Monday, October 22, 2012

Cemetery Visit

Today I went to visit baby Scarlett with my mom, my daughter, Scarlett's mom and her lola (grandmother). I've been wanting to visit ever since I met Scarlett's mom in the spring but was never sure how to ask. What is the etiquette for visiting your new friend's stillborn baby's grave? Turns out, inviting yourself along after lunch works just fine! We bought some potted flowers to leave with Scarlett and pumpkins for a seasonal touch.

It was not the first cemetery I have visited this year. In the spring, we went to another cemetery to see about getting a stone for Toren. There is an Infants Area where stillborn babies have, in the past, been buried. Families can get their child's name engraved on a small stone and placed in the dry riverbed along a path. As I found out on that visit, that area is only for babies who were buried there between 1914 and 1971. It's where babies were taken after being stillborn or dying shortly after birth, probably without the parents being able to see them or hold them. At that time, it was common practice to whisk the baby away and tell the parents to just forget the whole thing happened. I think some of that mentality persists today, where it's not considered a big deal if parents leave the hospital without seeing their baby, instead of trusting them to see the beauty in their child and starting them off on a path of healthy grieving and being parents to their child. I have read that in some places, mothers of stillborn babies were given other people's live  newborn babies to hold, in the misguided belief it would somehow help them. I think this was going on as recently as the 1980s. It all sounds shocking, cruel and horrific to me. Obviously things have improved and we know better, but it seems that people still don't really have much of a clue what will "traumatize" parents. In our culture, there is still a push, some of it subtle, some of it vocalized outright, to get parents to "get over" the deaths of their children. Six months to the day after Toren died, someone said to me, "Six months ago? Oh ok, you must be getting over it by now." I find it traumatic  that people think this way about my love for my son.

In 2006, the Infants Area of that cemetery was landscaped and a ceremony was held to honour those babies and hopefully, help families with their grief. You can read about that project here. There is a moving article here about a family's personal story. (Caveats - The website listed at the bottom of that 2nd article doesn't seem to be up anymore. Also, I have not had a personal experience with the hospital in the article but I have spoken to other parents about their experiences there. Either things have changed or the services offered are only for children who are born alive but die in the NICU, not for families of stillborn babies. I am glad those services exist for NICU babies but would love to see it applied to families of babies who are not born alive.)

During our visit to the cemetery today, my daughter drew a flower to put in Scarlett's mailbox. I didn't have time to write my own letter but I will be prepared for our next visit. We were in a children's section so we talked about some of the children who were buried there. We visited Ava. I met her mom at the awareness walk a couple of weeks ago. Then Scarlett's mom blew bubbles and my daughter ran around the cemetery grounds chasing bubbles and just generally being joyful. This is apparently what Scarlett's cousins do when they visit too.

We are planning a memorial service for Toren on his one-year anniversary so I'm glad his sister had a chance to see what a cemetery is and how to spend time remembering and loving someone who has died. It's not the only way, it's one of many. She needs to know these things if she is to grow up to be a healthy, compassionate person who is not afraid of grief and grieving rituals. My own fear and unfamiliarity with grief rituals made it impossible for me to organize a service when he died, but now I feel able. I hope everyone who is grieving this child will be able to join us on that day. And I am thankful to all my new friends who help normalize grief and who model healthy grieving for our family.

Today wasn't a sunny day, nor a warm day, but it was nice to spend time talking about Scarlett and actively grieving her. Toren was on our minds but today was about Scarlett and her family. We won't be burying Toren's ashes at the memorial service but we will be laying flowers in the Infants Area and it will be a place we will be able to go to remember him and talk about him.

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