Prose, The Ritual Atelier

I get worried that this piece might be an exercise in guilt-tripping bystanders when tragedy strikes. But, it depends on how I approach it.

I remember when I researched what I should expect, needing to cover every prospect of that certainty of losing Ivy at any moment. I wanted to be prepared for my own grief, and the awkwardness of others’ around dealing with it. You see, I had carried our daughter in my womb for 6 months, with the knowledge that she might not be born alive, and that if she did make it to full term, she might be in a lot of pain, or pass away shortly after. Ivy Valentina died the day before she was born, at 35 weeks gestation.

The thing is, it’s difficult to empathise. Generally, we all view the world from our own lens, unless we are super enlightened, or are trained therapists. So, we always treat people in the way we think is best, how we think the other person might respond. When it comes to infant loss, we don’t actually know what is best, because we’ve likely not been in the position of consoling someone in mourning, or we just don’t want to put ourselves in the shoes of the other because it’s all so confronting.

One of the people I really treasured through this process was our post-natal nurse. She seemed always to know what to say. She asked questions, the right ones. Specific ones. She also said things, plain and simple. “Jane, come here. I see it’s getting difficult. Go upstairs so you can have a rest, I’ll look after things down here, and I’ll be gone soon so you can have some time with Ivy.” “I see when you cry, that it’s about different things each time. Do you feel like talking about what you’re feeling right now?” “I feel so privileged to feel the power of your daughter. It’s amazing. I see her power in you.”

Things people can do when they are confronted with someone experiencing loss:

Ask how Edwin is. Many did this, but most were concerned about me. I’m still concerned about my husband, even 10 months later or 6 years on, but that’s another story.

The well-meaning suggestion to get on with life will never sit right with me.

The reminders that “at least we have Milo”, “make sure you enjoy Milo”, will never be a consolation in and of itself. I mean, OF COURSE we are grateful for the gift that is Milo and we cherish him every day. But he shouldn’t fill that gap, because he has a complete and perfect place as our firstborn. Just as Ivy has her place as being our complete and perfect second child, in her way.

When Ivy was born, so many people said “Congratulations. And condolences.” That was right. I was so so so so happy to have given birth to Ivy. The ones who blurted out “I’m so sorry”, or burst into tears straight away, or said or wrote nothing, just didn’t and couldn’t understand the pride I had of being Ivy’s mother, and that she was here, actually here, in the flesh — in our house! How I wanted to share that! Instead I was constantly reminded that people found our approach morbid, gruesome or creepy somehow.

I remember, as it is in my nature, tiptoeing around other people’s difficulties with our preparation for and the arrival and departure of Ivy. Their grief, their horror, their discomfort; I was even told by people how difficult they found our experience, how hard it was on them, personally. That Edwin and I should not underestimate that Ivy’s life and death was a blow to other people. And I remember feeling really shitty about that. Their need to offload their feelings about how we went about receiving Ivy made me feel like a bit player in the single biggest event of my life, of my family’s life.

And then I remember, people are all only doing their best. They can’t see into the depths of their own joys and sorrows, so how could they possibly know anything about the deepest most intimate web of mine? Monday 19 January 2015 was a day where I felt the angriest, the loneliest, the proudest, the happiest, the saddest, the most outraged, the most blessed in my whole life. I’ll never feel that way again. I may have felt a host of other things too, and I don’t even know. So, how could anyone truly empathise with my experience? Grief is so personal, so unique; it is more isolating than love as it’s so individual a experience. It really is love turned inside out. We shall all feel that sometime, whether we lose a spouse, or parent, sibling, grandparent, other relation, perhaps (god forbid) a child — and our links to that person is so special, that we cannot predict how we go about mourning that loss. Because it’s about travelling that transformation of our connection as living and breathing in the same space, to letting them live (on) in our memory and our words — spoken and unspoken.

I dither. Perhaps you can imagine how it is.

Where listening lives

Prose, The Ritual Atelier

This week I plan to make a listening stick with my children. I don’t mean to only use it with them. It’s something I need for myself, when I need to pray or have some reflective time. What I will do is take the children on a nature walk, and ask them to find the best stick they can. They need to both agree equally that it’s the best stick. They can’t come up to me with two different sticks and put forward a case that theirs is the best and that I must choose. They need to discuss with each other why they think this or that stick is the best, and agree on which one it is and then come back to me with their joint stick. (Hm, I’m curious how this is going to go…) Then we will look for little nuts and leaves and feathers along the way and put them in our nature walk basket, or bucket or pockets. When we get home, we will collect yarn and wool and thread and twine, glue and wire or plastic – whatever we think will look nice, even shells from previous beach visits, or semi-precious stones we have received as gifts or found in our travels. We will decorate our stick. And then I shall tell this story:

Before there were ever stones or sticks, shells or feathers, there was a great power. It came deep from the heart of the world, and it was made up only of one thing. Some call it love, others call it consciousness. There are names like Gaia, Mother Earth, God, the Great Spirit. I call it The Listener. When you or I speak, even if we are on our own, there is always someone who listens. Somewhere deep down inside us, inside the ground beneath our feet or way up above our heads, there is an entity who listens to us. What a comfort this is to know. Well, eventually when stones and sticks, shells and feathers came to be, the Listener found its home in these things. It also found its way in to the hearts of people. As time passed, people grew layers over their hearts. The layers were dampened by sadness, fear, anger, pain. And the layers got thicker and thicker. Until one day, the heart could not feel clearly and it could not hear clearly. So people would shout. They would misunderstand. They would speak and there was nobody listening. And then the people would shut down and be very quiet indeed.

Now, there was a little girl who had a big brother. They loved each other very much, but there were days that they bickered and could not get along. Sometimes the boy would say things that came into his head that were not always kind. Sometimes the girl would pinch her brother without a word. When these things happened, the boy and the girl became very unhappy and could not find a way around it, except to let it pass with time. One day, the little girl was playing by a creek and came across the most incredible stick – the best stick – she had ever seen. It was just perfect. It fit in her hand perfectly, it was balanced and smooth in the right places and rough in the others. She loved that stick. She took it home and she decorated it with lots of stones and shells and feathers. It sat in the corner of her room and waited patiently. Days passed. One evening before she went to bed, the little girl started to tell the stick the stories of her day. She talked about her feelings. Her ideas. The stick started to glow when she spoke. It became as bright as a lamp and the light spread out into the room and flowed into the little girl until she was simply radiant. Her big brother saw the light coming from a crack under her bedroom door. He came into the room and asked what she was doing. The little girl was bathed in a brilliant white light, holding the stick, and so told him all about it. She spoke of how she’d found it, what she loved about it, how she’d adorned it and what sort of things she spoke to it. The brother made no sound. In fact, he could not. His heart had opened and the words of his little sister poured into him and he heard all that she said. He felt the understanding in his body and it made him feel good and very connected to her. The little girl handed the stick to her brother. He began to speak. About everything she had just said. About how he understood perfectly what she meant. As soon as he had finished putting into his own words what she had said, she nodded as though to say ‘yes, that’s exactly what I meant’. Then he went on to say how he felt in his body, and how grateful he was that she had shared the story of the stick with him. Then he told her that he was sorry he said those mean things the other day and that it was because he was feeling lonely, because he was missing a friend who had moved away, and that it really didn’t have anything to do with her. And the little girl nodded. He gave her the stick and she said all that he had told her, in her own words. He nodded back, relieved, because he felt ‘yes, that’s exactly what I meant.’ From that day forward, after any disagreement or unkind exchange, the little girl and her big brother would retrieve the special listening stick; it would quieten one child, while opening the heart of that same child up from the inside, and help the other child to open up their own heart and speak their truth.

To this day, even though they are old and grey, the sister and brother speak regularly, with great attentiveness and appreciation. And their hearts are permanently open. As for the listening stick, its story has been passed down through the generations to help children all over the world to learn the power of listening. The power that lives deep in the stones, sticks, shells and feathers of our great old beautiful world.

Why don’t you try it out for yourself?