Debut Chapbook Is A Bridge To Hope

There is solidarity in grief, specifically between parents who have lost children. To have experienced this deep tragedy is to understand the sorrow that consumes another’s heart. In my travels over the years I have met many grieving parents. Although it is not a title that defines us it is a piece of our identity.

Most recently I met Amanda Russell, a fellow mother who suffered this devastating loss. To meet her today one would not know the difficulties she has experienced in the past. Every time I see her she has a smile on her face and exudes a warm energy. She is pensive and bright. Her inviting smile is framed by a head of bouncy curls. Even her curls seem to reflect her approach to life. 

It is hard to imagine Amanda in a place where her emotions were so dark and blinding. Yet these searching, dark emotions took hold of her and served as creative motivation behind the collection of poems in her debut chapbook, BARREN YEARS. When Amanda was 22 and newly married, she became pregnant with twins. In a devastating turn of events, during her second trimester, she miscarried. The grief that consumed her after the miscarriage led to her expression through poetry.

Amanda was no stranger to writing prior to her miscarriage. She says, “I have always turned to creative writing when I need to make sense of something”. She goes on to say, “The miscarriage was hard for me to talk about out loud because I would cry or not find the words I wanted, but paper allows drafts”. Through her writing she was able to find solace. The creation of something new allowed her to process the events and devastation of what she lost.

Each person grieves differently. No two people are the exact same. Some of us use the same coping mechanisms and walk the same bridges to hope, but our timing may be different. Some of us are open to sharing feelings but some of us have trouble. Grief and death, especially untimely deaths, are uncomfortable topics for many people. Amanda’s description of not being able to find the words to speak but being able to find the words through the drafting process is beautiful.

It is extremely difficult to put emotions into words on a first pass. I often say to grieving parents, “there are no words”. Is that ironic being that a large part of my life centers around words? It is challenging to enunciate exactly how much emotion I feel for other grieving parents. Furthermore, how I may choose to describe my emotions may not reflect their feelings at that time. Amanda’s poetry, however, seems to grasp the many varied sentiments surrounding child loss.

While we all differ in how we process our loss, there is a common thread of sadness. On the other side is the search for hope. The collection of poems in Barren Years reflect both sides of loss.

In “Stones Amid Pines” Amanda expresses how shedding tears for her children helps her to feel whole again. These words speak the same language of my heart.

A kind of stone in my own right , I sit       

at the grave of my children

and weep so thoroughly

that when I walk away

I am once again whole.

When grief is new and fresh, or when it circles back around, the need for tears to fall is innate. It feels as though the tears that wet our face prove the loss we have suffered. The loss so deep needs to be physically seen and sometimes tears are the only way that can happen. It does not logically make sense but sometimes it is necessary. The expulsion of emotion helps to temporarily purge the deep rooted sadness that has taken up a place in our hearts. It is sometimes the only thing that helps to make us feel whole again.

“Stones Amid Pines” also speaks to time and its softening nature in relation to grief. Never does it change our experiences but rather our relationship to them. Just as surrounding environments continue on, so do the living. As the poem begins she writes about her children being buried where a future church is to be erected. After seven years of time has passed she makes a deferential observation.

Time has done

her great mother-work again.

She has her own way of soothing.

I glance up at the church, birthed out of the hill itself

with castle-like glory

and filled with music,

the intersection of many lives

creating communion.

The glaring contrast of her children’s graves at the bottom of the hill, while a church has been “birthed out of the hill itself” reminds us of how life continues on even when our hearts are not able to beat properly. It is our choice whether or not we carry on, while carrying our angels with us. We have the choice to create new memories and use our own creativity to foster hope. The other choice is to dwell in the place of sadness, allowing the darkness that has seeped into our hearts to forever close our eyes, close our minds and close our future.

The poem succinctly closes by paying homage to grief, sadness and Amanda’s unborn children. She honors “letting it all go once again”. As a reader it feels as though “Stones Amid Pines” is a true reflection of her being able to process grief and realizing that she will forever carry this in her heart. In her words I recognize her understanding that time will continue to lead her back to this sorrowful state periodically.

Writing is so clearly a beautiful form of creative therapy for Amanda. In an interview on the blog, Space Between, she reveals that she utilized other forms of creativity to aid in her healing. “I realized I needed something to take care of, so my dear friend, Linda, taught me gardening. Taking care of my plants, together with writing and many long talks with some of my spiritual guides helped me through. It took me a good five years to begin feeling like myself again. ” Her hope and healing through gardening is evident in “Spinach and Broccoli”, another poem from her collection.

New sprouts emerge

with a burst of courage;

having broken through clay,

they begin reaching for the sun.

The metaphorical value of this speaks to my soul. This is how it is as a grieving mother. Hope begins with the smallest thought, the tiniest idea. It sprouts, taking much courage. The significance of the clay symbolizing a common factor I have seen in every grieving parent at the start of their grief journey. It is that belief that happiness and joy will never emerge again. The hopelessness that grieving parents experience impedes their belief that anything will ever make them smile again. Then one day the sun spreads its warmth and joy. Eventually you begin reaching for it again.

Amanda’s collection of poems are clearly very personal creations. Some would be hesitant to share the words of their bare souls. I have a deep admiration for her because she is not one of those people. Her belief is that her words will help others. Grief can be an isolating state to subsist in. Bridging to others through writing has helped Amanda and will help those who read her words. There is healing in connection. Barren Years offers a sense of connection, solidarity and hope.

BARREN YEARS is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press. You can also check out her website, or follow her on Twitter @poet_russell.

 

 

 

 

 

Unraveling Grief

Recently I stumbled upon a quote that burrowed into my heart the moment I laid eyes upon it. Unexpectedly it greeted me on my computer screen as if it were my own personal description of how child loss affected my family.

“It is as if each family were a huge ball of yarn; each member a different colored strand woven and wound together. When one member dies, the entire ball must be unwound, the strand removed, and the ball then needs to be put back together and rewound. However, the ball can never be recreated as it was before.”

Jean Galica, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist is the brilliant author of the quote.

This analogy is so beautiful. It immediately conjures up visions of how my boys enjoy playing with yarn. It usually involves one of them holding a ball of yarn as he frantically runs and jumps around the room, unraveling the yarn ball, causing chaos and mess. Then the other child takes a different color and repeats. At the end we are left with criss crossed colors of yarn, spread across a large space, some of it tangled and knotted. To make use of the yarn we must untangle and roll as much as we can back into a ball. More often than not there are pieces that need to be cut out because they are so badly knotted.

As the shock of child loss sets in and family members enter into survival mode, they often spread apart. Although they are still connected, and their lives are tangled together, each person needs to process loss on his or her own. Even as a mother of two living children, after losing Christian, there was some distance between myself and my living children. The tight interwoven nature of our former relationship had slackened. I was no longer able to love them without the imminent fear of losing them looming over me.

My husband also suffered from the anxiety and fear of losing them. He and I dealt with it very differently. While I found comfort in talking openly about every aspect of child loss, he had a much different experience. He and I remained connected and leaned on one other as we were both attempted to process our own grief. The individual balls of yarn that made up our lives were completely unraveled, tangled, knotted and lacking color.

It wasn’t just our immediate family that was deeply affected. Our family unit is tight knit and my children are blessed to have close relationships with their grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins. In those early days a few conflicts arose from the tensions of knots. Everyone was sleep deprived, saddened, confused, angry and mainly using all their energy to process the tragedy that struck our lives.

Over time as each person began to process in their own way, the yarn smoothed out. We were able to work through the knots. Slowly each color of yarn became more vibrant again. Each strand became straighter. The connection was never lost. It was just a mystery for some time as to how we would be wound together again in our ball of love.

Slowly, slowly as time went on we wound around the children. They brought vibrancy and joy back to our lives. Our extended family ball of yarn is interwoven differently but still as tight as ever.

Today the ball of yarn that is my immediate family is so very different than the one that started out as the five of us. The ball that contained five individual colors, wound together, was only in existence for less than two years. Nothing will ever heal that part of my wound. Less than two years to have your family together on Earth is devastating.

The devastation we have experienced plays a large part in how our ball was rewound. Galica says a strand of yarn is removed after you lose a child. This is true. It does not disappear however, the fibers of that one strand are merely divided to become part of all of the other strands. No longer an individual but an energy, a spirit, an Angel. Our familial ball of yarn, immediate and extended, will never be put together again in the same way. The beauty lies in all we have learned from tragedy, adding dimension to each single strand of color. Christian will forever be a part of each of us in ways he could never be before. Love to heaven…

See You In My Dreams

I dreamt about my beautiful Christian last night. He was so happy, bouncing around the room like a ping pong with his brothers. The specifics of the dream are blurry but I can recall the most important part, at the end. He came over to me, upon my request, and gave me a hug. His skinny arms reached up, wrapped around my neck and squeezed. It only lasted a second, but it was a second of pure bliss.

Dreaming of Christian is not new. It happens less frequently than I would like but at least it happens. My husband rarely dreams of him. Anthony dreams of him sometimes and Nicky said he never does.

There are so many unfair things about losing someone you love. Does it have to be permanent? Why can’t you get a certain number of dreams a week when you can interact with them? Going from daily interaction to nothing seems cruel. Of course we get signs, and they are beautiful, but I am left wanting more!

I like to think of my dream last night as an early Valentine’s Day gift for me. Hugs and kisses are the best gifts! Young children are so generous with hugs and kisses. They become stingier as they get older. Even with my living children I am always saying, “Come over here and give me a hug and kiss!” Sometimes they do it begrudgingly. Other times they just pretend it is begrudgingly.

My favorite hugs are the ones my boys give to each other spontaneously. If they were a little more savvy they would know that they could ask me for anything they wanted in that moment and get it!

In my last post I wrote about some people that I met at a LiveOnNY workshop over the weekend. As I watched three sisters who lost their only brother my heart truly ached for them. It evoked emotions in me that I knew were there but buried for survival purposes.

  • My familial dream of three boys growing up together began the day I found out Nicky was a boy. Brotherly bonds are not to be underrated. Immediately images of three boys laughing, loving, playing and fighting together emerged. Then my thoughts expanded to graduations and weddings. I lamented the fact that I would never be mother of the bride. At the same time I fell in love with the idea that I would be the most important female in their lives until marriage. So many hopes and dreams sketched out. My favorite ones were always based on their brotherly bond. Thank goodness Anthony and Nicky still have this but it pains me to know that the brother who was going to “guide” them – okay be their leader in mischief – is no longer here to do that.
  • Today, the snow is falling in New York again. We are a few days shy of Valentine’s Day – the holiday of love. I found this beautiful project on Pinterest that I am going to use as a way for my boys to record memories of Christian.

    Using my emotional barometer I will judge whether we can make it all about Christian or if we should include all three boys. If they seem to feel any bit over shadowed by Christian’s memory then I will include memories for all three boys. Either way it is a beautiful dedication to brotherly love.

    My life has not turned out the way I had hoped. There will forever be the question, “what would it be like if you were here?” We will never know. We must relish in the memory of the times with all three of our boys and continue to create new memories with our two living boys. Love to heaven…

    Hope Is In Every Step

    Hope. We all need it to survive. After Christian passed away it was completely unfathomable to me that I would ever feel it again. Yet I have and I do. That is not to say that it doesn’t waver, because it does.

    This particular topic is on my heart tonight as I’ve just returned home from an amazing workshop at LiveOnNY. LiveOnNY is a non profit organization that works to procure organ donation in the Greater New York area. The beautiful thing about this organization is that they are actively working with the donor families after their loss.

    When Christian passed away I knew immediately that his wishes would be to help someone else in need. After all, our body only houses our soul. Without hesitation we answered “yes” when they asked if we wanted his organs to be donated.

    Right there we chose hope. There was no chance of our little boy coming back to us but there was a chance that his organs could offer hope for someone else, and they did.

    In the moment when they asked us about organ donation I didn’t feel any bit of hope. I didn’t feel it after we said yes. I didn’t feel it for a very long time. We are four and a half years walking this journey and there are still days when hope eludes me. Most days though it is somewhere in my soul.

    How did I get to a place where I feel any semblance of hope? Sometimes even I wonder. I know I have an abundance of love and support that surrounds me. That certainly helps. I also know that I made a conscious decision to carry on. It is something that I work on constantly. Some days it feels fairly simple. Other days it requires my every effort, every minute of the day. I feel like I am walking through sludge.

    Self care, a topic of today’s workshop, is a large part of me being able to find hope again. From the very start I tried anything that I thought might offer the tiniest bit. That included acupuncture, therapy, walks with friends, yoga, art, exercising, writing, attending grief groups and other activities that are not coming to mind right now. Some worked and some didn’t. Some I still utilize as self care tools today. Most importantly my willingness to try things helped me to find a way to survive this unthinkable loss. The key to hope is finding what works for you.At today’s workshop I met many amazing people. For some the loss was extremely new and raw. It took such courage for them to be there. Their desperation to find any sort of relief written all over their faces and evidenced in their tears. My heart broke for them. It is not so long ago that I was in their place. Even in all I tried I don’t think I had the courage to attend a workshop like this so soon after our loss.

    I saw myself in these people. One woman, a writer, unsure if she will ever write again. Another family of a mother and three daughters who lost their only brother, all clearly devastated. I was them. I am them. Time has just taught me how to integrate the pain into my life today. Sadness and joy live alongside each other in my world, as it will for them.

    That’s hope. Newly grieving people feel devoid of it, but they don’t realize that they are already building it. Every step one takes to find relief from the blinding pain allows hope to filter in. They may not feel it today, tomorrow or next week. It takes time to chip away a big enough space to see the hope shining through. It will. Each time one wakes up and makes it through another day. That’s hope. Pepper it with a few healthy attempts to relieve the pain and you are building hope. It doesn’t feel like it, but you are.

    Thank you to the amazing staff at LiveOnNY for the workshop you led. As one participant said it so beautifully to them, “You should feel great about yourselves today, knowing you are making a difference in lives”. They were my dose of hope today. Love to heaven…

    Quiet Mind Leads To Guidance

    Aahhh… Pinterest. I love you so. I pin TONS of things to TONS of boards. There are my select boards which I review periodically. Then there are the boards I hardly look at after creating. Today while looking back at my inspirational board I was reminded of a very important message, “As I quiet my mind I can more clearly hear my inner guidance.” I needed to have this reminder today. The harsh voices have been rearing their ugly heads for the past week and it has really interfered with me being in tune with my inner guidance.

    This morning, after an uninterrupted night of sleep (I didn’t even pee until 5am!), I cleared my head and got in touch with my inner guidance. I feared that my terrible, nasty self talk had finally trumped inner guidance. I feared that it was scared away. It was not. It just needed some attention and quiet!

    Some of you may wonder what any of this has to do with losing Christian. It may seem as if I am self righteously rambling on. PsychologyToday.com states,¬†“Activations of lower, more primitive areas,¬†including the fear center, are high, while higher areas of the brain (also known as cortical areas) are underactivated. In other words, if you are traumatized, you may experience chronic stress, vigilance, fear, and irritation.” My insecurities are a major irritation. In the past I was able to expend energy to keep them at bay. Since losing Christian my energy expenditure has shifted to easing the above experiences. There is little reserve for my insecurities. To say the least, this interferes with getting in touch with my inner guidance.

    My insecurities revolve around self degradation and the question, “Am I enough?”. When it is filtered through my grief and trauma it becomes increasingly difficult for me to rebuke these thoughts. My therapist has provided me with many tools and coping mechanisms along the way. For the most part these work to ground me and bring me back to the present. Sometimes though I fall into the downward spiral.

    In the solitude of the morning however, while breathing and quieting my mind, I was able to pull out of that spiral. I connected to my own heart, in which I receive guidance and messages from Christian. I quieted my mind and just listened. As he always does, he helped me to understand what the next step on my journey is. For the hope he provided me, I am very grateful.

    So don’t ever discount those ideas you pin and don’t forget to periodically review them! You never know where it might lead you. Most importantly remember to quiet your mind when you need to get some inner guidance. Love to heaven…

    The Best Christmas Gift

    It’s been a while since I have written. I haven’t felt like myself lately. The holidays this year have heightened my grief and anxiety. It’s not this intense every year. Thank God.

    Tomorrow is Christian’s birthday. He would have been 11. The usual questions about what he would look like? Act like? Be asking for as birthday and Christmas gifts? continuously flood my brain and heart. I want him here. Sure he would be driving me crazy. He would be one more child fighting with his brothers. His attitude would probably be growing in size since he would officially be a middle schooler. I am guessing his hair would be a focus. He had the most beautiful head of hair. So many guesses. So much wondering. So many dreams turned to angel dust. In a matter of moments.

    All of the wondering gets to be exhausting and overwhelming. The memories aren’t any less emotional but at least they don’t involve guessing. Christian was due on Christmas but was born on December 23rd. We brought him home Christmas Day. As first time parents my husband and I woke to find a beautiful baby boy being rolled in to the hospital room on Christmas morning. He was all snug and sleeping in an oversized stocking. It’s the same stocking that hangs on our mantle each year. The sight was so breathtaking and life changing. This little being would be coming home with us in just hours.

    As we made our way home we passed our church. The priest had just finished Christmas mass and was outside. We asked him to bless Christian and he did. One would think a child who is blessed only moments after leaving the hospital would be destined for greatness and safety. The first yes and the second no; at least not in the way we were hoping. We could never conceive of what was to come in his life.

    As Christian grew, we grew. Firstborn children teach their parents multiple lessons. Christian was not the best sleeper. He didn’t follow any of the examples of the types of babies they talked about in parenting books. The feeling of failing as a mom plagued me. These feelings not entirely unusual for a first time mom, but confusing nonetheless. One thing that was not confusing, even when I was sleep deprived, was how much I loved him. Again, as the firstborn, every little thing he did made my heart swell ten times. As much as I love my other boys it was different with them because it wasn’t my first time experiencing it.

    As his personality developed his mischief did too. This was always a character trait I loved in little boys. As a mom to a mischievous boy it was still adorable but tried my patience!! Now I had to somehow figure out how to refine it without completely making it go away. This did not help my own issue of feeling like I was failing as a mom. When you have a child who does not conform to how others think he or she should behave it can be mortifying. Others make it known by looks, words and glances that your child is behaving poorly. There have been many times I witnessed this in a store and offered words of comfort to the parent instead of the opposite. As much as we love our children, it doesn’t ever feel great to be judged negatively by others.

    Christian was not only mischievous but he was a biter! Oh yes he wanted to help me experience it all in his six short years of life. At a mommy and me class he bit a little boy on the back. The mother was not happy but seeing as this was her fourth child, I am sure she had encountered a similar situation before. Her dirty looks and unkind words said otherwise. We made it through. Christian eventually received Occupational Therapy during his preschool years. It definitely helped. Oddly enough I got a call from his therapist the second week she was supposed to see him. She had to cancel because she lost her son suddenly. Heartbreaking. Christian continued on with another wonderful therapist and they were able to make headway with some of his behaviors.

    Christian’s larger than life personality was never able to be truly tamed. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be. There were times I wished he would tone it down just a little. He definitely did a lot of living in his short time on Earth. I always say he did everything 100%. All his mischief and love and passion and hugs and smiles and tantrums were at level 100! I’m not sure how we were chosen to be his parents. It’s something we are forever grateful for.

    Tomorrow will mark his fifth birthday in heaven. No one should have to celebrate the day their child was born without their child here. We are not alone in this, unfortunately. Tuesday will mark his fifth Christmas in heaven. He is sure to be leading some giant celebration up there! His party in heaven will be mirrored in the smiles, joy and excitement on the faces of my children and nieces as they celebrate the magic of Christmas. It will help to buoy my mood but it will not take the pain away. The longing will remain for the best Christmas gift I ever received. Love to heaven…

    Ramblings and Gifts

    It’s that time of year again when the air is filled with the magic of the holidays… and the sadness for some. I’m not alone in my struggles and I do not wish to put a damper on anyone who is not feeling sadness. However, I know that there are millions of other people out there struggling as well. Some for the same reason, some not. I don’t have any words of wisdom today. More a rambling of thoughts.

    This was an exceptionally tough week. My cousin, Tonia, would have turned 50. It had me reflecting on her and a trip all of the females in my family took when she turned 40. The first thing that comes to mind are the laughs we all shared. We had a great time. It was a beautiful tribute to what the holidays represent to me – enjoying time with those you love. Tonia bought each of us an ornament to commemorate the trip. It will be bittersweet, as it is every Christmas, to place that ornament on my tree.

    Last week was also an emotional week. My youngest son turned six. All of the “firsts” he is experiencing as a six year old were Christian’s “lasts”. To use a very intellectual term blah. Each time I think about that the tears spring to my eyes. He seems so little and yet Christian seemed so big when he was six. I found the list he wrote to Santa that year. Immediately my memory sparked. My bright, brown eyed boy wishing for the magic of Christmas to be bestowed upon him. His heart so young and pure. The excitement of the season buzzing all around. This year as his brothers write their Christmas lists, search for the elf and decorate the tree, Christian watches from above.

    Grief is a spiral and sometimes it spirals back to an intensity level that can only be sustained for a short amount of time. When this happens I retreat back to survival mode. One of the most important things I did early on, in survival mode, was find one positive thing in each day. Yesterday while preparing lunches for my boys and running around, completing daily morning tasks, they were playing a game. It was a beautiful sight. They were playing and laughing. No one was whining or crying. Whoever was losing was not lamenting over it. They were enjoying their time together. It was a gift. It could have easily been missed by me in my frenzy. I’m sure sometimes I do overlook these moments. Yesterday I didn’t and it made my day. Wishing you all these beautiful gifts of the season and all year through. Love to heaven…