A few months back, I interviewed Lorraine Ash over the phone. It was an amazing and beautiful conversation, and I am honored to be able to share that here. Lorraine's daughter, Victoria Helen was born on June 2, 1999. She had died of a GBS infection while in the womb. For the past nine years, Lorraine navigated the journey of grief while she wrote, comforted and evolved. I know that I had at times felt so impatient and suffocated on this grief journey that I burn to jump out of my skin, to be transported someplace else, to be healed. Speaking to Lorraine made me realize that I need to be patient and abide. Below, she shares her insights and wisdom.
[ Lorraine today ]
How does your heart feel today? How has that feeling in your heart changed over these past nine years?
My heart feels strong... ... and that's the best word that I can come up with. My heart feels sure and it feels strong, and I only really became aware of that in the last year or so. A certain ease has come after nine years and it's a happy place. It is hard to reach out to fathom the possibility of personal happiness directly after a stillbirth experience, but it is possible. The journey has to be taken one step at a time. Along the way you never forget your child, so much so that she becomes a part of your personality - definitely the case for me.
How did you spend this past Mothers' Day, and Fathers' Day? What do these days mean to you and your husband? How about Victoria's birthday?
We used to do things that were very Victoria-centered. One year we went to see a Chinese fertility doctor to get a tea... and it did not work. Another year we went to get a spiritual reading on Victoria. Everything was very Victoria-inspired.
Also, in the first seven or eight years, I supported this Childreach program, a wonderful worldwide humanitarian organization that links sponsors to more than one million needy children in forty impoverished countries. At first I sponsored a girl called named Annie Rose, in the Philippines. I really wanted to feel a connection with a child across the world because Victoria seemed so far away. I've made a difference with Annie, and then three other girls, and also fulfilled my own emotional need. But recently, I felt the an inner shift and I changed. I started to sponsor Save the Children's Survive to 5 program. It focuses on saving the lives of children from birth to age 5. I realized the same amount of donation could help save thousands of young lives. It seemed more effective. So I now do that instead. And I know I would not have been able to do that even as recently as last year. I shifted from fulfilling a personal emotional need to asking myself, "What's the most effective thing I can do?" I evolved.
Now, for Bill and I us, that week of Victoria's birth and death is a magical one, because there are always opportunities to help always present themselves. In the spirit of Tonglen, this is how we spend Fathers' Day, Mothers' Day, and Victoria's birthday. These dates fall within weeks of each other, so it feels like a season, Victoria's season. For example, I'm a peer grief counselor and I work with the SIDS Center of in New Jersey, which refers newly bereaved mothers to me. This year, I spent Victoria's her birthday talking to a new SIDS mother, for about 1.5 hours. Then I wrote back to a woman, who was a reader of "Life Touches Life" in England. She was a prenatal yoga teacher who lost her baby to a stillbirth. She felt a loss of confidence as well as grief. She was totally fragmented and had written to me saying, "Please help." and so I spent another 1.5 hours writing to her.
Another opportunity naturally surfaced. I am a newspaper reporter, as you know, and at the newspaper where I work I was contacted by a mother whose daughter died of cancer at the age of 12. It was a fresh loss and the mother wanted to start an Alex's lemonade stand in honor of her daughter. These are stands, opened all over the country in front of farmstands and supermarkets and other places, and the proceeds benefit research on all childhood cancers. This mother wanted to raise awareness of the pain and complexities these cancers involve, so I covered the stand she and her husband began and wrote it up.
At this point, for me, it's all about using emotion and grief and the closeness that Victoria and Bill and I have and turning it back out to the world in a loving and productive way. There's a time in grief when you close in on yourself like a cave, and you need to. You need all those time and your energy to come back and understand where life has brought you. And then there comes a time when you open up again, and when I wrote to the woman in England, when I wrote the article for the woman with the lemonade stand, that's my love for Victoria in all that stuff. That's the grief and the love in action.
That's what I do. That's what we do. That's what Victoria and I do.
On Fathers' Day, or on Mothers' Day, do you do something to say, 'I am a mother' or 'I am a father'?
We no longer need affirmation that we're a parents. We talk to each other, to Victoria, very matter-of-factly. We give each other Fathers' Day and Mothers' Day cards and we just think about what can be done for others. Again, it's an outer energy opposed to a closed-in energy. It shifted.
And we get birthday cards from all over the world for Victoria. These are all affirmations and it is just impossible to feel sad when we you see all these cards. It just makes us glow.
Do you think that you would not be who or what you are if Victoria Helen had not died? Does it have to be through this way?
No, I will not be who I am today if Victoria had not died. Absolutely. First, there is this shock, that this can happen, that something like this can happen. Then the realization that none of us has immunity from pain and loss. Next come the feelings of extreme vulnerability and fragility. Then there is this years-long process of getting stronger and stronger... ... I want to talk to you about Tonglen, a beautiful Buddhist practice - something happens to you... ... And it puts you in touch with your own pain, which propels us to take it away. But Tonglen gently pushes us to get in touch with our pain, whatever it is - to talk to it, listen to it, get in touch with it. When we go into ourselves in this way, we understand not only our own desperation and difficulties but those of all human beings.
Every good writer knows that universal truths are found in the extreme details and intricacies of her individual experiences. God is in the details. After this inner scrutiny, we turn our sight outwards to the world and we realize that everyone has some kind of pain, and because we deeply opened to our own pain we can open to that of others. This is how compassion is born and grows. Next, we act. We do something in the world, for the world. Our strength then grows, and the process is no less than the cycle of spiritual life.
Do you still watch for Victoria Helen in the dark of the night? Why?
Yes, I do! Just in case she appears... I still do watch. But I won't know how I will react until I see her.
Do you think of Victoria when you see a 9-year-old girl?
Yes, I do. My friend has a granddaughter the same age Victoria would be and I always feel so charmed and delighted to see her and talk to her. She had asked about my daughter, and I told her that Victoria is in heaven, that she's an angel. She understands that I'm a mom.
I also talk to little girls quite a lot, and when they ask, I always talk about Victoria with love and enthusiasm, and it had always been fine. The attitude we parents strike when we talk about our children is so significant. It is important to approach any discussion about them from a place of love, and not fear or some hush-hush attitude.
[ the journey ]
How has your relationship to grief changed over the past nine years?
From inward to outward. Like the flower on the cover of my book, I have fluttered open. You realize how precious everything is.
Ram Dass wrote a book called "How can I help?" and I think it is such a productive question. First off, It is a question that diverts attention into the present and the future. It's a healing question because it starts the action. Stillbirth is just so... still. You're in this place where you need to stay. But there comes a time when you need to leave. And this question sets things into motion. It calls on us to do something. People have done so many things - they create sculptures, they run marathons, they raise funds for cancer. I am a writer and I decided to put language to the experience. It's all about movement, doing something. And that's part of healing. It's a gradual process, though. For me, it's been nine years so far.
Was there a definitive moment when you said to yourself, 'It's OK now. It doesn't hurt anymore'?
I think there is no moment when it doesn't hurt anymore. But, it goes from "I am hurting and it is NOT OK." to "I am hurting but it's OK." Because, pain is a part of life, and I have integrated the pain into who I am and what I do. I don't think this is a wound that can heal. But I also think this wound can be a gift.
Can you share something that someone has done or said that has touched you the most, after the death of Victoria Helen?
Certainly. Here are just a couple of examples:
There was this gas station that I passed by on my way to work, and there was this guy there who one day asked if I have any children. I replied, "Yes, I have a daughter, but she was born still." He said he was so sorry. and I told him but she is still my daughter and I am still a mother. And the next time I pulled in for gas, he asked me, "Mamacita, how are you?" I went to get gas there for three years and he always called me "mamacita"! It was wonderful to be acknowledged this way.
There also was this gracious stillbirth mother, who read Life Touches Life. I met her for dinner because she is from my home state of New Jersey. At the restaurant she gave me a silver box. On the lid these words are engraved: "Forever in my heart. Victoria Helen." She told me to write the name of every person Victoria Helen's story had helped heal and place it in the box. This mother gave me a real, physical thing with Victoria's name on it. That's always powerful for a stillbirth parent - to present him or her with something tangible to acknowledge a baby who was invisible to the world.
Additionally, I have an aunt and cousin who every year give Victoria Helen a Christmas present. It's just amazing. They are letting me us know they have saved a spot in their hearts for Victoria Helen.
Using her name, saying her name, remembering her, acknowledging that there was a daughter, there is a daughter, and that I am a mother, all means so much.
What has been most disappointing?
The inability of friends to stick with me. And in this incredible trial and time, it hurts like hell in the beginning. In the long run, though, I've become wiser about what I can expect.
Also, stillbirth is such a scary experience. When it happens to us, people around us see that it can also happen to them. In fact, they see that anything can happen to any of us. Their way of denying that reality is to push the whole thing away, psychologically speaking. In pushing away the fear and fragility they feel, they push away us stillbirth parents as well. It is a way of coping. A bad way, but it is their way. There also are people who will "blame the victim," asserting that something went wrong in the pregnancy or birth because "she was too old/young/active/angry." They fill in their adverb of choice. They put blame on the victim to get themselves off the hook.
As a stillbirth parent, then, you not only have to heal but you have to become wise beyond your years when it comes to dealing with human nature.
What has surprised you the most?
The tangential folks in my life who came forward to help. They ask "How can I help" and "How can I be with you?" These people are helping because of who they are, not because they expect anything in return. Some folks do not want to come forward. Others want to come forward but lack the courage. That doesn't mean they're bad people; it means they're not courageous.
Have you ever wavered in your decision to not try for pregnancy again, or not to adopt?
Actually, we did try to get pregnant again. But it did not work biologically. And you know Nature is such a mighty force, there is no way you can bend it to do what it doesn't want to do. At least we were not inclined, after being hit with the tsunami of stillbirth, to try to bend it. Others feel differently. Both approaches are fine.
We also explored adoption. We went to talks and agencies, and considered many options, but in the end, we realized we really wanted to raise that daughter - Victoria Helen - and that was just not going to happen. I have learned to accept that whatever happens in life, it has to be OK. Instead of raising a child, then, we have used what happened to us to help heal others. But first! we have to allow ourselves to heal.
I've come to accept that this is it. We tried to have a child but the universe's reply was "No!" Loud and clear. It took a lot of time to let that go. But, that love stays. No matter what, we who have lost our babies are still mamas and papas. We still love, whether the baby makes it or not. Over time, the grief recedes and the love becomes bigger. Day meets night, and you will go through this.
Do you ever feel any boundaries between yourself and the non-bereaved? Please elaborate on the experience.
There is always some kind of boundary. In the beginning, it is easy to get angry and upset and want to punch through the boundaries, but now when I come upon one - which is often - I kinda understand. I'm writing another memoir now, about living life as a spiritual adventure, a rebirth-kind of book.
When I was writing Life Touches Life I met a writing coach at a writing conference. Beforehand I had sent her pages of my work to read and was hoping for a useful critique. When I sat down with her, though, she said to me, "Do not write about this. Stillbirth is something that did not happen. Write about something that happened." I looked into her eyes and knew that there was nothing I could do to explain to her that this is something that happens. There was a barrier that could not be broken.
After my book was published, a reviewer told me my story was but "half an experience." Now I need to have the guts to finish the experience, adopt a child, and move on with life, she said. Again, this is another boundary. I cannot make that woman understand stillbirth is a complete experience in itself. I simply cannot.
What has made me so discontented, though, is the language around stillbirth. Or the lack thereof. There had been generations of great silence. We need to speak now, all of us, and set the parameters of a cultural conversation. We need to put language to this experience. Wittgenstein said, "The limits of my language means the limits of my world." So we need to expand this world with our language, and the whole world is going to be the better for it.
(I see the following as pearls of wisdom that can only be developed from enduring the irritation of that grain of painful grief and loss while staying in one's shell. One day, the shell pops open and we see beauty.)
What is the best thing that a friend of the bereaved can do?
Use the baby's name. Use it, say it. The sound of it vibrates in the air, and it is a beautiful thing.
If you could go back to June 2, 1999 and whisper in your own ear, what would you say to yourself?
I would probably say what my doctor said to me, really early on, after we found out that Victoria Helen had died. He sat on my bed in the hospital room and said to me, "I just want to say this now: ‘It is not your fault. This happens.'"
There are so many ways things can go wrong, and there are so many women who feel that their babies' deaths was their fault. I still remember a woman who called me from rural Illinois. Her child had been stillborn in 1967 and she had just read an article I wrote about stillbirth. She asked, "Do you mean that it wasn't my fault?" It is really a shame that some women had to live with that guilt for so many years.
I know I will never write or say to another woman, "Everything will be fine... ..." because I and every stillbirth mother on the planet know that pregnancy is a chance. Our job is to love this baby, do everything in our power to protect it, nurture it. But Nature is even more mighty. We have to realize our own illusion of control. There can be two paths. One, "I have no control, and I am scared out of my mind." And two, "I have no control and I am existentially relaxed. I will do everything in my power for a good outcome, keeping in mind that there are greater powers beyond mine."
Your wish for all bereaved parents, in five words.
Realize they're still with you.
If you have an afternoon to share with Victoria Helen, how do you imagine it will be like?
I will share my life with her... but I like to stay in the moment, rather than to fantasize. Victoria and I are intertwined, she is with me all the time. She is a separate presence, and yet she is also within me, and with me. She is in my life all the time, really.
How has the death of Victoria affected your marriage? Any insights for grieving couples?
It has made our marriage stronger. We've become more of a team, yet we are also still individuals. As Kahlil Gibran said, "Let there be space between your love." Bill was there for me, and I know he grieved differently. We all grieve differently, and we need to allow that to happen, and to let things happen at their own speed in their own way, which varies from person to person. There were times when Bill was crying inwardly. That is his way most of the time, though there have been times he let out his grief. He will have his moment, just let that happen in his own time.
You wrote on your website 'The act of writing brings meaning'. Can you elaborate on that?
There is wisdom in our hands that comes out when we write words across a page. It's the kind of wisdom that weaves a thread of meaning through everything. We can write what we know in such a way as to invoke deeper layers of knowing, to bring out what our soul knows and needs to tell us. Other arts can do the same, but writing is precise. It is intensely personal and beautiful, and it helps us to understand ourselves and what has happened to us. It is also like inverting ourselves. We turn ourselves inside out - first so we can see what is there and then so everyone can see and receive this gift of life and art.
We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey. ~ Kenji Miyazawa
You also wrote 'Pain can be used to better the world'. Other than what you have done, can you talk more about this?
I can talk about our pain in relation to stillbirth. We who have experienced the pain know how it cuts. Next we have to do things, propel things ourselves into action. We need to create a database on stillbirth: Experiences need to be tallied and measured, meaningful studies need to be launched. There need to be systematic studies. We need to help make these things happen, to write letters to our congressmen, visit Capitol Hill, get the bill for Certificate of Stillbirth passed in all 50 states.
You know, the link between babies in utero and Group B Streptococcus (GBS), which took Victoria's life and almost my own, has been known since the 1930s. Why haven't we learned more about it since then? Why is it still happening and causing lives? We need to question the protocols of pregnancy care and birth. We need to make it all better for those who come behind us. Pain can give us a lot of fire and endurance, which can be put to good use to do many good things.
You have written that your search for understanding and peace has led you and your husband to a richer way of seeing, being and loving in the world. But, have you ever questioned, 'Must this be the way?'
Yes, this must be the way, for reasons I cannot fathom. You know, Life talks to us, to all of us, and I got a big, resounding "No" when it came to raising children. So, where's the "Yes"? I looked for it and I went with it. I've come to accept life as it comes. There really is no other way I can live a life so rich and meaningful, and beautiful. And I am proud of myself to have come this far, and I am proud of Victoria Helen, too.
Life touches Life was written as a gift of love for stillbirth mothers all over the world. It validates their feelings and let them know that someone else had been through the same territory before. It opens up a whole cultural conversation about this kind of pain and makes it visible. It was a tremendous healing experience for myself, and it led me to this place, the place we've been talking about the past couple of hours. Honestly, I think it's impossible to come to this place unless you had some kind of blood sacrifice in your life.
If you process the experience, you will one day come to feel peace and happiness.
~ Lorraine Ash
The hurt you embrace
Call it to your arms
where it can change.
A silkworm eating leaves
makes a cocoon.
Each of us weaves a chamber
of leaves and sticks.
Silkworms begin to truly exist
as they disappear inside that room.
Without legs, we fly.
When I stop speaking,
this poem will close,
and open its silent wings...
~ "Silkworms" by Rumi