the charnel ground

Glow's premiere feature for the Are You There, God? It's Me, Medusa blogolympics comes from Buddhist mama and author Katie Willis Morton. Katie's son Liam was born with profound brain damage. When he died six-and-a-half weeks later, she embarked on a wider search for solace.
Katie is the author of The Blue Poppy and the Mustard Seed: A Mother's Story of Loss and Hope, due out this month from Wisdom Publications and excerpted, in variation, here with permission. She is also a contributor to the anthology Mourning Sickness from Omniarts. She continues to try to play through the days of chaos, working toward wisdom, graced with the good karma of having Liam's brother and sister at her sides. We're deeply honoured to have Katie among us to share her Buddhist perspective—that all our babies are cherished miracles and teachers.

"Chaos is part of our home ground. Instead of looking for something higher or purer, work with it just as it is the chaos in here and the chaos out there is basic energy, the play of wisdom . . . the basis of freedom and the basis of confusion . . . This charnel ground called life is the manifestation of wisdom.” —Pema Chödrön

The Ganges, and the burning ghats on it, is one of the most sacred places on earth for Hindus. Many old people give up all their possessions and go to live the last days of their lives on the banks of the Ganges bathing in her waters and praying. Corpses bound in cloth and draped in marigolds and carnations are carried daily on the shoulders of their families to the burning pyres on the ghats. Their bodies are consumed in the flames stoked with incense and prayer. The ashes are gathered and then scattered in the flowing waters where they mingle with the ashes of millions. We had no ashes to add to the river only tears and wishes.

I was a pyre—a combustible heap, consumed by chaos, and confused.

We planned to go to India to see some of the Buddha’s holy places like Lumbini, where he was born; and Bodhgaya, where he found enlightenment under an acacia tree; and Sarnath, where he gave his first teaching, and turned the Wheel of Dharma for the first time.


The lowest caste in India is said to be 'untouchable'. Orphans too are said to be untouchable, because of their great misfortune that caused them to lose their parents. I felt untouchable too.

Kids who lose parents have a name. Husbands and wives who lose their spouses have a name. What do you call parents who lose their babies? It’s an unnamed, and mostly unvoiced, situation of despair. We might call ourselves the Blue Poppy parents, the ones who have seen our children flower, for no matter how small amount of time, and die. We are in a despair that often feels ineffable, which closes us into an unseen, unaddressed, sometimes uncomforted, community. The name widow or orphan at least recognizes the beloved person who lived.

I felt an unspeakable conflict when someone asked me after Liam died if I had children. I had to choose between saying no, which seemed to betray Liam’s life, or say yes, but he died—leaving me stuck in an awkward situation because most people don’t know what to say or how to respond to an answer like that. Sometimes people say what a horrible experience that must have been with, of course, every intention of trying to sympathize. And again, if I said yes, I betray the great love and beauty and delight of him that came hand-in-hand with the horror of his diagnosis and passing. If I say no, not horrible I was afraid I’d seem indifferent, or crazy, or cold-hearted.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the morticians gave out blue poppy pins for us to wear instead of empty, ceramic hearts—a small symbol that says what needs to be said in a way that lets us all be at ease? And better, how wonderful if we knew to say something like That must have been a powerful/moving/intense experience for you. All of those descriptions would be more true than horrible.

All people no matter how small, all lives for no matter how short or long they bloom, are powerful, full of power. Blue poppies take root in mountainous scree; there is a place for happiness in the hard conversations of loss.

Now that the rooftop of the world has been explored and exported, some initiates inclined to cultivate rare plants have made blue poppies more prevalent. It’s been rare for us parents to speak of our loss, which was thought also to be rare. Now, with care, the memory of these delicate and powerful lives, our Blue Poppy Babies, can be brought into the light, and we can see we’re not alone. We can talk about them, openly, who they were and what they meant to us. To be able to, to feel allowed to, talk about our Blue Poppy children joyfully is even more rare then talking about losing them. Our kind of loss is more common then most people know. And more complex.

There is a bright center in all that darkness of my loss that speaks to me still. Liam’s existence makes me consider this moment now, consider the blessing of time, and consider the power of wisdom and skillful means.

It still amazes me that such a small person in only forty-eight days could teach me so much and hold me in an awe that inspired me to love, without too much attachment and too much aversion, the world around me.

Liam taught me just by being there. By existing. And despite his limitations and everything against him. On the phone one day my grandma told me she was praying for a miracle. He already is a miracle I told her quietly not knowing how to explain what I meant any more than that. We are all miracles, aren’t we? That we are here at all, maybe that should tell us something. Maybe, we are all small miracles, chaos of matter, capable of birthing light even with our limitations. My heart broke because of that powerful experience of Liam’s short life, but it broke it open too.

It’s not just that I loved my son Liam; when Liam was here, in concert with the crushing dread, I simply loved, unstrained and easily, without reservation, without discernment, without judgment. I was open to almost everyone that I encountered. It was a sacred experience to live in love and to gratefully accept the world with all its awful, unspeakable blessings.

What was solely horrifying was what came after the time with Liam when he revealed to me how to live within a spacious mind. Having to go on living, which is no small matter, and move on, through the chaos in here and out there. And knowing what a struggle it will be since I’m intensely aware that I’m not able in everyday to evoke this understanding he drew out of me and not give in to my horrible nature that comes hand in hand with my loving one.


We had no services when Liam passed. We waked him the only way we could at the time, instinctively, setting an altar in our front room where anyone would see it upon entering our home, keeping his presence with us the only way possible—symbolically, elliptically, and then, to go on living anyway.