Easter Accompanies the Suffering Heart with Hope

When I was in the depths of grief after losing my baby daughter Josephine five years ago, I found it was very hard to go through holidays that focus primarily on being joyful. The pressure to be happy was too much. Christmas is cosy and lovely and normally a huge favourite of mine, but not when the pain is still too raw. In times of struggle, I prefer Easter.

Why? Those of you who know me might be thinking of one thing: chocolate! All the chocolate without all the work of Christmas. I am definitely a believer chocolate’s ability to comfort and to express affection when given. I almost always include some chocolate in the grief baskets my friend Julia and I make for bereaved moms, along with my baby loss poetry book and other encouraging books and self-care items, but no, chocolate isn’t the reason.

Although these days, when things are extra stressful around the world, there are times when I’d like to simply bury my entire face in a Tuxedo chocolate layer cake, there is something chocolate cannot do: accompany me in my suffering. Share my grief. Give dignity to my tears, by saying, “I, too, have suffered. You are not alone.” This is something God can do. This is something Jesus does from the cross.

“There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us. And on the far side of every cross we find the newness of life in the Holy Spirit, that new life which will reach its fulfillment in the resurrection. This is our faith. This is our witness before the world.” – St. John Paul II

Despite all the wild and crazy things that happen in a complex world where there is human freedom, and also the realities of pain and death, we can be consoled by knowing that we do not suffer alone, for we have a God who is compassionate. As I would tell my kids in homeschool, compassion comes from the Latin “cum” (with) “passio” (I suffer). But why would God want to enter our mess, instead of remaining “aloof in icy splendour,” as the archbishop of Toronto poetically asked yesterday?

Love. A personal love for each person ever created. A tender love for you and for me individually. A desire to accompany us in our hardest moments, and to help us bear them.

I have experienced this same desire myself. After losing Josephine, I had an intense desire to be with others who were in pain, to accompany them in their mourning, to hold their hands on the long road to recovery. I could not make their pain disappear, but I could feel it with them, and let them know their grief was valid–was in fact a beautiful sign of their immense love for those lost.

So if you are in mourning this Easter, I encourage you to reach out to the source of love through prayer. God truly cares about your struggles, and wants to help you carry your crosses, as once he carried his own: with blood, and sweat and tears, but also with the dignity of one who gave his life for others freely, out of love. By reaching out to console others in pain, you, too, share in the healing power of God’s generous love, a love stronger than death.

Stardust

Yesterday, my sweet neighbour’s only daughter died of cancer, leaving behind a loving husband and two little boys. I am so crushed by this news, so in her honour, and in honour of all the many precious people who have recently died, I thought I would share this poem from my book unexpected blossoming: a journey of grief and hope.

As some of you already know, I wrote this book of poetry after losing my baby daughter Josephine. Peace be with all of you who are suffering the loss of loved ones in this crazy time.

Stardust

If it’s true that we are dust

and that from the moment of birth

we are heading towards death,

then are not all our words

like a dying breath—

an exhalation of hope

that our voices will be heard

after we’re gone?

Like the light of stars

shining for years,

sending light across the universe

long after the star has burnt out.

Are we perhaps,

though weak and frail,

yet destined for eternity,

little flurries of stardust?

Lucy Maud Montgomery: A Wounded Healer

Yesterday my sister sent me a rather devastating article about one of my childhood, and adulthood really, heroines, Lucy Maud Montgomery , the author of the Anne of Green Gables series, and many other books. I learned that she and her husband suffered from an ongoing addiction to medical drugs they were initially given for anxiety. These bromides and barbiturates turned out to be highly addictive and draining, and greatly altered their lives for the worse.

I felt cut to the heart by this news…not in the sense of now despising a former hero, because I believe like Dr. Gabor Maté that drug addiction is the attempt to heal persistent wounds, and not a sign of being lazy or evil. He writes:

[…A]ddiction is neither a choice nor a disease, but originates in a human being’s desperate attempt to solve a problem: the problem of emotional pain, of overwhelming stress, of lost connection, of loss of control, of a deep discomfort with the self. In short, it is a forlorn attempt to solve the problem of human pain. Hence my mantra: “The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.”

Learning of Montgomery’s destructive addiction, I was upset, rather, the way I would be if I discovered that my own grandma had secretly suffered deeply and didn’t have the support she needed to heal in a healthy way. Montgomery suffered so much…losing her mother at a very young age, being abandoned by her father to live with old relatives, being taken lightly as a writer simply because she was a woman and having to take one of her publishers to court for years to receive her proper royalties, losing her best friend Freda to death, having a difficult marriage with a very depressed and at times physically abusive husband, and losing a child to stillbirth, like me.

Unlike me, she did not have the vast amounts of affection, support, spiritual and psychological help it takes to heal from such blows. I wish she could have had professional counselling (which is worth every penny!), a loving group of baby-loss moms to help her through it all, so she would know it was ok to talk about her beloved baby, instead of keeping silent, and a spiritual advisor who could have helped her escape when her husband became violent, instead of thinking it was her duty to stay.

Reading about her pain, I wanted to transport through time and wrap Montgomery in my arms, and tell her that despite all her suffering, she had made the world, my world, incredibly more beautiful. That I, and many others, couldn’t imagine life without her.

I had to think of Henri Nouen’s book The Wounded Healer, in which he describes the transformative power of suffering, and the surprising degree to which the wounded person can be a source of healing for others. Maybe it is that through patient suffering, while continuing to find the beautiful in life, that we give others hope. It is such a high price! Certainly the writings of Montgomery have always brought me hope, and a renewed sense of awe at the fragile preciousness of life and love, the importance of beauty, friendship and imagination.

So, sorrowful as I am, I take some solace in praying for Montgomery, and hoping with all my heart that she is now at peace, and finding Heaven just as thrillingly rich and beautiful as her great heart and mind imagined it would be.

In imagination she sailed over storied seas that wash the distant shining shores of “faëry lands forlorn,” where lost Atlantis and Elysium lie, with the evening star for pilot, to the land of Heart’s Desire. And she was richer in those dreams than in realities; for things seen pass away, but things that are unseen are eternal.” L.M. Montgomery

Every Child Matters: September 30th

This September 30th was the 5th anniversary of my daughter Josephine’s birth. And death. Stillborn. It’s a bittersweet day for me, as we mourn and remember and celebrate her, especially by planting fall bulbs which will fill our garden with colour in the spring. We try to fill her birthday, one haunted by painful memories, with as much love and beauty as we can. We feel the wordless warmth of her love in return, across the temporary divide into the next life. The prayers and kind messages of friends take the sharp edge off this poignant day.

Josephine’s birthday is also Orange Shirt day, the special day assigned to commemorate the suffering of First Nations children separated from their families and put in residential schools. Having lost a child myself, I feel a stab of sympathy when I think of these families who had their children torn away from them. They had the additional torture of anxiety for their children’s happiness and well-being, knowing these were being violated. So from the heart of a mother which has been broken by grief, I send all my deepest wishes for healing and hope to all who have suffered in this way.

I was touched by the slogan below when my sister sent me this poster:

Every child matters.

No qualifying statements: no ‘if/then clauses’ like if they’re wealthy, they matter; if they’re white, they matter; if they’re wanted, they matter, if they’re old enough, they matter. No.

EVERY CHILD MATTERS.

When I saw a petition for equal health care for Inuit babies, I was a bit naively shocked….what do you mean, some babies in Canada often don’t receive equal care?? It seems that in their more extreme climate, many Inuit babies suffer seriously from RSV (respiratory virus syndrome), and some even succumb to it, despite the existence of a preventative antibody that is normally given to at-risk babies. It is not standardly given to them. I’m at a loss to know why. Cost, perhaps? Since when have we put a price tag on human life? Moreover, why is that price tag different depending whose child you are? Every child matters.

To say that some babies matter more than others is to commodify human beings, that is, to turn them into objects of variable worth…mere things whose value is determined by other frail human beings. This makes no sense. Either all babies matter, or none do.

Canada is such a gift. A beautiful country which is filled with so many diverse peoples. Let us please work towards making it a place where it is truly clear that every child matters, no matter what.

This Life

This life–

so beautiful and terrible,

so full of horror and sunsets,

of crushing sadness,

kissable babies toes,

and mellow evening skies through the treetops.

This world of ours,

pulsing with life,

yet ever falling into death.

What is is life, Lord, without you,

who holds all things in being,

from inexpressible richness

to indescribable pain,

from grandmother’s smiles

to pizza.

You stretch our caterpillar spirits,

–too often content

to curl up comfortably at home

in our protective layer of fur–

until we become as expansive as butterflies,

wings dancing across the entire sky,

exposed to the sun and wind and starlight,

and intimately close to you–

face to face,

forever.

Silent Salute

I look with longing up the hill

to where my little sweetie lies.

A strip of tall, green trees topped with crimson

stand at attention along the oft-walked road

like a line of fire

through the graveyard

and up the hill where my baby ever sleeps.

Glorious fall silently saluting the fallen–

my heart shouting without sound

as the bus rumbles by and whisks me away too soon.

Compassion

Let it go, little mamma.

You have deeply entered their pain,

lived it with them,

prayed and suffered.

Their burden is not yours.

You can love

but you cannot hold the whole world

in your heart.

Don’t try to steal God’s job.

Only He, the eternal one,

can bear all the world’s suffering

without breaking to pieces…

Your call now,

is to go dig in your garden

and plant flowers of hope

in the simple brown earth.

Your call is to smile again

and find joy in the little gifts of each day.

Tears have washed you clean.

Now, little mama,

let it go,

trust more,

be silly and laugh again.

Four Years but Love is Forever

I have footprints on my heart. Don’t think that because they were left there four years ago they have faded. The impact of those tiny feet on my heart is irrevocable. I will be forever changed by losing a baby at birth. Besides a tiny curl of dark hair, all I physically have of her is a little plaster cast of her feet. Of course it is unspeakably precious to me. I have it nestled in a piece of the same fleecy soft blanket she is buried in. This is much more than many poor women who lose babies through miscarriage get.

Those of you who are close to me or have been following my blog for some time will know that I lost my baby Josephine just before she was born, due to a cord accident. She was my sixth and I was so ready for her to come…the bassinet set up, newborn diapers on the shelf, the house stocked with groceries…I even had her Christmas present already: a wind-up musical swan with her baby on her back.

She was fine at our last checkup, and then, that night in the hospital…no heartbeat. Just silence. Of course it broke my heart. My family and friends, sweet husband and kids helped hold it together.

She would have been four years old this Sunday, September 30th.

Four years and two healthy babies later, I am much more ok than I was at her first anniversary, or even her second, but sometimes things catch me off guard. I was trying to plan her birthday…maybe lots of us could go to the graveyard and bring tons of flowers…and then I thought, four year olds don’t want flowers! They want toys, and cake and balloons…music and mess and the chaos of 20 kids running through the house dressed as fairies and princesses. It hurts that I can’t give her those things, even though she doesn’t need them. Even though she’s up with the stars and her heart is brimming with love, utterly safe, totally loved, in the peaceful presence of God. I still want to do these simple, silly things for her.

So, we do what we can. The kids and I have made it a birthday week. The other day when we ordered groceries from Save-On, we got chocolate cake. We put on candles and sang. We celebrate her because we love her. We are proud she’s part of our family.

We ordered ice-cream, too and had it the next day. Ben and Jerry’s “If I had a Million Flavours.” We made blueberry crisp, too. We will have mini-cereal boxes on her birthday, as we do for the other kids on their birthdays, because they need her to be just another one of them. She’s in Heaven, but she’s still their sister.

On Sunday after Mass and pancakes we will go to the graveyard and bring flowers. We will spend a little time near her praying, and the little ones will likely run about on the grass and read the names of the people who’ve gone before us: young soldiers from the bicycle squad, grandmas and grandpas from the old country, mothers, fathers, babies who never took a breath outside the womb. All the people who await us in Heaven.

Then, because it’s nice to not be alone on this bittersweet day, we will pick up some of our favourite Indian take-out and go to have dinner at a friend’s place. Surrounded by love, just like our daughter Josephine.

Next week we will plant fall flower bulbs to bloom next spring, just like we did last year: Josephine’s flowers. Hiding under the earth and snow, but secretly full of life. Like the promise of eternal life…always making this life more beautiful.

We want her to be remembered. We are proud to be her family. Sharing her story helps us to honour her and to heal, and to know we are not alone.

Do you have footprints on your heart?

Share your story with #IHaveFootprintsOnMyHeart.

Bittersweet Because

Little darling

how my heart is bursting

with the beauteous warmth of you,

your cuddly down-softness

snuggling in my arms,

fluffy dark hair caressing my cheek as I cradle you.

And yet in all this glory

a bittersweet strain of music

tugs at my heart,

because you are so much like her,

your big sister who was born asleep,

eyes closed forever,

motionless,

and here you are

—thank God!—

alive.

I want to cry grateful tears of sorrow

when you squeak and grumble like a little bear

because your sister was so silent.

And when I smell the milky scent on your neck

because your sister never tasted milk.

I was left bursting but alone…

my arms like edges of an empty cradle

with only myself to rock.

I get choked up by your little hands

which look exactly like hers–

long slim fingers and grandma’s double jointed thumbs.

They’re curled up in tiny fists above your head

in the abandon of sleep,

yet warm and ever ready to grasp my finger

instead is still, pale, and cold.

In this bittersweet place

I love you both

and want to give you everything:

all the affection and tenderness

I wished to give her

but also want to give you for yourself.

I drink deeply both of sorrow and of joy.

How life and death are woven together

–intertwined–

in this strange tapestry where all the shadows

make the colours brighter.

What is painful

and what is precious

have become inseparable

and love runs through it all.