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Mama Grief

As a doula, I have the incredible honor of supporting women across the threshold into motherhood. This week I was presented with a rare and sad experience of supporting a family through the birth of their stillborn son. I have attended over 100 births of babies perfect in their own way and this baby was truly no exception. Born just ten days before his due date, surrounded by his family, parents and grandparents, he was amazingly beautiful--hinting at the hidden life he led in the warmth of his mother's womb and the life that could have been. The circumstances that made this experience even more unusual was that I myself am pregnant with my own second child and I believe that I was called to support this family due to a dream I received the night before the birth.

Usually, protocol allows that anyone who is pregnant would not be advised to support a family with a pregnancy loss. However, the night before the family called, I dreamt of a young dark haired man who came to my door, knocked and said he needed to speak with me. He took me out to a long greenhouse where there were dozens of tender and rare sprouts. He named each one and said that it was his job to tend to them. At the end of the line, he sat me down in the sun and just smiled at me.Later that morning the call came in. I felt so much compassion for this family, they were so wonderfully loving that I just knew I was the appropriate person to be with them. I knew that everything in my career had led me to being prepared and ready to support this kind of experience. I felt my own baby kick in response.

As the baby emerged, I felt a strange hopefulness, like maybe the ultrasounds were wrong. Maybe indeed this baby was alright. So many times before, I'd witnessed this moment that leads to an ecstatic release of emotion and relief. There was a silent hush in the room as everyone took him in. When I saw him, he looked like miniature of the boy in my dream. It was then that I realized how incredible the threshold that is birth holds Life and Death in equal measure. For this moment, we have no answers, just awe, emotion, observation. I did what I could to hold and preserve the space for the family to be in the moment to fully soak in the essence of their son.

What I wasn't prepared for was the impact of this experience on my own family and motherhood. I returned home that afternoon to my 2 year old son. He is a very sensitive and perceptive child. He also balances this with a huge dash of impish charm. Having grown up around babies and pregnancy, he always is ready to point to a woman's belly in the store and comment. "She's a mama. She has a baby in her belly too." Every night and every morning he kisses and hugs my belly and talks to baby "Juna", the name he called baby the day we found out we were pregnant. He's the first to ask if he can "gentee kiss" our friend's babies.

When I returned home I had one guarded conversation with a collegue but my son immediately picked up on the meaning. He was immediately very whiney and clingy. I scooped him up feeling both the mixture of relief of holding my incredibly vital child and exhausted annoyance at needing a break to process. I told him we had to get ready because I needed to go the my own prenatal appointment that afternoon. "Why?" he asked. "Because we go to listen to the babies heart beat"-- I could feel the words getting caught in my throat. But my son didn't want to go. He wanted to watch the "Baby Movies", the childbirth education movies I use for classes. He wanted to see the one's specifically with the "babies in the mama's bellies". Then he started asking me about our babies heart beat. "We go to the miiidddwiiiiifeeezz so the babies heart will be okay, right mama?"

The full impact of the day hit me then, when I realized that my son was deeply worried about our baby and was questioning the meaning of life and death. I had hoped to shield him. My style of parenting has always been to be somewhat matter-of-fact about life stuff. We use the real names for body parts and he is incredibly facinated with where babies come from and how. But up until now, it has mostly been around the Life not Death. His own ideas up this point centered around the ants he would try to squash on the sidewalk and in searching for an explanation we tried to explain how that was ouchy to the ants and that if he continued they would be "all done" (the only concept he knew with a definitive "end").

I wasn't prepared yet to try to explain to my own child why babies die. And come to think of it, how could I ever be ready? I thought of my dream of the young man tending the sprouts in the garden. The words that came to me were these. Sometimes we have other jobs to do that take us away from those we love. I had to go away today from you to help a family with their baby. And their little baby couldn't stay with them because he had to water the sprouts in his garden. But I'm here now. And our baby is here now. And you are here now. And so right now we can all have a big hug and love eachother. My son's responded matter-of-factly. " I want to kiss the baby too." I want to kiss you too, I chimed back.

As with everything in parenting, there's no one-way about it and I none seem to be satisfactory or simple. But I do have a deep faith in children's ability to absorb and accept the mystical and magical experiences of "reality" as we know it.

If you've had an experience with grief, I'd love to know how you've shared it with your children.


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My daughters haven't experienced a death personally yet, but we have talked a lot about it, especially at Halloween time. They started asking questions at about age 3 (they are now 4). They often ask when they will die, or say that they don't want to die. I've found a few books I like on the subject. One is "Where Do People Go When They Die?" by Mindy Avra Portnoy. Another is "Day Of The Dead" by Tony Johnston. "To Everything There Is A Season" is an illustrated selection of verses from Ecclesiastes.


Oops - I forgot to add that "To Everything There Is A Season" is illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, Blue Sky Press, 1998. It is a wonderful book.


We haven't had an experience with a death yet, but I have told my daughter about people I've loved who've died and told her simply "s/he died" when she asks where this person is. Oh, wait...there was one time. One of our "porch kitties" (the abandoned cats I've cared for) went missing and I was sure he was dead. She kept wanting to look for him, so I finally told her he was in Heaven and we couldn't go find him. Oh, then she wanted to go to Heaven to find him and...I think I ran out of answers. I think next time I'll resort to what I do whenever I hit a parenting snag--tell the truth. Only this time I'll have to tell it from what is my own truth and let her know she can be open to whatever truth she finds on the subject.

Thank you for posting this very moving and eloquent story. I think you should use that dream as the basis of a children's book. W
hen my son was 2 1/2, my sister was killed in a car accident. She lived with us and was helping raise Max, so it was as if he lost his third parent. I read "Lifetimes" to him and talked with him a great deal. He's now 5 and, as he hits every new developmental stage, I find he asks a new set of questions about my sister dying. He recently told me he would like to be a rock, because rocks don't die. I try to remind him that rocks also don't get the great pleasure of living...

I'm so sorry for that family. I'm sending healing love their way.

Another nice book for kids dealing with the concept of death is "The Next Place" by Warren Hanson.

Thank you all for sharing your wonderful wisdom. I thought you might like to have an update. Today I shared my dream with the family not knowing how it would land---and the mama and I cried. She then took me out into her huge, overflowing, vivacious garden and told me she hoped to garden as a part of her healing process. She said they'd had plans to build a greenhouse. We both took in the silent message from the dream that whenever she wished to be with her son, she'd find him tending the life in her garden.

Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I was moved to tears and then smiles (and chills) as I just read your update. I am so glad you told the parents about your dream. That must have had such a healing affect on them. I lost someone very, very dear to me when my (now almost 3) son was only 9 months old. I had told them all about my son but they had not had an opportunity to meet due to illness. I was devastated at the loss and tried to not cry in front of my son as I didn't want to upset him. There were more than a few times that crying was unavoidable; one of those times I will always remember....I was sitting on the floor, watching my son crawl and try to walk in our living room. I started crying inaudibly at the thought that my friend would never meet him. Suddenly my little luv turned around, crawled over to me and wrapped his little arms around my neck. Then he turned toward the sun streaming in through the window, held out his hand and started giggling and turned to me and put his hand on my cheek. I suddenly felt that my friend was there, and that, even though he wasn't there physically, did in fact know my son. My 9 month old comforted me. Children are truly amazing. That dream of yours is going to stay with me...in a good way.

thank you for this post. i've thought and written about this a lot, as i had an early miscarriage when everett was not quite two years old, and then his grandma barbara -- my mother-in-law -- died six months later. he's very in touch with the concept of death but, at the time, it seemed too soon to explain it in detail.

now we talk about it often, as he's into watching his aunts and uncles play video games -- where you can "die" and then just come back -- and he also has lots of questions about where people like my grandparents, his grandma barbara, and others are.

my approach has always been to deal with it as simply as possible, and then explain in more detail as a child asks for it. i've used a lot of the "dead means you don't ever come back" explanation, and tried to tie a bit of spirituality in without getting too abstract (we're episcopalian). i really don't have answers but i hear you with all the questions. i've not tried any of these books, but i *do* use tv a lot to discuss things, as everett tends to poke his head in and watch our adult shows (i.e. law & order and the like).

My favorite children's book about death is Margret Wise Brown's The Dead Bird. It includes children's thoughts and musings about death through a story, rather than being *just* a discussion or lecture about death. Sometimes books for children on this subject, while being well-intentioned, can be a little "over the top." The Dead Bird is just simple and direct. Really written for children, by one of the best children's author's ever. It's an old book, kind of hard to come by, but really very lovely. It has inspired some good discussions between my son and I.

Beautiful Jess, thanks for sharing. Truly an honor to share this with you and the family. Love and light for living your dreams, my friend

this was written the same day that my husband's coworker informed him that his wife had to deliver their stillborn son a mere few days from his due date. i have never me this family, but your writing somehow made me feel slightly more connected to them. what you've said here is moving and poignant and beautfully written. they are lucky to have you for support and comfort. somewhere in the sadness there is beauty to be found. thank you for sharing this.

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