Sometimes I wonder if our lives are predestined or if we really have choice. Often it seems the universe conspires to lead us in a particular direction, and no matter how hard we fight it, we are going there whether we like it or not. I had a very specific vision of what my life was going to be; let’s just say it doesn’t remotely resemble the life that has unfolded (and continues to unfold) before me.
Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that my life’s work would be about grief, death and how death can teach us to live. But as I examine my life, this is where I have been headed from a very young age. When I was six years old, my stepfather died of a massive coronary. From that point forward, death and loss became a major theme, so my mother’s and my unresolved grief became the foundation of my most formative years.
Many losses and years later, as a newly ordained minister, the very first “official” service I did was a memorial service of a friend who had committed suicide. The first words I spoke were “I could never have imagined that when I met Robert six years ago, one day I would be a minister, and that his Memorial Service would be my very first.”
Not two years later, I was standing at the same pulpit for my brother’s memorial giving the eulogythree months after that I conducted the entire funeral service including singing “The Lord’s Prayer” for my oldest and dearest friend, Doris. Two shortmonths would pass before I was once again at the pulpit after my daughter’s passing. I wasn’t just a mother in front of her family and friends; I was a staff minister in front of her congregants. I felt their eyes watching as they held their breath. I saw the way they looked to me as a leader in their community to see how I would handle the weight of all of these losses.
The weight on my shoulders was great and I chose to be very honest about my descent into doubt and hopelessness. I stopped giving sermons and I stopped seeing my spiritual counseling clients. I could no longer help a desperate person find hope with the same shallow teachings and platitudes that I had been taught because I knew they were false.
I read books, tried individual psychotherapy, group therapy, mediums, spiritual counseling, and finally The Grief Recovery Institute. I got a lot from each of these approaches for the loss of my brother, but none of them helped me completely with the loss of my infant daughter. I knew grieving for the loss of an infant was different because of a lack of a perceived relationship between the parents and an unborn child or a baby under the age of one year. Doctors have even been known to say things like, “You can always have another,” or “At least you lost it sooner rather than later.” As if to say there was no connection between the parents and infant. I noticed that people either focused on the death scenario or simply refused to acknowledge it at all.
That was the impetus of a study I conducted last year. I had hoped to uncover the missing piece to completing grief after losing an infant. At the beginning of this study, I thought I might uncover a simple “Easy Steps to…” What I learned was that each case is unique, grief is not the same for everyone. I discovered that the existing paradigms are helpful but complete, so many of the resources available to grieving parents are based, based, one person’s experience or completely woo-woo type stuff. These can be helpful but there is a lack of spiritualhelp for grievers who may have lost their faith.
The most important gift I received from this study was the understanding that grief recovery must include the story of the relationship. I could walk into any funeral of an adult today and people would be crying and laughing but most importantly, they would be telling stories. Stories about their loved one’s life, not just the circumstances surrounding the loved one’s death. That is what I would call complete grieving.
But what happens, for instance, if you have a baby that is stillborn? If I walked into one of those funerals, I am willing to bet, there wouldn’t be laughter and stories about the baby’s life. And that, my friends, is the most important missing piece to grieving the loss of a baby. I have found that healing occurs more completely when the grieving parent tells the complete story of the relationship they had with their infant, of both life and death.
I had a very real relationship with my daughter while she was in my partner Cindy’s belly. I read to her, sang to her, we even bought a Doppler to hear her heart beat every night. Later, we lived in the hospital for the last six weeks of pregnancy where Cindy was hooked up to every monitor you could imagine twenty-four hours a day. During that time, we literally heard every beat of her heart, every movement of her body we could tell by the accelerations and decelerations of her heartbeat whether she was hungry, sleeping, uncomfortable or happy. Her kicking told us a lot, too!
She would kick to either applaud my singing or to shut me up…I never quite figured out which kick was a good review and which kick was a bad review. This was an eight month relationship that started the moment we found out Cindy was pregnant. The story of her birth and death only covers nineteen hours of that relationship.
I believe every baby brings a gift. Once we can move through the darkness and celebrate the life we shared with our baby we can begin to discover the gift we were given.