A Mother’s Story of Loss and Transformation

Sad woman

Today is Infant and Pregnancy Loss Day.

In honor of this day, I chatted with friend, fellow entrepreneur and Photosanity parent Alana Sheeren.

There was a labyrinth I walked at a grief conference – I wanted to capture the peace of the experience. 

Alana writes and teaches about grief, transformation, love and luminosity. She believes in using what life has given you – whether that’s your childhood issues, or a major loss or just your own feelings of shortcoming—as a springboard for self-acceptance, self-love and transformation. She holds a MA in clinical and community psychology, is a grief specialist, Reiki Master and energy worker. She loves deep conversations, joyful connections, spending time by the ocean and everyday magic.

Me: Tell me about your personal experiences with infant and pregnancy loss.

Alana: My first and third pregnancies were first trimester miscarriages. My second was my daughter who is now six, and my fourth was my son, Benjamin, who was stillborn in my second trimester.

The first loss was a shock and very hard.

The second pregnancy I had more fear than I would have otherwise.

When my third pregnancy ended, I didn’t grieve it the way I did the first because in my head, I believed the pattern would be the same—miscarriage then healthy baby.

So when Benjamin was stillborn, I had the weight of both losses to carry, though being able to see and hold Ben made that loss even more painful.

Me: My first pregnancy ended in first trimester miscarriage also.

Alana: I remember you saying that. It’s unfortunately so common and tends to be very downplayed in our culture.

Me: Having had friends go through it I was well aware of the possibility. Still, nothing really prepares you.

Alana: No. And everyone grieves it differently.

I think one of the problems is that most people think that once they’re through the first trimester, they’re home free.

I had no idea what the numbers were like for second and third trimester loss and neo-natal death. It’s staggering.

I took this in a self-portrait class. I was having a hard day and wanted to remind myself that it was ok to take care of my needs.

Me: How did you cope?

Alana: I was very lucky to have a graduate degree in psychology and training in grief before Ben died. Even in my shock, I recognized certain things about the experience that I felt were important to acknowledge from the beginning.

One of those things was the way grief can come out sideways as anger or frustration or physical pain or fear (or any number of other ways).

Me: So grief may not look like or be recognizable as what we think of as grief?

Alana: Exactly! Grief can look like almost anything and we can have emotional, physical, mental and spiritual symptoms.

There are recent studies that talk about grieving styles as a continuum between “Intuitive” grievers and “Instrumental” grievers.

Intuitive grievers tend to be more outwardly emotional and open with their feelings. They want to talk about what happened and connect with others who’ve experienced similar losses. There are usually lots of tears and feelings of anxiety, exhaustion, and depression are common. Our culture tends to see this type of grief as the “right way” to do it, and we judge (or worry about) those who don’t express their feelings in this way.

The instrumental grieving style is equally valid however. These folks tend to process the experience intellectually. While instrumental grievers might want to discuss some of the facts or logistics around the situation that caused their grief, they do not want to talk about their emotions at all. They do still have feelings of course, but they don’t affect them the same way and often cry very little, if at all.

Each of us will fall somewhere along the line, with elements of both. While we might think that women are intuitive grievers and men are instrumental, the split doesn’t fall directly down gender lines. It can often be more difficult for women with an instrumental style or men with an intuitive style because there is even less social acceptance of women who don’t cry a lot, and men who do.

In a nutshell, grief can look like almost anything and it’s my belief that we do the most harm by judging ourselves and others, by thinking everyone should grieve like we do, and by worrying that we aren’t doing it “right”.

This is a huge factor in pregnancy loss and infant or child death because parents, grandparents and siblings will all grieve so differently. This puts a huge strain on relationships. Even knowing as much as I did, my husband and I struggled at times to stay connected in our separate experiences of Benjamin’s death.

Me: I can only imagine.

Alana: Another way I coped was that I felt strongly that Ben’s death had a purpose – to wake me up to my life – and in order to do that, I needed to grieve fully.

I go to the ocean a lot for healing. It helps me remember how small I am in the big picture and at the same time how connected I am to everything.

Me: Did you feel that right away? The purpose of Ben’s death?

Alana: I did, partly because my pregnancy was so up and down with him – I bled through much of it.

I felt like he was a spiritual teacher from the moment he was conceived but I still believed he would live to be born until the night my placenta abrupted. Then I had to let him go. My deepest desire was that I live to mother my daughter. I feel like that need is part of what kept me alive while I was hemorrhaging.

Me: What were the days and weeks following like for you? Were there the phases of grief that often get talked about?

Alana: The stages that were written about by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross are considered outdated. They imply that grief is linear, which it isn’t.

It was ground-breaking work at the time but we’ve come a long way in understanding grief.

That said, it’s still very misunderstood (and over-medicated).

For me, there were a lot of tears and falling apart, while still needing to be present for my daughter.

It was the hardest, most painful time of my life and there was a lot of sitting on the couch sobbing.

Me: I think that is good for people to know.

Alana: It’s like everything falls apart. The whole support system that’s built around having a living baby falls away. People don’t know what to say or do, and of course, it’s impossibly hard to be around pregnant women and babies. Most people who experience pregnancy loss or stillbirth have at least one friend or family member who is also pregnant. My sister-in-law as well as several good friends were pregnant. It’s painful and awkward to navigate and can be horribly isolating for many.

Another one of the ways grief was very present for me was in the fear that something would happen to my daughter too. I spent a lot of nights awake with my hand on her belly to make sure she was breathing. The entire experience was traumatic and that trauma would easily get re-triggered.

I spent a lot of time not doing much. I simplified my life because I had to – I couldn’t function at the same level. I said no to a lot of social requests unless my heart told me it would be good for me.

I talked about the experience a lot. Writing about it was hugely healing. I allowed myself to cry when I knew I needed to, which was every day (multiple times a day) for a few months. I paid close attention to my inner wisdom, allowing it to guide me to what I needed.

I had to rely on my support system. So often we internalize messages that it’s not okay to allow others to help us. I learned that accepting meals, or rides, or even a place to stay when my husband was out of town, was a gift for everyone involved. People don’t know what to do, and the people who loved us wanted to help in some way.

As I said, I felt from the moment Ben died that there was something for me to learn and the only way to do so would be to really allow myself to experience my grief. I gave myself time, space and permission to do things my way and not worry about what anyone else thought of my process.

Me: How did Ben’s death and the grieving process that followed change you?

Alana: Ben’s death was my wake up call to live differently. I say in my TEDx talk that grief is like a fire that burns everything that isn’t working from our lives. This can be incredibly painful and there are also gifts in it, which might seem odd to say. To counter how sad and fearful I was, I would lie in bed at night and think of things I was grateful for that day. I realized how much beauty was in my life and how supported and loved I was.

The secondary losses that accompany a grief experience can be devastating though, and often go unacknowledged. With pregnancy or infant loss, this often means losing the community of new moms that you bond with during pregnancy. In my case, I had a 24-year friendship end. Honestly, I can’t think of an area of my life that wasn’t touched or changed by stillbirth.

I’m a much happier person now than I was before. I stopped getting in my own way so much and I began living my life more for me, and less for the approval of others. I’m healthier, I’m doing work that I love, I’ve met incredible people. I wish that I had an active, chubby 3 year old son, but since that’s not what life gave me, I can honestly say that as brutal as it was, I’m grateful for the experience because it made me who I am today.

I took this the other day as I stood at the edge of a new experience. I wouldn’t have been here if Ben hadn’t died. I miss him and I’m so grateful for the incredible journey that my life has been since his stillbirth.

Me: What advice do your clients find most helpful when working through loss?

Alana: There is always a huge sense of relief when people realize what they are experiencing fits into the wide range of what is normal—that they’re not “doing grief wrong.” There is so much cultural misinformation and judgment around grief. Honestly, many counselors and therapists don’t have adequate grief training and can unintentionally give hurtful advice.

Human beings are resilient and hard-wired for growth. Yes loss is painful and scary, but when we are able to sit with it instead of pushing it away, and trust that we have the ability to navigate it in the way that works best for us, most of us will find our way.

We have to give ourselves permission to grieve and listening to our inner knowing is an important step. Some people will want and need help and others won’t. Either is okay. It can take a long time to find your feet again after a loss. It’s messy and unpredictable and each loss you experience will feel different. Remember too, that grief triggers grief, so it’s very normal to be feeling old sadness along with the new.

Me: I see photography as an opportunity to explore, express and capture emotions. This year on September 11th I happened to be near the Brooklyn promenade and ended up photographing the downtown Manhattan skyline, the people paying tribute, and the experience of being there twelve years later. Even as a photographer and photography coach I was surprised by how cathartic it was because ultimately it gave me a different medium to express how I felt when words were insufficient.

Me: You’ve recommended to me in the past using photography to explore grief—can you talk a little more about that?

Alana: Creativity is a beautiful way to explore our emotions. Photography is wonderful and easy now that most cell phones come equipped with cameras. Seeing the world—and ourselves—through a lens is a powerful way to frame our experiences. But anything creative can be healing. Dance has been integral to my grieving process, along with writing. When I was deep in grief I also craved working with paints. Anything that gets us out of our rational, intellectual brains and into our bodies and intuition is healing.

Me: Yes. Especially for people who are not used to expressing themselves visually, or through any creative medium as you say, doing so can be immensely freeing, especially if you can focus on expressing emotions—photography is not just about capturing the emotions of others. Ultimately, it’s about expressing your own feelings. Those are the photos that are most meaningful.

Alana: I think photography is lovely because it actually helps us see the world differently.

Me: Absolutely. It’s easy for our rational selves to focus on what went wrong with a day, or what is bad about our lives. A photograph that captures just one beautiful moment in the day can completely turn that perception around. And we all have beautiful moments every day if we just stop to look for and experience them.

Alana: Yes, this is where listening to that wise voice inside is important. It will always lead us toward a whole-hearted life.

Me: After my early pregnancy loss before I had Liam and Jack, in a way, every photo I share of them is an expression of gratitude shaped by that and other losses.

Alana: I didn’t start using photography in my healing process until recently, but there are a few photos that I feel really capture some of this incredible journey that grief put me on. Benjamin’s death woke me up to life and has allowed me to love and accept myself in ways I’d only dreamed of.

Me: I love these photos that you have shared with us. And I love that they are all of you. It’s a great way to change how you see yourself.

Alana, thank you so much for sharing your experience with us today. I remember being blown away when I first saw your TEDx talk and your work has been an inspiration ever since.

Alana: Thank you, it has been my pleasure.

View Alana’s TedX talk on Owning Our Grief and for more support and inspiration, download her free e-book, Picking Up the Pieces: Thoughts on Grief and Growth.