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.

Lucky

DSC07109Last night I grabbed a few groceries after Isaac’s swimming lesson. The boys were fractious but it didn’t stop Elijah flirting with a lady working at Woolies. She paused, played with him a moment, commented on his cuteness and said to me “You are so lucky”.

Perhaps I imagined sadness in her eyes and a wistfulness in her voice. I wondered if she had been affected by loss or infertility or a life that ended up in different place to what she had hoped for. I thought about asking, but I didn’t. I thought about telling her I could be luckier and have all my three boys with me, but I didn’t. In that particular moment, with dinner, bed and bath time pressing against us, I didn’t feel particularly lucky or grateful. But I know I am. And perhaps I needed reminding.

I view “lucky” with a different lens after loss. I feel lucky that we had fourteen days with Xavier. I know that not everyone gets that much time with their little one. I feel lucky that he held onto a glimmer of life for twenty-four hours after we found him without breath. A day is longer to say goodbye than many people get. I feel lucky that we were so well looked after by the Mater and the beautiful social workers there. I feel lucky that I found a group of bereaved mothers who understood and understand me. I feel lucky that I have been given space and support and permission to grieve. I feel lucky that I have this place to remember Xavier and write in his memory. I feel lucky that I have the words to write. I feel lucky that Xavier’s memory is held precious by so many dear to me. I feel tremendously lucky that I have two living children to hold and kiss and adore.

I cannot count the number of times I have spoken to other bereaved parents and we have used that word – “lucky” – to describe various aspects of our experience. It’s always accompanied with a rider – “it’s funny what we think of as ‘lucky’ now.”

Before losing Xavier I had a different view of luck. I didn’t really believe in it. Someone would tell me I was lucky and I would respond with a glib “Yep, and the harder I work, the luckier I become.” I had a perception that you made your own luck and that bad luck was generally predicated by bad choices.

Age and experience has taught me that life is not so tightly controlled. That fate can be cruel and that luck plays a larger part in my life than I might like.

I look at my darling boys and I know, I am incredibly blessed and I am very lucky.

Easter – when love triumphs

Easter is approaching. The time of the year we celebrate love and life triumphing over death. Even in it’s pagan incarnation Easter is about welcoming the spring, a time of growth and newness. A time for birth and rebirth. The tender shoots of hope finally peeking through the cover of desolate winter.

After Xavier died, I wished for resurrection. When people would describe Mary as a grieving mother my heart would harden a little. For she had her son returned to her. She was given the miracle every bereaved parent begs for. Xavier was never returned to me in a physical sense, but the lasting relationship we share is a form of love triumphing over death.

In the yoga class I attend with Elijah, our instructor will often tell us to take a moment to nourish the bond between mother and child – the most un-breakable of all bonds. Whenever she says that, my mind wanders to Xavier. The bond between baby and mother cannot be severed. Not even by death. I was robbed of the physical relationship I had with Xavier by SIDS. But I could choose how much was stolen. The heavy burden of grief and the constant longing for what could have been threatened our continuing relationship. It took time to nurture and navigate a different kind of parenting but I am learning. I feel him close.

There are beautiful people and purposes in my life that would not have come to me if it wasn’t for Xavier. For a while I would question my attitude towards them. That I could not feel gratitude for things that existed due to Xaviers death. I feel differently now – a slight change of perspective. The positive things in my life that have come about because of Xavier are part of my relationship with him. They are not causally linked to his death, but rather his life, lived in the short span granted to us. There are so many beautiful things in my life because of him – not because he died, but because he was here. I do not believe that as a parent you can every truly accept the death of your child. Acceptance is popularly heralded as the last hurdle of grief. I do not think it is true. I think you reach a stage when you integrate the death of your child within your heart and your life. Where you can come to a point of resolution. For me, it was when the magnitude of love I hold for my son finally over-shadowed the magnitude of my pain. That took time and it took hope and it took faith.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is Love.

I hope Easter brings you all three and the last in copious amounts.