Weekend in the life of a bereaved mother:
Attending the
MISS Passages 2002 Conference
"The Culture of Grief: when a child dies"

by Kara L.C. Jones

This year's conference was held on May 23-25 at at the Scottsdale Paradise Valley Resort in Scottsdale, AZ. This time I attended the conference as a bereaved parent and as a professional presenter hosting a workshop for others. And instead of attending with my husband like I normally would, I met my mom (a bereaved nanna) at the conference.

It's very difficult to have such an amazing and overwhelming experience that lasts for three full days, and then come back and try to explain in mere words what that was like for me. But I learned so much and my heart was touched by so many bereaved parents, professional care givers, and the spirits of so many dead children, that I cannot let it go and drop the ball on sharing this experience with you.

The most stunning presentation I saw there was one given by Dr. Guillermo Gutierrez. This session was titled "The Caring Physician: Reconnecting Your Power." Now if you've read my works before, you know I have no great love of health care providers. Dr. Gutierrez has a good reputation, and many parents have told me they had wonderful experiences in his care. But when I saw the title of his session, I imagined a bunch of professionals reconnecting to their power over us poor, bereaved parents (said with much sarcasm). I wasn't going to this session.

Then I ran into Joanne (Founder of MISS) just before Dr. Gutierrez stared his session. She insisted that I attend. She told me I "had to" and that I wouldn't be sorry if I would just go and hear him. Jo is one of my mentors. I love her to the bottom of my heart, and I generally don't question her because she has been an amazing guide for me. I went to Dr. Gutierrez's session.


Dr. Gutierrez's son Nico was killed in an accident on Thanksgiving 2001. His entire presentation was about honoring the connections that bereaved parents continue to have with their children after their children have died! What?! I was in shock as he presented his session, offering us proof of his continued connections to Nico. He said that obviously he'd rather have his son back, but now that Nico has died, he knows he has a mission to make other professionals aware of these connections between bereaved parents and their dead children. His mission is to make *professionals* aware of how to honor the parents in their care!!! WOW!

He presented a myriad of events that have happened since Nico's death. At first he thought he could understand them as "coincidences," but then he had typed up a program for the memorial service. This program was comprised of excerpts from Nico's diaries. Dr. Gutierrez was going to translate the program into French and Spanish as well, but he wasn't sure it was right. So he asked Nico to send a white dove to him if the program was okay as it. This is Arizona in January 2002. So a while after he put that request out into the Universe, his other son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild came over to his house. He told them about his request of Nico. They went about fixing their car in his garage.

So there he is in January, standing in his garage, holding his grandbaby, his son and daughter with their heads in the car fixing it, and he looks out to the street in front of his house. Yep. A white dove in the middle of the street. Just sitting there looking at him. He taps his kids on their shoulders, and they look. Someone runs for the camera. They take 8 photos of it, several of which include the bird and his daughter-in-law and grandbaby.

He had at least 30 other stories like this. I was encouraged to try this theory out myself. It used to work for me, but I hadn't paid much attention in ages. I put out a request and told my son Dakota that I needed to see his name in writing, in all capital letters like I had once seen it written in the snow, and *not* in reference to the conference nor to the states of North or South Dakota. Several days later a friend sent me a link to a Rumi website. I surfed there, then surfed their links to other Rumi websites. Then I came across and interesting one and decided to see who ran that site. In the owner's bio, there was a listing for a short film he is working on called "DAKOTA" -- all caps.

Every care giver on the planet should meet and hear Dr. Gutierrez.

There were many other sessions at the MISS Conference, too. A clinical psychologist ran a very interesting session about "gender differences in grief" and again if you have read any of my stuff before, I am not a fan of segregation in the bereavement world. So I attended with somewhat of an attitude. But this pschy proved to be very insightful and open-minded. She was saying that we have to start looking at how people grieve differently and help them from wherever they are. But then she offered slides that has lists titled "men" and "women." So of course, I can't keep my mouth shut about this.

I raised my hand and asked if I could play devil's advocate. She said that was fine. I asked how we can ever start looking at how people grieve differently when she was still offering lists based on the segregation of gender. I asked how these lists would apply to same sex couples enduring the death of a child. She said that with same sex couples, you have to delve into the relationship first and see what roles the partners have carved out for themselves in that relationship. Then, she said, you work from wherever the partners are individually in relation to each other and in reference to their grief. I countered that this might just be the model that we should all be using to work with bereaved people in heterosexual couples or single parenting situations. She said that just might be right, and she was very conscious during the rest of her presentation to talk about differences between people rather than "men" vs "women."

It was wonderful to have an exchange like this with a professional who is open to the flaws of the current support system and who is willing to look at new ideas for correcting those flaws and consequently offering better assistance to those in need.

I'll share one other amazing experience. Dr. John DeFrain, author of "Stillborn: The Invisible Death" and "How Strong Families Endure the Death of Their Child," was a FAB speaker and most sensitive professional! He came to the front of the room, showed us a bunch of pages he had typed up to read as his presentation, then tossed the papers over his shoulder. He said he wanted to learn from the bereaved parents in the audience instead. He presented 10 questions and proceeded to facilitate an inclusive, moving, overwhelming, room-wide discussion. He shared his experiences along the way, and he was open-hearted and open-minded about everything the bereaved parents in the room had to offer. I believe this kind of presentation had the *most* impact on the professionals in attendance that session. They were forced out of their "15-minute" physician consults, or the EMT "emergency" situations, or the focus on paperwork that case workers normally have. They sat for for an hour and a half and *Listened* to bereaved parents about the long term effects of grief after the death of a child. It became real, and even safe for them to remove some of that thick skin.

Imagine if all care givers would take the time to hear the story and acknowledge their own experiences of grief. Imagine if they were encouraged to feel and connect rather than distance and disconnect. If their own grief processes were acknowledged and addressed, just imagine how they might offer that same care to their patients. It certainly would be a different world.

That day, that session, Dr. John DeFrain made a significant contribution toward offering better support for care givers and parents. I cannot thank him enough.

Joanne Caccitore (Founder of MISS) held an amazing all-day session on "The Power of Compassion: A Phenomenological Approach to Child Death" on that Thursday. This is my second time attending this CE course. She's amazing and right-on in her presentations. She shared part of an upcoming PBS show called "Losing Layla" a documentary by Vanessa Gorman. If you don't get what the big deal is about stillbirth -- even if you do get it -- you need to see this film! This should be mandatory viewing for care givers, family, friends, potential parents all over the freaking world.

I did bite the bullet and purchase the manual that maps this CE course. I've put the buzz in Jo's ear that I really want to turn this into an online certification course for her. My feeling is that there are parents and professionals who cannot get to AZ, but who would take the online class. And Jo would be a dynamic online facilitator given the tech tools needed to make that happen. Hopefully, I'll be writing soon to let you all know how you can get this training, too.

There was much more. I enjoyed teaching my Creative Healing class tremendously. The parents and poets in that session shared soooo much. In particular, my mom wrote a piece for my dead son Dakota. My mom and I had a wonderful connection there. We did enjoy the pool and sunshine, too. But it was most moving to share this grief conference with her. To that end, I want to honor her love and care and sensitivity and her own grief over the death of her grandson by publishing her poem here. Thanks Nanna-Memoo for being with me at this year's MISS Conference!

I sit among rocks
visions of Kota in
hummers sipping from flowers
in the garden
heat, sand, wind
surrounding a cactus
resembles a grandson
sitting & watching
I dream of could have been
sharing awareness of the
desert around us
Keeping an eye out for
scorpions, snakes that
Nanna fears

-poem by Dakota's Nanna-Memoo

This page is dedicated to Dakota and Cheyenne.

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