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.

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Seasons in Grief

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There are seasons in grief.

The first Winter – desolate and cruel. Seemingly unending. Life is frozen in the moment you said good-bye. Everything is grey, turned to ash. Food has no taste. Blooms no scent. There is a hollowness that echoes through every moment. The weight of a missing baby heavy against you. Absence, weighing more than presence. Crippling. It is impossible to concentrate, to still your mind long enough. There are words, and they fall, softly as snow, around you. You know they mean well but the words don’t bring summer back. And the void the baby who left made is so vast that you could fall into it at any moment.

Then, gradually, the Spring. Hope shooting like new grass. The colour starts to return to a faded world. You hear an unfamiliar sound and realise it’s your own laughter. You hold a newborn baby and instead of it ripping you apart, you think about a promise for your future. Life beckons and, with hesitation, you respond. You wonder if it’s okay – to let this in. Whether you are betraying your baby by smiling again. And then you catch glimpses of him – when the light hits a certain way, when a butterfly floats near, an unexpected tiny white feather settling on your hand. If you listen very carefully you can hear him. And he wants you to be happy. You open the window and you let hope in.

Against all odds, Summer enters your life. There is joy again. There is sunshine and there is life. There is beauty and purpose. There are so many things you once never thought possible. And against this brilliant blue sky, the knowledge that you lost a baby feels uncomfortable. How could you have lost someone so precious and be happy? How is it possible that a life full of love and laughter can also accommodate such enormous loss? You once thought that you could never be happy again – that life could be bearable at best. Yet, here you are, filled with contentment. The photos that once could only illicit tears now bring a melancholy smile and there is gratitude for being part of a precious life, no matter how short. You have come to some sort of peace. Not an acceptance, or even an understanding, but a life that can accommodate loss and still be beautiful. You feel him in that sunshine and it warms your heart.

Autumn falls. Little reminders. The tug of winter. Things that were once easy, become less so. An anniversary approaches, a birthday, Christmas, Mothers Day, Fathers Day. Days that remind you of the great hole in your life. Or perhaps it is a word, a memory, a song that cuts at the wound not quite healed. A chill enters. You try to shut the door, to close it out, but winter is insistent and sometimes grief has its own agenda.

And then Winter can come again. Never as long or as cruel as the first, but the sadness creeps back.

But no season lasts forever and love lasts through them all.

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.

A different kind of Birthday

How do you celebrate a birthday for a person that you can no longer see?

Invitations
There will be no carefully curated list of people who will share in your birthday.  No beautiful invitations to send to friends and family.  But there are those that will accept the unwritten invitation to share in your birthday and remember you.  Those that miss you too. Those that grieve with us.

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Decorations
There will be no balloons and streamers hung.  No theme will define your day.  But I have made this hanger. It reminds me of you and it decorates your brother’s room.

 

 

 

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You won’t unwrap a train set, or open your eyes to find your first bicycle.  You won’t be spoiled by those that love you with earthly gifts. But I made you this prayer flag, as I have done in the past and will do each year.  It is my gift to you and yours to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Songs
I won’t sing you happy birthday.  There will be no chorus of hip, hip, hooray.  But I wrote you this poem.

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Candles
There won’t be two candles atop a cake.  You won’t try to blow them out with your baby breath.  But I will light a candle for you and others might too.

Birthday
There won’t be a birthday party tomorrow as others might know it.  But I feel your birthday to the very depths of my bones.  A birthday is for letting someone know how much you love them.  And I love you forever, my baby boy still.

The things that stay the same – Mothering after loss

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Motherhood is a strong bond.  Not even death can sever it.   And there are certain things about mothering a child no longer here that are exactly the same as mothering a living child.  I wanted to write a list of them.  To provide comfort to those also missing their children.  To let those that surround the grieving know how important this most invisible of motherhood remains.

1. You love them a little more each day
The first moment I held Isaac, I could not imagine my heart could accommodate any more love.  I was bursting with it.  But each day went on and each day I woke up surprised to find I loved him a little more.  It was the same with Xavier and now with Elijah.  But loving them a little more daily does not cease with death.  Every morning after Xavier left, I loved him more than the day before.  In particularly that first year, where the mounting love seems exponential is its growth.  That love that begins when you learn you are pregnant, expands with each scan, each kick, swells when you hold them for the first time, grows each time you even think of them.  It does not go away.  I do not miss him less each day, I miss him more.  I do not love him less each day, I love him more.  And this is perhaps the crux of why it takes a very long time to arrive in a place of peace after losing a child. The passing days do not take away the hurt.  For the first few months, they only added to it.  Just as I do his brothers, every day I love Xavier a little more.

2. You worry about them
I worry about Xavier.  Worry if he is happy.  Worry where he is.  In the early days of grief I felt that if I just knew where he was, just knew he was okay, the pain would be so much more bearable.  I worried about burying him.  That he would be alone at nights.  I worried about leaving him in the hands of the funeral home.  Worried that they would treat him tenderly.  I worry that others won’t treat his memory as gently as I do.  As he has grown, and my understanding of him has changed, I worry less.  But, just as I do with his brothers, I will always worry about him.

3. Sibling rivalry and jealousy still exist
Whenever I make Xavier something, Isaac wants me to make him one too.  The Christmas after Xavier died, I made him a stocking and Isaac immediately wanted one.  If I buy a toy or ornament for Xavier’s grave, Isaac wants one for himself.  There are some things that bind brothers, no matter how far apart they reside.  They will always be brothers, and they will always demand the fair share of my attention.

4. You get mother guilt
I often feel that I am not a perfect mother to Isaac and Elijah.  I sometimes watch other parents and I am concerned that I am not measuring up.  I have guilt about certain decisions.  I watch other bereaved parents and they way they honour their children.  Through amazing creativity.  Through inspirational fund-raising.  Through words and deeds.  And I wonder if I am doing enough.  But how can we ever feel we are enough for our children?  I will never reach it for Isaac or Elijah.  And I won’t for Xavier.  Because I want to be perfect for them, and I am imperfect.

5. You are proud of them
Every parent is proud of their children.  I so love watching new parents with their firstborn.  The absolute pride is tangible.  They are walking a well-trod path but they act like the first people to discover how amazing starting a family is.  I know we did.  Parents want to share photos, tell stories about their children.  It is no different when your child lives somewhere you cannot go.  I share photos of a beautiful, living Xavier.  But there are those whose only photos of their precious ones are after they had passed.  How privileged I feel when I get to see those photos and share not in that parent’s grief, but in that parent’s pride.  I feel proud of what Xavier has accomplished through his journey.  Each of my boys will do amazing things that will make my heart soar with pride – the two on earth and the one in heaven.

I parent each of my boys according to who they are and what they need.  But I will always be mother to each and love them to eternity.

When the family tree has fallen leaves

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This week Isaac’s prep class is discussing family.  It makes perfect sense.  It’s accessible and universal for four to five year olds.  It lends itself to numeracy and literacy concepts whilst  paving the way for discussions about diversity.   It allows children to learn that families come in different shapes and sizes.  It makes perfect sense.  Unless the shape of your family includes a large heart-shaped hole.

When the prep newsletter came home, stating that the coming week would include discussions about family, I talked to Isaac.  I told him it was up to him if he wanted to share Xavier with his class.   For me personally, sharing Xavier has became an issue with varying shades of grey.  There are times I choose to remain silent about him.  Not to deny his existence, but to protect his memory.  I have become more select regarding who has the privilege of knowing my son.

But when I told Isaac he had a choice, he looked at me in that way only five year olds can and said, “Of course I will include Xavier.  He’s my brother.”    And I was reminded of the black and white world children live in. There was never any question in his mind.  My concerns are not his concerns.

I worry about him having something in his life that sets him apart from the other kids. I worry about him being ostracised or people not believing him.  I worry that he will be perceived in a certain light due to his history.  I am angry that he even has to deal with something most adults would struggle with.  I am concerned that Xavier’s story will be taken home by a child and it will become sensationalistic talk over a stranger’s dinner table.  From a selfish point of view, I am worried about people I do not know learning about Xavier and making inevitable judgements before they even have a chance to meet our family.

Yet Isaac takes it all in his stride.

And I am quietly confident the children in his class will too.  Children have a beautiful and amazing way of bringing things into their simplest and purest form.  Isaac will simply say that he has a brother in heaven.

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When Isaac came home the other day, he said used a wonderful turn of phrase – that the class were “celebrating” each other’s families.   That he chose to celebrate Xavier.  And that’s a beautiful thing, because Xavier is worth celebrating.

And so this is Christmas….

Against all odds, it is December.  Mid-December at that.  The post that I had wanted to write since December first has been sitting on a shelf in my mind – perhaps accompanied by that ubiquitous little elf – whilst the world has spun around me.  The season of festivity.  The season of good will.  The season of busy, busy, busy.

Last year Christmas felt quiet.  There were things that we had previously done each and every year that were left undone.   Things were done that will probably only belong to Christmas 2012.  Each day, I did some small thing for Xavier.  An advent calendar in his memory.  Each day of December I spent time with memories, time with my cherished son.  I dedicated myself to him, to keeping his memory alive.  It seemed the only way I would live through Christmas.

This year is so different.  As if trying to make up for the traditions lost last year, we have immersed ourselves in Christmas.  There has been carolling and Christmas lights.   Decoration and present making.  There has been Christmas shopping at the actual shops (last year it was mostly done online).  There have been Santa photos taken.  Our house is full of singing.  The christmas tree seems more joyful.  Even the place in our house dedicated to Xavier seems a little brighter than last year.

And Xavier himself seems a little further away.   I do not want to repeat the latter months of 2012 – sometimes it is only in reflection that I can appreciate how truly dark those months were.  But, that pain did serve as a connection to Xavier.   The wound was open and weeping and he was there in such a visceral way.  He is still here, but his presence is quieter.  Perhaps overshadowed by the hustle and bustle.  He is in no way forgotten, but at times it feels like in leaving my pain behind, I have left him also.   There are times I imagine a tiny “mummy, what about me?” as I laugh with Elijah on my lap at Isaac singing carols at the top of his lungs.    And I have to remind myself, that Xavier is there – in Elijah’s smiles and Isaac’s giggles.

This Christmas I think of those facing their first December after loss.  It is truly one of the hardest times of the year.  The world around you so seemingly happy and you so sad and lonely.  Those that put on a brave face and continue in Christmas traditions for the sake of their living children – when all they want to do is hide and wake up in January.  Those that said good-bye to their only baby, confused and hurt, looking at “My First Christmas” onesies with tears in their eyes.  Those that have years of memories of Christmases with their child taken too soon – who feel their world shatter once again with each toy ad, every Christmas card, every department store Santa.

My first Christmas without Xavier was tear-stained but connected to him in a way that no other Christmas will be.  Even without him physically here, it truly was Xavier’s first Christmas.   It perhaps belonged to Xavier more than any of us.   If last year was almost exclusively about Xavier, this year is about our family.  Our three boys and each of their places in Christmas traditions.

For Christmas is a time of year when we can reflect on our loved ones – here and far away.   Each Christmas card I have received has acknowledged Xavier and the ones I (eventually!) write in return will also bear his name.  There are three stockings hung in our house – one for each son.  There are baubles and decorations for each of my babies hanging on the tree.  It is not a dedication to Xavier this year, but rather a family Christmas.  And Xavier is and always will be a part of our family.

Some of the ways I remembered Xavier last year.

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