For seventeen years I’d kept three small stones in a long-emptied chocolate box on a shelf in a cupboard. They weren’t particularly beautiful stones – to anyone else they would have been just standard Sussex beach issue but for me they held all the ‘magic’ of sacred objects. I didn’t look at them every day but most days I thought about them and in the last few years I’ve wondered how long I might need them and how long I should keep them.
The day I scooped them from the shoreline at Cuckmere Haven near Eastbourne was the day I realised any realistic chance of my becoming a mother was non-existent. Our final cycle of IVF had just ended in miscarriage and we had no embryos left to freeze and no chances to make any more. We both knew this was the end of the line. Emotionally, physically and financially we were exhausted. That day on the beach I walked alone and as I looked out towards the horizon I had never felt so empty. The vast expanse of grey sea seemed to reflect my overwhelming sadness and I felt swamped by that huge question: ‘What the hell do I do now?’
I realised then that as long as embryos existed either in a Petrie dish or inside me, there was hope; there was something tangible that represented a kind of viscerally sensed triangle of my husband, me and our potential children. Now there were no embryos left and I had no way of representing that huge loss. So, as I walked on the beach, instinctively, my eyes scanned the shoreline for three stones – one stone for each of our final embryos. I can still remember the comfort I felt as I held their cool, smooth roundness in my hand.
A New Threshold
Fast forward seventeen years and I am on that same beach surrounded by my husband and six close friends –friends who have walked with me the mile from the road to the beach and who have walked by my side over these years of coming to my own kind of resolution about my childlessness. Today the sea is glistening in summer sunshine and the far-off horizon seems full of promise. Each of my three stones sits on a small stone cairn and I am about to say goodbye to them – to give them back to the sea, where they belong. What brought me here to this moment was the realisation that I could create my own ceremony, a bespoke ritual that would incorporate both a marking of my grief and a celebration of how far I had come in my life.
…ceremonies (meaning gatherings of meaningful people) help us move away from familiar patterns of love, life, and behavior towards new ones that we cannot yet imagine. Madelon Sprengnether
From the big life moments that celebrate love, life and loss to the tiny everyday rituals – for example, preparation for a family meal, after-work drinks on a Friday, gathering all the essentials before taking a long, luxurious bath – ceremony and ritual are a vital part of our emotional landscape. Yet – and I probably don’t need to tell you this – there exists no social norm when it comes to marking the grief associated with childlessness. The thing about navigating the loss associated with being childless through circumstance is that there is no discrete event or point to mark or celebrate. Nor is there one socially acknowledged ceremony or ritual with which to start the grieving process or to recognize our journey as we forge new routes towards acceptance and healing. Living with childlessness is a voyage into the unknown and we map every set back, every moment of glorious emergence, every turning point alone. So there was nothing to tell me when or how to create and hold a ritual nor was there a standard format for this ceremony. And in that gap lay not just a challenge but also a wonderful opportunity to create something totally unique.
Inspiration and courage to put my ceremony plans into action came when I went to a ceremony a friend had created to mark the complex grief associated with the loss of her mother. Due to circumstances beyond her control, she was unable to attend her mother’s funeral. In so bravely conceiving and realising her own ceremony, my friend created something powerful and healing and I began to believe I too could make a ceremony of my own.
A New Journey
I don’t know how I knew the time was right to say goodbye to my precious stones. I think I came to realise that they were holding me just as I was holding them and that perhaps I didn’t need that holding any more. I also recognised that the stones were never really meant to be a memorial. At the time I took them from the beach they represented only one aspect of my journey – grief and loss. Over the almost two decades I kept them they became imbued with even more precious elements – hope, resilience, love and joy. I also came to understand that by returning the stones to the beach I wasn’t letting go of the memory of the IVF, the embryos and our potential children, but I was simply allowing both the stones and myself the opportunity of a new journey.
Even when the idea for a farewell ceremony began to crystallise in my mind and I started planning, I would preface every thought with ‘Oh, I’ll just…’: “Oh, I’ll just do it on my own”; “Oh, I’ll just take the stones in my pocket and throw them in the sea.” Eventually I realised that these thoughts betrayed a reluctance to recognise, still even now, that both the sadness of grief and the joy in creating a different life to the one I’d planned are worthy of a ritual. Luckily for me, one of my friends is a celebrant and with her amazing guidance and wonderful instincts I started to formulate a plan that incorporated the beauty and care that my ceremony deserved.
And here on this beach I know I have done absolutely the right thing. After years of wondering whether such a ceremony would be ‘too self-indulgent, frivolous, unnecessary’ and any other number of negative thought-proclamations, I am finally taking this important step in my healing process. We’re standing in a circle of white stones and seaweed that was so lovingly and beautifully created by Amanda, my celebrant friend. Amanda leads us in taking a breath at each of the cardinal points, welcoming in earth, sky, sun and wind. Everyone is allowed a space to speak or to read something if they wish to… and I will treasure those words forever.
The tide is coming in. Reluctantly we leave the circle, placing one white stone in the gap where we have stepped out, sealing that space and marking the closure of the ceremony. Soon the cairns will be enveloped by the waves and my stones will be drawn towards the next part of their journey – as am I.
Not everyone might feel that they need to create and hold a ceremony or a ritual. But if you do hanker after some way of making a mark in a very tangible way, your ceremony could be anything your imagination can produce, either simple and uncomplicated or more elaborate. Eric R Maisel discusses different types of ceremony in his article here at Psychology Today.
The most important thing to remember if you would like to create a ceremony is to incorporate the elements that you feel comfortable with and which will help you perhaps to move over a threshold into a new way of thinking or being. This is your chance to use your creativity and life experience and to think about what kind of ceremony would reflect your life story, your personality and experience.
From my own experience I find that grief somehow takes me out and away from the world and my ‘stone ceremony’ helped to ground me again and to recognize the power of having others present to witness the marking of loss and joy. The symbology and ritual of the ceremony, far from creating an unreal, ethereal quality offered that very precious of things – a chance to be in that one moment for one important purpose.
If you have had a ceremony or are thinking of holding one, do feel free to share your thoughts here using the comments facility on the blog. Please note that once I accept comments they become public so if you prefer to remain anonymous, email me through my blog and I can add your comment without your name.
Until next time, my friends.