Healing Grief

Dancing with the Midwives seeks to empower the reader to heal grief through art.  Delving into the very personal sadness surrounding a still birth, Ann Faison meets her grief with uncommon honesty and openness. The book’s spare writing and delicate drawings shed light on Ann’s grief in a way that shows us how we too can heal. Reading her words and watching how she grows and expands throughout the process allows for a new kind of healing through grief. Healing through Art and Grief.

Art and Grief

How can art heal grief?  How does anyone heal grief?  We all grieve differently and there is no right way to do it, just as there isn’t one way to make art.  However, using the sadness or grief to make something necessarily moves us through the feelings. Grief and writing are especially symbiotic.  When grief make us feel alienated or alone in the world, we can choose to connect to the sadness through writing which then connects us to the universality of our emotions.  When we take it a step further and express it or share it, we allow ourselves to help others and profound healing can result.

Death, Loss, Still Birth, Miscarriage and Breathing

When someone we love (or were ready to love) dies, grief is inevitable.  But people often don’t have patience for grief.  They just want to move on and get back to living.  Some people feel grief is a luxury they can’t afford. But in order to live we have to breathe and we can’t hold in sadness and breathe deeply at the same time.   All it takes to make space for grief is slowing down.  Walking and breathing slowly, being with the feelings and allowing them to pass through are the essential ingredients of grieving.  Sometimes grief is so powerful it leaves us no choice but to deal with it. Dancing with the Midwives is a meditation on grief.  It’s about slowing down, paying attention and making space for the process to unfold naturally.

Talking to Kids About What Happens When We Die

My daughter Grace was almost three years old when I found myself trying to explain death to her.  Of course she knew that things die.  We had buried a bird in the backyard and we talked about how Jane the cat, who was 20 years old, would be going soon.  But explaining the death of a new sister she was expecting was another story.

Our second child, Keirnan, was still born at 28 weeks.  Grace was just two and a half.  We grieved as a family, holding small ceremonies by the fireplace because we needed a way to acknowledge our daughter Keirnan and our common sorrow.  We talked openly with Grace about what happened because it felt right to us.  We avoided euphemisms because we wanted her to understand that her sister was not coming back.  And for a long time she didn’t ask us questions.  Instead, she would repeat the things we told her:  The baby died.  Mommy is not pregnant anymore. The baby was already dead when she was born.  When she echoed our blunt explanations it was a little startling.

A few months later, Grace did finally start asking questions.  One afternoon as I was putting her down for a nap she had a string of them.

“Yes, Grace?”
“Where did Keirnan go”

I had wondered if she would ever ask this question but that didn’t mean I was ready for it.  “You mean when she died, where did her body go?”

Grace paused and gave me a confused look.  “Her body?”

Her question made it clear that for Grace, Keirnan was not just a body.  She was asking about her soul.

I forged ahead, unsure where I would end up:

“So people are really two things, right?  A body, and a soul.  Kiernan’s body stopped working, and that means she died.  When people die we can choose if we want to bury their body in the ground, or we can have the body cremated into ashes….” I continued to ramble about the mechanics of death and what happens to our bodies until I realized she had no idea what I was talking about.

She stared blankly at me, waiting.

“People also have a soul.  And when they die, I guess that must go somewhere else.”

“Where?” She asked, her eyes wide.  “The sky??”

Again I was faced with a choice.  I didn’t want to feed her a religious belief system because I don’t adhere to one.  Nor did I want to tell her there is nothing else, because I am not an atheist either.  I wanted to give her the reassurance of a spiritual dimension to life, because when I was growing up we never talked about anything like that and I later felt that if we had, it might have helped me understand death better, and cope.

When I was four years old I was curious about God.  We did not attend church except on Christmas Eve, so I asked my mother.

“Yes, Annie?”  She was putting clean underwear into her dresser drawer.
“What is God?”
“God is a spirit.”  She didn’t look down at me.  She just shut the drawer and left the room.

I must have been staring at her left hand when she said the word “spirit” because for a long time, I imagined God as a giant gold ring, floating up in the sky.  I don’t think my mother believed in God and that was as close as I came to asking her.  She did not say anything about the sky or heaven to me, just as I had never put those images in Grace’s head.  To my knowledge Grace had not been exposed to religious imagery in her short life, and yet she too was happy to imagine spirits floating up in the sky.

I had no intention of side-stepping Grace’s questions.  I tried answering her honestly, without telling her anything I don’t believe myself.  I said, “Grace, no one knows where a soul goes after you die.  No one knows, so I don’t know.  But if you like, you can imagine it goes up into the sky where all the clouds and the stars are.”

“Can I talk to her?”  She was already happily placing Keirnan up in the sky.

I paused again, but because of the many conversations I have had with my deceased mother over the years, I said, “Yes, you can talk to her.” Then I surprised myself by adding, “I am sure she will listen.”

Grace crawled into my lap.
“Yes, Grace?”
“Will you die?”
“Yes, but I hope it will happen a long time from now.  When you are all grown up.”
“What if you die now?” she asked sounding more curious than worried.

Because my mother died at a young age I never wanted to promise Grace I wouldn’t die.  And looking at her I could see she wasn’t frightened by the conversation.   I continued to be as honest with her as I could be.

“If for some reason I died, I would always be with you in your heart.”
“Well, you know how much I love you right?”
“I love you as much as you love me, and you can feel that, right?”
“Right,” she said, smiling.
“So all that love is in your heart right now.  We are connected through our hearts and we always will be.”
“But can love die?”
“No, love doesn’t die.  That’s the good thing.  Even if I die, you will always have my love in your heart.”
“I promise.”
We both found this conversation comforting and we still have it sometimes.  Not because either of us is afraid I will die.  But because it reminds us of where we are now.

How Dare I

I was walking home from school one day in 1979. I stopped to sit on the stoop of an abandoned building that we called “the Castle” because it was big and sort of baroque, which made it ominous. It was empty and boarded up but some kids were brave enough to go inside at night. Not me.

I sat there and I thought about all that had happened in the last year. My mother died. I had trouble getting along with her as she got sicker, so when she died I had a lot of feelings of regret and guilt built into my grief. I tried harder with my father and sister Sally, but mostly felt alienated from them both. I was fifteen.

As I sat there reflecting, it occurred to me that I ought to write something. A short story or maybe even a book. That idea, just the notion of writing about what I was going through lifted me up.

Even though I remember that moment clearly, I don’t remember deciding not to write the story. I probably just put it off until it seemed like a useless idea. Maybe I felt I wasn’t a writer.

It was not until I had a book under my belt at age forty-six that I finally decided it was time to write the book that I had thought about that day. I would finally write a book about my mother. She was the central figure in my life and I knew I had to do it before I could write another book. I wanted to write about losing her. The period when we weren’t getting along. I wanted to write about what it was like during her illness, because that was the part of her life, and mine, that I had never revisited. It was a black hole in my memory banks. I wanted to try and write about how she handled it. How we all handled it. And what happened to our relationships.

As I started writing the stories for the book, I focused on what I remembered, which was vague at best. I remembered moments. I remembered feelings. I recalled an edgeless vacuum of communication, explanation or understanding between all of us. I remember feeling there was a lot that no one was talking about, or that I was being left out of discussions. But I was complicit in the game of denial we all played. It was our habit to put a lid on conversations about feelings, and my own adolescent strategy for avoiding discomfort was distraction. I immersed myself in a busy social life and tried and true methods of numbing my emotions. For a young person, my way of coping was normal. But now in middle age, I felt ready to go back to that time and give myself a chance to really look at it, and feel it.

Sometime after I started on the stories for the book, I realized I needed facts to hold the pieces in place. I remembered I had my mother’s journal, which covers the period between her diagnosis and her death. My father had it typed up and gave each of us four kids a copy. I read it right away and I remember being deeply disappointed not to find much in it about me. She only mentions each of us a handful of times. Instead it is page after page of mostly technical information about what was happening to her medically and physically. I read it again in college, and at least once or twice more after that. As I grew up I got more out of reading it, but it still seemed sorely lacking in clues about what she went through emotionally, which was the information I craved.

As I thumbed through it again I realized it held all the details and timeline I needed for my book. I had to read it carefully to line up my foggy memories with the specifics of her condition. But as I reread it, not expecting to find anything but the familiar unemotional accounting of facts, I began to see that she was in there after all. I could almost feel her. It was in the gaps, and from the way she would lead up to something important or painful, and then drop it. In a simple statement like “Sally is startled by the markings” I could sense the complexity of her navigating not only the changes in her body but her children’s reactions as well.

Perhaps it’s because I am willing to see her for who she was that I can feel her coming through the words. Until now, every reading of it had been tainted by my own need for her to see me. It hit me that I had in my hands the key to understanding this seminal period of my life, and I was ready. I could begin to imagine what it was like for her to see her own life fading. I could find compassion, and that shifted everything. I decided to write from her perspective, as well as my own.

The hardest part about that decision is that I have to keep giving myself permission to write from her point of view. The question that comes up is How dare I speak for her when she is not here to correct me? How can I presume to know what she was thinking or what her reasons were for making the choices she made?

I just keep going back to her words. In them I see who she was, and what she was trying to share with the world. On the first page she writes:

Preface (Why am I writing this)

Writers write about their experiences. When a writer finds he has cancer he writes a book about it. I am not a writer but ever since I discovered that I had breast cancer four years ago, I have written what I labeled “The Diary of a Cancer Patient” which included medical information as well as my personal reactions. Not very entertaining set down, but all there. There is an attempt to sort out that mass of material into some coherent form for myself and anyone else who is curious enough for his own reasons to want to read yet another personal account of the mystery of cancer.

It turns out I am that person, curious enough for my own reasons to read “yet another personal account.” It is easy to discount personal writing as a frivolous undertaking. But even though the motivation for such writing may be personal, the outcome is not. People find it, just as I found my mother’s diary, and it means something to them. All the ways in which human beings inflict and experience pain is in our stories and in the telling of them we work to heal those wounds. Reading those stories works too.

Writing this book, through the eyes of who my mother and I both were all those years ago, has required me to use my imagination, but more importantly, to trust my gut. I am still me and she is still my mother. A lot of her is in me. I mother like she did. I walk like she did. I even look a lot like she did.

So it turns out I could not have written this as a teenager. I had to be a mother and reach her age to have any understanding of what she was up against. Not being a cancer patient, my understanding is still limited, but regardless of that fortunate shortcoming, here I am, in a collaboration with my mother, getting to know her through me. Or me through her. Or both.

My answer to the question -How dare I- is simple: This story is not about Sue Faison. It’s about who she was to me. It’s about our relationship and how it evolved during her lifetime and continues to evolve decades after her death. In other words, it’s about me. And that’s enough.

Don’t Rush the Grief

In today’s New York Times there was an editorial piece called “Grief, Unedited” (February 15, 2011). In it Ruth Davis Konigsberg claims that recent scientific findings show that grief can be managed more efficiently, in less time, than was previously thought.

This is a common mistake people make with grief. In our convenience-driven American culture, grief has become something of an inconvenience, approached as a difficult period to get through, rather than an emotional one to go through. Sure, grief will put a hitch in a person’s ability to function at the same level they are used to at first, and maybe for some time. A mother who loses a child may need to stay in bed for a year. On the other hand an elderly widow may take comfort in her routines and not slow down at all. Or the opposite could be true. The widow may need to spend a year in bed and the mother may need to stick to routines. Grief is not predictable. I have little use for scientific studies that try to quantify the grief process.

Yes there are models that can help the specialists identify a client’s grief as normal. But the favored model (J. William Worden’s as outlined in “Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner” (4th edition) New York: Springer) in grief support has no timeline or prescribed outcome. It identifies stages (or Worden’s preferred term, “tasks”) but acknowledges they may occur in any order. And as those of us who study grief know, those stages can all occur inside of a day.

Some grief may last a lifetime. It may become integrated into the personality in a way that is comfortable. I enjoy Patti Smith’s description, given in an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2010:

I think that the idea that time heals all wounds is not really true. Our wounds aren’t ever really healed, we just learn to walk with them. We learn that some days we’re gonna feel intense pain all over again and we just have to say “Okay, I know you, ha. You can come along with me today.”

Grief is the normal response when someone dies. It is really just the painful reaction to a loss. We grieve all kinds of losses in our lifetimes: A limb, a community, a marriage, a job, a friend…anything we have come to depend on will be difficult to let go of. Smith’s take on it is a very healthy one. Grief is not just a painful period to rush past. It is what we carry with us.

The better we are at acknowledging these losses and giving ourselves time and space to honor them, the better we can learn to feel through them.

But why? Why not let feelings stay buried? Why dig up old stories? Pour salt on the wounds? Because grief is not just something to survive or get through. It is an opportunity to know ourselves better.

Working with grief creatively will almost guarantee a shift and change in the emotions that inspired the artwork/song/poem, whatever. When feelings are expressed they tend to expand and transform into positive feelings of love and connection. But when feelings associated with grief are repressed or ignored, they may transform into anger, anxiety, impatience or a lack of feelings.

Of course sadness has been a favored muse since the beginning of time.

There is also the possibility of gaining a new connection to the thing that was lost. The dead person’s spirit is suddenly present. Clarity arrives. Love floods the heart. Grief can be isolating, but ironically, it can also be a great connecter. Through grief we often learn compassion for others. We have to reach out and ask for help. We try to be helpful and find we care on a deeper level than before.

But this kind of processing does not happen quickly or efficiently. In fact the only way it happens is if we are patient and allow ourselves to grieve fully and completely and for as long as it takes. For some that will be forever. The more we repress grief, or tell ourselves we need to be done by a certain point in time, the more it slows us down. When we really open to it, and relax into it, the more grief becomes this mysterious place to explore and find ourselves.