Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that my life’s work would be about grief, death and how death can teach us to live. But as I examine my life, this is where I have been headed from a very young age. When I was six years old, my stepfather died of a massive coronary. From that point forward, death and loss became a major theme, as my mother’s and my unresolved grief became the foundation of my most formative years.
Many losses and many years later, as a newly ordained minister, the very first official service I did was a memorial service of a friend who had committed suicide. The first words I spoke were, “I could never have imagined that when I met Robert six years ago, one day I would be a minister, and that his Memorial Service would be my first.” Not two years later, I was standing at the same pulpit for my brother’s memorial giving the eulogy, and three months after that I conducted the entire funeral service including singing “The Lord’s Prayer” for my oldest and dearest friend, Doris. Two months would pass and I was once more at the pulpit memorializing my infant daughter. I wasn’t just a mother in front of her family and friends; I was a staff minister in front of her congregants. I felt their eyes watching as they held their breath. They looked to me as a leader in their community, wondering how I would handle the weight of all of these losses.
The weight of my despair was crushing, and I chose to be very honest about my descent into doubt and hopelessness. I stopped giving sermons and I stopped seeing my spiritual counseling clients. I could no longer help a desperate person find hope with the same shallow teachings and platitudes that I had been taught because I now knew they were false.
I read over 50 books, tried individual psychotherapy, group therapy, mediums, spiritual counseling and I got a little bit from each. Eventually I became a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist at The Grief Recovery Institute, trained by Russell Friedman, one of the co-authors of “The Grief Recovery Handbook.” I found their method to be extremely helpful with working through the emotional aspects of grief and I highly recommend The Grief Recovery Method. Yet, after all that work, I still felt a void spiritually. I just couldn’t reconcile the loss of Hallie with my understanding of God, the power of prayer and the fact that either “there must be a reason” for her death or that she just “wasn’t meant to be.”
Later I went to Compassionate Friends, a wonderful bereavement group that provides peer support to families who’ve suffered the loss of a child. Most of the parents had lost older children, but the group offered a sub-group for infant loss. As I sat in these infant loss groups and heard story after story, the grim details of how this baby died and that woman miscarried, and how nobody understood, all I felt was traumatized. I knew grieving for the loss of an infant was different, probably due to a perceived lack of a relationship between the parents and an unborn child or a baby under the age of one year. Doctors have even been known to say, “You can always have another,” or “At least you lost it sooner rather than later,” as if to say there was no connection between the parents and their infant. People either focused on the death scenario or simply didn’t acknowledge or understand it at all.
This experience was the impetus of the research for my book, Graceful Grieving: A Radical Spiritual Approach to Healing After Infant & Pregnancy Loss and forming Graceful Grieving, Inc. a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization. I had hoped my research would uncover the missing piece to completing grief after such loss. At first, I wasn’t sure what the remedy could be. I hoped there was a simple “5 Easy Steps to..,” but what I learned was that each case is unique; grief is not the same experience for everyone. I discovered that the existing paradigms are helpful but incomplete; so many of the resources available to grievers are psychologically- or religiously based, one person’s experience or completely “woo-woo” psychic-type stuff. Again, these can be helpful, but I realized that there is a lack of spiritual, NOT religious or “woo-woo,” but real spiritual help for grievers who may have lost their faith. Further, much of the religious material currently available to grievers is filled with judgment and threats. Not helpful!
The most important gift I received from my studies, research and personal experience was the understanding that grief recovery must include the story of the relationship. I could walk into any funeral of an adult today and people would be crying and laughing but most importantly, they would be telling stories. Stories about their loved one’s life, not just the circumstances surrounding the loved one’s death. That is what I would call complete grieving.
But what happens if you have a baby that is stillborn? Or, if you lose your child within mere hours or days of his or her birth? If I walked into a funeral held for one of these babies, I am willing to bet there wouldn’t be laughter and stories about the baby’s life. That is one of the most important missing pieces to fully grieving the loss of a baby. I have found that true healing occurs when the grieving parents tell the complete story of the relationship they had with their infant, no matter how brief, to acknowledge not just the death, but the life of their child.
I had a very real relationship with my daughter while she was in my partner Cindy’s belly. I read to her, I sang to her, we even bought a Doppler to listen to her heartbeat every night. Later in the pregnancy, when Cindy was on bed rest, we had weekly sonograms through which I witnessed every stage of her growth. Later still, we lived in the hospital for the final six weeks of the pregnancy where Cindy was hooked up to every monitor you could imagine, twenty-four hours a day. During that time, we literally heard every beat of her heart, every movement – we could tell by the accelerations and decelerations of her heartbeat whether she was hungry, sleeping, uncomfortable or happy. Her kicking told us a lot, too! Mostly she would kick to either applaud my singing or to shut me up… I never quite figured out which kick was a good review and which kick indicated a thumb’s down. Everyone’s a critic. This was a seven and a half month relationship that started the moment we discovered that Cindy was pregnant. The story of her birth and death only covers nineteen and a half hours of that relationship.
I do believe one needs to acknowledge the devastating blow of the death of an infant, but the life must be acknowledged as well. As a result of the wisdom gained from my relationship with my daughter, I created a workshop for parents who have lost an infant called “Birth Write: The Write Way to Grieve,” which helps parents document the story of the life they had with their baby. “Finding Your Way Back to Faith,” came out of a workshop I developed for grievers who have lost their faith as a result of their loss.
I walked a dark, excruciatingly painful and lonely path after losing my infant daughter, my faith and what I knew as my purpose. By using the tools in this book, I found my way to a stronger faith, which has brought me to my deeper purpose: to be a light for you as you walk through your grief, guiding you to a stronger faith so you can know your deeper purpose. If you walk through your grief, you can feel more complete and joyful than you did before your beautiful baby made their miraculous, if all-to-brief appearance in your life.