Bevely's Story: Part Four

Many people who suffer unexpected tragedy turn to generosity and giving back as a way of making meaning in their experience. Though many years had passed, I was thrilled to see Bevely at Empty Arms’ 10 year anniversary celebration last May. With her, she had her two little boys and together they made a quilt square and decorated rocks for Jelyna. During that time, we started talking and she told me that she was really interested in giving back and helping other people. I was so glad –  a bilingual woman, Bevely had so much to offer, especially as we began to make our move towards expanding to Baystate. Here, Bev talks about what it’s been like for her to turn her grief into a mission of helping others.

For years, ever since Jelyna passed, I wanted to do something but I didn’t know how or what. So I started going to some of your Empty Arms events, and reconnecting with you – it felt like a calling. And then the opportunity just came up – it felt like it was meant to be. It was the right time, I felt ready. Years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready. Unless I had the support, maybe that would have made me ready. I just want to give back.

The first time I went to a mother’s house and spoke to her it felt weird, but I had to remember: we are women, I’m here to support her. I wanted her to feel what I would have wanted somebody to do for me when Jelyna passed. I let that weird feeling go away, I got up, and I hugged her. She just cried and cried. And I cried with her.

Yes, it brings up memories, but it feels good to be there for somebody and show them that they’re not alone. It brings memories back but it’s in exchange for feeling good while doing something for somebody else.  It’s being able to bring someone else something that you didn’t have.

I told her it’s okay to cry, breaking that silence and that barrier – it’s okay that you feel like this, and I was honest with her – this is how you’re going to feel for a while and it’s okay – I didn’t know what I was going to feel and what it was okay to feel. It seemed like everyone expected me to be over it and I needed her to know that you don’t just get over it. It’s rude to expect someone to get over it – that’s not how you comfort them. You have to accept that they’re going to feel it for years to come.

You’re never the same person after a traumatic event. There’s no such thing as your old self, you have to learn to live with what just happened to you. Even family members who mean well don’t understand – they go on with their lives. For us, we have to almost build a new path – we can’t go on the same path anymore. So helping people, it’ sad – but it’s so rewarding to me, it makes me feel good. Now it’s been 12 years, so of course I’m still sad and I’ll still cry, but it’s easier for me to be a better support. And to show other people that you will get through it with time. You heal.

When I supported the most recent mother, I said look: I know how you feel, it will get better but it will never go away. You’ll always have that little part of you –  it will never be filled. It’s OK – years from now, you keep her memory alive, and it’s OK if you cry. Just because it’s been 5, 10 years it’s still a loss, you’ll still remember that person. You’ll function, like you’re supposed to- but it doesn’t mean it’s not OK to mourn. Others will move on with their lives, but they don’t realize the impact this has on somebody. It’s true – you’ll always mourn your baby.

That mother was talking about the baby’s stuff, and how hard it was to think about getting rid of stuff – I was like DON’T. If you want to hold onto it, you can! Make a box and hold onto it! And her family expected her to get rid of everything, and I helped her to know she could keep things. I said, get a box, create something and hang it on the wall – you don’t have to hide her, you don’t have to hide her stuff. She really liked that, I think. She was explaining how she had the baby’s name up and her son had asked her to leave it – I said, then leave it! She’s a part of your family, she’ll always be your daughter, always be the sister. I was encouraging her to let people see the baby. And a lot of people need that encouragement because society teaches us to hide people after they die. When you have a child and you lose them, your feelings don’t go out the window. She’s always going to be part of your family so keep her part of your family. Keep her alive somehow. That’s what I try to do.

I understand how this works, because I didn’t know how to do this.  I needed advice and guidance – I would never have known what to do except for the things people told me I could do. That’s why I think Empty Arms is such an awesome and amazing group. The awareness is not there in the general public, there is no other support, Where are these women going to get the support and the OK and know what they can and can’t do? I wish I had the support at the time. And now I’m happy to help and support it in any way, and want to continue to be involved in as many ways as I can!

Bevely's Story: Part Three

Knowing Empty Arms is there is something that Pioneer Valley families can return to again and again. While there are many families who use Empty Arms daily or weekly in the beginning, some only cross paths with us briefly, and yet our impact can still be significant. I often share this story with the people who are training to become peer companions to remind them that we can never measure our impact by how often we see a family return:

Many years ago, I was called to Cooley Dickinson to visit a family who had delivered their baby girl at just shy of 18 weeks. They had requested my presence, but when I entered the room, which was filled with siblings, loving family members, grandparents and friends, I was met mostly with stares. When I offered the menu of what Empty Arms could offer in terms of support, the mother very politely thanked me for coming and let me know that she’d call me if she needed anything. I left, thinking that the visit had been a failure, and worrying that I’d invaded their privacy. The next day, I returned and took photos and did tiny hand and foot casts of their tiny baby. The mother sent me a lovely text thanking me for those mementos, and I never heard from her again… until about 14 months later. That’s when I received a lovely note sharing with me the news of their new baby girl, born healthy and robust, and thanking me for all that I had done. “You were there for us at such a hard time and you were such a source of support for us”, the mother wrote. Who, me? I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I hadn’t supported them at all. But what this mother pointed out is the power of knowing that the resource is there if you need it. She may not have called, but it brought her great comfort to know we were there. Our presence, even though it was brief, made a difference. I have always remembered this story.

In this blog post, Bevely will talk about the ways in which she returned to Empty Arms after years had passed. Many families have come back to us after years, and it’s a privilege for us to be there for their life journeys.

Carol: What do you think drew you back to get involved?

Bev: I should have never left, first of all! I was trying to figure things out on my own, but when I got pregnant with my first son, Jon Carlos (2009), I thought about going back, but I felt better about it and my husband was very supportive. When I got pregnant with the second one, Jovani, (2012), I was so scared and worried. I don’t know what happened – I was scared and worried, I started having memories, I felt the emptiness again. I remembered looking up Empty Arms and realizing you guys had classes for somebody like me –  I was like OMG – it was meant to be!

I remember reaching out. I only went to 2-3 but then I went into birth a month early. It helped me tremendously –  it made me feel like I had people supporting me through the pregnancy. Nobody understood me! My family was like, you already had a kid and you were fine, so what are you so worried about? It made me feel like I’m not crazy, it’s normal for me to be feeling like this, and it’s OK. I went into labor early,  because I was having complications, everything was fine. He was just really colicky! It was the hardest thing ever.

Even after him it was hard –  because at a certain age, newborn age, with the hat on, both boys looked like Jelyna. So for both of them I went through a period where I was down, I’d cry and let it out. Especially the last one looked so much like her, it was so hard. For the first time ever, it was hard for family members. My sister saw what I saw and it was hard for her, too.

Honestly, when he was born, the pediatrician came in and told me that if it wasn’t for my doctor and her call, he wouldn’t be here today. I’m very intuitive, I think there was a reason I was so anxious. I didn’t feel like the doctors took me seriously – they thought I was anxious, but I was in labor. They had to give me a shot and stop my labor. The doctor had me come every single week. Every friday at my lunch break I had an ultrasound and a non-stress test.

That Friday, the ultrasound the lady did not like what she was seeing. When she got concerned, because he would not move, when she said we need to see the doctor, I can’t even describe how I felt. Then they said you’re having this baby today. I was crying and crying, I was so afraid. It’s funny because the doctor I avoided the whole pregnancy –  the one who told me about Jelyna – she was there to deliver my baby. She was scared, and I was scared. When he was born he had something wrapped around his leg (an amniotic band). The doctor at delivery said you have to commend your doctor for knowing he needed to come out. Imagine all that! I was a mess! But I knew something wasn’t right. People should listen to us women!

I’m so happy that new doctor came in and listened to me and took me seriously. If I hadn’t been getting checked every week, how would we have known? It helped going to those meetings because I was a mess to begin with! It made me not feel crazy. People, even the doctor, were like, you already had a healthy baby – what’s the problem? Why don’t people understand this?  I’m scared! I didn’t think there was a right or wrong to the situation. How dare people say that to people like us! That fear is always deep down in your mind whether you like it or not – it’s reality to us. It’s not a fear in our mind, it’s reality. This could happen.

Bevely's Story: Part Two

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

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

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

Carol: Did the people in your life understand?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.