The Mother’s Memorial

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I don’t know how to write about this, which is why I have to write about it. I write to process, I write to grieve, I write to get through things. I write to feel less alone, and so others will feel less alone. Initially, I wasn’t going to write about it, because it felt like a really personal thing. But I feel like it’s part of my testimony, of how God works in my everyday life. Some people don’t believe in that, but it is absolutely true for me.

I had this idea, a while ago, to have a memorial service for…I’m still not sure. For the children I’ll never have? For my loss of the ability to be a biological mother? For my hopes and dreams of biological motherhood? For the things that prevent me from being a biological mother? I think it was all of that and more. (I specify “biological” mother because I still hope to adopt in the future.)

The reasons I wanted this memorial service were many: to acknowledge the grief, to physically manifest that, to have someone else acknowledge that grief with me, to make it real and help me move past it. Humans need ceremony, rites, and rituals to move through the pivotal events in our lives, positive and painful. It’s why we have weddings and funerals and baptisms and birthdays. We need those occasions to acknowledge that a change has happened in our lives, and we need our community to acknowledge that with us.

There is not, however, any kind of ceremony, rite, or ritual (at least in our culture) for a community to acknowledge a woman who has lost her ability to have children. Women are expected to grieve that on their own, and often, we don’t even talk about it. The few support groups that exist are for women with infertility who are desperately trying to conceive. That isn’t me. What I wanted was support for the process of accepting, healing, and moving on from the loss of fertility– and there was simply no one talking about that. So I decided to create that for myself, and I chose to do it with a memorial service. I asked my priest, Beth+, to help me do this.

At first, I wanted complete control over the whole thing. I even wrote a liturgy and a service leaflet based on the funeral liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer. I found quotes from Scripture and hymns, I made it exactly how I wanted it. I hand-painted a tiny box, which, now that I think of it, is the size of a uterus (about the size of a fist). In it, I had written and folded up several little notes, each of them with something I would be losing. I decided I wanted to bury it under an angel statue in the prayer garden at my church. I had it all arranged in my head.

God, however, in His wisdom, made scheduling my version of this service impossible for several weeks. And as those weeks went by, I felt less and less inclined to do it my way. I felt less and less attached to my version of this event, and I felt like I wanted to give up control of this whole thing. This, as it turned out, was the best thing that could’ve happened, because if I’d had it my way, it would not have been nearly as meaningful.

Beth+ and I discussed this service beforehand, and I let her know that I wanted to hand it over to her. We scheduled it for the following Monday, and I spent the weekend praying about it. The main thing I prayed for was to be present. I’m very adept at shutting down uncomfortable feelings when they show up and I knew I just wanted to be present to whatever I experienced in the moment as we went through this. I also decided to invite a dear friend of mine who was going through a hysterectomy that Tuesday. She was feeling similar feelings of loss, and I felt it would be important for her too.

The night before, I wrote a letter. It was addressed to my Children Who Weren’t Meant to Be, from their One-to-Be Mother. It was hard to write, but I’m so glad I did. Strangely, in another one of God’s timing things, I had run out of my birth control a few days earlier and was having terrible cramps. I’m usually on continuous birth control and don’t have a period at all, so this was unusual. But I realized that this was actually a good thing. I kind of wanted to feel my uterus right then. I wanted to be able to feel it contracting, like it was laboring through it’s own emptiness and grief.

On Monday, I came into Beth’s+ office and she asked if I was ready. I showed her the box and the letter, so she could figure out where to include it in the service. When we went into the Nave, she arranged three chairs around the Mary altar we have in the corner, with a kneeler in the middle. As we sat down, before Beth+ even began talking, tears were rolling down my cheeks.

Beth+ talked about how she wanted this to be a special liturgy, just for me, one that had never been done before and would never be done again. She talked about Mary and Her pregnancy, how She may have had more children or lost children, how She walked with me through this. Beth+ had me kneel, and she anointed my forehead with oil. She had my friend put one had where my uterus is, and one hand on my back. Beth+ had one hand on my head and one hand on my hands and she prayed: for the Holy Spirit to heal the places in me that felt broken, the places in me that felt damaged; for those places to be filled with light and love; that she and my friend, as my sisters, were there with me, to walk with me through this loss. Then Beth+ asked me something unexpected, which was probably the most painful part of the whole thing: did I name any of the babies that I couldn’t have? I did. I said those names out loud, and we prayed for them. When I got up, we prayed for my friend the same way, with my hand on her uterus, and Beth+ anointing her with oil. Then we lit candles. Beth+ read the letter I wrote for me, because I couldn’t get through it. She held my hand the whole time. After that, we went outside. I hadn’t told her that I had picked a place under the angel statue, but that’s where she went. We buried the little box and the letter along with it. We commended it to the earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We sang a hymn that my friend had picked out, and Beth+blessed the ground and us.

It was a beautiful service, and Beth+did it perfectly.

After everything, I sat in the church for quite a while. I knelt at the Mary altar, I sat in a pew, I sat in front of the main altar on the floor near the tabernacle, and cried. And cried.

And cried.

Sometimes when I need comfort or guidance, I’ll say a prayer and flip to a random page in the Bible to see what direction God might give through His word. As I sat in the pew, this is what I saw, and I laughed through my tears:

But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground. I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams. This one will say, “I am the Lord’s,” another will be called by the name of Jacob, yet another will write on the hand, “The Lord’s,” and adopt the name of Israel. Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be. Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.

God is with me, I need not be afraid. As someone once said to me, “Whether or not you have children, you are fertile.” There are many ways to give life to the world. I will figure out what my way is, at some point.

Right now I’m just grateful, for the opportunity I had to do this, a friend who did it with me, and a priest who treated it with such reverence, sensitivity, and importance. The way Beth+ treated this loss, always with such seriousness, gave it a validity that I needed to stop minimizing and denying the grief I really felt. It helped give me permission to open up to those feelings and be honest about them. I’m so thankful for that. And it makes me so thankful that I am in a church that ordains women, because a male priest, no matter how sensitive, just could not have helped me through this in the same way.

This was not a silver bullet, and I still have things to work through, but it did help me immensely. As painful as it was, it was equally healing.

For that, I can’t be anything but grateful.

 

 

Understanding Grief: Love With Nowhere to Go

grief-is-just-love-with-no-place-to-go

I can’t seem to find a reliable source for the author of this quote. But it’s the best explanation I’ve found for the type of grief that I’ve been experiencing around the loss of my ability to have a child.

I was sitting in therapy the other day and I was frustrated. I was saying how I didn’t understand why this “grief process” was taking so long. How I didn’t understand, didn’t anticipate, that my grief over not being able to become pregnant and have a child would be so intense. And why it had only seemed to be since that last ultrasound the previous March that I have felt this way.

It’s not like I didn’t have some understanding that infertility was a possibility for me. I’m not an idiot. I’ve been on psychiatric medication since I was 14. I was diagnosed with my first autoimmune disorder seven years ago, and PCOS six years ago. I was told about the scarring from repeated sexual trauma when I was 25. I knew all of those things could affect my chances to get pregnant and have a healthy baby at some point in my life, but I wasn’t putting it all together. I thought I still had options. I thought there was still some chance.

The truth is, I know why it’s only been since March 11, 2016 that I’ve felt this way. It’s because that’s when I put it all together. That’s when all my options were taken away. That’s when I was told that there was, essentially, no chance, unless I wanted to risk both my life and the life of any fetus I tried to carry. That’s when whatever little hope I had was crushed.

And so the grief really began. The loss that had been, up to that point, only theoretical, became an actual, tangible loss. A death. One I was not prepared to mourn.

The strength of this grief and the length of time is has gone on has confused me, frustrated me, angered me, and generally been a stumbling block in my healing. I understood that there would be grief but why was there so much? For a long time I felt like I didn’t have the right, didn’t deserve to mourn so much about a loss that, for the first few months, I still had to convince myself was a real thing. I told myself that I was mourning “imaginary children” and that was “stupid.” Disparaging and minimizing the truth was a defense against the pain I was feeling, just a another stop on the way to acceptance. I had to have multiple people tell me that this was real. That I had the right to feel what I felt. That it made sense.

Six months after that ob-gyn appointment, two dear friends of mine lost their three-year-old child to a drowning accident. And suddenly, my grief seemed like the stupidest thing on earth, because this mother had lost a real child. Her living, breathing child whom she had carried and birthed and held and known and played with and taught and fed and rocked and loved beyond measure, had died. I mourned for her child, mourned for her. I stopped mourning for myself because I felt unimaginably dumb doing so.

I’ve never said this to her before, but I know she’ll understand if she reads this.

I had to get past the idea that there was some comparison to be made. I had to understand that we are two separate people with two separate stories, and we each have the right to grieve our own losses. I had to get past the idea that there’s like, some scarcity of grief out there, and that if I grieved while she did I’d be taking up too much of the supply.

There’s plenty to go around.

I finally really understood this two months ago when I went to a Lenten discussion on grief with a few people from church. Why they chose to do this in a loud,  hamburgers-and-beer place was beyond me but I found myself leaving the discussion to sit outside at a picnic table and cry. A woman I know, who had also lost a child, came and sat down next to me. This woman had lost her fourteen-year-old daughter to a rare disease just three years ago. Without a word, she sat down next to me and opened her arms. I fell onto her shoulder and sobbed. She told me something I hadn’t known: that since she had been very young, she thought that she couldn’t have children, so she understood my pain. When she got pregnant with her daughter, it was a total shock.

Something about the fact that this woma who had lost her real, living child, was willing to sit down and be in my pain with me over not being able to have any was extraordinary. It was one of the most generous acts of grace I’ve ever seen. She validated my grief with hers. She validated it by being a mother who had arguably been though much worse and still was willing to comfort me. I can’t thank her enough for that.

I remember continuing to cry after they left, in my car, for an hour. I drove around, eventually ending up at the St. Mary’s church grounds. I walked the prayer path, stumbling in the dark, not seeing the irony of the metaphor at the time. I went home, because I had to. And I felt something shift.

The very next day, because this is how God works, I saw the image at the top of this piece on Facebook. It hit me like a ton of bricks: The reason my grief is so intense is because I am feeling all the mother’s love I ever wanted to give to all the children I ever wanted to have, all at once– except there are no children to receive it. So this love has nowhere to go but straight back into me, where it sits like stagnant water, a swamp full of care-taking and nurturing and hand-holding and playing and teaching and mothering. 

I’m a mother, but I will never be a mother.

That’s why it hurts so much, and is taking so long.

 

And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

Job 1:21

Day After Mother’s Day: Moving On

Today is easier.

Today I did normal things. Took the cat to the vet. Wrote emails. Went to the pharmacy. Drank a Frappuccino. Today I was a person again, not just an empty womb walking around, which is what I felt like yesterday.

After the five pm service, Deacon Russ came over to me and hugged me. He said, “You just look so sad today. You don’t have to tell me what’s going on, I just wanted to give you a hug and tell you that I see your sadness.”

He doesn’t check social media much.

I got a hug from Beth+ too, and when she pulled back she said to me, “You made it.” I said something along the lines of, “Sort of.”

Once at home, I cooked dinner and made dessert for my own mom. She works the 3 to 11 pm shift as a nurse, so she didn’t get to enjoy it until midnight, but that was ok. It was good to see her smile, give her a gift in an act of service and make her feel loved. She gave me a hug and said, “Thanks for letting me be your mom.” I said, “Genetically, I don’t think I had much choice in the matter.” Because that’s how we are. And she laughed.

Did I choose her, though? Was my soul bound to hers before I was born? Do I have a child somewhere out there whose soul is bound to mine, and I just don’t know it? Or does that only happen to mothers who carry their children inside them?

I will wonder about these things for a long time to come. In the meantime, I will focus on finishing school, on discerning if I am called to the priesthood. I will write emails, drink Frappuccinos, take cats to the vet. I will live a regular life, and maybe someday, when God thinks I’m ready, a child will come into my life.

Or maybe not.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:12-14

 

Mother’s Day Missing: Continued

Today was a sort of nightmare.

Being on social media today, especially Facebook, is like being assaulted from every angle. All I want to do is forget and grieve in solitude and peace but today the world has chosen to say to every women who can get pregnant, every woman who can do what I can’t do: congratulations on being everything Sarah wants to be but can’t be! Congratulations on being a mother!

God, help me.

This is all very selfish and self-pitying and irrational. Trust me, I am aware. It’s not a conspiracy theory to make me feel like shit, although that’s how it seems to me right now. I am, as my friend Deede says, “all up in my feelings.” It’s hard not to be.

I decided I needed to go to as much church as possible today. For me, that’s the best place to be when I’m all up in my feelings. I need Jesus and my friends to sort me out. So I went to Adult Christian Formation, where we talked about Why Bad Things Happen To Good People. A timely subject. I could have shared for hours about all the fucked up shit that has happened in my life, but I mostly kept my mouth shut. I only opened it to say that the idea of “bad things happening to good people” is a fallacy in itself. Because to believe in that, you have to believe in the notion of “good people” who deserve good things vs “bad people” who deserve bad things. And as Christians, that is fundamentally against our core belief that God loves everyone equally.  

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Matthew 5: 44-45 

So during the 10:30 service, I was called away to help with Children’s Chapel. Of course. Actually, it was sweet. A little girl who I had in my Vacation Bible School class last year, who has since been quite attached to me, was there and wanted to hold my hand the whole time. We did prayers and songs and what the kids prayed for was adorable. Everything from a dead dog to “hungry people” to “grandma’s hurt back.”

When we came back from Children’s Chapel it was time for blessings. Rev. Beth called up every woman in the nave to the altar rail to receive a mother’s day blessing, because she said, “If you are a woman, then you are a mother in Christ and you help to raise the children of this church.” When I got up there, I was surrounded by friends, people who know about my grief over my infertility. I began to cry, but tried to hold it back. Then Beth+ gave me a meaningful look, and put her hand over her heart. My friend Mary grabbed my hand. So I lost it, and just cried.

I continued to cry through the Eucharist. Someone behind me handed me kleenex. I felt honored, recognized, and deeply empty at the same time. It was incredibly sweet and incredibly bitter.

I don’t know how to do this.

I will never forget the day that I was told in definite terms that pregnancy and children would not happen for me. It was March 11, 2016. I will never forget lying on a table having a pelvic ultrasound, looking at this giant flat screen on the wall where most women see the progress of their growing fetuses, and seeing black. Seeing my big, empty uterus in HD, with a cyst on my fallopian  tube and another on my ovary, seeing the huge, black, empty space that would stay empty forever. I watched as my ob-gyn moved the wand around to check for more cysts, just staring at the black emptiness. That, as Rev. Beth said, is when the death happened for me.

The death of all my hopes and dreams. The death of my identity as a hopeful future mother. The death of my ability to give life through my body. Part of me truly died when my ob-gyn told me my chances of ever being able to carry a pregnancy without me or the baby dying were less than 1%. It’s not just about the cysts (PCOS), thought that’s a big part of it. It’s my bipolar medications, my autoimmune diseases, and scarring from years of rape and sexual abuse. The combination of those factors makes it nearly impossible.

I am not meant to be a mother by natural means.

Maybe I am meant to be an adoptive or foster mother. Maybe God has a child out there that isn’t even born yet, and I am destined to be his or her parent. Maybe I am meant to rescue a child from a situation like the one I grew up in, and because I went through that, I will be specially equipped to help that child. I don’t know.

All I know is that right now, the loss still hurts. It’s been one year and three months, and it still, still, hurts. I sometimes feel silly or stupid for continuing to grieve for so long. A part of me is like, you should be over this by now. C’mon, stop it already. Another part of me says that this will take as long as it takes, and I have to just follow where the grief goes.

I hate that.

That’s the way grief works though. The more you try to suppress it, the more it comes rushing up to make you pay attention. You can ignore it, but it won’t go anywhere. Grief will wait. It will sit there, kick back and relax until you deal with it. So you might as well deal with it.

I am trying.

 

“Sing, barren woman,
    you who never bore a child;
burst into song, shout for joy,
    you who were never in labor;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
    than of her who has a husband,”
says the LordDo not be afraid; you will not be put to shame.
    Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated.
You will forget the shame of your youth
    and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.
For your Maker is your husband—
    the Lord Almighty is his name—
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer;
    He is called the God of all the earth...
“For a brief moment I abandoned you,
    but with deep compassion I will bring you back.
In a surge of anger
    I hid my face from you for a moment,
but with everlasting kindness
    I will have compassion on you,”
    says the Lord your Redeemer.

Isaiah 54: 1, 4-5, 7-8

Poems on Infertility and Loss

9/15/16

 

Empty

 

Empty

I’ll forever be empty

Like a chalice gathering dust

In pieces on the floor

Where someone dropped it and left it— shattered

Too shattered to ever hold water

 

Empty

Like one end of an hourglass

Watch as the time drops away

Grain by grain—

See her life drain

 

Empty

Like the nest she left so young

The one she destroyed

Tumbling from branches on high—

Watch her fly

 

On empty

Like a starving child’s belly

So hungry for love

We can feed her with hope

But part of her will always be

 

Empty

Like this womb meant to give life

That will stay waiting so still

A tomb nothing fills

 

Eternally

Awfully

Empty

 

© Sarah Ann Henderson 2016

 

4/1/17

 

Nowhere

 

When you find you’re infertile

There’s no place to mourn

 

There’s nowhere to bury children that will never exist

There’s no funeral to be held

For the death of hopes and dreams

 

There’s no name for a mother

Who was never a mother

 

When you grieve the child you’ll never have

You grieve alone

 

The only grave site

Is the empty place in your womb

Something you carry, always

 

The grief and anger grow

Like the baby that will never live there

 

And sometimes you nurture them

For there’s nothing else in your body

To nurture

 

© Sarah Ann Henderson 2017

 

 

Motherhood Lost

I have previously posted this on Facebook, but I’d like to have it here as well.

In the Old Testament, Sarah is the wife of Abraham. She is infertile and impatient. She doesn’t trust God when He tells her that she will eventually have a child. In fact, she laughs in His face. I might have doubted too, because it took until she was ninety before she conceived Isaac, a patriarch of Judaism. Thus, Sarah eventually became the “mother of many nations” that God promised her she would be.

My name is Sarah. Unlike the biblical version, I will never be a mother. Not of many nations, not of one child.

I truly am infertile.

The medical reasons behind my inability to carry a pregnancy are mostly irrelevant. They are such a small part of the story. The part of the story that stays with me, that follows me like a ghost as I continue to try and heal, is the grief.

I have always wanted to be a mother. Since I was a little girl playing with my baby dolls, since I knew how pregnancy worked, since I could remember. I wanted children. I dreamed what a lot of women dreamed.

I began babysitting at 14; I still babysit my friends’ kids. I volunteered with kids in organizations that protected them from abuse. I rescue cats, one of whom is like my baby; we’ve been inseparable for fifteen years. I mentor a teen in the juvenile justice system. I have a godson that I love with all of my heart. I have a niece and a nephew and another one on the way.

And even though I have and do all of this I am keenly aware of one thing:

None if it is enough.

There are many days when I feel fine, normal. There are days when I’m not sad at all, or only just a little. Then there are days when I am completely slammed with the reality that no matter how many nieces and nephews and godchildren and cats I have, no matter how many children I babysit or volunteer my time to, I will never have a child in my womb. I will never understand what my friends mean when they talk about how their children are physically part of them, how the love they share is something special because of that physical bond. And even if God grants me the gift and honor of being an adoptive parent, I still will never know what those women are talking about; that primal, heart-to-heart connection a woman has with a child that is physically hers.

And maybe none of that matters. Maybe I will develop a love for my adoptive children that is just as strong and special. And I think my history as survivor of family trauma makes me specially capable at caring for children who were separated from their birth parents at an early age.

All I know is, right now there are times when I feel the aching chasm of my empty uterus within me. I feel it and I know that the one thing that could fill it is the one thing that is impossible for me. So when I see another pregnancy or birth announcement on Facebook, or when people get into conversations about their kids that I can’t add to, there’s a tiny, grieving part of me that can’t stand to listen.

At least, not right now.