Saturday, February 18, 2012

Delicious Irony

Just sitting here ponding the irresistible and delicious irony:

I am presenting a paper on an ethnographic research study I conducted at the Society for Cross-Cultural Research conference next week. In Las Vegas. The study explored traumatic child death in a Hutterite colony.

Let me juxtapose the antipodes:

I'm going here...

To talk about this...

This should be very interesting for me, both as a researcher and a human being.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Dark Passages


A pink stripe! 
It's positive!
Destiny prevails
screaming, “This shall be!”
Ten lunar months shall pass
with or without her participation.

She engages in the battle of denim
as the expanding belly is declared The Victor!
And with it comes the tearful quest
toward acceptance of new self
and elastic waistbands.

Tup-tup, tup-tup, tup-tup.
Their eyes dance to the beat
of their unborn sister’s heart.
Lessons esoteric
And then off to the sandbox...

What is happening?
Could it be? Yes, a gesture of life.
Maybe just her stomach? Must be indigestion-
No! Again…the flutter of her baby.
It is 2 a.m.
No words. 
Just silence and a moment, 
a sacred moment. 

Tears of joy accessorize the day as
dancing bears and mint green lambs
adorn the walls.
The bassinet awaits to become the warm, safe place
second only to the nest of her arms.

Three weeks remain now.
All eyes turned toward her, waiting for her masterful performance.
She deletes days of the calendar in her mind, July 7, 8, 9...
It is 2 a.m.
Hurry, hurry, hurry.
She fights her body to let her rest. 
Elusive sleep is
her only escape from the exhaustion, swelling,
and pain of the tenth month.

Six pillows and bathroom run three.
Her ankles engorged.
The sacrifice of self is palpable.
 At times, she feels
trapped in her own body. 
Vulnerable. Frightened.
It is 2 a.m.
The journey has taken its toll.

Two more days.
It is 2 a.m., and she gently strokes her abdomen unaware
that their hands meet, 
separated only by a few layers of skin and veins
that carry oxygen through her pulsing cord.
They are one.

The sun rises, bringing the morning saunter
but this day will be different.
She collapses as if in prayer
as her body convulses in excruciating pain,
Oh my, God!

Too fast…it is all too fast.
Rushing, rushing…get the doctor!
She is term, contractions every minute…she’ll be ready soon!”
Excited, yes, but scared too! It is happening so fast.
The culmination of her sacrifices
finally yielding the reward.

"It will be worth it, it will be worth it," her mantra.

She fights tears through the ebb and flow of the contractions.

A hodgepodge of white coats, 
medicine men and women,
unrecognizable faces sharing in the moment
schooled by choice to bring life into the world.
With brazen confidence the man who will guide
the passage from the womb’s safety meets her glance.
And then, 
faces transform. 
There is only silence interrupted 
by her moans and the sweat trickling down her forehead.

Their smiles crash like glass,
glances unfamiliar to her.

“What is happening?” she asks in between the pains that command her attention.

No response, 
only looks of panic exchanged between scurries.
screaming repetitions of nothingness.

“What is happening!?”
Terror ravages every cell in her body.
His heart is callused like a laborer’s hands.
The diagnosis, detached, is louder than anything she's ever heard:
“Your baby is dead.”
“Your baby is dead.”
“Your baby is dead.”

Please, please turn the volume down.

Contractions every thirty seconds.
No time to think. No La Maze. Too much pain.
Unimaginable pain.
Physical. Spiritual. Mental. Emotional.

“What? No. No. No. No. NO!”
She tries to get up from the bed,
but they hold her down like a prisoner.
What crime has she committed?
No. I'm leaving. I'm going home.”
Stupid, mindless people. Liars.

She protests,
as the contractions bound her and kick her,
and punish her.
Sweat and sorrow
rain like fire from her temples.
Push, push, push.
She can feel her child being born.
Head, elbows, chest. Finally feet emerge
from her Judas body.

Someone puts the camera on slow motion.
Frame by frame, outside herself she watches.
Eyes clenched tight
awaiting, baited breath.
Cry, baby. Cry for mommy,” she pleads in her mind as
she negotiates unsuccessfully: Her life for the baby's.
Still she is gone.

Pink, white, and blue are the choices,
not for lacy dresses but for caskets.
They ask her to choose. 
Looking around the formaldehyde-incensed room, planning her escape,
she cannot see, as the tears asphyxiate her.
Falling to the cold tile
"This just cannot be," she recites repeatedly.

The second hand is in a hurry today.
She begs it to stop, but the time has come.
Reluctantly she places her into the pastel casket
and she bends over to kiss her one final time
as milk burns her breasts in disapproval

she will bury her beautiful girl, 
all eight pounds, 
with dark curly hair and porcelain skin.

Cathedral flowers are tied with ribbons of sorrow, and
black limousines stand at attention.
Her anesthetized consciousness fades
in and out, as the sun dances
between summer clouds.
And from the earth that swallows her child
she begs acquittal.

Months later and her mind becomes a dangerous stranger.

bursting explosions, dragging her through the muddy waters of grief
forcing her to swallow the poison of reality,
blinding her, confusing her.
Senseless propaganda in her ears about God's will and time healing and
still stinging reminders around every corner.

It is 2 a.m.
She curled into her pain, like an embryo
her body bleeding in defiance.
Her soul lay mortally wounded
amongst the shadows
on the dark closet floor
where her elastic-waisted garments hanged,
anointed with French vanilla
 and where no one witnessed
  as she invited Death to come.

But He declined her offer.
Another time, perhaps?
He left her in the carnage.

Like Gretel, she searches for crumbs of hope
to guide her through the forest,
through the passages of the deepest torment she will ever know.

Not one in the millions
of peoples, languages or philosophies
can begin to speak of
the true torment of a mother
whose child has been ripped, without mercy
from her burning arms.

2,190 days.
Six phantom years.
 But love does not decompose as flesh.

Memories try to sneak away when she is not looking.
The alarm sounds and quickly she brings them home.
Edges of the photographs are time-faded and worn from too much handling,
so she juxtaposes scenes from two worlds
and escapes to the voices of a thousand ghosts.

Yet, in the underground passages of her mind
through the only pardon from darkness
shines the light of hope.
The beauty born of pain

Now she walks the forests thick with grief.
Like Gretel, leaving crumbs for others,
to find their way
and to discover.

It is 2am. 
Over and over again.

© 2000, Joanne Cacciatore


Passages are noble entrances that pull us forth
To places we sometimes don't dare to go.
We believe the door should be vibrant, welcoming
But understand,

it is the dark passages that make us grow
If all our paths were kind
They could never weep tears into the soul
And therefore the ground we boldly stand upon
Would always be shallow...
It is only a passage
We must hold and humbly pass.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Death, Death, and more Death

We will all die. Every one of us.  
To live as if we won't is to live a very, very small life. 
-Joanne Cacciatore

The segue into spring semester brought with it my traumatic death course at ASU.

When I came to ASU (initially at the West campus), there was one death-course available, predominantly gerontological pedagogy. At the time, I'd asked my chair if I could design a traumatic death course: one that would focus on the deaths of babies, children, homicide, suicide, premature parental death - those anachronistic losses about which few dared speak of openly.

He was concerned, noting he wasn't sure if the course would get high enough enrollment to warrant all the time I would devote to new course development and approval.  Nevertheless, I wanted to try.

The first offering enrolled more than 30 students.  The second offering 40. Each subsequent year, interest and enrollment in the course grew. And, the student feedback was inspiring:

"This is by far the best course I've taken in my undergrad and grad studies!"

"This was not only a class. This was an experience!"

"Unforgettable. Life-changing!"

"Every student intending to work with those who are suffering should be required to take this course."

"This class has been the highlight of my program and I'm so grateful to be a part of it!"

"After the first week of classes, I already felt a renewed confidence in my ability to listen deeply to patients but today's emotional breakthrough was unprecedented for me."

"Truly an amazing class. I didn't want it to end!"

"I could not be more grateful for how this course has enriched my life in so many ways!"

Though I haven't received the evaluations from this cohort yet, I could tell the students loved the information in the course.  I could see it in their faces. They were learning. They were growing. They were becoming. So was I. On the final day of class, many students expressed sadness and wanted to continue. Some students retook the course even though they didn't need the credits.  They were hungry for this type of training.  And I was deeply moved by the response.

Death is becoming a popular guy in town. Maybe now he'll stop dressing in all-black, scaring the bejeebers out of people. This semester I had 60 students and a waiting list of more than a dozen (and the graduate Certificate in Trauma and Bereavement program is rapidly expanding!). I had five requests to audit the course.  Students opened their minds and their hearts (hsin-hsin) through the wisdom of the ages, spiritual traditions, evidence-based practices, vipassana journals, bereaved parent panels, and a final creative arts project expressing their own experiences of grief or that of a client in their internship.  The zenith of our class is a final day of sharing.  Death, death, and more death = life, big life, and bigger life. That was the overwhelming theme - the thesis - upon which most all students said they agreed. While the topic was difficult and evocative, the course made their lives bigger not smaller.   Their hearts grew, they did not contract.

Ah, Death, the great teacher of Life.  Delicious irony.

My hands are pressed together and I bow to all the students who courageously and with great wisdom embarked on the journey toward awareness of Death. And to the bereaved parents and grandparent on the panel. Simply, you cannot learn so much of this in any book.

It was a bittersweet pleasure to be with you. I will not forget our time together. Thank you- gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.

We simply cannot fully live until we fully explore death.  

And with that, I would like to share some of the amazing expressions of grief, death, and trauma, traditional, from the native, heartfelt, familial, historical, and so much more, SWG591, Spring, 2012:

Saturday, February 4, 2012

You Have No Power Here...

I wanted to reach into the past and share a story from my book Dear Cheyenne.  This came up because lately so many families have been sharing stories of the unexplainable, those ineffable experiences somewhere over the rainbow.

This is from an excerpt dated December 17, 1999.  This was 13 years back into time. It's hard to imagine this was so long ago. Still, I remember it like it was yesterday.  Ah, "Time"... as Glenda would say, "you have no power here."

Dear Cheyenne,

I am writing this at nearly midnight. Lately, I have been very sad, not just over your death but for so many other families. The deaths continue, and I am helpless to stop it.  All I can do I cry with the heartbroken families and share their pain.  

Tonight, I took Cameron, Stevie Jo, and Joshua to a holiday party for a grieving kids camp they attended this past summer.  It was being held at a Catholic church quite a distance from our home, but they really wanted to go and revisit the friends they made at camp. 

The evening was a wonderful time to reflect.  I was an “attendee” this time, instead of my usual “busy” role.  Thus, I had an opportunity to experience the celebration of remembrance.  We sang songs and viewed a slide presentation of camp. During the candle lighting, I broke down in uncontrollable tears.  I was so emotional that I had to leave the auditorium and walk to the back of the room into the foyer area.  Tears were pouring down my face, mascara blinding my eyes.   Thoughts of, “Why do I keep doing this?” and “I cannot do this anymore, I’m not strong enough,” haunted me. I specifically asked, in my heart, for a sign- for strength to continue this work. Over and over, I said to myself, "I just need a sign to keep going" and "Why am I doing this (work?)"

Just then, your big sister, Stevie Jo came to the back of the room to check on me. I looked down at her, trying to see her through the tears.

Are you okay, Mommy?” she asked.  

Yes, Sweetie,” I said, “I am just missing your baby sister.

Knowing I just needed some time alone, she went back to her seat.  

With my head down and my heart heavy, I agonized over your death in my head.  I wondered why such horrible things happened to such good parents. I struggled because it had been so long since I’d felt your presence close to me. I have been so busy lately that I haven’t made time for solitude…to tend my own profound grief four years after your death.

When I finally lifted my head and wiped my eyes, I saw something that literally stunned me.  There was a large display shelf in the foyer area on the back wall with locking glass hanging on the back wall of the auditorium.  On the shelf was a large wooden sign:


I began to laugh, almost hysterically. 

"Well, I did ask for a sign," I said wildly to myself.

So there I was, in all my insanity- laughing, crying- trying to make myself believe what I was seeing with my own eyes!

When the ceremony ended, I stood in my place, staring at the sign. I showed everyone who passed the sign; certainly they would never really understand.  But still, I had to share it. I asked several people from the church if they knew how the sign got there, or what it was used for, but no one knew. It didn’t really matter. 

I was there at that very moment, standing in that spot, asking those very questions for a reason. It was a gift. Thank you...

The pain of never seeing you grow into a beautiful young girl, never seeing your smile, or hearing your voice, or feeling you wraps your arms around my neck…or hearing you call me mommy- that pain is always there. It will be until my last dying breath. But I hold you in my heart, Cheyenne. Your love and your gifts are far bigger than the pain now.

Though I didn’t have enough time to be your mother here on Earth, I hope that you realize how much you are loved, and that love I have for you is beyond this world.

For as long as I live, I am the mother of five children- four who walk and one who soars. One who soars, beyond our world, outside of time, somewhere over the rainbow.


If I am silent enough, I can hear your whisper. 

If I am lonely enough, 

I can feel your presence. 

When it is 

dark enough, 

I can see your light. 

When I am kind to another, I feel your love.

-Dr. Joanne Cacciatore

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Rowing in the Sea of Tears

"Lighthouses don't go running around looking for boats to save.
They just stand there, shining."
Anne Lamott

I received this photo today from someone I've been working with for about nine months. It was her expression of gratitude for the time we've spent together navigating her journey through abysmal grief and suffering.

One thing she said to me, for which I felt honored and humbled was this:

"You never told me how I should feel or what I should do. You never made me feel judged or crazy like so many others. You don't rush my healing. If I cry, you just sit with me as I cry. If I laugh you understand that doesn't mean I'm over his death. You helped me when you didn't even know you were helping. Not just in your office, but outside your office. Just knowing you are in the world helps me. You are just there being you. And that is what helped me learn to swim. I watched you be you and you accepted me no matter what. I thank you for that comfort. There is no where else I can go to get that..."

There is no greater imperative for true healers than to surrender to powerlessness in the face of human suffering. We simply cannot cure the death of our Beloved.

We cannot wave our magic wands. We cannot prescribe a magic pill. We cannot clean it and make it pretty. Or contain it. Or manage it. Or label it. No label could begin to describe or capture its excruciation.

There is no magic mantra. No magic prayer. No magic ritual. No magic words or verse. Nothing cures this. Nothing.

While there is much debate over the new DSM-V's upcoming release, what I can say to my colleagues and students is that the healing from suffering does not come from anything you will say or do or wish or believe. It does not come from any theory of any book from any 'evidence-based practice' or any research.

It comes from the open heart of civic love. It comes from who you are with the other, like Buber's Ich and Du (I and Thou).

You cannot row it away
Not this sorrow,
you cannot drape it
over sand dunes
hoping it will blow into the atmosphere,
not this sorrow...
and the slow sound of the word
begins a keening cry
soft and solid, loud
and languorous,
stretching pain until
it begins to wear thin in spots,
and the tears that watered rain forests
now collect in lakes, and
those who know this sorrow
plant a tree,
a magnificent tree.
-Ruth Ann Meyers Kulp


We cannot row away the sorrow.
We cannot.
We can only be with its cry.
We can only be with its cry.


The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

Follow me on Facebook