Beautiful. Graceful. Strong. Resilient. Courageous. Soulful. These are just a few words I would use to describe the mothers I met on a retreat over Mother’s Day weekend. We met on a little Island off the coast of Seattle, called Whidbey Island, where we were surrounded by the healing power of the ocean and God’s creation in nature. The majestic trees of the Pacific Northwest towered over us, in a sense protecting our hearts from the outside world so we could turn inward. Life was in bloom all around us while we were, in our minds and emotions, letting ourselves touch death again by talking about our deceased children. They sky was bright blue and seemed to open up the heavens, sending the spirits of our children down making them palpable in the hearts of their wounded mamas, who miss them so. We needed this. We ventured from all corners of the United States, from different walks of life, all carrying our different stories of loss and trauma. But there are a few things we did have in common: the need to talk about our children, the desire for our children to be recognized and remembered, and the yearning to feel accompanied in this loss. And that is exactly what this retreat accomplished, among many other things.
The retreats began years ago by Kiley, who founded the Return to Zero Center for Healing along with her husband, after their first child was stillborn. They also made a film, “Return to Zero,” with the hopes of shattering the stigma and silence associated with stillbirth.
We started each retreat day with gentle yoga and by lighting a candle for each child, while saying their name out loud. For me, the “name saying ritual” is extremely powerful, for it reminds me that Gianna did in fact exist and others are also recognizing her existence. The long meals gave us ample time to get to know each other. We had various workshops throughout the weekend, ranging from “Connecting with and Parenting Your Child” to “Self-Care.” We were asked to bring some of our baby’s memorial items and got to share them, along with our own stories of loss, with the group. It was a safe, loving space where everyone hopefully felt accepted and welcomed. We walked the beautiful grounds of the retreat center during our free times and got to use the cordwood sauna and outdoor Japanese soaking tub in the evenings to relax.
For me, the retreat was both healing and emotionally draining. The subject of the retreat (baby loss) is heavy and emotional and it takes mental strength to talk about that various days back to back. I had to take some “introvert time” to be alone and recuperate my energy. In the mornings, I liked to buy coffee and sit on the beach alone, talking to Gianna or journaling. In one afternoon free time, I got a massage at the local spa and then wrote in my journal down my ocean. Everyone has the freedom to make the retreat what one wants and I did just that.
Something that did surprise me was that, despite being in the presence of 20 other child loss moms, I frequently felt waves of loneliness. This experience of loneliness reminded me of a quote from Maya Angelou that I’ve been tossing around in my mind over the past few years, ever since I saw it in Brené Brown’s recent book: “You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” I looked up at the towering trees, each one standing alone in their space yet they were all interconnected underground, their roots intertwining with each other. And here we all were, each individual bereaved mama standing alone with her particular, unique story of loss. Yet the inextricable human connection we had as strangers physically and metaphorically “holding hands” was very powerful and sacred. The experience of loneliness was also just another reminder that I am not “home” yet. I am a pilgrim on this Earth and one day I will be on the other side, my Eternal home, where my daughter is waiting for me with open arms.
I also know that my particular story of child loss does not easily fit into the typical “pregnancy loss categories.” Gianna died as a result of someone’s mistake (medical negligence), not of natural or genetic causes, and we only discovered this because we chose to investigate her death the following year. Our story isolates me even in baby loss circles and I have grown accustomed to this. I can truly say that the majority of my encounters with fellow loss mamas are full of compassion and empathy as we focus on what we have in common, the devastating death of our child. Unfortunately, our decision to investigate Gianna’s death does not always sit well with everyone and I found myself confronted aggressively by another mother on this retreat because of this reason. It was a sad moment for me, where I felt unnecessarily judged and disrespected. I think it’s important even in the “baby loss world” to remember not to compare our losses nor judge each other on how we deal with, cope, or move forward after our loss. Let’s support one another and build each other up, for we have all suffered the unimaginable. Let’s not add to each other’s pain.
Despite this awkward and sad encounter, I am glad I had some time just for Gianna and me. The farther I get from Gianna’s death, unfortunately, the less I talk about her. She is constantly on my mind and her presence is weaved into my daily life but practically, life keeps me in this busy whirlwind where she physically “is not.” I now have Lucas “who is” very present and seemingly consumes all my time and energy, as any toddler is sure to do. People don’t see Gianna, I don’t see her, I don’t have to buy her diapers, I don’t have to take her to playgroup. But, nevertheless, her life is worthy of love and recognition. And who can give this to her if not her mama? I needed this space set aside to continue honoring her, parenting her, remembering her, and talking to her. She did exist, she was my child, and I am her forever her mother. Time will never, ever take that away. And I will use the time I have I left on this Earth to shower her with the love she deserves yet never received. Until we meet again, my sweet one.
**On a more practical note, the primary reason why I am sharing my experience of this retreat is to help others who are also thinking of doing the same. I would recommend this retreat, above all, to people who are in their first year of loss and/or to those who have not done much grief work on their own. More information about Return to Zero and the retreats they offer can be found here**
Braving the Wilderness: My Return to Zero Bereavement Retreat Experience