Writing Prompts from the Retreat

By Sarah Nichols

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

Prompt #1

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

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

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

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

"Who are you and whom do you love?

What is the shape of your body?

What do you remember about the earth?

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

Prompt #2

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

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

To your baby  

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

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

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

Prompt #3

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

"Today, my grief feels like…

I wish I knew…

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

And a longer prompt here:

Imagine Recovery (p.176)

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

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

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

3. How will I care for myself?

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

Nobody to Blow Out the Candles—Finding Birthday Traditions after Your Baby Dies

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry

Last year, as I spread the rich chocolate frosting on Henry’s birthday cake, the smoothness that wouldn’t be punctured and punctuated by candles broke me open. I let loose tears that had been waiting for something to free them.

Birthdays are like that. Winding me tight, waiting for release, and as we move further away from the day he was born, that tension seems to happen under the surface. I almost don’t notice it. Until I do—because I’m snapping at my kids or crying over a song—or breaking down over perfect frosting.

Part of me is in denial that Henry’s birthday is coming up fast.

It’s OK because I don’t need to send out invitations or ask what kind of party he’d like to have. I don’t need to think about a present or hope the weather cooperates.

His birthday isn’t about what he wants, but about remembering him, celebrating his life. And to do that I fall back on tradition. Birthdays are hard, and not having to figure it out every year helps.

I keep it simple: on Henry’s birthday, there will be cake for breakfast, and I will work in his garden. 

We’ll eat chocolate cake and sausage with our neighbors—the once little girl who offered to sit with Henry on the first day of kindergarten and with her brother, who came in every day the winter after Henry died asking, “‘Enry ‘ome?” The tradition started with the living after he died, but we extend to Henry. He’s part of us.

I’ll buy something new for his garden and give myself space and the soothing work of weeding and tending.

These traditions evolved over the years as I settled into what felt the most right on a day that never will be.

The first year I was at a loss. I stressed about finding the perfect way to honor Henry’s birthday, convinced that it would be what we did every year.

I read about things other people did:

  • Planting a tree on the first birthday
  • Random acts of kindness in their child’s name
  • Balloon releases
  • Delivering bags to be distributed at the hospital
  • Buying and donating a gift for a child your child’s age
  • Fundraisers for causes related to the child or grieving parents
  • Taking the day off as a family

There were lovely ideas, but many of them were too much for where I was. I felt like I should do more, but I did what I could.

For Henry’s first birthday, we gathered with family. We released one heart shaped balloon and gave others to Henry’s cousins. We planted the peach tree that I had intended to plant for him had he lived—and a red flowering hawthorne that family had sent to us.

And we received a gift—a sign for Henry’s Garden. From that the lasting birthday tradition grew.

Henry’s Garden is a mishmash of perennials that people have given us and the I have selected each year. It’s dotted with heart shaped rocks. Each year on Henry’s birthday, I clean it up—weed it, move things around, plant something new. I’m at home in the garden, so spending time there is soothing for me. I’ve been out there in mist turning to torrential rain and in unrelenting heat. I’ve wiped away sweat and swatted at bugs. And through it all, my heart opens wide to my boy not there.

I’ve spent parts of Henry’s birthday eating burgers and keeping my kids from falling in a pool. I’ve set up for Science Night at school. I’ve read stories and breathed through meltdowns. But there is always cake. There is always time in the garden. Every year I hold space for my boy in a world that keeps on moving.

Do you have a birthday tradition? How do you honor—or just get through the day?