Arizona farm gives refuge from pain, for man and beast alike

CORNVILLE, Ariz. (AP) — The leader has the name of her dead baby spelled out in beads on her left wrist, and standing before her is a mother so grief-choked by her young son’s death that she flips on her side at one point in this creekside yoga class and sobs. In the next row, a woman whose daughter died by suicide goes through the poses next to a man with a tattoo of three little ducks, one for each of the children who was murdered.

Just beyond, in the fields of this sanctuary for the grieving, is a sheep whose babies were snatched by coyotes, a goat saved from slaughter and a horse that was badly mistreated carrying loads at the Grand Canyon.

Soon, the morning fog will lift and the chorus of cicadas will end the quiet. But for a moment, all is still, as if nature has paused to acknowledge this gathering of worldly suffering.

“There’s a comfort in knowing,” says Suzy Elghanayan, a mother whose young son died earlier this year of a seizure, “that we’re all in the same place that we never wanted to be.”

The world turns away from stories like theirs because it’s too hard to imagine burying a child. So mourning people from around the globe journey to this patch of farmland just outside the red rocks of Sedona.

There is no talk at Selah Carefarm of ending the pain of loss, just of building the emotional muscle to handle it.

Here, the names of the dead can be spoken and the agony of loss can be shown. No one turns away.

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Joanne Cacciatore was a mother of three in a customer service job when her baby died during delivery.

Long after she closed the lid to the tiny pink casket, the grief consumed her. She’d sob for hours and withered to 90 lbs. She didn’t want to live. All she thought about was death.

“Every cell in my body aches,” she wrote in her journal a few months after the death in 1994. “I won’t smile as often as my old self. Smiling hurts now. Most everything hurts some days, even breathing.”

Cacciatore became consumed with understanding the abyss of heartache she inhabited. But counseling and bereavement groups were as disappointing as the body of research Cacciatore found on traumatic loss.

So, she set out on twin paths for answers: Enrolling in college for the first time, focusing her studies on grief, and starting a support group and foundation for others like her.

Today, all these years after the death that set her on this journey, those academic and therapeutic pursuits have converged on the vegan farm, which opened five years ago. As plans for Selah took shape, Cacciatore was reminded of the two dogs who stayed by her side even when the depths of her sorrow were too much for many friends. So the farm is home to dozens of animals, many rescued from abuse and neglect, that are central to many visitors’ experience here.

While most who come to Selah take part in counseling sessions, Cacciatore believes visitors’ experiences with the animals can be just as transformative. Across the farm, stories repeat of someone washed over by a wave of grief only to find an animal seem to offer comfort – a donkey nestling its face in a crying woman’s shoulder or a horse pressing its head against a grieving heart.

“There’s a resonance,” Cacciatore says. “There’s a symbiosis,”

The 10-acre swath of valley feels something like a bohemian enclave crossed with a kibbutz. In the day, the sprawling expanse is baked in sun, all the way back to the creek at the farm’s border, where a family of otters comes to play. At night, under star-flecked skies of indigo, paths are lit by lanterns and strings of bulbs glow, and all is quiet but the gentle flow of spring water snaking through irrigation ditches.

It is an oasis, but a constantly changing one, reinvented by each new visitor leaving their imprint.

On one tree, the grieving tie strips of fabric that rain like multicolored tickertape, remnants of their loved one’s favorite shirts and socks and pillowcases. Nearby, little medallions stamped with the names of the dead twinkle in the breeze. And in a grotto beneath an ash tree, the brokenhearted have clipped prayer cards to the branches, left objects including a baseball and a toy truck, and painted dozens of stones memorializing someone gone too soon.

For Andy, “My Twin Forever.” For Monica, “Loved Forever.” For Jade, “Forever One Day Old.”

Memories of the dead are everywhere. The farm’s guest house was made possible by donors, just like everything else here, and names of their lost ones are on everything from benches to butterfly gardens.

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After a few days here, many find the stories of their beloved have become so stitched into the farm’s fabric it makes hallowed ground of earth on which the dead never set foot.

For Liz Castleman, it is a place she has come to feel her son Charlie’s presence even more than home. A rock with a dinosaur painted on it honors him and a wooden bird soars with his name. Strawberries at the farm have even been forever rebranded as Charlieberries in recognition of his favorite fruit.

Few in Castleman’s life can bear to hear about her son anymore, three years after he died before even reaching his third birthday. When she first came to the farm, part of her wondered if Cacciatore might somehow have the power to bring Charlie back. In a way, she did. She’s returned five more times because here, people relish hearing of the whip-smart boy who made friends wherever he went, who’d do anything to earn a laugh, who was so outgoing in class a teacher dubbed him “Mayor of Babytown.”

“All of the old safe spaces are gone. The farm, it really is the one safe space,” says 46-year-old Castleman, whose son died while under anesthesia during an MRI, likely due to an underlying genetic disorder. “There’s something, I don’t know if it’s magical, but you know that anything you say is OK and anything you feel is OK. It’s just a complete bubble from the rest of the world.”

Many who come here have been frustrated by communities and counselors who tell them to move on from their loss. They’ve been pushed to be medicated or plied with platitudes that hurt more than help. Friends tell a grieving mom that God needed an angel or ask a brokenhearted spouse why he’s still wearing his wedding ring. Again and again, they’re told to forget and move on.

Here, though, visitors learn the void will be with them, some way or another, forever.

“I’m picturing my life with my grief always with me and how I’m going to live life with that grief,” says 58-year-old Elghanayan, struggling to imagine her years unfolding without her 20-year-old son Luca, the compassionate, rock-climbing, surfing, piano-playing aspiring scientist. “I have to figure out how to get up and breathe every day and take one step every day and pray my years go by swiftly.”

If it seems counterintuitive that coming to a place where every story is sad could actually uplift, Selah’s adherents point to their own experiences on the farm and the inching progress they’ve made.

Erik Denton, a 35-year-old repeat visitor to Selah, is certain he can’t ever get over the deaths of his three children last year, but he’s functioning again. He does the dishes and makes his bed. He doesn’t hole up alone for days at a time. He’s again able to talk about the children he loves: 3-year-old Joanna, the firecracker who climbed trees and helped friends; 2-year-old Terry, the mischief maker who seemed to think no one was watching; and 6-month-old Sierra, the silly girl who just had begun to ooh and aah.

Denton’s ex-girlfriend, the children’s mother, has been charged in their drownings in a bathtub and sometimes repeating the story or hearing another mourner’s tragedy becomes too much for him. But mostly, Denton feels as if he can connect with people here more than anywhere else.

“Even though we’re surrounded by so much pain, we’re together,” he says.

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A sense of solidarity is inescapable at Selah. Guests eagerly trade stories of their lost loved ones. And when someone is hurting, human or animal, they can count on others being by their side.

This day, Cacciatore is shaken because Shirin, a chocolate brown sheep with a white stripe across her belly, has been growing sicker and can’t be coaxed to eat, not even her favorite cookies.

Shirin was rescued after her two babies were taken by coyotes. Her udders were full for lambs no longer around to feed. She remained so shaken by it all that no one could get close to her for weeks.

As Cacciatore awaits the veterinarian, she and a frequent farm guest, 57-year-old Jill Loforte Carroll, dote on the sheep. Cacciatore tries to coax Shirin to eat some leaves and Loforte Carroll cues a recording of “La Vie en Rose” sung by her daughter Sierra before the quietly observant, shyly funny 21-year-old died by suicide seven years ago.

For a moment, it’s just three mournful moms sharing a patch of field.

When the vet arrives, their fears are confirmed, and as injections to euthanize are given, Cacciatore massages the sheep, repeatedly cooing reassuring words as her tears fall to the dirt below.

“It’s OK, baby girl, it’s OK,” she says. “You’re the prettiest girl.”

By the time the vet looks up with a knowing nod, seven people crouch around Shirin, splayed across the field in such anguished drama it seems fit for a Renaissance painting. On a farm shaped by death, another has arrived, but those who gathered infused it with as much beauty and comfort as they could.

“It’s not our children,” Cacciatore says before burying Shirin beneath a hulking persimmon tree, “but it’s still hard.”

This is Cacciatore’s life now, one she never could have imagined before her own tragedy. She has a Ph.D. and a research professorship at Arizona State University. A book on loss, “Bearing the Unbearable,” was well received. A fiercely loyal following has found solace in her work and her counseling.

“I had a little girl who was born and who died, and it changed the trajectory of my life,” she says. “But I’d give it back in a minute just to have her back.”

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Matt Sedensky can be reached at msedensky@ap.org and https://twitter.com/sedensky

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