I spent some time going back through the grieving practices of my family when I was small and into adulthood when I realized I hadn’t spent time finding my very own way to grieve. Thanks to The Porch Magazine for sharing these words reflecting that journey.
Finding My Very Own Way to Grieve
When I was a little girl, I was quite the bibliophile. Most days of the week you could find me sitting out by the creek with our family husky Reba–nose in a book and feet in the water. I particularly enjoyed mysteries. The Boxcar Children was a favorite as a group of siblings, much like my brothers and me, were always out on an adventure, trying to solve the case of the lost dog or the haunting of the town’s old schoolhouse. They were accessible mysteries that a third grade brain could really relate to. So, when I read Charlotte’s Web, I was thrilled by the tension of sweet Wilbur being saved from slaughter by young Fern, later sent to a nearby farm where he faced another threatening farmer that didn’t see the value in his little life, and the animal gang camaraderie that came together to save a charming runt-of-the-litter pig. Thanks to his new spider friend Charlotte for weaving life-saving inspirational webs, Wilbur was able to pull his weight on the farm with newfound local fame as “some amazing pig.” I knew these types of stories though and braced myself for what was to come next—either the easy, “sailing off into the sunset” or some unthinkable next layer of disappointment. Little did I know, this unsuspecting barn-house fairytale would bring me into my first attempt at grappling with death.
It wasn’t long after sitting with the devastation Wilbur felt in Charlotte’s passing that I came home from school to find Reba, who had been pregnant that entire summer, giving birth to a litter of puppies. I ran inside to tell Mom, who came out to clear a space and ask my brothers and me to grab towels and a bowl of water to have close by. After running inside, I came back to the driveway and knelt next to my mom where four small pups lay bloody beside her with one itty-bitty one curled close. Before I could ask my Mom about that one and why I couldn’t see its eyes, I watched as Reba began to eat the small bloody sack with no awareness of me or my brothers or the other puppies. I panicked and ran back inside the house so I didn’t have to see. My mother later came inside to comfort me. She told me that this happened sometimes and Reba was simply acting on her motherly, animal instinct.
I believed my Mom and felt comforted that she seemed so sure of this being a process that happened naturally in animals, yet I didn’t know what to do with these parts of the story that just created an end rather than another door to the next part of the mystery. Would I die unexpectedly tomorrow? Who else is eaten because their body isn’t equipped as it should be for this world? As an awkward, chubby, little girl, I was concerned. Many years later, I attended my first funeral, and it was everything you might expect from a Southern, Free Will Baptist, end-of-life ceremony with a pastor, an opening sermon, and hymns sung in a crowd of family and friends cloaked in black. Plates of egg salad and fried chicken filled the house afterward as everyone wept and sat and patted each other on the back repeating that, “she was with the Lord now.” Not long after, I attended another funeral much the same. I acted as I thought I was expected to behave—polite and silent until spoken to, dressed in black, and moving through the motions of scripture and sermon, potato salad and prayer.
By the time I went to college, I’d unconsciously stopped showing up to funerals, even those of family which I’d later regret. There were genuine reasons not to attend with finances and class schedules, homework and the cost of travel. The truth I’d later acknowledge was that I didn’t feel myself in these ceremonies and more importantly I didn’t feel the person’s life being honored in the way that I remembered them. It was all so sterile and removed in a sense that just felt like going through the motions of something as simple as cleaning the bathroom. First we lift the toilet lid and then we empty the wastebasket. First we gather in a circle and then we sing the hymnal and cry. So, I guess it’s no surprise that when it came time to grieve my own loss, I really didn’t know what to do. I took two weekend days to wrestle with the pain in my own body and the fleeting experience of life here and gone in a moment, and then I returned to work and placed it all away. My partner had left me in a difficult year of surgery and grappling with a genetic health issue leading to the unexpected loss of my baby during my second trimester. I didn’t want to bother friends whose lives were seemingly in times of celebration with job promotions, moving to new cities, and sharing news of their babies. I thought if I told my mother there would inevitably be a sermon and scripture that would whisk me away into someone else’s ceremony all over again.
So, I did something I’d later learn is deeply ingrained in how I’ve learned to survive and very supported in a capitalist and individualist culture—I sucked it up, put my head down, got back to work, and pretended it didn’t happen for a solid five months. I’m not sure how everyone around me didn’t notice just how utterly confused and heartbroken I was. I felt like a walking pile of skin and bones, somehow still functioning in the world, yet altogether lost in trying to understand what kind of world takes away small babies with heartbeats growing inside their mothers. What had I done to deserve this horrific, unexpected plot twist? After five months, any semblance of a facade faded, and I joined an endometriosis support group at my doctor’s suggestion. Every week we circled up via Zoom and shared our stories of how living with the disorder affects our lives. I heard from middle-aged women who suffered the loss of two and three children; young women whose husbands called them hysterical and left them; elderly women who had been to the lowest points in their lives and somehow found answers that realigned them, sure-footed, and with a tender kind of super-power back on their path to be in that circle with me. Around week seven, I found the words to share my own story. It wasn’t easy, even as a writer and someone with a decade long career in communications.
By week eight, I received a letter in the mail from another woman in my group. I set up a potluck with two other women nearby, and we met and cried over bowls of soup. I learned how all of these women created ways to honor the lives of the babies they’d lost, the surgeries they’d survived, the support they wish they’d been given and had to find within themselves. I connected with a somatic counselor to continue what I opened there in a more intimate space. I gathered my friends for a fire, spaghetti supper, and ceremony with a uterus pinata and poetry. We circled up and shared parts of our own experiences. I made a small memorial space for my baby under a silver maple in my yard, adding a stone with the name I’d given her, pink ribbons, found feathers, and a small, stone, Japanese Jizo sculpture. I made time to sit in the garden with her and continue the journal I’d started when she was in my womb. Little did I know, I’d created my own grieving ritual. I’d found the elements that felt natural to me in honoring the loss of her life. Looking back, I saw that I gravitated toward being able to share in a supportive, larger community with people who shared a similar loss. It then felt natural to want to create a space to acknowledge what happened with my close friends gathered around me, sharing a meal and a fire and and a space for us all to sit with what happened together, with the feeling of death and transition together, with how I was stumbling my way through honoring a life. I found deep comfort in creating a memorial space filled with totems and things that reminded me of our short time together and rituals of planting seeds and taking a day to hike with her spirit that I could return to in the days and years to come.
I found something that couldn’t have been told to me or prescribed if someone tried. I know now that while we can’t avoid the pain and confusion felt in the death of someone we hold close, we can create spaces that actively mourn and honor their lives.
We can create ceremonies and rituals that look as different and unique as we all are, that are chosen to honor our connection and process our emotions in ways that feel natural and fitting for us while we hurt and question and wrestle through one of life’s most devastating conclusions.
And we should not and cannot do that alone. As someone said to me early on, “grief needs room to breathe.” It’s up to us what kind of space we allow for it.