By Mary Ann Bashaw
Launching a new school year often begins with a shopping trip. Families head out to take advantage of back-to-school deals on backpacks, new clothes and school supplies. The annual outing is a ritual with the promise of change and growth ahead.
Kara L. C. Jones, of Sedona, joined millions of others in this seasonal excursion, but she was shopping for a little boy who would never experience that first day of kindergarten. Five years before, in 1999, Dakota was stillborn after a healthy, full-term pregnancy. Confronting yet another of many milestones in her lost child’s life, Jones—whose own mother urged her to believe that “of course” she was still a mother, still a parent—felt that back-to-school shopping was “the most satisfying way, given the situation, that I could express my continued love and care for him.” Jones donated the items to another family, keeping a special memento to place near her son’s urn.
The loss of a child is perhaps life’s cruelest blow. Interminable days turn into weeks, months and even years as families try to maneuver through the sadness, confusion and pain of grief.
And then, unexpected transformations take place. Creativity and ideas spring forth from places of darkness and sorrow. Static becomes dynamic; intangible becomes tangible. Individuals discover talents they never knew they possessed, abilities that are revealed and shared in honor of lost loved ones. Rituals are established to give families comfort, a sense of control and peace.
Rituals as stepping stones
The holiday season can be an especially painful time for grieving families. Days that are typically full of tradition and anticipation become unbearable and empty. Modern culture is relentless in reminding us that these are happy times to spend with loved ones, while many families are experiencing feelings of “why bother?”
Rituals can help families that have experienced the loss of a child feel a sense of belonging and togetherness. Gestures or ceremonies—however big or small—allow us to remember a loved one whose absence has left a void.
“As a society, we have a pretty short attention span and limited tolerance in witnessing the suffering of others,” says Joanne Cacciatore, Ph.D., founder of the MISS Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting families who have lost children of any age, from any cause. “Rituals give people a chance to transform painful emotions. They are stepping stones along the path of grief and healing, transforming a person’s ability to cope and trust.”
Rituals represent a safe, public or private way to “move an ordinary day into the extraordinary,” creating a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction “outside of the ubiquitous grasp of grief, ” says Cacciatore. “They offer the opportunity…to fold our beloved’s death into our present and future.”
Cacciatore engages in private rituals in memory of her daughter Cheyenne, whom she lost at birth in 1994. “Ritual doesn’t have to be formal or planned,” she says. “It can be spontaneous and organic in nature. People probably ritualize more than they realize.” Cacciatore reflects and remembers as she takes “barefoot walkabouts” in the Sedona desert near her home. Such walks can be painful, but they also offer the chance to focus and find solace in the solemnity of each step.
The healing power of rituals
Sandra Howlet, Ed.D., of Phoenix, is a bereavement specialist, grief educator/facilitator and writer who feels she was “born to do this work.” As a child growing up in Virginia, she lived with her grandmother across the street from a funeral home. One of the earliest rituals she remembers is her grandmother taking home-cooked meals to grieving families gathered just yards away.
Howlet has encountered many rituals during her years in practice: birthdays at gravesites, balloon releases, letter writing, candle lighting, journaling and get-togethers where memories are shared along with a loved one’s favorite foods or music. Technology offers ways to express feelings through online postings, Facebook messages and grief blogs. Tattoos are a popular and indelible way to ritualize feelings of loss. And ashes, or cremains, can be kept in special urns or transformed into beautiful jewelry or glass mementos.
Rituals represent personal progress on the path to healing and allow others to show that they, too, remember and care. Funerals are events of great sorrow but they also present opportunities to celebrate and honor young lives. Howlet remembers a teenage boy’s funeral where the family provided permanent markers to mourners, who shared thoughts and drawings on their son’s white coffin.
“Rituals can be sacred, personal, symbolic and transcendent, giving a powerful framework for coping with life’s changes,” says Howlet. “They send a beautiful and powerful message and give comfort to survivors. They are one more piece of healing—and there are infinite pieces to healing.”
Many families take up causes to honor their children who have lost battles with diseases or drugs, or who have perished in auto accidents. Advocating for cures and prevention (Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, comes to mind) is a way to connect with and help other families going through the same experience.
“Finding ways to channel the hurt to help someone else empowers those who feel ‘I can no longer do for my child, but I can do for others,’” says Howlet.
Support groups are a ritual in themselves. Howlet has worked with Hansen Mortuaries as a grief facilitator for the last six years, offering what she describes as “a safe place to express yourself without having to explain yourself.” Her goal is to guide grieving families and help them move forward. She was a presenter at last year’s bi-annual MISS Foundation conference in Tempe, speaking about rituals and memorials.
Some believe their duty is “to suffer as a tribute to a loved one. But this underplays our potential for healing, for life,” says Howlet. She adds that it’s hopeful to say, “I may never understand this in this life, but how can I give it meaning?”
Unexpected gifts from grief
As a regular at the MISS conference—she has been a presenter at the last four events in Arizona—Molly Greist of Bainbridge Island, Wash. is the first to admit that her latent talent is as much a surprise as it is a gift.
When Greist lost her 10-month old son Peter in a car accident in 1989, she suddenly felt drawn to stone and its connection to her son’s name: “Peter” comes from petra or petrus, a Latin name derived from the Greek and meaning “rock” or “stone.” Greist and her husband Steve, along with daughter Anna (age 5 at the time of her little brother’s death) would gravitate to a large rock on their property, which they named “Peter’s Rock,” and talk about things, including their grief.
Greist felt compelled to dig around the rock—“digging into myself, getting in touch with the pain…it felt good!”—to find some connection, something she could hang on to. A strong inner sense began to guide her through the burden of loss. She found metaphors in stone: “I began to chip away at my grief,” finding the lifting and moving of the stones cathartic because “they’re heavy, like grief is heavy.”
Greist has been a self-taught stone cutter for more than 20 years, gradually and skillfully working the stone into art forms, from headstones to sculptures.
Peter would have turned 23 this year. “I think about my son all the time when I’m working,” reflects Greist. “I think about what he would see. Would I want him to see me living in sadness? Would I rather imagine him looking at his mother—from wherever he is—and seeing someone taking on life with new meaning?” Her hammer and chisel hold positive answers to these questions.
From visceral to visual
Kara L.C. Jones remembers the time after she lost Dakota as “a very isolating experience—a silence came over everything.” She turned to her creative side to deal with the traumatic shift of loss.
Although she always saw herself as a writer, Jones discovered a non-academic approach to art while she was in college. She began working with all types of mixed media—chalk, clay, paint, scrapbooking. After losing her child, Jones further honed her creative expression “to keep voicing the story, to try to make it real. I wanted to wrap my arms around it, get as close to the tangible as I could get.”
Jones and her husband, Hawk, could scarcely imagine that tragedy could strike again; then they lost son Mizuko to miscarriage at 20 weeks in August 2010.
“After loss, the colors of the pallet of your life change,” says Hawk Jones, who is a photographer. After losing their children, the Joneses have used their art to “express the inexpressible,” and to help other grieving families along the way. Together, Hawk Jones says, they are doing “something that really matters, something that is more meaningful. Death forces you to get real—real fast.”
Both provide grief support to bereaved parents through their art. After Dakota’s death, they founded KotaPress to publish works about how to use art during grief and healing. Kara Jones offers workshops and resources as a grief and creativity coach through her website (motherhenna.com) and serves as MISS chapters coordinator; she also works with MISS volunteers. Both serve as forum and creative workshop moderators and presenters at MISS conferences. With this couple, the work of two produces a synergistic gift that helps enlighten others who are on a path the Joneses know all too well.
In grief’s grasp
“It’s usually at night, when I can’t sleep. My mind has a hard time being quiet,” says Maya Thompson of Phoenix. It is in those hours of darkness, when her husband and 8-year-old twin boys seek their solace in slumber, that Thompson turns to her keyboard to connect with her 3-year-old son Ronan. Ronan died this past May of neuroblastoma, a malignant cancer that claims infants and children.
Thompson has found support through contact with the MISS Foundation. She also keeps a blog at rockstarronan.com. “Writing has been a big outlet for me,” she says. “I talk to him. I still feel like he can hear me. It’s cathartic for me.”
She started the blog as a way to keep family and friends updated on Ronan’s ordeal through childhood cancer, a disease that Thompson says is drastically underfunded: “That is ludicrous to me. These are kids—our future.” As Thompson makes her way down what seems like an endless path of grief, her goal is to add her voice and energy to efforts to raise awareness and funding.
Thompson found that the ritual of blogging took on a life of its own, giving her a purpose. “I have to fight for Ronan still,” she says, “to try to make a difference and help other families, to make people more aware, more appreciative of what they have. Something good has to come out of this.”
Thompson keeps a little glass jar and small Post-it notes in her kitchen, so that her boys can write notes to their little brother. It’s an outlet for them, she says, and one for her, too, when she sees the twins “writing him a little note, a little memory. We put them in the jar. It’s a way to acknowledge our feelings and our sadness.”
This past summer, Thompson began what she calls “infernal hiking” in the desert mountains near her home. She hiked in the heat of the day, when conditions tested her physical and mental endurance. She says she found this ritual painful but therapeutic, drawing some relief from the depths of grief as she fought her way back to the bottom of the mountain. “Ronan would want me to be strong enough to do this, to keep going, pushing forward.”
Hope for healing
As years pass and milestones collect, families settle into routines and rituals that define their individual and collective paths. The bond of shared memories fortifies the family into a unit that should seem everlasting, in the common course of shared life cycles. Conventional wisdom tells us the young should outlive the old. When a child dies, such wisdom is denied. The loss of a child throws families off a path of life that is familiar and true. For every person who experiences such a loss, there is a unique path to grief. No two are alike. Healing also comes in different ways, at different times.
As the holidays come around again, so, too, will rituals be revisited. Some will cause great pain, while others may serve to soothe. Perhaps families will wrap a gift or set a place at the table for a lost child. After all, that child will always hold his or her place in the family.
“We often fail to realize—or recognize—how someone else’s loss affects us,” says Cacciatore. “We often acknowledge to ourselves how grateful we are and how lucky we feel that the loss is not ours. But in the blink of an eye it could be.”
She stresses the importance of trying to “imagine it happening to you. Then you begin to understand ritual and the need for ongoing connection with the dead. If we are willing to contemplate death, it doesn’t have to take away from life. We can even live life more fully.”
Mary Ann Bashaw, of Phoenix, is the mother of Claire (20) and Hannah (18). This is her fourth, and last, article in the “Finding Purpose in Grief” series.
The rest of the FINDING PURPOSE IN GRIEF series: