In 2005, Kiley and Sean Hanish suffered the loss of their first child, who was stillborn. In the years since, they have worked tirelessly to break the silence that surrounds pregnancy loss, stillbirth and infant death. They produced the 2014 Emmy-nominated film Return To Zero, starring Minnie Driver. Speaking about the lonely and complicated period that followed the stillbirth of her son, Kiley said, “I was totally isolated. When I started meeting women who had been through the same things and hearing them talk about their experiences – it was huge … [B]ut even if someone has been through a similar experience, you almost need a guide – to show you the range of normal behavior in response to this loss.”
In an effort to help create social support and build perinatal loss communities, Kiley founded the Return To Zero Center for Healing, to sponsor retreats for bereaved women following perinatal loss, and also to work to educate health care professionals and the public about pregnancy loss, stillbirth, and infant death. Retreats are open to women who suffer loss at any gestational stage, and also through the toddler years.
In developing specialized perinatal bereavement retreats, Kiley has identified an important need. Talking about pregnancy and neonatal loss remains a social taboo. This, despite the fact that 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage, and an additional 50,000 children are stillborn or die within the first thirty days of life in the United States each year.
The Return To Zero Center for Healing retreats feature activities to promote healing and reflection and have taken place nationally and internationally. Many participants have offset the nominal retreat costs with crowd-funding efforts often taken up by caring friends and family members on their behalf. Retreat groups include yoga/meditation, workshops to document loss and ritual in various ways, as well as discussion groups led by perinatal bereavement experts.
Center psychologist Dr. Ivy Margulies identifies loss as birth trauma and says that post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may develop as a result. She explains the seminal importance of other women in the path to healing as these groups can develop necessary rituals around remembrance and loss. Says Dr. Margulies, “[W]omen don’t always get that in this society and this can lead to disenfranchised grief – grief around losses that are less socially acceptable – and therefore hard to talk about. It is traumatic to give birth to death. It helps to meet other women who have been through this – and whose bodies have been through this. The grief is something you have to go through and live through.”
I first met Kiley on a retreat in Ojai, California. The warmth of southern California was a revelation to me. I had flown in from the northeastern icy throes of the polar vortex. Standing upon the warm, terracotta earth that instantly recalled to me the writings of John Steinbeck I squinted at the bountiful fruit ranches saturated with color. Warm breeze and citrus zest was everywhere. There was an indefinable stirring of something forgotten within me – a whisper or a shadow of who I once was.
The retreat I attended was composed of women who shared my experience. My loss is now nearly a decade old but it has become a central piece of me. In Ojai I worked to shed my skin – the one that I have used to protect my son and myself from societal misunderstanding. We women sat on couches around an outdoor fireplace and traded in our aspirations and fears. We shared stories. In the fading afternoon light I wanted to cover myself with a blanket and rest my head. I understood then that I would need to learn to reopen myself – would need to be able to access this lost part of me.
I understood also that this would be a process of opening and closing like an eye – seeing things in shadow and light and dark. I was overwhelmed with sadness, but also with gratitude at the opportunity to heal. Because this is possible – when we integrate grief we can embark upon a complex journey towards healing. John Steinbeck wrote, “We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less alone. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say – and to feel – ‘yes, that is the way it is, or at least the way I feel it. You are not as alone as you thought.’”
Photo courtesy of Return to Zero Center for Healing
This article originally appeared on BabyCenter.