September 08th 2013 - “Dedicated to the many women and men who carry a quiet loss, a loss that underlies their daily affairs and permeates their dreams with memories of children who were with them too briefly.”
So begins Laura Seftel’s book, Grief Unseen: Healing Pregnancy Loss through the Arts. (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, Philadelphia, PA 2006) She wrote this book and started The Secret Club several years after her own pregnancy losses. While miscarriage is the most common form of losing a pregnancy, she also discusses abortion, molar and ectopic pregnancies, stillborn babies, and loss dealing with infertility treatments.
The author relates her own feelings after a pregnancy loss and how, after a birth, she was still scared, “Somehow, the miscarriage taught me to be wary. Everything seemed so fragile”(25.) Seftel was the eldest child in her family and speaks of finding out only later that her mother had experienced several other miscarriages that she never knew about, as did her own mother-in-law and her sister-in-law. No one discussed them (25.)
Loosing a pregnancy is about losing a dream. Seftel makes it clear that pregnancy loss doesn’t just happen to the woman, but it happens to the family, just as the pregnancy happens to the whole family. She walks us through what loss means to different people. To some it is a loss of cells that had the potential to turn into a person, to others it had a name. When one of her friends had an unviable, malformed embryo with a weak heartbeat, D&C was brought up, but as her symptoms of losing the pregnancy increased, she realized that certain doctors wouldn’t perform an abortion if there was still a heart beat and she “wondered if she was having a miscarriage, an abortion, or a sad blend of both” (29.)
The reader learns about how images in art come out as the artist works through the pain and Seftel shows examples. This isn’t work that one merely looks at; it is felt through the heart. While all of the artwork in the book has been created by apparently talented artists, there is a rawness in the images. The work is often not pleasant to look at and the pain is always palpable, but you look and you feel with the creators even though it hurts.
Seftel often does workshops at hospitals and discusses how to work with grieving parents. She reminds us that where hospitals used to not be sensitive toward the grieving parents, but now they often make molds of a stillborn’s feet and encourage parents to have photo’s taken of their dead baby. These artifacts become important in the grieving process. One woman was quoted as having her baby whisked away before she had a chance to hold and spoke of grieving for a baby with no face (50.)
Seftel argues that the arts have a place in healthcare. Anyone who have given birth or been to hospitals in Anchorage in the last ten years can probably already see this in the three major hospitals, and not just in the obstetrics departments. Offices are softer than they were 20 years ago. Seftel explains that patients, particularly women, associate surroundings of hearing bad news with the bad news. One of the artists whose work is not on her website, said that when she heard the doctors say that there was no heartbeat in her womb and that they would have to do a D&C in six hours that “my womb became a coffin for my child and my dreams” (55.) Her artwork depicts an iconic woman crying, her breasts bared and a coffin with a small person in it (56.)
Seftel covers something that is not covered often which is how men and women grieve and what affects them. Women deal with hormones and physical attachments to the children they carry, while men are often not this attached. Each reacts differently, but one realizes that this isn’t a gender issue but a psychological one.
How does grief affect children in a family that has suffered a loss? It again depends on the child and their age.
Seftel does a good job explaining the mindset of the counselor counseling a client after a miscarriage. A counselor is there for the client, not the other way around. After a client may be hesitant to talk about details and ‘shut down their valve’ if they feel that the counselor can’t handle it. There are things that a counselor can say to encourage, and Seftel emphasizes that “empathy asks of us the willingness to be touched by our clients’ stories” (67.) She smartly goes into detail on grieving and warns a counselor to not pathologize a family’s reaction to such grief.
The author encourages the reader to buy a journal and some basic art supplies and to start experimenting (154.) She communicates that it is through art that we can say the unspoken, and through it if we desire, touch others.
Art Therapy Studio, Laura Seftel, LMHC, ATR-BC
The Art Therapy Studio
Kellie Davis, Anchorage Family Examiner Art work: "Dream" by Brenda Phillips