“Why I do this work”
by Susan Jacobsen ATR-BC, LPC
You may wonder why I have chosen to do this work. Why I have chosen to wade into the trauma and grief of those who have lost a baby? I will tell you why. From as long as I can remember I wanted to be a mother. I spent all of my 20’s and most of my 30’s as a single professional Art Therapist and counselor. I taught parenting classes, I worked with other people’s kids. When I met Jim, my sweet, amazing husband and we married I was over the moon at having the things; love and marriage that I had wanted for so long. When I became pregnant with our first child I felt beyond blessed.
In one day in October, it all came crashing down. I developed HELP Syndrome, my son died, I was fighting for my life, and my strong, loving Dad was having open heart surgery. This was such a low point in my life. I was fortunate to be surrounded by friends and family and I appreciate all of them. I also knew that there was nothing anyone could really do to change the reality of any of it. It felt so inescapably sad and painful. Prior to this I was one of the most positive people I knew. One of my colleagues even called me “Mary Richards”. I simply couldn’t call up my inner Mary Richards at that time. I was fraught with worry; worried for my own health, worried about my dad, worried that more of my world would be taken away. I would panic when Jim was at work. What if my blood pressure spiked and I was alone? what if something happened to him on the way to or from work? What if I could never have a baby? I tried to cope in the ways that had worked in the past. Nothing really helped. It felt like I was going to always feel this way. I doubted myself. I doubted my own judgment. I doubted God’s love for me and mine for him. Going back to work seemed impossible given that being a therapist puts you into other people’s trauma and they deserve someone who has their own shit together.
It took time. It took surrender to what is. It took coming up with new ways to cope to bypass my own resistance and fear. It took being open to alternative treatments and permission to walk out of baptisms and making empowering decisions about my next birth. It took intentionally grieving for my son Henry and the two other babies that were miscarried too early to know their names. Clawing my way out of that place remains the hardest thing I have ever had to do. There are still anxious times related to parenting my son Jens, who is now 11 years old. Once you have lost a child and fought your way back from that you cannot bear the thought of ever going through it again.
So, when you ask why I do this work. The reason is, I have been there. I also have the professional skills to help others wade through this dark, murky time. Every parent who has lost a child deserves treatment from someone who gets it. You get to grieve and you get to parent in the ways that honor your process and honor your love for yourself and your child. You do not have to pretend that your baby’s life didn’t matter just because it was brief. You do not have to explain the unexplainable to anyone.
Doing this work does require that I continue to take care of myself. Going to yoga, massage, doing artwork, spending quiet time in the woods, and setting boundaries with others are not luxuries, they are radical self-care that I must do to continue to be who I need to be in the midst of this work. I can only pour from a full cup. Healthy grief and post traumatic growth are not only possible but necessary in this journey. If you are that person who has known the loss of a child, I see you, I am you, and we will navigate this grief together.
I wrote this passage a few days before what would have been Henry's 14th birthday.
September 28th, 2017
I have often wondered, over the last 14 years, why it seems like the days leading up to Henry’s death, my own near death, and my Dad’s heart surgery seem almost more unsettling than the actual anniversary day itself. I have wondered if it’s because the anticipation of how something might feel is often worse than the actual experience of re-visiting it. It occurred to me today, as I walked home in the rain, from walking Jens to school; (the rain always reveals some deep realities to me) that maybe it is because the days leading up to all of those things were filled with joy, optimism, health, security, hope and happiness; an innocence of sorts. I was with the love of my life, in a healthy pregnancy, about to give birth to our first child and my Dad was still a superhero. All of those things took a good long trip out of town for me that day; October 1, 2003.
I share this, not to garner sympathy nor to stay locked away in my grief process. I share in hopes that acknowledging and validating it gives it less power. I share in hopes that being vulnerable gives others permission to be vulnerable around their pain as well.
Please know that if you encounter me, or my husband in the next few days and we seem a little scattered, or distracted or easily emotional; be kind. Our hearts are just a little closer to the surface right now and we could use a little grace.
These are the words I had to offer last night at the candle lighting. It is my hope to offer services and events that encourage healing, hope, and community for those who have suffered this heartbreaking loss.
This night we will be here holding space for our babies and each other. By holding space, I mean we are here to take a pause, light a candle and be present with each other in this space. Often there are few words to help; to bring comfort. Often what can do is simply be in the same space alongside one another.
My son Jens will come and light the first candle for our son, Henry, his older brother who died at 37 weeks due to HELLPS Syndrome in 2003. When Jens is finished I invite each of you to light a candle for your baby. You may say a few words, just say your baby’s name or birth date, or simply light the candle in silence. This process belongs to each of you. We will all be here in witness for one another.
This thought came to me a couple of days ago. You can agree or not but I felt the need to put it out there.
The forces of evil in this world are rarely very creative. It's always about the same things..race, religion, sex, money, and power. And we fall for it. Every. Single. Time.
You see, what if the "enemy" is not Christian or Muslim, white or brown, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat? What if the "enemy" is the evil that we perpetuate by our actions toward one another? Because while we are busy posting snarky memes, calling each other names, and cutting ties with family and friends things like love and kindness and empathy and joy and compassion are slowly dying. All of humanity pays for that.
As far as I can tell we need to keep moving toward the light by doing good, listening to each other, spending time with family and friends and caring for strangers one human being at a time. You don't have to invent the wheel. Look for places where good is happening and be part of that. The more good we put out there the less room there is for evil to grow.
Bring it to the Canvas
Bring it to the canvas…or the lump of clay, or the paper, or to whatever medium in which you are working. Integrating opposites is something that artists routinely bring to their work. It provides for containment of ideas and emotional balance. All of this moves us away from black and white, polarized thinking and toward a more integrated look at our lives and the events that happen to us and around us. Some practical ways that artist do this in their work include playing with colors. Create a piece that involves a color you like and one you do not like, for example. This forces you to reconcile that conflict of positive and the negative emotion. One can also create work using light colors and dark colors or different shades and intensities of the same color. Not only does this create a harmonious whole for some beautiful artwork, it also creates a shift in our thinking. This is the power of artwork! Take some time today to bring it to the canvas! You may be surprised in the shift it creates in your mood and your thinking.
As Memorial Day approaches, I am reminiscent of my childhood. My dad, being a Veteran , was always part of the color guard during the services at the cemetery. We would then place flowers on the graves of family members and were reminded of friends who had passed. We always put flowers out for my "baby brother", Paul who died before I was born. We also put out flowers for my cousin Mark who died from an accident when he was only 12 years old. Later, we put flowers out for my cousin Jeanne's babies who died before their births. It didn't seem strange or uncomfortable; it was just what we did. As I visit Henry's grave when I get the chance to return to my home town I am grateful for my childhood visits to the cemetery and to my family members who faced this particular type of grief before me. While everyone's process is different, it is nice to have the knowledge that you are not alone in this club that none of us wanted to join.
Whether or not we make it back to my hometown every Memorial Day or not I always take pause on that day to know that it will never be a holiday solely about cookouts and vacation days for me. Jens has always known about his brother, Henry. Just as I have always known about my brother Paul. It is not strange for him, though he often wishes (as do Jim and I) that Henry was with us. It also makes heaven a more "real" place for all of us. Now that my in-laws also have passed it is a comfort to know that Henry is in heaven with his grandparents. The life, death, life cycle is a process that we all must gain some level of comfort around. I have to say, since losing Henry I am not afraid of dying. I am not in any hurry, mind you. There is still plenty of living that I long to do but death no longer scares me and I think that I now live with more intention and with more perspective because I my experiences of loss.
For those who don't know "rainbow babies" are babies that are born after the storm of infant loss. Our rainbow baby is Jens. He is currently a spirited, funny, smart, active 7 year old whose smile warms my heart and whose stubbornness and determination is frustratingly familiar. He was born five years after the loss of our first son Henry. He was born about 4 years after two subsequent early miscarriages, 3 failed cycles of Clomid and a year an a half after news from an RE that we would have to consider an egg donor. He was conceived after a year of acupuncture, five days at a fertility retreat and a month and a half of stinky Chinese Herbal tea and Xi Gong. He was definitely born "after the storm". I wish I could say that our story was unusual but unfortunately many families right here in the US experience infant loss every day. I wish that I could say they always get to experience their own rainbow baby but that is not always the case.
I cannot speak for anyone other than myself, but I think that I am a different kind of parent than I would have been had we not lost babies before having our rainbow. Because of losing Henry, I know that nothing is guaranteed in this life. Things can go wrong, horribly wrong despite your best laid plans. That can overwhelm you if you live in that place, trust me. What I have learned is that you stay a little more in the present because it really is all we have. You do baby led weaning because soon enough he's not a baby anymore. You look at the feelings behind the behavior rather than just reacting to the behavior. You scoot over and smile as you go back to sleep with little feet in your back because one day he won't want to "snug in" anymore. You say I love you every. single. day. , maybe several times a day. You listen to the stories and you do the craft projects and do the hugs, and build the forts and you prolong going back to work because as soon as you turn around, 7 years have passed. I cannot imagine my life without our rainbow baby and I cannot be more grateful for the clarity that our angel baby has given me. My boys Henry and Jens have formed the mother that I am. My heart is full.