On Ritual

Honoring that which never got to be

A settled chill hung in the air as we hurriedly pulled into the flower shop on our way to buy groceries.

“Why don’t we get them at Whole Foods? Whole Foods has flowers.” my husband pointed out irritably.

I slammed the car door without a word and stomped into the flower shop, disregulated autonomic nervous system and all.

I respectfully waited for the owner to take a funeral order as my autonomic nervous system failed miserably to adjust to the cold (which is typically hard on people with dysautonomia as well as other neuropathies). But knowing what it’s like to have a loss that is not societally regarded in any way, I was not about to impatiently huff and pout in the face of someone else’s moment of acknowledgement.

I ordered an arrangement of white flowers in a low, square vase as my lightheadedness ballooned and the room spun a bit, perhaps from both the cold and harsh reality.

Back in the car, I finally broke the stiff silence after a few minutes. “You know, for all the money we will never get to spend on our children, the least we could do is spend $50 on a nice fucking flower arrangement once a God damned year.”

A normal middle aged married couple normally bickering about a not yet normalized life altering loss.

A few days later, just like the year before, we found ourselves sitting around our dining room table that held an abundant candle shaped heart, created by 24 white candles with the aforementioned bouquet serving as the backdrop. Our prior minor marital spat had passed quickly, as they always do, and our winter dining room table sanctuary evoked reflection from my typically calm and centered husband.

“It is a lot to miss” he stated in his man of few words, slightly altered English speaking way. Both years my self created display has ended up serving to invite thoughtful rumination on where we’ve been, what we’ve lost, where we are and where we might be going. These are crucial interactions for a loss that does not receive this kind of discussion, or really any for that matter, in mainstream human conversation. Our yearly candle and flowers scene also fashions a most peculiar contentment that complements our wistful sadness. We keep it up for the life of the flower arrangement, mildly joking about “having dinner with the kids” as we crunch ourselves into the corner of the candle and flower dominated dining room table.

I honestly don’t remember how or why this idea came to me. We started doing this last year, three years out of our final failed treatment. In her very useful and incisive book The Next Happy, Tracey Cleantis advocates for calling a “time of death” for your dream, if what it is you are mourning did not have a physical presence. January 31 is the day our last fertility treatment failed, so that became our symbolic “time of death”, even though it would take us another six months to realize that adoption was not possible for us.

I do recall having a more intense need to mourn and memorialize a year ago than I do now. And I always carry an innate desire to spit back at the invisibility of this experience. What I do remember is that somehow last year, barely a month after my nervous system disorder struck, I was able to procure 24 white votive candles and their holders to represent our 24 embryos, and an all white flower arrangement.

I had improvised when we buried our embryo pictures almost four years prior, putting them in the nicest thing I could find around the house. The lack of available ceremony and ritual for such a loss felt like yet another snuffing out of my reality, forcing me to realize why rituals that mark rites of passage are in place in the first place – injured souls DO NOT need to be figuring this stuff out on the heels of their world shattering. I had felt too broken to go shopping myself, like if I had given what to put our embryo pictures in too much thought and planning I would not have gone through with it, even though my gut knew it was what needed to be done. So the photographs went into my grandmother’s wooden handmade music box that played Edelweiss, which happens to be a flower with a white blossom. Thus the white flowers.

Karla Helbert, MS, LPC describes rituals as “acts done in purposeful ways that symbolize something much more than the acts themselves.” They serve to provide structure, meaning and can allow you to work through grief in a safe and healthy way. They also can facilitate connection. For me, my rituals connect me to my past and present.

“While a life must be lived forward, it can only be understood backwards”
-Kierkegaard

As time goes by, I’m learning just how true this can be and rituals aid me with the understanding backwards part. Rituals have imparted my losses with some much needed visibility. They have delivered a bit of rhythm back to my years after baby making and then involuntary childlessness temporarily evaporated the meaning of everything.

And they connect me to life’s mystery. Once a horrifying concept, I now find it a surprisingly comforting one after having been forced to let go of the notion of a cause and effect, orderly and destined universe. I don’t pretend to know whether or not my embryos are actual spirits or souls, nor do I covet bold assertions that I will meet my children one day in some other dimension. And I personally do not believe there’s some higher “reason” I didn’t get to experience my children past the point of four cells. For whatever people need to believe, no one will really ever know what’s true one way or another while here on earth. I do know that the love I have for my unborn children is real and undying, and that trying to have children and not being able to reshaped me forever. Ritual helps me to honor that.

“Rituals are a feature of all known human societies” according to Wikipedia.

So why on earth should people who wanted children but couldn’t have them be exempt? We dream, we love, we erode, we bleed, we transition, transform and resurrect, we carry great wisdom.

The creation of ritual for that which didn’t get to exist requires some tenacity and resourcefulness – we have been forced to write our own scripts after all amid societies that mostly don’t think we even lost anything. And although I don’t know from personal experience, I venture to say an absence of concreteness in terms of fertility treatment dates and embryo photographs, as is the situation in many cases, may call for extra heaps of determination and creativity on this front.

Case in point: a thoughtful and functional post about ritual after loss on goodtherapy.com provides examples of possible rituals one can undertake. Most suggestions stem from that which you could do had what you were mourning actually gotten to live in the first place. It’s a well done piece and I highly recommend popping over and reading it, just be prepared for the disenfranchisement that may bubble up during talk of the memories and memorabilia we will never get to have.

A few months after our final failed treatment, my husband and I planted a dogwood tree over the box containing our embryo photographs. My counselor’s thoughtful suggestion to engage in a ritual or the creation of a memorial of sorts is what helped to start it all. The tree had a good season, flowered a year later and them promptly died, all while the rest of the yard was bursting forth. WTF??? When you can’t even have the tree that goes over your embryo photographs, it really makes a person wonder. “You just had to take one last stab, nature you cheap little bitch!” I would mutter. Now, I get that nature is entirely indifferent, but it helped me for a long while in my general healing process to have something at which to direct my rage. Directing it at nature and the universe did seem rather appropriate.

Our dead tree made it into a feature in Redbook magazine, November 2015 edition, which you can read here.

Our skeleton of a tree sat there over the summer as we nursed our slight shock and eventually laughed at the absurdity of it all. When I went to get rid of it my husband pointed out that there were some tiny shoots (like, two) coming out from its thin trunk. He made the point that it wasn’t totally dead, I made the point that I was “so freakin’ done” with the energy drain of slim chances. Away the 98% dead tree went, and the following year we broke ground for a garden around the spot.

For the past two years I’ve taken the bittersweet pleasure of attempting to fashion a “white” garden around our burial place. Instead of the placid serenity given off by our winter candle and flower ritual, this garden is more representative of the constant metamorphasis of our process and path forward. It’s a place where I can go talk to our children when I catch the whim to do so. It honors all that can grow from loss and that which is gone forever. As is grief, mourning, healing and resurrection, a garden is also a perpetual work in progress, an exercise in trial and error.

I seeded white morning glories this year (with a few purple peppered in for my favorite color) which ended up climbing the fence and invited themselves into the two yards behind us. I secretly enjoyed that the symbol of our missing children had spread itself outward. This year we also picked up what I perceive to be a slightly miffed looking cherub fountain that fits the space perfectly. I’m convinced its speech balloon would read “You didn’t get this quite right world, and I don’t think I’m ever going to like it. Just sayin.”

Our backyard is a space where I can honor our losses and experiences within a world that doesn’t by vowing to make the resting place of the dream of our children as beautiful as possible. Deciding that it all matters, I’ve indulged in a few other gardens around our small backyard as well.

But the space is not without interruptions.  I live in a safe, well kept, middle class good school district neighborhood – in other words, I live in that quintessential place where people go to raise children. And so of course there is a very young one in a house diagonally behind ours. Often times I’ll experience tranquil meditative moments in my white garden, which seems to be a mere 20 feet away or so from someone’s playhouse, only to be interrupted by gooey mommy talk. “So-fiiiiiiii-a”, the mom will call again and again as she plays with her daughter. I liken it to visiting your dead spouse’s grave while having to bear witness to a couple making out at the grave site next to yours. No rest for the weary sometimes.

And so, I’ll pluck off a white flower from one of the plants, perhaps a white morning glory and place it tenderly over the group of white rocks from Long Island’s north fork I have clustered over the burial site. A ritual within a ritual, my wink to the universe.

19 thoughts on “On Ritual

  1. I’m sitting in a library with big fat tears rolling down my cheeks. The music box burial got me. It’s beautiful and so fucking hard. And I’m so sorry for the hard because it shouldn’t be even close to your reality. The beauty you have created is breathtaking. So much love there.

  2. Tears. My heart aches for you and for all of us who have had varying infertility struggles, losses and down right kicks to the teeth. Such a beautiful tribute and memory of your babies, and behind held with a memory of your great grandmother.

  3. This is perfect. Everyone in the tribe of ‘childless not by choice’ should be allowed to grieve as others are allowed to grieve and have it acknowledged by our society, friends and relatives. Thank you for sharing.

    • Big yes to that!! We know what we’ve been through and what we’ve lost. That should be witnessed and heard by others, not judged or dismissed.

  4. Sarah, your garden is gorgeous! I’m glad you’ve found such a lovely a way to honour your losses. “Dinner with the kids,” indeed. I love it! (P.S. My grandmother also had a music box that played “Edelweiss.” Now you’ve made me wonder whatever happened to it…)

  5. Your garden is beautiful. The lack of acknowledgement of our loss, both by loved ones and by society as a whole, is so incredibly hurtful. Especially when we are expected to celebrate and grieve with everyone else’s major life events. I think this sentence that you wrote is perfect: “I do know that the love I have for my unborn children is real and undying, and that trying to have children and not being able to reshaped me forever.” Thank you for writing. I deeply appreciate every single one of your posts.

    • Exactly, Phoenix! It’s so easy to feel like we’re half there, half not there in our own lives as there are crucial layers of our existence most conversations have no room for (or they still fail to make room even after I muscle my way in:-). But I know you’re doing an amazing job rebuilding and living YOUR life that is authentic to you and your experiences.

  6. Such a beautiful, poignant piece… you’ve captured the essence of unseen, unheard grief beautifully. How real it is to us, how surreal it feels to continue through life whilst it feels like the rest the of the world carry on, in complete apathy to our reality.

    Your garden is beautiful and I too loved ‘dinner with the kids’ having done something similar many moons ago during ivf treatment.

    • It is such a surreal feeling, that’s a great way to put it. I often get the feeling that those who haven’t gone through this might assess our feelings and rituals as misperceptions, but it is all very real and crucial to our healing. Good to hear I’m not the only one with a symbolic “dinner with the kids” experience:-)

      • I love that you have rituals, I have my rituals too and similar to Mali, they involve candle burning. I will often light candles for my babies wherever I go, this last Christmas I lit one in a special lamp at the cottage we stayed in so the light would have been seen for miles throughout the dark countryside. Rituals make perfect sense to me and are personal to each of us. The dinner with the kids was a ‘family’ BBQ at a beach one year post IVF treatment in the midst of the dreaded 2 week wait – we still laugh about it now – a dog divebombed our dinner, very apt considering my love affair with dogs LOL x

  7. Love your post so much ❤️ You have done a great job of explaining the grief that comes up and the struggle to find rituals for it. I think all your rituals are beautiful and honor your loss so well.

  8. I’m glad you have your garden and rituals. It’s good to have them, and to share it with your husband. For a long time, I lit candles. I had two – one for each lost pregnancy – in the window, and I liked that people across the valley could see two little sparks of light (if not life).

    And yes, we also planted two trees to mark these pregnancies, and they promptly died. I was reminded of this the other day, and I was okay with it. There’s no way I’ll ever forget those babies anyway. It’s nice to have something though – and I do. Something I don’t have to keep alive.

    • So I’m also not the only one who revels in my symbols pinging beyond my own space, or the only one whose tree died! (I think I might recall your fleeting trees, you may have mentioned them prior). Something you don’t have to keep alive really is the smart way to go.

  9. What a beautiful post! thank you so much for sharing your ritual…
    We do not have a yard, so I was not able to plant anything to mark the losses.
    Instead we celebrate Dia de Los Muertos and I buy a small doll or other small toy for our never to be little one to play with when that veil falls.
    Your garden is a lovely place to talk and reflect
    thank you again for sharing this.

    • How touching – very much appreciate you sharing your toy & doll ritual. That’s a beautiful way to honor both what is and what should have been.

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