Thursday, November 18, 2010

Change is good

Last year, for six Sundays I attended the MotherWoman Facilitator training here in Northampton, Massachusetts. First, allow me to confess that I signed up for the training almost against my will. It was offered to me by the amazing, powerful, and inspirational leaders of this organization and I thought to myself, I've taken other facilitator trainings. I would really like those Sundays to myself. But I also realized that being affiliated with MotherWoman would be beneficial for Empty Arms, and so I wrote the check and signed up and agreed to attend.

The first five minutes of the first meeting proved me wrong. Personally, those six Sundays would provide me with an invaluable opportunity for reflection, growth, and community.The companionship of the 21 other women in the room, all so different yet so alike, would prove precious to me. Professionally, the ways in which the training would affect and change the groups that I run is almost indescribable. I am so grateful to MotherWoman for inspiring so many people, and I am continually inspired every time I lead a meeting.

MotherWoman groups operate on the principle that it is essential to create a steadfast, ironclad, calm, earnest, SAFE space first and foremost. They reason that if we take the time to speak exactly what we intend to do, and exactly what we intend to accomplish, and exactly how we intend to do it, it can all be done. They celebrate speaking the truth and encouraging others to do just that. They pull for the underdogs and seek honesty and truth-seeking in all endeavors. They believe that each person can be her own best advocate, and that each person has the power to create the change within herself that she needs. They believe that we can accomplish this within the context of community, when we are held in a safe space, when we are allowed to be honest and real and truthful about our experience, our process, and our direction. (these words are all mine, extracted from my experience with this group)

In a MotherWoman circle, I soon learned, the first substantial chunk of time is spent spelling out the parameters of the shared space, to ensure that everyone understands that they are safely held, free to express themselves openly, confident that their words will never leave that space. Their mission is spelled out, the guidelines explicitly explained, so that we can all sit with what the hope for the time together is. Specific time is spent separating that space from the outside world, making it unique, apart, a place of safety and comfort.

This part was easy for me. I wrote up guidelines and principles easily for my group, modeled on the MotherWoman principles, and they were as follows:

Empty Arms Group Principles

We know that losing a baby is an isolating and devastating experience. In our groups we support bereaved parents by naming the incredible challenges they are experiencing, knowing that this group is one of the few places where parents can speak the truth about the depth of their emotions and the details of their experience.

We believe that speaking the truth about the heartbreaking journey of losing a baby is essential. Healing comes through understanding what we have been through and what may lie ahead. By speaking about our experiences they can become integrated into who we are and allow us to move along. We celebrate breaking the silence that bereaved parents have been historically subjected to.

In these meetings we do not compare losses. We respect that each and every person’s experience is uniquely challenging in its own right. Regardless of the gestation or age of our baby when he or she died, we all hoped that we would have a lifetime with the child growing within us. Consequently, we all have the right to grieve our loss, and we support one another in our grief.

We believe that grief takes many forms. Emotions such as deep sadness, anger, confusion, longing, and even a sense of intermittent peace can all be normal parts of grieving. No one person grieves like another. We believe each person has the right to follow the path of grief they are most comfortable with.

We respect that each person has his or her own comfort level for sharing emotions and stories. We believe that the very act of coming to this group demonstrates each person’s commitment to their own growth and healing, whether they share a little or a lot. We believe that this extends into the greater world, where each bereaved parent should be liberated to share the pieces of their story and their child in a way that feels comfortable to them.

We believe that each one of you has the inner wisdom and courage to come out into a brighter place, without ever forgetting the baby that you lost.

Empty Arms Group Guidelines

  1. Confidentiality. We hold everything that is said in group to be confidential and ask that you share it with no one outside of this group. Furthermore, we also extend this confidentiality to within this room, in that we ask that you request permission from someone to talk with them about what they have shared when the formal discussion is over.
  2. In this group, we hold each other with respect, compassion, and non-judgment. We remind you that there is no right or wrong way to go about grieving.
  3. We do not give advice or interrupt. We welcome responses in the form of “I” statements, which can help another person to see another way of doing things without hearing advice that could be interpreted as criticism or judgment.
  4. When we’re sharing stories, please feel liberated to include any details you wish. The only thing we ask that you not include is the names of professionals that may speak of negatively.
  5. This is not a therapy group, and it should not replace therapy for individuals or couples who need it. Grief brings up a myriad of issues that can not always be adequately addressed in this forum. Therapy can often be very helpful, and we would be happy to share the names of counselors/therapists that we know if you would be interested.
  6. Self care- Be aware of what you need during the group, and take care of yourself. Food and drinks are on the table, feel free to eat, drink, and ask someone to pass things to you. If you need to cry, blow your nose, or laugh, do it. If you need to use the bathroom, it’s right down the hall. Take care of yourself. If at any point you feel you are overwhelmed and you need to go home, of course you may, but one of us will follow you out to make sure you are okay.
The next part did not come so easily for me. In a MotherWoman circle, beginning with the facilitators, an object is passed around the circle, and each person is given space to speak. A topic is posed, which participants can choose to address or not, but each person is given air time to introduce themselves and speak openly and honestly about their experience. During this time, there is no cross talk, and there are few interruptions or commentaries from even the facilitators. Occasionally, when somebody expresses something that the facilitator believes it would be poignant to point out to the group as it is such a shared experience, they will carefully and formulaically offer a reflection and unifying statement about what they've heard. But other than that, during this time, people are handed an object and invited to speak.

I simply can't do that, I thought. I can't force these people to speak. The people who come through my door are wounded sparrows, they are limping, their wings hang broken, they have been silenced. While some are eager to speak and will share their experience from the start, some simply cannot. I had always historically honored this silence and maintained committed to the idea that participants should be able to choose whether or not they would like to contribute. The idea of handing somebody an object and putting them on the spot seemed almost repellant to me.

Furthermore, I was also concerned about the fact that people wouldn't immediately be able to connect and comment on each others' experiences. In a community so silenced, and where most people coming to my group have not one single person in their own lives who has even a point of reference to understand their experience, I knew that connection and the establishment of common community was absolutely essential in my groups. When these people shared their experiences in the outside world, they were often almost speaking to a brick wall. There was no comprehension whatsoever; this was what made so many of us feel like we were going crazy, or doing grief wrong. I was afraid to limit cross talk in a group of people so desperate for commonality.

However, I saw for myself after the first few MotherWoman circles I sat in how immense the power of that object is, and how incredible the safety of a well-established circle can be. As I sat there and heard women weep, and express themselves absolutely honestly and from their hearts, I began to see the strength behind the format. MotherWoman circles work. I would see this week after week.

For the first five months of my MotherWoman training, I was on maternity leave from facilitating Empty Arms Groups because of my huge pregnant belly that I had no wish to parade among a group of bereaved parents. So while these ideas were brewing and stewing, I wasn't in a position to try them out. Finally, in January of 2010, I returned to facilitating and announced to the group that we were going to have a new format for meetings.

Slowly, and deliberately, I welcomed people to the meeting. I told them that I was going to read these new guidelines in hopes that it would effectively mark this space off as separate and different from the busy, fast-paced, world around us. I told them I hoped they would feel safe in sharing their stories and feelings, knowing that we all have the common goal of supporting each other. I read the principles, making eye contact with each and every person as I did so.
Then, I introduced myself, and told the group about Charlotte. I spoke about winter darkness and the depth of my love for her still. I recalled the pain that had once nearly robbed me of my very life, and reflected on how, six and a half years later, that pain felt so different. I spoke for only about two minutes, modeling brevity, and then I took a deep breath, and I passed the little stone heart I had been clutching in my hand.

It was amazing.

People began to speak. There were people around the table who had come to 10, 12, 15 meetings before, who shared things I had never heard before. Tears were shed by people who never cried, and everyone listened with an open, honest heart. Nobody was thinking about their response or comment to what someone was saying, they only listened. Although I had given people the option to pass the stone if they didn't feel ready to share, nobody did. I was floored, my first instincts having been absolutely, positively proven wrong. As people spoke, I thought about commonalities that were being shared around the table, so that when people were finished, I could thank them for their honesty, and start our shared conversation with that common thread. That meeting was the first of many that I hold so dear, so precious, so wholly in my heart. The plan had worked.

What was especially amazing to me was this: while MotherWoman is primarily an organization that serves women, I was seeing the greatest change among the men in my groups. While they previously had been more likely to let their wives/partners take the reigns and share the details of their story and healing journey, suddenly now a warm stone was being passed to them, and the room was silent. Suddenly these men were being asked to share from their hearts, and one by one, they did. The more they spoke, the more they spoke: it was as if the men in the room found the experience of being emotionally liberated so empowering that they could not stop talking. Unlike before, where the women clearly dominated every meeting, we now had meetings that were absolutely split, with fathers and mothers equally talking, crying, and sharing.

I have now been running my meetings using the MotherWoman model for nearly a year. Every month, I worry briefly about the length of the introductions, whether people will feel pressured to speak, or how the topic will be processed by the group. But month after month, it works, and it works well. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity, and I thank the amazing women at MotherWoman for reeling me in and for encouraging me to join them on their crusade for change. Check them out.


Liz Friedman said...

I am in tears. I am so moved by your words, your experience, the clarity of how you experienced the MotherWoman model and the incredible impact you are having for families who have lost their babies.

I am so grateful that you felt "obligated" to join us in the beginning and so humbled by how our MotherWoman training transformed your group for the mothers and, especially, fathers who attend.

I want to talk to you about bringing our training to the community of folks who are caring for and listening to parents who have lost babies. I think we have important work to do together to ensure that all parents who have lost babies have the kind of safe space that provides opportunity for true sharing and deep grieving as yours does.

We have much to talk about, my friend.

much love,

P.S. Next Facilitator Training is starting in January. Go to, under programs to find our info on Facilitator training.

annette cycon said...

Dear Carol,

I have been leading MOtherWoman groups and Facilitator Trainings for ten years. I have never been as speechless and humbled as I am after reading this post. In all those years I have never been able to describe what you do so clearly. It is so powerful to hear you describe your personal process from reluctance to appreciation, almost reverence for the MotherWoman group model.

We have worked so carefully over the years to design this model to be the safest and most empowering "home" a woman has ever had. And as we all know very few of us actually had such a place in our real lives. So these MotherWoman groups are precious indeed.

I also love what you are finding about men's needs to share from the heart and that this model invites them to do that too. We ALL crave a safe place in our lives to be vulnerable and heard.

To learn more about the next MotherWoman Facilitator Training starting in Jan 2011 please contact me

Thank you for posting this. Thank you for creating such an important place for parents who have lost babies. Thank you for birthing Empty Arms from the depth of your pain and love for Charlotte.

All my love and respect,

Annette Cycon
Founder MotherWoman
Co-Facilitator of MotherWoman Facilitator Training