The Body Knows: How Grief Shows Up

By Sara Barry

“How are you doing?” a friend asked, knowing that May is a charged month.

Mother’s Day is a complicated tangle of breakfast in bed and flowering plants, homemade cards, and immersion in what is with an undercurrent of what was supposed to be. What was and then wasn’t and always is.

The end of the month brings the birthday with nobody to blow out the candles. And while I have a tradition, one I fell into rather than creating deliberately, of tending my Henry’s garden since I can’t tend to him, it is another complicated tangle. Joy for his being. Sadness that he isn’t here. Edges softened over time, like a rock in running stream.

“I’m doing OK,” I say. “I’ve been so busy, I keep forgetting it’s May.”

And it’s true. I’m not deliberately avoiding facing this month, but I’ve been caught up in a swirl of Science Night planning and late evening ice cream, Teacher Appreciation and getting the garden ready.

My mind is busy. I forgot that Mother’s Day was coming, despite the signs by the flower store and the notification in my calendar. Henry’s birthday loomed and I hadn’t bought anything for his garden. I hadn’t looked to see if our neighbors would be home for cake.

My mind keeps forgetting that it is May, but my body knows.

I’ve felt it in the number of times I need to take a deep breath, in and out.

I’ve felt it in the tightness across my back and in the heaviness that settles in my limbs and then lifts a little.

I notice the sharp intake of breath when I see a cardinal dart across the yard. 

I tense at the unexpected mention of a 6 month old named Henry who died from a heart defect in a novel about the flu.

I come to tears easily, whether it’s a video about babyloss moms or talking to my neighbor about her own different, fresh grief.

I find myself on the verge at church for no explainable reason at all.

I don’t say, “I’m having a hard month.” I’m not, but there is an undercurrent. My body knows what month this is. It is gathering energy like a storm moving in. The sky may still be sunny, but you can feel a change in the air, an electrical build up.

Come the end of the month, I will exhale. The pent up energy will expend itself in a torrent of tears or day of hard labor in the garden or it will just fizzle out and fade away like a storm that is pending but passes.

Come the end of the month, my body will relax and move on to June, a simpler month, a safer month. It will relax until the calendar turns to December, and then, even if I forget the date, it will start it’s wind up to the day he died.

The mind may forget, but the body always knows.

Does your body respond to certain dates? How does grief show up in your body?

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.

 

May Mother's Day Event

May is just around the corner and I would like to formally invite you to our annual May gathering for the Empty Arms community. Our event is going to be different this year. Our walk, which began as a fundraiser to purchase a lending library seven years ago, has truly transformed into a community event in which we all come together to share in our loss, our courage, and our progress. We felt that the part of the walk that was the most important last year was our community picnic that followed, and so this year we are organizing a memorial with a picnic to follow, without the organized walk. We hope you’ll still wear your t-shirts! (and if you don’t have a t-shirt and want one, contact Jean at atamomma@gmail.com)

As always, we will gather on the Saturday before Mother’s Day at 11 AM. (May 10). This year we will start at John  Bator Park at the Children's memorial-- the Angel of Hope statue. We will have a short program there where we will read the names of all the babies we will be missing that weekend (and always). Families will be given a white rose to place at the feet of the statue when their baby's name is read. We are looking for community members to contribute to this brief ceremony, so if you have a poem or song to share, please let us know.

From there, we will journey up the hill (.8 miles, you can walk or drive) and have a community picnic at a pavilion in Nonotuck Park. Ours is the first pavilion on the right when you enter the park. We are hoping for donations of dessert or salad and Empty Arms will provide the main course. 

Please send the invitation around to anybody special to you who you would like to be part of this special day. Typically, people invite and bring family members and friends who were very supportive of them at the time of their loss. Please note that the memorial is at 11 and the picnic at 12, so it’s possible to invite people to one or the other if that is more appealing to you. Also, if you feel moved to suggest it, we welcome families to make donations in memory of a baby/babies to honor a mother on Mother’s Day. Donors and honorees will be listed in a program for the event. 

I always like to remind the newly bereaved in particular that this is an event to which all current and past members are invited, which means that there will be babies and possibly pregnant mothers there. While in the past I have heard folks say that seeing group members in that state can be encouraging, knowing what they’ve been through, I also know that being around pregnancy and babies can be extremely difficult. Please let me know if you need support around this. 

As always, “We’re so sorry you’re here, but we’re so glad you found us”. I look forward to reconnecting with many of you on May 10th at 11 AM.