Griefwork: A Calling

Well, this little blog project, ‘In the Name of Rafa,’ just turned one. It’s hard to believe. Throughout these twelve months, I have done my very best to share thoughts, experiences and feelings boldly and humbly from the heart. Many things have happened: deaths and births, travels, workshops… and all kinds of feelings from love to exhaustion, from rage to elation, with the constant presence of deep sadness and deep gratitude; life’s two palms gently against one another in reverence.

A couple months ago, I read this quote from Francis Weller: “The reclaiming of our soul medicine is often catalyzed by a dark night of the soul, an initiation into the mature cultivation of our own relationship with the sacred.”* Then I saw another line by Azul Valérie Thomé describing what may be possible when we pass through these experiences: “This is also the place in which we heal from the wounds of ‘disconnection from meaningful work’…”**

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These two reflections sparked the memory of that moment, just days following Rafael’s tragic and beautiful birth, when I felt Grief calling to support her in her work. The night of the birth my family and I gathered around this very computer screen to watch this interview with Francis Weller. In it, he lays out the Five Gates of Grief.*** This was my first explicit exposure to the idea that grief isn’t only about people dying or going away or getting sick. The idea is that there are many different kinds of grief, especially during our day and age.

As I was trying to explain these Gates of Grief in Spanish to my doula a few days later, I felt a deep desire arising within me: to work with Grief in community. I was moved by the number of people who had shared their stories of miscarriage and stillbirth with me in those early days after Rafa’s death and shocked by the tendency to navigate these experiences in solitude. It felt so bizarre to me that the insights coming to me in that very tender time seemed to be about work. When I expressed this, Julieta looked at me with her wide eyes and said: “But who’s to say what’s appropriate or “right” at this strange time?” It was true. There was no right or wrong, no blame or fault, no time at that time. Prior to my experience with stillbirth, I would have thought that the post-partum days would have been filled with sheer, debilitating torment and sadness for someone whose baby passed away. But there were so many gifts. (Sometimes I feel like when I say this, it might sound like I’m trying to polish up my experience or put a everything-happens-for-a-reason, all-is-learning, bullshit spin on things… but I really mean it.) The birth of death brought me a lot of clarity. That clarity has not come in a lightening-strike kind of way. It’s being revealed, little by little, step-by-step… it’s taking its own time.

tarotWhen I was finally ready to start thinking about work again, I did a tarot reading about the future of my work. I wanted to choose where I invested my time and energy consciously and not feel at the mercy of an economic system that left me feeling spent and seeing through scarcity eyes. I included this work with Grief in the cards. The message I received from the Seven of Cups was straightforward: not now. It’s a card about illusions and being overwhelmed by options, lost in our own fantasies.

I have waited. When the idea emerged of creating a short workshop for grieving parents in Argentina, it felt right. Although there were several people interested, in the end, only one came. Yet, it was an important step: putting my story and my desire to do this work out into the world. The process of designing the workshop was the next significant step on this journey. I continue walking slowly on this path, though I have doubt and fear and often feel alone. Sometimes, I understand why people don’t talk about stillbirth and miscarriage. It is painful and perhaps, on the surface, it seems much, much easier to avoid these subject, even when so many of us have lived this experience of heart-wrenching loss.

There is a Spanish artist and writer, Paula Bonet, who after having two miscarriages, decided to create a book about her experiences: Cuerpo de Embarazada sin Embrion. I went to see her speak this week since it felt synchronistic that she was in Oaxaca and that I was free for just that hour. From the interview I learned about another way of navigating the grief of death and attempting to break taboos around this subject. Bonet made a number of interesting connections about the patriarchy and its deep roots in our system as a reason that people feel ashamed to speak about their pregnancies that end in death. She spoke about feeling like she needed to ‘make it’ economically so that she would be able to provide for a family… but then by the time the economic security it is gained, we’re often placed in a category of high-risk pregnancies because of our age. Paula BonetI really resonated with that feeling of scarcity… feeling like I had to figure out how to make enough money to support our baby when he came. All of these issues are related to the modern capitalist system we are part of.

The author said that she does not get ‘emotional’ when she speaks about the miscarriage but she was moved when I shared my story (yes, I was emotional). I found this interesting and wondered how (and why) she’s been able to contain her feelings when speaking about the book. Maybe a book tour and multiple public events lead to a capacity to distance oneself from the tender parts. Maybe it just has to do with time. There were some beautiful one-liners:

“We need to work on the dark parts in the same way we work on the parts of light. Right now we’re often in individual darknesses and we need to be in collective darkness.”

I’m learning that there are many ways to respond to this calling. I am taking my time to figure out the way forward. I am studying with others who have been at this for a while. Sometimes it is an upward battle. The other day, I was feeling rather fearful and distraught and I mentioned in a comment to my friend Paola that I was in need of some general love and abrazos. She sent me a voice message acknowledging the fact that I have been and still am in a time of grieving the deaths of my babies, but she said that it was important to choose a moment in which I can begin to nurture life within me again (without it feeling like I have stopped honoring my babies). When I share it just like that, I see that it could be taken as sort of advice-y or should-y, but I love my friend and I didn’t really let my mind or defense mechanisms filter or interpret the message. I just let it go to my heart – and there, it really resonated a lot.

Yet, I find her invitation tricky because the new life and work I want to incubate is about grief and pain and death. I do want to allow new things to blossom and grow within me on the one hand and, on the other, I feel it’s a real struggle to go on, especially in the world we’re living in today. There’s a part of me that is still somewhat shrouded in death. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to “let go” of grief because I both sense it will always be with me no matter what and because I feel this calling to working with others and their grief, the world and its grief. I want to help break through the social norms that instruct us in many subtle ways to forget and “move on.” When I reflect on my friend’s invitation, as well as the weariness I feel upon coming to this document and seeing the phrase “Rafa’s death” for the gazillionth time; when I think of the spaces I feel called to inhabit now, what I sense is being asked of me is to stay in the space of in-between. I wish to occupy the zone in the middle, where lines cross in the center of the leminiscate… to dance between polarities, I want to work with death and grief in a way that doesn’t prohibit new life, and to work with the vibrancy of life in a way that doesn’t relegate pain and grief into some unspeakable, shameful corner.

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I also feel a deeper purpose related to this calling. From what I see in the world around me, I feel quite clear that deep grief work will be needed more and more in the years to come. Whether we survive the coming crises or not, I sense that grief, losses of all kinds, will naturally be a part of our future. Perhaps this sounds grandiose, this idea that this little work with grieving parents of deceased babies could serve the world in some way. Yet in my gut, I think that it might. What better way to learn how to navigate the big grief of our times than to turn to those of us who have faced it, processed it and metabolized it (in myriads of different manners) following the deaths of our children?

At the same time, I’m tired of writing about Rafa and Ramona’s deaths. I’m ready to get off the stage and make space for other moms and dads and grandparents, make space for other stories. So as I turn my attention to calling and hosting a small circle of bereaved mothers in Oaxaca, I am explicitly inviting those of you who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth or perinatal death to contribute to “In the Name of Rafa,” to share your stories of grief and gratitude. I’ve heard from a few of you over the year and I’ll be reaching out. I’m happy to work together to edit or even transcribe your stories. I just know that weaving in the richness of other narratives will make this a deeper, more beautiful virtual space. Thank you to all who have encouraged me to keep writing (and even those who haven’t). I’m sure I’ll still have a few thoughts to add here in the coming months, but let’s see what other voices wish to turn up. Write me if you’d like to share your story.

* Weller, Francis. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. North Atlantic Books, 2015, Page 30.

** Thomé, Azul Valérie. “Grief Composting Circles.” SOULand, https://www.souland.org/grief- composting.html.

* The Five Gates of Grief: Everything you love you will lose (death and loss). Places inside you that have not known love. Sorrows of the world. What we expected and did not receive. Ancestral Grief: bodily holding from grief of our ancestors.

Photos by Paolo Novelli (cover), Daniel Jensen on Unsplash and courtesy of Random House Literature. Tarot card image from The Wild Unknown by Kim Krans.

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