I find myself back here at El Retiro, my own personal happiest place on earth, lucky enough to be on a retreat sponsored by my employer. A gentle calm always washes over me when I pull up to this holy hill and I know that I have come home.
Because I feel such a close attachment to these sacred grounds, I tend to notice any new things that have popped up since I was last here. On my pre-dawn walk just past St. Robert’s parking lot, something just beyond Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, caught my eye. I veered off the path just a little and saw the beautiful rock garden for mothers who no longer have their babies/children. I felt so many emotions at that moment. Surprise of seeing something so personally meaningful to me, gratitude to the staff at El Retiro for recognizing a need for a place for bereaved mothers (and hopefully fathers) to pray, and sadness at seeing all the names of the babies written lovingly on a rock. Sadness at those lives not fully lived, no matter if they lived an hour, a day, a week, a month or years. Or as is the case for many parents, babies who were alive in the womb but born still.
In my grief peer support work, I always say that a child dying goes against the law of the natural life cycle. Children aren’t supposed to die before their parents. So when that happens, the grief is multiplied in its magnitude. This simply doesn’t make sense and is so hard to comprehend, much less reconcile in our hearts.
When I saw those rocks, I was also reminded that it will be 37 years ago this month that I had an abortion, at the age of 19, after getting pregnant from a sexual assault in college. That was a very painful period of my life and it wasn’t until 14 years later when I happened upon Project Rachel, that I was finally able to acknowledge these traumatic events and heal from them.
I named that baby Elizabeth Patricia and I will find a way to add her name to the collection of rocks, so that she too can be remembered along with the other children who have died. The pain of a mother who has lost a child never goes away ~ it fades, gets integrated into the fabric of the mother’s life ~ yet it lingers still, like a scar from a long ago injury.
Thank you to the staff at El Retiro for dedicating this space to these blessed, little departed souls and the parents who still mourn for them.
Ellen Kelly is a spiritual director. She earned a MTS from The Jesuit School of Theology