On questioning ritual and getting different
Around four years ago, in the fourth year coming out of treatments, I found myself in a vehement phase of mourning. The pull towards expressing my love and losses through gardening continued to grow more fervent. It was then I created our candle and flower ritual to mark the conclusion of our final failed attempt – and to chauffeur me through winter in the absence of gardening. I was pulsing on a regular basis with the need for physical symbols that could mark, prove and memorialize.
I even wrote a letter to the Steve Hartman segment of the CBS evening news. He had done a piece on pulling oceans of weeds on his property in upstate New York to make room for a sea of wild flowers. No doubt a kindred spirit, I was thinking, until he at the end referred to his children – and everyone’s apparently because we ALL get to have them you know – as “The only garden ever really worth cultivating” or something like that. OUCH!
In my letter I pointed out (in nicer words) his use of the “Throwing the Other 20% of the Human Adult Population Under the Bus” linguistic exercise in which he was partaking. And then I suggested he do a piece on my embryo garden and entire backyard of gardens which I also curated as thoughtfully as possible in honor of my unborn. Or on the shrines and/or mourning rituals of anyone who wanted children but couldn’t have them, because it’s really not about me in the end. And so, SPOILER ALERT, I never heard back anything. My letter is stuck somewhere on one of my older, latent computers, so I can’t get to it at the moment. But knowing me I’m sure it was a real freaking gem (looking for eye roll emoji now…..).
Ahhh, mourning. Mourning is defined as the outward expression of grief. Everyone grieves, but not everyone mourns. To move forward with healing, mourning is immensely facilitating, if not essential. So when your loss is societally stigmatized, dismissed, minimized and belittled, well….good luck with that! Looking back I don’t know how any of us do it. What I do know is it takes a brave and diligent soul to traipse through the fire of cultural indifference, introducing ourselves to the accumulation of more wounds on our path through healing. What irony.
This year I found myself expediting my candle ritual on the eve of a snow storm. Other things, though, were also swirling in the air: the formulation of future business plans, physical therapy exercises to tend to my quirky but vastly improved skeleton, pandemic restaurant adjustments and practice yoga teaching to name a few. In my life, “what comes after” is starting to pick up past the pace of crawling. So the ritual that had riveted my attention in earlier years was now noticeably one of many points of interest on my to do list.
A new, casual vibe continued to lace through our candle and flower event. The need to share publicly is a few years gone. Not to say that I never, ever will, but these days it mostly feels right as a private pause.
When it initially seemed I would not be able to get flowers on “THE” day, my pivot was somewhat easeful. And once the display was up and running, my husband and I didn’t have a strong urge to light the candles, letting many nights go by until it was convenient to do so. And when we did, much day to day talk fit neatly into where our once purely solemn, meditative trance used to be. Work, home repair and “what time are you leaving tomorrow” chatter wafted over the bobbing flames.
I must admit, I continue to find it a bit odd that the rest of mundane life is taking place by the side of that which was once so world shattering and all encompassing. Unless some other disaster comes along to force me back, there is nothing on the face of earth that could drag me to that place. But there is something I miss about those days if I’m to be honest. Emotionally, they were far less ambiguous. And there was something so truthful about the space one finds oneself in once they’ve been plucked from the illusions of control and things in life making sense.
I remind myself it does get different as time goes by, and that’s a healthy thing. I take it to mean that I’m processing and moving along, that I’m a real live and engaged human with a growth trajectory. Yet I can’t help but to find these seismic shifts slightly perplexing. It got me questioning if our current rituals were really necessary, if it’s really what we need right now.
But then there were other moments. Such as the settled, “all is right with the world” feeling that came over me upon being able to procure the flowers on “THE” day.
And my husband and I still have some of our most centered and candid conversations around our flickering heart. He is a “strong and silent” type who doesn’t talk much about his grief, and yet from him this ritual has a way of extracting pointed truths. “I’d rather be celebrating birthdays than memories” he blurted this year, gazing over the lit candles.
Yes, and shitty memories at that. For people like us, needles, drug side effects, multiple catheters penetrating unexplored territory, medical haziness, years of life lost to the pursuit, societal indifference, social isolation, existential injustice and the pain of our fractured souls are what initially connects us to our children.
I keep the display up for about two weeks, and then on or just before Valentine’s Day I bring the decaying flower bouquet out to our white garden and lay it over the white pile of rocks. Underneath which lies, somewhere in the earth, the box containing our embryo pictures. Soon after, the ritual relay baton gets handed to white crocuses poking through the ground in late winter/early spring.
As I made my way back to the garden this year, it hit me I hadn’t dealt with anywhere near this much snow cover in the 5 or so years I had been doing this. A push and pull between rational me and bereaved Momma me ensued.
Rational me: “Oh, it’s fine, you can just put them down on top of the snow and it’ll be close enough. It’s the general idea that matters.”
Bereaved me: “But, wait….WHERE is the exact spot??”
I suddenly started to feel upended amid the snow cover induced disorientation, trying to mark the spot from memory anchored by my barely visible white rose bush. In a triangular shaped garden this is especially difficult, as a small step to the right or left can significantly alter one’s perspective.
Upon beginning to paw through the frozen covering, I quickly hit the compact and unforgiving layer from a previous storm.
Rational me was not into it at this point as chilling chunks of icy snow slid into my gloves. Bereaved me was becoming awash with feeling frantic, and even somewhat stupid she didn’t know where her children were.
And just before rational me could squeeze out the decision that we were just going to lay the flowers on top of the snow and move along already, something else took over.
Something way bigger than a thought could ever be focused my eyes like a laser on a particular spot and suctioned my arms down. My ferocious burrowing landed right spot on my little rock pile, and for one glorious moment, all was one as my face spread into a grin and my heart became as wide as the sky.
“See?? See!!! You see now??!!! Momma knows where you are!” This internal exclamation would be heard by no one, but yet it was undeniably connected to all that I know to be true.
Welcome to the realm of the un-reframable, a realm most of you know all too well.
I find the concept of “reframing” concerning as it’s commonly applied inappropriately these days. My husband and I recently had to postpone our loooooong awaited green card interview as one of his co-workers was having Covid like symptoms (turned out everyone is fine but we certainly couldn’t risk exposing anyone). This was frustrating and disappointing, yes, but there are some potential good points in having to wait. And, if one has survived something practically thirty years in the making, what’s another coupla months? Plus, you can reschedule an interview but you can’t reschedule someone’s health, so all’s well that ends well. In other words, this bump in the road was something reframable.
Within life’s minuscule problems and mundane challenges, sure, reframing can be a proactive coping skill. In the face of life altering traumatic loss, for me the concept of “reframing” lacks depth and drips with disconnection. It has the potential to be massively minimizing and thus unhealthy when applied in the wrong places. I venture to say love is not reframable, so therefore grief isn’t either. Grief spans far beyond one’s thoughts and is not a problem to be solved. All we can do is navigate through and with it the best we can. At their core, some things just are.
Within the last year or two, I don’t recall exactly when, I saw the story of the body of a Vietnam soldier being recovered and returned at long, unfathomable last. His widow, who had remarried and had another life of her own now unfolded, was first in line to greet his return. They had been relatively young – early twenties maybe – and had been married for a short time before he was deployed. My story is completely different than hers, but if I may be so bold, I felt like I “got” this woman on a level. The love she held for her first husband and her life unlived was palpable. For fifty or so years she did not have a body to bury. It was clear from her words and facial expressions the thread of what should have been was ever soft in her heart, a key fiber in her well lived life. And that her life long love wound was still penetrable.
Unfulfilled longing is not a pathetic failure, rather it is human. If balanced it does not snuff out what comes after as so many of us fear, but rather it recedes to a degree and wraps itself, slowly and curiously, through our new realities. It ties us to many who came before and will come after who have the same core lived experience of what might have been. It is an organic particle of the human condition.
So “just another part of my day” my flowers on the grave ritual was this year that I had left the tv on when I went outside. I came in only to be pounced on soon after by Harry and Megan’s pregnancy announcement. This stuff doesn’t really get to me these days. However, when paralleled with the moment I had just had in my snow blanketed garden, it prompted the re-emergence of a truth both harsh and familiar – that no matter what else I did or what else transpired for the rest of my life, in the realm of parenthood, that was all I was going to get.
And yet, it all seemed to make sense after that. Our ritual, that is. Early on, ritual rooted me on some semblance of a path forward when everything that came after seemed to sprout from that which was lost.
Perhaps going forward the purpose of ritual is to yoke the past with the present and that which is unfolding. To gracefully wind what should have been into whatever is going to be. To highlight our rough edges and then smooth them out a bit. Or maybe to illuminate our losses so we hold an ever evolving awareness of that which we carry. Ritual has a way of revealing to us simultaneously layers of where we’ve been and where we are now.
I don’t quite have the experience of going from one thing TO an entirely different thing on this path. While this may be happening to some degree, this is mostly a level of polarization I don’t fully understand. I more so have the feeling of moving WITH my experiences. My losses will always have been life altering and traumatic. I will always be the mother of unborn children. What is in the forefront of my radar continues to shift. The recipe of elements with which I deal is always reconfiguring. Perhaps this is the delicate dance of integration.
15 thoughts on “Integration”
“The thread of what should have been was ever soft in her heart, a key fiber in her well lived life. And that her life long love wound was still penetrable. “ — you write so beautifully, Sarah. This post!!! It truly touched something deep. The photographs, the imagery in your writing. The powerful emotions. I am in awe of your ability to share so deeply and so honestly. In my own way I also feel the same sense of longing for those days when I could feel things so intensely that it almost felt like I was super human. The naked and absolutely visceral sensations do really live within me but they’re not at the surface as they once were. Thank you for reminding me that they are still there and that what we have lived through has much greater significance than Steve Hartman or anyone else who has not lived them will ever know. xx
P.s. I, too, have a silent but deep thinking mate. I look forward to the day when they can one day meet in person.
Wow – and from one of my favorite writers too! Um, thank you?!
Super human describes it perfectly – we really touch something universally human in that space so I guess it makes sense we’d feel so expanded.
As I’ve said, I’m so grateful to have had your blog to turn to in my times of raw grief and trauma recovery. Your space is ever validating and has always managed to honor the depth and life altering nature of our experiences. Brava to you for that and so much more!
PS – Thanks for flanking me with the Steve Hartman thing. Camraderie appreciated.
” … the delicate dance of integration.” Beautiful. I do think that’s what happens – our losses and our emotions change us and become part of us, but no longer dominate. It is, as always, an honour to be invited to read your thoughts, and to watch you walk this path that so many of us have walked or are still walking.
And, it’s an honor to continue to have you with me and others on this path. And as always, you sum up our shared process perfectly. Thank you.
The title of this post alone is so powerful. I read this post yesterday and have been thinking about the word “integration” ever since. It is so timely because I think this is where I am in my healing, but I didn’t associate it with this word until reading your post. You always help me. ❤ Thank you!!
"My losses will always have been life altering and traumatic. I will always be the mother of unborn children. What is in the forefront of my radar continues to shift." Yes, yes, yes.
Hey Phoenix – Glad to be of service:-).
I’ve been wondering why the concept of integration clicks with me more than acceptance (although I’m not opposed at all to the concept of acceptance being used with our experiences). I like integration a lot because it’s very spacious and doesn’t require us to push any of our parts or truths away. It’s healthy.
I’ve finally got some space in my life for blog reading and am looking forward to stopping by yours, one of my favorites, next! What you write always resonates with me. My comments will probably still disappear, but dare to dream, maybe not this time?
Oh no! I hate disappearing comments!! And I don’t know enough about blogspot to know how to trouble shoot. 😦
Thank you for reading. It’s an honor to hear my blog is one of your favorites because your blog is one of my favorites! 🙂
If you can’t comment on my blog, you can always send me an email at infertilephoenix. It’s a gmail account. Of course, that might be too much work so don’t worry about it if you don’t feel like it!
I’m very glad to hear you have some space in your life. ❤
This is so beautiful. This stood out to me: “I will always be the mother of unborn children.” Yes. Me, too. Also your moment of triumph when you found your pile of rocks where your children lay, that made me smile and tear up all at once. I love the idea of an embryo garden. I also want to find that person who was like “Oh, raising children is the best garden to cultivate” and do unspeakable things. I love gardening because it is cultivating living things and proof that I can sustain life, somewhere. To have one specifically to commemorate losses is beautiful, and I love that all the flowers are white, like a moon garden. I also loved what you said about reframing. I had someone recently say, “You can reframe that, and think about it this way…” and it took a lot of self-control to not say “um, NO. You don’t get to reframe my lived experience because YOU don’t understand it. I am allowed to recognize loss while also recognizing the goodness of my current life.” Speaks to that integration you speak of! Thank you for your voice, I am sad to say I’ve only just discovered it (Thank you Pamela, and also this week’s Roundup by Mel), but I will be following from now on!
Hi Jess – Glad our paths have finally crossed! Also glad to have found a fellow “reframing” skeptic. I mean, there’s a time and a place for reframing, and I venture to say life altering, deeply visceral experiences are not it!
Unspeakable things – ha! It was said by a reporter on tv who I quite like, actually, but as we all know, even the most intelligent and sensitive people frequently fail us and the representation of our experiences.
Welcome aboard, and here’s to some fulfilling gardening hopefully just around the corner.
As usual, your words really resonate, Sarah! After the loss of our daughter (in August 1998), we created a whole bunch of elaborate remembrance rituals that we went through over the next several years on her “anniversary” date(s). Then one year, we were travelling and couldn’t be at home or visit the cemetery or do any/many of our usual rituals. Then one year we were home, but we didn’t order Chinese food. After a couple of years, I stopped publishing “In Memoriam” items in the newspaper. And so on, until our “anniversary” rituals became quite pared down. These days, the one fixed ritual, so long as we are not travelling/are at home, is to take pink roses to the cemetery. We might or might not order in Chinese food or go the Dairy Queen for Blizzards (two things we always used to do). I don’t feel guilty anymore about the rituals that have fallen by the wayside or get skipped one year or another. (Much.) Some years are better (or worse) than others — some years it feels more important to do these things, other years I’m more forgiving of myself. As you said, whatever we do or don’t do in remembrance, our experiences were real and traumatic, and our babies will always be our babies. That will never change.
P.S. I think I may have said this on a past post, but your garden is gorgeous!
Thanks LB. It’s helpful to hear that you too (and your husband) used rituals to grieve and then amended them as time passed. Not becasue we love any less, but because it all has somehow, miraculously, become a smoother part of us.
My white garden has gone through some transitional phases during the last couple of years, kind of like its curator :-). I think the picture in my post is from 3 or 4 years ago, I really liked how it came out then. Am hoping to bring it back to a better place this season, but all I can do as a gardener is roll the dice and see what happens. I do sneak a tiny bit of purple into it here and there these days, as purple is my favorite color.
When I see pink roses from now on, I’ll think of you XO
I am in shock to find your blog and read this post today. Thank you so much! My journey thru grief of 12 yrs now has largely been managed by my connection to my garden – a private place where I can practice that balance between letting what grows grow and the control of it. I prefer letting nature almost take me over. I like to let it be and carve out space between.
I have resisted ritual throughout my experience until last year. It dawned on me that I needed a “grave” or memorial to visit in my garden. I bought a statue with 5 birds to signify my losses. It’s in a box under my desk. Your writing here really inspires me move forward with placing it this spring. You help me understand the process that I have been navigating and am amazed at how much rings true for me.
I love it Mary J – the balance of effort and surrender we’ve all had to know to well on so many levels.
I’ve benefitted much from ritual, but as you could see from this post I run into spells where I question it too. Overall though, it has given my losses the visibility (at least in my own private world) I needed for them to have. And, ritual has also provided a framework for mourning. Wherever your 5 bird statue ends up, I hope it is in the right place for you and that it brings you a measure of connection.
Perhaps your garden is already a bit of a ritual in and of itself? From one garderner to another, I’m wishing you an adventerous gardening season! (assuming we’re in the same hemisphere?)