Are there healing ways for all in the family to remember an infant who dies?
This was Ashlee Hammac’s question last October when their baby Ryan died just five days after his birth from Hypox-Ischemic Encephopathy. Though in shock and heartbroken, this mom also recognized her three-year-old son Tucker’s heartbreak at losing his little brother. He had shared months of the family’s joyful anticipation during her pregnancy. He also met Ryan in the hospital NICU room. He knew his mother and father spent day and night reading children’s books to Ryan as a way to bond with their dying child. Realizing Tucker needed a natural way to mourn, she decided to add a sandbox to Ryan’s gravesite so his feelings could be expressed too. “Tucker loves trucks and was always going to the gravesite with me,” said Hammac in an interview with People magazine. “I wanted to make it special for him too. Now he goes out and sings lullabies to him and talks to him just like he was there, almost like they are playing together.”
A National Response
When the photograph above was published, it went viral to over 220,000 users. Hammac received so much virtual support because other parents recognized her unusual thoughtfulness in our mourning-avoidant culture. This also led their family to start a non-profit called “Pages to Memories.” Part of their mission is to collect books for families to read to children in the NICU units in hospitals. “I wanted to feel like Ryan was helping still. In those five days he changed our family.”
Other Ways of Remembrance
Other parents I interviewed for Pilgrimage through Loss mentioned creative ways they found for siblings to remember and talk about their feelings of confusion and loss. When Lorie Sawyer entered unexpected labor and gave birth to premature twins, her daughter and son died within minutes of birth. “I first saw Lori in bed with a baby in each arm, wrapped in the pink and blue blanket I’d brought,” remembers Shelly, Lori’s mother. “Memories of this are still heart-wrenching years later.” But what Lori and Shelly appreciate deeply was the humane and sensitive way the hospital helped their family through such a profound loss. For a brief period, the nurses took the babies to bathe and then brought them back dressed in tiny baby clothes kept on hand for such infants. “What I remember vividly was there was no sense of hurry in the hospital. We could hold and rock the babies as long as we needed,” said this grateful grandmother.
Including Their Other Children
Lori and her husband, Ben, have two older sons who were five and eight and their family wanted to have the babies baptized. Their friend, a female pastor, came to to the hospital to conduct this significant religious ritual, and they named their children Molly and Joseph. They believe this bonding time with their babies have helped Joseph and Molly to always be a part of their family story, important to their older sons. Even their daughter, Annie, born after the twin’s death, gets involved in remembering. “They died shortly before Halloween, so on the first-year anniversary, we released balloons with messages from the boys to their baby brother and sister,” said Lori. “Then, when their father took the boys to get pumpkins, they asked to add two very small ones for the babies. Now it is a tradition to have five pumpkins on the porch each year in memory. Annie, seven, continues this custom now.” She also feels that family rituals need to be natural, not forced, and recognizes that they will change over the years.
In their shock, they hadn’t thought to take pictures, but the nurses took little Polaroids. “These became magically recreated into beautiful photographs through a group of professional volunteer photographers in the Seattle area called Soulumination,” appreciates Lori. “They take life-affirming pictures of terminally ill children to give the family an enduring legacy.” These also help provide a natural way for siblings to talk about baby Molly and Joseph.
These healthy expressions of forever love inevitably help siblings. It’s an important change from earlier times when sorrow often stayed buried in silence.
Do you know of other creative ways families have helped siblings living with a brother or sister’s death?
Why are gardens so universally healing? This morning, after
harvesting sun-ripened peaches, Japanese finger eggplants, heirloom tomatoes, kale, sunflowers and more, I felt profound gratitude. Truth is, I still live in awe of seeds. How a bland black/brown seed planted last spring emerges as an seven-foot tall branching sunflower amazes me. That’s even after the deer dropped by for a gourmet meal and topped off their first flower heads. Nothing stops their exuberant growth!
I first discovered the power of a garden after being diagnosed with my first aggressive breast cancer many years ago. While healing from surgery and chemo, I began restoring a neglected three-tier rock garden. I chose perennials, probably because they live for many seasons. It’s a welcome image in the midst of cancer treatment.
An Abundance of Beauty
Then when our daughter Krista died on a sunny May morning, we plunged into the deep winter of sorrow. The one bright moment each day was seeing what new shoots or blossoms came forth in the garden. To watch an elegant bronze French tulip wave in the wind, see a star magnolia unfurl, or taste a tart Concord grape from a 50-year-old vine inevitably gave my heart a lift. Life does continue to unfold with beauty, I sensed, and seeds of hope slowly took root. Environmentalist John Muir’s quote that “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul” seems as true today as in the 1800s.
The Rituals in each Season
I also love the rhythm of rituals that gardens inevitably create….such as baking a peach pie the day they ripen on the tree. The ancient words “There is a time to sow and a time to reap” shape a gardener’s or cook’s days. Whether making spring’s strawberry shortcake or jam, summer’s gazpacho soup or basil pesto, or autumn’s baked apples, I find working with the earth’s seasonal offerings somehow gives a gentle inner peace. After our harsh winters, I can hardly wait for our farmer’s market to open. Fall wouldn’t feel complete without our annual family drive to Green Bluff to pick apples. Many persons savor such seasonal rhythms and rituals, and memories of special meals often sharpen our longings for home when away. This year I experimented with an internet recipe called Mama Thorton’s Peace Pie Recipe…with almond and cinnamon. It clearly deserves its five star rating! If you like to bake, you can find it at http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/anne-thornton/mama-thorntons-peach-pie-recipe.html. On a hot afternoon, I did it the lazy way by just rolling out a prepared pie crust.
Gardening connects us to neighbors and communities
After harvesting in the morning, I brought some hot red peppers to Meredith, an adventuresome young cook on our lane. She offered me some zucchini and green beans. Since I don’t grow them, I actually welcomed the zucchini (rare, I know). I wanted to try an excellent recipe our daughter Susan created when we recently visited in Boston. The sun filtered into her garden as her two-year-old son Marshall stopped playing long enough to taste a fresh pea from a pod. “Yummy,” he announced as he asked for more. It was a golden moment, seeing a mom assuring that her child experiences the miracle of a fresh pea, pausing to enjoy friendship, and feeling connected to a daughter 3000 miles away as I imagined recreating her recipe. These daily encounters that gardens encourage feel ripe with goodness, especially during these days of disturbing global news.
Winter’s Quiet Renewal
A close friend and the most passionate gardener I know is now undergoing complex treatments for melanoma. For my birthday, she gave me a garden sign that says “Garden as though you will live Forever.” In her own treatment and healing, she knows that the garden will stay central for solace and soul nurturing. Yet, by summer’s end, we both welcome the reality that our cold Inland Northwest climate gives us a pause from gardening. We know that the season of dormancy also offers a time of unseen renewal. Plants continue to be nurtured in their invisible underground soil. When we need to live patiently while enduring a life-altering loss, or when illness forces us to face, even trust, an unseen future, there’s comfort in knowing that quiet renewal is possible.
Gardening inevitably has times of disappointment. I think of one summer where an infestation of aphids decimated some potted vegetables, a hungry deer devoured lilies and hostas, and a surprise freeze ruined a healthy crop of heirloom tomatoes. Such reality leads us to becoming adaptable and persistent when obstacles emerge.
One doesn’t even need a garden to discover the healing power of plants. With all of the indoor herbal gardens now available for apartment dwellers, raised beds being offered at local community gardens, and the possibility of vegetables growing in container pots (that’s how I do most of ours), almost everyone can experience such wonder even with very limited space.
Have you found gardens healing for you?
At the heart of healing, many persons speak of how practicing gratitude proves life-giving. I learned about Naikan, a fascinating Japanese spiritual practice of gratitude this past weekend while speaking at an international Sage-ing Conference in Seattle on Pilgrimage through Loss. Barbara Sarah led this workshop, a psychologist who uses this method in both her counseling practice and with a large Oncology Support Program in New York that she founded. Influenced by principles of Shin Buddhism, she believes this systematic structured method of self reflection proves immensely helpful in promoting compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, and attention with her clients and cancer survivors. It sounds deceptively simple, but it obviously has layers of meaning.
THREE KEY QUESTIONS TO ASK OURSELVES EACH DAY
1) What Did I Receive?
2) What Did I Give?
3) What Troubles and Difficulties Did I Cause? (I chuckled at this one thinking of how often in a day I interrupt Jim for help on computer problems!)
The suggestion is to take a few minutes every day reflecting on these three questions. They can be applied to a specific person (i.e. what did I receive or give from my spouse, parent, child, boss, etc.), general (i.e. all that we receive each day, like the sun rose, or rain for the parched land), or even to an object (I experimented with the newspaper and was surprised by some undercurrents of gifts, like a legal system that addresses injustice, or a fire department responded to an alarm).
The Key is in Specific Details
For example, even before 8 a.m. one morning when I practiced this in the broad sense, I noticed (that’s the ‘pay attention’ encouragement) that the newspaper man delivered the paper, the internet brought email from friends and global news, hot water came from the shower, Jim made a pot of decaf coffee for me and walked down to to box to bring up the paper, and Allie our golden retriever welcomed us with her exuberant joy of life. I had given Jim and Allie a morning hug, fixed Jim an aronia berry smoothie (a gift from our garden), etc…..you get the idea! Later, I interrupted Jim’s reading to ask him to go to the store because extra guests were suddenly coming for dinner, a staff person at Whitworth needed to leave a scholarship event go get name tags at the last minute because I hadn’t thought of it before, etc.
The idea of the Naikam reflection is to keep us realistic about the facts of our life and how interconnected we really are to one another and to embrace our days with the spirit of gratitude. If you notice, there is no question four that asks “What troubles and difficulties did others cause us today?” because the sense is we are all quite aware of who upsets and disappoints us which is often the source of our unhappiness.
What About Creating Healthy Discomfort?
My one concern when hearing about this was did the Naikan practice stifle or even silence healthy expressions of discontent, such as emerge from activists addressing significant injustices in our culture like civil rights, personnel issues in the workplace, or emerging global concerns like climate change? Sarah responded that she actually was an activist too and that the third question didn’t contribute to limiting her thoughtful participation in issues. The attempt is a realistic assessment, so it is feasible that the answer to number three could be an intentional attempt to create awareness of a problem, such as “I wrote my congressman expressing concern for coal trains coming through the city of Spokane.” More often, however, we fail to even notice where we create difficulties and this practice could help us expand to see more of the other person’s point of view on an issue.
I’m presently reading Gregg Krech’s book Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection to understand more. He is the Executive Director of the ToDo Institute, an education and retreat center in Vermont. Naikan has a growing field of mental health professionals in Japan and Europe using this practice as a tool in the areas of alcoholism, addictions, marriage and family therapy, conflict resolution in the workforce, and with children struggling with behavior issues. I’ll write more as I learn more. It’s just one more tool, like the gratitude journals, that draw us to a profound sense of thanksgiving for blessings that often go unnoticed.
Less than three years ago, a life-threatening illness left University of Washington junior Olivia Arguinchona barely able to walk 10 yards, unable to attend classes, and unsettled over her career goals. Facing an abnormally complicated case of Minimal Change Disease, the auto-immune illness severely attacked the kidneys, causing her body to lose life-essential protein. It came on suddenly, when three blood clots in her brain led to emergency hospitalization. She languished for weeks at the UW medical center when her disease resisted all traditional treatments leaving her body edematous and extremely weak. After a frightening recurrence, an innovative chemotherapy treatment finally restored her to health a year later.
Yet today, she’s immensely grateful she experienced such profound illness. “My illness has turned out to be my greatest strength, the best thing that ever happened to me. It completely changed my world view.” Now infused with a strong career direction, Olivia will be entering graduate school this fall to prepare for the relatively new field of Pediatric Palliative Care, and exudes joy and peace in her new sense of life purpose.
She also respects the resiliency of the human body after training for a year, and recently completed a half-Iron Man triathlon in Victoria, B.C. where she swam 1 1/2 mile, ran 13 miles, and cycled 56 mile…a grueling effort even without an earlier illness. Even more important to Olivia, she joined a team that raised over $146,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Why? What happened that turned her traumatic illness into a time of gratitude and personal growth?
Shipwreck and Resilience
I’ve been very interested in resilience, what happens when people experience a life “shipwreck.” Theologian Richard Niebuhr speaks of shipwreck as “the coming apart of what has served as shelter and protection and has held and carried one where one wanted to go–the collapse of a structure that once promised trustworthiness.” On book tours, I often speak about life shipwrecks for Pilgrimage through Loss. Whether talking about the loss of a loved one, a career collapse, a broken marriage, a health crisis, a bankruptcy…any life event that shatters our assumptions that what seemed trustworthy no longer exists, I am fortunate to hear stories from men and women about what gave them new resilience and hope.
As she was healing, Olivia began volunteering with University Presbyterian Church in Seattle in their Side by Side program for children in Palliative Care. She also became a Program Assistant for the University of Washington’s Palliative Care program. Palliative care is end-of-life care aimed at alleviating suffering and pain. She considers it a privilege to befriend families and to come alongside children as they are dying.
Seeing the Gift from her Time of Vulnerability
Her role? “I go play with the kids and talk with them.” She finds that sharing her own story brings trust from both families and children. “I can share with them that I’ve been sick too, and taken medicines that make me feel sicker. I show them the scars from my pick lines.”
One three-year old girl especially confirmed her new career choice. A child with the most lethal form of acute myloma leukemia, she has already had two bone marrow transplants. But she still lives exuberantly, learning to dance using the IV pole tethered to to her as a partner, not an obstacle. She also always encourages her mom and dad. So upbeat, she’s become an inspiration to most of the medical staff as she ‘reads’ imaginary bedtime stories to her teddy bed while putting a pretend IV line into the bear.
But one time, Olivia and she talked at a deeper level, a moment that cemented Olivia’s desire to address the lack of children’s palliative care in this country.
“This vivacious girl panicked one night when a nurse put medicine in her nasal tube,” shared Olivia. “You can imagine how uncomfortable that would be. After the nurse left, I climbed onto the hospital bed reaching for a quietly sobbing girl.
‘Are you scared?’ I asked. She nodded and I proceeded to tell her it was ‘ok’ and normal to be scared. I understood because I had been really sick too.
With big brown eyes, she turned to look at me and whispered, ‘But I am scared every day.'”
Olivia was astounded this three-year-old, who constantly assured her mother she would be ok, had cognitively hid her fear so as not to worry those around her. She understood her own emotions and their effect on people she loved. “This is an understanding that most people my age haven’t even grasped. If I can use my personal experience to help a child feel even a tiny bit safer as they bravely face fear and illness, it will have all been worth it for me.”
Have you ever had an experience that first seemed like a shipwreck and then later you found gifts hidden within it?