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.

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

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

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

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

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?

Meet our Board, Jessica Kuttner!

Empty Arms is so excited to introduce our newest Board Member, Jess Kuttner! Jess will serve as a resource for peer companions and support group facilitators. Welcome, Jess!

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While I have not personally experienced the loss of a baby, my early life was certainly shaped by loss.  My mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was 17 and lost her battle with it 3 years later when I was 20.  In the months just prior to her death, my mother started what she called a "healing circle" with close friends and family to process the impending loss together.  This incredibly potent experience planted a seed in me about the power of group support in the face of heartbreaking loss.

I currently work as a psychotherapist in private practice and specialize in postpartum mood complications, grief and loss, and trauma.  I am trained in the MotherWoman model and facilitated mothers groups for two years in Ashfield through It Takes a Village. I have been a member of the Franklin County Perinatal Support Coalition since 2013.   I also volunteer as a Healing Circle Leader (group facilitator) for Comfort Zone Camp, a weekend bereavement camp for children who have lost an immediate family member.

I have experienced both personally and professionally the deep connections that can be forged in the wake of loss, and the healing that can happen through coming together with others who are on similar journeys.  Empty Arms weaves together several of my professional interests and personal passions and it is an absolute honor to be joining the board.

How Grief Shifts Like the Lengthening Days

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What shifts have you felt in your grief?  

Meet our Support Group Facilitator, Anna Westley!

The season of infertility between the births of my son and my daughter was the darkest time in my life. We started trying to conceive when our son was three. We welcomed our daughter the day before our son's eighth birthday. In between was month and after month of devastating disappointment, debilitating depression, and increasingly crippling isolation as our friends welcomed new babies year after year. I sought answers and solutions, endured tests and treatments, explored alternative avenues for growing our family and struggled to find coping strategies and emotional support. If there was a safe space where I could have gone to be in community with others walking this path, I would have gone in an instant!

Since 2005 I have worked with families as a birth and postpartum doula. In 2012 I took the MotherWoman training and, in collaboration with It Takes A Village, started a weekly support group for new mothers in rural Ashfield, where I live. I know how powerful and healing it can be when people gather to share what's really going on for them in a safe, supportive, non-judgemental space. During my infertility years I often wished there was a local infertility support group that I could attend. It is a dream come true and an honor to offer such a space to struggling families through Empty Arms Bereavement Support.

When Joy Finds You on the Darkest of Days

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry

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

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

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

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

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

The Day. The day he died.

You take a deep breath. And you begin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

You Don't Have To Be Grateful...

Healing a Heart
By  Sara Barry

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You don’t have to be grateful.

 

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

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

Instead. That’s the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still I held on to my gratitude, however small.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I held onto the hope of new life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Beginning at Mercy

Teaching is one of the most powerful things I do. When I’m faced with an audience of nurses, midwives, or other birth professionals, I have the unique opportunity to communicate the wisdom of those who have already walked the road of loss to those who will be present when another family begins this most difficult journey. I’m mindful to always present as a collaborator, and not expert: it’s important that each and every professional I reach sees Empty Arms as a resource and a partner in caring for the bereaved. It’s always my goal to make trainings relaxed and fun, and I work on a number of levels to invite professionals to settle into a conversation about what is usually considered one of the most stressful topics in the birthplace.

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Last week, I was invited to Mercy Medical Center in Springfield to offer a preliminary introduction to our Peer Companion Program, which we hope to implement there. The new Nurse Manager at Mercy, Jennifer LaCasse,  has a history with Empty Arms through her former position at Cooley Dickinson, and she deeply supports our work. Jen asked me to come to Mercy to introduce the Companion Program and give the nurses, especially the new ones, a sense of what to expect when a loss takes place.

When I’m teaching, I always like to assess what information participants walk in the door with. It’s helpful for me, but it’s also very helpful for them to activate what already exists in their minds when they think about loss. So before I began to speak, I asked each nurse to write on an index card what first came to mind when they imagined themselves caring for a family whose baby had died. Each nurse took a green index card and scrawled on it with a black pen, and they handed them to the front.

These nurses, you might imagine, would have an array of concerns about working with a family whose baby has died. They may have received some training in nursing school about what to expect and how to proceed, or they may have received none. I glanced through the cards and smiled to myself as I read the following:

What do I say to grieving parents?”

“What do I say?”

“I don’t know what to say.”
“I worry about saying the wrong things- I would not want to further upset the patient or family”

“I’m afraid I won’t know what to say to comfort them. I don’t want to make things more difficult for them”

“I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing”

It was clear that the greatest fears that nurses had was simple interacting with bereaved parents. Who best then, to teach them, than a parent herself who will force them to look at her in the eye, who will talk about the difficult journey, and make it real?

So I began to talk. How do you offer a crash course in bereavement care, you may wonder? What recipe card could you possibly hand off to a nurse that would offer a step-by-step guide on how to care for a person whose baby has just died? The answer is, of course, that you can’t. Each family, and each individual, is different. Everyone carries a different story, a different history, and a different future. The only thing that is consistent among each and every family that we care for is that they all need someone they can trust, who can take care of them with kindness and compassion, and who can teach them about what people often find helpful when they find themselves in such a terrible situation. While much of nursing care can indeed be charted on a checklist, bereavement care is often about stepping out of our scrubs and into our most human shoes and offering a kind, listening ear, and guiding a family with what knowledge we have.

Through my own words, which carry my own story of loss and the stories of countless other families who have sat around the circle in Empty Arms groups, I spoke of the strong emotions that surround a person when their baby has died. Beyond sadness and grief, I described the guilt and shame and blame that often surface. I dove into the utter helplessness that families often experience, and tried to help the nurses to imagine what it would be like to be offered options when you aren’t sure what either of the choices mean. Using clear, true examples, I was able to paint a picture for them of what this moment might feel like to a family. I helped them to think through what would be right to say, and what would not feel helpful to a family. We brainstormed what the perspective might feel like to a parent, and what might feel most helpful at that time.

Overall, I encouraged them to adopt a mentality of partnering and compassion. With each family I work with, I say out loud:

I want to help you, but I’m not sure how to do that. I’m going to do the best that I can to say the right thing and do what helps you, and I trust that you will tell me if you’re ever uncomfortable with something I say or do.”

With these words, I clearly communicate my intent to help. Every nurse that serves the bereaved can also present him or herself as a vulnerable human who is trying to do the right thing. We can all surround every statement and deed that follows that statement with our intention to help and care. And then, no matter what we say, our words can be coated with that intention.

I took lots of questions from the nurses, including what to expect a baby to look like, whether it was okay to cry, and how to organize photographers. At the end, I invited them to offer one more note card’s worth of feedback to me on the lesson if they chose.

They filed out, their 3:00 shift about to begin, and I was left hoping I’d offered them something they would use. After, I read from the following:

“I found it exceedingly helpful for you to talk about the different emotional levels that parents may go through. I also really appreciated the discussion of the humanization and normalization of the process.”

“It was so helpful to hear from you how to direct conversation with a family about their options”.

“It is so helpful to know that there’s someone I can reach out to- to help not only the parents but to guide me as a nurse, as well.”

I am so grateful that we are stretching our fingers south and will hopefully be building a strong presence at Mercy in the months to come.

Zady's Strength

It would be hard to forget the story of little Zady. We introduced you to this beautiful family in the spring. In March of 2016, her mother, Yahayra, welcomed Empty Arms into her life and allowed us to walk with her as she awaited her daughter’s birth. Zady had anencephaly, a condition in which the brain fails to develop, and she would inevitably die shortly after birth. As Empty Arms companions and photographers, we were honored to be part of Yahayra’s pregnancy, and witness Zady’s birth and brief life here on earth. With her family, Empty Arms was able to help plan and fund a meaningful funeral and beautiful burial.

Yahayra and I have been in continual contact since Zady’s birth last April, but there was one last special delivery that had to be made. Several weeks before Zady’s birth, I arranged for a local doula to create a plaster belly cast of Yahayra’s pregnant belly. One cold, snowy afternoon last March, five of us gathered around her with tubs of vaseline to protect her skin and long, sticky white straps of plaster casting, surrounded her with love and creativity. We laughed as baby Zady poked and kicked the cast from the inside. At the end, the doula took the cast home with her to finish stabilizing the plaster and then handed it off to a local artist (see below), who had taken the summer to paint it with a beautiful mural. Finally, in October, the cast was ready.

After a drive up to Greenfield to get the cast, I brought the cast along with a box full of photographs I had taken to Holyoke, where Yahayra lives. She was waiting for me outside, sitting on some steps, and my heart almost leapt to see her. I could not wait to see her reaction to this beautiful piece of art. We hurried inside with the big box.

Doula: Karen Kurtigan Artist: Cindy Kurtigan

Doula: Karen Kurtigan
Artist: Cindy Kurtigan

Yahayra covered her hands with her face when we got inside. “I can’t look- you open it!” she cried from behind spread fingers. Her bright blue eyes were laughing with anticipation. I brought the cast slowly out of the box and she lit up with joy. She lifted the cast and placed it right back where it had been, re-forming the body that she once had with Zady on the inside. It was a glorious moment.

After sharing the cast and all the photos with her mother and a friend, I offered to take Yahayra out to lunch before I headed home. She gladly accepted, and as we walked to the car, she mentioned again to me that she still had not been to the cemetery since the funeral. It was too emotionally difficult.

Moments after I began to drive, she suddenly grabbed my arm and fixed me with a piercing stare of her blue eyes. “Let’s go to the cemetery right now,” she said. And of course, we went.

Two hours later we were still there, lying on the warm grass under crimson and orange maples, our fingers tracing the lettering on Zady’s pink granite headstone. Yahayra had never even seen the headstone, and as we lay there, Zady's father joined us and we talked all afternoon. We re-lived the moments right after Zady’s birth, when we all felt such visceral relief that she had survived the birth and was mewling in her mother’s arms. We re-lived the funeral, and the people who had come to offer support. We re-lived the agony of knowing you’d never see your baby again. It may sound strange to say that an afternoon spent lying on a baby’s gravesite was one of the most powerful and beautiful ones I’ve had, but it was.

Yahayra will say that her relationship with her companions was life changing, but we would say the same. Each family that we work with changes us in some way. For many of our Peer Companion families, we meet them after their baby has passed away. We only know them in the throes of grief. Yahayra's birth story was different. We knew Zady was coming; we were able hold space with Yahayra in the hospital as she prepared for her daughter's birth and death. We were able to gather resources for her, professional photographers ready for whatever she needed. When Yahayra requested a belly cast, we were able to find a local doula willing to lend her services, and a local artist honored to decorate it. When Yaharya felt overwhelmed by the cost of a headstone and creating the funeral service she envisioned for her daughter, we started a GoFundMe campaign, and ensured Zady would have the memorial she deserved. Our companionship with Yaharya will stay with us always, creating a long-lasting and beautiful bond. In her short, but important life, Zady showed us the strength of our community, and importance of holding space for one another. 

Reminders.

For our families, the world is filled with reminders that they are not parenting. Sometimes that reminder is a pregnant woman passing on the street, or a child at a grocery store. Other times, the reminders are at home, making daily life complicated, exhausting and somber.

One day, father of C.C. and our community member, Ryan, felt compelled to document the changes in his home that were not. The electrical outlet uncovered. The stairs without a gate. The pantry without baby food. The car without a car seat. The cabinet door without a safety latch. A night stand without a baby monitor. Each of these serve a marker of loss.

Empty Arms offers a safe space for our families - free from reminders and full of support. Wherever you are in your healing journey, we welcome you. Thank you for sharing these with us, Ryan.

What We Let Go Of

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry

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

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

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

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

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

I let go of slings and cloth diapers.

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

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

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

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

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

I let go of his body.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet Our Support Group Facilitator, Marisa Pizii!

My name is Marisa Pizii, and I have lived in the Pioneer Valley for 11 years. I first met Carol in a MotherWomen training in 2009. In 2010, I ended my pregnancy with my son, Josiah, due to a difficult prenatal diagnosis. 

I'm thrilled to join the Empty Arms facilitator team and support families, especially those who have Terminated for Medical Reasons.  I believe strongly in the supportive nature of community, and the power of this work in building support and healing. Community is at the heart of healing, and it was at the heart of my own healing journey. 

I'm currently the Program Director with the Prison Birth Project, and I facilitate a parenting from the inside support group. 

I am the ocean.

Recently, a friend sent me a link to this podcast. It took me a few days to follow the link and listen, but when I did, the rest of the world around me fell silent. It was a beautiful, compelling story of a family who was able to intentionally create true meaning in the short life of their son, Thomas, in a most unexpected way. I truly encourage you to listen to this podcast, which is about 20 minutes long, when you can carve out a few moments for thinking. I listened while I folded laundry and was sucked into this family's story and the unusual places where they found their son's life impacting others. 

Most profound for me were the words of the mother, Sarah, towards the end of the podcast. After exploring a number of medical laboratories where Thomas's various organs had been donated, Sarah had this to say: 

(After the visits with these offices and providers) "I started feeling that these were Thomas’s colleagues and co-workers and he was a valuable partner in this important research that was being done. 

And I felt an even more fundamental shift- almost like, I had felt like I was a boat on an ocean that was like rocky, and choppy with waves. And I’ve had this feeling like, I’m not the boat, I’m the ocean. Like the decisions that I make are changing other people, as opposed to just, I’m a boat being slapped with waves all the time. It has made me feel powerful. "

What beauty I found in those words: in that thought, that perhaps, at some point, we can all find a point at which we feel less helpless, less controlled by our grief, and more like part of something bigger. Unpredictable, yes, and rocky at times, but also capable and strong. 

Thank you, Sarah.