Guest columnist Sarah Buttenwieser: How to give voice to silenced experiences: run

  • Participants start off on the inaugural Syrup Stampede 5K Run/Walk and pancake breakfast in 2018. Gazette file photo

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Earlier this spring, I volunteered at Empty Arms Bereavement Support’s (EABS) Syrup Stampede at Northampton’s Look Park. EABS assists people who’ve experienced pregnancy loss, miscarriage, medical termination of a pregnancy, stillbirth or loss of a baby.

Often, these losses are described as “invisible.” With these losses, promises of an entire, long life may be suddenly replaced by an entire but exceedingly brief one — or the promise of one gone. EABS provides no formula for “getting over” loss. Theirs is a strategy of remaining present. There’s not a fix; EABS affirms that grief doesn’t work that way.

On the cool, cloudy spring morning when hundreds of people gathered to walk and run, photos and participants’ nametags often included names of those they mourn. As this loss occurs, most often when families are beginning or growing, the event draws lots of people with young kids. The park filled with crumbs and crankiness. There was laughter and there were tears — from everyone. That people carry grief forward is an underlying message, not in words, but in deeds.

The Syrup Stampede was dreamt up by someone who benefited from EABS. To give back, Melissa Mills-Dick became the Syrup Stampede’s race director. This year, over a third of the organization’s budget was raised by this event.

Amid hugs and reading of name tags, I kept thinking about how extraordinary the event felt. There was nothing wrong or shameful about grief; it simply existed. People carried babies and stood next to teenagers and saw friends, a big stew of joy and sadness, without one being deemed more valuable than another. In this community, grief isn’t segregated; grief comes along for the ride. Mourning never completes itself.

Our relationships, even with those we lose, endure. Maybe they continue as what if; maybe they continue as I learned to love deeply because of you or even the promise of you.

Like all other loss, grief transforms. For Carol McMurrich, founder and director of EABS, she took on grief as a mission to help others navigate similar losses to the one that she endured. She carries her memories of Charlotte, who made her a mother and who passed away before she got to grow. As a mom to four other kids, first steps and words and driver’s license were experienced. As mom to Charlotte, an infrastructure of presence was constructed, which continues to provide essential support to families.

While in the park among the laughter and fun and seriousness, I thought about how Safe Passage’s big fundraiser, its Hot Chocolate Run, implicitly inspired an event like the Syrup Stampede. The first Sunday in December, thousands of people line up in downtown Northampton to walk, jog and run really fast. Early December in New England weather (in other words, who knows, warm, frigid, rain approaching sleet, wind, snow) occurs. The event is loud and crowded and fun.

But sharing the spotlight is something that is often experienced but rarely discussed: domestic violence. In part, there is silence for reasons of personal safety. The harder parts of silence, though, are stigma and shame and discomfort by others about its existence. It’s hard to hold the truth of how much a person might have suffered, often nearby — a neighbor or family member or student — yet out of reach.

At the Hot Chocolate Run, people also push strollers. Often, they bend over to explain to young kids that all families deserve to feel safe and loved. Survivors walk with their kids, through tears, relieved to live without the fear of harm inside their home and families.

Someone brings up a grandparent, who probably endured abuse that no one ever spoke of, except in hushed whispers. After the event, stickers that have fallen from the walkers’ and runners’ backs end up on the sidewalk, proclaiming our community’s commitment to safety, to care.

The pairings — hot chocolate and domestic violence, maple syrup and loss — seem dissonant and then again, exactly right. Maybe, in a way, suffering is at the root of where our collective discomfort with domestic violence and stigmatized, silent losses exists. We are so uneasy with what’s hardest and most often not spoken, taboo.

Suffering can morph into vulnerability; vulnerability, truly, is strength. Only by softening to the tenderness of sadness can the scary truths of fear, the confusion of heartbreak let us make space for change — and for care. Life, love, loss, they all matter because the bittersweet is often at the forefront — with domestic violence, a fear of isolation and danger, contrasted by a wealth of people who can help a person to safety, dignity and thriving.

Loss is something we’ve been told to handle, even minimize, get over. Both of these organizations reject that notion. Instead, they lean into the bittersweet: an acceptance — maybe with chocolate or maple on your tongue — that living has everything to do with accepting all we carry forward.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a writer, Northampton resident, and Safe Passage board member.