Following perinatal loss, there is no correct way to grieve. There is no particular arc for the grief. Women who suffer this loss can’t always avail themselves of self-care, owing to a host of factors that can include overwhelming sadness, financial constraints, and logistics.
Several years ago, I attended a retreat for bereaved women held in the Ojai Valley region of California. The retreat was organized by Kiley Hanish, co-creator of the film Return To Zero about a couple whose first child dies in utero shortly before his due date. Kiley Hanish decided to formally launch the Return To Zero: Hope following the release of the film, in an effort to reach out to bereaved women to help foster healing.
“I hope that [participants] leave with more hope – at a better place – than they arrived at. And that they can use the retreats to nurture themselves – that they can find a community of women who can support them in the future."
Perinatal loss retreats fill an important bereavement hole. Talking about pregnancy and neonatal loss remains a social taboo. This, despite the fact that 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage, and an additional 50,000 children are stillborn or die within the first thirty days of life in the United States each year. The development of perinatal loss retreats shows that that modalities of treatment can be improved for this specific and often neglected population.
In California, I was struck by how far outside my comfort zone I had come. The warmth of southern California was a revelation. I had flown from New York, that winter caught in the icy throes of the polar vortex. All at once, I was standing upon the warm, terracotta earth that instantly recalled to me the writings of John Steinbeck. Bountiful fruit ranches were saturated with color. Warm breezes carried the scent of citrus zest everywhere. There was an indefinable stirring of something forgotten within me – a whisper or a shadow of who I once was.
As the car wound its way up and down steep and stunning hills and valleys, I thought about why I had come. My loss is more than a decade old now, but I am always aware of the adaptive and maladaptive ways loss has shaped my parenting. I am now mother to three living children, and my work post-loss has been trying to walk a line between testing reality and living easily within the bounds of the normal. When I learned that this retreat was taking place, I signed up.
The retreat I attended was composed of women who shared my experience. I worked to shed my skin – the one that I have used to protect my son and myself from societal misunderstanding. We women sat on couches around an outdoor fireplace and traded in our aspirations and fears, each of which was represented by a clear glass marble. People wept. We shared stories. We let down our guards and a palpable relief rose up from the circle. In the fading afternoon light, I wanted to cover myself with a blanket and rest my head. A woman I did not know reached out and grasped my hand. I understood then that I would need to learn to reopen myself – would need to be able to access this lost part of me. I understood also that this would be a process of opening and closing like an eye – seeing things in shadow and light and dark. I was overwhelmed with sadness and also gratitude.
John Steinbeck wrote:
“We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less alone. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say – and to feel – ‘yes, that is the way it is, or at least the way I feel it. You are not as alone as you thought.'"
For Further information about perinatal loss bereavement groups and retreats, please visit these organizations.
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