Friday, March 08, 2013

Mothering after death

When my firstborn son, Ethan, died at birth, I was plunged into a long tunnel of grief that I wasn’t sure would ever end.  Because of the attentive presence of friends and family who were able to share in my grief, I never doubted God’s presence with me.  I knew that God, like my friends, was grieving over the empty space in my body and my life that had once been filled with Ethan’s life.  But I did struggle with what it meant to be a woman whose only child had died.  How could I still be a mother if I didn’t have a child to hold?  

For a few months, I found the presence of pregnant women almost unbearable.  Baby showers were excruciating. I went out of my way to avoid the infant section at stores and angrily tore up the junk mail that appeared in my mailbox, hawking life insurance for my newborn.  

And when conversation in groups of women turned to childbirth and mothering, I sometimes hovered awkwardly on the edges of the conversation, not certain how to join in as a childless woman who had both given birth to and buried a child.  Some days I wanted to wear a shirt printed with the slogan “I’m a mother, too, you know!”

But even deeper was the pain of wondering what to do with all the love that had grown in me during my pregnancy.  I had an urgent need to nurture life, but no life to nurture.  And I walked through my days with an open rawness to the pain of others, especially the pain of grieving mothers.  Mothers whose children died of prenatal conditions, like my son, but also mothers whose children died in combat, in the cross-fire of the drug wars, in car crashes and train wrecks.  Mothers whose children were separated from them by prison or war or brutal immigration laws.  I felt such a kinship with these mothers and yet was at a loss of how to channel this longing to connect my grief to something larger.

In 2009, I was helping to organize a gathering of East African Christian leaders committed to peace-making.  Just days before our team was scheduled to leave for Africa, someone told our director that we absolutely must invite a woman named Maggie, from Burundi.  Armed with nothing more than her first name and her country, we turned to Google.  And there she was - a tall, elegant, resplendently dressed woman who, in the face of terrible poverty and unspeakable genocide, declared with her words and her life that God’s love is limitless.

One year later, just months after Ethan’s birth, I joined a group who traveled for hours through the back country of Burundi to the village of Ruyigi, where Mama Maggie, as she is known throughout Burundi, has built a home for an extended family made up of thousands of orphans.

In Ruyigi, Maggie led our group through the church compound where she took refuge in October of 1993, along with many other people from the surrounding village, as the threat of ethnic violence grew.  Those seeking shelter were Hutu, and Maggie is Tutsi, but she refused to abandon her friends and neighbors.  When an armed group descended on the compound, Maggie’s adopted children, who were both Hutu and Tutsi, hid in the church sacristy.  Maggie helped to hide other children in the rafters of the church.

As the mob broke into the compound, Maggie stood with her friends, expecting to die with them.  The attackers stripped her naked, tied her to a chair, and told her that her punishment for trying to protect her Hutu friends was that she must watch them all be killed.  Maggie watched helplessly as, one by one, seventy-two people, including her best friend, Juliet, were hacked to death in front of her.  As the attackers set the building on fire, Maggie managed to bribe them with money in exchange for sparing the lives of the twenty-five children hiding in the building.  

For days afterward, Maggie stayed in the church courtyard, weeping over her dead friends.  She and the children who had survived carried the bodies to the cemetery across the road from the church and dug graves for their friends and family members.  

After the massacre, Maggie took in the children who had survived.  Over the months and years that followed, in a country full of children separated from their families by illness, poverty, death, and war, she began to take in more children who needed a home, regardless of their ethnicity or faith, until they numbered in the tens of thousands.  She set the children up in child-headed households that intentionally crossed boundaries of ethnicity, nationality, and faith so that they could live into a new identity as one undivided human family.  She taught the older children to care for the younger ones, paid their school fees, and started businesses where they could learn employment skills.  Her dream is to raise a new generation without hatred and bitterness, who know that they are all God’s beloved children.

Unmarried adult women are uncommon in Burundian culture, but Maggie has never married or had biological children.  But Maggie claims the vocation of motherhood as a calling that encompasses all of her work of peacemaking.  

The vocation of women, she says, is to give birth, to protect life.  And that’s a calling that goes far beyond the work of labor and delivery or of raising one’s own biological children. After the genocide, she says, the children have rebuilt her heart and her calling is to help them to shine like a light in the darkness of violence and hatred.  

On International Women’s Day, I am grateful for Maggie Barankitse, a spiritual midwife who taught me that out of the darkest grief and loss can come a calling to nurture life, and that a calling to the work of motherhood is one any woman can claim, regardless of whether she has a biological child to hold.  

For more stories of spiritual midwives and patron saints in honor of International Women's Day, see Sarah Bessey's synchroblog.

Monday, October 15, 2012


“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget, I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;”

This past August, Eric and I celebrated Ethan’s third birthday.  We have a second son now, another little boy.  At nearly 20 months, he’s bursting with new words, with more physical energy than the two of us put together, and with insatiable curiosity about the world around him.  His name is Noah – a name that reminds us of the shelter that carried the last remaining life on earth, like a flickering flame held in cupped hands, through the overwhelming darkness and waters of death until it reached a place where it could burn brightly again.

We wanted to celebrate Ethan’s life in a way that would begin to help Noah understand as he grows up that he has a brother, to know his story and the story of our family. We spent the evening celebrating with birthday candles, looking at Ethan’s birth photos, and listening to recordings of his heartbeat.  Noah loves pictures of babies (candles, sweets, and heartbeat sounds, too), so although we didn’t expect him to understand something as abstract as a brother who he can’t see or touch, he did understand that we were doing something special.

“Oh.  Are you still doing that?!”  It was not the response I expected to get when I mentioned our celebration of Ethan’s birthday to a family member. 

Yes, we are still remembering our son.  

We will be remembering our son for the rest of our lives, as long as our brains and our bodies have the capacity to remember.   I will remember the joy and sheer terror of that blue plus sign on the pregnancy test.  I will remember our first glimpse of him on the ultrasound – a little kidney bean with a steady pulsing heartbeat.  I will remember the delicate flutter of his first movements deep in the shelter of my pelvis and later, the way he made us laugh out loud with his wild kicks and punches in my belly.  I will remember the stunned grief of the day we learned that he wouldn’t live past birth.  I will remember the power and magnificence of my body at work, the labor pains washing over me like waves, every cell of my body straining to give him life.  I will remember the weight of his tiny body in my arms, his eyelashes, his beautiful hands and feet, the miracle of his heart beating inside the delicate arc of his ribs.  I will remember.

I will remember the way his little life – so fragile and vulnerable – called me to a fierce strength that I didn’t know could contain.  I will remember that my love for Ethan, my firstborn, cracked my heart wide open to the pain of this world so that for months after his death I couldn’t bear to listen to the news because every story of suffering led me back, instantly, to the anguish of a grieving mother.  I knew that, even if I never had another child, I would always walk through the world with the wide open eyes and the raw heart of a mother.  I couldn’t forget if I tried.  

When Eric and I began to spread the word about Ethan’s diagnosis, I found that I was a part of a vast and silent sisterhood of grief.  Women everywhere – in my office building, at my church, in the grocery store, through letters sent from across the country – began to tell me their own stories of the children they carry in their hearts.  

We had three miscarriages before our first living child.

My oldest son died as a toddler.  

My son was stillborn twenty years ago this May.  The nurses left me to labor alone, as if I should be shunned for giving birth to a child who had already died.  They wouldn’t even let me hold him.

Our daughter is a twin, but her sibling died in the first trimester.

Our youngest was stillborn.  My priest refused to baptize her or give her a Catholic funeral because she never took a breath. I baptized her myself and the sisters let me bury her in their cemetery.

What astounded me was that I had never heard these stories before.  All around me were men and women who had been changed forever by their love and grief for a child.  And I had no idea.  

Today is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.   It seems strange that we need an official day (declared so by the President, no less) to remember our children.  There is no question that parents who have lost children remember them.  We remember them every day, in every cell of our bodies.  We are different people for having loved them.

The question is whether or not we will remember them out loud and whether the people who love us will remember them with us.  Will their names be mentioned with gratitude in the pastoral prayer at our churches on Sunday?  Will our extended family include them when they name our children?  Will we dare to tell our firstborn’s story when a new acquaintance asks if the lively little toddler running around the room at a neighborhood potluck is our only child?  Will we send a note to friend, remembering the due date of the babies she grieves?  And will we let the fierce love and compassion that grew in us through the pain of losing a child move us to act for other children who are vulnerable and suffering?

Remembering out loud, remembering with our lives is a revolutionary act.  

When we remember out loud, we are declaring that our children’s lives were not a sad mistake or a brief tragedy, but a gift from God that can still bear fruit in our lives and in our communities.  That the dark waters of death have not extinguished the beauty we found in sheltering their lives.  That the names that we carry in our hearts are also engraved on the palms of God’s hands, who has not forgotten, but holds them now, and has promised that their bodies will once again be filled with the breath of life. 

Friday, January 01, 2010

Remembering Ethan at Christmas

Sunday, December 27, 2009

In Life and Death

Ethan James Olson-Getty was born on Monday, August 31, 2009 at 3:00 in the afternoon. His entry into the world was fast and silent. When his dusky-purple face first emerged, Eric wasn’t even sure he was still alive. But when my final wrenching contractions freed his shoulders and he was, at long last, welcomed into our arms, his heart was still beating. Although he never took a breath, his heart continued to beat for almost two hours and his delicate tongue made the tiniest hints at an attempt to suckle.

Soon after Ethan’s birth, Spencer, our pastor, joined us and anointed Ethan with oil, naming him in life and death as one of the great company of God’s own. Spencer told me later that while I was in labor he waited outside the delivery room door, where he could no doubt overhear my labor groans, and slowly read and reread Isaiah’s achingly beautiful promise that someday there will be an end to this agony of infants dying on the day of their birth.

I expected that Ethan’s birth would be anguished or even traumatizing. For months, Eric and I worried about how we would respond to his physical condition and to caring for him as he died. We knew that he would not look like a healthy baby and, because of the failure of his neural tube to close, that his brain tissue and spinal cord would be exposed. We tried to prepare ourselves by studying his ultrasound photos and looking at pictures on the internet of other newborns with similar disabilities, but we still wondered if our love would be strong enough to embrace a child so disfigured. And we feared that the process of dying might be agonizing for Ethan. We worried that we would lack the courage to wait with him helplessly while he suffered.

But what I hadn’t anticipated was how much joy would be present in Ethan’s birthing room. The hard work of grieving and longing for our son for so many months set us free to take delight in all that was beautiful and holy about his birth. Our grieving was very much like the painful and hard work of labor – we were pushed to the very brink of what we could bear, but we discovered in the process that we were stronger than we had known, and that we were capable of giving Ethan everything that he needed from us. The pain of grieving for him had engulfed us for months, but then suddenly we were immersed in the sweet delight of holding our son and, for a moment at least, all the pain was forgotten.

We wrapped Ethan in the fleece baby blanket that my friend Anneke gave me when I first learned that I was pregnant, and we held him in our arms for his entire lifetime. We gave him a sponge bath; we marveled at his sweet round nose and the minute flickers of movement he made with his tongue; we wrapped his miniature fingers around our own. We laughed over his long feet and his tiny crisscrossed toes. We felt with our own fingertips the miraculous heartbeat that we had listened to for so many months. We kissed his soft face and breathed in deep the vanilla-and-peaches scent of him. Our friend Franklin came to take photos of our little family of three so that we could remember those moments forever. We tried to memorize everything – exactly how it felt to hold his delicate weight in our arms, the touch of his silky skin against our faces, the precise size and shape of the tiny half-moons of his fingernails, the round boniness of his knees under our cupped palms, the arc of his pale fine eyelashes. For two hours, we shared life in this world with Ethan.

It wasn’t that we didn’t see or notice what was broken about his body. It was that we could see, in spite of what was broken, that he was as beautiful of a child as God ever knit together. We could see that he was ours – that he had Eric’s brown hair, my blue eyes, the same funny little flat chin that Eric’s brother had at birth, and, as a friend had predicted back in our courtship days, that he was long and skinny, just like us. We could see that he was God’s most precious gift to us. As we held Ethan’s tiny body, our arms were overflowing with God’s abundant and good gift of new life.

Around 5:00, we noticed that Ethan’s arms and legs were beginning to grow cool. The doctor checked his heartbeat and confirmed that it had ceased. Our little boy was gone. Still, we had his beautiful body to hold, and hold him we did. Between the two of us, we held Ethan almost continuously for the next twenty hours. When my sister arrived that evening, we took more pictures and made ink prints and clay impressions of his feet. Our Rutba House friends came to bring us dinner and to meet Ethan. My heart was filled with gratitude to watch these friends daring to welcome and hold our little boy with the same tender joy that they would have given a whole and living child. That night, Eric pulled his pullout chair up next to my hospital bed and we slept with Ethan between us, as we had once dreamed we would do with our new baby in our big bed at home.

Letting go of Ethan was as heart-wrenching as welcoming him was joyful. A nurse came the very evening of his birth to tell us that she was going to get someone to come take him away. When we refused to let him go, she came back twice more to try again. Despite her insistence, we managed to hold on to Ethan all the way through the night and into the next afternoon, when Eric’s parents arrived. We spent hours marveling over his beautiful body and weeping for his too-short life. We told him the story of our love for him and of our dreams for his life. We told him over and over how very much he was loved.

And then it was time to say good-bye to our son. We rewrapped his blanket and snugged down his little cap one more time and we placed his tiny body in one of the hospital’s infant caskets. We gave him one last good-bye kiss. And then we let one of the staff carry him away. Afterwards, holding each other and sobbing in the empty hospital room, we felt like the world had ended, like the last light in the universe had just gone out. We felt like parents whose first-born and only child had just died.

Like every other new mother, I had to wait in a wheel-chair in the hospital lobby while Eric went to get our car from the garage. I’ve never felt more bereft than during the long minutes of waiting empty-armed to go home without my beautiful new-born Ethan.

The next two weeks were full of good-byes and the preparation for good-byes. I washed Ethan’s blanket and brought it back to the funeral home along with his teddy bear and the sleeper we had chosen for his burial. We framed some of Franklin’s black-and-white photos to display at Ethan’s funeral. We met with Spencer to finalize the service. My sister and I went shopping for flowers and came back with a car full of blue and white hydrangeas to decorate the front of the church. We scanned Ethan’s footprints so that they could be printed on the front of his funeral bulletin and tracked down a slide projector and screen so that we could include his photos in the service. As painful as these tasks were, they filled me with a solid sense of satisfaction. Each of them was something I could do – one of the last things I would ever be able to do – to take care of my little boy.

On Friday morning, Eric and I had one final hour to say good-bye to Ethan face-to-face. On Friday afternoon, our church and family and friends gathered to affirm with us that Ethan was and is, even in death, one of God’s own, made in God’s image. Together, we declared that we were returning Ethan to God’s keeping until the day when all of creation is reborn. On Monday and Tuesday, we made the long drive north to Vermont with Ethan’s little wooden casket, covered in his blankets and stuffed animals, in the backseat of our car. On Wednesday, Eric’s family gathered at a cemetery south of Rutland to help us bury our little boy. We scattered rose petals over his casket and prayed together the Lord’s Prayer and then we went away and let the cemetery workers cover him over with dirt. On Thursday, we planted mums to help fill the dark gash in the earth where we’d buried him. On Saturday morning, we sat cross-legged on the grass by his grave and told him good-bye one last time before we headed home.

Two hours down the road, we almost turned around and went back. I felt in the pit of my stomach like a mother who had left her baby behind, as if in some moment of extreme carelessness I had forgotten my newborn son sitting in his car seat in a parking lot, as if he might even now be crying and alone in a strange place, needing my love. But after months of nurturing his little life, there was nothing more Ethan needed from me and nothing more that I could do for him. The empty place in my body where he had lived for all those months yawned like a gaping crater.

That empty space at the heart of our lives, the sheltered space we had made for Ethan, continues to ache with his absence. There is not a moment of the day when I don’t feel the emptiness where he should be. Truthfully, I am not sure I could bear the pain of life without Ethan if it were not for the promise that he is safe in God’s keeping.

On the day of his diagnosis, Eric and I were stunned into wordlessness by the sorrowful certainty of the doctors who had so gently but definitively told us that there was nothing that they could do to save Ethan’s life and no hope of his survival past birth. As we drove home from the clinic, out of the emptiness, the words of Julian of Norwich came to me. All shall be well, she said, And all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Later, when an anxious hospital employee tried to cheer us up just hours after Ethan’s death, Julian’s words provided a defense for me against the pressure to pretend that all was well. All was most decidedly not well, yet even as I held Ethan’s broken and lifeless body, Julian’s words called me back to the promise of the Christian prophets – that someday all things, even this terrible moment of anguish, will be made well. I think perhaps that the joy we felt in meeting Ethan, in loving him, was a glimpse of the fulfillment of that promise.

Later, Julian’s words wove their way through our good-byes to Ethan. Spencer quoted her in the sermon he wrote for Ethan’s funeral:

Though there are harms suffered that it seems to us it is impossible that it ever should come to a good end, yet our Good Lord has shown that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”...For this is the Great Deed that our Lord shall do, in which Deed he shall save His word and He shall make all well that is not well. How it shall be done there is no creature beneath Christ that knoweth it, nor shall know it till it is done; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

All does not feel well with us these days. Losing a child is a terrible wrenching dislocation, one that will never be fully healed in this lifetime. And yet, in the midst of this emptiness, I hang on to this promise that, in the moments of light and the days of darkness, in the fullness of joy and the emptiness of grief, in life and in death, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Photos of our beautiful boy

These photos were taken by Eric's friend, Franklin Golden (who is also a Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep photographer), during Ethan's two hours of life. They are the one of the most treasured gifts we've ever received...we hope they also bring joy to the many people who have loved Ethan.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Ethan's Burial

We will be holding a private burial service with family and a few friends at the East Clarendon Cemetery in Vermont on Wednesday, September 9th. At 3:30PM, following the service, there will be open calling hours at 310 Victoria Drive in Rutland, VT, and we invite all who wish to offer condolences to stop by. Thank you all for your prayers and comforting words.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Ethan's Funeral Information

Ethan's funeral will be this Friday, September 4 at 3:00 pm at St. John's Missionary Baptist Church (917 Onslow St, Durham), with a potluck meal in the church fellowship hall at 5:00. In lieu of flowers, please consider a memorial gift in Ethan's name to L'Arche USA ( or YO:Durham (Year of Opportunity for Durham Teens For either, click "Donate," then "In Memory of" and enter Ethan James.

Ethan's Birth

Ethan was born on Monday, August 31 at 3:00 pm and died peacefully in our arms at around 5:00 pm. We are so very grateful that we were able to meet him face-to-face. Although he never breathed, his heart was beating and his tiny tongue was moving. He had blue eyes and brown hair, a sweet little button nose, and beautiful hands and feet. He weighed 3 lbs, 5 ounces and was 16 inches long. It gave us great joy to hold him in our arms. It has been heartbreaking to let him go so soon, but we know that he is safe in God's care and that there are many grandparents and great-grandparents who have gone before him who have been waiting to meet him.

Eric and I came home from the hospital Tuesday afternoon and I'm recovering well. We are planning a trip to Vermont early next week. We plan to bury Ethan in Eric's hometown and then spend a few days with friends and family in New England before returning to Durham.

Ethan's funeral will be this Friday, September 4 at 3:00 pm at St. John's Missionary Baptist Church (917 Onslow St, Durham), with a potluck meal in the church fellowship hall at 5:00. In lieu of flowers, please consider a memorial gift in Ethan's name to L'Arche USA ( or YO:Durham (Year of Opportunity for Durham Teens For either, click "Donate," then "In Memory of" and enter Ethan James.

We are more grateful than words can express for the prayers and support of all those who love us and who have loved Ethan with us. What we have experienced over the past few months as so many people have celebrated Ethan's life and grieved for his death with us has been a foretaste of the communion of saints that we will all experience some day in Christ's presence.