Interested in participating in a research project?

As readers of this blog most likely know, I conduct research and teach at a university in Vancouver. Some will also know that I am a trained archivist, and that my field of research is archival studies. I’ve written before about the ways in which A’s death affected my studies as a PhD student and altered the nature of my research agenda. For several years now, I’ve been thinking about how grief and bereavement fit into my chosen field: how might a deeper understanding of the relationship between grief and recordkeeping impact archival thinking and practice? Grief is something archivists encounter pretty regularly; for example, a recently widowed donor might bring in her spouse’s records, or a residential schools survivor might comb records to find clues to what happened to her siblings or other family members. But archivists don’t really talk about grief – at least to each other – and there’s very little discussion about how having a better understanding of grief might help us to provide better services and care to the people who donate and use the records we preserve.

To address this gap (in part at least), I’m conducting a study that aims in part to fill that gap, to begin a conversation in the archival field about bereavement and recordkeeping, about emotion in the archives, and in particular, about grief in the archives. (You can read more about my work in this area here: https://blogs.ubc.ca/recordkeepinggriefwork/)

In my years of writing here and of working in other ways, too, to preserve A’s memory, I’ve thought a lot about how what I’m doing – in some ways – is building up an archive of my love for her and about how doing that work keeps me connected to her memory. I’m interested now in talking to other bereaved parents about their own experiences of grief and recordkeeping. Recordkeeping is a term archivists use to encompass making, using, organizing, and keeping records. A record can be anything a person makes, uses, or keeps to preserve evidence or memory;  in this project, we define a record as any document or object that you make and/or keep to remember your baby. You might keep records just for yourself, or you might share them with others. You might keep some for a short while and others forever. Records can include things like photographs, ultrasound images, journals, letters, emails, blogs, hospital records, etc. They might also include objects like a stuffed animal, an item of clothing, a special rock or dried flowers, etc. Records might also include ephemeral items that are important to you because they are connected in some way to your baby or your memory of your baby. Essentially, for this project, anything you make or keep as part of your effort to perpetuate the memory of your child can count as a record.

If you’re reading this, and you’re a bereaved parent who has built, or is building up, a collection of records – of any type – related to your baby and/or to your experiences of bereavement, and if you are interested in learning more about this research project and about possibilities for participating, please send me an email at jen[dot]douglas[at]ubc[dot]ca. I’ll be happy to provide you with more information about the research objectives and methods and to answer any questions. Please also feel free to share this invitation with other bereaved parents you think might have an interest in the project and/or in participating.

I don’t want anyone to feel pressure to learn more or participate; this is 100% voluntary, and I understand it won’t be of interest to every bereaved parent to take part in this type of conversation or work.

Thanks, as always, for reading here and for helping to hold me up all these years. I often think I would never have finished my PhD, never made it into the academic position I now hold, without the support I have received from readers of this blog. I’m forever grateful for this community.

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Through the looking glass

I was watching the kids today as they stared out over the railing into the crowds milling below them at the Orpheum, as we waited to go into the symphony, a show just for kids on a Sunday afternoon, and I remembered how on the very darkest, early days all I wanted was a glimpse into the future to know if things would ever be okay for us again.

They are.

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January, again

I haven’t changed the calendar in my office yet, so I keep looking up to see what the date is and confusing myself. Is it the 6th or the 9th or the 11th? I know it’s soon, though, her birthday: the 12th, the 13th, the 14th – or the day we discovered she had died, the day I was induced, the day I delivered her, held her, said goodbye. How to mark those days? Do I really have to mark them all? How will it be this year? Questions that are pushing at the back of my mind as I rush through the first weeks of new classes for me and new activities for the kids and all the after-holidays reorienting. Seven years. Each year it seems impossible, how big that number grows, the realization that it will only continue to grow, though she never did. I have thought recently about how well I’m doing, how I’ve managed to keep going, how I’m not falling apart anymore but carrying on, and then I felt awful for making this about me when it was her loss, she who never got to experience anything outside of me. Who would she have been? The questions circles and circles and always will, never answered. On the way to school this morning, we talked about what we would do for Anja’s birthday this year. E wants to bake the cake. I asked her: ‘do you remember anything of those years after she died?’ and she replied with an emphatic, ‘no.’ So emphatic that I wonder what she doesn’t want to remember. I’m glad she can protect herself right now by not remembering; she is 10 years old and deserves to be unburdened. I know she doesn’t really forget, and I know now, too, that after all these years, grief and remembering change and then change again, and we change, too, and change again. She never changes, though. She never had the chance, and that is the ache that sits most clearly with me this year: her loss, all the ways in which she was cheated. We’ll muddle through these days. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again, and I know, finally, that there is no right way to observe them – we just do it, and then do it again the next year, and the next, and there are moments of grace in there, and moments where it’s all wrong, and then it all changes again, and all there is to do is observe and carry on, grieve and remember, love and continue to love.

Rough days

We’re having rough days over here, lately. M is asserting his independence, E is having none of that. There are fights. There is screaming. Lots of crying. I have 100 million papers to mark and the bathroom is an unholy mess. The stress mounts and patience is hard to find. Someone shrieks, ‘it isn’t fair,’ and I know it isn’t but my instinct is to yell or retreat. Almost December and Christmas.  So much to do, and then: January. Again. It’s hard, sometimes, to be the nurturer. To be the adult. To be the good mother. They’re all long limbs and eye rolls now around here – no more babies. Still, if I fold them up in my lap, burrow my head in their necks, kiss cheeks and backs of hands, and stroke the hair that so badly needs to be cut, they’re my babies again, melt into me, listen with their whole bodies to my love, and this is what I must remember: love love love. November, December, January – fill them with love, love, more and more love, always and ever love.

Interest in participating in a research project?

As readers of this blog most likely know, I conduct research and teach at a university in Vancouver. Some will also know that I am a trained archivist, and that my field of research is archival studies. I’ve written before about the ways in which A’s death affected my studies as a PhD student and altered the nature of my research agenda. For several years now, I’ve been thinking about how grief and bereavement fit into my chosen field: how might a deeper understanding of the relationship between grief and recordkeeping impact archival thinking and practice? Grief is something archivists encounter pretty regularly; for example, a recently widowed donor might bring in her spouse’s records, or a residential schools survivor might comb records to find clues to what happened to her siblings or other family members. But archivists don’t really talk about grief – at least to each other – and there’s very little discussion about how having a better understanding of grief might help us to provide better services and care to the people who donate and use the records we preserve.

To address this gap (in part at least), I’m conducting a study that aims in part to fill that gap, to begin a conversation in the archival field about bereavement and recordkeeping, about emotion in the archives, and in particular, about grief in the archives. (You can read more about my work in this area here: https://blogs.ubc.ca/recordkeepinggriefwork/)

In my years of writing here and of working in other ways, too, to preserve A’s memory, I’ve thought a lot about how what I’m doing – in some ways – is building up an archive of my love for her and about how doing that work keeps me connected to her memory. I’m interested now in talking to other bereaved parents about their own experiences of grief and recordkeeping. Recordkeeping is a term archivists use to encompass making, using, organizing, and keeping records. A record can be anything a person makes, uses, or keeps to preserve evidence or memory;  in this project, we define a record as any document or object that you make and/or keep to remember your baby. You might keep records just for yourself, or you might share them with others. You might keep some for a short while and others forever. Records can include things like photographs, ultrasound images, journals, letters, emails, blogs, hospital records, etc. They might also include objects like a stuffed animal, an item of clothing, a special rock or dried flowers, etc. Records might also include ephemeral items that are important to you because they are connected in some way to your baby or your memory of your baby. Essentially, for this project, anything you make or keep as part of your effort to perpetuate the memory of your child can count as a record.

If you’re reading this, and you’re a bereaved parent who has built, or is building up, a collection of records – of any type – related to your baby and/or to your experiences of bereavement, and if you are interested in learning more about this research project and about possibilities for participating, please send me an email at jldoug[at]mail[dot]ubc[dot]ca. I’ll be happy to provide you with more information about the research objectives and methods and to answer any questions. Please also feel free to share this invitation with other bereaved parents you think might have an interest in the project and/or in participating.

I don’t want anyone to feel pressure to learn more or participate; this is 100% voluntary, and I understand it won’t be of interest to every bereaved parent to take part in this type of conversation or work.

Thanks, as always, for reading here and for helping to hold me up all these years. I often think I would never have finished my PhD, never made it into the academic position I now hold, without the support I have received from readers of this blog. I’m forever grateful for this community.

‘Whatever a sun will always sing is you’

There are places in this city that can still cause my heart to constrict unexpectedly. Places strongly associated with her that bring up sudden memories of a lighter time. I used to think it was a happier time, and now I don’t know that that’s really true, but it was certainly a lighter time, the before time.

We moved out of the West End and downtown a year and a half ago and into a neighbourhood where there are no memories of her brief time with us. I miss the memories places brought. She had a presence in that neighbourhood. Almost everywhere I looked there was something that made me think of her; in some ways it was a relief to be able to walk through a new neighbourhood where every tree and corner was not strung with memories of my dead daughter, but in other ways it has been an incalculable loss. I miss her, again, in a new and different way.

This weekend I’ve been attending a conference in my own city. Taking the bus downtown, not quite to the old neighbourhood, but to streets where we often wandered. The bus drives past the hospital where, 7 years ago, we learned we were having another daughter, where a particular picture of our family, sisters, started to grow. The hospital is decorated in lights for a holiday fundraiser – lights of hope. I feel a familiar jolt that lessened over the years when I passed this hospital almost daily.

For weeks and weeks after Anja died I clung to the memory of a single, particular day. A couple of days before she died, E and I took the bus downtown, returned some Christmas gifts, met R for lunch. We explored and chatted and laughed and I thought how soon this time with just her would be unusual. The day felt like a gift, sunny and cold, her golden curls and rosy cheeks and the never-ending stream of chatter. When Anja died, that day became, for me, The Last Happy Day. I felt like there was a glass wall up between us now and us then. I could see the three of us at the lunch table laughing at how I could barely squeeze my belly into the booth, but those laughing three had been shunted back into an untouchable past: before.

Just before meeting R for lunch, E and I had played outside the art gallery. I called him to arrange where to meet and she marched up and down the stone benches in her pink, plaid duffel coat, jumping on and off, laughing out loud while I felt her sister kick inside. I remember feeling absolutely content and then baffled – just the next week – that such a feeling was ever possible.

Yesterday morning, early, on my way to my meeting I passed this bench: another jolt. I can see us there, in the untouchable before, my three year old sidekick, my unmourning self, my giant belly, and inside a tiny, kicking, still living Baby Sister.

A jolt. A flash of sun on the glass buildings, lighting the last red leaves. It’s Remembrance Day. A pause for a photo. And then on to my meeting. Nearly seven years later this is how she occupies a space.

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If that mockingbird don’t sing

I don’t often feel her presence. It’s happened once or twice, but not as much as I’d like. I can imagine how it would feel to sense her around me, near me when I need her, when she needs me, but it’s only imagination. It doesn’t work the way I want it to. The other night, though, E and M curled up together in E’s bed, all tucked in amongst E’s piles of pillows and stuffies and stuffies that are pillows, and they asked me to sing them all the old songs I used to sing. I’ve never really sung to both of them at bed time. M was in with us until he was 3 and then we tucked them in separately when they were sharing a room. I tried to remember if this was the first time, but I couldn’t be certain. At any rate, as I sang ‘Hush little baby’ to the two of them I felt her. I could really almost see her there with them, cuddled up, listening. I could picture the way it felt to hold her in my arms and sing to her in the hospital room, all the same songs I’d sung to her sister every night I was pregnant, all the same songs I sang to E and M on the bed the other night. I remembered I wrote about those songs, once, a long time ago, how singing to E could bring back that hospital room and the weight of my tiny, dead daughter. And here she was again, but it wasn’t really sad. I mean, it was sad, but it was also happy, and sweet, and I wondered if they felt it, too, the presence of their sister, but I didn’t ask. I just kept singing.

I miss this space and what it used to be. I’m glad I don’t need it like I used to – I mean, I still need it; I can’t really imagine a time I’ll let it go entirely – but, I’m glad I don’t need it desperately like I used to. I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog and what it has meant to me, especially in the first years, because of some research I’m doing for work on the ways in which people use records, archives – paper or digital – as part of a grieving process, as a means of working around and through and with grief, and also as a means of maintaining a relationship or connection with their lost loved one. That was certainly something this blog did for me. It was the space in which I spent time devoted to Anja, and it was a space in which she – in some strange way – grew…people came to know her – or know of her at least. People – other bereaved mothers – missed her and remembered her as I missed and remembered their babies. Now I am thinking about what happens when that space diminishes in importance, when it grows quiet and…still…a loaded word. Why does this happen? Time? Both the passing of time and the always diminishing stock of it in my day-to-day life?

I read two things this week that are causing me to think. One is a post about teaching anthropology where the authors talk about being “aggressively human” – it’s a manifesto, a call for greater humanity in the academy, for kindness, empathy, support. Kindness to oneself and kindness to others. In my own teaching this past year, I have been focusing on two goals: to be kind and to be generous. It’s hard sometimes in a space that has not been particularly kind or generous to me, that has never permitted me to grieve properly, never cut me a moment’s slack. I want to think a lot more about this and about how I might contribute to a kinder, more generous academic space and culture. Maybe this will be how I respond to the bitterness I so often feel. As the authors of the aggressively human manifesto state: “We exemplify kindness and care toward ourselves and others, and we aggressively insist on reminding people that we are humans first and scholars, teachers, and employees only in addition to that.” Maybe I can do that. Maybe that is another way of making space, too, for Anja in the world. Maybe no one else will see her, but I’ll know she’s there, at the centre.

The other thing I read this week was an article on grief and digital ghosts that someone who knows my recent research sent to me. It’s a beautiful piece, but it was this bit in particular that has me thinking: “After he died, Jon’s online presence grew and then faded into the ether. Now, when I Google his name late at night, I see he has slipped further and further down in the search results.” This makes me think of the blogroll at Glow In the Woods, and how it grows, new blogs added, old blogs pushed further down the list, abandoned blogs, the digital ghosts of all these babies. Six and a half years is a long time to keep up a blog and maintain this online space. Slowly, I retreated, sometimes by design, sometimes by accident. It sometimes feels like the only place Anja ever lived was here. What happens when this place fades into the ether?

Big boy / Small girl

He was so timid as a toddler. He didn’t run and climb at playgrounds, but stood next to me, quietly watching. He liked to sit on my knee and cuddle while his sister did gymnastics or swimming. He didn’t go down slides, and when he got his run bike, he would just stand and slowly walk with it. He was thoughtful and sweet, tilting his head and saying, Mommy? Telling me stories, asking questions, wondering about everything in his squeaky, uptalking way. He liked to collect rocks, pinecones, flower petals, sticks and carefully sort and arrange them.

He is still the sweetest thing, but at 5 he is also a big boy and turning wild. His long legs are covered in bruises now that he has decided to run and slide and play with the other children. He climbs the tree at daycare until my breath catches and I can almost not look. He rides his bike like a racer, suddenly skidding out, trying to lay down the longest ‘chopstick’ behind him. He yells everything and screams with laughter with his friends. He leaves a ring of dirt in the tub at night and wants bedtime stories about Tintin or snakes or cranes or firetrucks. He still holds my hand whenever he can, and his hand is warm and small and sure.

Very shortly after he was born, Anja’s spot in the family shifted. She had been the middle child, but he surpassed her, filled a space she’d left; he DID NOT replace her, but he did make her spot less visible, certainly to others, but to me, too. I couldn’t see how she fit in once he was here. There was no way he’d have been here if she’d stayed. None of it made sense to me. I couldn’t imagine her alive once he was a certain age. Where I’d been able to say, she would be months old or years old and she would be like this ______, once he was a year or two old, especially, it just didn’t make sense to imagine her that way: she was gone.

When I was pregnant with her, I’d imagined her with blond ringlets, like her sister had had as a toddler, quiet, but wickedly funny and with a mischievous bent. For a while that image stayed, but as he grows and changes and gets louder and wilder, she gets quieter in my mind. She is a little dark-haired child, fair and slight, hiding a little under the low branches of a cedar tree,watching the others, drawing with a stick in the dirt. Her eyes are dark and thoughtful; she doesn’t say very much – hums a little, just watching, staying apart.

It is the neverending mystery: who would she have been?

My son, five years old, a mane of redgold hair flying out under his helmet, races ahead of me down the forest path on the way home from school, the filtering sunlight  bounces with his gleeful voice off the trees ahead and in between them the tiny slip of my gone girl retreats back into the darkness, watching, always watching as I try – and fail – to chase after them both.

Cracking up

I made it through Anja’s birthday without crying. That was a few days ago. Today, I’ve been crying since noon. Nine hours and 22 minutes. My work is ridiculously stressful. I have more work than any person could reasonably be expected to do and I am basically on probation for 7 years. I’m 1.5 years in and I’m terrified that I won’t make it through this probationary period. Tenure sounds like a dream to many people, but 7 years of constantly feeling like you are not doing enough, not working hard enough, never going to be good enough is exhausting. And I started exhausted. Three years of precarious, term-to-term teaching right after completing a PhD which is no walk in the park in itself. Never mind six pregnancies: one traumatic birth, three miscarriages, one dead baby, one brutally stressful subsequent pregnancy. I’m cracking up. I never know how much to blame grief, but I know it’s not a small part of this. I have marvelled, over the years, at how I’ve kept going. I’ve resented – bitterly resented, if I’m honest – others who have been able to rest, to retreat, even in grief, while I had to go back to work only days after my baby died, to keep working, keep pushing, so that “all my hard work wasn’t for nothing.” But what was it for? This miserable life of feeling inadequate, overworked, and insane with the anxiety that I will not get tenure and thereby lose my livelihood, my home (we live in faculty housing), my children’s schools, my understanding of my place in the world. I don’t really know what to do to help myself. Counselling or therapy is probably the answer but when I think about where I will find the time to find a good counsellor or therapist let alone see one regularly, I just want to laugh and cry and bang my head against a wall.