Bevely's Story: Part Two

Coping with the early days and months can be the hardest part of loss. Often parents feel as if nobody understands, and that feeling of being misunderstood can prevent them from being present in their normal, daily routines even many months down the road. At Empty Arms, we’re able to structure for each family a network of support that feels right to them: whether that’s support groups, therapists, working with their family members, communicating with medical professionals, or setting up individual peer support. We have seen, over and over again, that when we offer families safe spaces to be present with their story, to honor their grief and move forward with healing at their own pace, they are much better off in other areas of their lives. It’s an honor to provide this space.

Carol:  What were the hardest parts in the beginning? What memories still stick with you?

Bev: Giving her back that second day – my family left and I had her all day with me. I didn’t know how to say – take her. How can you determine how you are ready? I should have just stayed with her until I left the hospital, but I felt like I was on a time limit. I felt rushed, like I had to give her back. So saying my goodbye, and letting them take her, that was the hardest thing. Then, going home to a house with all her stuff there, and still with a belly and no baby when I went home, reality struck. I don’t have a baby and I’m supposed to have a baby. I think it hit even harder when I got home. You go home empty, and you feel so empty and lost.

Carol: Did the people in your life understand?

Bev: Honestly I did not feel like anyone understood. I wanted to be alone, but I did not want to be alone at the same time. I remember talking on the phone every day, all day with my mother in Florida and occasionally my sisters. They were the only ones who comforted me, and all they did was listen! I needed them to listen. They did not know how I felt, so all I needed was for people to listen. Everyone else was saying, oh I’m sorry, oh I understand, but they did not know how I felt. But the nurses in the hospital, they referred me to a therapist, who used to work for Cooley, I contacted her. And I got the information about the meetings at Cooley Dickinson  (referring to Empty Arms).

I waited, and that’s my regret. I waited to get help, and when I finally went, I realized wow – now I feel I belong. Because I felt like these people truly understand how I feel. So if they say, I know how you feel  – it’s comforting because I know they truly feel that.

But I knew where to go when I needed help. It’s my culture – it’s how I grew up. It’s hard for me to express my feelings. Now I know it’s OK to seek help. I’m so glad Empty Arms was always there and never said no. I could come back every single time I needed Empty Arms. I’m grateful  – you guys helped me tremendously. You’ve made an indent in my life, just being there.

Carol: Do you think it would have made a difference if you had a companion?

Bev: I honestly truly believe that if Empty Arms had been there when I lost my baby and explained to me what was going on it would have made a huge difference with everything. I didn’t know anything  – I had never heard of a stillborn! I didn’t know anything about what I was supposed to do. If I had support with me it would have helped me to understand what I was going through. It took me such a long time to heal, and it was basically on my own. And then with the groups that I did go to, and the therapist, it made it okay to feel the way I felt. If I had support to say it was okay to feel those things, to guide me to recuperate, it would have made a big difference. You have this blow, and your sitting there broken and alone, and if I had the support that we give to everybody now –  it would have made a huge difference. I got depressed, I broke up with the baby’s father, I started drinking – I never drink – for almost a year, I drank every single day. With support I would have been completely different. I lived in Greenfield all by myself. After the funeral they were back to their lives, but I wasn’t. People go right back to their normal lives and don’t realize that I’m still not OK. And, my partner wasn’t supportive. He left me home and went back to work. That’s why I was calling my mom all day every day. I was alone. If I had somebody there to help me and support me, lives would have been different. I would have been able to heal quickly. It took many years, many years.

The way I started coping was telling my story again and again. It has helped me heal. I’m pretty good talking without crying now!

Bevely's Story: Part One

This is the first in a series of four pieces about Bevely Gonzalez. I met Bevely for the first time several years after the loss of her second daughter, Jelyna, who was stillborn in 2006. Over the years, Bevely kept disappearing, and then showing up. In 2012, at a Subsequent Choices meeting, there she was. Then again in 2017 at our 10 year anniversary party, we reconnected.

When we spoke at the party, Bevely was effusive about how important Empty Arms had been to her in her journey of healing. As she stood there, in the bright light of the party, her two young sons running around at her feet, I remembered the woman who had sat in the chair in the meetings years before. Here before me was a new version, one who remained deeply connected to her past, but who flourished in the present. Bev was a beautiful example of a person who had not just survived, but flourished after her loss.

Not two days later, I was buried in my office, deep in a search for the best way to develop meaningful services for Spanish speaking women who needed our services. Hospital interpreters would not even come close—if our goal was to offer a peer, the support needed to be offered by a peer. Suddenly, I thought of Bev. Could she help us out?

I emailed her the next day, cautiously suggesting that we might be looking for people to help to support others in Hampden county, and that we were specifically searching for bilingual support. Within minutes, an effusive, enthusiastic reply was in my inbox. Bev was in!

It has been beyond a pleasure to have  Bev join our team. She carries with her years of experience, a bright sense of humor, and a frank realism about the challenges that life can bring. This winter, I sat down with Bev and interviewed her, in the hopes of bringing her story to our community. It is a story of a mother who, determined not to be alone in her isolating journey of grief, sought out help again and again. And it is the story of that same mother who has been able to transform her own sadness into an energy that can help to hold others afloat in their darkest moments.

Thank you, Bevely, for offering yourself so unconditionally to the woman and families who have benefitted so deeply from your support. Empty Arms is grateful to have you as part of our team, and it’s my hope that your words, which will be shared in four parts over the next few weeks, will touch lives as you personally demonstrate the power of friendship and community in the face of a very difficult experience. - Carol

Post #1: Bevely’s story.

It was 2006, and my daughter Elyssa was only five years old, just shy of six. I just remember, we were very excited, we had planned for our new baby and we were looking forward to her. Then, I got into a minor fender bender – someone hit us from behind. I didn’t pay any mind to it, we went to the hospital and checked her and she was fine. Then, two weeks later, I noticed that she wasn’t moving anymore, and it felt like my stomach had gone down. I remember calling the doctor and asking about it, telling them that things looked smaller and that I hadn’t felt her move. They told me the normal things, she’s probably growing, and it’s up to you if you want to come in or not. So I waited until my appointment.

It was a nice, energetic Northampton doctor, she didn’t have any concerns. And I was there like so concerned, so concerned, so concerned! She almost let me go without checking the heartbeat. But I asked her, and she got the doppler, and she was looking, and looking, and looking. She got nothing, so she put me in the other room to check with ultrasound. I just started crying, because deep down inside I knew something was wrong. I didn’t want to look at the ultrasound, because when I did glance at it nothing was moving, and I knew it was bad. I looked at her face, and I knew something was terribly wrong. She went from being so happy and energetic to being flushed and her eyes were watery, she couldn’t even talk. There was silence –  which felt like for a long time. It was very silent, nobody spoke.

Finally, she cleared her throat and with a voice where you could tell she wanted to cry, her voice was cracky, she said, “I’m terribly concerned, is there any way you call  someone to come be with you? I don’t want you driving. I need a doctor to come and look at this, and I need the ultrasound technician to come in.”

I had to wait an hour. She closed everything up and said to call someone to be with me. I tried to call the father, but my aunt and my sister were nearby, so they came and picked me up. It was horrible because I was crying, but they were saying “Everything is going to be okay.” They didn’t understand how I felt, and how I knew something was wrong. They were so ignorant to the situation – they didn’t know what was going on and they wanted to think I was overreacting. And that made me cry more, and I remember yelling at them, saying, “You’re not understanding, there’s something wrong!” I made them bring me back to the office.

I was on the phone, trying to call the father. I got ahold of a different aunt, who had to drive to my house to pick the father up to bring him to Northampton. I called my mom, I was crying, I called my best friend. I was non-stop crying, I knew deep down inside something was wrong. That hour seemed forever. So I waited, and when the baby’s father came, they brought us into the room. The ultrasound tech was there and she did another ultrasound. She didn’t say anything, and told me the doctor would talk to me. They took me into another room, then the doctor came in and told me there was no longer a heartbeat.

It was a long wait to find out something that I already knew.

I was shocked, confused. I’d’ never heard of a stillborn before, I didn’t know that was possible. I wondered, how would they would get her out of me? The doctor told me I’d go to the hospital and they’d induce me, and I was like what!! I’m going to do what? She told me I could go home to take it all in, or go straight to the hospital. I felt like she was crazy – why would I want to go home? I was so scared!

So we went straight to the hospital, and I sat around for hours crying. I’ve never cried so much in my life. Nurse after nurse was coming in trying to speak to me, trying to make me feel better, trying to relate to me. At this point, I just didn’t care. I wanted to be alone.

When the doctor came in and started prepping me, I realized I had already started going into labor. I had my grandmother and another aunt and my uncle come and visit me. They were supporting me, and talking to me. My mom was in Florida so she couldn’t support me. The baby’s father didn’t say nothing – he was in shock, too, so we didn’t say much. I felt pressure  while we were talking, so I said go get the doctor – and she was coming out.

So she just came out – and it was so shocking at first, they put her on top of me, and I was so scared. You don’t know what to expect. I realized she looked so much like a perfect little baby – I wondered what could have gone wrong? I held her for a while, and then I called my sister and told my sister to bring my daughter Elyssa in so she could meet her. She came, I let her hold her. It was very emotional. We just cried a lot. My grandma held her, she cried so much I thought she was going to have a heart attack. My aunt held her, I had support there with me. It was just hard. I remember holding her for hours, and looking at her, at her hands and her feet, trying to figure out who she looked like. I remember I was exhausted. I was so drained. I just told the nurse to take her – I didn’t want them to take her, but I was so physically and mentally exhausted that I told them to take her.

I passed out for a while. And then the next day, I remember getting up and I had family come visit –  another uncle, and the baby’s other grandmother. I still felt the same. I was crying and crying all day, and one of the nurses realized I had more family from afar coming to visit. She asked me if I wanted to see the baby again. I was so shocked – I didn’t realize I could see her again. So I said yes, and they brought her back. She looked different to me, though. She looked even more like a normal baby. It was weird. She was wrapped in a blanket, with a hat on. My daughter came again. Even my nieces came.

I remember the priest coming and I remember asking, what do I do? Do I baptize her? He said no, we don’t have to –  she wasn’t born into sin – she is a pure angel. He said the church would pay for the funeral costs, which made me cry, I was so grateful for their help. I was so naive – I didn’t know I would be planning a funeral. I was in so much shock. Shock is the only word to describe it.

Every March comes by and you feel the sadness – but you just keep trooping through it. It’s been 12 years, but it’s still there. I tell people all the time – my oldest is going to be 18 – I would’ve had a little 12 year old as well. I work with kids now, there are a lot of girls who are like 11, they randomly give me hugs and I can’t help but think, wow, I would’ve had somebody around this age doing that. I’ve been fine all month, then some old friends brought it up. My friend was crying, and I was OK. She just kept wanting to talk about it, so then we all got emotional! She told me that she had a miscarriage, and how hard it was. So it was therapeutic for her, and for me to support her...


Bev’s story will continue in the next post.

February and March Newsletter

Support Group Meetings for End of February and March
All meetings are at our office in the Florence Arts and Business Building, 140 Pine Street, Room 2B, Florence, MA.

Wednesday, February 28th, from 7-9pm our Bereavement Support Group will meet.

Thursday, March 8th, from 7-9pm our Termination for Medical Reasons Support Group will meet. 

Tuesday, March 13th, from 7-9pm our Subsequent Choices Support Group will meet. 

Wednesday, March 14th, from 7-9pm our Miscarriage & Early Pregnancy Loss Support Group will meet. 

Wednesday, March 28th, from 7-9pm our Bereavement Support Group will meet. 

Join us for the first ever Empty Arms 5K! The Syrup Stampede will be held on Sunday, April 8 at 10 AM. Check out our amazing website www.syrupstampede.com for details and REGISTER TODAY!

Also, let us know If you're interested in joining our brilliant team of parent organizers to volunteer with publicity, prizes, pancake breakfast planning/organization, pancake breakfast cooking and serving, kids activities, waiver research, and syrup research!

Join us for a lovely afternoon at Painting With A Twist, to celebrate what would be Josie's fourth birthday. Sunday, April 15th from 4-6pm. Invite your friends to the event on Facebook, and RESERVE YOUR SEATS TODAY! Half of all proceeds will be donated to Empty Arms. 


As always, let us know if you have any questions, or if we can be of help.

Yours,
Carol, Sarah and the EABS Team

Writing Prompts from the Retreat

By Sarah Nichols

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We recently held Empty Arms' first day-long retreat with ten parents gathering at our offices in Florence for a day of writing, community, and crafting. Jess also led a lovely session of gentle yoga, using an amended version of Joan Halifax's guided meditation on grief. It was absolutely magic to gather together! Here we've shared some of the writing prompts we used-- we invite you to write to any of these that moves you, and welcome you to share any part of what you write in the comments!

Prompt #1

In her book Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, Bhanu Kapil writes:      

“From January 12, 1992, to June 4, 1996, I traveled in India, England, and the United States, interviewing Indian women of diverse ages and background. Originally, my question to them was, ‘Is it possible for you to say the thing you have never been able to say, not even to the one you have spent your whole life loving?’

Over the course of the last four years I asked these women—strangers I met in theaters, forests, Laundromats, temples, and diners—to respond more specifically to one or more of a predetermined selection of twelve questions. They agreed, on the condition of anonymity, to submit a spoken (tape-recorded) or written response in thirty minutes. My aim was to ensure an honest and swift text, uncensored by guilt or the desire to construct an impressive, publishable finish.”

We gather today to write in this same spirit—with the urgency and depth of shared company, setting aside of perfectionism in the name of writing what feels most true for us today. We will take the next twenty-five minutes to write towards a selection of Bhanu’s prompts. Feel free to write to all of the questions, one of them, or none at all if you have a question of your own making in mind.

"Who are you and whom do you love?

What is the shape of your body?

What do you remember about the earth?

What are you waiting, or what are you wanting, to be asked?"

Prompt #2

Letter writing is one of the most intimate forms of address. In a letter, we can say what we might otherwise be reluctant to voice aloud, or what must cross a great span of distance to reach the recipient. The act of writing a letter can be a threading or line of rope between you and the recipient, a pulling in or towards. Or, a lit match in the dark where you wish their voice could answer in response.

Write a letter— to the addressee of your choosing. Since we have gathered together as Empty Arms community members, you may wish to focus your letter on your loss. This can look all kinds of different ways. Here are just a few possibilities for whom you may write to:

To your baby  

To a nurse or doctor who was there with you, what you’re grateful to them for, what was particularly comforting about their care, or about the ways their actions angered, disappointed, or deeply hurt you.

To your partner or dear friend, what they said or did that stuck with you, the ways your paths of grief ran parallel, and the ways they diverged. An offering of the truths and stories you have forged together and alone.

To your younger self, about what has happened since, the ways you’ve healed, changed, and the places that are still tender. What you’d want to tell her, if you could. The ways you carry her with you.

Prompt #3

In her book It’s Ok That You’re Not Ok, Megan Devine writes about what tending to her grief has looked like since her partner’s untimely death. She offers several writing prompts— some are short, like the seedlings of prompts here:

"Today, my grief feels like…

I wish I knew…

Kindness to, and patience with, myself could look like…"

And a longer prompt here:

Imagine Recovery (p.176)

"There are many ways to craft an image of your own recovery. To get started, you might write your responses to these questions:

1. Given that what I’ve lost cannot be restored, given that what was taken cannot be returned, what would healing look like?

2. If I step outside cultural norms of “rising above loss,” what would living this well look like?

3. How will I care for myself?

4. What kind of person do I want to be, for myself, and for others?"

Finding Support When You Need It

By Lindsey Rothschild, Reposted from her blog Lindsey's Guide

Living in a community is not only about the good times. What can be the most telling is the support your find during the toughest times. Having moved here to start a family, we were overjoyed when I became pregnant with twins in the summer of 2010 (after 2 years of trying unsuccessfully in NYC). We were nurtured through this process first by the excellent  midwives at Holyoke Midwifery Care and finally through science at Baystate Hospital. However, our excitement turned to despair when we learned at our 20 week ultrasound that both of our babies were afflicted with genetic abnormalities that were “incompatible with life”.

Somehow the Empty Arms Bereavement Support pamphlet found it’s way into my hands. I nervously called the number one evening expecting to leave a message. Instead, the loving voice of Carol McMurrich, Empty Arm’s founder, answered the phone, listened to my story, and immediately I knew that I wasn’t alone. That began my relationship with Empty Arms. The support groups and community that Empty Arms offered us was our lifeline through that devastating time. We carry the love and loss of our twin daughters with us as well as the loving and supportive community of Empty Arms.

The Location of Loss

By Ryan O'Neil

My name is Ryan, and my wife had a miscarriage in December 2014. Since that time, one of the many things we’ve struggled with is recognition of our loss.

Katie and I have found small ways to integrate our daughter C.C. into our lives—writing about her for example, and taking photos that make us think of her impact on us. But we struggle with how to share her with people beyond one another. We explore this at the monthly miscarriage support group sometimes: Where in this world can we make C.C. known?

Recently in a class I’m taking for my master’s degree in geographic information systems (GIS) in Public Health, I had to work on a final project: mapping a broad set of data. Unsure exactly what I was looking for, I browsed the Connecticut Department of Public Health website.

I found the birth, death, and marriage data—“vital statistics,” as they are often collectively referred. I dug in and found there were data for fetal deaths: data that covered 17 years and recorded at the town level, which would be ideal for this project. I thought about whether I wanted to spend a number of weeks soaking in this data, of all the statistics I could submerge myself in. Resolute, I decided to steer into the skid and maybe help shine a light on the subject, even if only for my professor and classmates.

The information about this data said “fetal death” was defined as pregnancy loss at any point up to 20 weeks. We had lost C.C. at about 9 weeks. I went to the 2014 table and scrolled down and found our town. There was a “1.” Our C.C.

It felt comforting, in a way, to see that “1,” that she counted. Even if most of our friends and family had forgotten our loss, the State of Connecticut would always have a “1” there to count her.

I worked on the project steadily over the course of about four weeks, going back again and again to analyze the data, and adding things I wanted to do with it. I finally wrote the introduction to the project. I re-checked some things, including the state’s definition for fetal death. But I had initially mis-read the definition; it was any pregnancy loss after 20 weeks.

At the time, I couldn’t sit with what that meant for long. I had a lot of work to do and not enough time. I sighed and was thankful that at least the only thing I had to change was a single sentence in my introduction, since I had only used the term fetal death (as opposed to “miscarriage”) throughout the paper.

Since that time, however, I have had time to think about this experience, and my residual sadness about it. I had lost the comfort of our loss being counted.

Yes, that “1” belonged to another family in our town—a family that I felt sorrow for. And I wondered who they were and if I’d ever come across them at any point. But, as little consolation as it is, I felt envious that their loss had counted, statistically speaking. The State of Connecticut was just one more entity that didn’t want to know about our loss.

We’re still looking for where else C.C. gets to live, outside our hearts.

Does It Get Better?

By Sara Barry

I have a friend whose son died recently. He wasn’t a baby, but he was her baby, the one who first made her a mother. She’s been walking around in that fog of early grief unable to do much, sometimes feeling almost OK and other times feeling steamrollered.

“Does it get better?” she asked.

And my mind sifted through images of me alone in the house on a dark winter night feeling like this was not my home, searching in the blue light of a computer screen for a story like mine …

walking my cousin’s baby on the beach that first summer after Henry died, crying into her hair …

waiting for the bus that Henry never got on …

holding Kathleen for the first time as the darkness of a year of Henry gone settled around me …

standing on a hill in the cold, dark night on the anniversary of Henry’s death years later feeling joy welling up . . .

Does it get better?

Some say it gets better. Others say it gets different. Either way it takes time. I tend to tell people the brutal truth: Year 1 is almost unbearable, and year 2 is harder. Usually I tell them as they start in on year 2, floundering, struggling, wondering if there is something wrong with them that they aren’t “better.”

Does it get better?

It does, but it takes longer than we expect. It does, but it takes longer than we’d like.

You know how a stomach bug slams you hard, then once it passes, you are weak and exhausted for a long time afterward? You can’t do what you usually do. You wonder why you’re not back to normal.

Grief is like that too. It wipes you out for a long time.

And then it does get better. We refill our reserves. We get stronger again. We get more practiced in answering the hard questions. We get more used to telling our story and seeing kids of a certain age.

Does it get better? Will I ever be happy again? Yes and yes.

How can I live a full life with a huge hole in my heart?

You just do.

You tend the hole, tend your loss, and you open to life around you. You let love and joy and beauty in. You let yourself be loved. You let yourself be filled. You keep missing and your heart fills up at the same time. You don’t have to know how, you just have to open enough for it to happen.

What To Tell Kids

By Sara Barry

Recently a friend asked if I had any advice about her son’s recent questions about his sister, the one who died before he was born. She worried that her answers weren’t enough, because he kept asking.

It reminded me of the raw, numb days right after Henry died, when my young neighbor would come in each morning to wait for his sister’s bus.

“’Enry ’ome?” he’d ask.

The first time he said it, I couldn't breathe.

Each time he came, he'd ask again. I would say no and remind him that Henry was in heaven with Oma (his great-grandmother), which is how his parents had explained it to him. And he would walk over and look in the bassinet in the dining room, just to make sure. Then he would ask to see Henry's other bed (the crib that used to be his), and we would go up and look at the crib. We'd come back down stairs and he'd ask for Henry again. And I would say that we could look at his pictures, so we'd go around and look at all the pictures.

He didn’t ask them to hurt me. He asked again and again, because that’s what young kids do. He asked because he was trying to understand.

I told my friend she didn’t need to give more answer, but just keep answering. Her son would let her know if he needed more.

I wonder sometimes what my kids make of having a brother who died, a brother they never knew.

When my daughter Kathleen was three months old, somebody asked me if we would talk about Henry and show Kathleen pictures of him when she was older. I smiled, because Henry was already part of her life.

From the beginning, we have talked about him with his sisters. They grew up with pictures of him around the house. He’s in the alphabet book I made for Kathleen and on the family photo blocks she played with. He’s in the songs we sing at night.

He’s not here, yet very present in our lives.

My girls can say to me at bedtime, “I’m sad I never got to know Henry” or ask how old he’d be.

When a friend looks at a picture of Henry and asks, “Who’s that?”, they answer matter of fact, “That’s Henry. He’s my brother. He died.” Or, as I overheard on the soccer field, “Well I don’t have a younger brother. I have an older brother and he’s dead.” A simple statement.

What I love about kids is that statements like this don’t stop conversation. Nobody stops doing cartwheels or eating snacks because you say, “My brother is dead.”

And yet . . . I wonder what is going on as their growing hearts and brains understand things in different ways. How does grief work when you never know the person who died, when you grow up with a person missing and grief around you?

I go looking for information about grief of siblings who never knew a baby brother or sister and find descriptions of replacement siblings.

My older daughter grew in me in that first year after Henry died. She grew from newborn to toddler as I navigated year 2 of grief. I know that I loved her fully and fiercely for herself not as a replacement, and still I wonder if my emotions in those early days, or even now, affect her in ways that will show up later. 

After I wrote about the question “How Many Kids Do You Have?”, I worried. What if my kids read this someday and think they are my “just” two, that they are somehow less than because their brother died, when the truth is they fill my heart every day.

Because the paradox of having living children and one who died is that your heart is always missing someone and always full. I have three kids—and two. My heart is full and missing someone. I find joy and gratitude every day even as I recognize grief.

I am grateful to my girls for opening me wide again to joy, but I don’t love either of them because they took Henry’s place. I love them unconditionally and fully, each with their own space, each for their own being. Henry will always have a place in my heart. It isn’t their job to fill it, nor would I want them to. I want his space for him—and I want my girls to fill their own spaces.

I can wonder all I want how grief affects my kids, but the best I can do is listen to what they say, share my feelings honestly, and answer the questions they are asking as they grow and change and wonder differently.

 

How do you think having lost a sibling affects your living children?

From Our Family To Yours

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Dear Families,

I can remember leaving the hospital empty-handed, with nothing but a tan folder full of photocopied articles about grief and loss. The one thing that did mean something to me was a copy of Deborah Davis' Empty Cradle Broken Heart, which had a bookplate in the front. It read: "In memory of our daughter Elizabeth," with a date and her parents' names. Though the book was helpful, it's possible the most helpful part was the bookplate: it spoke to me and said, you are not alone. You may not know us, but we're out there, and this happened to us, too.

 

In the years since Empty Arms began, we've been trying to fine tune the resources we give to families. A copy of this book (with an inscription, of course) has been provided to many families, but beyond our own group literature we have struggled with what to provide. More information about grief? Web resources? Therapist’s names? What actually helps a family when they go home empty-handed?

 

My mind went back again and again to that bookplate- it said to me, "we're out here." THIS is the message we want to send to bereaved parents, and so we've set out to create a basket of healing - a care package of sorts - put together by parents that can show our support and love to family we haven't yet met. Our hope is that these bereavement kits will not only contain items that will assist with the challenging physical and mental aspects of healing, but will also be a gesture of kindness from one community member to another.

 Mug and cozy

Mug and cozy

The comfort packages will include notes (like the one above) from fellow bereaved parents, a mug and cozy, a copy of Deborah Davis' book, and several other small tokens from our Empty Arms community. If you'd like to contribute something, write a note, or want to share what has been useful to you, please let us know at emptyarmsbereavement.org. 

If you'd like to donate to help make this project a reality, all funds raised for Giving Tuesday this year will go directly towards comfort packages for bereaved families! 

Thank you so much for creating this community with us.  

--Carol

Happy Birthday, Johnny

by Ann Ward

When I was five or six, I started writing letters to my brother Johnny, whose 34th birthday would be today. I wrote them in a scented purple hardcover diary with a lock and key. Sometimes they just said, “Dear Johnny, I love you!!!” in huge penciled swoops. Sometimes they were poems.

When I was a little older, maybe ten, I would clear the books and Barbie clothes from the Rainbow Brite blanket my mum sewed and ask him to visit me. He sat, always in the same spot, at the foot of my bed. I talked to him, sometimes out loud, sometimes in my head. I asked him if he was an angel or a ghost, and if he was an angel was he very high up, like Michael (aka John Travolta), or was he just regular. And if he was a ghost, did he haunt any place other than my bedroom, or did he wander around all over the world? And if it would be okay for him to be my guardian ghost.

We never met Johnny in the flesh, but I know that Andrew, Jane and I each secretly thought he'd be our closest friend. But in the end it just made me more grateful for my siblings, whose cool talent I've spent my life trying to emulate.

Andy-roo and Janie, I love you brilliant, genius weirdos so, so much. The longer I live a border away, the more homesick for you I get.

Thank you, mum and dad, for having the strength to make Johnny a real and present part of our family. I can't imagine the pain of losing him.

Happy birthday, brother.

 Author Ann Ward (Center) with living siblings Andrew (left) and Jane (right).

Author Ann Ward (Center) with living siblings Andrew (left) and Jane (right).

How many kids do you have?

By Sara Barry

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by Sara Barry

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“So you have just the two?”

Pause half a beat.

“Yes.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both true in their way.

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Why I Love the Gift of a Heart of Stone

by Sara Barry

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

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

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

Heart stone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still not over it?

By Sara Barry

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

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

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

“Count your blessings.”

I’ve heard these things again and again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aren’t you over this yet?”

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

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

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

“Aren’t you over this yet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother's Day

Beth made some small edits to this beautiful poem, "For Those Who Hurt On Mother's Day," to focus on baby and pregnancy loss. We hope it speaks to you. Thank you to John Pavlovitz for these compassionate words. 

Mother's Day.

For many people that means flowers and handmade cards and Sunday brunches and waves of laughter. It means celebration and gratitude and warm embraces and great rejoicing. It means resting fully in all that is good about loving and being loved.

But not for some people.

But for some it only means tears.

For some it just hurts.

In the hearts of many, this day is a bitter, unsolicited reminder of what was but no longer is, or a heavy holiday of mourning.

Maybe it is such a day for you.

It might bring with it the scalding sting of grief for the emptiness around a table.

It might be an annual injury you sustain.

Consider this a personal love letter to you who are struggling today; you whose Mother’s Day experience might be rather bittersweet— or perhaps only bitter.

This is consent to feel fully the contents of your own heart without censorship or guilt or alteration.

If you are hurting, then hurt.

May you feel permission to cry, to grieve, to be not alright.

May you relieve yourself of the burden of pretending everything is fine or faking stability or concealing the damage.

May you feel not a trace of guilt for any twinge of pain or anger that seizes you today, because it is your right to feel.

Above all though, may you find encouragement even in your profound anguish.

May you find in your very sadness, the proof that your heart though badly broken, still works.

Let the pain you are enduring reassure you that you still have the capacity to care deeply, despite how difficult it has been.

See your grief as the terrible tax on loving people well, and see your unquenched longing for something better as a reminder of the goodness within you that desires a soft place to land.

If on this Mother’s Day you are struggling, know that you are not alone.

Let them be hope packaged and personally delivered to the center of your heart, and may they sustain you.

In this time of great pain, know that you are seen and heard, and that you are more loved than you realize.

Be greatly encouraged today.

 

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 son, Cameron Brooks LaValley

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

Tell us about you.
I am a 46-year-old father of three, with one more on the way. My wife and I lost our son Cameron at 38 weeks in between our second and third living children. I have been a police officer for 18 years.

Tell us about your baby or babies. What do you want people to know about them? 
Cameron Brooks LaValley was stillborn on July 5, 2013.

How did your baby and your grief journey change you as a person?
It made me realize what me and my wife could get through together. It made me understand how incredibly strong my wife is. I never needed reasons to appreciate and love my family every day...our experience just reenforced everything I had been doing. A year after our loss, I had several experiences involving anxiety attacks. It led me to a place where I discovered many things about myself, good and bad, but things that have made me a better person, husband and father. It made me slow down and live in the moment more than I ever had.

What was the most important way Empty Arms offered you support? 
It gave me a connection with others who have experienced loss. It supported and did not judge the ways in which we chose to incorporate the loss into our lives. It helped us feel less lonely and gave us a resource that allows us to grieve and celebrate in many different ways.

Our Stories: My sister, Emily Burke Nichols

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

Tell us about you.
I’m Sarah, and I’ve had the honor of volunteering with Empty Arms for the past two years. I’m currently finishing my MFA in poetry at UMass Amherst, and prior to that I worked in reproductive healthcare for six years. I reached out to Carol after listening to a podcast featuring poet Arielle Greenberg speaking about the stillbirth of her son Day

Tell us about your sibling. What do you want people to know about them?
My twin sister Emily died almost three weeks after we were born. I don’t have any conscious memories of her, but her life and death greatly shaped both of my parents’ lives and my own. While all of us would give anything for her to have lived, I am so grateful for her brief physical presence and ongoing influence in my life. In one of my first conversations with Carol, she spoke about continuing to watch Charlotte’s purpose unfold, and how her work with Empty Arms is one of the many ways she mothers Charlotte. I love that framing, and also feel that working with Empty Arms has been a wonderful evolution of my relationship to Emily.

How did your sibling and your grief journey change you as a person?
Well, I’ve never known myself or my parents outside of the context of Emily’s death. My dad’s little brother Joe died at the age of 18 from leukemia, just a year and a half before Emily’s death, so the impact of these deaths was very present in my upbringing.

As a young adult, it sometimes felt as though the best of us were on the other side— not just the best of our family (not just Joe and Emily), but the best of our own selves too. Who would we be, if we’d been able to go on loving them with their physical bodies present? Without the leaden desire to hear their voices, how would we move through the world?

My parents didn’t have a community like Empty Arms in their lives. They attended one session of a support group for bereaved parents, but another parent in deep grief said “you couldn’t possibly understand our loss because you have a living baby at home.” My parents grieved in isolation, and I can only imagine the difference it would have made if they’d received the kind of unequivocal support Empty Arms provides.

While grief was an undercurrent of my childhood, it certainly wasn’t static, nor was it an exclusively negative influence. For instance, I started writing letters to Emily when I was nine. As I’ve grown older, I’ve continued this practice. Every so often when I’m wanting guidance, or to mark an important event or anniversary, I’ll write to her. I cherish this history of correspondence as an ongoing source of comfort and documentation of the evolution of my relationship to her.

Her death has also been foundational to my career in healthcare. Over the past eight years I've supported many patients grappling with the impact of illness and death-- from Ugandan maternity wards to family planning clinics in the U.S. This year I’ll be completing my prerequisites for Nurse Practitioner programs, and I feel so lucky to have the honor of accompanying people during some of the most difficult moments of their lives.

Is there a way that you can pinpoint a change in your healing and grief journey because of your relationship with Empty Arms?
In our initial conversation, I was blown away by Carol’s generosity, the breadth of her acknowledgement for all kinds of perinatal loss. Having worked in abortion care for several years, I often felt a desire for language and practice that allowed both for women’s autonomy over their bodies and parenting decisions, as well as an acknowledgement that many of our patients were grieving wanted pregnancies that had ended in miscarriage or were terminated for other medical reasons. To hear Carol speak with genuine care and inclusiveness of all kinds of bereaved parents was incredibly heart warming. In many ways, working with Empty Arms has felt like a homecoming. Even though Emily and Joe’s deaths had a profound impact on my parents, it was largely unspoken. We didn’t develop any rituals around grief, nor did we have contact with other families who had experienced something similar. With Empty Arms I feel like I’m contributing to supporting families in a myriad of ways I wish my own family had experienced, and that has been quite healing.

What was the most important way Empty Arms offered you support?
It’s been so lovely to meet, and be in community with, the families of Empty Arms. To see all of the different fierce, vulnerable, and thoughtful ways bereaved parents support each other. In some ways my family’s experience felt like a rupture that was rarely looked at. I am in awe of, and benefit greatly from witnessing, Empty Arms families in their looking and speaking aloud of their many different experiences. It allows me to ask for myself, how do I want to relate to Emily’s death, and to her ongoing presence in my life? It is such an honor to contribute to a vibrant community filled with different ways of living in this world and remembering those we carry with us.

In what way do you think your connection with Empty Arms and its members has reached outwards to impact other people in your network?
I’m in my late twenties, and the pregnancy announcements from friends are pouring in. With each one I’m breathless at the assumption of life parents feel, or make-believe, for their child. So far, each child has lived, under the most fragile spell of luck. I know this will not last, and even two weeks ago I heard from a friend that a close friend of hers was experiencing her second miscarriage. It was such a comfort to be able to send her information for Empty Arms Support Groups, and trust that she would be welcomed and supported to feel a little less alone. I have no doubt that Empty Arms will continue to have a tremendous positive impact for my friends, family, patients, and our broader community as a whole.

What else would you like to see Empty Arms accomplish? How do you envision the organization could make that happen?
Working on the Support Group Guide with Carol has been thrilling! I’m so excited to have more print and online resources for bereaved parents. I also hope we can expand our network to include support for families and providers at even more facilities regionally. What an amazing, strong community Empty Arms families have created! I can’t wait to see what’s next.

 

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! 

emma dias 2.jpg

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.

emma dias 1.jpg

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.    

Our Stories: Estephany & Aaron's Babies

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

 Estephany and Aaron

Estephany and Aaron

 Estephany and Aaron have a special place in their Living Room to honor their babies.

Estephany and Aaron have a special place in their Living Room to honor their babies.

Tell us about you.
My name is Estephany, and I'm 23 years old. My boyfriend is Aaron.

Tell us about your baby or babies. What do you want people to know about them?
We lost two pregnancies in the same year; although they weren't born yet, to us they meant the world.

How did your baby and your grief journey change you as a person?
After each loss, I felt like I lost a different part of myself. I became lost and didn't know how to deal with every day life anymore.

Is there a way that you can pinpoint a change in your healing and grief journey because of your relationship with Empty Arms? 
I felt alone and like there wasn't any one out there who understood what I felt. Being a part of Empty Arms has helped me accept and learn to do better out in the real world.

What was the most important way Empty Arms offered you support?
Being caring and listening.

What else would you like to see Empty Arms accomplish? How do you envision the organization could make that happen?
Keep being yourself and keep doing what your doing. You guys are amazing.

Talismans and Touchstones: What Gets You Through

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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