I’m just back from South America, where I co-hosted my first grief workshop for parents whose children have died. Because I promoted the workshop amongst all of my networks in the region, especially to mothers who I knew had had miscarriages or stillbirths, many people asked me how it went. Honestly, it was magical. Not so much the workshop itself, but the process of planning this experience and particularly the days leading up to it that I spent with my doula, Julieta.
From those very early days after the death and birth of our son, we recognized that he was something special. Rafa brought many, many gifts to this realm. I’ve written about many of these: here and here and here. He was not just any kid, but a soul that touched the lives of many people far and wide. Throughout the last year, time and again, I’ve been astounded by the individuals who have courageously told me how much Rafa meant and means to them. There are, of course, the people very close to us, those who were there with us in the delivery room: my parents, my midwives and my doula. I know how much Rafa’s conception, growth, death and existence meant to them, the treasures he offered them and the light he brought. But many of the lives that Rafael has touched are not so closely entangled with ours. I won’t pretend to explain what he gave to those folks; but if you see them you can ask Aurelia, Mary Jane, Dana, Vera, Melinda or either one of the Martha’s. (among many others). They will tell you. He was and is our teacher in so many ways. And there is something beyond my limited, human capacity to explain what he brought.
As Julieta and I were planning the Vasija Vacía, we spoke once of this aspect of Rafa’s existence. She called it “la parte iluminada” (the enlightened part). Julieta came all the way from Argentina for the birth. Though I never thought she would be able to be there, she made the trip and I honestly don’t know what I would have done without her these last 14 months. She was one of the very first ones to talk about sensing that Rafa was with her at different times on her journey since the birth. An impression of his tiny foot sits framed in her living room. The workshop we did together created a container for the partes iluminadas to rise to the surface of our consciousness. To be felt in a palpable way.
When I speak of Rafa’s gifts, I feel it is also important to acknowledge the incredible waves of generosity, support and care that came flowing our way in the weeks and months following his death. Somehow, the energy and love that our baby brought to the world was immediately reciprocated by a massive influx of love from our families of choice and origin around the world. It’s as if the richness and depth of what flowed in was proportionate to Rafa’s greatness.
I imagine it like this: a stone drops into water: Rafael’s life and death. I see his gifts rippling out widely to the world. Simultaneously my experience has been more like what might happen if we watched a film in reverse of a giant boulder dropping into the water. The way huge waves of love might undulate inwards towards the epicenter of the event… toward me and Yeyo and Rafa. At the end of the clip, the rock would jump from the water, proving to us all that we will carry on living. It has been awe-some (literally) to experience this never-ending flow of care. I imagine it has to do with the way that Yeyo and I have cultivated relationships over the years, but I intuitively sense that it’s to do with Rafa, too; who he was and who he is. I put together a little album of alters built, candles lit, gifts made and tattoos inked all In The Name of Rafael.
Now, where was I again? Ah yes! Let me return to South America. Only one person attended our workshop. Julieta and I did some reflecting on why things turned out this way. It is a very difficult topic to process, especially in a circle of strangers. It seems to be something people prefer to navigate in a more intimate, one-on-one way. Maybe the idea of living with, learning from and dancing alongside grief and pain is too threatening. But despite the low turnout, the hours that Julieta and I spent together before the gathering were precious. My family calls this space “the deep waters.” As we checked in on how we were feeling in that moment and our experiences throughout the anniversary of Rafael’s death and birth, our hearts opened and tears of joy and appreciation and sadness and regret fell from our eyes. As we spoke about our intentions for the workshop, she shared how her work as a doula is primarily an act of deep, spiritual service. This selfless service is woven in to who Julieta is; it’s more than her calling or gift… it is, I believe, her essence. She brought this gift to the workshop and she continues to bring it to my life.
For me, reflecting back on the gifts Rafa offered me brought waves of gratitude and sadness. The Vasija Vacía was an opportunity to actualize a calling that I began feeling almost immediately after his death. Soon I will share more about how my work with grief, collectively and individually, feels to be a vocation that is bound to change the course of my life (see here).
We recognize a deep need for spaces of collective grief, especially during this day and age. So, even though we only had one participant (and we realize it was a bit strange to go forward with the course given the circumstances), we reminded ourselves continually that we are doing this work for the world, not just for the people we directly impact. Just as we were about to start, with wet cheeks, we acknowledged that we were also doing this for ourselves, for our own healing and integration, and to learn more about our own grief and pain after the death of this beloved one. In the end, Juli also said, “And we’re doing it for Rafa.” He was a great teacher, but he was also simply our grandson, our nephew, our godson and our baby boy. The way he touched so many lives merits these ceremonies, rituals and remembrances.
After the workshop was over, I felt so very strong and clear in this calling. Holding this kind of raw space for emotion and working with the body as a vehicle for connecting with grief and pain was incredibly powerful. But as the days passed, I began to feel doubt and fear. At the second module of the Social Presencing Theater course I’m in, I spoke openly about the deaths of my children. People asked about the Vasija Vacía. The prototype I am developing now is connected to the grief work. I wish to convene a group of mothers who’s children have died in Oaxaca and work with them over the next six months using body-based practices to further deepen our connection to the grief and pain we feel. I noticed that reading out my intention and then walking around with it affixed to my nametag were intimidating for me. That ugly thing called shame reared its head for a few moments there.
After shame came doubt. On the last day of the course in Uruguay, I found myself staring out into space, quietly crying while sitting at the foot of one of my colleagues and holding the toes of another. The only word that came to me at that moment was: doubt. So, I have clarity and I have insecurity. No surprise; just another one of those interesting paradoxes in my life.
One of the questions that I was left with at the end of my time in the South was: what does it mean for me to be a mother? Julieta reminded me the day I arrived at her house that I am still a mother, even though I have no living children. It’s a tricky and complex question for me that taps into some of my previous dilemmas about how I am seen and what I expect of myself. I am deeply committed to exploring with myself and other mothers of deceased children what this truly means for us and for our society (a society that would more often than not like to pretend that stillbirth and perinatal deaths do not happen). One of the experiences – or maybe it’s more of a felt sense – that I sometimes have had is that Rafael is not here. But Julieta reminded me that he is both not here and he also is here. It’s something that I’ve struggled to feel or acknowledge. But I am back home now and my intention is to remember that my son is not gone… that he lives in me every day… that I am made of him. I have no clue how this acknowledgement might shift my future, but I sense that somehow it will.