Stories of Healing
Dear Mrs. Gray,
I smiled; I cried; I learnt; and lastly, I healed, all in the course of reading your book. First, I’ll begin with the most difficult aspect. Two years ago, I experienced the loss of my daughter, in a way. Although, she is physically still alive, she is no longer with us after having left, in a tragic way, due to an addiction. We know she is alive, gratefully, but she is no longer part of our lives, by her choice, and so we have mourned her. For me, it was like grieving the loss of a child.
As I read your book, I recognized myself in so many ways. I realized that I needed to do my own grief work. I realized that the “triggers” were a normal part of grieving and not something, which I kept telling myself I should be over. For me, the letter writing was an inspiration, helping me to release what I had been feeling. It gave me a place to store those feelings and thoughts, without having to keep them inside. I learnt so much about the grieving process for myself and others.
Secondly, our family was touched by a reproductive loss. In 1988, I got married and a new relationship began with my mother. She started talking to me about things she had never discussed before; things that traditional European women only talked about amongst married women. In the course of a conversation one day, tears began to pour down her eyes and she told me about, Steven, my brother, a stillborn baby she’d had, in 1962, a year and half before my birth. She cried and cried, telling me that since the first few months after his birth, she had never talked to anyone again about Steven. You can imagine my shock and surprise, realizing that I’d had a brother that I knew nothing about. I couldn’t imagine the pain my mother had gone through holding that in for 26 years.
It seemed like a relief to her to have someone to talk to about Steven. For months thereafter, she mentioned Steven almost every time we had a conversation. I knew that she needed to talk and I was so willing to listen, to learn about a side of mother that I had never known. My mother was a Portuguese immigrant with very limited English and French skills back in 1962. It was a time when men didn’t go to the delivery room and the nurses thought that it was best for the mother not to see her stillborn child. She talked about the anguish of not knowing what Steven looked like, of never holding him, of seeing him in her dreams. She talked about how the doctor had seemed so cold, how she’d had to endure listening to the other babies’ cries until she finally found a nurse who spoke Portuguese to whom she was able to ask to please move her from the baby ward. We cried together as she spoke of the enormous sense of disbelief and her feelings of helplessness.
She spoke of temporarily hating her co-workers in the textile plant for not talking to her about her baby. Her thoughts were, “I had a baby! Why won’t you talk about him?” She eventually came to the realization that they were only trying to be sensitive and not bring her pain, but at that time, she didn’t see it that way. She was missing the acknowledgement.
The one thing that struck me most, in all of her conversations, was that she kept saying, she wished she knew where my brother was buried. She had received a $4.00 bill for his burial, but not being able to speak the language, she couldn’t trace where he was. That little bill, sat in a little locked metal box under my mother’s bed. A box that had always peeked the curiosity of my two sisters and I, but that we never dared to ask about (we knew not to). One day she pulled out that little box and let me see the bill. The bill had come from St. Jerome’s Hotel Dieu Hospital, with the details of the burial of a child, born November 29, 1962. This was the only thing my mother had left of Steven. My dad, thinking that it would help, had removed all the clothes and furnishing for Steven from the house before my mom had come home from the hospital. At the time, to her, it felt like everyone wanted to erase Steven’s existence.
That little bill started a quest of my own: to trace where Steven was buried. After months of calling the hospital and speaking with different staff unsuccessfully, an unusual event occurred. I went to a tombstone dealer in St. Jerome, who had recently repainted my grandmother’s burial stone, to pay him for his services. In conversation with him, I mentioned my quest. I almost fainted when he said, “Well, I can help. My father used to bury those babies and attend their service. He always thought that it was so sad that those babies were being buried alone, without family.”
He directed me to where the records of that child would be kept at the Diocese of St. Jerome. I can’t believe the amount of help I got from people from that point on. The secretaries at the Diocese took three weeks, sifting through old books to find the book I needed. I am so grateful to those women. You can’t possibly imagine the elation I felt when I got a call saying that they had a plot number for me in the common grounds area of the cemetery of St. Jerome. They told me that although many remains of those, which had been buried at the time, had been exhumed and moved into one large plot, Steven’s had not. His remains were still in his own plot.
That same day, I was at the cemetery and again, was impressed by human kindness. The caretaker of the cemetery took me to where Steven would have been buried. It was in a tiny strip of grass with other little babies who had been buried. It was the most beautiful strip of grass I’d ever seen; brown, tattered cut grass, but beautiful in my eyes.
Next came preparation work, before telling my mother. I ordered a small tombstone for baby Steven because I knew it would break my mom’s heart to see the plot without a stone (a secret gift from me to her). Once installed, the moment to tell her came. I was swept with emotions, unsure of if I was doing the right thing. One day I said, “If I knew where Steven was buried, would you want to know?” The bright woman my mother is, broke out in tears. She knew that I knew. We went up the cemetery that day and the look on her face, when she stopped crying, told me I had done the right thing. She has mentioned to me that knowing where he’s buried, gave her closure. She knows that he has a spot. It gave her “a place to remember”. Now, when she talks about Steven, she barely ever cries, she smiles. (Just as a note: she also gave herself permission to tell everyone in the family about Steven.)
As I read your book, the reality of how much my mother must have gone through, alone in her pain, set in. I knew she’d gone through much pain, but the book gave me a new understanding of that pain. I learnt so much through your experiences with the bereaved and their experiences.
Lastly, this book has been a precursor to a course I am taking. I am taking the Pastoral Home Care Formation from the Archdiocese of Montreal. I can’t tell you how often the two have tied hand in hand. The Healing Process Model© can criss-cross with so many other experiences, not only with reproductive loss. The need to acknowledge, to listen, to understand past experiences, to honour life, death, and spirituality, to encourage healing are just a few of the areas where pastoral home care and healing from reproductive loss are similar. It made me realize, too, that I should read about grieving a spouse, so I may understand that better, as well, for those whom I visit. I honestly believe that I will be a better Pastoral Home Care minister because of your book, especially since it has helped me to continue on my own healing journey.
Thank-you so much, Kathleen!