Tonight, the Pregnancy Infant Loss Society Of the Sierras (PILSOS) hosted A Time for Remembrance in Idlewild Park for 200 people whose lives have been affected by the loss of a baby. At 7pm, in an act of beautiful symbolism, candles are lit around the world to create a wave of light in remembrance. I was asked to be the keynote speaker to share some encouraging words on processing grief, as well as some of my poetry…
It’s truly an honor to be here tonight with all of you, in a room full of people with a common purpose, to remember loved ones and to continue to love unconditionally. Thank you for being a community that is strong–not through stoicism–but through vulnerability and honesty.
As a licensed clinical social worker who has worked in hospice for 7 years and pivoted to specialize in parental mental health, what I’ve noticed most of the time, when someone is grieving, is that people talk too much, offer too many clichés, or simply avoid the hard conversation. Let’s not do that tonight. So speaking of honesty, I have to admit, I feels odd to be up here because what my instincts, training, and heart are telling me to do is to listen to each and every one of you, to hold space for your story, to validate your pain and loss, and to give you hope for the future while not minimizing everything you’ve been through.
What I will say to each of you as individuals is that whatever path of grief you’ve walked to be here tonight, I haven’t walked in your same shoes, but I want to honor the difficult journey you’ve been on, and invite you to fully rest, release, and leave some of your burden here.
Wherever you are in your grief journey, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all pushed ourselves to look, act, and feel “normal” too soon in some ways because we think we’re supposed to, or others gave us the messages that we’re supposed to get over it and move on. But we never “get over” someone we loved, we learn through much trial and error to integrate it into our lives.
It’s as if you broke your leg, and the doctor mistakenly diagnosed it as just a muscle sprain, so you were told to get up and walk already. If you received that misdiagnosis, your healing process would be slower and more painful, not to mention more confusing! You might wonder, what’s wrong with me? Why is this taking so long? But what you were going through was actually normal for a broken leg, you were just given false information, a misdiagnosis. As it often is with grief.
I love this quote by grief specialist and companion, Dr. Alan Wolfelt. He writes about mourning in our culture: that “Normal thoughts and feelings connected to loss are typically seen as unnecessary and even shameful. Instead of encouraging mourners to express themselves, our culture’s unstated rules would have them avoid their hurt and ‘be strong.’ But grief is not a disease. Instead, it’s the normal, healthy process of embracing the mystery of the death of someone loved. If mourners see themselves as active participants in their healing, they will experience a renewed sense of meaning and purpose in life.” Amen.
For me, the healing process and renewed sense of meaning and purpose in life were intertwined with art, as I’m sure it has been for some of you, too. In order to process our loss, as well as my husband and my experiences of postpartum depression and anxiety, I started writing, furiously. Writing poetry became not only my outlet, but my desperate attempt to help others understand what we were going through. Poetry unlocks something in the chest and weaves a golden thread from one heart to another, helping two people connect in a way that doesn’t happen as readily with plain prose.
So, I would like to share a poem with you that I wrote to commemorate that season of earth-shattering loss that we’ve all experienced, and then some words of wisdom that helped me through my process, that I hope will ease yours.
To give some context for this poem, while each of us is in a different place in our journey tonight, we each have had a moment when a dream and a life was no longer, when everything we knew to be true was irreversibly altered in the moment we saw spotting, or were told “there’s no heartbeat,” or “I’m sorry your baby has died”, or your baby is born and then without forewarning something is wrong with his health and he dies, or you have to decide when to withdraw life support for your infant when you have been told your child will not survive without tremendous medical procedures and interventions. One moment you felt joy and hope, the next helplessness and hopelessness for the future. And you were catapulted into a season of mourning.
It’s called, In My Mind
In my mind I have travelled
To so many towns today
I lost myself in mine
Moving in slow motion
Response time delayed
As if I cannot shake
The early morning hours
Following me all day
With their gray
As if I do not have enough blood sugar
To care that I am hemorrhaging
Wouldn’t it be nice to drift away
On this inebriation induced by grief
For an eternity or at least a while?
Instead I have to sing this sad sad song
No one wants to hear
My melancholy melody
I sing not to perform for anyone
But to lament for the being I can no longer see and
To choose life—sing or die
Sing or deny the pain and live half alive
Which is the same so sing
Her spirit seems to brighten at the sound of her mama’s voice, besides
In my eyes hurt swishes and scintillates
Tears fall into this lukewarm water surrounding me
Sparks fly from my fingers seeking release
Tempted to set everything on fire
At least fire moves dances fights creates destroys
What I would give
To slough off this immobilizing feeling
To move dance fight create destroy
I did once so
Why do I feel now like I cannot move?
Something must…someone must…acknowledge
This raging grief or sit down and weep with me
For so much
Is gained and so much is lost
In the early days of loss, it’s vitally important to be extremely gentle with yourself. You have sustained a serious life injury. I like how Dr. Wolfelt says to “think of yourself as in emotional and spiritual intensive care.” Imagine if our friends, family, and support system knew that we were in emotional and spiritual intensive care. How different might that look? How much isolation might that have prevented?
Anger and other explosive emotions—like blame, resentment, and rage—may also come up. Reframe such feelings as a natural form of protest. They are not something to be ashamed of. Someone who gave your life meaning has been taken away from you. It’s normal for your emotions to shout, “No! Stop! I don’t want this!”
Enduring the pain of grief is the most difficult challenge of our entire human life. Being separated from someone we love hurts more than words can express. Something that gives me hope in the most excruciating moments is that any emotion that intense is not sustainable. It requires too much energy, and cannot possibly last forever. Like a wave crashing over you, you get up, and have a moment to breathe…before it crashes over you again…sometimes expectedly, when you’re in the middle of the worst of it. Sometimes the grief wave crashes over you seemingly out of the blue, when you think you should be more resilient by now.
But over time, two things help soften pain: embracing it and expressing it. Sometimes we think that if we deny or distract ourselves from our pain, it will go away. We all know by now that doesn’t work. Instead, if we allow ourselves to fully feel our feelings whenever they naturally arise, they begin to diminish, almost imperceptibly, little by little. And when we mourn those feelings by expressing them outside of ourselves—through art, ritual, or even physical activity—we experience additional healing momentum.
This next poem is the very first one I wrote in my grief, when I was feeling raw and bereft and angry and alone. Personifying grief as a wizened old man, not malicious but simply persistent in carrying out his duties, helped me to have a conversation with grief, in which I felt empowered to negotiate what I would and would not put up with, and to stand up for myself and my needs.
It’s called Something Dark and Soft, and in my book, I dedicated to you, the community of parents who have loved and lost
Something dark and soft nuzzled up to me
An unfamiliar animal that would become my constant companion
Though I not it became the pet
Grief did not grasp me insistently by the hand
Or coil seductively around my neck
Merely it settled down behind my eyes
Curled up and took a nap
Where did the light go?
Though my sight has gone hazy and gray
There is a light who shines
Even when I cannot see
And this light claims me by Love
Which I will cling to
And in hope of sight
Stings my eyes
Like antiseptic in
This hole in my heart
Aches in my stomach
I miss you
Rolling words around in my mind
Like marbles I have not spoken a syllable
A housewife without children
I wait and tidy wait and tidy with
No one to talk to
Who will listen now?
Stop…. Breathe…. Feel…. Breathe….
Wading through grief makes for much worse work
Though my limbs grow heavier I must not stop
Press on I could wash clean scrub I could
But even if I could for years continue avoiding
Grief would be waiting for me at the end
Of the line with a basketful of clean laundry no less
And a sad smile on his furrowed face
Come walk with me a while
One foot in front of the other one day at a time
Or moment if I have to I have to because
I need to know Love will wait with me
If I ask Love to wait
More than that: Love will wade with me all the way
To hope and healing though my limbs grow heavy and weak
I will invite light into my dark night and wait
Grief, come in
Rest your weary bones
Tell me a tale if you wish
Settle in for a moment—I am not one to turn away a guest—
Only one request will I make
Do not misunderstand my invitation
And overstay your welcome
Please do not assume I am too busy or my to-do list is too long
You may sit with me a while
But I cannot be your captive audience
My reasons run deeper than a few piles of laundry and dirty dishes
Hospitable I am you see but
Vacant I am not
Light is the permanent dweller here though oft overshadowed
You wish to go, you say—huffing and stomping—to leave me
Like I have been left before alone and shivering in the dark
Cruel Grief, you are a jealous one wanting me all to yourself
But I cannot give you what is no longer in my possession
Besides you come and go as you please I cannot
Count on you as a constant companion
Nor would I want to since when you come you bring Darkness shivering with you
So go on! Get out! I do not want you here!
Though my precious one has gone home—too soon! —
She is with Great Love who holds us in her hands
Her hands are a place of refuge and rest: I will lie me down
My Mother Maker’s hands will carry me beyond grief to hope
And my eyes
Dazzled in the light of Love will
See (someday) more clearly than ever before
One essential thing we sometimes forget about grief, because it feels true, is that we don’t have to grieve and mourn all the time. You cannot and should not. Instead, conceptualize it as “dosing” yourself with the pain. Feel and express your grief for a bit, then push pause –back and forth, back and forth—especially because grief takes such a prolonged time. Truthfully, it never completely ends, because you will never stop missing the person who died. You will always feel pangs of grief over the absence of this person in your life. But instead of being overwhelmed by the long-term, consider adopting a one-day-at-a-time approach to your grief. While this may sound cheesy, it’s also a primary principle of mindfulness. The only moment is now, the only day we’re guaranteed is today. Tomorrow will concern itself with tomorrow. Find your own mantra, or use one of these: Today I will feel whatever I am feeling, and I will express those feelings outside of myself. Today I will take care of myself, and I will accept the caring of others. Mine was more often than not, “I’m doing the best that I can today.”
In the meantime, prioritize doing something, at least one thing, that gives you pleasure each and every day. Mourners need something to look forward to, a reason to get out of bed each morning. It’s nearly impossible to look forward to each day when you know you will be experiencing pain and sadness, and that’s it. To counterbalance your normal and necessary mourning, each and every day plan—in advance, preferably—something you enjoy. Yoga, dance, reading, singing, writing, baking, going for a walk, having lunch with a friend, gardening, playing piano—do whatever brings you enjoyment, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
If you haven’t already, consider creating a sacred mourning space. Whether it is a cozy chair in a corner or a under a special tree outside, give yourself a place to contemplate, to sit with your feelings of grief without judgment. The word contemplate means “to create space for the divine to enter.” Think of your sacred mourning space as a place dedicated exclusively to the needs of your healing soul. Retreat to your space several times a week and honor your journey through grief by lighting a candle, incense, sage, or diffuse essential oils to make it a receiving and releasing space.
Start each new day with a meditation or prayer. We can set the tone for our day by praying or meditating, even for a few minutes. This literally helps to re-wire your brain, according to Dr. Andrew Neuberg. Repeat a simple phrase or prayer to yourself, such as: “Today I will live and love fully.” You might also offer words of gratitude, simply: “Thank you, God, for giving me this day. Help me to appreciate it and live it to the fullest.”
Be careful about comparing your grief with others’. Don’t make assumptions about how long your grief should last. Like water off a duck’s back, if others tell you how you should (or should not) be feeling or behaving, let it go. Find ways to mourn that work for you.
Lastly, be on the watch for hope. Hope is defined as an expectation of a good that is yet to be. Even as you grieve and mourn, it is vital that you also find ways to nurture hope for your future—a future in which you have rediscovered meaning and are living fully again. Pay attention to the moments, however fleeting, when you experience small rushes of hope and joy. What created the feeling? Whatever it is, it is an indication of your future happiness. Try starting a list in a note on your phone so you won’t forget: playing with animals, hiking, music, the way the sunlight filters through the autumn leaves. Yes, you can foster hope while you embrace grief. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they spring from the same deep well—self-aware, compassionate, mindful living.
So, I will leave you with one last poem, one last expression of my grief outside of myself, that I hope will inspire you to express what you need to about your grief and clear out some room for hope to take root. And if in your process, you happen to create art out of your grief, you will have transformed your pain into a work of beauty, adding meaning to, as you commemorate, the life you lost. I hope that you’ll share it with this community, and with the world, that needs to hear your voice.
The Shards of My Heart
The shards of my heart
As if to create a tide of tears
On which to buoy themselves up
Float towards reunion
And seal themselves together again
After giving birth broke me
But they forgot in their industry
A prolific bath of saltwater tears—
Though it might serve as conduit and
Antiseptic for their injuries—
Places them in the midst of
An ocean of unpredictability where
Grief troublemaker that he is
Likes to ride roughly in the waves
Peak crest trough
In an undulating arc of pain
So although I hoped
My heart would be
More cooperative by now
Waves ride over and under me
Washing me in through out so
My stomach picks up churning
Where my heart left off hurting
And I am washed up
On an empty shore of sheer exhaustion
With nothing left to do
Prayers for peace and sweet relief
Until the tears cease for now
The waves recede with each exhalation
Suddenly with unexpected free time I scramble
In the low tide to retrieve my scraps scattered
Along the beach some of them seem to be
At a loss I wonder will I be able to
Replace them or were they swept
Out to sea indefinitely?
Sitting down to catalog the specimens I’ve collected
A glimmer in the sand
Catches the corner of my eye
All around I discover proof of promised provision
Takes shape as sea shells fools gold foreign coins and
Other lost loved tokens
Fit imperfectly to fill in the gaps of my riven heart
Creating a mosaic of more beauty and worth than
A flat picture of a plain old pasted together pumping muscle
Love and I are reinventing my life from its source outward
Though I’ve done it before and foolishly thought I was done—
Light shines through the cracks melding into alloy
A work of art that will someday
When I’ve caught my breath
Take it away