Please brace yourself as this interview will take you outside yourself and into the Still Life of a remarkable woman.
1. You experienced a loss that is unfathomable to most. You turned that loss into strength. What prompted you to embrace that strength?
Truthfully, I would never have called myself strong after my daughter died. I felt so vulnerable, fearful, and weak. I realize now how courageous I truly was. Despite my feeling overwhelmingly afraid, unfathomably sad, markedly raw, torn down, destroyed, I continued to get out of bed each day, put one foot in front of the other, and then began to write and make art about grief and my vulnerability. At the time, though, I didn't feel like I had much of a choice. My eldest daughter Beatrice was 20 months old when Lucia died. My husband and I had to wake up and feed, clothe, cuddle, read books, sing baby songs about boughs breaking, despite our overwhelming grief. All of those things that seem impossibly heartbreaking to do after our baby died. I would mostly keep it together until naptime, then I would howl into my pillow for two hours until my daughter woke again. I had to learn to be comfortable being right where I was--crying in public, being completely out of control with my emotions, getting angry and hurt by others, all of which I had managed up until Lulu's death to keep in a neatly wrapped box that was never opened. (By the way, the inside of that box was chaotic and unruly and would have destroyed me eventually.) I learned a great deal about my shadow self as I have grieved in these four years. I also am a caregiver for my ailing father who suffers from advanced Multiple Sclerosis. When I told my father of his granddaughter's death, he cried with me, then asked me when I was bringing his laundry to him. The gift the universe gave me was people who needed me.
2. Your art is your way of working through your grief. How has this process helped you?
As a writer, I started my blog still life with circles (http://stilllifewithcircles.blogspot.com). I fell into writing and storytelling immediately. I told Lucia's birth story, and then the existing part after, but my words lacked something powerful about the experience of grief. As my friend Jess says, "How many times can you say? My baby died. I'm so sad." Art gave me a language for grief that words simply couldn't express. It really was part of the process of survival. When my husband went back to work after Lucia's death, I made a schedule for my day. If the swaths of time lay in front of me, I knew I wouldn't last. For some reason, (I think it is divine now) I wrote in Art Hour, and bought a "How to Watercolor" book. I had always created art, but watercolor was something I wasn't particularly interested in before. I gave my daughter paints and an easel, and let her paint away. On furniture, on the door. I just let her create, and me too, without editing. It was maybe the least self-conscious hour of my life. I just wholly present with painting. After that first hour, I felt good, strong, balanced. I realized after my failed attempts at meditation since Lucia's death, that the one hour was my meditation. I painted every day after that, and without the judgment of good or bad. I just painted what I felt, what I wanted. I threw out what didn't work, kept the rest. (A philosophy I whole-hearted embrace in all aspects of my life now.) I began doing printmaking again and sculpture. It wasn't long until I was painting about my grief. And soon after, within a month or two, I was painting mizuko jizo , which has been a large part of my soul path and my artist journey.
My beautiful friend and mentor Kara Jones, aka Mother Henna, who really facilitates grieving parents with creative expression, introduced me to the community of grieving mother-artists out there. Connecting with other grieving artists healed something in me. We talked through art, about art, and grieved together. I participated in a number of art swaps that first year. After I passed my daughter's first death day and birthday, I undertook the Creative Every Day Challenge, because at that point, art was my only peace. I also founded an arts and literary journal called Still Life 365, where I published a piece of art, craft, poetry, music, film, anything creative, really, by a grieving parent or family member (even friend.) In 2010, I published a piece every day of the year. We created community art projects once a month and wrote a community poem once a month. We mailed a traveling art journal around the world with work from eight countries and thirty some women. I interviewed grieving artists and hosted live chats about grief and art. It was an awesome, healing, amazing, difficult, challenging year. There was a vibrant community around that journal. I felt incredibly humbled, honored, and privileged to abide with all these families living without their children. And giving them and myself the space to explore grief through art and craft. I've always been a storyteller, and this was one way of collecting the stories of grief and the families that survive.
3. How did your family cope with your loss, especially your other children?
Watching my husband and children grieve has been a particularly cruel part of this process. Most people asked only after me. Women come up learning to articulate and express emotions, and to support each other emotionally. I think it is hard for men to express that grief, to find that support, to create that community. My husband works as a pediatric nurse anesthetist. I think that easing pain and suffering to babies and children works on a soul level to soothe that pain of feeling helpless with our own daughter. He truly is my hero, and soul mate, but marriage after a loss was very difficult. Grief is such a solitary business; it is just hard to connect. Couples who have gone through stillbirth have a 40% higher rate of divorce after the death of a child. It took us years to recover as a couple, as lovers, and as parents and find our footing again. My daughter Beatrice really began speaking of her sister when she turned three, and she grieves in new ways constantly. I think now, she is understanding all she missed by not having a living sister here. She talks of her often, and has strong dreams of her sister. We have incorporated Lucia into all our family traditions. She died on Winter Solstice 2008, and was born the following day. We began celebrating the Wheel of the Year as a way of marking her death and our grief, incorporating grieving rituals for Lucia into each celebration. Now, we celebrate because it best represents our spirituality. So, our family drew together in ways I could have never imagined.
4. What words of wisdom can you give other women dealing with the loss and grief?
Don't preoccupy yourself with bouncing back and healing. Those things are inevitable. Release any preconceived notion of what grief is. Honor what you are feeling. Sit with it. Be curious about it. Do not chastise yourself for negative thoughts, anger, resentments, anxiety, rage, alienation. That is grief--a natural, if somewhat cruel, part of grief. Release guilt over and over again, if you need, but keep releasing it until one day the guilt will leave. Find other grieving people. Talk to them. Email them. Phone them. Cry with them. Circle up with them
This grief is such a tangle of cruel feelings. The aching to hold your baby is immense, the guilt for not knowing and protecting...It comes out in all kinds of strange, misplaced, and discordant emotions. From my experience and talking with other women, that is a very natural part of grief, particularly babyloss. There is an immediacy to the grief after you lose a child. You cannot ignore it. After that, you move into this space of low level anger and fear. Someone told me early on to expect to feel these things for eighteen months to two years, and that was very helpful. Because people expected me to be better at one month, three months, six months, nine months, one year...I could keep going with each milestone. I will always grieve her on some level, but the grief changed. There is a joy there that I knew her at all.
5. What women's groups online or in person have been the biggest help to you?
I began a blog at two months from her death after being interviewed by a local psychologist and radio personality about stillbirth (http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/drdangottlieb/Live_Chat.html). One woman read that, and brought many women to my blog to offer support. Conversely, I began offering support to those women. Then I began reading Glow in the Woods, which is a website founded by the amazing writer Kate Inglis. The writing was so beautiful, perfect, and true. Her writing is like reading magic. There is a forum there for just grieving parents. I was reading the emotions that I couldn't articulate. In 2010, I began writing there, and last year, when Kate stepped down as editor, she asked me to take over for her.
6. If you could travel anywhere in the world where would it be and why?
Iceland. Everything I have seen about and read about Iceland enchants me to the core. I am drawn to the north and winter landscapes. (Yes, I'm a Capricorn.) The volcanoes, hot springs, glaciers, the independent people, as Halldor Laxness puts it, all of it sings the song of my soul.
7. What blogs, books and magazines have your writings been published in?
My poetry has been published in Literary Mama Mothering Magazine, Kota Loss & Compassion Blog, Exhale Magazine , and of course on still life 365 . I have a chapbook called Of This, We Will Not Speak , which is available on Amazon. My essays have been published at my blog still life with circles , Glow in the Woods , and Still Standing Magazine. My essay, Mothering Grief, was published in the book They Were Still Born, edited by Janel Atlas. (Rowman and Littlefield, 2010). This is also available on Amazon.
My artwork has appeared in Exhale Magazine, still life 365, and the e-book Day of the Dead 2009 heARTist Collaboration at Mother Henna.com, KotaPress Publications, 2009
I had a series of paintings appear in group exhibit five. last January at the Mulberry Art Studio in Lancaster, PA.
8. What is your mantra?
I actually have my degree in Religion, and have been seeking for a long time. I was raised Catholic, though I am very drawn to Buddhism and always have been. I began meditating at 16, and have continued a meditation practice since then. I used to call myself a Cathuddist. But in my home, we practice earth-based religion. So, I suppose we really are pluralists at heart and find no discomfort with saying the Our Father, meditating on zafus, lighting a candle for Mother Mary, singing The Earth is our Mother, and reading the story of Demeter in the same celebration. We celebrate all the holidays in the Wheel of the Year.
10. Are you currently working on any new projects? If so, can you tells us about them?
I have been writing a novel, and working on a memoir. The novel is about ufos, true love, identity, Greek mythology, addiction, war, and being between cultures. The memoir is about my life before and after the death of my daughter. It began as a collection of blog posts about grief, and turned into something else. In my art, I've been working on angel and ascended master paintings which are all dream and channeled pieces. This has been a new way of painting for me, so it is like learning a different language. Through that work, I have connected with an angel channel and we are just in the beginning process of a joint project. I'm so excited.
Angie has graciously donated a this beautiful 4 x 6 water color painting of Mizuko Jizo. Angie painted this while in Tonglen meditation as a sacred ritual to honor her daughter Lucia Paz. Jizos are Bodhisattvas primarily concerned with the dead and protectors of children and women.
I will choose a winner randomly based on the comments below. I will announce the winner in a separate blog post on Monday!