October 25, 2016
“Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”
That quote from former Poet Laureate of the United States of America Rita Dove comes to mind when I read poetry written by bereaved mothers describing their postpartum bodies. How can one adequately depict the devastation following the death of a baby either in utero or following birth?
How to express what it is like to have every aspect of one’s postpartum body be a reminder of the missing child one longs to nourish and hold?
Perhaps only the “most distilled and most powerful” language can lift up this pain and honor the experience of the bereaved.
Consider this poem by author and bereaved mother Dianna Vagianos Armentrout:
I am lost without you.
I listen for your cries
But you never cried.
You never drank
one drop of my milk.
My body pours out its rage
tear by tear, drop of milk by
Where are you my Beloved?
In her memoir “ Walking the Labyrinth of my Heart: A Journey of Pregnancy, Grief and Newborn Death,” Armentrout details the story of the birth and death of her daughter Mary Rose, diagnosed with trisomy 18. Armentrout describes her daughter as “breath and spirit, and in the poem I translate her life into art.” For Armentrout, the process of writing poetry is akin to giving birth. She finds meaning in the crafting of her words, in offering up descriptions of her longing, loss, and love. “I birth a poem and then the poem has a life of its own and can go out into the world and help others."
This week concludes Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Month. The pioneering women and men who established this month and organize annual activities remembering pregnancy and infant loss are motivated by the goal of helping others. Like Armentrout, they have known deep loss and have chosen to turn their “pain into medicine” (to quote from the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi). They offer up healing balm to a hurting world. Of course, for bereaved families, there is no need to have a specific month for remembrance. Their little ones who died far too soon are remembered daily, hourly, in every breath.
As a yoga teacher, birth doula and hospital chaplain offering trainings on Holding Space for Pregnancy Loss, I find myself drawn to poetry as a powerful means of embodying the pain of complicated grief. As a mother, I remember standing in awe as I looked at my body in the mirror following birth. I watched drops of milk drip from my breasts. I pressed into my soft, extended post-birth belly with wonder. My beloved son grew inside of my body. I nurtured, loved, and successfully labored to bring him into the world.
But what if he hadn’t lived? What if my motherhood had been one of giving birth to an untimely death?
It’s very difficult to even type the above words. No one wants to imagine such a fate. In fact, we go out of our way to avoid it — and avoid those who remind us of it. Armentrout laments: “the discomfort with death in our culture is so pervasive [a bereaved mother] is often shunned instead of comforted.”
This painful shunning can be internalized. Often, a bereaved mother must work hard to look into the mirror and embrace the beauty of her postpartum body as she struggles to make sense of the loss. Consider these words by Christine Nysson, a Florida-based mother who lost her daughter Harlee Lynn to Potter Syndrome.
I know you’re struggling, Mama
Looking into the mirror
Seeing a body that betrayed you
Breasts that are no longer what they used to be
But that never fed your beautiful baby, even though they wept for her
Tummy soft from growing her inside you
It’s a constant reminder that your body carried a baby, your baby
I know she’s not here now, Mama
But that doesn’t mean you’re not beautiful
You carried life, you fought for life, and your body created that beauty
Your body labored and opened and birthed a little angel
Don’t let them tell you that you’re not a Mama
Don’t let them say your body isn’t beautiful because you’re not feeding a child in the middle of the night
I know you’re awake anyway, trying to feel her
You earned that body, Mama
Every stretch mark, every stripe, every extra pocket of fat stored for your baby
The tears and dark circles are yours and they’re a reminder of what should have been
I know she isn’t here Mama, but your body is still a representation of her
Of the life you fought for and the love you gave unconditionally
And that is beautiful
Whether describing drops of sweet breast milk that never will nourish one’s child, the rage and pain of loss, or the memory of laboring, opening and birthing “a little angel,” poetry offers a powerful way to honor the postpartum body following loss.
Often poems become prayers. In her book “ Tears of Sorrow, Seeds of Hope: A Jewish Spiritual Companion for Infertility and Pregnancy Loss ,” Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin provides numerous examples of poems as prayers. While emphasizing the comforting power of ritual and the healing presence of a religious community, Cardin doesn’t shy away from the pain inherent in the topic. Indeed, many of the prayers and poems reflect searing pain. Rather than trying to sweep hurt under the proverbial rug, her words lift up heartache openly:
Be gracious to me, O God,
For I am sorely wounded.
My eyes, my soul, my womb
Are consumed with grief.
I am like a broken vessel.
A broken vessel. Tears of milk and sorrow. A body that betrayed. Stretch marks and empty arms. These powerful images — these poetic words — inspire us to more openly companion the bereaved and honor their stories of loss.
As Christine Nysson says, “Don’t let them tell you that you’re not a Mama.”
Indeed, the grieving postpartum body following loss is very much a mother’s body. A mother’s body that loves, that labors, that births. As we conclude this year’s remembrance month focusing on pregnancy and infant loss, may we acknowledge the “sorely wounded” amongst us. May we hold space for their sorrows and walk alongside them in their grief.
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