I met Denai through Victoria Markham, the first person I interviewed for this series. What really struck me in Denai’s story is how she answered the question about what has helped her the most: watching the Markhams grieve their son. It highlights to me how incredibly powerful it is to grieve as a community, not only for the current loss, but for any unmourned losses evoked in the process. It reminded me that part of me had been reluctant to have a big memorial service for my infant son, worried that it might come across as inappropriate or morbid to do something so openly, for a baby hardly anyone knew. But we went ahead, and the celebration was not only deeply supportive to us, several people thanked us for giving them the chance to cry for a long-lost pregnancy or baby they’d mourned behind closed doors. Thank you Denai, for reminding me that it’s never too late to grieve, and that openly grieving can be a huge gift to others, in ways we don’t even intend.
“It’s been 11 years and it’s time to share this story.”
What is the name of your child who died?
She was my fourth child and my only daughter and her name is Isabella Camille.
How did your child die and how old was she?
Isabella was two years old and she died of an aggressive bacterial dysentery. I had it first, but I was working really hard at the time and just made my body power through the symptoms. And then she got it and died within seventeen hours. We were living on a three mile island in the Caribbean, so there were no hospitals. We woke up one morning and she was not herself. She always loved to get up in the morning, loved to put her shoes on, loved to eat her pancakes and then loved to go-go. She had so much life! And that morning she didn’t want to eat her pancakes, and I was thinking, oh no, what’s wrong with Isa? She just wanted to be on my breast suckling. When she went to the bathroom that morning, I remember saying, ‘holy shit that smells like death!’ But because she was breastfeeding, I didn’t think she was dehydrating, I thought she might have just been teething her molars. It was January 1st in the Caribbean, everyone had partied, we couldn’t get a doctor on the phone, and clinics were closed. So I spent all day trying to bring down her fever, nursing her, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. And that progressed until about midnight, when I think she may have had a seizure or something, so I said to my husband, Oh my god, get a helicopter here, something really serious is going on, and we need to get her to a hospital. But by the time the helicopter came, two hours later, she was dead. It was the most extremely ridiculously swift and shocking event of my life. It really was.
I just held her for the next two hours. And I was very, very, very present. There was a point that I was conscious of, she’s leaving, and I just stayed pinpoint present. So, if anything, I appreciate the time I was aware and stayed with her
Did anything help prepare you for this experience?
No. Nothing. I mean, I was no stranger to death, my grandma, my cousin, my mom all passed suddenly, but you don’t expect your child to die, you don’t expect your child to die so swiftly without any sort of a…passage. If anything, my spiritual practices enabled me to be present to what was truly happening. At the point I told my husband to get the helicopter, I could hear her breathing change, I just held her for the next two hours. And I was very, very, very present. There was a point that I was conscious of, she’s leaving, and I just stayed pinpoint present. So, if anything, I appreciate the time I was aware and stayed with her, and I always thought, she’s a little yogini who breathed herself out of our world, so I stayed with her, with her breath. My husband was running around simply frantic and crazy, trying to get help, and I just held Isabella. He was panicked, so I had to hold the other extreme, I just held my daughter and thought, okay, I believe you’re leaving, so I’m just going hold you while you journey. Afterwards, my Aunt said to me, it was a blessing that you got to hold her to her death, and I was infuriated, what is she saying? There’s no blessing in this! It took me years to see it that way.
Not long after she died, the first movie we watched, Dragonfly, had an opening scene of a young girl being rushed to the hospital with a high fever, and the parents had to be on the other side of the glass as they watched the medical team try to save their daughter. The child dies. I watched that and realized what my aunt was trying to tell me, that I was lucky I got to be with her until her last breath. But it still took me a long time to see it this way. We were a grievously, sad family for a very long time.
I ended up thinking that death is exactly like birth. I was always able to always hold my presence through my births and be there for those magical moments, and it was almost the exact energy moved in when Isa died, and I knew, this is a game changer. I was able just to be with the energy. It’s almost like we don’t have a choice in those moments, it’s a force of nature. I think I understood the energy, and I had a choice, am I going to fight against this, which is sort of what I witnessed my husband doing? And I thought, no, I better be here as this tragedy is really happening.
What if anything might have helped prepare you better?
I don’t think there is anything you can do to prepare you for the death of your own child and the feelings you are going to go through in the aftermath. It’s your worst nightmare. Nobody brings a baby into the world expecting to lose them. You have all these hopes and aspirations. I mean, it would have been sad if I had been an atheist. I’m glad I had a belief in something. A higher power. I have a strong spiritual practice rooted in Native American culture. AND I was pissed at God or whoever; I really turned my back on all my practices for about a year. Because I just thought, no, I don’t want to be taken down this road. So it took me a long time to get scooped back up by all my spiritual beliefs, easily a year or more.
What helped me in the aftermath was we lived on an acre tropical garden, so my trees, my flowers, my magical three sons still playing, as well, the sea and the dolphins, but not that community.
What has helped you in your grieving process?
What helped the most was leaving that island community and coming to Ashland and witnessing the way this community rallied around the Markhams. (See first post, Victoria and Koa.) There was nearly zero support for me on the island. We were under medical/legal investigation after my daughter died. There was so much suspicion on the island, stories and lies and rumors that circulated around us, they said we were Christian Scientists who didn’t believe in medicine, or that I iced her to death trying to bring down her fever. I mean, the community said so many crazy things; there was zero support there for the grieving process. They were actually so mean…So leaving the island and coming here and seeing that, oh, there are other ways communities support a grieving mother. Nobody here said anything to Victoria other than, how can we support you? Through watching the Markhams’ grief, I was able to pull my experience back to the forefront of my mind. I didn’t even know Victoria before her son died, she came into my life because her child died, and it was almost like I could re-experience something with and through this family. I came to learn this is what it feels like when people rally for you, and love you and grieve with you. This is what it feels like when there’s community support. It was pretty intense. It dragged up so much unresolved pain for me. It really did.
What helped me in the aftermath was we lived on an acre tropical garden, so my trees, my flowers, my magical three sons still playing, as well, the sea and the dolphins, but not that community. The people wouldn’t even make eye contact, it was awful. Just awful. I carry so much pain around it. Not just my daughter dying, but the response of the people. Couldn’t they just say, oh my god, this is awful? I’m sorry.
It was also a help to go on and consciously decide to have another baby after she died. I hate to put that on my fifth child, he was born into grief, and that is a burden, but he was a healing balm.
What has not helped?
What really didn’t help were the people who wouldn’t meet my eyes. That really pained me. All you have to say is I’m sorry. Or just meet my eyes. I wasn’t the criminal here. My daughter died of a freak incident, a fast moving disease. Possibly we could have made better decisions through her seventeen hours. I have had to reconcile that horrible truth within myself and the fact that her early death was our family’s tragic fate to bear.
I think our family could use more ritual and remembrance. We don’t celebrate her birthday or her death day, even though those are important days for me personally.
Has anything about this experience surprised you?
The depths of the grief and how shattered you become, how you keep on going and the resiliency of the human spirit. The grace around somebody passing has surprised me, too. The magical moments where you feel their spirit is with you, that really has been comforting and surprising.
What do you wish people knew about grieving a child?
Don’t ignore that mother. A hug, two words, anything. They need to be seen. If that’s all you have, two words, like, I’m sorry, that’s enough.
I think I’m a lot more aware of the temporary nature of life. I’ve become more present. I made sure to take back more of the fun with my kids, more of important moments in their lives.
How have you changed?
Everything changed. My marriage fell apart, and I left that island. It took me awhile to find myself but my family and time with them became a lot more important. I think I’m a lot more aware of the temporary nature of life. I’ve become more present. I made sure to take back more of the fun with my kids, more of the important moments in their lives.
Do you still feel connected to your child and if so, how?
Absolutely. Not long after she died, my second and third sons, who were four and five at the time, were at a birthday party and there was this little yellow butterfly that was flitting around, and they were saying, Mom, there she is! And they were serious. They were seeing their sister. So butterflies always do it for me. We decorated her grave with this huge angel, so angels always remind me of her. She was really into flowers, she stopped for every single flower, it could be annoying at times (laughs) and I ended up becoming a flower essence practitioner. So she’s in all the flowers for me. She’s always there. And she’s there in another way. In my home it’s all boys, four of them and all their friends, and a male Pitbull, and a tom cat, so the only feminine energy is what I hold. So her little spirit is with me, kind of helping me hold down the femininity. She’s always been around. And coming from a history of sexual abuse myself, I was always careful about Isabella, wary of certain characters. And now I find myself thinking, you have to do that for you. Would you allow that in her life? No? Then why would you allow it in yours? So she holds this pillar of strength for me. You know, she taught me so many lessons in her two short years. She really did. She cracked my heart wide open. She still does.
What do you answer when people ask you how many children you have?
I say four, not five. What I get all the time is people commenting that I have all boys. I rarely say anything, but recently I was at the grocery store with my four boys and the clerk said, oh, don’t you wish you had a daughter? And I decided to tell her the truth. So I said I had a daughter, and she died. And the energy just flat lined. The clerk didn’t know how to respond. And everyone with me got uncomfortable. All the boys got sad. It was too awkward. Do I want to do this every time?
But there is a part of me that thinks, why am I not answering this truthfully? Maybe I need to be the kind of person who challenges our culture’s inability to hold grief. Maybe I need to ponder do we as a culture need to hold these stories differently? I think about that a lot.
Denai Grace Fuller is the mother of 5 who has spent her entire adult life as an Intuitive Counselor offering sacred readings of the Tarot as based on teachings of the Dine (Navajo) people. She derives immense joy from customizing flower essence blends and personal healings through shamanic energy work.