Posted By Stephen Mitchell,
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
This piece is a reflection on the third plenary session at the 2015 CFHA Conference in Portland, Oregon. Click here for a summary of the session.
I sit in a tree-canopied park bright with green grass and kissed by the wetness of Portland rain, recalling all that just happened at the 2015 CFHA Conference. A song by the Wailin’ Jennys accompanies me. The lyrics fill my spirit…
“This is the sound of voices two, the sound of me singing with you
Helping each other to make it through, this is the sound of voices two
This is the sound of voices three singing together in harmony
Surrendering to the mystery this is the sound of voices three.”
I came to the park following a plenary presentation a group of my colleagues from St. Mary’s Family Medicine Residency gave at the annual CFHA conference. We each shared personal narratives about dying and death. I recounted the lived experience of my son Bo dying at 14 weeks old. I told this story with some trepidation because the biomedical view of miscarriage does not classify this type of pregnancy loss as a death. I did not know how or if my experience would be acknowledged. My humble question to the audience and really to the biomedical worldview was “Can I call this a death?”
My personal experience of saying these words and the words that followed, as well as my impression of the audience’s subsequent response, is what I am trying to decipher on the park bench with the Wailin’ Jennys. Tears travel down the landscape of my cheeks and I find myself whispering, “I told your story today Bo, I gave you a voice.”
Erin, my wife, presses into my consciousness and I imagine our two voices joined together trying to help one another through the devastation and gut-wrenching pain Bo’s death brought. Bo also steps into my imagination and I feel my head lift to the sky, my eyes gaze into the upper limits of the trees, and I hear Erin’s, Bo’s, and my voice. Our voices three came together in harmony during the plenary and spoke of the mysterious agony that travels with loss.
Yet, we did not just speak of the agony but also the mysterious beauty that is birthed in loss. It is not a beauty that is sought after or even wanted but it is a beauty that unites and binds hearts together in unspeakable ways and an indestructible relationship. This beauty needs a voice. After the plenary many people expressed immense kindness to our whole group and me. Those who had been specifically touched by miscarriage poured forth gratitude that space had been given to this silent and often unrecognized loss.
Miscarriage is not a loss for all who experience it, but it is for many. As I continue to reflect on my experience and the response from the audience, I have come to understand that something powerful took place. I had the honor to bear witness; to give voice to what has been lost. I did this for my wife, my son, and myself but I also did this for those present who had been changed by a miscarriage.
As physicians and psychotherapists we encounter patients who are physically, emotionally, and spiritually in pain. In my work as a therapist, I have come to believe so much of this pain comes from losses that have never been given a voice. Rather, patient’s wrestle to hold their losses within and their bodies, hearts, and spirits suffer as the pain festers. Loss must have a voice or it will rule every facet of who we are.
Giving voice to loss does not lessen it but it does allow us to bear its burden with a community. My personal pain due to Bo’s death did not diminish by speaking at the plenary. In fact my heartbreak seems to have grown but this is not a heartbreak I bear alone. I see the faces of my wife, Bo, my two sons, and the faces of those at the conference. We have all born witness together and I am overcome with the agonizing beauty present in this reality. What was lost has been given a voice so that it is recognized as real and may never be forgotten.
What strikes me in this process is the inter-subjective nature. My son Bo is made real through recognition but also I am made real. When others bear witness to our losses we know that we exist. This is a powerful manner in which to give dignity to each patient we encounter. So, as you meet with your patients this week perhaps you can ask yourself, “How can I invite this patient to give voice to their losses? What losses have they had? How can I stand with them as one who bears witness?”
Stephen W. Mitchell, Mdiv, MAC, LPCis a doctoral candidate in Saint Louis University’s Medical Family Therapy Program. He completed a medical family therapy fellowship at St. Mary’s Family Medicine Residency in Grand Junction, CO. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor in both Missouri and Colorado. Currently he is completing his dissertation, which is a qualitative inquiry into a couple’s experience of miscarriage. He is a Clinical Supervisor at Jewish Family and Children’s Service in St. Louis, MO and spends most of his days listening to patient’s stories, writing a dissertation, and wishing he had his own DIY Network series. His research interests are pregnancy, pregnancy loss, birth, and trauma’s impact on physical/psychological health.