Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Visit with Chiara

Suzanne Pullen led a visualization exercise during the memorial service at the end of the Stillbirth Summit 2014. She asked us to close our eyes, focus on our breathing, and then imagine a place we love, where we feel safe, and to go to that place in our minds. She encouraged us to look around and to notice what we see there. I found myself on Star Island in the Isles of Shoals, a retreat center that is important to my family. I saw myself getting off the boat on a gorgeous summer day, walking down the pier, heading towards the lawn. As I reached the lawn, I saw a little girl. It must be Chiara, but she was older than her 22 months. She could walk, she could talk. She was wearing a white dress, and she was barefoot. She grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the gentle green slope. “Mommy, mommy, come see, come see,” she laughed and ran ahead. I followed, my heart swelling with pride and love seeing this vision of my daughter. I chased up the hill after her. The hill was backlit by the sun. She got there before me, and kept saying, “Come see, Mommy, come see,” As I got closer, I could see her standing there with other people. My Dad, 12 years gone, was there, waving. My Nana, now gone 9 years, was there, too, she was also smiling, waving. Chiara was bouncing up and down, saying, “I’m OK Mommy, I’m OK”. She was waving to me, smiling, laughing. It became clear that I could not reach her. I told her so, told her I had to go, told her I loved her so much and that I’d come visit again and someday I’d come back to be with her for good. I couldn’t reach her, but I imagined holding her close, kissing her face all over, squeezing her tight. I could feel her in my arms, sense her skin under my lips. I told her over and over again how much I loved her. I tuned and walk down the green slope, toward the boat waiting to take me back. She continued to wave, and I could hear her voice telling me, “I’m OK, Mommy, I’m OK!”. She was flanked by my Dad and Nana, who were still waving. There were others standing in the light that I could not see, but I had the overwhelming sense that they were all OK, there was a profound feeling of love, and also an understanding that I could not remain with them, but that they would wait for me.

I have never had this kind of experience before, although I have tried to make myself open to them. I have tried to fall asleep with the intention of dreaming of my baby girl, tried to will this kind of interaction, but I have never received this gift before. I do not know what to make of it. I don’t know if what I saw was a beautiful movie created by my mind, or if I somehow did get a glimpse of my daughter, my Dad, my Nana. I don’t think I will ever be certain, but I am so incredibly grateful for this experience. I will relive it over and over, and I hope to be transported back there someday. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Stillbirth Summit 2014

All the stars for our beloved babies, hanging in the lobby of the conference venue. A beautiful reminder of why we were gathered together.

I am returning home from the Stillbirth Summit 2014. I traveled to Minnesota to participate in the final day of sessions, geared towards parental bereavement. I hated to miss the medical sessions the first two days, but I’d already made a professional commitment by the time I learned of the summit. So, I left home for Denver, CO on Thursday, presented at a conference in Denver on Friday, and then flew to MN Friday night. I got in very late and didn’t sleep well. I woke in the morning with enough time to pump milk for my 1-year old, shower, and head out. I sobbed in the shower that morning like I did back in the early days after we lost Chiara. I was nervous and excited to attend, to meet other parents, to hear the presentations and spend a day focused on learning more about stillbirth and strategies to reduce its occurrence and to support bereaved families.

The conference was excellent. I deeply regret not being there for the entire event. Coming late to any event means missing out on the forming of the community that starts at the beginning. I felt a little like an outsider throughout the day I attended, having not had time to meet people over the first two days. If I am able to attend again (they are already planning for 2017!), I will try to be there the entire time.

Throughout the day, there were 10 different sessions, with topics ranging from participatory research (thanks, Still Life Canada!), to the benefits of exercise for bereaved mothers, to an excellent (albeit too short) writing workshop, to research on bereaved grandparents and siblings, and more. Each session was introduced by a bereaved family member, in honor of their baby/babies. This was very grounding and meaningful, a powerful way to incorporate the dear children that the conference is all about.

I found myself in tears throughout the day, and tried hard to breathe deeply and maintain composure. It was impossible. I know I wasn’t the only person who broke down throughout the day, but I was very surprised at how affected I was. At 22 months out, I do not cry every day anymore. The opportunity to be present with other grieving parents, to be visible as the parent of a child who was stillborn, was pretty overwhelming. At lunch, I was talking with some other participants and one asked me if I was a parent or a practitioner. I stumbled for a moment, “I’m parent, a bereaved parent”. This is just not a hat I get to wear in public very often. I think even my closest friends and family forget this part of my identity these days. To get to be visible as Chiara’s Mom for an entire day was a gift.

I left the conference at the memorial service and drove back to my hotel, sobbing all the way home. I pumped my milk for my rainbow babe. I sobbed some more. I went to bed. I have a checklist of things I want to do when I return home, from talking with my own Mom about Chiara, to calling my legislators about supporting bereavement leave as part of FMLA, to trying to connect with others who are working on legislation to improve services to families after a baby is stillborn, and to improve data collection on the incidence and causes of stillbirth. I am so glad that I attended the Stillbirth Summit 2014. I plan to seek out other opportunities to connect with other bereaved parents, work to advance research to prevent future stillbirths, and to increase awareness of stillbirth. In this way, I will continue to parent the memory of my daughter, my precious girl. Thank you to the Star Legacy Foundation, and all of the staff, board, researchers, practitioners, parents, grandparents, and everyone else who made this important event happen. I'm already looking forward to 2017!

The altar at the Memorial Service end of the Summit

Monday, June 9, 2014

Mother's Day: It's Complicated

Well, this post is a few weeks late, but honestly, it's taken that time to digest my feelings about Mother's Day. To put it succinctly; it's complicated. Whether you think it is a Hallmark holiday, or whether you believe that it's really all about celebrating motherhood and the mothers we know and love, if you are a loss mom, it's complicated. In reading various facebook posts around the day, I realized we are not alone: Mother's Day is hard for lots of people. It's hard for people who have lost their mother, for those who never knew her, for those who have difficult relationships with their mom, for those who are divorced/separated/unpartnered, for those struggling with infertility who dearly wish to be moms and dads, and probably for lots of other people, too.

I've tried two different ways of celebrating in the almost two years since we lost our daughter.

Year 1: complete avoidance. This entailed bailing on the multi-generational family brunch tradition and going for a mani/pedi and a sushi lunch with a friend going through a divorce. We both said our bah humbugs and got through the day.

Year 2: back to the brunch. My own Mom was really sad that we bailed on the brunch the year after our daughter died, so we decided to try it this year.  It was fine. But it was really a present to my own Mom, who wanted to see her kids and grandkids, and other family members gather together. It wasn't about me.

Now, it doesn't always have to be all about me. Really! But after having three children, and being pretty dedicated to the job of raising two of them and honoring the memory of the third, this is a role I'm invested in. And since there's this whole day dedicated to celebrating the art and craft of motherhood, the labor of love and selflessness that we apply ourselves to daily, it makes sense that I'd like at least part of the to be about ME as a mom, and not just about me as a daughter. Wrapped into all that is that on Mother's Day, as on Christmas and every family birthday, and other special days, there are clear reminders that our family extends beyond those present with us. My baby girl's absence is very present on those days and it makes them very hard.

I am thinking that next year I may have to find something constructive to do, to celebrate motherhood by taking part in something more than brunch. I wonder if I can dedicate myself to something on that day, maybe it will be less difficult. I'll be looking for meaningful volunteer opportunities to apply myself to.

This year, after a rare afternoon nap, I lounged on a blanket by the edge of a pond with our almost 1-year old baby boy. I relished his babyness. I kept him from eating acorns, sticks, rocks. It was a lovely capper to an emotionally strange and challenging day. Not a bad day, just a complicated one.