Attending a Retreat Soon After a Loss
By Joanna Suprock
My daughter died suddenly from fetal maternal hemorrhage three days before her due date. She was stillborn. Three weeks later, I flew solo from the east coast to the west coast to attend a Return to Zero retreat. I tried to attend a local support group, but it got cancelled. However, I knew that I really needed to meet and be surrounded by other mothers who had also been through this traumatic experience. Losing a baby is very isolating and treated as taboo in mainstream society.
At the RTZ retreat I met over 30 bereaved mothers of all ages. I heard their individual stories about losing their babies and things they do throughout the year to connect and remember their child(ren). I saw photos of their babies and spent time in a relaxing and beautiful setting, participating in healing activities such as guided meditation and gentle yoga.
Shock. Being just 3 weeks out from losing my daughter, I was still in shock. The whole time I was at the retreat, I had thoughts such as "Is this all real?...Am I really HERE, in Seattle, with all these other mothers?" It is very normal to feel like you’re having an out-of-body experience. Other mothers could relate. I no longer felt alone in my experience.
Observation is still participation. Do what you can. I didn't talk much because I had so much to take in and think about. Trying to process everyone else's stories was a bit overwhelming, yet comforting at the same time. I mostly observed and listened, which introverts like myself tend to do, regardless of being in shock. After the retreat you may worry about some things you wanted to say but didn’t, or said but felt it came out incorrectly. It’s okay. You have time post-retreat to continue these conversations and/or clear up any confusion.
Trust the process. Look to others for guidance. So many of the retreat mothers seemed to act so "normal" - laughing and talking with each other easily. It gave me hope that someday that would be me. At the retreat, I enjoyed being able to meet mothers in various stages of their grief, which ranged from some being several months to others being as much as over ten years out from losing their baby. These were the mothers who had already battled through stages of grief that I was just experiencing and was going to encounter in the future. It gave me an interesting perspective, a way to glimpse into my own future, as fuzzy as it looked. It gave me hope.
Rely on the community for a wide range of support. The retreat created a close-knit community of mothers who are available to support one another about a range of topics related to child loss and grieving such as infertility struggles, emotional well-being, parenting after loss, and spirituality. It's wonderful to be able to get advice and freely talk about important topics like these that tend to be neglected by doctors, hospitals, and many others including family and friends. You will find yourself following up with certain mothers post-retreat who relate to a topic you may be personally experiencing.
Ways to cope with post-retreat feelings of isolation. After returning from the retreat, I started to feel isolation creep back in. I went from being a bereaved mother that is part of the majority at a gentle and loving retreat community, to back to being a part of the teeny minority within my hometown and my circle of family and friends. Back to reality. Back to work. Back to taking care of my 2.5 year old son who was actively grieving his sister.
Our retreat tribe leaned on each other through a private Facebook group, a safe place to talk about our babies and our grief journey. We also had access to contact info for all retreat mothers, so we could keep in touch in other ways beyond Facebook. This group of retreat mothers helped me walk through the depths, and embrace my grief and my love for my daughter—with them, nothing about my daughter and what I felt was taboo. I was supported by these kind, empathic mothers who have all been in my shoes. Without them, I don’t think I would have been able to deal with my grief as organically, healthily, and thoughtfully—I imagine I would have been swallowed up by isolation and hit with terrible depression. I felt saved and always yearn to be in their presence again. The next time I get to see them, I want to give them all huge hugs.
Relate to your child(ren) in nature. Shortly after the retreat, I started finding heart rocks everywhere—walking along beaches, wading in a river, hiking up a mountain. I took this as a sign from my daughter, as many other mothers at the retreat shared their own signs for their baby/babies. Stumbling upon these beautiful imperfectly heart-shaped pieces of Earth continues to give me comfort.
Celebrate others. Every person you meet has an influence on you. One retreat mother’s story motivated me to donate blood more frequently. She told me to take a picture of myself every time I was donating my blood and share it with her. Doing this more often in that first year without my daughter made me and especially my physical body feel better, knowing that despite my daughter dying inside of it, it can still give more life to other people of all ages, babies included. Donating blood was an important part of the healing process for me. Without meeting this particular mother, I probably would not have donated blood at all or at least not as frequently in the first year without my daughter. Consequently, my body’s physical healing would have been different.
Lean on your retreat sisters during the holidays. I was not well prepared for feelings around the holidays. First was Halloween. It’s largely a fun children’s holiday with dressing up and going out trick-or-treating. I had to think about all the cute baby costumes that could have been for my daughter and watch my friends post pictures of their new babies in costumes on social media. I had to fake excitement for this holiday so that my son could enjoy it. It was difficult.
Then, before I knew it, it was Thanksgiving, then Christmas and New Year’s. It was too much in too little of a time period for me, as I was just emerging from shock. I’d get through one holiday, but then it was like I barely had time to recover and take a deep breath before the next holiday arrived and came crashing down on me.
Navigating the holidays was challenging. My daughter’s absence was very real. I encourage you to lean on your retreat sisters during these times. Guaranteed, they are experiencing their own struggles.
The unexpected heartache of rainbow baby announcements. Retreat sisters may make rainbow baby announcements, or have babie(s) born after loss. The news of someone in our retreat having a healthy living baby, was of course wonderful news (and very much a relief if you knew about the pregnancy prior)—yet at the same time my own grief made this a more complicated feeling. It made me want to have a rainbow baby too and soon, yet it felt like something that seemed so far out of my reach and control. Was it wishful thinking? It did give me the hope that if so many of the retreat mothers could have another healthy living baby that I could too. This topic is full of mixed feelings of sadness and also hope. Read more about this topic here.
Your retreat sisters are a web of support. At the retreat, I met over 30 women who have also lost one or more babies. Being three weeks out from losing my daughter, it was like being given over 30 life preservers. This formed into an immediate web, all tied together with support, love, and understanding that you can't find just anywhere. It kept me afloat, able to navigate the waves and storms of my grief without dipping or drowning into depression. It put out the fire of my isolation. I no longer felt alone. Since the Seattle retreat, I have met others who have also joined my web of life preservers, my raft. I feel that this protective raft will continue to change and grow over my lifetime. I am forever grateful for being able to gain this support network so early in my journey. It was well needed. Without it, I imagine I would have had extreme difficulty in staying afloat, a high risk for plunging into the dark depths of depression. Especially when you've been there once before in the past, it's a place you certainly want to avoid revisiting.