(Tender Topic Mentioned: Infant Loss)
A series of serendipitous events over a decade ago profoundly impacted my work and my felt sense understanding of presence, connection, and healing. This is the story of one of my first in-person experiences with Dr. Ray Castellino, DC (ret), RPP, RPE, RCST® my dear friend and mentor who taught me so much about presence, connection, love, and healing through his living example. Ray died on December 13, 2020, and sharing this story is part of my intention to share more about his work and its real-life applications in relationships.
It was 2009 and I had gone to California to work with Ray Castellino and Mary Jackson, an amazing homebirth midwife who co-founded an organization with Ray called About Connections, so that we could collaborate on a project to share information with parents about the impact of birth and early life. I was excited to learn and experience what Ray wanted to share with me, though I really didn’t know what I was going to experience. My two boys were still young at the time, so it was a big deal for me to go and leave them at home. I’m sure I went barreling into the weekend, filled with excitement at the joy of learning and the prospect of some uninterrupted kid-free time for a whole 4 days!
As we were preparing to start our first day together, Ray wanted to name an intention for our weekend together. He said he didn’t want to spend the whole time working. I was surprised and probably a little confused. I had flown across the country and we weren’t going to use every single minute to work? Ok. I settled myself and kept listening.
He continued by explaining that he wanted to prepare meals together and share our mealtime eating in nature. Sounded lovely to me, especially as the mom of two relatively young boys! Preparing a meal together with two other people and then eating that same whole meal while still hot, possibly without interruption? Yes, please.
The next thing he said was that he wanted us to be able to stop and rest if any of us were feeling tired, even if it was in the middle of the project! (What?!) He also said he wanted to go out to hike and be in nature, so he wanted to stop early enough in the day that we could do that. Yes, please.
Next, he said that prenatal and perinatal work always touches on our own early stories and that when our own early material comes up, we will make the space to support one another. I definitely was no stranger to processing, so I was all in. Honestly, I didn’t think that was really going to be an issue for me, but I was happy to be in a space where that was acknowledged and there was space for what might come up.
As we worked and I began to learn about the BEBA research clinic (Building and Enhancing Bonding and Attachment) and the principles guiding this work, both from an intellectual as well as a somatic, or body level, experience, what struck me most was that we were living the principles he was teaching me. Pausing, making space, naming things, staying connected to ourselves and our own experience and needs. That was touching on something deep inside me and was very settling for me in a way I couldn’t quite understand at the time.
True to his intentions, we stopped and made lunch together from fresh ingredients Mary brought with her from her neighbor’s garden. There was space to be and do and we actually accomplished a lot in a short amount of time. We went for hikes in the late afternoon in the hills above Ojai and got to know each other as we walked. And one afternoon, in the middle of working on something, Ray said he was tired and was going to take a nap. And he did! I paused and rested, welcoming this slower pace that was in stark contrast to homeschooling my two active boys!
In the evening, after we had hiked and had dinner, he showed me videos of babies showing their stories after birth. Excitedly, he would tell me a little bit about the baby’s birth and then showed me the baby crawling to the breast.
“These twins were born with one breech and the other head down. Watch this baby scoot up to the breast backwards on his back!”
“This baby got stuck right before birth. Watch her fuss right before she gets to the breast!”
He grew more and more excited with each video and slowly I began to really understand what he was showing me. Babies are having an experience of pregnancy and birth and they can show that story right after birth! We just don’t know what we’re seeing when babies refuse to nurse right away or when they get fussy when we’re trying to feed them or help them fall asleep. So many lightbulbs and a huge array of feelings arose in me. The awe of the sentience of babies, and the grief of what I didn’t know when I had my own babies all melded together in those moments.
And as he had said, when our stuff came up, we would stop to process it together. It turned out that each of us took a turn with our own stuff coming up over the weekend. Ray had something come up first and we created the space to be with him in what was needing to be seen, heard, and felt. He settled in the space. It was so interesting to feel the layers of support with Mary there, so it wasn’t just me supporting someone, but the two of us supporting Ray. Mary took a turn with her own material being touched upon and Ray and I supported her. I realized how often I had supported others alone. It was a completely new experience for me to support someone else with a layer of support. I didn’t have to carry it all myself and that was a ridiculously novel idea for me at the time.
I thought I was going to leave the weekend without my stuff coming up, but I was wrong. On the last morning, not long before I needed to go to the airport, I was flooded with emotion that I simply couldn’t regulate on my own. I tried. I was trying to stay focused so we could finish the last thing we intended to do, but I couldn’t do the work and finally I said something. Watching all the videos about babies showing their stories had touched something in me from when my son Jacob was born and died. I didn’t want that to come up, but there it was. Just as I had supported each of them, they both very willingly came in close beside me to be layers of support for me.
First, I felt a deep sense of safety. Even though I had only just met Mary and I hadn’t met Ray in person before I had arrived 4 days earlier, I felt very safe. The pace was slow, the room was settled around me, and there was space for what was coming up for me. Ray and Mary both asked permission to come be near me and offered some contact. I felt very safe and supported, that my story was welcome, and that they could handle it.
Even though I had done a lot of work to process the trauma of the birth and my son’s death, there was apparently still a lot there for me. I began telling the story of the days leading up to Jacob’s birth, the ultrasound and diagnosis of anencephaly, the doctor who told us to go home to have this baby who wouldn’t live, the induction, the traumatic birth, and then his death. In the past, I had such a hard time accessing my feelings around this experience because of the layers of complex trauma in my own history. Even more, I had a previous experience doing trauma work on this birth that I thought was a safe environment, but actually ended up being more traumatizing for me. Harder still was that it had been traumatizing for the people who were supposed to support me, but were not adequately prepared or supported. Not helpful.
But this was different. I felt seen, heard, and understood. I felt held by their presence and the pace. My feelings were welcomed. And at the end when I finished sharing the story, I knew I would never be the same. I felt so settled in my body for the first time, perhaps really ever. The two layers of support allowed me to be fully with myself and be with the hardest day of my life in a way that I was actually supported. The healing came in the being, in the presence, in not trying to fix something, in the listening, in the care, in being with what happened in a new way with the support I needed. I could be with the things that were so scary and overwhelming and in many ways that were still present in my body and nervous system, but not feel alone. I was able to touch on the grief of how it was for me and feel safe.
As I reflect on this experience, it touches on the place I have been since Ray’s death on December 13th. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in mid-October and so quickly my dear friend and mentor was gone. I’ve been living in the pause inside myself. It’s the place where I can slow down and actually see what’s happening for me as I grieve his death and celebrate the love and the gifts that I received from him. I had the honor of spending a lot of time with him over the past decade on various projects. He always said yes when I called to ask if he would participate in something I was working on, and with that contact, I was able to learn so much about going slowly, processing, pausing, and co-regulation through his examples and how he related to me. I experienced acceptance and honoring of my gifts, and felt seen, heard, and understood in a deep way. Interestingly, in the void that’s so present now that he is gone, I feel all of that even more deeply. The man who taught me how to slow down, to pause, to be present, to experience the full range of my feelings in connection, and showed me how to truly live, also prepared me to grieve his death.
So I have been pausing, reflecting, allowing my feelings, and it is only now, two months after his passing, that I am able to put words to some of this experience.
I know the impulse in my system is just to move forward, to figure out the next thing, to find my way through. And I know in my heart that the way forward is actually by being present, by honoring the feelings that emerge in this process of loss, and by slowing down in this moment to just be. It is in these moments that I most feel the essence that is Ray, that slow, steady presence that settles something within the core of my being.
If you haven’t had the experience of Ray, I would like to invite you to watch a video I did with him in early 2019 while we were working on a project together. We had been working on a book (or books, really) together and I will be continuing to complete those to honor what he wanted to come into being.
Ray’s life and the way he worked has had a huge impact on my work with babies, children, families, and couples. With that, there is a coming expansion of my work and my offerings to really bring to light the connection to the body that has become so transformative in the work that I do. I will be sharing parts of that throughout 2021 after I have completed my own pause.
I know that many reading this have been directly or indirectly impacted by Ray’s work. Consciously Parenting isn’t just about thinking about doing things differently as a parent, but about feeling and sensing, and connecting deeply to yourself so that you can find your own way. Here’s to more of that in 2021. May Ray’s beautiful legacy live on in the hearts and lives of those he touched, a legacy of love, connection, and presence.