In my bedside locker, there is a space and in that space there is a box. It is not a big box; there is nothing to define it and nothing to set it apart. In fact, you might not even notice it. Yet what lies in that box in that space next to my side of the bed is precious - therein are the sparse but tangible mementos of my third son and fourth child, who died 24 hours after his birth. This is my amulet.
There are varied interpretations as to what an 'amulet' actually means but the consensus seems to be that it is an object imbued with feeling with an inherent property of safeguarding. Yet it was only on learning about an innovative and pioneering art exhibition entitled 'The Amulet' that I realised I'd had one of my own for over a decade.
'The Amulet' is an audio-visual art exhibition and is the brainchild of visual artist Marie Brett. Marie worked in partnership with the maternity staff at three hospitals: Cork University Maternity Hospital, The Mid-Western Regional Maternity Hospital in Limerick and Waterford Regional Hospital, where bereavement and loss midwives introduced her to bereaved family members, initiating an invitation to collaborate in the making of a new artwork.
Bereaved parents worked with Marie to locate an amulet or a token they possessed which had significance in relation to the loss of their baby; a keepsake, if you like, which serves as a visible, tangible representation of something ethereal. As an object, the amulet manifests the abstract concept of loss and the artist photographed each special item and recorded a conversation where the parent shared details about the object and its significance to them in respect of their lost child. Marie worked with 10 families and the audio and visual materials given formed the basis for the exhibition.
Infant loss is a quiet tragedy that happens to people every day of every week of every year. Yet commonplace as it is, it's a grief not commonly spoken of. A silence surrounds it - concealment even, veering towards denial. Perhaps this discomfort is intricately tied to our culture, heritage and the stigmas engendered by erstwhile traditional beliefs; a child dying without being baptised induced shame and so was treated as soiled goods to be disposed of abruptly, discreetly, without room for grief or mourning. The same treatment applied to babies born and lost out of wedlock.
The recent revelations of the Tuam babies travesty is only one example of the widespread desolation and silent sorrow that has reigned for too long in respect of infant loss. Babies taken from mothers, unseen and untouched; buried in old shoeboxes in the dead of the night; no ceremony or ritual to mark the fact that life had existed and that this life had mattered.
The same silence lingers today. Although we have come a long way from the dark days, and the work of the bereavement and loss midwives in our hospitals ensures and affords these quiet losses immense dignity and respect, society's conversation on the subject is still stilted. News of a miscarriage, stillborn or cot death, no doubt evokes sympathy yet it is a hushed sympathy married to a tendency to avoid, retreat and withdraw from the conversation. When I lost my son, no one asked me what he looked like, who he resembled or the colour of his eyes. Nobody asked because nobody wanted to upset me.
Similarly, I didn't talk about him because I too was fearful of causing upset to others. When asked how many children I had, I always answered three; to mention I had four would just be awkward. Therefore, in addition to my son being denied life, he was also denied discussion - done, of course, with the best of intentions.
Yet with the distance of time I now see I was "lucky". I got to hold a breathing baby, I got to bathe him and I got to kiss him goodbye. Though it is a cold comfort, it is a comfort so many do not know.
One participant in the exhibition lost her baby through an ectopic pregnancy, an event that threatened her natural capacity to have any more children. With her loss, there was no fanfare, no cross and no ceremony. The only remnant she has of that time and of her baby is a simple card sent to her by the night-nurse who sat with her through a very bleak night. This card has amassed enormous significance for her, as it remains the only demonstrable item she can attach to her lost child. This is her amulet and it appears in the exhibition.
Another participant recounts how she was pregnant with twins when getting married. It was the couple's first pregnancy and whilst taking her vows she got her first kick. For two newlyweds, having twins was a dream come true. However, at 22 weeks, during a routine scan, they discovered that one of their babies had died.
As a couple they were devastated and as a mother she despaired over how she had not sensed that loss of life for herself. She had to carry her two babies to full term so the remainder of the pregnancy owned a tension that played on presence and absence, swinging between happiness and sadness. Although she focused on delivering her healthy baby safely, she wanted, too, to do something for the child who would demand nothing. So she knitted her lost little girl a blanket, bound up with a ribbon from their wedding scroll. This became their amulet and this too features in the show.
Although these stories are only two amongst many included in the exhibition, they demonstrate the different circumstances, layers and emotions that surround infant loss. For those contributing to the project, it became a journey of trust and sharing but it also became a journey of release and relief. The exhibition has kick-started a conversation, the effects of which are two-fold: it has afforded healing and insight to both participant and attendee respectively but, equally, it is radiating a message that infant loss happens and that we need to talk about it. Whether a child is lost in early pregnancy or in early life, it is an event that must be acknowledged, mourned and marked.
'The Amulet' is an art-form that whilst being beautiful in its own right, owns the unique quality of having a real impact on people's lives. It is a cathartic exhibition that succeeds in addressing what has been avoided and unveiling what has been concealed.
In my bedside locker, there is a box and in that box there is my amulet. There are babygros never worn, a letter penned, a family photograph complete with four children, and a knitted blue hat my son wore for the duration of his short life. Though this is my amulet, it was also my secret. There was a time when I was frightened that people would think it morbid or somehow macabre of me to hold onto my dead baby's things. Yet, ironically, in holding onto these things, I held onto my sanity during what was an insane period. Whether it is a card, a blanket tied up in a bow or a knitted blue hat, these are the realities left to us from an unreal time.
But what of those who own no remnant to recall an unborn child, no memento of an infant lost and no keepsake for a future mourned? What of those with nothing to prove an existence and mark its significance? It is never too late to have an amulet. In the absence of owning something attached to a loss, then that something can still be created and dedicated to the loss. A physical sign of what has passed.
Infant loss is never expected, yet voluntary organisations such as the Ballyphehane/Togher Art and Craft Initiative in Cork have long since recognised the devastation of such loss and the role of amulets in the healing process. Reacting practically and tangibly, they produce and gift layettes, cardigans, blankets, hats, etc. for deceased infants in maternity hospitals nationwide.
'The Amulet' is a compelling, visually beautiful and powerful artwork that links photographs of family amulets to the quiet telling of the meaning behind them. It breathes life into lives lost and demonstrates beautifully the love and emotion embroidered into these mementoes, showcasing them in a fitting and moving tribute to lives that were never wholly lived but were wholly cherished. This is a contemplative exhibition that recognises the pain of infant loss and remembers the children that may have lived briefly but who are carried forever by those who love them.
GALWAY: Until August 29, Galway Arts Centre, Dominick Street.
LIMERICK: Thursday 25 & Friday 26 September, 2014, University Maternity Hospital Limerick, Ennis Road, Limerick. Panel discussion event at University Maternity Hospital Limerick, Thursday September 25 at 6pm.
CORK: Monday October 13 - Friday November 28, 2014, The Atrium Cork City Hall. Panel discussion event at The Atrium Cork City Hall, Wednesday October 15 at 6pm.
Tuesday 14 - Friday 24 October, 2014, Bishopstown Library, Wilton.
Tuesday November 4, 2014 - Saturday January 3, 2015, Cork Public Museum, Fitzgerald Park, Cork.
DUBLIN: Thursday January 15 - Saturday March 28, 2015, The LAB Gallery, Foley Street, Dublin 1.
Exhibition launch: The LAB Gallery, Thursday January 15.
As evening fell, my grandfather Denis loaded two small coffins onto his cart and made the short journey down boreens to a field overlooking the point at which the Caragh River meets the sea in Dooks, Co Kerry. Alone, after sunset, he laid his twin baby sons to rest in a children's burial ground, a cillín, and placed a small stone at the site to mark their final resting place. Unconsecrated ground – hidden away.