February 2003
Contributing Editor: Kara L.C. Jones

It has been almost four years since my own son died at birth. I have l-o-n-g been thinking about the notion of "healing" and what exactly that means in terms of my individual situation and in terms of any trauma anyone experiences. And I've come to a few conclusions for myself. As always, these are just answers I've personally come to through my own trial by fire. I'm not suggesting that these answers will be your answers. I'm not suggesting that your experience won't have brought you to a completely different place. But I'm sharing these things here in the hope that they might offer a perspective that will be helpful in some small way.

Healing seems to come with this baggage in our culture that says you must be over the trauma, you must stop talking about it, you must let it go and be "normal" or "as you were before the trauma" in order to truly be healed. And if you keep talking about the traumatic experience, there are many people (sometimes family, friends, caregivers who should know better) who will not only demand you "get over it" but also will make you feel guilty for not being well adjusted enough to find "healing" in your life. I think that notion of "healing" is bullshit.

Through my life-after-the-death-of-a-child experiences, I found several things to be true:

  • Healing means giving voice to the traumatic experience
  • Healing means giving voice to that experience *over time*
  • Healing means letting that voice change & evolve just as your perspectives change & evolve
  • Healing means connecting outside self, back to the world-at-large, about the experience

And so what does this have to do with Poetry Therapy? Well, I think it is possible to use poetry to achieve some sense of "healing" as I've re-defined it here. Let me flesh this out a bit by sharing some of my story as it unfolded these past four years.


*Giving voice to the traumatic experience*
When my son died, I didn't think I'd ever want to talk to anyone about him, about his birth, about anything ever again. I just wanted to die. I wanted to be with my child, and he was dead, so...? I felt shame about my body. I am his mother, I'm suppose to protect him. I am a woman, I am suppose to give birth. But I let my son die inside me. When I gave birth, they told me I would not get a birth certificate. I felt I had failed to even give birth, let alone to birth a living child.

While I was still in the hospital, a good friend brought me a new writing journal and a pen. And I began to write immediately. I wrote, "3/11/99, 4:47pm, your baby is dead." And I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote poems, I wrote a short story, I wrote letters and emails to friends. And with everything I wrote, I was voicing the story.

Poetry exercise for you to try:
If you cannot find a speaking voice for the experience, get pen & paper or keyboard & screen and write. Write a free verse poem about the day the trauma happened. Or write only three lines, but try to tell the entire story in those three lines. Write about the day before, the day of, and the day after the event. Don't censor yourself, don't edit, just write. Voice every thought and feeling about it.


*Giving voice over time*
My experience of life-after-the-death-of-my-child was very different on the day he died from what it was a year later. I am still living that experience now four years later. And I realized very early on, that when parents birth living children, they get to give voice to their parenthood over their entire lifetime. But because my child was dead, there were pressures from the beginning to stop giving voice to my parenthood. For some reason, I just knew inside me that those pressures were not right. My mother is my mother. When she dies, she will continue to be my mother. I felt the same about my child. And I would not let anyone tell me anything different.

I met many women who had been silenced after the death a child. So many people had told them it was "not normal" to keep talking about their children, that they just shut up about it. This is not to say they stopped grieving, and they certainly didn't have the opportunity to get toward anything remotely like healing. But they were closeted and silent. I would not let that happen to me.

Poetry exercise for you to try:
Now try writing a poem with several stanzas. Make the first stanza be in the voice you would have had on the day the trauma happened. Make the second stanza in the voice you had a week later. Third stanza, a month. Fourth stanza, a year.

If you have journals from something that happened to you awhile ago, take them out again. Pick out a piece of writing from the day of, a week later, a month, then a year later. Put those pieces together in a row. Now write with the voice you have today about the event.


*Let your voice evolve & gain new perspectives*
As time went by, the voice of my story evolved. At first, I wrote poems about my personal heart break. Later, I wrote poems of outrage upon learning that 7 babies die every two hours in the U.S. alone, due to stillbirth. At first, I wrote about how someone told me I was young and could have another baby so I shouldn't be sad. Then I wrote about the insanely, outrageous, abusive things bereaved parents hear all the time from people who supposedly care about them. At first I wrote about my son Dakota. Then my husband and I started KotaPress as outreach to others. At first I wrote how disappointed I was to not get a birth certificate. Now I lobby my State Representatives to change the laws about how birth certificates are given.

So you see that the voice evolved and changed as my perspectives evolved and changed. But I am still voicing the same story -- that of my son's death and my continued parenthood.

Poetry exercise for you to try:
You are giving voice to the same trauma experience, but you need not cling to the perspective of that voice. I am not advocating that we stay stuck and bemoan our fate as "victims" of horrible things. I am advocating that we voice the experience over time with a willingness to let the voice evolve as our life and perspectives evolve.

So sit down now and give voice to the same story -- but this time write it as if you were writing a letter to your Senator or Congress person to demand change in our world so that no one else would ever experience the trauma you experienced. Then compare this "letter" to the "free verse" poem you wrote in the first exercise. It's the same story, yes? And yet does the voice seem a bit different somehow?


*Connect back to the world-at-large THROUGH your experience*
There was a time when I thought I would have to set my child aside, put him away, be "over" his life and death before I could ever hold or love another child. And because of this, I was not able to hold or love another! I hated other children, I was jealous of them, and I had a hard heart -- why? Because I viewed the other children as competition, as replacements to my son. Then a good friend got pregnant, and she did not let me put my son aside. She was full on, huge-belly pregnant and *still willing* to talk about my son. When her child was born, she handed the baby to me and said that she was certain my son had been an angel watching over the birth. And suddenly I was holding this other child *through* the view of my son's life and death.

I am suggesting here that we can re-connect to the world-at-large again after a trauma *through* the view and voice of that experience RATHER THAN having to get over and shut up about the experience before reconnecting.

Now, I know this is a delicate proposal because there have been lots of people in my life who have other children who didn't want me to talk about my dead kid around their kids; others who refused to let me celebrate my son's birthday because they were scared to face their own mortality by recognizing my son's third birth/death day. And those people were horrid and abusive and did everything they could to shut me up, shut me down, and make my son go away. So it can be a risky deal to head out into the world THROUGH the voice of your experience because you never know when you will come across a friend, family member, counsellor, or other care giver who will slam you with their own fears of death/trauma, etc.

BUT, I say that we can take our voice out into the world. We can read at poetry readings. We can seek to publish our works. We can try to change laws or provide outreach support that we know is lacking because we didn't get it.

After I wrote my poetry about my son, we published it. I went out to readings and read it -- sometimes through sobs. And you know what happened sometimes??? One time an 80 year old woman came to me after a reading and she was in tears. She told me her son had died in exactly the same way 50 years ago and everything I read that night was stuff she had wanted to say all these years but never thought she would be heard. On other days I get random emails from all over the world from other parents and care givers who say, "Wow! I've thought this for a long time, but didn't know anyone else thought that!" And slowly I reconnected with people, with the poetry world.

After I wrote my poetry, I was asked to help change the laws about birth certificates. I was asked to write letters to government officials and share my story. And I was reconnecting with the world again. I'm not saying this happened over night -- afterall, it has been four years for us. I'm just saying it can happen.

Poetry exercise for you to try:
Try one or all of the following: Share some of your writing with someone. Send it in to the Loss Journal here at KotaPress. Share it with a friend by reading it outloud. Do a search for organizations that offer support for whatever trauma you experienced. See if they publish a newsletter. Send them your writing and ask if they will publish it. If you have written poetry, do a search for poetry ezines and submit your works to them. See if you connect with other poets thru the work. If you get turned down or shut out the first time you try to share, try again. Keep trying to reconnect on some level. Eventually, you will come across someone who will "get it" and that will be worth the effort.


About the Author
Kevin Smith fan, Lord of the Rings freak, would rather escape to watch movies than work, your general variety of slacker, queen of purple hair, foolish curator, idiotic editor, and generally bored with everything lately. Oh yeah, and a grandma, but if anyone except the grandchild calls her granny, she'll turn Huntress on you! If you have questions or comments, send email to editor@kotapress.com


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