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Parents of lost babies and potential of all kinds: come here to share the technicolour, the vividness, the despair, the heart-broken-open, the compassion we learn for others, having been through this mess — and see it reflected back at you, acknowledged, understood.

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Monday
Apr202015

to linger on hot coals: an interview with Catherine Bayly

To Linger on Hot Coals is a book of collected poems by babylost mothers. Edited by Stephanie Paige Cole and Catherine Bayly, it includes the writings of twelve other writers, including Angie Yingst, formerly editor here at Glow, and myself. The book came out in February 2014, and recently I was able to talk with Catherine about the making of the book, writing, and babyloss.

 

Burning Eye: Many babylost parents and writers feel quieter as time goes on, as grief settles. Both you and Stephanie are years out from your losses. Why did you decide to make the book now, so many years later? What was it like to be immersed in a project about loss, so many years after your daughters died?

Catherine: This is a good question, and really distance turned out to be an essential part of the book’s mission and effect, I think. True, Stephanie and I are years out from our losses, and it feels like light-years in some ways. But the writers we included in the book have very diverse chronological and life vantage points. And, of course, we all know that the experience of losing a child never resolves, even if grief “settles,” as you aptly say. So the book served the purpose of showing not quite a trajectory of loss (because there is no such thing) but almost a scatterplot or calculus of loss. And, in that way, the book shows something true that chronological texts can’t quite show, which is the zig-zagging and infinite process of human grief.

So, for us, this dynamic truth (perhaps the sole truth?) was only possible to come to with some distance from our sadness and selves. Because, like anyone, early on, it felt there must be an endpoint, like grief would have to reach some resolution. But, although I am a very happy, well-adjusted person/mother/professional, the real ‘aha’ moment was that there wouldn’t be a resolution, per say. All of it was part of the tapestry. So, for me, it wasn’t like revisiting or dredging up something I didn’t feel anymore—the book was more like a truth-telling that I simply wasn’t capable of before. It was a big picture, only possible with hindsight that I simply couldn’t have had before. And the goal was showing the large picture, seen through the process of reading, rather than an A to Z movement, if that makes sense. It was a peaceful process.

Burning Eye: The role of editor is very different than that of a writer. Why did you want to put together a collection of babyloss poems? Why not just your own?

Catherine: I think the answer to this question is contained in question one to some extent. We wanted to convey an expanse of feeling—we needed to remember or learn what others felt. Although Stephanie and I share a lot, we didn’t know each other when we lost our daughters. We have separate hurts we share with other people we love, and we all have separate, but never wrong, ways we remember. Our individual books, Stephanie’s and mine, would look very different. And this is true of all the authors in the book. To just tell my story is to tell one side of an infinite experience. And we certainly didn’t capture infinity—there was no way we could, and I regret that—but we caught some lightning in a bottle there. And then it’s there for those who want to remember and experience through poetry, and for those who will come after us and who are inevitably different from us and each other. We wanted the book to feel not a bit like a how-to guide, if that makes sense.

Burning Eye: Who did you make this book for? Who do you hope will read it?

Catherine: We wrote this book for those looking to understand the complexity and multifaceted nature of parenting and loss. This could mean parents who are years from their losses, in that limbo between immediate grief and life’s hurtling forward. It could mean allies (grandparents, friends, etc.)—those who want to understand a fuller picture of loss and its repercussions and resonances over the years. There is also some genuinely gorgeous and wonderfully-crafted poetry in the book, so the book has also been enjoyed by poetry readers. Very important to me, also, is the book’s value for a reader who’s experienced any loss. While the subject and experience in question is, of course, specific, I feel that we are writing about an emotion/reality that is essential to the human experience. So the book really puts loss within a genre that is meant to address the depth of human emotion.

Burning Eye: As editors, how did you approach the selection of the poets and the poems?

Catherine: Stephanie and I looked to folks we knew as writers, or writers from venues we knew and respected. Because of her work, Stephanie knew most of the people we queried and led the charge—she’s a leader and I’m a follower, so that was easy!  We did not put out a call, nor did we want to force people to write on this issue. Some people are just called to write about their losses and to share their beautiful writing about those losses. That’s the way some of us remember, and so we asked those we knew who felt that way and were already doing the hard work of writing. That seemed the safest and most ethical way to put together a collection of work. I could, however, have seen the value in calling for poets or pushing for more entries—that certainly would have given the work more diversity and perhaps even more texture. But I am so pleased with the finished book and its feel, and the ambiance of people giving willingly of the most vulnerable parts of themselves.

Burning Eye: What was it like to go back through the things you’ve written over the years in order to choose what you wanted to be in the book? 

Catherine: I have done this frequently, so the poems didn’t come as a shock. But, as a teacher of writing, I have to admit some of the rawness there was a bit embarrassing. And I don’t mean embarrassing like I worry about others’ perceptions of my writing. I mean more that I blushed a bit and longed a bit and cried a bit over that young woman I was. I came to new knowledge about myself. I was so in the moment then, so unable to abstract myself from my feelings, or see the big picture with any distance. It was a strange and humbling thing to go back there and recognize who I was now nearly a decade ago. It is interesting, because I try to teach my students this distance, as if it is possible for everyone, and I take for granted the years and hard work and patience from my loved ones that it took to get here. So, I came away more compassionate and kind—to myself and others.

Burning Eye: I think I understand that in a way, even though I am only two years out from Joseph’s death. Reading back over the pieces I wrote just after Joseph died is hard, not so much embarrassing but more like you said, ‘longing a bit and crying a bit’ over who I was then. I hurt for that woman, for her fresh grief, for how lost and shocked and isolated she felt.

You had a reading and event in the Philadelphia area last March, after the book came out. Why is it important to you to do readings and events in person, as opposed to just online publicity through the book’s website and Facebook site?

Catherine: My answer to this question may surprise you. But I am a very private person. Where, before, I felt or demanded that all people must remember Sophie always, ha, I now relish the near quiet surrounding my relationship with her. In the last year, I’ve gotten off of Facebook, and mostly dug into my work, family, and close friendships. That said, while I haven’t had a reading in a while, some of my most rewarding moments at past wonderful readings have been face-to-face conversations about loss. This gives me a chance to give back to someone who needs it. And, to me, that matters most—those one-on-one interactions with a mother who’s in pain. That’s not to say I haven’t messed those up, but I try my best and I learn more and more how much it matters just to be there for someone in pain.

Burning Eye: I’m a pretty private person, too (I haven’t shared my blog or that I write at Glow with my family or most of my friends). But I’m still in a place where I want people to ask me about Joseph. I want the chance to say his name. I know many babylost parents also want to talk about their babies, and a while back there was a thread on the Glow forums about opportunities to tell our stories. Do you talk about your loss in other arenas? Are you involved in other projects, writing or otherwise, around babyloss?

Catherine: I am not involved in other projects like this right now, although of course I have a select (very) few special people with whom I enjoy discussing Sophie and even saying her name. But I am somewhere different now, as strange as that seems. My ways of memorializing have changed. That need to have people remember is something that has transformed for me over time into a much more personal thing. That solitude is something I struggled with—something I never thought I would be ok with. But now, there is something special in it. Through writing the book, I actually, inadvertently, discovered just how private I’ve become and I’ve come to terms with that.

However, Stephanie, whose emotions of course I can’t speak for, stays involved in many projects in this arena. Stephanie continues to head Sweetpea Project, an organization which supports, guides, and provides remembrance venues for grieving parents. She’s also worked with Pia Dorer on The Sacred Project, and she’s constantly involved in art shows and writing projects. I do know that, like me, Stephanie is somewhere different in her personal life—somewhere much more peaceful—but the nature of her work is much more public and she feels a tremendous and sometimes heavy responsibility to advocate for the loss community. She works hard to stay to in touch with those mothers at all stages of loss—that is a remarkable thing about her. We’re very similar in some ways, but very different in the way we live out our emotions, but I so respect Stephanie for her work, which is so difficult.

Burning Eye: Do you still write about your daughter or your grief?

Catherine: I do not write about grieving Sophie anymore. Because, honestly, “grieving” simply doesn’t describe me anymore. And I hope that gives some people heart, even if it seems strange. I am full of too many feelings and people and roles now to ever say I’m actively grieving my first daughter. She always shows up and lives in many things I do—poems I write, the way I treat my students, the way I see seasons, the way I decorate, etc. But it’s almost never grief over her—just her life as a part of the complexity and story of my life. 

Right now, I have another collection of poems I’ve been very slowly chipping away at. The poems are very different in tone from those in the book—many of those were from my early days of grief. This contains some of that longing, but longing shaped by so many other wonderful and complicated factors.

Burning Eye: I think some of us have the fear that, if we’re not actively grieving, then we’re not remembering our babies. It’s something I’ve struggled with, even as far back as those first few weeks. When I felt happy or at peace for a moment, I felt like I was somehow betraying Joseph. But hearing to you talk about where you are in your grief-journey, it’s getting easier for me to accept that I don’t need necessarily need hold on to the grief part in order to hold on to Joseph.

Thank you so much for talking with me, and for helping to bring into being To Linger on Hot Coals.

 

Catherine will be checking back if you'd like to continue the conversation with her in the comments.

Monday
Apr132015

am I okay?

Please help me in welcoming Gretchen to Glow in the Woods. Gretchen writes at Lost Boys and Bearings about the loss of her infant son Zachary, as well as the earlier stillbirth of her son B.W., and the compound grief these two losses have brought her, her husband B, and her living son, C.T. Her writing is raw and honest, and speaks to the stark emotional landscape we wander through in our grief. When I read her writing, I find myself nodding, yes, yes, yes, recognizing some aspect of my own grieving self in each piece. It is this ability to see ourselves in each other--no matter how hard the story may be to read--that helps us stumble through this dark woods to find refuge among the other medusas. Here, we do not feel so alone. We are honored to include Gretchen's voice now among Glow's regular contributors.   ~~Burning Eye

It has been almost fifteen months since Zachary died…, and somehow, eight and a half years since B.W. died.  

My desperate, irrational pleadings for Zachary, for anything but this again, have softened ever so slightly in the last month or so.  My inability to cope with the horrific details of how his health deteriorated so violently and unexpectedly has lulled to quiet missing and mourning and the occasional outburst of anger.  Which is not to be confused with acceptance.  I seem to function pretty well with the very basic, daily tedium of life, especially when I am careful to protect myself from obviously triggering situations.  I allow myself to grieve, often.  I try to keep busy.  I hide or avoid when I need to.  I try not to let the insensitivity and ignorance of others lead me down a path of fury and resentment.   Still, I sometimes fall apart with the reality of his death.

I wonder if I’m doing okay.      

Now, well into this second year after Zachary’s death, the undercurrent of my grief seems to have morphed into a dull, aching feeling of wrongness.  It’s a heaviness that I drag around with me all day, every day.  I hold it up against anything good, anything perceived as important or worthwhile, and then I inspect the combination to see if the net effect is still negative, still meaningless.  As of now, it usually is.  Someone will say something very casual, something like gosh, it’s such a beautiful day today.   I nod and agree, because it’s just not worth it to disagree with such benign small talk, but the words, the sentiments built into the phrase, mean nothing to me.  I still can’t comprehend why or how nice weather should feel good when Zachary is dead. 

Sometimes the unrelenting heaviness feels worse than the initial shock, disbelief and horror - I suppose because it now feels more real and permanent.  Zachary really suffered.  He is really dead and not coming back.  I know it in my bones now and it feels oh so wrong.  I have to live with the flashbacks, the regret and the anger.  He will never again learn and grow and experience the love we have for him.  I will never again have the privilege of witnessing and nurturing his development, of delighting in who he becomes.   People really aren’t going to say his name regularly.  They don’t feel the heaviness; they aren’t tormented by the wrongness.   Their day to day lives were not affected, not permanently damaged, because my son suffered and died. 

I wonder if I will ever learn to really live again, despite his death.    

I don’t know what I need from my support network of family and friends anymore.  It’s apparent that many are tiring of my grief and my need for solitude. They are frustrated that I don’t have the heart to care very much about, or participate in, what’s going on in their lives.  I can feel it.  They rarely ask how I’m doing anymore.  When they do ask, I find that, for a variety of reasons, it’s not usually an ideal time to respond in a way that honors my grief.  I end up having a lot of surface interactions and I’m left wondering if people even still recognize how much I am hurting and just how much we have lost.  On the rare occasion that time and space are intentionally dedicated, and I am able talk about Zachary and my grief, I am well aware that most listeners are going to have a hard time understanding and relating.  When I open up, I see that my words aren’t hitting home, that something, the thing itself most often, is almost completely lost in translation.  They try, and I try, and it continues to be difficult. 

I wonder if I will always feel so alone. 

I’ve been trying to occupy some of my free time with a few new pursuits.  I left my long-time corporate job just before Zachary was born, and now here I am with no real desire to go back to the stressful job I had and no Zachary to take care of during the hours that C.T. is in school.  My mother-in-law and I worked together on a few sewing projects over the course of the last eight weeks, one of which was a valance for my corner kitchen window.  When we installed them, she affirmed over and over again how pretty they looked, what a difference they made in the room.  I was proud of myself for fighting the apathy I feel and following through, but even with her prompting, I had trouble drumming up any real enthusiasm for the final product.  There was a letdown, some strange sadness, about finishing a project for the house that Zachary never came home to. 

I wonder if I will ever be truly passionate about something again.    

I still fantasize about running away from my life, away from the good schools and thriving downtown and family fun and recreation of my Midwestern suburb.  I know it would be impossible to escape my grief, but my new reality just doesn’t fit here anymore.  While other families were dressing in pastels for family photos on Easter, I was despondent, thinking how cruel it would be to ask C.T. to pose for a photo with our two memorial lily plants, his makeshift brothers.  My instinct to “include” B.W. in this kind of holiday photo-op came more easily when it was just one dead brother, but it is just too awful, too much, now that Zachary is dead too.  I don’t know how to tell Zachary’s story, on top of B.W.’s story, amidst the happy-go-lucky who call this place home.  I find that I’m drawn to imagining myself living in a place that is less idyllic, where life is not so nauseatingly easy and wonderful.  If it weren’t for my living son, C.T., by now I probably would have convinced my husband that we need to give up everything we’ve worked for to become aid workers in a third world country. 

I wonder if this sounds crazy.   

*****

I do the best I can to cope with my grief.  At times I’m discouraged, maybe even a little ashamed, at the lack of hope, optimism and enthusiasm I am able to muster, when I compare myself to other bereaved parents I know or read about.   I remember when their narratives, the ones I perceive at least - of rising from the ashes, with some adjusted or renewed form of hope - was more closely aligned with my own.  Now I have lost a whole other son and I’m not finding I am as agile or eager to adapt to a new life again. 

At this point, I just want to know I wouldn’t be characterized as totally beyond repair

 

Are you okay?  What grief undercurrents exist for you, now?  What do you question or wonder about your grief?  

Monday
Mar302015

babylost fathers: a special call for submissions

One of the things this community has always been proud of is that we are not just a place for grieving moms. We are here for all babylost parents. Mothers and fathers, birth parents and partners and adoptive parents all come through our cabin door and stay awhile. We find ourselves in a relatively quiet moment here at Glow, with only a few babylost mamas writing, and we'd like to invite more male voices onto our front page. Our intent is to feature the writing of babylost fathers as guest posts throughout the month of June.

If you are a babylost father, even if you don't consider yourself a writer, we encourage you to write about how your loss(es) have affected you--your relationsips, your career, your faith, your outlook, the way you exist in this world. For our submission guidelines, you can look here on the Guest Writer Submissions page, and then you can submit your writing here.

Monday
Mar232015

from the archives: life's leverage

With this post in 2009, Chris became the first babylost father to begin writing for Glow in the Woods. One of only a handful of men voicing the pain of their losses in a community that often overlooks their right to grieve. Glow in the Woods is proud to be a community of mothers AND fathers, and we have been so honored to have Chris here with us these past six years.

Chris has decided it is time to step away from Glow. So today we say good-bye. Chris, we will miss your tender and brutal honesty, your beautiful writing, the way you named some feeling just right, the way you chose the perfect word for your image. Thank you for the voice you've brought to Glow, and for all of yourself that you have shared.

These days are brutal. They are less vividly awful than the first days and weeks and months after Silas Orion was born, but these days have a subtle ache and desperation that is deeper and more pervasive than the raw shock of his death. That experience was nearly impossible to comprehend and now, day by day, the specific truths of his absence are revealed in life-sized cascades of loss.

I don't just wake up anymore. I have to pry myself out of bed. I have to slit my eyes open with razors of truth and face the empty day as the pain bleeds away into the active motions of living. I manage to forget that I am wounded to my core sometimes. Sometimes I even have fun. Sometimes I just fake it real good.

Because that's what we do, right? We of this Terrible Tribe. We know things about the World that no one else understands. The depth of our pain is beyond fathoms or miles. Beyond lightyears. Our ache resonates in a space that is the size of an entire Universe.

It is the Universe that would have lived in each of our children's minds if they were here and we could hold them in our arms. If we could watch them grow and teach them about the beauty of the World, they, in turn, would show us everything we had forgotten about this amazing place.

There is a big difference between forgetting and learning, though. How do we hold on to the good that remains all around us while our guts trail behind us like a nauseous shadow? How did we come to this? This limbo? This World where everything is dangerous and uncertain and somehow still stunning? And how, while in this World, do we get up every fucking day and just go do shit that needs to get done?

I guess it's just more interesting to try to be strong and powerful than to just give in. At least it is for us, for now. We freak out and get pissed and cry and rage and then sometimes we laugh our asses off. An example would be sledding down the icy hill in New Hampshire this weekend where we zoomed into laughter and then nearly into the trees. Danger loomed, I felt it. At least we ran towards it knowing.

I see people all the time who don't believe that life can be terrible and I just want to shake them until they see. But that doesn't help anything. The only way to know this is to go through it, and it is nothing I would ever wish on anyone.

My wishes don't matter, though, that's obvious. Everyone will experience loss and pain and tragedy in their lives. We just happened to get shafted early and good. That is why it is so important to celebrate every joy and happiness and beauty that we can find in our daily lives and in our dreams.

Resentment and jealousy leave a stench on my soul that I loathe. I try to push those feelings into calm acceptance. This is the only life I get to lead, and I must do better now for Silas, too. I hold him in my heart every moment of the day, and when I see his stars above at night, I feel their distant heat on my cool winter skin.

I hold Lu's hand and we walk. We push nothing but we pull each other along and somehow have some fun on another brutal night. Today it was Guinness and a snowstorm. Tomorrow, who knows.

Monday
Mar162015

tender

Death is suddenly everywhere I don’t mean to look.

We watch the movie Labor Day thinking we will be watching a steamy love story, but no, it is really about babyloss. Stillbirth. Miscarriage. Accidental drowning. I hold onto A’s shoulder, appalled that I talked her so unwittingly into watching this movie with me.

My dad comes to visit and we pick that old classic, Stand by Me. I think it will be good to watch with my dad, like getting some small glimpse into his 1950’s childhood. I hadn’t remembered the whole premise of the movie is that the boys are going into the woods to see the real dead body of a boy who went missing. And that the movie is actually about the main character’s grief—his brother has just died—and he doesn’t know what to do with his brother’s sudden, enormous absence.

I take my fifth graders to Washington, D.C. for two days of sight-seeing and civics education and find myself standing in Arlington Cemetery listening to the tour guide tell us we are about to see the Kennedys’ graves, which include Jacqueline Kennedy’s son who lived two days, and an unnamed daughter who was stillborn. Catholics, the tour guide says, don’t christen babies who are stillborn and so they don’t get named, and I think, How cruel. The Kennedys were already deprived on their daughter, and Church tradition deprived them of her name.

And then, ten pages into the novel A lent me to read on the long bus ride, there is another baby dead before it was born.

I know these storylines were always around me, and I just never noticed, didn’t take them in, but it feels like they are multiplying. They are anywhere, everywhere.

I want to cry over these real and fictional deaths but I’m afraid that if I start, I’ll never stop. The ghosts of dead babies and children are everywhere. Where a few months ago I felt Joseph’s death had given me a greater capacity to handle the sorrows of others, now I don’t want to hear about them. I don’t want to handle them. 

 

Do you watch movies or read books where babyloss is a theme? How do they affect you?