Ritualizing Loss (Part 2): Grief and Healing

In Part 1, I talked how there is an absence of rituals for loss and then told my story of miscarriage. (Includes links for stories and support.)

In Part 2, I talk about a normal process of grief, discuss the power and purpose of rituals and think about answers to an important question: What could rituals of loss look like?

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Would Have, Could Have

Looking back over my memories and my journal while writing my story of loss, the could haves and would haves screamed loudly in my mind. I can see how the seeds of trust planted from that experience of loss have grown stronger over time. Mostly, like for my birth, I would have stayed home! I can’t emphasize this enough. Birth is not a medical event; it is a normal and natural function of a woman’s body. Miscarriage and stillbirth are part of the pregnancy/birth spectrum. Just as I could trust my body and baby during the process of birth, I could have trusted my body and baby during the process of loss. Looking back, it is clear to me that my decision to get an ultrasound and my choice to stay in the ridiculous process at the hospital instead of demanding to go home stemmed from my lack of trust in myself and the process.

Still, I whatever I could have or would have done, I lost my baby and had to go through the grieving process. There is a widely accepted theory of the Five Stages of Grief. Like a normal human being, I went through all of them.

Grief: It’s a Process

Denial

For months and months I was all about trying to get pregnant. I hadn’t fully processed the loss of that baby and felt that if I could just get pregnant again I wouldn’t have lost time. I could pick things back up again. I was in denial through the whole pregnancy and process of loss. I was not able to open myself up to the truth and maintain a positive intention. I didn’t want to fully feel what was happening.

Anger

Who was I angry at? Mostly people I didn’t think understood what trying to conceive is like. “It’ll happen if you stop trying” has to be the most annoying phrase to hear when your heart is set on getting pregnant. Really it felt like people were asking me to “let it go,” to let go of my loss (which I had turned into a quest for another pregnancy). 

Bargaining

I was getting acupuncture, taking herbs, taking my temperature, peeing on sticks — all the things tons of other people were doing that were trying to conceive. I was charting and actually did learn a lot about my cycle and my body, probably things that led me to trust my body in labor later. Still, I had a strong sense that if I could just get things right I could fix things.

Depression

Would I ever get pregnant? Was that my only chance and I blew it? I started to try envisioning a life without a child. It was hard, and I would feel pangs of guilt for enjoying the life of freedom an adult without children has. I don’t know if I would call what I felt depression, but I definitely went deep within and did some soul-searching during this time.

Acceptance

Coming out of the dark mysteries of my heart and spirit, I realized what I had gained when I lost my baby. I felt ready to accept motherhood, where I was not before. I felt blessed that the little spirit I spent some little time with had taught me such a powerful lesson. I stopped taking and doing everything, I stopped trying to conceive and opened myself up to my life’s journey. [Of course, just like folks said this is exactly when I got pregnant, although it also happened to be exactly a year to the cycle of conception for the last baby.]

WHY ARE RITUALS POWERFUL? (from an article “Rituals and Family Strength”)

  • Rituals make changes manageable.
  • Rituals facilitate the transmission of values and beliefs.
  • Rituals contribute to family identity.
  • Rituals provide support and containment for strong emotions.
  • Rituals facilitate coordination among individuals, family members and communities.
  • Rituals facilitate healing.

The article gets into science speak, but it’s still significant to understand:

Various studies have examined the neurobiological impact of participation in rituals [d’Aquili, et al., (1979)]. These investigations show that rituals produce positive limbic discharges which lead to warmth and closeness among people.

Rituals tend to stimulate both left and right parts of the brain so that the “two hemispheres of the brain spill over into each other.” The result may be deep emotional experiences, {47} such as a “shiver down the back.” These experiences have the effect of facilitating personal integration and the feeling of well-being.

Rituals tend to combine both digital and analogic levels of information so that logical and verbal methods of communication are combined with nonverbal symbolic methods. Rituals thus hold a level of meaning and significance that words alone cannot capture.

POSSIBILITIES for RITUALS

No one ritual is going to fit for everyone, so each person and family would need to make rituals that are meaningful to them. Cultures worldwide have rituals around death and loss that have a similar basic structure. This same structure can be used by an individual, a family or a group of people at a gathering, say, to create a ritual and aid in grieving. The end result could look like a funeral or could just be a series of private moments, depending on the need of the individuals involved.

Make a marker (plant a tree, put out a stone, bury an object, create a keepsake box)

I did get to plant an Asian pear tree at my mother in law’s suggestion. Just this week I ate a big, sweet pear from that thriving tree. Watching that little sapling grow strong did actually help me move forward. A living thing is a powerful force for healing.

Say a few words (have a eulogy, tell your story, write about it in a journal)

I journaled through the whole miscarriage, which I am thankful for now because I can look back in moments like now when I’m ready and learn more about myself. I also shared my story which allowed me to hear so many more stories. This made me feel normal and not so alone and isolated.

Express yourself (sing, dance, make music, cry, make art)

I also watched the whole lot of Jane Austen films and bawled unabashedly, using the sadness from the movie to give me permission to touch my own deep down sadness I wanted to keep locked away. Not so creative, but it worked!

Have moments of silences (breathe, hold hands, bow heads, meditate, take a quiet stroll in the woods)

I found being outside, especially in the woods, most helpful. I both dreaded and appreciated silent, private moments because my grief would rise to the surface. Nature is a great healer and holder of hard feelings.

Remember (revive the ritual at a regular interval)

I do remember. In one of the posts I read, the mother talked about how people who lose their child remember everything. The date, the day, the last time ___ happened, the clothes they were wearing….memory is a funny thing isn’t it? I think it’s significant I “forgot” the most painful and hurtful moments (the ultrasound and vaginal exam) until I went back and read my journal. Remembering is a lifelong process, as is healing.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I do think that having some rituals for ourselves, where there are none, can truly aid in the grieving and healing process. Whether you draw strength and ceremony from a culture you know well or create your own ceremonial moments, ritual can help the mind, body and spirit integrate loss. This is helpful because it’s a long process (that maybe never ends). Ritual can help at all stages, as long as we need it too. If you have experienced loss or you know someone who has, perhaps you can find a way to do some or all of those steps. I know I am grateful that someone else suggested planting a tree because having a marker has been powerful for me.

Overall, though, I just want us to consider how common loss during pregnancy is and how many of us walk around with this grief. It is hard to know how to support someone who has experienced loss, but in general following their lead can’t hurt. If they are looking cheerier than usual, ask something other than “How are you doing” in a concerned way. If they are looking down, perhaps just a wordless hand on the shoulder or a quick “thinking of you” note is enough to show support. Not much needs to be or can be said.

As for society as a whole, I hope for birth and pregnancy to become normal again. Then maybe the loss of these will also become normal. Maybe then people could be their whole selves, holes in the heart and all, in public and private. Until then, perhaps telling our stories of loss is the most powerful force for societal change that we can make.

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] Part 2 is my reflections on “would haves” for my own story as well as my thoughts on rituals and ceremonies that would aid and normalize the grieving and healing process. […]

    Reply

  2. […] Maybe it’s all that. Maybe it’s that our cat, of only a few years, died suddenly and unexpectedly. I find myself pondering death as I work with my toddler to process our grief. […]

    Reply

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