Meeting our Development Director & Support Group Facilitator: Beth!

Hi, Empty Arms community. I'm so excited and honored to be sharing this space with you. My name is Beth Pellettieri. I have met many of you, but not all of you, and I look forward to meeting everyone as my work with Empty Arms continues.

In January 2014, I emailed Carol and Lexi about volunteering with Empty Arms, and they quickly put me to work. I was new to the area, and looking for an organization that felt special and unique. My background is in women's health -- from teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS, to providing support as a doula, and working in hospitals. My most recent gig was as board president for the Chicago Volunteer Doulas.

Empty Arms also hit an important note personally, as I had my own early loss in 2009. During that time, I felt lost and alone. The idea of an organization like this blows my mind in the best possible way. I'm grateful for the space it provides for families in the trenches of loss, and for those of us working through our journey of grief.

I'm thrilled to be our newest staff member. For now, my work includes increasing our development and fundraising activities, organizing databases, and improving our blog, communication and social media outreach. Please reach out with any questions, ideas, concerns. I'm really excited to be a part of this organization.

Looking Back

by Carol McMurrich

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

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

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

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

8:30-12:30 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12:30-6:30 pm

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

Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

 

Thoughts from San Antonio...

by Carol McMurrich

May I offer my care and presence unconditionally, knowing it may be met with gratitude, indifference, anger or anguish.
May I see my own limits with compassion, just as I view the suffering of others.
May I be present and let go of expectations
May I forgive myself for mistakes made and things left undone. “

I was challenged, in the opening keynote address of the 2014 Biannual Perinatal Bereavement Conference, to try to connect to a time in my work when I acted with “personal ethical integrity”. The speaker, Cynda Rushton, is an extremely accomplished Bioethicist who works within the schools of Medicine and Nursing at Johns Hopkins University, and she was leading a fast-paced talk on personal integrity when working with the bereaved. 

Ms Rushton encouraged us to think about a time when we worked in a way in which we were very much aligned with both our personal and professional values, in a way in which our actions were very much congruent with what we believed was morally correct. Sifting through memories, I thought of a time when I had the extreme privilege of working with a baby boy who had been taken from this world far too soon. I had been called in by the hospital after his parents had left the hospital to take more photographs of this little boy. I arrived early one bright, winter morning, apprehensive but determined. 

In my work I often arrive to work with families at the time of their loss: if the family is not still with their infant, they have often just left the hospital. In this case, however, the family had been released the night before. I worried that the baby might have spent the night in the morgue. While I know this is, sadly, the ultimate destination for all people in the hospital who pass away, it causes me such distress to think of precious babies needing to go there. 

I shouldn’t have worried. We are so lucky in this valley to work with professionals who are so compassionate, and who care so deeply for the families who suffer losses and their babies. I arrived to find this baby in a warmer, in a delivery room, just as you would expect to find any newborn of any family who had delivered there. 

He was a beautiful, beautiful little boy. What baby is not? But there is something about the deep privilege of meeting a small person who will not be met by very many others that is humbling at the very least. I knew I was gazing at a beautiful face that was meant to be admired by so many others, but that privilege would be denied to most of them. I knew I had a few hours to try to capture him as best I could for his family, and I was determined to do my best. Before I photographed him, I talked to him. I picked him up and held him, allowed myself to stroke the soft down of his cheek, and I told him I was going to take some photographs of him for his Mommy and Daddy. He still had that beautiful newborn baby smell. There was so much beauty in that room. 

I spent an hour, and then another hour. And then another hour, and just one more. How does one stop? Not only did I want to try to take as many photographs as I possibly could of this baby, but I also didn’t want to leave him. Here, with me, in a warm room, surrounded by myself and the nurses who were helping me, this baby remained in the land of the living. How I wished, for his parents and family, that he could stay. 

I hesitate to share that when my time was up, it felt difficult for me to leave him. I wrestled with this emotion: he was not my baby. It felt unfair of me to feel that I wanted to stay with him, to give him one more hug, to feel his soft weight one more time. He was not my baby to love, and I felt guilt-ridden to be there when his parents were not. But there had been a sanctity to the time I had spent with him, and my heart felt connected to this baby. Perhaps some of this came from a selfish place, from wanting more time with my own baby, but perhaps what it really was was just my being human, and being a mother, and a person with a compassionate soul. He was not mine to love, but I loved him in my own small way in that moment. How could I not? 

As I recalled these moments, I felt a deep, heavy feeling, way down in the pit of my stomach. It was not one of despair, or even grief, although sadness was certainly part of what I felt. Primarily, though, I associate that feeling with the deep gratitude that I felt for having the privilege of not just taking those photographs, but having been one of the witnesses to the life and existence of a little boy who had changed his family forever. No doubt somehow he will change our world a little bit, and I was able to meet him. 

It was my hope that this baby’s family would cherish and love the photographs. However, as I prepared to present them with the over 400 photographs I did take, I had to remember to myself that the important part of this work was not the family’s instant reaction to the products of my actions. It was those actions themselves. To have been able to be there, in that room, to capture something that might otherwise never had been captured was a tremendous privilege. To have taken the time, and offered this baby boy my loving hands to try to capture his beauty one last time, was my own effort to give this family a lasting gift. 

I went home and I wrote a long letter to his parents. I still felt uncomfortable that I had spent this time with their baby, when they could not. I worried that they would not have wanted me to spend this time with their son, and I worried about whether they would want the photographs. I worried about whether there were too many photographs. I thought about the time I had spent with their baby, and I cried for their family, for the void I knew now existed in their lives, for the beautiful boy who had never drawn a breath. I felt guilty and awkward for the strange attachment I felt to their baby, and I felt worried that I had let myself fall too deep into the work that I was doing. 

Then, I sat on the edge of my bed, and I breathed it out. I knew I had done my best. I had acted with the intention of giving this family the only gift I knew to give them. I had acted with the intention of honoring their son, of caring for him as any baby deserved to be cared for. I had acted with the intention of doing unto them exactly what I would have wanted done unto myself. I tried hard to breathe out the worry, the guilt, the sorrow, and to breathe in the knowing that I had tried my best to do what I felt was right. 

Again, I reflect on Dr Rushton’s words, which could become a mantra for me: 

“May I offer my care and presence unconditionally, knowing it may be met with gratitude, indifference, anger or anguish.
May I see my own limits with compassion, just as I view the suffering of others.
May I be present and let go of expectations.
May I forgive myself for mistakes made and things left undone. “

Each day, each week, and each month, as I do this work, I seek to maintain the integrity that will allow me to walk with my heads held high, knowing that am a human being simply seeking to serve and support others in their most difficult moments. Regardless of my shortcomings, the areas I am still working on, the mistakes I may make, the things I may leave undone, my intentions are good, and my efforts are honest and sincere.

May I hold onto these positive breaths, and these feelings of gratitude. 

November First

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

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

BRAVE

written on January 15, 2008

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

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

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

Anguish.

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

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

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

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

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

The hardest thing I will ever do.

 from Happy-Sad Mama 2008

Monday, January 14, 2008

 

 

More than ten years along...

Some thoughts from Carol... 

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

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

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

October 15th

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

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

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

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

Best,

Carol

Summertime

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

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

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

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

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

Carol.