by Heather Carnaghan
Today I should be distracted from my writing by a nearly mobile, chubby cheeked eight month old. Instead, I sit in silence reflecting on the extensive grief resume that I’ve built while sitting in a rocking chair next to a crib that has never been slept in.
When I walked into this nursery eight months ago, I sat slumped on the floor staring at Charlotte’s name painted across the wall for hours. I remember thinking, “now what?”
Without recognizing it, even in that minute I had begun to build a grief resume. I started from the bottom, right there on the nursery floor, where everything is a minute by minute battle. I dressed stitches and researched ways to soothe engorgement without a baby to nurse. This hodgepodge collection of resources started on post-its, as bookmarked websites, and dog-eared pages in stacks of grief books given to me by well-wishers. My husband suggested organizing it into a website so I wouldn’t lose anything. This seemed like a reasonable thing to focus my energy on, so I created the very first page on CharlottesPurpose.com, “Maternity Leave Without a Baby”.
I started writing. I began a journal of letters to Charlotte and wrote poetry in those minutes where sentences were hard to string together. Authoring an idea in this way made me feel as though I had accomplished something. I had recorded a raw feeling exactly as I felt it so someone else might begin to understand.
The day you were born
still and silent
my heart was shattered into fragments
so sharp that they pierced through my whole life
leaving wounds that will never heal.
I held your tiny hand
and stroked your chubby cheeks.
They grew cold as my own warmth seeped out of you
and the corpse color crept over your perfect toes.
All of the broken promises
of this beautiful and awful date
ae heavy in a place in my heart
where, now, there only exists stolen hope.
Who I was and who you would have been
died that day
and left me with all the parts of motherhood
that the drug of a newborn’s smell subdues.
How cruel it seems that I also have this love
that is so deep that I will take all of these awful things
if they are all I am meant to have of you.
Grief, like a mountain
is born from the crashing
of two giant tectonics that shouldn’t meet
but do so with such force
that the whole earth crumples at that fault line,
an accordian fold that cannot be flattened again
despite our monumentous human efforts.
A theme emerged in my writing. There was despair, certainly, but there was also hope.
The blinding, slashing rain
of this wretched storm will pass
and it its wake
new growth will rise up
from seeds I never knew I planted.
the humble Jack pine
whose seeds are born in wildfire
this phoenix of trees
Mechanically we march,
battered, but vaguely certain
of a thicket ahead with less thorns.
I began writing our story. In that first month I was horrified that I might forget even a tiny detail about my daughter’s life and I knew that was all I had. So I wrote. And wrote. A paragraph became a chapter, then a book.
Meanwhile, CharlottesPurpose.com was growing. I had continued to research support systems, grief resources, and the science of stillbirth. The site exploded from a single page to ten, then twenty.
One day I was clearing out a room with the plans of turning the old office into an art and yoga studio to help with the healing process. I came across my wedding dress and cried because she would never wear it. When I had no tears left, I noticed a long-forgotten sewing machine in the corner. It had been abandoned years before when I realized that I couldn’t sew a straight line for a pair of curtains. An idea formed slowly as I layed rubber yoga flooring and lined up the art supplies in neat rows. The Youtube sewists said creating an infant gown was “easy”, so I plugged in the sewing machine and stole an old bed sheet from the linen closet. My first attempt looked like a kindergarten art project, but by the fifth, seams were lining up. I forgot what my wedding dress had looked like. An enormous chapel length train flooded out of the box as I lifted it from the preservation box. The fabric was smooth and elegant, perfect for a baby’s burial gown. I clipped a block of fabric off haphazardly so that I couldn’t chicken out, then traced the very first pattern for The Wrapped in Love Project. Soon I had donated wedding dresses flooding in faster than I could repurpose them and three new sewists joined the project.
While grief engulfed me and made me desperate to stay still, Charlotte gave me direction and meaning. Each day- even on the worst of them- she forced me out of bed to get her brothers ready for school. She wouldn’t let me sit idly in my sadness when there was a website to build, a story to tell, and a wedding dress to repurpose. One week before her memorial, I was abruptly given a tiny window of time to apply for a job I had worked for several years toward. I got dressed that day, not in the sweats that had become my uniform, but in clothes that I would have worn to work. I’m not sure why, really, except that I needed to feel as though I was truly the person in the resume that I was compiling, and I wasn’t convinced that person still existed. I was granted a meeting and interviewed with a panel of six stoney faced principals who didn’t know that I clutched a fox stone so tightly under the table that my knuckles were white and the engraving left an imprint in my palm. They didn’t know that I had given birth to, and cremated, my child less than two months before, or that every answer I gave was followed in my head with, “Can I really lead a school brimming with living children when my own is gone forever?” I smiled, genuinely glad to be finished, and thanked them for the opportunity that I doubted would be extended. Three days later, I opened an email congratulating me on being admitted to the pool of Assistant Principal candidates.
I had never faced a panel interview before this year, but in less than six months as a grieving parent, I managed to be summoned to intimidatingly large panels twice. My principal nominated me for the Teacher of the Year award, so I was asked to interview at the head of a massive table with twelve principals and school leaders. Once again the fox stone was present and heavy in my pocket as I considered their questions. While interviews are uncomfortable, they are predictable. You can expect the handshakes, the stares, the quick fire questions. What a non-loss parent might find strange is that celebrations and gatherings are far more stressful. Small talk always leads to “How many children do you have?” That seems innocuous enough, except that the loss-parent is faced with the dilemma of either being the ‘downer’ in the room or dishonoring their child's existence. These events can be as big as an awards dinner where you are expected to give an impromptu speech to hundreds of people, or as small as an annual community barbeque (dripping with baby girls) that I happened to be pregnant with my daughter at the year before.
My eight month grief resume includes new skills like resilience, poise under pressure, metal stamping, and website design. It lists triumphs like parenting two grieving toddlers, returning to work and writing curriculum from scratch, incorporating a small business, and starting the 200 people strong Bereaved Optimist’s Book Club. This eight month grief vitae includes raising $3,000 for a Cuddle Cot, sewing more than 70 infant burial gowns, weathering countless milestones, and conceiving another child. It includes a new network of colleagues and world changers, all unique in their own loss experience, but united in their insatiable will to survive it. Each of our grief resumes look different. Some loss parents have forged cross country moves to escape the sight of painful triggers, others have built altars filled with mementos of a tiny life. Generosity abounds in this community of loss; weighted bears, care packages, and Cuddle Cots are donated in babies’ memory in the hopes that these things might soften the blow for someone else, even for a single moment. They run races, and host fundraisers so that even one family can avoid the fate that they have been dealt.
When we are in the deepest, darkest parts of our grief, it is hard to see that the seeds we are planting are taking root. It took me eight months to realize that I have indeed made growth. From this vantage point, it is easier to see that my loss did not weaken me at all. It made me a more appreciative and attentive parent. It made me a more generous and genuine human being. It made me a pillar of resilience. When my baby died, I was given a blank page instead of Charlotte’s life story. It’s my job to write it for her, and I am proud of this first chapter.
by Heather Carnaghan
I love a good metaphor like some people love a good movie.
I’m a lover of poetry and prose because of those visceral lines that are drizzled with delicious language and playful words that stick to the roof of your mouth as you read them. Yum. A good metaphor can make me look at a simple mosaic and realize that rebuilding after something has shattered can be beautiful in ways I never anticipated.
I’ve found symbolism in everything along this grief journey.
Today I attended a fancy luncheon at the state board of education. I wore a tiny orange fox pin that was almost hidden by the pink carnation corsage that the host pinned to my dress. In floriography, the study of flowers, meaning is often attributed to particular blooms. There is an old belief that pink carnations grew from the fallen tears of the Virgin Mary. The flower doesn’t drop its petals as it dies, making it a symbol of a mother’s undying love. "That's a funny choice for a celebratory corsage, " I mused to myself.
Yesterday I went to the thrift store. I wanted to find camping themed furniture for the new baby’s room, but froze in the parking lot as I realized that the last time I was here I was shopping for my daughter. Through tears I said aloud, “Everything is so cold and dark without you, Charlotte. ” When I collected myself enough to walk through the door, a display immediately caught my eye. A tiny ceramic sleeping fox sat atop an old fashioned wood stove (warmth) with a woodsy lamp stuck atop it (light). Coincidence? Perhaps, but I piled those three items into my cart and was able to continue my search.
Months ago, when I finally left my grief thick house and returned to the distractions of teaching 8th graders, my coworkers filled my classroom with foxes. Fox stickers, a fox pillow, fox cards. They knew that I had slammed on my brakes to avoid hitting a fox just after Charlotte died. The creature stopped in the middle of the road and stared at me for a terrifically long time before allowing me to proceed to the hospital. I learned later that two other family members experienced similarly odd fox encounters that same day, but in different cities. My oldest son happened to come home wearing a fox shirt the day we had to tell him that his little sister died. This symbol was so powerful to me that I (who had once said, “there’s nothing so permanent in my life that I would tattoo it onto myself”) had a little sleeping fox tattooed on my wrist so that I’d always have a symbol of my daughter present with me. Foxes hold meaning for me and my family.
So, when you text me a picture of the fox that runs across your yard, the tee shirt you found in Target, or the name tag for one “G. Fox” at your convention, what does the fox really say?
It says, “I don’t have the words to speak about something as horrific as the death of a baby, but I want you to hear the closest approximation of her that I can muster up.”
It says, “I can’t begin to know what you are going through, but I care about you enough to acknowledge that you’re going through it.”
It says, “ I think of you, and I think of her too.”
Fox sightings remind me that I am not alone in remembering my baby girl, and that I am lucky enough to have a community that surrounds me with love even when the right words are hard to find. Every loss parent has their own “fox”. For some it is a butterfly, a biplane, or a particular shade of purple. If you know a parent who has lost a child, ask what reminds them of that little one, then let them know when you come across it, no matter how silly or insignificant the gesture seems. (I still have a single paper plate that a friend saved for me because of the smiling fox printed on it.) Those signs and symbols let us know that you are thinking about us. They are our version of finding the high school graduate’s kindergarten artwork in an old bin of memories. They are a flicker of who our child was.
To see a few fox sightings by our friends (or to add one of your own!), check out “Charlotte’s Journey”.
Heather is an educator, writer, artist, and most of all, mother of four. Her three boys inspire joy in her life and writing. Heather's eagerly awaited daughter was stillborn in October of 2017, which focused her creative energy on grief and healing. She created and maintains CharlottesPurpose.com, a website dedicated to dealing with grief positively.