Saturday, December 17, 2011

Perinatal Bereavement: Grief at the Holidays

Today the Huffington Post ran an article by Charlotte Hilton Andersen titled, Ten Things Not To Say To a Woman Who's Had a Miscarriage. Which reminded me of this article we give out to bereaved parents this time of year, with a different image we give it out for the spring holidays as well. With Christmas a week away it seems good to bring it here. Hoping for all a gentelness in these days....

Adapted from a National Public Radio interview with Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D., Professor of Gerontology at the Graduate School of the College of New Rochelle and Senior Consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America.

A question commonly asked by bereaved parents at this time of year is, "How can I get through the holidays?" There is no single answer. One important guiding principle is: do what is comfortable for you….

What is comfortable? Whatever seems to best meet your needs at the time. And although it is important to make a plan and think ahead how to handle the holidays, it is also OK not to know until you get there, especially if this is the first holiday season since the death of your child. Make a plan, but be open to changing it if it seems necessary. This is the key to coping with the holidays: find the way that is right for you.

"When we are already experiencing the great stress of bereavement, the additional strains of the holidays can create unbearable pressure," commented Jack Gordon, HFA President.

Some people find it helpful to be with family and friends, emphasizing the familiar. Others may wish to avoid old sights and sounds, perhaps even taking a trip. Others will find new ways to acknowledge the season.

Whatever your response, remember these points:

1)         Plan for the approaching holidays. Be aware that this might be a difficult time for you. It's not uncommon to feel out of sorts with the celebratory tone of the season. The additional stress may affect you emotionally, cognitively, and physically; this is a normal reaction. It is important to be prepared for these feelings. Part of being prepared is being open to changing your plan if need be to best care for yourself during the season.

2)         Recognize that holidays won't be as you dreamed they’d be. There is a good possibility that doing things as you have in the past will be painful and disappointing to you. Doing things a bit differently can acknowledge the importance of what isn’t while preserving continuity with the past. Different menus, changing decorations, attending a different service, or even celebrating in a different location may provide that slight but significant shift. However, be aware that your feelings will still be there. If you decide on a change, be careful not to isolate yourself.

3)         Include your child who has died in your holiday plans. Acknowledging this relationship in tangible and visible ways can be important. If it feels right to you, you might: give gifts to a child in need in your child’s name, select and hang a special new ornament on your tree just for your child, place a rose or other meaningful flower or decoration on your holiday table as a reminder, make a donation in memory of your child. Continuing your bonds with your child at this time of year can be a poignant, but important, part of your grief’s journey. 

4)         The holidays may affect other family members. Talk over your plans. Respect their choices and needs, remember we all grieve differently; compromise if necessary. Everyone (including yourself) should participate in ways that are comfortable.

5)         Avoid additional stress. Decide what you really want to do, and what can be avoided. Perhaps cards don't need to be sent, or shopping can be done by phone or catalog.

6)         Do the right thing: not what others think is right, but what you need and want to do.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thoughts from a Grieving One

"Return to Center," the Phillips Exeter Academy Chapel, Exeter NH

Last night was the annual Candlelight Memorial Service we have for parents and family members who have suffered a perinatal loss at our hospital, it is also open to the community. My colleague was scheduled to deliver the homily but was taken ill. I was given about three hours to prepare this reflection for the service. In the bulletin for the service, the title for the homily my colleague was to deliver was listed as: "Thoughts from a Grieving One." That seems apt.

Thoughts from a Grieving One

It is a very long journey, this grief of mine. One that has given its own form and shape to my living for over two decades now. My two oldest would be 26 and 25, the last, the youngest would be 22. There were never any others. That is a long, dark grief journey all its own.

I was a young Associate Pastor married to a young Associate Pastor when my babies died. I was, he was, we were, in the business of things religious. I was, then, as I am now, in the business of helping others find meaning in the difficult, grief-filled, painful parts of human existence.

In the tenderness of those young and callow years, before the immensity of the grief, before the enormity of the pain and loss the meaning simply wouldn’t come.

Bound so intricately in through those longed for, hoped for, prayed for little lives and the inexplicable pain and incomprehensible suffering of their dyings to the great mystery of Creation, the cycle of life and of death of grief and sorrow and then of…. I knew not what. No meaning among all the meanings that I knew, and I had learned so many only a few years before and how to use them well—none would offer comfort. There was no balm in Gilead, no easement of my suffering sickness of my soul.

It was like life as I knew it had stopped. Meaninglessness and emptiness, confusion and the void drew me in and were all around me.

The only small point of meaning I could muster, seemingly against my will, were these few words of scripture, the only words that made some small sense. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep….” “….(T)he earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep….” “Formless, void, darkness.” Those were the words that drew me in. I was formless and void and dark.

I remembered enough of my Hebrew to know that formless was translated from the Hebrew word to-hoo, meaning—confusion, uncertainty, emptiness, nothingness…. And void from the word bo-hoo, meaning—emptiness and waste…. And then there was darkness, in Hebrew, teh-home, meaning obscure or some secret place.

And there I was, for there was no doubting in any part of my being that what had happened in the obscure and secret reaches of my body, places designed to create, nurture and bring forth life, was a great darkness that covered the face and the depths of my world with confusion and emptiness, meaninglessness and uncertainty.

For the longest time, this was all I could read. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep….” Finally, I could get to the wind, “…a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Wind, roo-akh, in Hebrew, also breath and spirit, spirit of God.

Finally, I realized it had been the roo-akh all along. For so long it was all I could do, breathe. Breathe into the void, into the emptiness, breathe into the confusion, the uncertainty; breathe into the meaninglessness, the waste. Breathe. Breathe in and out—the roo-akh, the spirit of God, the wind that brought all that is into being. Perhaps, it could create life, new life, within me as well.

Listen now to the story of Creation. Listen for the too-hoo—the confusion, uncertainty, emptiness, nothingness of your own story. Listen for the boo-hoo, the emptiness and waste that seem, perhaps, all around. Listen from the depth of your teh-home those dark and secret places that cover your world.

Focus too now on your breath. Breathe in and breathe out. Focus on the roo-akh you shared with your child who is now gone. Listen for the roo-akh, the Wind, the breath of life, the spirit of God calling for the new life from the formlessness and the void.

Genesis 1 & 2 Select1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

6And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

9And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.

16God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

2 4These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. ….— 7then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

Let us pray:
Creator of all Life and Breath:

One-by-one every family we know breathes in whispered, clandestine tones….

It happened to us… to our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, to a sister and her husband, brother and sister-in-law, to our best friends….

Four times in a row

before the baby came

once, before

We even knew…

Three times

over six years

and then children

healthy and perfect.

To our relief, the dare-not-breathe-a-word-of-it horrors of never-at-all hang palpably between the words of but a scant few.

Just keep breathing

in and out

in the darkness of the deep void that consumes.

Breath is sometimes the only life you have. It is, often, the only life shared with the child who is gone from your sight. This breath is sometimes the only life you can give.

You, God, you have been there all along…

In the breath, frail as it sometimes seemed.

Breathing with us…

holding us from the beginning,

as we are holding each other, now, in invisible bonds.

We won’t feel this way


Everything that is, you created out of the breathless deep darkness of the void. Wind in the sky and the breath of life into all that is. Into each of us.

You do no less for us, for we gathered here now:

Calling us out of our places of endless darkness…

Helping us find new substance and shape for our living

beyond the void that has taken the shape from our lives.

Carry, us, O Creator God, from this shapeless time, into new fruitfulness for our living.

Call us out of the water of our tears, bringing us to dry land.

Bring light to our darkness, O Creator of light.

Assure in our darkest nights…

that dawn and its daylight will always follow.

When the water of our tears do overcome, console that they team with the potential for new life. Bring forth from us each one of us new life for the living of our days.

Lift us gently, our compassionate Creator. Take us softly in your arms and breathe tenderly into each of us your breath of new life. Amen.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Alternative Advent Calendar

I have been a very, very negligent Blog momma. With the beginning of Advent just a bit away it seems a good opportunity for a bit of penitential blogging. An Alternative Advent Calendar is not my idea, but trying to come up with creative daily alternatives to small chocolate animals or tiny color pictures of Bible scenes seemed its own meditative practice. 
Day 1: Count the coats in your closet. Donate a dollar to a local shelter or outreach for homeless persons for every coat.

Day 2: Make a list of things that you are grateful for today.

Day 3: Remember the kindness shown to you the past year.

Day 4: Read and meditate on Isaiah 40:1-11.

Day 5: Call someone you have not talked to in a while.

Day 6: Send a Christmas card to someone who you have dropped off your list.

Day 7: Having lunch or dinner out? Donate an equal amount to help feed hungry children.

Day 8: Having lunch or dinner in? Donate the cost of the meal to your local Meals on Wheels program.

Day 9: Make a list of everyone you feel you might want to forgive. Purchase and begin read Dr. Fredrick Luskin’s, Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness.  Begin to be more forgiving—feel better.

Day 10: Saturday. A good day to volunteer your time. Consider a local food pantry, family shelter or teen outreach.

Day 11: Read and meditate on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24.

Day 12: Going shopping? Pick up a gift for someone who might not otherwise receive one this year.

Day 13: What time did you get up this morning?  Donate that amount (i.e. 7:15 am = $7.15) to improve water quality in your area.

Day 14: Count the number of electronic devices you own. Donate that amount to improve water quality in a developing nation. (i.e.: 1 iPhone + 1 iPad + 5 TV’s +2 Wiis +1 BlueRay + 1 wireless router + 1 printer + 2 desk tops = $14)

Day 15: Write a holiday card with a note of thanks to some service person (i.e. dry cleaner, gas station attendant, grocery store stock person) whose work impacts your life in a positive way. Hand-deliver it.

Day 16: Baking holiday treats? Make extra. Share the sweetness with someone you do not particularly like.

Day 17: Saturday again. Going to a party tonight? Try to pay an honest compliment to everyone you talk to.

Day 18: Read and meditate on Luke 1:26-80.

Day 19: Only five shopping days left! Last minute gift ideas: Cows, sheep, pigs, chickens—a donations in someone’s name to Heifer International.

Day 20: The first night of Chanukah. Light a candle and read the story of the Maccabees, you will need a Bible with an Apocrypha. The story is a bit long and complicated. A Children’s Bible might be better—even for adults. 

Day 21: The longest night of the year. Reach out to someone who is grieving this holiday season. If you are grieving, let someone reach out to you too.

Day 22: What was the favorite Christmas Carol of your childhood? Sing it with that same love to a favorite child.

Day 23: Make snow angles. No snow? Be an angle—practice a random act of kindness. Got snow? Be kind anyway.

Day 24: Light a candle in the darkness. Listen to “O Holy Night.” Pray with family and friends that on this night, and every night, Christ is born into your heart, giving light to the darkness of your life so that you may be such light in the darkness of other lives.

Day 25: Open presents, enjoy food, family and their good fellowship. Pause: read and meditate on John 1:1-18. How will you receive Christ anew into your heart? How will you use the power of such grace in the coming year?