Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Grief, Holidays, and Connection

Grief does not discriminate, and loss will, eventually, affect us all. And for many who have already suffered loss, the holidays mark a significant and painful reminder of that person’s absence during, what is culturally recognized as, a time of celebration. Often, those mourning the death of a loved one suffer in silence during the holiday, trying very hard to put on their “game face”. 

Yet, for some mourners, this forced inauthenticity may exacerbate their already fragile emotional state, making them feel disconnected from family, friends and other loved ones during the holidays.

So what do we do as mourners when others, all around us, are celebrating? In my nearly two decades of working with and researching the traumatically bereaved I found some things which may help connect us deeply with self, other, and the natural world during what can be a very overwhelming time of year:  

1. Sharing your feelings openly and honestly with others directly may help them to understand. Sometimes, the process of discussing the loved one who died before the gathering begins can relieve the tension others may feel wondering, “Should I talk about this or not?”

2.  Rituals are often very helpful, especially new ones. A few ideas, for example, include lighting a candle and having a moment of silence at the beginning of the holiday meal, asking family members to make a donation to a specific charity in his/her name, setting an empty place at the table for him/her and asking each person to tell their favorite memory, volunteering as a family in his/her memory, buying a gift for a child the same age and donating it, and a craft-making project where family and friends make an ornament in his/her memory. This not only gives others permission to share their feelings but also brings people together by enacting grief.

3.  Connection with a support group in your area can be very helpful.  Empirical research suggests that social support is one of the most important variables in helping grievers cope.  There are many grief groups that meet in person and online. Even social media can be used to help connect grievers to one another.

4.  Get out into nature if weather permits. Take a walk, hike, or just sit outside. If that’s not possible, then bring nature inside. Create an indoor window garden or a Zen sand garden.  When possible, expose yourself to natural sunlight at least a few minutes each day.

5.  Move your body. Exercise, even just walking, can help increase positive emotional states.

6.  Practice intentional solitude using contemplative prayer, silent time, or meditation. Take a few minutes every morning and evening to breathe slowly and deeply, eyes lightly closed. Focus on the stillness if you can. Keep this practice going.

7.  Change your routine. From the small things like changing the music you play when putting up the tree or the meal you eat to leaving town for a planned holiday vacation, novelty can help us cope at difficult times.

8.   If you are spending time with others during the holidays, tell them in advance of your fragility. Let them know that you may leave early (it’s nothing personal toward them), ask them if there is a quiet spot in the house where you can go to be alone if you need it, and tell them the ways in which you’d like them to discuss- or not to discuss- your feelings openly with others.

9.  Give others permission to talk about your precious loved one who died. Tell them what you need. Sometimes, fear gets in the way of others approaching the bereaved.  You can write a letter delineating what you would like. For example, “Dear friends, At this time of year, we are struggling without our daughter, Jane, in our home.  We know it is frightening but we’d like to ask you to talk about her with us and to ask how we are really doing.  We’d like you to remember her in your prayers, and then tell us when you do.  We’d like you to consider a donation to X charity in her name.  Please send us emails rather than calling us.  We find phone calls to be overwhelming right now. We’d appreciate help with meals during the week of Christmas. If you are able to leave a meal at the door, we’d appreciate it.  Our friend, Mary, will be coordinating that for us. Please contact her at XXX-XXXX.  Finally, we love to receive cards so please keep them coming. We love hearing your favorite memories of Jane. Thank you. We are grateful for your support, and will need it for many years to come.”

10.   Finally, give yourself permission to take care of you and your family first. It is okay to turn down invitations to events, to cut back on holiday celebrations and décor, and to ask for help with child family members who may also be grieving. Eat well, get enough rest when you can, and watch alcohol/drug consumption. Stress, naturally, distracts us from self-care, so you’ll need to be more vigilant during this time of year.

There is no question that, for many, grief and the sense of isolation and loneliness amplifies during holidays.  These 10 simple strategies may help us remain more self-aware, self-compassionate, and feeling more connected to those around us who love us, to our precious one who died, and to a deeper and wounded part of our self. Together, connected, we can get through these dark days.

Monday, November 25, 2013

So, you're in a grateful kinda mood?

It's the time of year when people are counting their blessings, feeling gratitude and love and generosity ooze from their pores.  Unfortunately, for parents whose children have died, being thankful for anything feels challenging. Of course.

If you are one of the fortunate who gets to tuck all your children into bed this holiday season: If you are one of the fortunate who gets to wipe pumpkin pie off all your children's faces: If you are one of the fortunate who gets to enjoy seeing your own family all together: If you are one of the fortunate who has never buried or cremated one of your own children, consider your life deeply fortunate indeed.

You see, every day I meet countless families who are not as fortunate. They do not tuck all their children into bed; they do not get to clean all their messes faces or hear all their excited exclamations or watch them all play and see them all grow.

Children, of all ages, can and do die.

And do you know that when you complain about how tired you are from holiday shopping and you complain about how hard your life is and that your team lost the game and that your child is annoying and you complain about how little sleep you're getting, this hurts us because we wish we could complain about such trivialities.

And do you know that when you avoid us, as if we are lepers from whom you must avert your gaze, when we are treated as if our children are forgotten and we are somehow doing grief wrong because - well, yes, as a matter of fact - we are still sad, this hurts us. Walking past our aisle at the grocery store to avoid running into us hurts. Saying "Hi, how are you?" as if nothing happened- that hurts.

So, the attitudes toward bereaved parents are a microcosm of society at large: If we pretend children don't die, then our own children won't die. This is a lie, perpetuated by a death and grief avoidant culture, that harms bereaved parents and families. Organizations like the MISS Foundation provide an invaluable service to grieving families. Yet, the MISS Foundation has tremendous trouble securing funding for our priceless, life-saving services. Grantors say they don't like our cause much. They say we aren't "sexy" enough. Oh, right. Yes, the deaths of babies and children is about as "unsexy" as you get. But damned right when someone in the community needs us everyone is calling.

So this holiday season, if you really want to help, sit next to a bereaved parent and listen to the story of their precious child who died. Buy them an ornament and make a donation in their child's name. Tell your company to make a tax deductible donation to the MISS Foundation so that we can continue to do the job that no one else in society wants to do.

And be grateful, grateful, grateful that tonight, your child will slip into golden slumber, in your home, in her bed, and that in the morning she will put her arms around your neck and say, "I love you mommy" or "I love you daddy."

Not all parents get to do that.

How privileged you are to count those moments, first, in your blessings.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Weeping Deeply

If you haven't wept deeply, you haven't begun to meditate.
-Ajahn Chah

So, my little retreat center opened in Sedona officially with a grief-zazen day this past Saturday. Beautifully broken grieving people of all ages filled the room from early 20s and older who lost their Beloveds very recently and some years ago.

First, we lit a candle in honor of all our precious ones gone too soon.

We introduced ourselves.

Then, we sat in the stillness, meditating, praying, and holding space for grief.

The first sit was about 25 minutes long, and we opened with some Rilke. We paused between sits to weep, to listen, to share, to invoke poetry and prose:

We sat together in and out of meditation for hours. And, the hearts, oh the broken shattered pieces of hearts, the tears shed in the room... truly sacred ground.

And then, something truly amazing happened. As we ended, each person spoke the Beloved's name to the sound of the bell, and a young man, Evan, big brother to beautiful Blake who died at 19 of cancer, approached Lisa, mother of beautiful Michael Angelo, who died at age 12 in 2000 and Michael who just died this year at age 19.  He told her that, as she spoke Michael Angelo's name, he recognized his name... then he suddenly remembered a note one of his friends posted on Facebook a few months earlier. This was the post:

Wow. Wow.

Yes. Evan's friend was the recipient of a Kindness Project committed by Michael & Anthony's mom in Phoenix, Arizona, a city of millions. And these families- as strangers- were now meeting in the same room, together, touched by compassion of three young men who died far too soon.  The Kindness Project (here) - which I officially started in early 1996 - had brought two strangers together in a way I could never have imagined.  We were all stunned.

And not only that, but Sarah, the recipient who posted the kindness committed to her, paid it forward, so Michael Angelo's love kept going and going in the world.

This is my tribe. It's a sad, brokenhearted, despairing tribe.  And I believe, as Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk said, "there is nothing more whole than a broken heart."


I offer pause and deep bows to these Beloved ones, gone far too soon:

Michael Angelo

Head over to the Kindness Project Facebook page to stay in touch here

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Selah: Pause, reflect, find meaning

April 17-20, 2014
in Sedona, Arizona
join us for a remarkable time
of communion with self, other, and grief.

Selah (Cacciatore, 2012) is a mindfulness-guided path 
through grief that recognizes several foci: 
self, self and other, and other. 

The term selah itself derives from the Hebrew word celah
noted in the book of Psalms to remind the reader to pause, reflect, and contemplate meaning.

The idea is to cultivate an authentic, tolerant, 
and enriching relationship between mourners and their grief, 
one that unites their suffering in pause, reflection, and meaning, 
and mourners find their own path in their own way and in their own time. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Grief: I've been so yours, here

Grief has its own rhythm, its own alchemy (defined as a process by which paradoxical results are achieved or incompatible elements combined with no obvious rational explanation).

At one day after the death of my Beloved, grief was numbing, depersonalized, ethereal, raw, formless.

At six months after the death of my Beloved, grief was searing, excruciating, bottomless, hollow, breathless.

At one year after the death of my Beloved, grief was concrete, raging, mad, confused, disorienting, sallow, paralyzing. Grief was my enemy.

At five years after the death of my Beloved, grief was the paradox: painful but grounded, breathtaking but life-giving, gentler and kinder, warmer and more inviting, less frightening and more familiar. I stopped fighting grief and realized he would not, despite how it felt, kill me. Grief was the fragile cord connecting me to my dark night of the soul, to her love, and grief became my friend, something I would n'er surrender.

At ten years after the death of my Beloved, grief raged again, debilitating grief, demanding my full attention, screaming in my face, "I'm still here, look at me!" And I looked, I gazed straight into grief's illimitable eyes, and I saw deeply into the well of grief. It held me tightly and then let me go...

At fifteen years after the death of my Beloved, grief took me into its arms and rocked me gently, as I did for her. We told each other of our love, as I did to her. Grief, my beloved grief.

I do not know what grief will bring tomorrow. But I do know this...

Grief is reborn daily. It will not be repeated, it's molecules are in constant flux.

Today, grief is reborn into the sadness of nearly two decades without my girl. Yesterday it was reborn into wishes that she could've sat at the kitchen counter with my other children eating wasabi seaweed and telling stories about silly games we played when they were little.

Tomorrow, grief will tunnel again through the darkness and into the light, like she did during her birth, and will emerge a different being, slightly changed some days, unnoticeably changed others.

Yes, grief is reborn daily, and so is my now abiding love and gratitude for it.

I've learned to hold and trust that grief knows well its own dutiful course in my life. So, I relinquish (the illusion of) control and trust that grief will, as it once promised, not kill me into non-existence. I didn't believe that at one time. But now, nearly two decades later, I know this as truth.

Grief will not kill me but it will transform me, willingly or not. My grief belongs to me, it has been mine all these years. It says to me, "I've been so yours, here." And I remember her because nothing, not even the passage of time, will change my love. I speak of her - not solely because of grief - but because of love. I remember her - not because I am stalled in my grief - but because she is mine and I am hers.

So I walk hand in hand with grief, willingly, just as I would walk with her, hand in hand, today-

If only I could.

Monday, May 20, 2013

WARNING: This blog post is damned honest and may incite emotions

I am the mother of five children: four who walk, one who soars.

It's my standard answer to the dreaded question: "How many kids do you have?"

But it's been a very long time since I've told my story publicly, and the peculiarities I'll share here today, as in exceedingly rare form, will be such that many have never heard.

I have given birth five times to five beautiful babies. Only one of my babies made it all the way to her due date, the others being born several weeks early. And her, the one who made it to 40 plus weeks, died during her birth.

I lost my parents to death long ago, far too young; I've lost my best friend and mentor; I've had multiple pregnancy losses; I've lost partners... And for me (note: for me), nothing compares to the pain of losing my fourth child. From my journal:

When I arrived at the hospital... already eight centimeters dilated and without any pain medication... labor with you was more painful than with the others. I quickly learned why... the doctors told me they thought you died.  I laid there in disbelief.  I kept asking to go home, and I tried to get up from the bed.  I knew this could not be true... They were asking me silly questions, hundreds of them.  They asked if I wanted to hold you. They asked if I wanted pictures of you.  But I was trying to concentrate on giving birth with the contractions now one minute apart.  Anyway, babies don't die during birth anymore... Within twenty minutes after I arrived at the hospital, you were born.  My eyes closed tight... you did not cry or even attempt to breathe.  They offered no explanation, nor any reason.  The doctor said there was none.  There was only the deafening stillness in that room.  Not knowing what to expect, I was afraid to look at you... My body trembled with fear and adrenaline. My legs were shaking wildly and I felt myself leave my body...

I thought I, too, might die during her birth, as the women of the Victorian era did. And I remember thinking, "well if she doesn't live, neither should I."  There are no words, none, to describe the inexplicable horror, fear, terror, and maniacal agony of that hot July day. Even now, nearly 19 years later, I can feel the fear and the sadness and the searing pain travel from the tips of my hair to the tips of my toes. The juxtaposition of birth and death, like some cruel joke of Mother Nature, is the absolute antithesis of the feminine archetype, the ultimate betrayal of my body whom I would soon come to call "Judas."  

They didn't try to resuscitate her. Or me. We were treated with contempt, in my opinion then; contempt that I now recognize as death avoidance, provider guilt, and shame. The lack of psychosocial care during this time of traumatic loss would set the tone for my entire journey through grief.

I left the hospital within a few hours of giving birth, all the while listening to newborns around me as I held, in my quivering arms, her ample body, all eight pounds and 22" of her. I was pregnant, now, with an impenetrable grief and suffering that I never imagined could be.

The drive home was a bizarre, dream-like projection through time. Because something is very wrong with the world, my milk came in soon after her death (and remained for nearly a year because nature has a sense of twisted humor), and I raged against my body and evolution and the Creator and the UPS man and unicorns and the heavy box I lifted and pregnant neighbors for having killed her too.
A hot summer day
August of '94
Hotter than I'd ever felt
As sweat and tears poured from my cheeks
I buried my little girl. In a tiny, pink satin casket,
encircled with pictures of her mourning family
I watched as shovel by shovel,
The men in gray suits
Covered her tender body with dirt.
My heart screamed with pain.
We said goodbye.

I laid on her mound of dirt in the scorching heat of the Arizona desert for a very long time. Everyone else went to eat. Food? Who in the hell can think about food at a time like this? I didn't care if I ever ate, or laughed, or jumped, or climbed rocks, or combed my hair again. I remember being there, dressed in black for the occasion of my baby's burial, staring at the clouds and thinking, "I will never be the same. I died with her."

Grief enveloped me, pulling me up into the darkest corners of its folds. Flashes of oblivion, hysteria, disbelief, confusion, like a scratched album, replayed over and over again in my mind. I played the scene and changed the outcome repeatedly, as if doing so would somehow help. I did not sleep for days. I paced the hallways at night, going in and out of her nursery with the little lambs and ivy I'd so carefully pasted on her walls. I felt like a wild animal trapped in a cage from which there was no escape. My mind was not my own. Nor was my body. I hurt. I hurt all over, in my eyes, my throat, my chest, my belly. God, it was so physical a loss. Hormones raged against reality sending maternal messages through all my cells but having nowhere to enact my primal, mothering instincts. This felt as much like madness as I had ever felt. I was filled with fear, and I had no where to turn:

Last night was horrible. The monsoons came. I heard the lightning and ran to the window. I sat on the couch and heard the rain suddenly pour down. Panicked, I realized that your fragile little body would become drenched. I grabbed a raincoat and headed for the garage. I don’t know what came over me at that very moment but I was determined to go to the cemetery, get you, and protect you from the rain. I looked for the shovel and just as I found it with my keys in hand, tears pouring from my eyes, your father pulled me back into the house. I fought him, yelled at him to let me go. I tried to explain that I had to go and get you. It was my job.

How does this happen? How does a woman carry a baby for ten months, fall deeply in symbiotic love, only to have that most precious part of her die? Neither my heart nor my mind could comprehend it then, or even now. Pure, unmitigated horror. And the others. Oh the others. They did mean well, they did. They had their words of comfort: "God needed an angel," and "At least it wasn't the older child," and "You're young, you can have another."

But you see, I didn't believe in God. And I didn't love my older children any more or less than I loved her. And I didn't want another baby. Ever. 

This wasn't about the loss of motherhood. This wasn't about the loss of any baby. This was about her, and I wanted her, not just any baby, I wanted her. No other baby would assuage my longing for her, and I knew this in my marrow.

At first, when she died, I was consumed with my own grief. I remember thinking that no one could ever know this pain. I searched for others like me, and I wanted desperately to be around those who shared my story. I wondered why I was so self-consumed, why grief felt so self-centered, even narcissistic. I had this constant impulse to- as Dickinson said "measure every grief I meet." I spent weeks, even months, researching what might have caused her death. The medical librarian knew me by name. And I began to grow weary of the never-ending battle against the stupidity of the world which believed, mistakenly, that because she died moments before her birth, her life was less valuable, less worthy of dignity. I felt like a mother bear, constantly defending her from the ignorance of devaluation. I suspected that, in fact, was the impetus for the narcissism: a clever and useful mechanism of defense against a world that would strip me of my right to mourn my dead baby.

I went to counselors and therapists. They pushed drugs, tapping, church, even avoidance, and I abruptly rejected them all. I found Compassionate Friends in Phoenix and met some wonderful people there who would allow me to share my grief once a month. Still, I was hurting. I finally discovered a book written by Dr. John DeFrain. He was researching the deaths of babies in the 70s, long before most anyone else cared enough to delve into the depths of this hell. And I started to understand the problem. Most of my existential angst came from feeling disenfranchised, disconnected from others. Their experience of Chey's death was vastly different from mine:

Dear Mom and Dad...
I'm so hurt. I want you both to miss her the way I do. 
I want someone to miss her the way I do. I feel so alone. 
If Ari died, you'd all be mourning with me. You'd share the grief 
because you love him and you know him... but with her death, 
it's as if no one really cares, as if no one really loves her, 
as if she never existed. Please help me. I can't bear this loneliness. 

And of course, around every corner, I was inundated with dismissive language: she wasn't real, she never existed, she doesn't matter. But if she doesn't matter, neither do I. That was the topic sentence, those were the underpinnings of my place in the world now. 

Within months, I dropped to a dangerously low weight, uncertain I could live in this pain and loneliness any longer. And then one day, something too sacred to write about here happened - I mean WOW sacred- and I made the promise to my dead child that if I survived, I would change things for grieving parents. Not just those who had my story. My heart was broken open for all parents whose children died.

And I did survive. Well, sorta. A voracious reader, more than a year after her death, I picked up a copy of a book by a physician who would become my dearest friend and mentor for many years, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Her writing would soften the blow of - not just grief but- grief that is unrecognized, invalidated, pathologized, and made invisible. Oh, and I pushed back against the invisiblization of infant and child death alongside the most heartfelt and committed men and women I've ever known (and we're still fighting it against entities like the DSM, funders, providers, and society).

One such war took me seven years. Seven years and countless battles with special interest lobbyists of Herculean proportion. For the Biblical scholars, what transpired is nothing short of a David v. Goliath story, and the slingshot was the victor repeatedly in state-after-state. We were opposed by lobbyists- bizarrely all other women, some of whom were mothers- and who actually said, "Those women aren't really giving birth" and "Those aren't really babies." Yes, really, and yes, in those words. Um, no offense Allison S. but yeah fuck off

So let's just say that John DeFrain was right: social disenfranchisement, invalidation, and lack of compassion doesn't do wonderful things for an individual's emotional well-being. This is a mentally ill society that incites intense emotional duress for people. Yes. Society is mentally ill. We need a stocky manual for society's mental illnesses.

I digress. I suffered many wounds from the many battles I would fight, some on principle, some on law. All the while, the world carried on and, transformed, so did I:

Another Year
Time passes so quickly
A new home, new job, new friends, new school
The New Year and the new promises it holds
So many changes since July of '94

But some things never change

Even though my life goes on
Even though the tears don't come everyday 
Even though it seems my heart has finally begun to heal
Even though 18 months have passed since your death
There are things which the sands of time will never change 
No matter where I am, no matter what I do
No matter how much time passes
No matter what I become
I will always be your mother
You will always be my daughter
And I will always love you.

What saved me? Many things. 

Elisabeth who would say, "Keep working and don't worry about the idiots. Just keep working and right will always win in the end." She never was one to self-edit. Gosh, I miss her.

John who would say, "All children's lives are of equal worth and someday the world will know that." What great fortune I have had to know this man.

Randy who would say, "I'm so sorry." Friends like this are treasures.

Grief. Grief saved me. Oh yes, grief saved me. What a delicious paradox.

The many babies and children and adult children who died before their time, and the families who shared their stories with me- they saved me.

Today, I met a man whose 3, 5, and 6 year old children and wife were killed in a house fire. His story was unfathomable. We talked for a long time... Actually, he talked. There was absolutely nothing I could say or do except cry with him. I hate it when people say that God never gives you more than you can handle. This is exactly why I want to punch people who say that.

Sometimes, absolute strangers would save me. And sometimes, I'd save myself.

The Kindness Project was probably the single most important thing I did for me and for her. The MISS Foundation, which started in 1996, was created to help other families through counseling, support, advocacy, and research to help families whose children were dying or had died. The countless beautiful volunteers in this organization have been a force for good in the world. Seriously, the most beautiful children are the foundation upon which this organization has been built and maintained over the past 16 years.

And, I went from being atheist to believing in something beyond this world. I know, it's usually the reverse, isn't it? But for me, well, I've had things happen through the 19 years since her death that just defy statistical probability. I know, I know what you're thinking. And some days, I still question- and that's ok.  Traumatic death does this to some people. For years after she died, I lived with one foot in the world of the living and the other in the world of the dead. I took up residence in a liminal space between worlds. I exist in a world where pedicures and pop stars are irrelevant.

The American Dream
Baseball and apple pie
White picket fence
2.5 Children
A good job
Wall Street Success
A day at Gymboree
Three weeks paid vacation
To a faraway island   
Silver S.U.V.

I am not one of them.

My dream is of another world.
I dream of the day
When all babies cry at birth, never silenced by death.
I dream of the day
When every child wakes from his quiescent slumber.
I dream of the day
When every child comes home from prom night
and no child gets cancer.
I dream of the day when every child grows to be old
And all parents die first. As it should be.
I dream of the day                  
When parents celebrate life, ignorant to any other way.
I dream of the day when others realize how very much it hurts,
and offer unconditional compassion
I dream of the day, when I will hold the little girl I buried in 1994.
This is my American Dream.

I had to surrender, to let go of the reins and allow myself to just be and be broken. And I opened myself to that which cannot be explained or understood within the framework of the material world. I opened myself to the numinous.

I'm reminded, actually, of what Santkeshavadas (सन्त केशवदास) said: 

Go ahead, burn your incense, ring your bells, light your candles and call out to God, but look out! Because God will come and He will put you on his anvil, and He will fire up his forge, and He will beat you and beat you until He turns brass into pure gold.

Yep, on the beat you and beat you part. True that.

The monsoon season is here again. 
Unpredictable just like grief…so the rain fell and fell 
And from the inside of the store, I saw its fury 
I hesitated
Should I wait out the storm? 
But she has taught me not to wait 
And what is wrong with wet hair and sticky clothes? 
And so, with good intentions of running through the lot,
safely to the car
leaving behind the croissants and paper towels, I walked to the door
... And she caught my eye, 
to the left a mother and her little girl 
She was protecting her from the rain 
She removed her coat, kindergarten-yellow 
and held it over her daughter's head 
Maybe she was afraid of wet hair and sticky clothes or pneumonia? 
And they ran through the puddles, and they splashed,  and they laughed. 
And then safely got into their car. 

My mind attacked me as I stood frozen on the sidewalk 
I wasn't expecting the assault ...and my mind rewound to August of 1994 
The monsoons that fell, suddenly like your death 
As I was watching the television 
But it wasn't on 

I rushed to the window and the rain poured like the tears
Panic struck like lightning 
And as any good mother needing to protect her little girl from wet hair, sticky clothes,  
and maybe pneumonia, 
I took what I would need to shelter her from the storm 
A bright blue tarp and a mother's heart for comfort
Then, the shovel hidden beneath the gardening tools collecting dust, just like her nursery 
screamed madly, "Take me! Save your little girl!" 
I could not rescue her from the storm that day 
or protect my child as any good mother should 
Her body, surely drenched no splashing, no laughing 
And through the night thoughts of wet hair, sticky clothes, and pneumonia 
haunted and scorned me 
Sleep does not come easily 
For a mother who cannot safeguard her child 
We did not get into our car safely 
I could not deliver her from death.

Grief ceases to be narcissistic at some point, and it matures (we hope) beyond the center. At some point you're sitting in group really listening to the other and not needing to speak your pain.  At some point your story doesn't need to be told over and over again. At some point it is more about the other's pain than your own. At some point your heart will break open to other grieving parents with dissimilar stories. And then, your heart will break open to grieving widows and widowers, and to hungry children, and to the homeless, and to abused animals.

At some point we grow beyond the rather hubristic belief that we can eradicate death, even when anachronistic, and we realize that this moment is all we really have. This moment with our children, our partners, our family, our neighbors, our friends. Death comes too soon for some, eventually for all. What we do in the aftermath of death and loss and trauma for each other is what counts. So alongside the volunteers of the MISS Foundation and academic colleagues who share research interests, I will continue to advocate for social change on behalf of mourners. We need - and deserve - to be treated better by society. So do widows and widowers, so do the homeless, and the hungry, and the abused.  And an open heart of compassion to all others not only helps their heart, it helps your heart. That's what seeing beyond the self, an outwardly turned heart, can do. And this is what will change the world. And this is what will change the world. And this is what will change the world.

Nearly 20 years later, my life is divided into two parts, before her and after her. I am wildly happy and content in my life. But that doesn't mean I don't have grief. I will say it over and over: Just as the sun and the moon exist in the same sky, beauty and grief coexist in the same heart. And that is how it must be, at least for me...

This has become a disproportionately lengthy blog about my then and now. I suspect I'm setting the stage for my two decades without Chey. I decided I would revisit her journal on her 20th year of birth and death. This may well be the segue into that process as her 19th birthday approaches and I reflect, so rarely shared in such intimacy:

I still love and miss Cheyenne very much, yet her life and death has a different meaning today. In the Spring of 2007, I had her body disinterred. I brought her ashes home and placed them in a Japanese butsudan from the Shinto period. I took a small portion of her ashes and used them in a tattoo on my back for her 17th birthday, an excerpt from St John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul: 

The soul still sings in the darkness, telling of the beauty she found there. Daring us not to think that because she endured such anguish and torture, she ran any more the danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself. 

When I think of her, it's no longer as a small child. Rather, she feels ageless and enormous, larger than life. I'm reminded of what the philosopher Lao Tzu said,“Silence is a source of great strength.” 
I’ve always believed that all I needed could be found there, in the silence.  
Cheyenne’s voice is in the silence. 

And I am still listening. 

Thank you for reading. Thank you for your non-judging mind. Thank you for your open heart.


The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

Follow me on Facebook