Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Safe Place: Stories Can Help Us Heal

Telling your story has the power to transform you. Sharing your pain and confusion and/or guilt through your voice can help to heal your heart. Even speaking your feelings to a blank wall is productive; just like writing in a journal.

What happens though when we talk about our truth to someone who dismisses it or tells us our "perspective" is wrong? I listened to a woman at the ICAN meeting share an experience that deeply saddened me. She had prepared for a natural vaginal birth and instead ended up having a c-section. Burdened with a whole host of confusing feelings and questions she struggled to recover from surgery as well as take care of a newborn. At her postpartum visit with her doctor she reached out. There is a great need to unburden oneself after a birth goes very differently than we had fantasized it would. Instead of communicating in a way to bridge the gulf that lay between them the doctor became defensive and created a wall that stands cemented in place between them to this day.

Why doctors become defensive is an important question to be explored another day. Today I am exploring the power of stories. What happens internally when we are told or led to believe that our truth is untrue? What happens when there is a disconnect between our feelings of sadness and loss after a surgical birth and everyone around us telling us we should be happy our baby is healthy? What happens when a person stops listening to their inner voice that tells them when something feels right or wrong? Well we know bad things happen to kids that don't listen to their inner voice and let someone in a position of authority who is bigger, stronger, older and "wiser" talk them into doing something that they know in their gut is wrong. We know bad things happen to women who don't listen to their inner voice and start dating a person that convinces them they are inept and their only worth comes through being in a relationship with their abuser. We know bad things happen to men when they don't listen to their inner voice that alerts them to danger and put themselves into a vulnerable position where they can be physically assaulted and have what they value robbed from them. Women often feel if they had just listened to their inner voice during their birth this story would never have happened. They blame themselves for not listening, for not being stronger, for not using their voice during birth to speak up and stop the train wreck of their experience. So what happens to that woman when she is told once again during the vulnerable postpartum adjustment that her "truth" is not the truth; that she needs to stop listening to her truth and that she definitely needs to stop speaking her "truth"? How damaging! What an opportunity for healing through validation and support lost. Can't we be allowed to be sad about our births and at the same time happy to have a healthy baby in our arms?

The simple truth, that many people are uncomfortable talking about is, many mothers are experiencing grief in the midst of being overjoyed and overwhelmed by their newborn. Why? Because as a wise friend once explained to me; grief happens whenever our fantasy and reality don't match. This could be the fantasy of sharing next Christmas with a loved one who dies in November, or the fantasy of being able to fix a bad marriage only to be faced with the ugly reality of divorce. Unfortunately women's birth experiences are not living up to their fantasies and instead often live up to their greatest fears. The importance of validating the mother's feelings of grief and loss, so that she can heal and move forward, are tremendous.

Grief comes in many forms or phases: sadness, anger, blaming, denial, asking why me. These are all normal grief reactions that we pass through. They carry with them strong emotions that many people are not comfortable being around. They will try to "fix" an unfixable or deny or answer "why me" which can't really be answered. ICAN is a safe haven where women can experience their grief and only receive validation. It is a form of therapy that can help transform confusion and pain into clarity and acceptance. Most of the women their have gone through this same experience, felt these same feelings. They share a common bond and when they express to a newcomer that they understand how she feels she knows they really get it. They allow her truth to be her truth and actual healing can begin.

My hope is that in the future when a doctor or midwife is faced with a mom's expressions of grief after their birth they will say to them, "I can see you are really upset about how your birth unfolded. I'm not really the best person for you to talk to about this but I know a place you can go. The women there can help you heal from this birth and prepare for future births." Then they would hand her an ICAN brochure or a telephone number.

So what happened to the mom who shared her story? She is a committed member of ICAN and she rewrote her story through her next birth because yes SHE CAN!


  1. "Grief happens whenever our fantasy and reality don't match" - I love this quote. Wouldn't it be a wonderful world if people knew how to care for a grieving individual?! You actually don't have to do much - just have the time and understanding to listen. Thanks for your post.


  2. Just great, Jennifer. You really nailed it.

  3. Grief is happening anytime you can answer yes to any one of the following questions.
    1. Do I wish things could have been better?
    2. Did I hope that thing could have been different?
    3. Do I wish that I had more ________?
    I'm a Grief Recovery Facilitator Certified from the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks...Jennifer, I love your quote. "Grief happens whenever our fantasy and reality don't match" How true!
    Thanks so much for sharing