many thanks?

Last Thanksgiving, which was the first one since, M. and I sat at my brother’s table while my parents toasted how wonderful it was “to have the whole family here.”  Our nephew and niece, 7 and 5 at the time, did not know about their cousins.  Maybe that was why no one mentioned Zoey or Gus.  Maybe it wasn’t.

It had been a bad day already, as M. had begun cramping—an almost sure sign that another attempt at trying again had failed.  Our final attempt, in fact, before our fertility doctors would drop us off the cliff into who-knows how many rounds of bank-breaking IVF treatments: the scenario I had feared for two years.

It had been a bad day and a bad night.  In the morning, M. and I were resolved that I would confront my parents about how missing the missing were from the alleged festivities.

First, though, we learned that M. was pregnant.  She took a picture of the positive pregnancy test with her cell phone.  She texted it to one of our close friends from the support group, and I went into the kitchen to have breakfast and ask my parents just how much their dead grandchildren are still with them.

In the year since, I have been given much to be grateful for.  That much is certain.  But I had much to be grateful for last year, too.   And I don’t just mean the basics: health and family and the other big-ticket gifts.  I mean about Zoey and Gus, as strange as that may seem.

So what follows is not intended as a list of what I am thankful for this Thanksgiving (although I am).  Instead, it is, retroactively, a partial list of what I am thankful for last Thanksgiving:

I am thankful that there is something that marks me, that makes me different than most and bonded to a few.

I am thankful that as early as that first day in the hospital, I had enough perspective to know that this would probably end in tears, but would also be one of the most extraordinary experiences I will have had in this life.

I am thankful for talking.

I am thankful for writing.  Especially the book.

I am thankful that pain recedes faster than memory.

I am thankful to have realized that even if what we had been given what we regret not having (good pictures, more time), we would have always wanted more, and so those regrets don’t matter very much.

I am thankful for the alive-feeling of sadness, but not for depression.  For the bright line that separates the two, and for realizing that I need to police my feelings only when they are one side of that line, and not on the other.

I am thankful for who showed up.

I am thankful for the professionals who help us and for where their help has taken me.

I am thankful to know more about the limits of what I can endure.

I am thankful that we had the funeral, that I planned it, and that I remember it.

I am thankful for the people who are in our lives now, even if they are here only because the two who are not.

I am thankful that the spot where they are buried feels so special—like the top of a hill and the very heart of the cemetery, even though really, it is neither.

I am thankful for those songs that have been stamped by the time of, and after, our loss, and that the sorrow they stir up is that exquisite kind.

I am thankful for M.

I am thankful for Arthur, the dog.

I am thankful that there is such a thing as healing—in general—regardless of how much of it I personally have or have not done.

I am thankful to have learned that a relationship with God is not supposed to be easy. 

I am thankful that while we do not control what happens to us, we get to be the authors of the stories we tell ourselves.

I am thankful that they were here.

I am thankful for thankfulness.


What are you thankful for?  Are there aspects of your loss that can also be seen as blessings?  How do you and/or your loved ones treat your loss over the holidays?

A time to talk

It has been unseasonably warm here. Freakishly warm, I would say. A week or two ago I walked to lunch and it was so warm and sunny that the only thing that seemed out of place was the bright red, orange, and yellow of all the gorgeous trees on campus. I mean, we're past half way point in November, and I have yet to wear a jacket this season.

This is completely and utterly disorienting. During the daylight hours it feels like we are stuck somewhere in early fall, but the early nightfall, the aforementioned crazy leaf colors and the unrelenting advance of the calendar, which insists on telling me that inexplicably Thanksgiving is but a week away, all of these are fairly adamant about it being rather much later into the year. And much later into the year happens to mean much closer to the holidays. So with Thanksgiving pretty much the gateway to and the official start of tree decorating season, the very same Thanksgiving I tell you that is but a week away, I am bewildered, but I bow to the weight of the evidence-- holidays are almost upon us. The holidays are tough for many of us, so today I wanted to do what we haven't done in too long-- ask you how you are.

So how are you? What is going on? How is the weather where you are? What does that feel like to you?


photo by George L. Smyth


Emancipation from the bondage of the soil is no freedom for a tree.
-- Rabindranath Tagore

I am roots and he is my soil. He nourishes me. If you pull me out of this marriage, I would choke on the dryness of his absence, writhe in the shadow of his turned head. And when he walked away, my roots would become little withered limbs curled from the sun.

I mourn my marriage some days. I mourn it right alongside my daughter. I mourn the marriage we should have if it weren't all knotted around grief and dead baby. I mourn the lovers we could have been without Grief as our demanding mistress, calling obsessively at all hours without saying anything into the phone, but simply breathing.

I am still here. That breath wordlessly says. I will still fuck you.

No matter how fast we hang up that phone, the ringing echoes around our marriage. A few months ago, I thought about this look my husband used to give me before daughter-death spirited our smiles away. Just pure love--all googly eyed and out of his right mind, his mouth in a kind of large wide grin that makes me feel like the only girl in the whole world. That smile is home. I wept those months ago, head in my hands, shoulders heaving. It took hold of me suddenly like a tempest and I cried for just my marriage, not for Lucy or any of the other things that come with our daughter's death, but for this one huge loss of a marriage without grief. It had been so long since I had seen him look at me this way. I felt suddenly bereft without the look. I felt suddenly uprooted.

Our marriage has never been hysterical or dramatic. There are no epic fights. There are no thrown dishes. No nasty words to stew on for days. There are no resentments built in the walls between us. We just forget some nights to say 'I love you' or truthfully, even "Good night." And months later, after having our third child, I looked at him unsure if I even really knew what he had been going through for the last six months. Our grief changed subtly, almost imperceptibly, and our reactions to it changed too. It wasn’t the constant meltdowns of the early months. It settled into a general malaise, a suffocating ennui and a survivable, yet altogether uninteresting melancholy.

I have read how men and women grieve differently, and I used to think that about us. I used to chalk our silence and awkwardness up to sweeping gender differences. But I have come to realize that it is the exact opposite of that--we grieve in much the same way. Our similarities prevent us from being the first to cross the gulf that separated us in grief. We are both proud, capable introverts trying to privately grieve our loss in a room full of the other person. We went into our corners and licked our wounds, and nodded as we passed each other on the way, unable or unwilling to articulate the obvious. My husband's father died three weeks before our daughter. So, he mourned his father, and then his daughter, and some days he would cry unsure of who exactly he was grieving. He was left in a month's time a fatherless father in an undaughtered land.

Marriages are a long negotiation in needs and wants. When your best friend needs you, it most often is not at a time when you are in need too. Until you are. Until both of you lose a child at the same time. Early in our grief, we were rocks for the other. Somehow balancing the rawness and the strength. We clung to each other. Sometimes being the trunk to lean upon, arms outstretched for shade, providing the strength, and other times taking it. But we often would say nothing, except an "I know." Finally we let go of each other, and walked backwards, staring at each other in silent accusation, "Why do you need to need me right now? I am reading something interesting on the internet."

My best friend's daughter died. In me. And my best friend's father died without me being able to give him the focused sympathy and love he deserved. I sometimes feel that I failed him. He doesn't begrudge me. His best friend's daughter died too, sometimes he feels he failed me as well.

Grief does such a number on all those little things that make a marriage great. Giddiness, laughter, sex, lightness, playfulness.  Rather than husband and wife, we became World Wrestling Federation partners, tag teaming each other out of parenting when one of us got too tired or caught up in grief. Impatience would echo in our house, and the other would come in the room, slap hands and take over. Parenting and discipline takes so much psychology, higher brain power, and patience some days, especially with a toddler mostly oblivious to Death's visit, I sometimes did not feel up to the task. Other days, he did not. All our emotional energy was spent keeping grief from engulfing our parenting.

Even though I often feel weak and sad, I am sure I would not be nearly as strong and happy as I am if he wasn't standing beside me. Even in our most stark distant times, I felt more alive in his soil--our roots coiling together making one important tree. We laugh a great deal in our home, which feels like rain after the dry season.  He can always draw a long chuckle out of me with his irreverence and constant flirting. Other days, he will stop and listen intently and mirror my indignation at life, thoughtless comments, other people and mortality. That is enough for me. Probably the uncoolest thing I can say about my husband is that I miss him when he goes to work.

At eighteen months from our daughter's death, when we sat together and quantified our grief and our marriage. I had read Tash's piece on marriage. I felt suddenly aware that our distance wasn't okay. And so, we sat together and expressed our fears. We ranked our marriage, at that time, squarely at fair to middling. We made the decision to go back to counseling to find the lighter side of our marriage buried in the ash of grief and death. It wasn't easy making that first call, but it was easy walking in there. We dropped our children off at my sister's house. We flirted in the waiting room, and laughed about our past and who we have become. We held hands and told our story, realizing as we talked that we have problems very similar to most married people with or without dead children. The mere act of seeking help made us feel okay, like trying was all we really needed. We asked the therapist if it would be okay to bring a bottle of wine, stinky cheese and a crusty loaf of bread to our sessions. Everything suddenly felt sexy, even in the least sexy of places.

Sometimes it surprises me that we have only been married for four years and together for five. I have jeans older than our marriage. We have been through the birth of three children and the death of a two grandparents, one parent and one child. We bought a house and traveled to a few third world countries. We have endured accidents, sickness, house renovation, fear, surgeries, biopsies, many bottles of wine, one movie, many corny jokes and a lake of tears. When people ask, we sometimes tell them we have been together 28 years, counted in grief years.

It wasn't long ago that I began taking photographs of my family again in earnest, no longer seeing only our grief. As I edited them, I was taken by surprise by the ones of my own husband. There was the look. I studied it. Definitely the look, I decided. And I began frantically searching through the folders, the months and years, of photographs. There it is again. And again. Since Lucy died, every picture I took of him, he stared at the camera, me on the other side of the lens, giving me the smile, his smile, of unconditional love. I couldn't see beyond my own long, grief-colored nose to see that his love has been there the whole time.

How long have you and your partner been together? How do the years prior to your loss or losses help you navigate grief? What does your relationship look like after the months or years of grief? What do you take for granted in your relationship? How much of your relationship issues do you attribute to grief and loss?

Kindred Spirits?

A month or so ago, in the space of about 10 days, two women I know lost step-children to gun violence. In two completely separate instances (in two different states), two teenagers lost their lives in broad daylight for no other reason than being in "the wrong place at the wrong time."

When I say I know these women, I should clarify: I've never had either over for coffee. But I see one almost daily, weather permitting, and we chit chat about weather and kids and such; and the other I see in her professional setting when I happen to be there and we are on a hello basis. But it really doesn't matter how near or far I hold these women: children died.

I don't claim to know what it is they're going through -- I have no fucking idea. One woman I hugged, said I was sorry, asked if there was anything I could possibly do, asked to please express my condolences to her husband. I felt trite and superficial and wondered if I should have said something deeper and more meaningful. I wondered what on earth that something could be. For the other woman, I attended a memorial service for her daughter. I hugged her tightly twice, and told her as briefly as possible that I understood the very outer parameters of what she might be feeling, and could relate to much in the service. She said she'd like to call me.

These deaths have made me feel extremely small, and extremely . . . lucky. I at least got to set the terms of my daughter's death (to a degree), and she died in my arms.  She did not die violently, she likely felt no pain. I said what I needed to say to Maddy even if she likely heard not one word of it. She did not die in view of the world, in the headlines. These parents have none of that peace.

Since Maddy died, I feel a strange sort of connection to parents whose children die in war, or die in gun violence, or die in car crashes. Or jump off bridges, or accidentally step off cliffs, or fall victim to being on the wrong Duck Boat on the wrong afternoon in the middle of the Delaware River. Just this past weekend, the local headlines blared the death of a child in a house fire. We are not remotely the same these parents and I; I can't claim to have any idea what it is they might be feeling.

And yet. What used to be some otherworldly Shakespearean-type tragedy glimpsed peripherally between the day's political news and the comics now hits very close to home. I now stop to pour over these stories, and the language is so similar -- the grief so familiar in it's outline. These parents hang on to times and places. There was the man who kept his son's watch set to Iraq time. Time. That bastard. It doesn't stop for us. It keeps going. Even where your child fell for the last time. The mom who sat in a lawn chair, simply being in the presence of a cold piece of granite bearing her child's name. Parents who try desperately to have something positive come out of their most horrific experience through scholarship funds and concerts and road races. The pictures, the shrines, the tears.

I don't know. I can't possibly. And yet once, while listening to a program about mothers of fallen soldiers who congregate at Arlington cemetery, I had to fight every fiber in my being not to whip my car in a U-Turn, hop on 95, and drive three hours to see if they were there.

As a historian who spent a fair amount of time studying war, I've always felt I at least understood Memorial Day and observed it to the best of my ability. I realized after Maddy died that I didn't have a fucking clue. Three Memorial Days ago, the remembrances in the paper and solemnly on my radio -- that I absorbed on my way to a family picnic -- broke me in two. I asked my husband, who was driving, if he felt like continuing on the road to a small Pennsylvania town where the son of the man speaking on our radio was buried. He said he did, but we had another commitment. We did decide that we both needed to do something more on this day, now that we at the very least could hear what people were saying.

We have yet to formalize our observance in any significant way. But this holiday now strikes perilously close to home for the both of us. We do spend time thinking of it's meaning. And all of the parents who who received the worst possible news and then spent the remainder of their lives tending gravestones instead of grandchildren.

I'm loathe to call such new awareness a "gift" because Maddy's death was simply a tragedy and I've come to decide I don't need to peel any good away from it unless it beats me on the head. I certainly don't need to look for it in order to understand it. But it left me with a new frame of reference, a new vocabulary, new metaphors, fluent in a language that I now recognize instantly. Because I may not know what they're going through at all, but I understand what they're saying. About missing, and promise, and a future without. About having a child permanently frozen in time as a child, never to progress.  About mourning dreams. About having to move through time (that bastard!) while the milestones rain down like an avalanche of boulders.

In the memorial service I attended for the young woman, people spoke about continuing the speak the child's name, associating her death now and forever with a season (Fall), and not wanting to find joy in what was left, but simply wanting her. I have never been good at languages, finding all the rules too easily malleable and forgetful. Here, for perhaps the one time in my life, I felt I grasped everything said while everyone else sat rather uneasily, shifting in their seats, trying to comprehend the sounds and locate sympathetic similes within their life stories.  I got it all.

And yet, I have absolutely no idea.

I just felt horribly sorry for the parents, and wondered what on earth one said to another at a time like this.

How do you feel when you encounter other parents -- either in person or via the news -- whose older children have died? How has it made you feel about your own grief and circumstances? Do you find their situations -- with children older than babies dying by means other than usually discussed here -- completely foreign or somewhat comprehensible? Do you feel a strange camaraderie with these parents, or do their vastly different circumstances leave you fumbling for words and feelings? (Is it possible to feel so similar, and yet so wildly removed?)

at the kitchen table: ghosts and rituals

The holidays around the change from summer to fall are rife with ancestor worship, death, and touching the spirit-world. Samhain. Halloween. All Souls’ Day. Dìa de los Muertos. Something about the end of October conjures the thinness of the veil between the land of the living and the land of the dead. In many cultures we invite the dead into our homes, places of worship, and communities. We show lost loved ones a good time, with feasting, sweets, games, and offerings. And we prepare for visits from the unloved as well—the restless, unhappy, malevolent spirits who might pop by to instill fear, extract revenge, or just toilet paper our lawns. Frightening costumes are donned to “Boo!” them back across the veil. Communities light bonfires, or pumpkins, to fight the darkness, and to guide the path home for our beloved dead.

Even in this secular community of grieving parents, we use October to remember our children, grieve our losses and remind the world that we are still here. October 15 is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day. 

This month, we are sitting around the kitchen table talking about ghosts and rituals. Our answers are here. Want to join in? Post the questions and your answers on your own blog, link to us here at Glow in the Woods meme-style, and share the link to your post in the comments below. If you don't have your own online space, simply post your answers directly in the comments.


1 | Do you believe you can communicate with people in the afterlife, or they with you?  Do you believe you can do this with your child?

2 | Do you believe in ghosts?  Has this changed since the loss of your child(ren)?

3 | Have your feelings changed about Halloween?  How do you respond to Halloween humor such as zombie and ghost costumes or macabre gravestones as decorations?

4 | Does your religious or cultural background have a day or holiday where the focus is honoring the dead? How do you use this experience to honor your own child(ren)?

5 | Do you ever reach outside of your spiritual/religious framework for comfort from other practices/religions?

6 | Is there a season or holiday, other than your child(ren)’s birthday, that inspires you to perform a ritual in memory of your child(ren)?

7 | Is there a ritual you perform everyday? Weekly? Monthly? Yearly?

8 | Do you perform any public rituals (in real life or online) on October 15? How do your friends, family, or community respond to your acknowledgment of loss?


(to comment and partipate, please leave your answers and/or link on this month's at the kitchen table page)

special powers

In the early days of shock and tears, my husband reached his last straw in trying to comfort me: she loves us—she would want us to be happy. I couldn’t believe him. It sounded so strange and wrong. She was dead, and a baby. How could she want anything for her parents? But he believed it. He felt her with him.

I haven’t heard from her in a long time. I could tell you that we once had a long talk, or that I saw the spiritual path her soul is on. But now those communication lines seem dead, so I fall back on logic. I say I don’t believe in signs, that my baby does not have special powers, and that she can’t communicate with us.

So have I become a rational creature now? Or are my feelings just hurt by the silence?

* * * * * *

Other parents see signs. In a precious moment, they notice clouds or rainbows or lightning bugs and think, this is for me from him or her, or my child has something to do with why this is so beautiful.

I envy that belief, because it eludes me. If I could see my daughter in the trees or hear her on the wind, maybe I would not be so lonely and angry. But it doesn’t work for me anymore. My child can’t be trying to contact me, because she is a baby. Not an angel. Not a fairy. A baby.  Her little fingers can’t operate the paranormal phone system. She can’t align the stars or send me a butterfly. She’s too little.

I don’t like hearing that she wants me to go on or wants me to know she is okay; that only points to my massive maternal failure. All she should be thinking about right now is snacks, cuddles, toys, and trying to pull herself up to standing. Not how to make Mom feel better. If she were alive, she would not want the best for me. She would want me to find her damn pacifier right now. That’s how I want it too. I want me to be the mommy, and her to be the baby. Still. Even though she’s dead.

And please God, or whoever is out there, do not let my baby be a ghost, wandering between this world and the next. Please let her be someplace safe.

* * * *

On the other hand, I have had messages. And I’ve imbued her with a very special power: the power to leave me.

In the hospital I began, irrationally, to worry that she did not like me very much. Her little face was so frowny, her lips so pouty. She looked mad. (Maybe they all look that way?) Holding her in my arms, this is what popped into my heart:

She needed unconditional love. Something bad happened to her, maybe in a past life, and she needed to know that Brian and I loved her absolutely purely. She wanted love untainted by the scoldings, power struggles, and tears that come with being a human child. By leaving us so early, she was assured of our white hot love forever. It would heal her, so her soul could go on. But it would break me, and I would have to accept it.

I had one visit from her after that. A friend did a spiritual healing on me a few weeks later; the smell of strawberries wafted through my living room on a cold March morning, and we both felt it was my baby saying hello. I could envision fields of the spindly green plants heavy with fruit, and how much my girl would delight in them. Later I planted a pot of hearty alpine berries and got a strawberry tattooed on my ankle, her name hidden in the leaves.

Since then, there has been silence. She feels utterly gone to me, and I feel rejected. I may say it is not her job to comfort me, yet I sit here like a spurned lover, hoping for the phone to ring. This is my deep dark secret—that I am kind of mad at my baby for dying. That I am kind of mad she never calls.

Photo by VanCityAllie

* * * * * * *

Why did I make up this terrible story about her needing to leave us? For a while it felt like a message from her soul, or from God or the great beyond. As the days have worn on, without answers, without comfort, my faith in most things of a spiritual nature has dissipated. Now I think it was just my brain trying to make sense of an incomprehensible event.

I’m not sure this was the best story to tell myself, though. It gives her the power to choose death over life. The power to abandon her parents. The power to hurt us intentionally. All of which is insane. She was a tiny baby inside my body. A very bad thing happened to her, and we don’t know why.

Maybe that’s just too much for my heart to take. I would prefer to think that she never wanted to be here, than to think she is out there in the dark crying for her mommy. I’d rather say that we do not get clouds and hearts and stars from her, because she’d rather be free. That’s easier to face than the plastic bag of ashes upstairs.  

Most of all, I need to believe that this experience is far worse for me than it is for her, because I just can’t stomach any other option.

So some days I try hard to think of her as happy. I try to see her as part of everything, reveling in the universe, sending love to our family every day. Usually I can’t. So instead I absolve her of all responsibility—it is one way communication down that parental, paranormal phone line. If she’s anywhere, I hope she can hear that I love her.

* * * * * * * *

Have you received signs or messages that help you connect to your child(ren)? Was there a particular window of time when you felt most connected that is now closed? What are the stories you tell yourself to help make sense of your loss(es)?