grief

You can’t outgrow hope

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by Annie Hardison-Moody

For a lot of reasons, I’ve been thinking this week about hope. Key among those reasons is a piece that Monica Coleman posted on her beautiful mind blog, Ordinary Saints.  There, she writes about pregnancy loss and the trenches of grief that often surround us when we try to find hope or joy or life in the midst of loss.  It’s difficult (and feels, at times, impossible) to see life where you only know death.  But, she writes, there are saints among us who show us that hope is possible, even when we can’t find it.

With my colleague, Dara Bloom, I’m working on a project with the women’s committee at the Islamic Association of Raleigh (IAR). Maryam Funmilayo, a gifted and passionate nutrition educator, has been holding classes with immigrant and refugee women there through our Faithful Families Eating Smart and Moving More program (which I direct), to connect spiritual and physical health in an effort to help faith communities have access to healthier foods and physical activity.  Through that project, we learned that the women at the IAR wanted greater access to fruits and vegetables that they grew or ate in their home countries. We started out with Maryam offering tours at the local farmer’s market, but the project has evolved into working on a community and school garden, and doing some container garden workshops so that women can grow food from their home countries here in the U.S.  Dara and I have loved working with this group of women – when we show up on a Friday night for a meeting, the room is always filled with smiles, good food, hugs, and such care and concern for us.  The project has been a model, for me, of what academic and community partnerships should look like.

So you can imagine how we felt when we learned that the three students who were killed in Chapel Hill this week were members at the IAR, and they grew up going to the Al-Iman school, where we are working with Cooperative Extension to revitalize the garden.  The funeral was yesterday.  It was across the street from the school, the site where soon we hope to watch the garden come alive again.

Yesterday at the service, Monica’s post kept coming back to me.  Her words echoed as I saw them carry the three coffins away: “I want my babies back.”

I feel like all I write about on this blog is loss.  But it is so hard to talk about, and so I write, hoping that in doing so I can better understand grief.  But it’s incomprehensible.  I try to imagine what might be going through the minds of the parents of these young people – Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha.  I hear Monica’s words again: “I want my babies back.”

The father of the two women who died, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, spoke at the funeral, encouraging all of us who were there to learn about Deah, Yusor, and Razan.  He urged us to learn about the example that they set for others in the world – the way they cared for their communities, the way they honored God with their works.

The hope they had for a better world, where does (did) it go?

Their former teacher, Mussarut Jabeen, spoke to NPR this week, to follow-up on the beautiful Story Corps piece she recorded with Yusor in 2014.  In it, Jabeen recalls their bright smiles, their caring hearts, and the hope that Yusor had for a world where we could show love instead of hate:

Jabeen remembers when Deah was growing up, he was getting so tall that he started to outgrow her.

“And because I’m a short person, he would stand behind me and put his hand over my head,” she said. “And I just told him, ‘Deah, you can never outgrow my heart.’ “

“You can never outgrow my heart.”  Is that hope?  If so, it’s still here, even if we can’t feel it right now.

 

 

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Not Knowing

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by Pamela J. Pettyjohn

It is after 1am in the morning. I’m writing this as I sit on the balcony of my oceanfront hotel, listening to the sound of the waves crashing onto the beach, a sound I don’t think I will ever tire of hearing. We are at a family reunion and blessed by the generosity of a family member, who makes such opportunities a reality for our family.

My husband has been asleep for over an hour at least. My son, staying in another room with cousins, is hopefully asleep, but I do not know. This not knowing is good practice for me, as he will soon be heading off to college and I often will not know where he is or what he is doing. And it is okay; I do not need to know. When I was younger, I beach photoalways “had to know” – uncertainty, ambiguity, and being in limbo were to be avoided whenever possible. But I’ve had a lot of experience of not knowing in the last few years, as we’ve navigated multiple moves and job uncertainties, along with the need to provide a stable life for our son.  I’ve had to surrender the illusion that I ever really knew as much as I thought I did. I’ve learned that sometimes all I can do is to throw myself into the arms of God, and picture myself cradled in the peace of Christ, where I can find rest.  That is all. In that place, resting in the peace of my Savior, I can live with not knowing, and tonight I am reminded of that.

I am currently in the early years of a new career, serving as a minister. I think that all “working parents” face the tension between family and job; certainly women ministers, whose qualifications to follow our calling are still questioned by some, often hold ourselves to unreasonable expectations in both our ministerial and family arenas. The day we left for this family reunion, just a little over two days ago, I got a call about a near tragedy – a life hanging in the balance, with no way to know which way it would go…. Others went to the hospital and have kept me updated, and there is nothing I could or can do but wait… wait for each scrap of new information. Initially totally stunned by this bad news, I felt numb, and all I could do was pray, God of Mercy, hear my prayer when I do not even know what to pray.

I want to be at the hospital, keeping vigil, and yet I am all these miles away, and, truth be told, I want to be here too with my family. While I physically relax and re-connect with family members, some of whom I only see once a year, while I laugh, play games, swap funny stories, drink wine, eat food, and have meaningful conversations, I am also waiting. I wonder. I rehearse possible outcomes. And I acknowledge more and more that I just do not know. Tonight, I accept that I do not need to know. Somehow, I am able to manage these two parts of my life, the ordinary person-wife-mother-daughter-sister-aunt part, and the minister part, which both co-exist inside of me all of the time. Somehow, I let go of the ache from the impossibility of being in two places at once. I am able to let go of needing to know if this dear one will pull through, and if so, what the future holds for her. I can let go – again – of wondering what my own future holds, professionally and personally.

I am grateful for this opportunity to be in this place, recharging my internal batteries, even if I do not fully understand how or why it is so nourishing. I can listen to this ocean, this pulse of the globe that we call earth, and I can know that One bigger and greater than me is working to make all things new. And that is all I need to know for now. Tonight, knowing that is enough.

Pamela Pettyjohn is a licensed minister and certified teacher with an M.Ed. in Elementary Education from the University of South Carolina. She currently serves as an Associate Minister for Children and Families in Louisville, KY, while also working towards an M.Div. at Lexington Theological Seminary.

Life and Loss

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by Annie Hardison-Moody

October 15, 2014

the new babies 527_peWhen I found out I was pregnant after over a year of waiting for an adoption, coupled with seven previous miscarriages, I wasn’t very excited.  Instead, I was a nervous wreck.  When I started bleeding early on, I was sure this – like every other time – was the beginning of the end.  So at eight weeks pregnant, I dragged myself into the doctor’s office, eyes already red from crying, and sat down on the ultrasound table ready to hear the words we had heard so many times before, “Hm. The growth isn’t normal, and your bloodwork is inconclusive. Let’s bring you back again next week for more tests.” 

Instead, we heard a heartbeat.

For the first time in four years, a sign of life.

By the end of my appointment, the news about my story had spread throughout the doctor’s office (EIGHT pregnancies?!), so much so that even the woman who checked me out was offering me sweet words of encouragement and excitement. I was shocked. How did this happen? What would happen later? When, I wondered, would the other shoe drop?

As it turns out, the other shoe didn’t drop, but my experiences of loss did affect my pregnancy and delivery.  I didn’t allow anyone to buy Christmas gifts for the baby, because we were still shy of the end of the first trimester.  I didn’t allow our friends to host a shower until after 28 weeks (the so-called “safe zone”).  I put the word nursery in air quotation marks when I talked about converting my office to the baby’s room.  I often didn’t know how to be cheerful, when everyone around me was thrilled and so excited.  I worried.  A lot.

Loss was always at the edge of any joy I felt with this pregnancy.  My own losses, of course, were always present, but I also thought about dear friends who lost their children during pregnancy or in childbirth.  I felt, at times, like I was keeping my distance from this little one – so that if I couldn’t meet her at the end of this journey, maybe it wouldn’t hurt so badly.  What a foolish deception I was trying to pull.  

I met my sweet girl around 8pm, the night after my birthday, just three months ago last week.  As my husband brought her in to see me (I had a c-section, and she had to go to the nursery right away), I could barely see her through the haze of tears.  She was so tiny, just a little face peeking out of a giant bundle of blanket.  Because another woman lost her baby the same night, I was sent to the general recovery room without her, since the other family was (of course) recuperating in the birth center recovery room.  I couldn’t stop thinking about the other mother who came to the hospital just like me that day, only to leave without her little one.  I asked the nurses about her that night and the nights following (they, of course, couldn’t tell me much), and knowing about her loss made me constantly ask after my baby while I was in the recovery room, peppering the nurse with questions: “You would tell me if something happened with her, right?” Although the nurse assured me she would, I worried I was going to lose my girl – still.  A few minutes later, my husband started texting me pictures of her (thank goodness for technology! and come to think of it, how did I have my phone?) – screaming, red, and full of life.  

Life and loss, intermingled again that night at the hospital.  Is that what motherhood is, I wonder?  Or just being human?  As Judith Butler writes in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence:

Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.

This seems so clearly the case with grief, but it can be so only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. One may want to, or manage to for a while, but despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel.

That’s how I felt that night of my daughter’s birth – undone.  Undone by my worry about whether she (or I for that matter) would survive the delivery.  Undone by the love I felt for her, knowing the magnitude of this love and joy mirrored the pain that was felt by the woman who labored with me that night.  Undone by the love we felt from everyone around us who was rooting for this baby, and our family.  Undone by the recollection of previous losses and the knowledge that loss will come again (it’s life, right?).

The fact that we are undone makes us human.  These connections are what make motherhood both bearable and unbearable.  This undoing, although fraught with pain, is the stuff of life.

 

 

The Pain of Passing Beauty

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by Liz Gandolfo

harried mother As I write this post, I am 38+ weeks pregnant with my fourth child and am eagerly awaiting my scheduled C-section next week. I must confess that I have reached my breaking point, both physically and emotionally. As a mostly stay-at-home mother to children aged five-and-a-half, four, and two, I spend nearly every waking moment on my aching, swollen feet—prepping and cleaning up after meals and snacks, dressing and undressing small bodies, wiping bottoms, supervising teeth-brushing, cleaning up toys, doing laundry, getting kids in and out of the car (harder than it sounds), food shopping, “nesting” for the new baby’s arrival, and more. This is an awful lot to ask of a body that is already doing the 24/7 work of gestation! To be fair, my pregnancies all have been relatively “easy,” and this fourth one has actually been better than the last two, during which I experienced relentless insomnia and excruciating sciatic nerve pain respectively (both of these have returned this time around, just more sporadically and much later in the pregnancy). But my body is persevering through these final weeks in a way that I didn’t expect it to—its caring labors are necessary for the well-being of my children and somehow it just keeps coming through for me and for them. In all honesty, I am kind of impressed by my own strength and endurance. But I am also pretty miserable: physically exhausted, extremely uncomfortable, unable to sleep, and enormously slow and awkward. The physical strain has taken its toll psychologically and my nerves are pretty much shot; my patience and usual sunny disposition are gone. The scheduled date of my baby’s arrival is circled on the calendar like it is the second coming of Christ. There is a reason why the birth of a baby is referred to as “delivery.” This child’s delivery into the world will mark my own deliverance from the physical (and emotional) trials of pregnancy.

Clearly, I am ready for this pregnancy to be over. And I am comforted by the fact that that it will be my last; of this my husband and I are 1000% sure. Strangely, though, I am facing the end of this pregnancy, and the end of my childbearing years, with a mixture of profound relief and nostalgic grief. While four pregnancies have taken a physical and psychological toll on me, the process of creating and nurturing a new life inside my own body has been one of if not the most meaningful and transformative experiences of my life. To feel the first flutters of a fetal kick, and even to groan in pain at the discomfort of little toes (or knees, or a butt?) underneath my ribcage, are experiences of relationality and interdependence that have been utterly amazing and spiritually empowering for me. Having babies has been such a huge part of who I am for the past six years now. Knowing with 1000% certainty that I will never experience this particular kind of embodied creativity and intimacy with another human being again has begun to sink in as the date of my deliverance approaches. There is a strange tug of regret at knowing that, in the moments before my C-section, I will feel the movement of a child within me for the last time. I suspect that each of the “last moments” with this new baby in the weeks and months ahead will be accompanied by a great deal of mixed emotions. I know that moving on to the next phase of familial and professional life is the right thing for me, my husband, and our family. But it will be hard to let go of each little phase of this baby’s life, knowing that it will be the last time . . . for everything. Clinical psychologist Daphne de Marneffe articulates this paradoxical experience of fulfilment and regret beautifully as she reflects back on the time when she was leaving her own childbearing years behind: “I could not have been more full; life could not have been more sweet. And at the same time, there was also that ache, at ‘the rustling of the grains of sand as they slid lightly away,’ that ache of beauty and longing and time and the unbearable fragility and surpassing preciousness of this moment.”[1]

prengancyDespite my profound relief at never having to endure the trials of pregnancy again, and despite the demands and sweetness of caring for the children that I do have, there is a certain quality of grief to what I am experiencing in this process of moving on to the next phase of life. This grief is by no means tragic, and there is no comparing it to the depth of sorrow experienced in situations of trauma and loss. With a slightly different focus on coping with the process of change in the lives of children as they grow and develop towards adolescence and adulthood, Bonnie Miller-McLemore refers to the kind of grief that I am experiencing as “mundane grief.” Caring for children and helplessly witnessing their flight into the world requires spiritual practices of what Miller-McLemore calls “blessing and letting go.”[2] I already foresee the necessity of blessing and letting go of my children (kindergarten looms large on my horizon for this year), but I can see that I will also need to bless and let go of this particular stage in my own life. While there is much to be celebrated in moving on from pregnancy and the rigors of caring for babies and small children, these experiences have also been incredibly transformative and fulfilling. The beauty of these years has not come without its anxieties and frustrations, but it has been beautiful. And, however transformative, fulfilling and beautiful the future will be, it is still painful to witness the passing of this particular beauty. Alfred North Whitehead calls this phenomenon “perishing.” On a mundane, day to day level, we often experience the passing of beauty as rather painful, even when the beauty involved negativity and even when what replaces a particular beauty is also beautiful. The co-existence of two goods is often impossible—e.g., my own physical/psychological/professional well-being and the prospect of more children. Some forms of beauty and goodness must pass away in order to make way for new possibilities. This is not only my experience of motherhood, it is life.

I have already warned my husband that there will be many tears in the days and months ahead. I can’t even bear the thought of the last time I will nurse this final baby. But there is a luxurious quality to the mundane grief that I am experiencing. I will mourn the passing of this beautiful time because it has been so beautiful. What a blessing that has been and continues to be. So I will do my best to bless the beauty, and to bless my own sorrow, and even to savor the sorrow as I let it go and move forward with my family into new forms of possibility, freedom, and grace.

 

[1] Daphne de Marneffe, Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004), 313.

[2] Bonnie Miller-McLemore, In the Midst of Chaos: Care of Children as a Spiritual Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 176 ff.

Why I Need Community

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by Annie Hardison-Moody

Recently, I was reading Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s post at Feminist Studies in Religion, titled Writing and the Community that Sustains Me.  It’s a lovely post about the ways that we don’t write on an island – there’s a network of people (friends, relatives, colleagues) who support us when times are good (hey! I wrote something today!) and when they are hard (when we struggle to write or work through loss, death, or hardship).  I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my own community and the people who sustain me through the good times and bad.

I wrote a post on another blog last year about the friends who have seen you during what I call the “mom cry.”  It’s that cry that happens when you think you can hold everything together – and you do – until you see that person (as a child, often your mom) with whom you can just let it all out.  I don’t cry around people a lot, but my good friends and my family have seen my “mom cry.”  They have held me when my heart was breaking over a miscarriage.  They have listened as I ranted angrily (crying through it) about the unfairness of infertility and loss.  They are the women who meet me when I’m at my wit’s end, my breaking point, when I just can’t hold it together any longer.

Recently, my friends have been going through some hard times.  They are dealing with losses related to adoption (potential revocation of an adoption), losing a child during child-birth, dealing with a parents’ life-threatening cancer diagnosis, anguish over shootings at a naval yard where a spouse works, and the list goes on.  They have been forced to confront our vulnerability as human beings head-on.  We live.  We love.  We also lose.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months with some of these friends, grieving with them, being angry with them, and also (sometimes) hoping with them.  That’s what it means to be in relationship.  You take and you give  – knowing that the next time, you might be on the opposite end of the spectrum, needing support or needing to give it.  That’s the wonderful thing about community, right?  It’s that net that is there to catch you when you fear you might fall.  And it’s that support that is there for you if and when (God forbid) you end up falling anyway.

file4051277665658I don’t have any novel theological insights about community and motherhood and loss to report…but over the last few weeks and months, being there for my friends, and also coming to know this little life that’s growing inside me, I’ve come to the harsh realization that we are remarkably vulnerable creatures.  Torn apart by each other.  Torn apart through loss.  And yet, it seems to me, that this vulnerability is what reminds us of how much we need each other, and it demonstrates to us (in such stark ways) just how wonderful – and tragic – it is to love.  When we are broken down, it’s that same love – found in relationship, in community – that can bring us back together.

Waiting during Advent

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file000865580513by Annie Hardison-Moody

I’ve spent most of the last three and a half years waiting.

Waiting for a cycle to start, waiting for test results, waiting for blood work, waiting for an ultrasound, waiting for a miscarriage, waiting for our home study to be approved, waiting for an adoption, waiting for a baby.

Waiting.

During the waiting period, I’ve been excited, frustrated, hopeful, scared, angry, depressed, and exhausted.  We’ve tried many coping mechanisms to deal with the wait, including enjoying our lives as they are now (along with friends and family, we bought a boat!), going on vacation, talking with supportive friends and family, praying, grieving, spending time with kids, spending time away from kids, holing up in our house, going out and having fun…and the list goes on.

I’m part of an adoption support group on Facebook, and lately we’ve been talking about how we cope with the wait during the holidays.  Some of us have to bite our tongues at family dinners, when family members ask us when we will finally have a family of our own.  Some of us take vacations so that we don’t have to see the little ones at family gatherings, who are a reminder of the one thing we want more than anything else in the world.  Some of us smile and laugh, then go home and cry because it’s one more year without a baby.  Some of us have a glass of wine, to take the edge off. Some of us who are Christian have trouble feeling hopeful during Christmas-time, because we are too sad, frustrated, or tired.  And some of us can’t listen to the Christmas carols and songs and sermons and prayers announcing the birth of a baby…

Advent is a season of waiting and anticipation.  During this time, Christians await the coming of a baby who will bring peace, love and hope to a world that desperately needs it.  We spend the four weeks before Christmas preparing for this miraculous birth, but for those of us who are waiting and hoping for a child, this season of waiting and anticipation can be so hard.   We struggle to hope, because it has not been an easy thing to find in our own lives.

I realize that this post is a sad one, during what is usually such a beautiful, joyous time.  And it can be joyous – even for those of us who are struggling as we wait to become parents.  I for one, feel a little more hopeful when my family and friends acknowledge that this time might be hard for my spouse and me.  They give us permission to be sad as we need to during the happy times.  They let us duck out on events that we probably “should” attend.  What also helps is when our church family provides space for grief and sadness during Advent.  Each year, we have a service of grief and remembrance, for those of us who need a place where we can let down our facade, for just a minute, in the presence of God and community.  These gestures of care and community mean so much.  They allow us to see and feel the love and care that surrounds us, even in the hard times.

Not everyone will be comforted by the same things, so if you know someone who might be struggling with  hope during this Advent season, consider asking how you can provide some support or what they might need.  And for those of you who, like me, are waiting to become parents or grieving the loss of a child or pregnancy – be gentle with yourself.  Take time to grieve. And try to find joy and hope where you can.  As you find ways to experience hope and joy during the season, or ways to cope during this waiting period, please share them with me here or on our Facebook page.

I hope that we are all able to find peace, hope, love and joy during this Advent season.

 

 

The Uniqueness of Loss

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by Annie Hardison-Moody

file0001884795802 (1)It’s hard to write about loss.  It’s hard to talk about loss, particularly when that loss involves a child (or hopes for a child).

One of the things I’ll be writing about for this blog is something that I have experienced – pregnancy loss or miscarriage.  Although it’s not something that we talk or write about very often, miscarriage is unfortunately common.  The Mayo Clinic estimates that 10-20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. Although many women experience pregnancy loss, we don’t do a very good job of talking with them about it or understanding the grief that women and families face when they lose a pregnancy and all of the hopes and expectations that are lost with it.  My journey to motherhood has included a series of early losses – seven in all – none of which have been explained.

I’ll be writing a lot more about my experiences of loss, grief & re-claimed hope in the future, but for now wanted to point to an article I found helpful from Huffington Post Parents, titled 5 Ways to Revolutionize How We Think About Pregnancy Loss by Jessica Zucker.  I particularly liked this third point:

3. Honor Uniqueness. Even if your sister, best friend, colleague and/or neighbor had a miscarriage too, trauma reverberates, hibernates and maybe even evaporates differently for everyone. Rather than comparing and contrasting stories and possibly projecting our own experience elsewhere, we might simply ask how she is feeling and inquire about what her emotional temperature is at any given moment. Checking in again, even months after the trauma, might be the very thing she was yearning for. Every day is different and grief knows no timeline. It might be tempting to compare, by minimizing or magnifying, the pain of a loss at six weeks versus 20 weeks, but why go there? Loss is excruciating, no matter how far along we are in days/weeks/months. “Well, at least you were only six weeks. You can always try again in a few months,” doesn’t necessarily help assuage the sadness, the numbness or the fear of the future.

The article ends with a reminder to acknowledge the courage of women and men who have endured losses – whether they choose to “try” again or choose to pursue different paths. As Dr. Zucker relates in this piece, “It takes a certain kind of self-understanding to know when to stop, to understand our limits and to honor them.”  Honoring the uniqueness and courage that accompanies loss is an important step in supporting women and families who have experienced pregnancy loss.

My experiences of grief and depression were at times minimized by those around me, who encouraged me to “be positive” and try to “move on” from the situation.  These comments – while well intentioned – were at times very hurtful.  I already felt like my body was failing me, and the injunction to keep moving, keep going, keep “trying,” despite all of this, and the extreme difficulty I faced in doing so, felt like another way that I was just letting everyone down.  I had good days and bad days.  There were times when I just couldn’t see a hopeful future, because I was so entrenched in my grief.  So the advice we heard from others to think about all of all the “blessings” we had in our lives became another painful reminder of the one “blessing” we kept being denied.

Grief can be an extremely isolating experience, but I’m grateful for the brave souls who walked it along with us.  Some of those folks were friends or family members, who just listened as I cried and questioned.  That we expected (or hoped for, really).  But we were surprised by the care we felt from others, like our extremely kind reproductive endocrinologists, who called and checked on us personally after each loss, and whose first question when we sat down in the office was always, “How are you doing today?”  Those people who honored the uniqueness of each day, of each moment, during the years of loss we faced were often what helped me to “go on,” even on days when I felt like I couldn’t hold it together.

Living with loss is difficult, but there are ways we can make that journey a bit easier – and a first step is by acknowledging the uniqueness of loss and honoring the women and men who endure it as they endeavor to become parents.