shirts, and tearing apart her heart like nothing else could. She could still smell that milk.

And Clare remembered herself, standing in front of her bathroom mirror, eyes reaching from her swollen breasts, to the red marks her daughter had stretched across her belly, and up to her face. Clare can remember the shudder she would feel each time she looked in the mirror and it registered that she was the sad, sad woman looking back. It was not a stranger whose hollow eyes revealed unspeakable trauma, it was not someone else’s cheeks chapped by tears, it was not somebody else’s mouth that turned down slightly at the corners. Clare would think, sometimes, when she looked at herself, that she had never seen someone look so sad in her entire life, and that in itself would make her sadder and she would leave the bathroom and return to the sofa and smell strawberries and lilacs and hear the soft voices and feel empty inside and wonder how she would ever make it for the rest of her life.

And it’s in this context, sometimes, of taking herself back to the feeling of lead weight on her chest, to the physicality of a completely broken heart with no supports, that Clare realizes that right now she is making it. It is only when she remembers being paralyzed with pain, too hurt to speak or interact with anyone but Charlie or to walk or eat, that Clare knows that a new part of her has opened. She can never bring herself to say that things are better, because Charlotte is still gone and that won’t get better. But in fighting back the amnesia that separates her and May, she learns that a new part of her has grown, like a new branch on a tree, and that part is beginning to live again.

Meet Our Board Member & Support Group Facilitator: Erika Parker!

                                    Sierra's feet

                                   Sierra's feet

My name is Erika and I have two children in my home and two who live only in my heart, with the living two bookending the two losses in the middle. In the summer of 2009, I was in the midst of my third pregnancy, having just learned that my baby likely would not survive and feeling completely alone, when an Internet search first led me to Empty Arms.  We named that baby girl Sierra Rose. Shortly after I found Empty Arms, at about 27 weeks gestation, she died and was born.

Three weeks later, I went to my first Bereavement Support Group meeting. For many months, the time between meetings couldn’t pass quickly enough for me. Empty Arms was my lifeline, one of the very few places I could speak freely about my experiences and feel heard and understood. I needed to tell Sierra’s story over and over, and each time I was met with compassion and a chorus of “me too!” I was also able to dig into painful memories and tell the story of my first loss, a miscarriage at 13 weeks, and to give that baby a name, Skye, which I mostly only share within the Empty Arms community. Eventually I became pregnant again and the Subsequent Choices group became my lifeline for a while.

Around the time of the healthy birth of my second living child in the fall of 2011, I realized I wanted to find ways to serve the Empty Arms organization and help others as I had been helped. I began facilitating a Parenting After Loss group and joined the Board of Directors. Currently, the Parenting After Loss group has morphed into a monthly, informal playgroup, but I am always willing to run the formal support group again any time there is interest or need. Now I periodically attend the main Empty Arms Bereavement Support meeting as a voice from farther down the road. I also write thank-you cards to donors and I am reviving our tradition of sending anniversary acknowledgement cards to Empty Arms families.

For me, staying connected to Empty Arms is part of the way that I mother Sierra and Skye, and although I am going to meetings now to help support others, I still always find compassion, understanding, perhaps a new perspective, and I leave feeling supported too.

Everything felt sacred.

The night was warm and dark as we pulled out from downtown Northampton, heading up the highway. It was just past 2 in the morning, less than 30 minutes since I’d gotten the call from the hospital. A baby had been born still, and they wanted photographs as soon as possible. I made the only call I needed to make, and within minutes both Erin and I were heading to a meeting spot in Northampton, ready to do the work that needed to be done.

Erin and I have known each other for more than eight years, our friendship having been born with the birth and death of Erin’s first daughter, Birdie. That March of 2007 Erin called for support not quite three weeks after Birdie’s passing, as I was decorating my own living daughter’s first birthday cake. She was among the first mothers that I sat with in early grief. I was instantly drawn to Erin’s passion, her intimate, gentle love for her daughter, and her fierce understanding that she would somehow honor Birdie’s memory. We were drawn together by our first daughters, shadow girls who would somehow live with us forever, even when they had left us physically. A quiet, wise friendship was born. For each, the other possessed an experience and understanding that every other loving, caring person in our lives fortunately lacked. We knew what it was like to fall in love, give birth, and say goodbye. We knew what it meant to rebuild piece by piece, day by day, tear by tear. We both knew the joy, euphoria, and incredible risk of the subsequent children we were both fortunate enough to welcome.

When the idea began to percolate to incorporate our own team of photographers for Empty Arms, modeled after the incredible work of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, I knew that Erin would be a critical player on our team. It was not for many years after Birdie’s birth that I learned of Erin’s incredible skill as an artist, and at that same time she began to muse that eventually, when she was ready, she knew that photography was the way she would transform her love for Birdie into a gift for someone else. Erin herself had been given the gift of gorgeous photographs of Birdie, taken by a NILMDTS photographer who drove in from Worcester. Knowing how difficult it can be to access photographers in our area, she knew this would be her calling. And indeed, it is.

  Pictured here is Emma Elizabeth Dias, daughter of Jon and Kate Dias.  Emma was also photographed by Erin Long during a companion visit last December. We thank Jon and Kate for allowing us to share Emma's photograph here so that you can see the power of a beautifully taken photograph and appreciate for yourself what a gift a photo like this is to a bereaved family. 


Pictured here is Emma Elizabeth Dias, daughter of Jon and Kate Dias.  Emma was also photographed by Erin Long during a companion visit last December. We thank Jon and Kate for allowing us to share Emma's photograph here so that you can see the power of a beautifully taken photograph and appreciate for yourself what a gift a photo like this is to a bereaved family. 

While our photography program is still in its infancy and development, what we can accomplish for a family is already life changing. And so it was, that on a dark, wet, warm Tuesday morning, Erin and I drove up the highway to meet a newborn baby. We entered his room, and his family’s life, at just past three. The lights were low, and everyone’s voices were quiet as we entered and introduced ourselves. It was late, and everyone was exhausted, overwhelmed, and in shock. Our goal was to capture this moment, to photograph this tiny piece of time that would live forever in this mother and father’s memory, that would become the most tangible piece of their son’s life story.

Entering into this space is different every time. When a person’s life falls apart so catastrophically in such a short period of time, there is a feeling of being lifted from the earth as we know it. Time stops, and there is a lull as one reconsiders their past, present and future. The past, when they expected so much. Their present, where they are faced with this beautiful, breathtaking, agonizing love for a child who cannot stay. And their future, which they cannot bear to face. For each person, they are reduced to the core of who they are: they follow base instincts and are guided by those around them to create an interaction. They are in shock, in this strange, timeless void, and there is a wide range of reactions. Some people are so frozen with terror and grief, they can hardly interact with their baby. They are limited by the intensity of this moment, and everything feels too overwhelming and sad. Some people are full of pragmatic questions and thoughts, their minds racing with memories of the pregnancies, what-ifs from the past few days or weeks, and fears and anxieties about what the future might hold. And then there are the others, who are somehow able to sit quietly right in the moment and experience their baby for who he is, what he is, right now. This was what we found that night.

A mother lay holding her newborn son. He had died the day before, and she had labored all afternoon and into the night. He was beautiful, fair, with blond hair and soft, perfect skin. She cradled him in her arms, and her thumb stroked his cheek. The light was low, and her eyes barely lifted from her son’s face upon our arrival. She was here, in this moment, taking in this little boy in the time she would have. We introduced ourselves and our role, and our work, but it soon became easily apparent what this evening would bring. We were but witnesses to a mother’s love, and we would drink in this time.

  Pictured here is Emma Elizabeth Dias, daughter of Jon and Kate Dias.  Emma was also photographed by Erin Long during a companion visit last December. We thank Jon and Kate for allowing us to share Emma's photograph here so that you can see the power of a beautifully taken photograph and appreciate for yourself what a gift a photo like this is to a bereaved family. 


Pictured here is Emma Elizabeth Dias, daughter of Jon and Kate Dias.  Emma was also photographed by Erin Long during a companion visit last December. We thank Jon and Kate for allowing us to share Emma's photograph here so that you can see the power of a beautifully taken photograph and appreciate for yourself what a gift a photo like this is to a bereaved family. 

We moved silently, quietly. Erin had her camera, and I helped the mother find the perfect angles, the perfect experiences with her son. We unwrapped him from his blankets and laid him on her bare chest, her skin warming his newborn self as her cheek rested on his tiny, soft cap of hair. We focused on hands, ears, toes, and knees. His father, who had been sleeping, awoke and joined mother and son in the bed. They created a perfect triangle, two heads together gazing down at their baby boy. Erin captured the mother’s fingers on the baby’s, the dad’s hand on baby’s tiny back. When we spoke, it was quiet and direct. The baby was diapered, dressed, and held some more. He was swaddled, and unswaddled, kissed, cuddled, and stroked. The two parents surrounded their child with their love. We admired each and every part of him, as any people would in the presence of a newborn. Our voices were mesmerized, quiet, and slow. Everything felt sacred.

For every time I have done this work, there is a crystal-clear moment when I realize our work is done. That this family needs the room to themselves, that it’s time for us to go. Certainly hundreds upon hundreds of photographs had been taken. We had captured everything that this mother and father hoped to capture. At just before five, it was time. I spoke, and told them we would take a few more shots of the three of them together, and leave them to be a family. They nodded, and we did just that.

In the end, Erin and I arrived back in Northampton at first light. Our car ride back was quiet and thoughtful, but infused with one strong knowledge: what we could give this family, in that moment, was beyond value. Here, in the dark of night, two mothers who knew this grief had entered their world. We had affirmed their son’s perfection, his reality, we had witnessed his life and existence. We had called him by name, touched his smooth skin, stroked his downy hair. We had quietly respected the beauty of this moment, of this tiny child and his two parents, and Erin had captured what she could with her art.

A photographer who works for NILMDTS once told me, “People always ask me, ‘How can you do that work?’ And I tell them, ‘After you’ve done it, the question becomes how could you NOT?’” This is the feeling I am left with. Whenever I am blessed to enter a family’s space in this situation, to meet their child, and help them say hello and goodbye, I feel an overwhelming sense of privilege. Is it difficult? Of course. Is it sad? Without doubt, every single time. But each time, I am filled to the brim with a sense of having offered something truly from my heart. There is nothing like it. I am so grateful to Erin Long for giving herself and her work to these families. I know she will smile quietly reading this, knowing that what she gives to others comes truly from her heart and feels like the most important work on earth. And for each family, in each moment that she captures, it actually is.

Looking Back

by Carol McMurrich

In 2013, I wrote three blog posts on the 10 year anniversary of Charlotte's birth, at three different times of day. They document my searing memory of that day, of the events that marked the beginning of the rest of my life. There is some of my present day woven into the prose, but mostly it's the visions and realities that both feed and haunt me to this day. I wanted to share this because we all have incredible details to our story, and often nobody to witness those details. Writing has helped me incredibly to weave the truth of that day, with both its difficulty and beauty, into my life right now. 

5:30-8:30 AM, May 13, 2003

There is a space that happens between last night and today. It is the space between hope and loss, between optimism and despair. Somewhere in the middle of the night lurk those dark hours, quietly patting around the house, water leaking. She was dying. I had no idea.
When I woke up this morning it was already five thirty. I don't know if I've ever slept all the way through the fours before, this being when I was told that she died and my world collapsed. By five thirty I was already calling my dad. "It's not good news," I told him. "The baby died. We don't know why." I was sitting in a room that I remember as small and white, although I now know that my memory is not accurate. Perhaps that memory was just the world closing in on me, squeezing me into a space that was smaller and smaller, until I could no longer breathe myself.
Right now it is eight thirty. At this time I was moved to a birthing room. My labor had all but stopped from the shock. There was talk of induction, of maybe even an epidural. I had told my family not to come. I was hugely pregnant, freckled, suntanned, healthy. I was in a birthing bed, surrounded by pretty furniture and a big window that opened to a courtyard. Outside, the lilacs were blooming, and a heavy rain fell. My baby was dead. I had no idea what to do.

-----------------

8:30-12:30 

It is now past noon. In my mind, the rain pours down and the sky is steel gray, though I cannot see it through my window. As I type today the sunlight is warm on my legs, but I can still feel that cold rain. A social worker has come to see us. Gently, she has told us we can call our families to come to meet our baby. She tells us that people often take comfort in spending time with their babies after they are born, and take photographs. We think this woman is lovely and kind, but her ideas don't appeal to us. We want no witnesses to this tragedy, this failure. We require no documentation.

Yet only an hour or two later, after the epidural is in, and I have dozed through tears and held Greg for some time, I realize I want my family here. I want my mother's arms around me. I need to see the earnest blue eyes of my father, even as they weep for me. I bring the social worker back and tell her I want to call my family. Her eyes are warm. "They are already here," she tells me. She goes back out, to the solarium family room which has been cleared of all other waiting families so that my family can have a private space to grieve. I learn that as my sister entered the ward, she heard a baby cry and collapsed onto the floor in grief. The social worker warns me of my sister's emotion, but when Stephanie comes, she offers nothing but love and support. She knows to channel her grief out, not in.

We are hugged and loved, but only for a short time. Our stamina is low. We needed only a moment, and then they are gone. My mother cries after she leaves, wondering how this blossoming, beautiful, healthy looking daughter could be handed such a sentence. They return to our home, and begin to pack and make phone calls.

Moments ago, on this real day, ten years later, I sat with Maeve in the rocking chair. She slept in my arms, and I hesitated before lying her gently in her crib, Charlotte's crib. I thought about how ten years ago, this room became a museum. Ten years ago this moment my mother and sisters combed through every inch of the house and picked out every thing that tied us to parenthood and put it into a blue tupperware bin which they then deposited into the nursery. Fortunately, somebody had told them not to touch the nursery.

In a book, upstairs, pasted in a memory book as if it were a document to treasure, is the phone bill, which itemizes each long distance call that went out from our home that May 13th. Each person from afar that needed to be notified of the sad news. Most of the calls are one to two minutes long. There are three pages of calls. I kept the bill. It is part of her story.

Right now, those calls are happening. I am in shock, wide eyed and confused in a hospital bed. My body is laboring, but I can't feel it. At home, my sisters and my mother are on the phone, telling everyone the same thing: The baby is dead. It hasn't been born yet. We don't know what happened.

-------------

12:30-6:30 pm

It is now six thirty. I have felt labor as my epidural wore down, and been told I should push the baby out.
How was I supposed to do that? I pictured myself pushing my baby off a cliff. When she was born, she would be dead. This would be real.
It will be the hardest thing you ever do, my midwife said. But you just have to do it. She was right. And I did.
Charlotte was born at 2:14. I pulled her right onto my belly and clung to her. She was the most amazing, beautiful, perfect little person I had ever seen. The heavens opened and the angels began singing and golden, streaming light poured down, just like with every birth, except for the voice in my head screaming NO, NO, NO.... as I simultaneously realized what I had been gifted, and what I had lost. I had had no idea about either prior to this moment. Suddenly it was truly real.
I learned in that moment the most intense, heart wrenching, magnificent lesson I've ever learned: which is that it is better to have loved than to have never loved at all. In that moment, even as I realized that she was already gone and I would never get to keep her, I felt incredible, huge gratitude to know the feeling of a mother's love. I held my own, sweet newborn tightly against my breast, ran my finger over her delicate nose and tiny lips, and traced the curve of her ear. I learned my baby girl by heart and felt the most beautiful, sweet, pure love I had ever felt. I knew instantly, even as the truth of what was about to happen-- her departure from me forever-- that I was going to feel forever grateful for having had her. I knew that her loss, and the huge impact that loss and grief would have on my life, would not ruin me.
It is now six thirty. We have not slept in thirty six hours. We are waiting for Greg's mother to come and meet our baby. She is on a plane from Virginia. His father is coming from Calgary, their second home, and will not arrive until after nine. We have already decided that we cannot wait for him to arrive. We are too tired. We will have to say goodbye to our baby girl before he gets there. I do not know why we decided this. It is my only true regret.
We pass our baby back and forth, kissing her, admiring her beauty. We are afraid of her body changing, although it has not yet. She is still warm from our bodies, but we are afraid. We want our memories to be sweet. 

Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

 

Questions to ponder...

This is a repost of a blog musing from 2008... something I think could rouse thoughts and opinions for anyone in this community. 

How it is possible to be up to your neck in self-pity and still have compassion for the relative heartbreak of anyone else?

Sometimes here I start to feel like a traitor, an imposter, a cruel, wretch of a person hiding in the skin of an empathetic, supportive, listening ear. Truth be told, I just can't think of anything worse than a dead baby. So when somebody is starting in on their own worst day, it can be so hard not to let the caustic, dripping words leak out of the corner my mouth, unintentionally.

A good friend was sharing with me, a month or so back, about a friend whose baby suffered an injury during the birth that required her arm to be amputated after the birth. "Can you imagine?" she said to me, "Your beautiful baby, losing an arm?" I could not imagine. I did try to imagine the awful pain for those parents, pictured my Liam or Aoife, seemingly perfect, off to the operating room to become un-perfect. Truly, truly, in my heart of hearts, I felt an enormous surge of pity for them, imagining the horror of the experience, the aftermath, the pain of having a child with one arm when everyone else's child has two. But still, as I was imagining this, and feeling their pain, I also thought these words, "Can you imagine giving birth and the baby ends up being dead?" Ummm... yeah. This is where I feel like a jerk. Because I do think those people drew a short straw, too. It's just that to me, it doesn't seem short relative to mine. If I could have Charlotte back, minus the left arm, I'd take her.

But I've worked, truly hard, to really understand that each person's worst day is truly their worst day. I believe this, truly. But it's THEIR worst day, not mine. And if their worst day happened to me, after having had MY worst day? It's possible it might roll off my back. Kate's post was in reference to birth trauma, and people mourning the loss of the birth they'd imagined. True, and valid. I can see myself in those shoes, had I been given those shoes to walk in. But here's what it's like for me. I was having lunch with an old friend the other day, and told her of Liam's flip between 8 and 10 cm, and the cesarean that ensued.

"I'm sorry," she said. I looked at her pretty hard. "Don't be," I said. Truly, I meant this, it almost seemed comical to me that she was pitying me for having had a cesarean. But this is true for so many people, that they really do need a condolance, because they've lost an opportunity they felt was theirs to have had. What I had was not a loss, but a gain: I had a breathing, living child. The way he came out literally (and there truly is no exaggeration or denial here) did not faze me. If anything, it was a dream come true. For that year before, I had spent so many hours daydreaming about how they might have saved Charlotte if only they had been there to save her. Now here they were, performing the heroic rescue I had imagined. The birth cry was all I needed. I did not care how I got there.

And then there are my childless friends, still working through love crises of their own, who have related the loss of a lover to the loss of a child. For this, I must really bite into a leather strap, because love does not equal love, and I just can't say anything more on this, except to try to remember that this is what they know.

So I'm working on this. I feel as if I've come 150% in this field, because I don't resent people anymore for grieving things that I myself would not grieve. But I do, without apologies, often feel that my worst day was, well, worse than their worst day.

(and that's me, 4 years out. Does it feel different? Yeah, I think now I've probably come about 300%, but I still sometimes feel like a jerk)

 

A Father to a Son

Ryan Tyree, dad of Dylan Marshall, born still on May 18, 2011, writes, "here's one from the days when the flames were all around me".

These words alone deserve a posting, how accurately they describe the oppressive heat of grief that threatens to suffocate a person in the early weeks and months.  They gain power, however, when paired with the poem below. Thanks, Ryan, for sharing. 


A Father to A Son

 

you should have been there with me

at the graduation proceedings

you couldn't be there with me

at my best man's wedding

you were not there with me

at church this morning

you won't be with me

in VT this summer

 

since you're in a box

a little fucking box

on a shelf

in the room

we prepared

for you

our firstborn

son

 

 

by Ryan Tyree

Two

by Lindsey Rothschild

Two. On September 5th, ‘drea held 2 acorns in her hand. It was my birthday. We were on a hike. We had a new house at 2 S. Hampshire. The 2 of us hiked up Mt. Tom. My body was rounding. We were happy. On September 22, we went to meet the 2. Wondering, girls or boys or one of each? 2 girls. 2 girls who would never have long hair and frolic across a field on a fall day. Our 2 girls. 2 daughters of 2 mothers.

2 weeks ago we lost our two baby girls, Baby A & Baby B. At 22 weeks

In memory of Flora and Bea Rothschild

November First

As a group facilitator, it is my job to go first. And so, on this first day of November, a month during which the light will fade, I will share my words first. They are words I wrote many years ago, and while I no longer feel the intensity of the emotion I articulated with this piece, the memory of the feeling rushes back in like water coming through a canyon in a flash flood. How easy it is to return to that place, and how grateful I am not to to occupy it. 

I write as myself, Charlotte's mother, Carol. Charlotte was born on May 13, 2003, our firstborn baby girl. She died from a cord accident sometime in my early labor, when I was still at home. She was born later that day, and spent six hours in our arms. Eleven years and four healthy children later, I cherish the memory of Charlotte as the baby who made me a mother. I stand proud and tall, a survivor of something I would never have thought I could endure. I hope my words will inspire you to share something, too. Because we really are some of the bravest ones out there. 

BRAVE

written on January 15, 2008

Is it brave?
Is it brave that I hung onto my husband and watched the nurse take her from me?
People tend to think of this as brave, as a sign of strength, but when I look back on it, it seems like weakness.

It seems like my animal core should have leapt from the bed, tearing at the white curtain, screaming in a low, howling tone, give me my baby back.

I can picture the scene, I am naked, my breasts heavy and swinging, belly that strange, 7-hours-after-birth pouch, blood streaming out of me onto the floor, probably falling in my emotional and physical weakness onto the floor, slipping, screaming, falling to my face and screaming in anguish.

Anguish.

This really could have happened. Should it have happened? How could I just let the other scene happen, where I just sit there, hiding my eyes, not wanting to believe the turn my life has taken?

Maybe it was strength. Maybe it was just not knowing what to do.

I still cannot believe I did it, one way or the other. Nobody should have to do this.

I thought, in the weeks afterwards, when my arms ached and my breasts were bursting and my house was filled with the heaviest, most deafening silence, of mother animals I had seen on television. The mother animals who clung to their dead infants. Stood by them. Refused to leave them. I could recall that once I had thought they were of too little brain to understand that their young were no longer living. I now know that I was of too little brain to understand what those mothers were feeling. I, too, wanted to hold my dead baby forever, perhaps had I not had the societal fear of death woven so deeply into my soul I would have tucked her under my coat and taken her from the hospital, taken her home where she belonged to be with me in her own house for a day or two before the inevitable came.

To sleep with her, to dress her in the clothes that were folded in her drawers, to share her with the family and friends that I was too numb-struck to share her with on the day of her birth.
So instead, I let her go.

The hardest thing I will ever do.

 from Happy-Sad Mama 2008

Monday, January 14, 2008

 

 

More than ten years along...

Some thoughts from Carol... 

Several years ago, I was chatting after a fourth Wednesday support group meeting with a mother whose loss had occurred several months prior. It was a warm evening, with a sweet smelling spring breeze and a clear sky full of stars. The meeting had been full of heavy moments, but rather than producing a feeling of sadness upon leaving we felt lightened. Being surrounded by the familiarity of loss can be so comforting, when we're used to being the only person in the room who knows that this feels like. This wise, tender mom, who was herself still in the trenches, regarded me and asked, "Who supports you, Carol? Do you have people who are further down the road, like you are?" I looked at her with amazement, feeling honored and blessed that in her most tender moment, as raw as the days still were for her, she had the ability to wonder about me. I answered her honestly. "There is no one," I said, but I gain so much from all of you. And it's true. But I've come back to this again and again: what is it like to be so far away from my daughter's birth and death? Where does she live in my heart, and in my world, right now? These are questions I often ponder on my own, but every now and then I read something that helps to ground me in the place where I now stand. 

For the past few days, my mind has wandered continually to an article I read on Huffington Post entitled, "The Other Quiet Mom". The author, Nancy Davis Johnson, beautifully captures what grief has felt like over a decade down the road for me. Charlotte appears to me every day, with the sound of my own breath, with a familiar scent, with the sound of a child's laughter. She is all around me in the life I've built since she came and went. She is the foundation of the family I have built since she died. She was the child who made me a mother, yet I only mother other children in her wake: four beautiful souls I am so blessed to have. Yet, every day, there are moments where I am "the quiet mom". The moments where I have to calculate how to answer someone's question, where I have to consider whether or not to weigh my opinion. As my children grow older I feel connections to their world and disconnections, as I am still forever changed by Charlotte's passing. 

I am a "regular" mom now, no longer defined by my grief. There was a long period of time-- perhaps five, or six, or even seven years for which I truly believed that my grief would always define me. It doesn't anymore, but I still feel how it affects me. Grief isn't a living creature inside me anymore. Instead, it's just left footprints, and scars. I can feel how it has changed me as a person. I can remember its intensity, its ferocity, its anger. I can remember the nights where I wanted to throw open the front door and run away from this life, but I don't feel that desperation anymore. I can live in a settled place, understanding that while my life unfolded in a way I would never have chosen, I have only the future ahead. I am the "quiet" mom at times, but behind that veil, I feel blessed by the ways in which I've been forced to consider the exquisite value of my living children's lives. I may not always feel like the other moms across the table, because I am grateful for my child's very life in a way that thankfully most of them cannot understand. 

October 15th

October 15th is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness day. On this day, we are invited to take part in the international wave of light.  Beginning at 7 PM, light a candle in memory of your baby (babies) and leave it burning for at least one hour. In this way we will send a wave of light around the world as the seven o’clock hour passes from one time zone to the next. 

Within our Empty Arms community, we invite you to take part in acts of remembering during this hour. As we sit with our candles, thinking about the others in the world who share this loss, we know that we all hold stories-- stories that have defined us as parents and as people. Within our community of loss we sometimes share stories of the events surrounding our loss and even more often we share the experiences that have followed, and the ways in which our babies and our grief have shaped our present. Tomorrow evening, I invite you to sink back into memory and share some moments with one another. I invite you to share times you recall that bring warmth, times that make you want to curl into a little ball, and times that make you want to hurl a plate against the wall. I invite you to share whatever comes to mind as you remember your missing little one (s) and to share it within our community. 

If you are a member of our Facebook page, I invite you to post your memories on our page during the 7 o’clock hour. One, eight, or fifty would be welcome. It’s a way to get us into each others lives again and put our babies out into the world. If you are not a member of the page, you can post them here as comments, or you can email memories to me just to have somebody read what’s on your mind. You can jot down memories for you and you alone. 

Tomorrow night, as I light my candle for Charlotte, I will also be lighting it in memory of all the babies I have known over the years. While I have never seen your babies, never heard their laughter or felt their hand in mine, they are very real to me. I miss them with you and while I’m glad you found Empty Arms, I’m sorry that your baby isn’t with you. Even as I watch all of you grow and heal, that fact will never change. 

Best,

Carol

Summertime

Summer-- this wonderful time when people relax, enjoy each other's company, and celebrate with family. This can be a difficult time for the bereaved. Everywhere we go, we are surrounded with images of families together, enjoying each other's company. If you're newly bereaved, it's likely you had images of yourself during these warm, lazy months-- whether those were images of yourself nine months pregnant, or toting a newborn to Cape Cod, it's hard to shed the knowledge of what we "should" be doing. 

When I was newly bereaved, the times that were most difficult were the very concrete places where I'd planned to take my new baby. On a daily basis, while I knew Charlotte would have been with me, I didn't know exactly what I'd be doing with her. But when the time came to go up to our family cottage in Ontario, I was overwhelmed by how difficult it was to go there without her. This was a place I'd come to every year of my own life, and for the duration of the school year, I had envisioned bringing my own baby there to begin her own lifetime of summers on the lake. When we arrived empty armed, my heart broke all over again.

It had been ten weeks and I somehow didn't expect this new wave of sudden, super intense grief. But looking back it made perfect sense-- I had envisioned this moment a thousand times. Pulling up in the car, cousins and aunts surrounding me as I stepped out, proudly displaying my new baby. Instead, here I was, trying as inconspicuously as possible to sneak into the back door of the cottage without being spotted. I walked onto the front porch, took in the view that was so familiar to me, and broke into a thousand pieces more harshly than I had when I returned to my own home after Charlotte died. 

Here I was. I was no longer in shock. I had no cushion of the disarray and confusion that the first weeks after a baby's death brings. I was simply alone, at my ancestral family home, without my baby. Sometimes, the fact that a loss is not new makes it even harder to bear. 

Not all of you will have moments that you remember or experience that are this stark. But I'm certain that you've all noticed that there are certain times and places that feel harder to exist in without your baby. While all our stories are different, all of us who have experienced the death of a baby know that sometimes a new situation can bring about sudden waves of grief we hadn't anticipated. The waves can rock us for quite some time, and all we can do is cling to the sides of the boat and hope that smoother waters lie ahead. Thank you for being in my boat, because knowing I am not alone does bring me great comfort. 

Carol.