Monday, December 30, 2013

Would You Like A Two-Year-Old?

Today at Starbucks someone asked us if we would like to take their child. 

"Would you like a two-year-old? I can't get her to put on her coat!"

"We would love one." 

How is she to know our little boy will be 2 in a week and that we can't get him to put his coat on either. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Love Muffins

This morning I channeled some grief anger into apple cheddar muffins. The anger is because of grief and the grief is because of love. Love muffins. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

2nd Christmas Without Him

This is a post I wrote for the Still Life Canada blog.

This is our 2nd Christmas season without Toren. Because he was born in early January, this season is always tied in with his death and his birth. Last year at this time, we were busy preparing his memorial service, which was held on his first birthday. This year it’s been a bit difficult to figure out what we want to do, how we want to spend the day. Take a trip somewhere, or have friends over for cake? We’ve been asked if we “celebrate” his birthday. The truth is that celebration is still hard for me. I think of it as “marking” his birthday. Maybe one day it will feel like a celebration of his important life. Every child deserves to be celebrated. Right now, the grief is still so fresh almost 2 years on. I can’t really believe it’s been almost 2 years since he died, that we have lived like this for almost 2 years. I still feel the shock of that.

I will say that this year, the holiday season has been easier though I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe “easier” is not quite the right word. Different. I feel more able to participate in things. The grief can still take my breath away, but maybe I have learned better how to function through it. Or maybe I’ve learned to not try to function through it at all, but to just be still. Maybe it’s because I knew what to expect and adjusted my expectations – subconsciously – remembering how it felt last year. Whatever the reason, or reasons, I feel grateful for it.

This year I have taken the expression “season of giving” much more to heart. Acts of kindness, donations, connecting with those who are having a tough time. Mindfulness. I do this for him, for myself, for others and especially for our living child, Toren’s sister, who is 5 now. I want her to understand that though this is a celebratory time of year, it can also be particularly difficult for some people. We miss Toren every single day, not just at special occasions, but the festiveness of the season is a harsh contrast to face. I want her to understand that not everyone is feeling merry, not every child gets presents and indeed, not everyone celebrates “Christmas”, either religiously or culturally. I want her to have a rich and honest context for her experiences, for her own benefit and for the benefit of others. At this time of year, we can dress up and go see the Nutcracker ballet, admire the beautiful costumes, enjoy the music and have a hot chocolate at intermission. We can also donate food to the food bank and talk about families who need it and the volunteers doing the work. There are many truths in the world, and sometimes they are jumbled on top of each other, joy and sadness, and sometimes it gets confusing and that’s ok. There is room for all of it.

We want to have a happy holiday season but we can’t fake it. We can’t put the holidays into a lovely glass snow globe and shut out the the rest of the world. We can’t ignore the fact that we’re sad that Toren is not here to open presents, marvel at Christmas lights, taste his first candy cane, hear the music of the season. This is not being “negative”, as bereaved parents are sometimes accused of being. We feel this sadness because we love him. There’s nothing negative about that.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cracks in the Pavement

...shaped like a hummingbird! Don't ask me how I spotted it.

There's a time to look to the skies, and a time to keep your head down. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013


There is a program at our daughter's school the aim of which is to promote empathy. Parents are invited to bring an infant into the classroom so that the students can observe the baby, consider the baby's feelings, and help children "identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others". The baby is brought in once a month throughout the school year. Obviously when I read about this program just before our daughter started kindergarten, I felt anxious. It sounds like a good program for families who are not having to cope with the death of a baby. How would she feel learning all about a new baby when ours had died? Would there be any empathy in the classroom for her  feelings? It's not that we avoid babies (we can't), I'm just used to being there to support her. That is my priority - supporting her in her grief. 

One of the reasons I'm unsure about this program is that it was enthusiastically promoted to us only moments after we said that our baby died. No condolences were offered. This all happened while our daughter was present. To me, this is one of the biggest ways children learn empathy - by seeing it modeled by the adults in their every day lives and in those moments when it would have the greatest impact. If the people implementing this program cannot even offer condolences and take the opportunity to say to a child who will be participating in their program, "I'm sorry your brother died.", I have some serious  doubts.

For now, we have the dates emailed to us so that our daughter does not go in on those days. Last week I made a mistake and sent her in on a day of the "empathy" program without realizing it and this was the activity the kids did:

A diaper bag. Of course this was hard for me to see. But this is not about me. She said she enjoyed the activity and that's fine. I just wonder how the adults present could let her do this activity without sparing a single thought for what might be going through her mind, what she might be feeling. Did it even occur to them that this might be a sensitive activity for a child whose baby brother died? Nothing was said to us. I'm not worried about her feeling sad. That is unavoidable. My concern is that she feels alone and unsupported. Sometimes we don't feel more alone than when we're in a room full of people not acknowledging our truth. That is a terrible feeling and in my mind, causes more problems than feeling sad about something sad and having it acknowledged and supported. 

When I say "concern", what I really mean is fierce, gut-wrenching anger and sadness for what she is going through at such a young age, and how she will carry this burden her whole life. Just to be clear.

After I calmed down from all these complicated feelings, I suggested to her that on the next "empathy" day, we could go through the memory boxes I put together for the hospital (and still haven't delivered - this is proving harder than expected), and she could draw and cut out those items. She loved that idea and said, "We can do our own empathy program!" So now I'm inspired to do babyloss activities with her on those days. 

Yesterday we worked on this:

The items she drew are, from left to right, a candle, a knitted hat and blanket, a (disposable) camera and a journal. Later she added a drawing of a teddy bear. We talked about each of the items and how it might help someone whose baby has died. I'm hoping we can share this activity with some of our babyloss friends who are also raising bereaved siblings or cousins. The box is made of paper and was given to me by my dear friend Theresa, an amazingly empathetic person (and crafty too!). 

I wish my daughter could only learn about empathy from happy experiences. But she can't. Not anymore. 

Maybe some day the empathy program at her school will include a component where people can come into the classroom and talk about someone they love who has died, and help children learn about empathy in another context. Maybe the school will participate in other events such as Children's Grief Awareness Day. Maybe they'll stop spewing mindless platitudes like "Thinking positive means letting go" over the loudspeaker during morning announcements. For now, we are opting out of the empathy program out of respect for her feelings – not to “protect” her, because that is neither necessary nor desired, but because we believe that we are the best people to guide her in emotional literacy when it comes to grief, particularly the grief associated with stillbirth. 

I know I could be accused of putting my grief on her. But I reject that. She is her own person with her own feelings, which she is learning to identify and manage.  

In the 23 months since Toren was stillborn, we have learned so much. Both our children have been our teachers in this. When someone you love dies, your relationship with that person does not end. It takes on a different form. It is a painful, painful transformation. Our relationship with Toren has continued to change and grow. It's obvious to us that this is happening for our daughter too. It's important to us as parents to nurture that sibling relationship.

We live in a culture that does not seem to understand the simple concept that we grieve because we love. And children's grief is, I think, even more hidden than the grief of adults. On the same day we told our daughter our new baby was coming home, we had to tell her that he had died. It was the second hardest thing I've ever had to do. I know how that moment changed my life. I don't know all the ways it changed hers, but I know that it did. I truly believe that those who deny that children grieve (and especially grieve someone they supposedly "never met") are foolish and harmful, to put it mildly. On the surface, she seems like a joyful person, and she is. But it would be a mistake to assume that she does not grieve her brother in her own way, and will do so her whole life. All these things add to the challenge of raising a bereaved sibling. Life, grief and death, these things are complicated enough for an adult to try to understand. It's our job to gently guide her through that. We hope we are teaching her empathy, among other things, and surrounding ourselves with people who are also able to teach her, mostly by being empathetic themselves.

Check out what researcher Brené Brown has to say about the power of empathy, with some lovely animation by the RSA. I note that the example she uses is not a happy one, such as a living baby, but something sad that someone is going through. We watched it with our daughter, she loves it. 

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Toren's Tree 2013

We decorated Toren's tree today. We were commenting how the tree has changed from last year. We have seen the tree several times over the year but this was the first time since last year that we have handled it, looked at it closely, tended to it. It continues to grow and change. It felt good to know the tree better, to see the changes.

I like developing these traditions around him. I like having these deliberate ways of maintaining our connection to him. That connection can never be broken, however much anyone tries. I just don't want it to ever be hidden.

It's All Right To Cry

From the wonderful folks at Sesame Street, this is a good video with an important message for children - it's all right to cry. My daughter and I both got tearful watching it! It's also an important message for adults - it's all right to cry.