Can Counseling Help Heal Childhood Trauma, Grief and Loss? An Interview with Gaby Donnell, Part One

A licensed clinical social worker helps individuals and couples through the stresses of their childbearing years

Today SevenPonds is speaking with Gaby Donnell, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and co-founder of Motheroots Counseling, based in Portland, Oregon. Motheroots provides counseling services to adults in their childbearing years, helping them deal with issues around fertility, loss of pregnancy, death of a child, postpartum depression, maintaining healthy adult relationships and parenting approaches.

Gaby Donnell of Motheroots

Gaby Donnell

Juniper: Motheroots provides counseling throughout the journey of conception, pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum adjustment. How did you get your start in this field? 

Gaby: Prior to starting Motheroots, I worked primarily as a play therapist with children who had been abused or in domestic violence situations. When I was pregnant, I began seeking out supportive resources for new parents, and all I could find was a prenatal yoga class. I was studying and using the sand tray method at the time, and I began researching the training I would need to work with people during the childbearing years. I met Winnie Davis, a woman here in Portland, who started an organization called Baby Blues Connection. She is a psychologist who had postpartum depression — her website is called Postpartum Support International.  It provides training around postpartum issues to social workers, counselors and doctors.

I started Motheroots in 1996. One of my first clients was a couple whose baby died at 28 weeks, and they were my first teachers in dealing with infant loss. Although I’d worked with grief, this was new to me.

Juniper: Can you tell me a little more about Baby Blues Connection — how it affected your professional development?

Baby Blues Connection is a local group that provides services and training to postpartum women who have anxiety and depression. My work with them includes providing free training around issues related to pregnancy, postpartum, loss and fertility. It’s a great support for people who seek a group to accept and support them through the challenges — as much as the joys — of parenting.

Juniper: At Motheroots, you address not only prepartum anxiety and postpartum depression, but also fertility issues, loss of pregnancy, and stillbirth. In what situations might your clients require a facilitated grieving process across the related topics that you specialize in? 

Gaby: Let’s begin with the most observable trauma: stillbirth — grieving the loss of a child you won’t get to raise, and the trauma of sudden death. Not everyone seeks out counseling assistance during this time, but the ones who do have found it helpful. Part of what Motheroots does is refer clients to other organizations that provide ongoing support.

Gaby in her element at Motheroots

Gaby in her element at Motheroots

Juniper: What about grieving processes related to a parent’s or hopeful parent’s own childhood trauma? Do you provide counseling regarding how this would affect an individual’s parenting approach? 

Gaby: Yes. People often seek us out because they grew up in a dysfunctional family environment or because they experienced sexual or physical abuse. They want to provide a loving, caring environment for their child, but find that they don’t have the skills from their own upbringing to navigate that. We help individuals live the values they have established, and then actualize the ways in which they want to raise their children.

Part of that process is addressing reactive ways of responding to outer stimuli. For example, if someone was raised in a very strict environment, their tendency may be toward embodying the opposite instead of approaching parenting from a place of balance and guidance. This can be difficult for anyone whose upbringing was extreme in one way or the other.

Juniper: When you are working with childhood trauma in adults, do you ever work back more than one generation to address ancestral trauma? 

Gaby: Absolutely. Sometimes that’s conscious and sometimes not. There’s an interesting body of literature that is currently growing, called epigenetics. Sometimes (I think, all the time) our experiences change our genetic makeup. That is, trauma, as well as experiences that are nourishing, replenishing and healing, change our genetics. Some of these early habits of mind and behavior go back to our cultural histories, and when we address those things, we change our culture.

It’s like the evolution of dropping a tail that we no longer need. When we drop habits that no longer serve us — habits around responding to fear, for example — we can stop causing harm to ourselves and others through these unconscious reactions that are no longer serving us.

Sand tray therapy using symbolic objects

Sand tray therapy

Juniper: What are some approaches or helpful ideas you might employ to guide an individual in shifting from the grief of pregnancy or infant loss into openness toward a new pregnancy or adoption, given that this is the client’s ultimate goal? 

Gaby: First, I have to say that everyone navigates grief in different ways, and people are so different. I listen for what has been a guide for someone in the past, whether that is a religious or spiritual practice, making art or being in nature. These things can be anchors to help us move forward with more ease and less suffering. Sand tray, for example, is a technique in which a person can step back and look at the larger picture of what’s happening, using symbolic, tangible items that have particular meaning to them. For example, a toy tiger can mean a million different things to a million different people, but when someone chooses to ascribe a particular meaning to it for the purpose of working with a sand tray, that item represents something very personal for them in relation to the other items there.

We can get stuck in our trauma by not seeing the whole of the situation, such as when a child dies and the parent is devastated, but may not realize that there is still an underlying desire to have another child. Alternatively, we can get so attached to what we believe we want that we lose touch with our authentic desires. When we use mindfulness techniques like sand tray or art or being in nature, it allows for our natural wisdom and insight to come through in our awareness, and we will be more satisfied with our lives.

When a grieving parent is dealing with a subsequent pregnancy, my recommendation is that they not “white knuckle it,” but rather meet this as a new experience. We do a lot of work around that.

Please check back next week for the second part of our interview with Gaby.  

Posted in Professional Advice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Weekly Tip: One Last Letter to Your Loved Ones

When you've grieving the loss of someone, letters are a powerful tool
Someone writing a letter with a pen

Credit: Pixabay

Our Tip of the Week: Psychologists and psychotherapists often tell their clients to express their emotions in writing, specifically in letter form. This has proven to be an effective method for resolving interpersonal problems. Often, simply expressing everything you feel honestly in writing helps process your thoughts and emotions. You don’t even have to send the letter to get the benefits; storing it away in a desk drawer for a week is just as, if not more, effective than sending the letter off to the intended recipient. You can use the same process when you’re going through the loss of a loved one. The sending of the letter isn’t the important part; it’s all about the stream of consciousness writing it promotes.

How-to Suggestion: Use an old-fashioned pen and paper for this process. This has two essential benefits that you won’t get from writing your letter on a computer or in pencil. First, real ink is permanent, making it far more difficult to edit your thoughts. Your goal isn’t to write a beautiful piece of poetry to share with the world, but simply to get all of your feelings out of your head and onto the page. Don’t erase anything and don’t scratch anything out. If the grammar is terrible, don’t stress over it. You are writing the letter for yourself, not for someone else to read.  Secondly, it takes more effort to painstakingly hand-write every word in your letter than it does to quickly type something out on a keyboard.

woman reading a letter to a lost loved one


Once you’ve gathered your materials, let the words flow out of you naturally. Don’t worry about the order or the organization. Feel free to revisit anything that pops into your head in the moment. Address your letter to your dead loved one, telling them everything you wanted to say before they died. Talk to them about how you feel now that they are gone.

Finally, when you’ve said all that you can think of saying, fold the letter up neatly and tuck it away somewhere safe. Leave the letter there for at least a week or even a few months. When you feel ready, you can go back and read it. Some people who are grieving also find it liberating to tear the letter up and throw it away. The real benefit is not in the letter itself, but in the act of writing it.

Posted in Practical Tips | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: “The End of Your Life Book Club,” by Will Schwalbe

A reflection about the books you read when a loved one nears death

the end of your life book club coverIn 2007, Will Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, was diagnosed with hepatitis after returning from a humanitarian trip to Pakistan.  Months later, her doctors discovered she was suffering from an advanced stage of pancreatic cancer, a disease which is usually fatal within six months.  In The End of Your Life Book Club, Schwalbe follows the story from his mother’s initial diagnosis to her death while they read and discussed a series of books.  As avid lifelong readers, Schwalbe and his mother offer interesting insights into the types of books one might read as they approach death and how loved ones can help in a supportive, loving way.

In the beginning of the book, Will Schwalbe is still a publisher with a hectic lifestyle.  As he begins to cope with his mother’s diagnosis, he realizes their relationship requires new levels of both honesty and sensitivity.  He writes, “Raving about books I hadn’t read yet was part of my job.  But there’s a difference between casually fibbing to a bookseller and lying about seventy-three-year-old mother when you are accompanying her for treatments to slow the growth of a cancer that had already spread from her pancreas to her liver by the time it was diagnosed.  I confessed that I had no, in fact, read this book” (4).  Starting with discussions about books, they are able to move into more difficult talks about their feelings.  Ironically, his mother has a habit of reading the endings of books first.

“As he begins to cope with his mother’s diagnosis, he realizes their relationship requires new levels of both honesty and sensitivity.”

It’s amazing how simply Will Schwalbe is able to communicate the step-by-step process of his mother’s decline in a way that enables readers to relate and learn from his experience.  Mary Anne Schwalbe seems to be a different character than most in the sense that she is positive during difficult times and incredibly resilient.  Schwalbe writes of his mother affectionately, saying, “She kept telling herself and all of us how lucky sheWill Schwalbe was—to have insurance; to have had such a wonderful long life; to have grandchildren she adored and meaningful work… but as she repeated this mantra now, with a slight crack in her voice, I heard something new: fear” (33).  He acknowledges the fear in her that effectively makes her human.  No matter how bravely she faces her condition, the finality of an incurable diagnosis can’t help but make her and everyone around her reflect on life and death with renewed urgency.

Several times in The End of Your Life Book Club, Schwalbe contemplates the proper approach for getting his mother to open up about her feelings.  Just getting her to talk about her pain seems to be a big step since she, like so many other mothers, doesn’t want to complain too much (even when dying of cancer).  He writes, “There’s a big leap from ‘Do you want me to ask how you are feeling?’ to ‘Do you want to talk about your death?’ And even if I was to bring it up, how could I be sure she wouldn’t then talk about it because she thought I wanted to, even if she didn’t?” (100).  As he navigates these issues, we are able to learn from his experience.  One of his biggest revelations is also my favorite line in the book.  “I was learning that when you’re with someone who is dying,” he writes, “you may need to celebrate the past, live in the present, and mourn the future all at the same time” (130).  In that way, his preparation for his mother’s death also prepares him to live more attentively.  With all of the further reading recommendations we gain from this book we also gain a new perspective on living and dying well.

Posted in Lending Insight | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Age is a high price to pay for maturity.”

- Tom Stoppard
Senior couple on beach holiday


Posted in Laughter is Medicine | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Reclaiming Joy: “My Silver Lining” by First Aid Kit

Song expresses determination to continue living life after loss
Sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, the musical duo First Aid Kit, singing about life after loss

Sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg are the musical duo First Aid Kit

Swedish sister duo First Aid Kit skillfully express the need to find meaning and pleasure in life after experiencing hardship. In “My Silver Lining,” they sing:

Take me some place where there’s music and there’s laughter…
There’s no starting over, no new beginnings, time races on
And you’ve just gotta keep on keeping on.

This need to enjoy life — to meet each day with gratitude — can sometimes be coupled with self-judgement; there is often tension between honoring the past and looking forward. Sorting out what we needs to let go from what we wish to carry on is a very personal journey, and others’ experiences can offer only guidelines and examples. “My Silver Lining” is about keeping what is nourishing, while not worrying about a past that cannot be changed:

Something good comes with the bad
A song’s never just sad
There’s hope, there’s a silver lining

While choosing life and possibility may seem at first to be the easy road compared to the deep and necessary process of integrating loss, it too presents a challenge: to carry the past while not being burdened by it. The repeated vow, “I won’t take the easy road is a promise we can all make to ourselves and those who have helped make us who we are — that we will carry those life-making teachings with us, and that they will live on through us.

Read the complete lyrics here.

Posted in Expressive Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Relocating China’s Dead

The impact of China's economic and population crises on graves
Hong Kong at night

Credit: Base64, retouched by CarolSpears

Back in 2009, hedge fund founder Jim Chanos was convinced that China was in the midst of a major economic bubble. Over the preceding decade, the country had invested in billions of square feet of land, building brand new cities between urban hubs and rural countrysides. It was also accumulating mountains of debt. Chanos predicted that China’s speculative economy would soon crash, and he was correct. Today, the country’s economy is in a free-fall that is impacting investors all over the world.

While financial advisers worry over future stocks in Chinese companies, families in China have a more pressing concern: widespread grave relocation. Due in large part to the country’s real estate boom, the Chinese government has expanded development into established gravesites, replacing buried bodies with infrastructure designed for homes and businesses. As a result, families are being forced to relocate their dead loved ones, often with few or no alternatives. About 15 million bodies have already been relocated in response to the increased demand for land.

About 15 million bodies have already been relocated in response to the increased demand for land.

Recently, Stanford scholar Tom Mullaney formed the Grave Reform in Modern China project, which uses digital tools to track each of these relocations. The hope is that the tool will show the human impact that China’s grave-relocation project has had on the people involved, partly through stories and partly through hard data.

A man lies on a red carpet performing the traditional Chinese funeral wail

Dingding Mao performs the wailing portion of the traditional funeral ritual
(Credit: NPR)

The project uses two points to focus the project: First, users can look at a map of China and see where grave relocations are taking place and why the government decided it was the best course of action. Next to the data, they see personal essays and stories from families whose dead loved ones were relocated and how it affected them. For example, users can view the relocated grave of a World War II veteran and also read about the impact that the move had on the veteran’s grandchildren today.

The problem lies in the aftermath, when families are forced to cope not only with their loved ones being physically removed from their graves, but also with the difficulty of visiting them in a brand new location.

When large-scale development takes place, it’s difficult to fully express the human impact these decisions have. For Chinese developers, the choice between moving a gravesite and building a new city is an easy one; body relocation is relatively cheap and easy to work around. The problem lies in the aftermath, when families are forced to cope not only with their loved ones being physically removed from their graves, but also with the difficulty of visiting them in a brand new location. For rural families, who often have little money or resources, even a 20-mile move can make it impossible to visit loved ones’ graves.

In some circumstances, the dead are not even reburied.

In some circumstances, the dead are not even reburied. The Chinese government informs surviving family members of an impending grave move, usually by mail. The family must confirm that they understand that the grave will be moved and consent to a reburial. If the family does not respond, or the government has no record of surviving family members, the remains are removed from the gravesite, cremated and then disposed.

Map of grave locations in China

Map of grave relocations in China

In addition, even when a body is reburied by the government, there is no guarantee that it will be buried in the same way that it was buried initially. In most cases, the family is not involved in the process at all, and are deprived of the right to participate or have their beliefs, rites and traditions honored when the reburial takes place.

Grave relocation is in many ways inevitable in China, given the population crisis and the demand for land and more places to live. As time goes on we will likely see many more graves moved, and fewer options for those impacted by these moves.

The Chinese government is already encouraging many of its citizens to forgo burials entirely, pushing for more cremations to save space. As a result, Chinese funeral rites are rapidly changing, doing away with centuries-old traditions in favor of those that make the most economic sense. Grave relocation may be just the tip of the iceberg.

Posted in Something Special | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment