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A monk asked Un Mun, “What is the utmost master?”
“This utmost master is a lump of shit.”
– Zen Master Un Mun

Shit.

So, what about this word? This shit. Does it make you laugh? Does it disgust you, anger you, annoy you? Does saying it makes you feel better? And then it makes you realize the situation is truly shit and you have to repeat it some more: shit. shit. shit. shit. shit. shit. shit. SHIT!!!

What is it about shit that makes kids laugh and giggle hysterically? I remember when I was young, sitting with a few friends, taking turns saying the word and laughing till our jaws popped and our sides ached. What is so funny about shit?

Why did my husband ask dd, after she said “shit” in frustration, “Do you need to go and use the toilet? I thought shit comes out of somewhere else.” I asked him, why that? What for? If we do not wanna hear it, we’d better not say it. If we say it, she’s going to say it. I say it. I say “shit.” Not often, like every other breath, but I use that word, sure.

Why is it, if someone tells you that you’re a piece of shit, you are angered? Is shit so bad? But we all have some inside of us, every second. And shit makes tomatoes big and ripe.

Is the word too violent-sounding? Too rude?

There is this story dh told me, about a friend’s friend who arrived in Tibet, in the middle of the night, tired, her backpack heavy on her shoulders, her bladder screaming to burst when she fell off the bus that finally brought her to the destination. Without even a second to put down her backpack, she asked for the toilet, and was directed to the outhouse, which is accessed by crossing a slippery plank laid across a shit pond. She was tired, and shaky and it was dark. She slipped and fell into the shit pond. Remember that she has her backpack on her. She had to be rescued. Then the local “fire department” came and hosed her down with ice-cold water.

dh told me, the story drew hilarious laughter. I asked him, were all her belongings in the backpack full of shit too? And he said no one went into those details. Just think of that poor lady, the intrepid traveler in that shit pond that night. Sinking down quick, the weight of her belongings pulling her down. What if no one was around to pull her from all that shit?

********************************************

In “Swallowed by a snake”, Tom Golden said that grief is like shit. You cannot let it sit and pile on and sit and pile on. It will stink to high hell and do you not a bit of good. You need to work the shit. Work it over, turn it, work it inside out, spread it out. Then, it can become like compost, and something could blossom out of it.

Some days this shit of grief does not feel so external. is not something I can go out in the yard and shovel and flip and aerate and even give love to. Some days I am muddled toes to hair in this shit, and this shit is me too. But yes, I would love to have this shit blossom into something beautiful.

**********************************

So, how does one hundred days of solitude sound to you? To go to a cabin in the middle of Nowhere, sans men, sans kids, sans pets, just you and the scary you that you are going to get to know really well. Oh, and that cabin you are living in for that one hundred days does not have a lock. Woe be you if the bear comes a-knocking. And, the sink has no plumbing, just a bucket underneath. No electricity. Feeling cold and want some tea? Go outside into the snow, chop some wood, drag wood back in, make a fire. Go to the well half a mile away, draw the water (you’d better know how to throw the bucket in the right way so it actually fills with water and not… air), trudge back. If your knees are not knocking yet, put the kettle on to boil and make your tea. Then, drink it. Drink the tea. Don’t think about your sore arms or your buckling knees.

For food you have 50 pounds of rice, 10 pounds of red adzuki beans, 5 pounds of soybeans, 10 pounds of sunflower seeds, 4 containers of miso, 1 lunch bag of dried fruit, 2 large bags of roasted barley tea and a medium-sized jar of Skippy peanut butter. You will wake at 315AM and spend 40 minutes performing 300 bows. Through the rest of the day you sit and walk and chant, with tea and lunch in-between, and a long walk at 410PM. There is no dinner and you go to bed at 930PM.

Sounds like Bliss? Torture? Or a recipe for enlightenment? Or perhaps, a formula for going insane? Maybe, the protocol for world peace?

Read “One Hundred Days of Solitude: Losing myself and finding Grace on a Zen Retreat” by Jane Dobisz.

Read about her 100 days. How she wanted to chicken out already on day one. Learn how long that one medium-sized jar of Skippy lasted and how she managed to have a hot bath using two plastic buckets. The insights she got. The mind first chattering like a bird on clock-work gone crazy and then becoming still and quiet; being able to hear with the back of her knees. How she heard her Judge inside her head.

So the question-and-answer about Zen monk Un Mun at the top of the post came from her book. From that short chapter called “Un Mun’s Utmost Master”. Do you still remember that lump of shit?

So, no toilet at that 100-day cabin. Everything she put into her mouth has to come out. Somewhere. Into a chamber pot. When it is full of dung, she gets the pleasure of carrying that chamber pot, solid with shit, to the outhouse. To empty it, so as to fill with more shit. Huffing and puffing through the snow, she carried her shit with the goal of emptying. She took off the lid and turned the bucket upside down.

No, she did not fall into her own dung. Nothing came out. The shit was frozen solid because it was so cold.

So she took her bucket of shit back and over the next days, moved her shit to wherever a spot of sun shone, in an attempt to at least thaw out the edges, so the whole chunk of shit can be emptied. New shit always being made but no place to go, that is not a pretty situation.

So she needed to make a fresh contribution to the half-frozen-half-thawed shit. She opened the lid and she saw a gray mouse rollicking, in glee, in her partially thawed poop. His whiskers were covered with poop, but he was in heaven, that little rodent. Their eyes met. Then, she screamed, and he took off at lightning speed.

She emptied her chamber pot. And in the following days, continued to see that grey little thing in her shit. She said, “In this universe, everything is eating something else. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, so to speak. and all of it is going around and around- from me and you to the mouse, to the bug, back into the earth, fertilizing the next fruit or vegetable, back to you and me. Around and around we go. Pretty good system.” At the end of the chapter, she said she understood why Un Mun said that the Utmost Master is a lump of shit.

*****************************************

Was my son’s death a lump of shit? No. It was a moment in Life. Not one of those glorious ones, but it was one of a moment.

The shit is the thereafter, the dealing, the coping, the working it through. it is the clueless, the chickenshits and the shiny preggies and the snotty babies that makes your heart tighten.

I am in the thick of it, some of the shit is mine, some others flung at me.

Something beautiful had better blossom from this. I hope.

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(Before I begin this post proper is the usual program of she-babbles-on-again.)
Reading other bereaved mum’s blogs and comments I see myself joining in the navigation of which path to walk after our baby died. I mean that in terms of religion and/or spirituality, or the absence of it. cannot help but think of a question one mum posted on a loss forum “does faith negates grieving”? Reason being, a friend who had two losses told her there is nothing to be sad or cry about. Her babies are with G-d. Very safe. all good. she will see them in Heaven one day. And this mum believes in Heaven too but she still missed her baby like crazy and wanna cry her heart out. I am no authority but I do not think faith negates grieving. And I did not take comfort in a card out in our memory box (put together by the hospital) that G-d chooses to take a few special children and F is one of them. It just does not make sense to me. I mean, how could he take something from me, without my consent?!?? Esp when I have never asked anything of him. (No, not even in the seconds, minutes, after finding out that F died, I never ever asked for a miracle. I knew what had happened was irreversible.)

So after F died… on the one hand, I read all these books about loss and grief. Face your grief. Mourn. Cry. It’s ok to rip your heart out for 10 years (or more). Send out a note letting others know you are freakin’ going to be sobbing and a big mess for, like, the rest of your life. There is no replacement for your baby. Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. Oh, anger! Bargain! Denial. Depression. Acceptance.

Then, there is my Buddhist background. I am not writing my autobiography so I am not going into details about how I graze the vast and profound wisdom of Buddhism and chew on what I can accept (and I am still trying to digest most of it) and what makes sense to me, and is reasonable. Well, this other path does not say let it rip. It asks you to understand. Look deep. Penetrate the Truth. Then, that emotion of grief is not necessary. And there are rare moments when I have no sorrow and no fear.

Actually, there is a third path. It is sorta detailed in this book review here and was written during a period when I was experiencing healing, feeling kinda strong and hopeful. Yeah we all blog about that at some point: this one-step-forward-two-steps-back dance-of-grief. Some days, some times, I read something and I am inspired and I feel like, “Whoa! I’m the pilot! I’m in control!” and know exactly which direction the light is. But then, that dark phase will come… the interval may be long but it comes.

So anyways, there seems to be various options, several paths stretched out and meandered ahead of me and I walk, backtrack, change my mind, all that stuff. And, sometimes I just wanna sit in a chair and weep forever. Some other days, or moments, I feel there is no need to grieve, because heck, life and death are but two sides of the same coin. I should instead, be having a whole load of angst about not living in the moment, not cherishing my days and moments enough, not loving and laughing hard enough.

So my state of mind oscillates. some days I get upset/weepy/angry/depressed/sad/hurt because I latch onto that set of literature that sings the beauty of my loss and sorrow, that encourages me to cry and cry and cry and mourn forever, because this life of my baby, though brief, is very precious and real.

The other days I like to call my “Thich Nhat Hanh” days. When I am calm, collected, at peace, in acceptance. No grieving, because F is never gone. He is in everything and everywhere; and so are we all. You know? very namaste and Om and the biggest earthquake would not move me. And though my Buddhist leanings/beliefs/inclinations/interpretations come from very many sources, Thich Nhat Hanh‘s writings have had the largest influence upon me.

And, lemme tell ya, he has written very many books. And, lemme tell ya, I have not read that so many. But speaking from what I have read, I have found his writings to be a gentle voice, a soothing breeze; easy to read and understand and accept. Of course, as mentioned above, moments of clarity and wisdom are rare and far-between. Some days I get annoyed that he can be so peaceful and joyful. I guess I am just jealous. And ignorant, of course. He has been through a lot. And he is joyful. This says a lot about how it is not what you have to go through, but how you come through it and what you become. Just like that thing I read somewhere about how the Dalai Lama’s joy is attained by all the pain he went through. He experienced violence and all the more he advocates non-violence. Well, I guess this is the difference between the wise, great ones, and me, the tiny, petty-minded one.

BUT I DIGRESS.

I wanted to write about Thich Nhat Hanh’s book “No Death No Fear”.

This book gave me great peace. Not total peace, but it’s immense and I am grateful for that. In it, he reiterated what the Buddha had taught: that there is truly no birth, no death; no coming, no going; no same, no different; no permanent self, no annihilation.

That’s no play with words. That’s profound understanding that our limited mind can only understand things from mostly one perspective. There are only manifestations and continuation.

He explains that we misunderstand the concepts of “creation” and “manifestation”. The latter is like this: when conditions are sufficient, things manifest; when conditions are insufficient, things withdraw. He asserts that to create is to make something from nothing, and that is not possible. And because we cannot create from nothing, it is also not possible for something to become nothing. In other words, after our loved ones cease to take on the physical form as we know it so well, they are not “gone”.

On the other hand, many things exist because the many conditions for it to manifest arises and perpetuates. His example is a piece of paper (and I do suspect that Thich Nhat Hanh has a romance with paper, like I do. But, I digress again). Paper does not come from nothing. It comes from trees. Trees come from seeds but requires the many conditions of soil, water, sun, air, and perhaps human efforts. Other than the raw material of wood pulp from trees, paper needs water, it needs air and heat, it needs human efforts, etc. So, when all these very many conditions are sufficient, the paper is able to manifest itself.

Yet, there is no way to destroy the paper. To make it “nil” or “gone”, something we associate with death. You can throw it away but it is still a crumpled piece of paper in the (recycling, I hope!) bin. You can burn it, but it will turn into ashes, and give off heat in the process. It is still not “destroyed”. You cannot reduce it to nothing. It has just changed its form. And, let your imagination run further… the wind blows, the ashes scatter and it perhaps return to the soil and nurtures a flower. It perhaps is blown into the tight weave of a fabric. It perhaps becomes a part of a cement block that becomes a part of your house. Maybe every possibility you can think of, it becomes so. So then, the paper becomes a part of everything. It manifests in a different form, a different manner but it is not gone.

His other example is that of water. It can take on many forms: cloud, snow, hail, rain, water, ocean, wave, etc. Different form, different names, but it is still water. The essence is there and cannot be destroyed.

Quite early in this book, Thich Nhat Hanh appealed to his readers, “If there is a baby who is lost, we should not be sad. It is because there were not sufficient causes and conditions for it to survive at that time. It will come again.” (emphasis is mine, because when I read it I had the urge to go see him and make him promise that to me. But of course, foolish mind manifests itself again…) What he is saying is, nothing is born and nothing dies. There is only manifestation.

So, there were conditions that resulted in the manifestation of F in my body, but at some point the conditions were no longer sufficient and he ceased to manifest. But he is not gone. Just in a different form, (and I like to think) in a form of essence that surrounds us all the time. After his cremation, as we drove back to our cabin, R said, choking in tears, that perhaps that afternoon when it rained and the wind was blowing in the right direction, we could have some particles of F’s ashes falling in our yard. It rained. His ashes, part of our yard. Nurturing trees. Near us. all the time. (When in Singapore we were near a temple and there were many hawkers selling fresh lotus flowers to be used as offerings at the temple. Val, her middle name being Lotus, pointed at the flowers excitedly and said, “That’s me! I am blooming everywhere… …”)

Thich Nhat Hanh also touched on the idea of attachment, esp those one-dimensional ones we are so prone to. Like this notion that happiness can only be so if blah-blah-blah. He said, “If you are committed to a particular notion of happiness, you do not have much chance to be happy. Happiness arrives from many directions. If you have a notion that it comes only from one direction, you will miss all other opportunities.”

I can see myself being used as the classic example. I can see myself obsessed and attached and crazed over the idea of having a baby (and having lost a baby), and attached to this concept that having a live baby is going to make my world sing again(even though we well know none of our babies can ever be replaced). And in the meantime, doing all I can to protect this life, we obsess. Every movement, every heartbeat. Every move I make, every morsel I swallow and every drop of water I drink. No traveling. No blah-blah-blah. Not daring to laugh just in case. Long face. serious face. And everyone, this takes 40 weeks. In the meantime the world does not stop, the 2 girls do not stop growing; their needs for love and light and laughter do not stop. never ever stop. But, for some time I am going to think my direction of happiness is when the baby comes out of me, safe and sound. Yet, the seeds for my happiness surrounds me all the time. My husband, my daughters, my friends, family, stupid movies, crazy jokes… … I suspend, and reject, all these possibilities for joy, because I like to think I can only be healed, and happy again, if i have a live baby. (No, let’s not do it this way.)

And, since the true nature of all things is not to be born, not to die, not to arrive and not to depart… then, he says, “If your dear one has just died, you may have a difficult time overcoming your loss. You may be crying all the time… … It is only because of our misunderstanding that we think the person we love no longer exists after they “pass away.” This is because we are attached to one of the forms, one of the many manifestations of that pattern. When that form is gone, we suffer and feel sad. The person we love is still there. He is around us, within us and smiling at us… … our beloved is not lost… our beloved is manifesting in a different form.”

Therefore, instead of birth and death, there is only continuing transformation.

Built on that, Thich Nhat Hanh went on to address how our (mis)concepts about birth and death can induce fear in us, and thus hinder the joy of being in the moment:

“we cannot enjoy life if we spend a lot of time worrying about what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow. We worry about tomorrow because we are afraid. If we are afraid all the time we cannot appreciate that we are alive and can be happy now. In our daily life we tend to believe that happiness is only possible in the future. We are always looking for better things, the right conditions to make us happy… … But life is available only in the present moment. The Buddha said, ‘It is possible to live happily in the present moment. It is the only moment we have.'”

There is no escaping the current moment. It is there. here. Always present. Every time the second hand slips one notch to the next, that moment changes. But our mind can do funny things and linger in the past, or leap to the future. We long to prolong our happiness, which we indeed can, if we stay in the present. However, most times we run to the future to find it unknown and empty (what other way can it be?) and then we get anxious or sad or frustrated that happiness is not there waiting for us. (Dang, it’s right here, waiting for us to just tune in!)

So, to bring everything full circle, since there is no death, there is no need for sadness. In fact, these concepts and ideas about no birth and no death are also found in Taoist philosophy, expounded in the luminous works of Zhuang Zi and Lao Zi. Follow this link and read the big “paragraph” B on Zhuang Zi’s take on life and death. (I really encourage this. I have enjoyed Zhuang Zi and Lao Zi tremendously.)

And Thich Nhat Hanh also offers us hope that we will still meet our lost loved ones one day, for he asserted, “Birth and death are only a game of hide-and-seek. So smile to me and take my hand and wave goodbye. Tomorrow we shall meet again or even before. We shall always be meeting again at the true source, Always meeting again on the myriad paths of life.”

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Did you make it through all that yada-yada?

Please don’t think I am enlightened already. On the intellectual level, I so dig these ideas and concepts. I can accept, and deep down I know this is what will release me from my current state of sorrow, agony and fear. I dunno. I think it is because I am afraid if I am smiling, people will think that F no longer mattered. It no longer hurts and therefore he has ceased to exist, for me and for others. And I don’t want that. And not everyone reads Thich Nhat Hanh and knows that F is here, right now, in a different form, watching over my shoulder as I type. They would probably think, “Oh, it is ok, she is going to have another baby and it will all be fine!” And then F’s brief manifestation will be negated. (But, can I control what others think??)
Well, some moments I am in acceptance, and some moments total denial. I’m still working on it. Like I said, it’s a job.

I know some days I read things like these and respond with cynicism so violent and pungent it will evacuate the entire planet to Mars.  But I accept that as part of the process. In Buddhism you are supposed to question and debate everything, poke it test it kick it pour it down the drain sleep with it. drink it. eat it. breathe it. So I sometimes will sneer and make faces at Thich Nhat Hanh on the computer screen but in reality I am full of deep respect and gratitude.

I write this long stinky post to share with all bereaved parents what i encountered on my journey. If you made it here I am so grateful for your perseverance, and if today you are feeling cynical and stinging, I hope another day, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps earlier, a tiny ray of warm sun shines into your mind and warms your heart. I dare not wish you healing, I seldom say things in the definite anymore, but I wish you (insert whatever befits your needs most right now).

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It’s funny how things come together some days.

Today I got in the mail this book  that I have been waiting for. I just need something like that, on top of a myriad other things that is supposed to satisfy my craving and desire for a calmer and more peaceful mind. For true and profound acceptance. For walking in grace. After Ferdinand died I decided to be a more spiritual person. This would be one of my daily dose of thoughts to get me going, on top of this kit. On top of trying to meditate regularly, and trying to slow my thoughts now. Be present. Be mindful.

Then I read what she wrote. It is inspiring to me. Yes, a loss like this turns our world upside down and we go insane with grief. It is a different grief from losing an old parent or life-long mate. Different because there is no reason we can fathom; hard-as-hell because we do not know how to go on when the future is taken from us. Add to that the questions that arise as to why would our children be taken from us and why would our bodies do this to us? We feel angry and shut our hearts down, and yet, at the same time, our heart softens. It cries easier and we feel deeper for others in sorrow. As she puts it, more sensitive to the light. More appreciative.

This arrived in the mail 2 days ago and the  girls adore him. Jizo, protector of babies and mothers; protector of lost babies in a different realm. I got it to comfort myself. As a symbolic hope that Ferdinand is looked after; he has guardianship, he has protector where I cannot be. I explained to the girls what Jizo is about and why it is standing on our altar table now. They wanted to touch it, stroke it; they cradled it like a little baby. Many times a day they go and look at it. I guess they also feel good to know that Ferdinand has a protector.

I hope to offer this to other mothers in grieve. All our children has a protector. They are not lost and hurting; and they are always with us. Jizo, also known as Ksitigarbha, is compassionate and will take care of all who needs that care.

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I flipped open the book I got today, to yesterday’s page and today’s page. seems to be what I would love to read and ponder:

Unfortunately, we do not recognize the empty nature of words and we become fixated on them as if they were something real. this is why pleasant words make us happy, and unpleasant words make us unhappy or angry. these reactions are a sign that we believe in the reality of words.  ~ Kalu Rinpoche

Words. Whispered. Written. Immediately dissolve. Such is the illusion of this world. But while we write it, it feels good. Good to let everything out to the wind, to blow away.

*******
Not causing harm requires staying awake.
Part of being awake is slowing down enough to notice what we say and do.

The more we witness our emotional chain reactions and understand how they work, the easier it is to refrain. It becomes a way of life to stay awake,

slow down and notice.  ~ Pema Chodron

I know I am not awake.

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I have had this book, edited by M.J. Ryan, for a couple of years. From time to time I flip through it and find inspiration, and smiles. And I have found, when you have nothing else to hold on to; when the ground beneath you is slipping rapidly, and you fear you are hopelessly falling into the quick-sand of darkness and hopelessness (again), it always, always helps to count your blessings. It makes you suddenly awake and alive again.

Be grateful. Everyday I wake up and breathe and walk down the stairs, I know I have another chance to try again. To be joyful again. To find hope again. And it is really nothing by virtue of my own efforts only. There are beautiful forces outside of me that helps me stay afloat. When I gasp for breath; when I stumble and reach out desperately, there is always a hand there. When I grit my teeth and think to myself, “I give up. I cannot muster another inch.” I find arms that lift and carry me. A loving heart. Compassionate ears. I have much, much to be grateful for. For everything, indeed.

Below are some passages that called to me recently as I went through the book again:

I will light candles this Christmas
candles of joy, despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.
Candles of courage where fear is ever present,
candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens.
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.
~ Howard Thurman
 
We thank you now for love, the great, the miraculous gift. For love in the body that comforts, for love in the emotional body that delights and frustrates and instructs, for the love of our sacred circle of friends, for love in the spirit beyond all walls and wounds, bounds and ends.
Love, we thank you for love, love that stirs and soothes us, love that gathers us into all joy and delivers us from all brokenness. Love that hears the soundless language, love that imagines and dreams, that can conquer all and willingly surrenders everything. Love that brought us into our lives and love that will carry us home.
~ Daphne Rose Kingma
 
Hold on to what is good
even if it is a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe
even if it is a tree that stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do
even if it is a long way from here.
Hold on to life
even when it is easier letting go.
Hold on to my hand
even when I have gone away from you.
~ Pueblo verse
 
Teach me your mood, O patient stars!
Who climb each night the ancient sky,
Leaving on space no shade, no scars,
No trace of age, no fear to die.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
 
Mighty God, Father of all,
Compassionate God, Mother of all,
bless every person I have met,
every face I have seen,
every voice I have heard,
especially those most dear;
bless every city, town, and
every street that I have known,
bless every sight I have seen,
every sound I have heard,
every object I have touched.
In some mysterious way these
have all fashioned my life;
all that I am,
I have received.
Great God, bless the world.
~ John J Morris, SJ
 
Let today embrace the past with rememberance and the future with longing.
~ Kahlil Gibran
 
From joy I came.
For joy I live.
And in sacred joy
I shall melt again.
~ Yogananda
 
Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, bless you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while I may, for it may not always be so. One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than all in the world, your return.
~ Mary Jean Iron
 
Kali, be with us.
Violence, destruction, receive our homage.
Hep us bring darkness into the light,
To lift out the pain, the anger,
Where it can be seen for what it is–
The balance-wheel for our vulnerable, aching love.
Within the act of creation,
Crude power that forges a balance
Between hate and love.
Help us to be always hopeful
Gardeners of the spirit
Who know that without darkness
Nothing comes to birth
As without light
Nothing flowers.
Bear the roots in mind,
You, the dark one, Kali,
Awesome power.
~ May Sarton
 
Think of all the years passed by in which you said
to yourself, “I’ll do it tomorrow,”
and how the gods have again and again granted
you periods of grace
of which you have not availed yourself.
It is time to realize that you are a member
of the Universe,
that you are born of Nature itself,
and to know that a limit has been set to your time. Use
every moment wisely, to perceive
your inner refulgence,
or ’twill be gone and nevermore within your reach.
~ Marcus Aurelius, translated by Jonathan Star
 
I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.
~ Dawna Markova
 
Earth brings us into life
and nourishes us.
Earth takes us back again.
Birth and death are present in every moment.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
 
On this day, we pray for tender compassion on all the little ones, whose new souls, so fresh from the light, shine in our midst with a darling adorable brightness.
May we honor them deeply, learn from them truly, respecting the deep wisdom they carry. Make us wise in our nurturing of them, generous in our loving, unending in our compassion, expansive in our wisdom, kind with our intelligence, and graceful with our hearts. Let us give to them and receive from them, and let it be known among us that they are neither our projects nor our possessions, but messengers of light, illuminations of love.
~ Daphne Rose Kingma
 
Earth mother, star mother,
You who are called by
a thousand names,
May all remember
we are cells in your body
and dance together.
You are the grain
and the loaf
That sustains us each day.
And as you are patient
with our struggles to learn
So shall we be patient
with ourselves and each other.
We are radiant light
and sacred dark
–the balance–
You are the embrace that heartens
And the freedom beyond fear.
Within you we are born
we grow, live, and die–
You bring us around the circle
to rebirth,
Within us you dance
Forever.
~Starhawk, “The Spiral Dance”
 
To be joyful in the universe is a brave and reckless act.
The courage for joy springs not from the certainty of human experience, but the surprise. Our astonishment at being loved, our bold willingness to love in return- these wonders promise the possibility of joyfulness, no matter how often and how harshly love seems to be lost.
Therefore, despite the world’s sorrows, we give thanks for our loves, for our joys and for the continued courage to be happily surprised.
~ Molly Fumia
 
Each day of human life contains joy and anger, pain and pleasure, darkness and light, growth and decay. Each moment is etched with nature’s great design- do not try to deny or oppose the cosmic order of things. Always try to be in communion with heaven and earth; then the world will appear in its true light.
~ Morihei Ueshiba
 
Every particle of the world is a mirror,
In each atom lies the blazing light
of a thousand suns.
Cleave the heart of a rain-drop,
a hundred pure oceans will flow forth.
Look closely at a grain of sand,
the seed of a thousand beings can be seen.
The foot of an ant is larger than an elephant;
In essence, a drop of water
is no different than the Nile.
In the heart of a barley-corn
lies the fruit of a hundred harvests;
Within the pulp of a millet seed
an entire universe can be found.
In the wing of a fly,
an ocean of wonder;
In the pupil of the eye, an endless heaven.
Though the inner chamber of the heart is small,
the Lord of both worlds
gladly makes His home there.
~ Mahmud Shabistari, translated by Jonathan Star

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Again, I don’t remember how I stumbled onto this book. I must have, in the past months, done many random searches about deaths, stillbirths, hope, etc. This one I got through Inter-library loan and finished in the span of one afternoon in bed while holding ice to my jaws because I just had three of my wisdom teeth extracted first thing in the morning.

The author Sukie Miller, is a practicing psychotherapist and the founder and director of the Institute for the Study of the Afterdeath. She is upfront that she has never had any children; what she writes stems from experiencing and sharing the pain and heartache of her clients, as well as friends close to her. She wrote also that she did not believe she could have written this book if she had had children. It would have been “too personal, too painful” and she might have been “too afraid to look too deeply or venture too far.” But in writing this book she had used the term “all of us” who have lost children, “in order to demonstrate how this most profound loss affects us all.”

In this book Miller seeks to answer the questions that parents always asks when a child dies: Why did my child die? Where is she now? Will I ever see him again? Are the unborn real? (this last question refers to miscarriages and babies who died in utero) Can I hep my child where she’s gone? Can my child hear me?

And for answers, Miller looks beyond the conventional western beliefs and searched for answers- with the help of local and well-trained researchers, field studies, interviews and observations, in foreign lands and in foreign cultures. In traditions where answers are provided to the above questions. In customs where there are ceremonies that helps with the above questions. Her examples draws on societies from Africa, India, Brazil, Indonesia and Japan. Miler invites her readers to be open to these ideas, as they are often beyond the comprehension and imaginations of her western readers. Thus her subtitle “what other cultures can teach us”.

It was interesting (for lack of better word) for me to read this book. It brings forth to me another investigation of my identity. I have lived in the west for six years now, and my vocabulary certainly has changed. In the beginning of my motherhood journey I was intrigued in my reading and research to come across names and terms and words for things I knew intimately in my childhood; things like co-sleeping, Elimination Communication and babywearing. Now I re-experience this intrigue as this book brings me closer again to “lands” that I know. Deep-buried memories are aroused. I recall stories I had heard as a very young child, playing under the table while the adults and elders talk of the after-world; of dreaming of dead ones; of communicating with the dead; of past-lives… and so on.

Her introduction blew me away when she stated that in the west there is no language for talking when a child dies. She explained that it is because there is no language that makes it so difficult to come to terms and heal. She wrote, “When your husband dies, you become a widow. When your wife dies, a widower. Children who lose their parents are called orphans. But we have no name for the parent who loses a child, nor for the brothers and sisters of a child who dies, nor for the others- aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents…” She said: “the nameless live in a kind of limbo. They still exist, but in a new stratosphere where their namelessness effectively isolates them from the rest of the world.” To Miller, the words “bereaved, distraught or inconsolable” hardly approaches the emotional state and doesn’t nearly describe who we have suddenly become when a child dies. And language, as Miller uses it, is “more than just a roster of words”. It is also about concepts and attendant practices.

Often, after a death, the bereaved family is expected to “move on”; often urged to do so. But there is no concrete steps to take. How do you “move on”? In her book Miller implies that the difficulties parents or siblings who experience the death of a child experience stems somewhat from the Judeo-Christian thinking that the western society is “mostly” steeped in. She writes about how parents see themselves as images of god, and when a child dies, this mirror of God is shattered. I am uncomfortable with her assertions but I also contend that I do not know deeply enough about this western, or American culture, where she is based in, to make true evaluations of what she wrote. But what she is saying is, because of the religion, parents see themselves as “gods” and so when a child dies, they felt they are to blame; they feel responsibility- there must have been something they have done, or not done (even if it was 20 years ago) that resulted in a child’s death. Parents may feel their child died because they tried to be “gods” to their children. Yet they also feel power taken from them as they could not exert any will over their child’s life; how or when he or she dies. And, after a child dies, it is also hard to question God for what had happened. No answers can be given, or the parents did not wish to accept such answers. Miller feels that if we can transcend this guilt that stems from these associations of god, perhaps we can find some comfort, and answers. She emphasized that we need not believe what we read of other cultural practices; she agrees that replicating a ceremony from another culture will not be authentic. But she strongly feels that because other cultures have a language in dealing with the dead, especially in regard with children, that could stretch our imagination and provide us with solace, comfort, even answers, if we so choose to believe.

So in the second part of her book, Miller takes us on a journey, a tour in fact, introducing to us how other societies are able to provide complete, detailed answers to the above questions. We read of cultures that have explanations to why a child dies; of beliefs as to why a child will choose to die young; of parents who believe that the child’s spirit will always return, if not to the family, then a close relative; we partake in rituals where parents can do something for their child to alleviate whatever suffering they may have; we read of guardian gods that guide and help the deceased children; we learn of children whose spirits willfully chooses not to live a long life on earth; we come to know of “other worlds” that children who died will live in, who would take care of them, and how they live their lives there; we wander into rituals and ceremonies where mortals come into contact with spirits of dead children.

Miller’s book is enlivened with her interviews with the people whom she encountered in her field work. She also weaved beautifully into her book stories of several of her clients, and we get to share in their grief, and witness how they find a language for the experiences of their loss, and come to terms, and heal. For me, an important lesson in this book is not to be afraid to ask questions and not to be afraid to explore the possible answers. Truly why can we not find answers in other societies or cultures, simply because they are different, or may seem so foreign in the beginning? Certainly their answers come from deep roots of their own history and culture, but I also see that there is much we can learn from their practice, and their outlooks, even if we did not eat, dress or breathe as they do. It may feel “wrong” to borrow from them parts of their rituals; segments of their practices, but I think, only if we so obstinately wish to isolate the world into “me” and “the other”. Some of the things I read in the book resonates with me because of my spiritual beliefs; some rituals described take my breath away because I wish there is something like this in this culture. We can be open-minded, and learn, and experience, and find healing. Really, why not? It is not the same as putting on a Native Indian costume and pretending that I am one. For me, it is a humble quest for answers; a sincere request for a borrowing of their wisdom, so I may begin to fill the holes in my questions.

In the third and last part of her book, Miller offers a language for people who have experienced the death of a child. She proposes the word “initiate” for people like us. Her suggestion stems from her observation of the rites of passage that other societies go through. I felt an initial resistance when I first see the term, but as i read on, and as I call on my own knowledge and understanding about rites of passage, and about initiation, I began to agree with her. When a child dies, we become another. We are different, and will never be the same again. Yes, we become an initiate, and come out changed.

The eight dominant themes of initiation:

1. Initiation may or may not be voluntary. No one volunteers to be initiated by the death of the child; so we are almost all involuntary initiates. But it does not diminish the power of this process, even if we did not choose it in the first place. And I think, if we resist, then the healing is more difficult. We have to recognize that a part of us had died too, and we seek for this new identity. This seeking can be so damn difficult.

2. Initiation is something you go through. Meaning, there is no way around it. And no way you can experience it secondhand. This resonated with me deeply.

3. Initiation requires witnesses to attest to it. Maybe that is why I made the decision to make this blog public.

4. Initiation includes chaos. Definitely. And we are still in chaos; though I can feel calm very slowly seeping in.

5. Initiation requires courage. Miller wrote, “Fearlessness is not demanded of the initiate, but bravery, endurance, and fierce determination to get through it are required. Think of the courage it takes to hear of the death of our child, to wake up every morning to the shock of it all over again, to get out of bed to an agony of pain…” I think, somehow, this courage is gathered over time, shred by shred. And, for me, Ferdinand was a big source of courage for me. So are my living children, and people around me.

6. Initiation requires a period of isolation. This was so crucial to me. Really required. And as Miller wrote, not always understood and respected in “our culture”. I acknowledge though, it is hard for others to determine how long this isolation needs to be.

7. Initiation requires blood sacrifice. This is symbolic in the case when a child dies.

8. Initiation requires the death of an aspect of oneself. “Anyone who has lost a child knows the truth of this. The chaos foretells it; the spilling of blood represents it; the period of isolation confirms it. So much of us die with our children.” Identities changes and die. Death of innocence.

I like how Miller described how we are different after the initiation. “While we were powerless in the course of initiation, we walk away from it more powerful people.” I can relate to the feeling of powerlessness, and has hope for walking away a different, better stronger person. From her experiences, Miller described initiates as less future-oriented (this current moment is the most precious); they have a kind of interior stillness that tends to make them better listeners, and sometimes the initiates find gifts they did not know they have. However, Miller wrote, after an initiation, we are received in a different way from, say, a traditional tribal society. “When we return to the world after the death of our child… our culture is more likely to look at us as victims than as leaders and more likely to pity us than to honor the wiser, more compassionate, more courageous people we can become after the death of our children.” I have to admit I still see us in the light of being victims, because we were so helpless. Because we did all we could, but there was a force bigger than us that decided that Ferdinand will not be with us; maybe not this time. I cannot see myself as a leader of any sort, but I certainly hope that I cam emerge from this process more compassionate, and more courageous.

In the end Miller talks about life after initiation. Some people go on to become outer initiates– people who go out and do big things and change the world. And then there are the inner initiates, who never go out and become activists, but makes a difference simply by virtue of the person she has become.

And I must quote Miller’s parting words, “The process of initiation may seem to take forever. And returning can take many years. But we can come back, and when we do, I suspect it is with the blessings of our departed children.”

Reading this book tears open the horizon further. I can draw on so much wisdom that already exists, i only need open my eyes to look, and my mind to learn; and my heart to accept healing. This initiation process feels way too scary; i do not see the people who monitors this process, and I do not know what more sacrifices i may need to make; and I am not sure when it ends and i get to return. But, I will return, and yes, with Ferdinand’s blessings.

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For some reason I felt I have to read something like this before we decide to try again. Although, for R, this is not “again”. He said this will be our first and last try. Our pregnancies have never been results of conscientiously trying to procreate. It was always a surprise bonus to the pleasure of being nice to each other. And if (and I cannot believe that I can be sitting and typing these following words) for some reason it does not result in a viable and living outcome (I am thinking the words “sticky baby” used often on the loss forums) then this is it.

It is like coming full circle in a very strange sort of way. First pregnancy: worried and paranoid that anything can happen to the baby. Scared about everything. Uncertain that I could successfully breastfeed.  Second pregnancy:somewhat detached and relaxed; knowing that I can do it, my body can do it. Confident of outcome. Third pregnancy: totally reveled in pregnancy; had fun; confident and cocky that my body can birth a healthy baby. Ferdinand died. And I know the next time, if any, will be fraught with worries, nerves, paranoia, roller-coaster emotions, and more worries till the end of my life. I am not sure it is full circle. Maybe more like my life took a divergent path and it is going to just be different. But perhaps it was meant to be like this.

This book is co-authored by Ann Douglas and John R. Sussman, M.D.. Douglas have suffered losses herself but subsequently had a healthy baby. She wanted to write a book that focussed on the unique challenges of planning another pregnancy after one has suffered a loss, whether it was a miscarriage, stillbirth, perinatal loss or infant loss. I quote, “I just couldn’t relate to mainstream pregnancy books that assume that the biggest crisis you’re facing in your pregnancy is whether the Winnie the Pooh wallpaper you ordered will arrive before the baby. I wanted a book that understood that my biggest concern was whether or not I’d end up with a healthy baby in my arms.”  And Sussman, himself an obstetrician, wanted a book that would address the types of concerns expressed by the couples he had met in his practice; and was motivated by the pain he had to share with so many couples who were excited and happy about their impending birth just days, hours, or minutes before. Until their world came crashing down, and then they try to build it all up again.
This is a good book. Much needed. Well executed. Even handed. Compassionate. Realistic. Do not mince words but not blunt and blatant. It presents the known causes and latest information to the reasons for miscarriages, stillbirths and infant loss. After presenting the facts, the book goes on to discuss about being emotionally ready for another pregnancy, and how to prepare for one.  And unfortunately, some couples do experience fertility issues after a loss, so there is also a chapter that deals with that in the book. The book then goes on to detail how one may feel about another pregnancy; making choices; prenatal testing (pros and cons); coping; preparing for the birth, and life after baby.

Stillbirths occur in about 1 percent of all pregnancies. About 60 percent of stillbirths have no known reasons, and for the remaining forty percent, the eight main causes are: chromosomal abnormalities; maternal health problems (diabetes, epilepsy, hypertension, kidney disease, liver disease, lung disease, parathyroid disease, sickle cell disease, and preeclampsia) ; infection; placental problems; problems with uterus; umbilical cord problems; problems arising from a multiple pregnancy and intrapartum death (fetal death that occurs during labor).

I am not sure where we fall in. The doctor said viral infection, but the pathological report did not find any viral inclusions, but they do not always find that viral inclusion. the placenta certainly did not look right. But we were told such a placenta usually belongs to someone who smokes a lot or who uses drugs. I do not smoke or use drugs. Ferdinand was “normal-looking” as stated in the report. The cord looked fine. So what’s the deal? I feel we are not in the 60 percent, but where in the 40 percent are we? Maybe it was really a viral infection that we did not catch? Or maybe Ferdinand did have issues with his kidneys that we did not catch, for some reason. I don’t know. And I really, really, want to know.

I like all the information that this book has to present.  And all the more because it is presented in an even manner that a layman can understand. The chapter on prenatal testing does a good job of detailing all the tests out there and the pros and cons, and why one should consider, and why some tests are only going to create more worries, that may not have been necessary. The book also has a list of questions one could think to ask the potential caregiver. It explores many concerns that a couple would have, like when to try again (taking into consideration the body’s healing time; one’s emotional state, and also the due date/birth date or death anniversary of the demised baby); whether to use the same provide; whether to use the same hospital/same room; the support and so on.

The book has a good sprinkling of quotes from couples who have been through it all and that gives good flesh to the book.

Of course, this book also squarely looks at you in the eyes and tells you that even if you see the double-pink line, and even if you do all you can to make sure everything is right, you have no guarantee. If your children asks, “Will this baby die too?”, you can only tell them you will do your best to ensure that the baby is born healthy; you cannot tell them that this baby will definitely be born living and healthy. Yes, reading this book, you know that some people do not suffer a loss just once. But twice, or even more. It makes you scared to death; it makes you angry. But it also makes you determined, in some sense. Some days I see a mental image of myself wagging a warning finger at Fate, saying, “Don’t try me!” Even though it seems the Universe is ruled by randomness, you know there must also be a rhythm, and therefore there is justice. I know now why I always feel like crying when I see snow. Not because I get to see it so seldom, having grown up in the tropics, but because deep inside, I have a sense that Nature is still ok, it can still snow, the rhythm is still there. That silent snowing is an unworded message to us that things are still ok, as of now. In “Swallowed by a Snake” the author wrote of why when a child dies it creates so much pain. It is because things have occurred out of order, and there is chaos. Children are not supposed to die before their parents do, and therefore when that happens, people reel from the pain of that chaos. It has been chaos for me. Very bad chaos. And I am looking for that order.

This book gives me a good idea what to expect for the next round. It is full of great advice, from diet to planning to mental and emotional preparation. When I checked, our library did not have this book so I put in a request for them to purchase it. In the comments section I wrote, “Every library should have a resource like this.” and after reading it, I feel that way even more.

***********************

Very soon after Ferdinand died, R said we will have another one. But now that we start considering, I think he is having cold feet.

Me too.

I just cannot expel the thought of having another infant loss from my head. It is a horrible feeling to experience; a terrible thought to even consider. We have never been in such a place before. This fear, this helplessness, this unknown. I am not sure if I can make through another pregnancy, and birth with sanity.

And how crazy is it to sit and decide if I should be attached to this next baby (if there is one)? Is this something to decide? Does it not come natural? I read of husbands who remain undetached until after baby is born and I have this feeling that R may be doing this. Can I blame him? I can’t. We are still reeling from the pain of Ferdinand’s death. we are still shocked. And I am still in denial. Lately Sophia keeps telling me, “Mummy, I am sad that Ferdinand is dead.” and I sit on the toilet and think, “I do not have a dead child. Do i really have a child who died?” I look down on my wrinkled belly and I feel like screaming from the top of my roof. I hate it when I went for my physical check and the nurse nonchalently asks, “Married? Children? How many?” I said, “Three. Two living.” And she said, “Oh, I’m so sorry! We lost one too.” Then she turned back and look at her computer screen and click and click and click. What the hell is she clicking on? I did not ask about her loss. I was selfishly thinking of mine only.

I feel as if I live in a different world now. Different planet. All women with normal pregnancies and normal births and healthy living children are on the other planet. I am standing on a different one. Bare, gloomy, lonely. And I stand at the edge of my planet and look out to the other one. Sometimes I feel I have chains to my ankles and I am imprisoned to live here forever. No salvation.No redemption. Doomed to pain and sorrow…. and more deaths. I do not know why I think this. Some days I cannot summon even a shred of hope in me. And all bravery seeps out of me. I just want to turn into a tree and dig my roots somewhere and just let it be. And not talk anymore. Stop the babbling. Until one day I die and rot and fall to the ground and return to earth. Let the wind scatter my dead body and let this story blow away with the wind and be forgotten. Some days I really just cannot take it anymore, and I just want to stop breathing.

So, reading this book was not enough. Armed with knowledge and facts and with information is not sufficient. Just tears will not suffice. Even Hope is not going to make it happen. Only if I walk into the future, boldly (if quivering as well), armed with facts, and ideas and hopes and dreams; then maybe, maybe, I can know what the outcome can be. Even if I curse this journey, this road that offers no alternatives, i know if I decide to try again, there is no other way. Someone say when you run away from suffering you run right into it. Oh, it makes me laugh painfully and cry to hear a thing like this. Because this is true. Winston Churchill said, “If you find yourself in Hell, keep going.” So I keep going.

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The cover of this book just makes your heart stop. And bleed. Very dark maroon cover, with just the big word “STILLBORN” in a simple font right at the top. The font color is kind of a yellow-orange, a bit like the color of the sky when the sun is starting to only peep out over the horizon. Then the words “THE INVISIBLE DEATH” all in upper case again, just below the alphabet “O” of the word “Stillborn”. In the middle is a blank of just the maroon color, and then right at the bottom of the cover is the names of the authors: John DeFrain, with Leona Martens, Jan Stork and Warren Stork.

Written in 1986, 21 years ago, this book endeavors to shed light on what happens to parents who experience stillbirths. It is based on a study of these parents, who answered some fifty questions, related to their experience- what people had done for them, their reactions, people’s reactions; impact of people’s words and actions; what thoughts they had; suicide attempts or not, and why, and why not; how was the family affected as a whole, etc.

This book does not really provide answers. It wanted to put the focus on an event not often in the limelight and seldom studied. It wanted to study the impact of stillbirths on parents, on the marital partnership, how people cope and how people heal. There were a lot of quoted responses in the book.

Having already read some literature with regard to stillbirths and grieving, reading this book at this point was not particularly helpful for me. It was gratifying to see a book devoted to stillbirths though. Some of the responses quoted resonated with me; while others shocked me. After the shock, I realize it was because those words came from a place of deep pain. I could not agree with some of the things said but I am very sure there are many others who also cannot agree with the things that I have to say; or with things that I choose to do. We all have our own histories, and we all are individuals and have our own experiences, and perceptions, feelings and reactions.

And what was found in the book about what can be done to help grieving parents does not differ much from other books. In an event like this, it is just hard. But the same things help, as listed in an appendix at the end of the book: giving time and continued support; loving them and trying to understand their sadness, devastation and need; hugging; validating the existence of the baby; giving them the time to heal; understanding that even after they heal, there will always be a tender scar.

I think this book would have been useful perhaps at the beginning, when one seeks validation for one’s experiences, and to read the words of those who had walked the same journey; to know that one is not alone. Parents who participated in this study had suffered a loss ranging from a few months ago to forty years ago. All were gratified to have this opportunity to voice their heartfelt feelings on the event. Some were so glad that someone would just allow them to talk about it.

It may not have been particularly useful for me but I can imagine what relief some parents must have felt to hold this book in their hands. To know that they are not alone and that what they felt was not insane at all. The effort and motivation is truly a noble one.

Twenty-one years later, stillbirths still happen; the pain will never change. But it does seem hospitals are handling such events better and the bereaved parents are given better considerations, and support for them begins before they leave the hospitals. I am thankful for all the individuals who have made effort to help make the experience a little less painful for the bereaved.

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