The Most Terrible Decision: Cremation or Burial

Image Credit Robyna MayWarning: This article talks about the cremation and burial of infants. It is intended for those that are either faced with this terrible decision or are wondering whether the decision they have made is the right one. It is not my intention to offend anybody, but I realise these are sensitive subjects.

After Xavier died it felt like I had fallen down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole. Everything was wrong and out of place and I was faced with one horrific decision after another. Would we consent to an autopsy on our baby? What colour should his coffin be? Would I speak at his funeral? But of all the decisions, the one that I found the most vexed was whether to bury or cremate our darling child.

In the wake of his death, I was given information from SIDS and Kids. Numerous booklets with information on grieving, on support and on infant funerals. These little booklets offered advice and quotes from parents who had been through what we were living. One of those parents revealed that they had decided to bury their child because they wanted a place to visit. That resonated with me and we decided to bury Xavier. It is a decision that I have revisited, wondered about and never been entirely sure whether I made the right one. I wanted a place that was his, but then I didn’t want him alone at night. After all his little body went through, I could not commit him to the fire but I now wonder if the earth is any kinder.

If you have come to this place because this is a decision that you are facing: how to say goodbye to your precious child, then I extend my love and my deep-felt sadness. I wish I could take away your pain. I wish I could deliver your child back into your arms. But all I can offer is my experience and the hope it may help you.

If this is a decision you are making or a decision you are regretting, then know this:  There is no right decision. When the choice is between fire and earth rather than holding your baby close, there is no decision that will feel right.

These are the reasons I chose to bury Xavier:

  • I wanted a place to visit that was separate and his alone.
  • I could not face the thought of cremation.
  • I wanted a place that would be his forever – a small patch of earth that would bear his name for all eternity.
  • Others in my family have been buried in the same cemetery as Xavier.
  • I wanted a place where others could visit Xavier.

Often when I visit Xavier’s grave, there will be small ornaments, toys or cards left by his tombstone. Evidence that he is still a part of the lives of my family and friends.  It is a joy to see these small things.  There is a sense of tradition and ritual that accompanies visiting his grave on his birthday, Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s day. On the flip-side, I often feel guilty that I do not visit him as often as I used to. There is a sense of duty to that small patch of earth that I feel I don’t always live up to.

These are the reasons that others I know chose cremation:

  • They want their baby in their home.
  • It is important to them to hold ashes in a special urn, or piece of jewellery.
  • They wanted to scatter ashes in places sacred and special.
  • They could not face the thought of their baby alone in the earth.
  • They wanted to be able to take their baby with them, should they move house or overseas.

If you choose burial, here are some ways to honour your baby in your home:

  • You can request some of the sand used at the burial and place this in a special urn or piece of jewellery. If you buried your child some time ago and crave this, you can use some of the soil that covers their gravesite.
  • I personally believe that the essence of Xavier does not reside in his remains. His love, his warmth and his presence is felt in the sunshine, heard in the sound of his brothers’ laughter and seen in the love our family shows each other. There are places in our home that are dedicated to him. I feel him in those places more-so than his gravesite. You can create spaces in your home where you feel your baby.

If you choose cremation, here are some ways to honour your baby outside your home:

  • You can request to have a plaque erected at a cemetery in honour of your baby.
  • You can choose any sacred space that allows you to feel your child’s spirit and dedicate it as “their place”.  Perhaps a beach or forest. You might visit that place on special dates.
  • You can talk to your local council about building a public garden, special seat or some other wonderful thing in your child’s memory.

Explaining cremation and burial to young children is difficult.  Carly Marie has a beautiful way to describe cremation to children.   My eldest son struggles to understand why Xavier’s body is buried deep within the ground when we talk about him being in heaven and all around us.  This is what I tell him:

Each of us has both a body and a soul.  Our bodies provide a home for our souls.  Our soul is who we are, what makes you YOU – every soul is unique. Our bodies are not made to last forever.  Sometimes they get sick.  They get old.  Some people have to lose their bodies earlier than others.  This is what happened to Xavier. But our souls do not get sick and they last forever. It is harder to understand a soul without a body, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Xavier’s body went into the ground, but his soul is all around us and a part of our family for always.

1 in 4 – Why it Doesn’t Compute

This month is infant and pregnancy loss awareness month.

Every October I see this:

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I am going to be completely honest. It doesn’t sit right with me. I lost my baby to SIDS. That was a 1 in a 1,000 chance.

Yes, I am a part of the 1 in 4 statistics but it is a very, very thin slice of the graph Xavier falls into. His death was not common (Thank God). What we went through does not happen to a quarter of the Australian population.

And so I don’t feel comfortable announcing I am 1 in 4. I know the aim of the campaign is to start people talking about the taboo subjects of miscarriage, stillbirth and infant loss. I know it’s about solidarity. I know there are no ladders in loss. I know that every one of the children remembered this month, and every month, is precious and loved – no matter their age or development. I know all of this and I support it, but I recoil when Xavier’s death is placed on the same shelf as miscarriage. I feel like a traitor even writing that. Within this community of loss we support each other equally and fully. I feel privileged to know women as mothers when their motherhood often goes unacknowledged. It is a gift to know their children through their love. I know they have their own struggles.

And so do I. And they are different. As much as I acknowledge that there is no comparison in grief, no more than, no less than there is also no the same as.

The loss of my son to SIDS is not the same as a miscarriage. It is not the same as losing a child to stillbirth. It is not the same as losing an infant to accident or illness. It is different. And that needs to be acknowledged. Each of those losses is unique and has its own pain. Not more than. Not less than. But apart.

That uniqueness feels lost when I become 1 in 4.

It was only a week or two after Xavier died. My very good friend, who has had more than her fair share of miscarriage heartache, and I were talking. I was trying to put Xaviers death into perspective. I said “perhaps there is no difference, perhaps his death is like a miscarriage”. I was struggling with my loss and honoring her loss now that I had a different perspective and understanding. She gently put her hand on my mine. She looked me in the eye and said “it’s very different.” That was a gift. The understanding that this pain held a different weight, that it was a different shape.

It is an understanding that doesn’t always occur within the loss community. Every one holds tightly to the recognition of their motherhood. I understand why. It is often the only place that motherhood is recognised. There is a fear that acknowledging the differences in loss would lead to a reduction in the recognition of motherhood. But we are all different. We mother differently. Our losses occurred differently. Our journeys take different paths. We share so much in common, and we hold that up. But I think it has to be okay to talk about the differences too.

This pregnancy and awareness month, I am 1 in 4.

I am 1 in 1,000.

And I am the only mother to my son.

 

Capture Your Grief – My Journey

For the past two years I have joined Carly Marie’s ‘Capture Your Grief’.

The first year, so soon after Xavier’s death, offered a much-needed creative outlet for my grief.  I documented my thoughts and feelings through images and words.  Sharing those with other bereaved parents was powerful and validating. Sharing those sacred images with those close gave me some release.  When all I wanted was to scream “My baby died!  Stop world and recognise my baby died!” the project offered a place to be heard. I screamed through those words and images. I wanted them to be confronting, honest and brutal. I wanted some small measure of my pain to be evident.

 

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Last year was different. The scars had started to heal over and my grief was no longer  raw.  I was more contemplative, more reflective.  I was able to document lighter moments and hope.  I wanted the images to reflect a softer side of my grief and the beauty of my son.

 

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This year, I have been unsure about whether to take part.  My grief has moved into an entirely different place. I see myself as a bereaved mother, but no longer a grieving one.  Against all odds, my life has moved into a place I am happy with. And I have to ask myself, do I have any grief to capture? What will this project mean to me now?

The past two years, I joined in as part of my healing journey.  This year, I will join in to mother my son.  I don’t pretend that the place in my heart that belongs to him has closed over.  It has not.  But living with that pain has become second nature.  The ugly shoes* of child-loss no longer pinch.  My need is no longer to scream his name, but to speak it.  And so the images I create this year will bear testament to a love that continues and a gentler part of this journey.


You can take part in Capture Your Grief 2014 by following the instructions in Carly’s post.


An Ugly Pair of Shoes
Author Unknown

I am wearing a pair of shoes.
They are ugly shoes.
Uncomfortable Shoes.
I hate my shoes.
Each day I wear them, and each day I wish I had another pair.
Some days my shoes hurt so bad that I do not think I can take another step.
Yet, I continue to wear them.
I get funny looks wearing these shoes.
They are looks of sympathy.
I can tell in others eyes that they are glad they are my shoes and not theirs.
They never talk about my shoes.
To learn how awful my shoes are might make them uncomfortable.
To truly understand these shoes you must walk in them.
But, once you put them on, you can never take them off.
I now realize that I am not the only one who wears these shoes.
There are many pairs in the world.
Some women are like me and ache daily as they try and walk in them.
Some have learned how to walk in them so they don’t hurt quite as much.
Some have worn the shoes so long that days will go by
before they think of how much they hurt.
No woman deserves to wear these shoes.
Yet, because of the shoes I am a stronger woman.
These shoes have given me the strength to face anything.
They have made me who I am.
I will forever walk in the shoes of a woman who has lost a child.

What do with the days that belonged to your baby

DSC01048In the first few weeks after Xavier died we were busy.    There were dozens of terribly sad, nearly impossible tasks to fulfil.   And even as those horrific tasks centred around Xavier’s burial and good-bye, they somehow diverted our attention away from our new reality. With shock as our armour, we numbly went about organising his funeral.  Even as grief overtook us, we were at least engaged in activities for our son.  The very last things we would do for our son – but Xavier was still central to it all.  Our house was regularly full of people.  My beautiful sister was my family’s saviour and she stayed with us for more than a week,  helping us with the day-to-day tasks that then seemed as improbable as flying to the moon.

But eventually, she had to return to her work.   N had to go back to his office.  Life settled into normality for everyone else.   And my maternity turned bereavement leave stretched long in front of me.

The house was suddenly very silent.   That it could feel so empty – when Xavier had been such a quiet,  small presence – seemed impossible.   Isaac continued at kindy for two days a week. I felt it was important that his routine continue.  I had two empty days to fill each week.   Time that should have been lavished on a newborn stretched endlessly in front of me.  There were so many days I would go to bed at 8pm – exhausted by grief and relieved that I could attempt escape in sleep.

Eventually, I worked out a routine for the days that belonged to Xavier.  I went to a personal trainer and as my will began to wane and the reps got harder, I would dedicate each sit up, each push up, each weight to the babies I knew.   This one is for Xavier, this one for Teddy, this one for Harry …   After each session, I would visit Xavier’s grave and talk to him.  I would bring little gifts and tidy his headstone.  I would lie down and hope that he felt my embrace.  I would sit in the sunshine and feel him embrace me back.   I caught up with supportive girl friends who let me talk about my grief.  I would write.  I would create.  I would try to grieve in a positive way.

Those days remained Xavier’s. I was unable to mother him how I wanted to, but I still used that time to mother him.  That time allowed me to build the foundations of a complex relationship that I still don’t fully understand, but that keeps him close.

Eventually, my busy life started to return.   There were fewer opportunities just to sit still and connect with my baby.  Now, I find myself having to carve time out for Xavier.   Jostling with his brothers for my attention.

As endless and as difficult as those early  days seem, they will pass.  Life has a way of bringing you along her tide.

Dearest, I hope you don’t mind

Dearest Xavier,
It’s been a while since we talked. I am sorry. I have to wonder if you mind. I have to hope you don’t feel forgotten.

In the early days after you said goodbye, my every thought was full of you. My arms were empty but my mind overflowed with you. The hole in my heart was exactly your shape. Yawning and bleeding and wide. And I spoke to you and I spoke of you. You were never far from my mind or my lips. But time has become the healer they promised, even when I didn’t want to believe. And you have settled into a different place.

When the hair dresser asked how many children, I didn’t speak of you. But I saw you as I drove home against the bubble-gum pink sunset.
When the lady at swimming asked about my boys, I didn’t say your name. But she pressed and asked about the age gap and I told her that you lived. And that you died. And she wondered how you ever recover from such a thing. I held your little brother a little closer and said he helped immensely. Because what else could I say? I hope you don’t feel betrayed.

In the earliest of days I did things for you constantly because I was convinced that I needed to mother you and more than that, you needed me to mother you. As I move away from my need does your need lessen as well?

Oh my little man, please know you are still loved. As this river called time seems to pull me further away, know my heart is still tied to yours. And although my thoughts are no longer tied in knots around your memory, your memory is secure and safe. My dearest Xavier, as I heal, I hope you don’t mind.

The Grief Words

Your world shatters.  You find yourself alone.  You see pity and sympathy in the eyes of family and friends, but they do not understand.  They hurt, but their hurt is not your hurt.  You search for others who share your story.  You try to normalise the thing that is so far from any sane normality.  You find them.  Online and in person. This community of loss.  This beautiful and fragile community of tattered souls.  Facebook groups, blogs and forums dedicated to babies and children stolen from their mothers’ breasts and their fathers’ embraces.  And there is such aching beauty.  Words strung together as delicately as beaded necklaces.  Artwork that touches deep nerves.  Poems and images that steal your breath as they gift you tears.  Enormous and important things achieved in the name of children who may no longer live on earth but whose impact is great.

But through this thin veneer of beauty, do we hide from ugly truth?  Do the newly bereaved come across these sites and wonder where the pain is?   Where the heart-stopping, gut-wrenching, puking, sobbing messes are?  I don’t think I have ever written publicly about the true pain of grief.  The darkest of days, where even the weight of water in the shower was too much to bear.  When my skin crawled and the ache in my arms to hold my baby felt like the loss of a limb.  When the only relief could be found in sleep and the sleep would only come when I was too exhausted to think.   I cannot convey in words the pain of those days.  I remember wanting words.  Yet, no words were horrific enough to capture the pain.  I do not swear, I never have.  But even the worst words I knew could not scratch the surface.  There isn’t even a word in the English language to describe a parent whose child dies.  There are orphans and widows and widowers but no noun for those who lay their children to rest.  And as I searched for a word ugly enough to sum up the wretchedness I felt, words beautiful enough to describe my baby boy also remained elusive.  Perhaps that is a struggle felt by many who populate those online groups and forums.  How do you express a pain so horrific in the place you are recognised as mother to your child?  How do you articulate the depts of hurting when you also want to celebrate your baby? How do you find language that isn’t repressible and offensive to describe something so bitterly broken? How do you reach out and seek comfort when you want to spew barbed wire and bile and venom?  How do you tame the rage and the anger to a gentle simmer to remain polite amongst people who share common ground but are, for the most part, strangers?

For those in their grief who find comfort from the beauty, but wonder if they are lost alone on an ugly path.  Please know, you are not alone.  There are just no words to capture the depth of the hurt just as there are no adequate words to capture the enormity of the love.  For the pain and the grief run deep because the love never ends.

Being Okay with Being Okay

On the third Friday of each month, I meet with a group of mothers. Like most mothers groups, we all come from different walks of life, but have our children in common. Unlike most mothers groups, our children do not play underfoot or interrupt our conversation. If anything, our conversation keeps our babies alive.

We are each at different stages in our grief, some of us have seen years pass and some of us have welcomed more children. In this group we are understood, in this group we are not judged and in this group we are all recognised as mothers first and foremost, no matter where our children reside. There are a few of us at a stage in our grief where our new lives feel comfortable and our loss has taken us to passions and purposes that feel overwhelming positive. This in itself is confronting. Did our babies die to provide this new direction? Did they leave so that we could learn hard lessons? How do we reconcile the immense hurt and holes in our lives with the gratitude for new friends, an expanded outlook, and in some cases, the formation of badly needed charities that provide support and research?

Around six months after Xavier died I came across an online loss support group that asked “if you could change your past, and not go through your loss, would you? Think about it carefully before you answer”. At the time, I could not conceive any bereaved parent needing time to answer. My baby, my baby back in my arms in an instant is all I could think. What a ridiculous question to pose I thought. But there were those that were further in in their grief that said that they wouldn’t change their lives. That they had arrived at a point in their journey where they had learned a great deal and had made a kind of peace with their loss. I could not understand that viewpoint at the time, but I can now. I still think it’s the wrong question to ask. An impossible hypothetical with no easy answer. When you reach a point of being okay, not with your loss, but with your life, I think it’s indicative of integration rather than acceptance and certainly not a preference.

The guilty thought “if my baby had died, I would never have met these amazing people” becomes “my baby, their life and their story, which are inextricably linked, led me to these beautiful people”.

The worry “maybe my baby had to die for me to learn this lesson” becomes “all our children teach us important things, mine taught me some of the most important”.

The concern that “my baby’s death has led me to pursue long forgotten passions or renewed my creativity” becomes “I have figured out how to parent my baby – I have created connections with my child.”

The thought “I would not have founded or supported this charity unless my baby died” becomes “every life leaves a legacy and the length of that life in no way correlates to the power or impact of that legacy. My baby continues to make an important and positive impact in the world.”

As a bereaved mother, I feel guilt over so many things. But I will not feel guilty about coming to a place of peace. I will not feel guilty about finding purpose in parenting my boy no longer here. I will not feel guilty about my life reaching a place that feels okay. I worked too damn hard to get here.