Why I’m Grateful for My Breakdown

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Today is World Maternal Mental Health Awareness Day.

Inspired by Dr. Christina Hibbert, I want to tell you about the good that severe postpartum anxiety has wrought in my life.

I had a day five years ago when I thought the only way out was OUT.

That was my lowest point. But was also my saving grace.

Because of my postpartum breakdown, I reached out to Postpartum Support International and found an awesome counselor who encouraged me on my first visit to use prayer for healing. She’s not a Christian counselor,  just a very wise and spiritual woman who met me right where I was and suggested that the Holy Mother may be a place I could turn for help. My relationship with Mary was ambivalent for lots of silly reasons in hindsight, but now I have a nurturing and peaceful devotion to her that feeds me as a mother and wife.

Because of my postpartum breakdown and my awesome counselor, I finally realized that fear was an emotion that ruled too much of my life. It manifested in my OCD and anxiety, an intense desire to anticipate and control outcomes. I was spending so much of my life trying to get in front of the next big (mostly imaginary) disaster and missing the little way of St. Therese of Lisieux, who believed “that the people of her time lived in too great a fear of God’s judgement. The fear was stifling and did not allow people to experience the freedom of the children of God”.

That was me. Bigly. And when I decided not to be that scared woman anymore, it left a HUGE hole in my spiritual life. I had to admit that I believed more in fear than in God’s love.

I have since fixed that little problem right there.

Because of my postpartum breakdown, my awesome counselor, my new commitment to the Little Way and my own God-given big mouth gifts, I decided that the whole shame-filled not talking about it thing was bull-hunky. I ended up on this path at the right time thanks to bloggers like Glennon Doyle Melton and Jen Hatmaker, who were telling everyone that we had to tell the truth or it would kill us. Also Richard Rohr, who knocked me out of bed one night with this line: “If we don’t transform our pain, we transmit it.” I thought about my extensive family history of anxiety and my girls and the hereditariness of it all. I knew I had to shine a light, and that if I brought my mental health out of the dark, I would transform it.

So I told it, to everyone who asked (and some very tired looking mamas slumped in the corner of the playground at the mall who didn’t, but this whole Shine the light thing is not an exact science and better safe than sorry).

Because of my postpartum breakdown, my awesome counselor, my new commitment to the Little Way, my own God-given big mouth gifts and my light-shining, I found myself sitting on a hill at a park during a 4th of July celebration exactly one year from my own breakdown talking to another broken mama on the phone—from 150 miles away. I found myself pulled aside at church for a conversation about a new mama who was hallucinating and no one knew who to call.  I have given the phone number of my awesome counselor to at least five women in her service area. I supported a new grandma through getting her daughter admitted for psychosis. And just three days ago, I watched a new mama’s tired eyes fill with tears because nursing is kicking her ass. Then she was embarrassed because it was brunch for God’s sake and we don’t talk about these things at brunch, right?

And I said WHY YES WE DO! We talk about these things right the heck now because that’s what you need! So let’s get dessert and maybe another drink and you can tell me everything. (I stole this idea from the second Sex and the City movie where Miranda makes Charlotte do shots over how hard it is to be a mom, which was a way more brilliant scene than anyone probably realized.)

I wasn’t that woman before. Now I am. Better.

And for that, I am grateful.

“If we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious.”

Forgiveness, Warsan Shire

 

Making the Pieces Fit: The True Story of My Quilt

In 2012, my recovery from postpartum anxiety coincided with the first Fall in 35 years when kids went back to school, and I did not.

Instead, I stayed home with a 5 month old who still took two naps a day. I found myself with a lot of time on my hands—twitchy hands that needed something to do.

At first, to battle the guilt and stigma I still felt, I allowed them to feed me. Graham crackers and Nutella. In November my friends ran a Nutella intervention but by then, the 15 lbs of damage was done.

I needed something else to do.

I’m going to make a quilt, I decided.

I know. Of all the things. But when I was younger, we had a third grandma named Opal who lived down the street. In the quiet moments when she sat to watch a show, she had a stack of quilt pieces next to her that she patiently hand-stitched together into flowers and then transformed into quilts.

I can do that, I thought. I can make those flowers.

All that late Fall and Winter, I sat on the couch while Annie slept and hand-sewed flower after flower with tiny little stitches, until I had a stack of 20.

Then I discovered that by making the flowers first, I had sewed myself into a corner. I wrote about it here. I showed you these pictures:

I hoped it was all coming together.

It didn’t.

Instead, I ended up with this:

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I stopped. The next summer was rolling in and my feet were under me. I hit my stride as a stay at home mom. I joined the gym with Dana. I started writing about my postpartum experience. Shea and I had an idea that maybe we should move to Oregon.

It was a busy and fruitful time, and I didn’t need the soothing, quiet stitching. The pieces sat for almost two years.

Last Fall, when Annie joined Gabe and Kate on the first day of school, my guilt came back. For three hours every day, I was alone while everyone else in my family worked. I started feeling anxious again. My twitchy hands came back. I did not buy Nutella, but only by the grace of God.

One morning, I pulled out my sewing box to mend a shirt of Gabe’s and there it was: my pile of flowers.

I am going to finish this quilt, I thought. I’m not going to read any directions either.

Whatever happens will be enough.

I knew this was about more than a quilt. It was therapy in those early months, soothing stitch after soothing stitch, quiet and productive. But then it became a reflection of me, shattered into pieces, and trying to fit them back together again.

When they didn’t fit back they way they were, well. It took a while for me to understand what that meant.

It was supposed to be queen sized. It ended up 2 feet by 3 feet. The edging is ugly on one side, although in the process of doing it wrong, I learned how to do it right next time. I used white thread on blue cotton, which is very unforgiving. I threw away more of my flowers than I kept, hours of hard work into the scrap bin. It doesn’t cover anyone completely.

But it’s enough.

I was supposed to be Mom Invincible. From the outside, I looked pretty good, but underneath was a mess waiting to happen. I was the woman everyone could rely on, a reputation which is very unforgiving in a personal crisis.  Then I was forced to show my crooked stitches  to survive. Some of the things I held onto were unnecessary and I cut them away.  I don’t have to be so big. Lots of things are not my job. I am scarred and have spoken my scars.

I am enough.

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Some people would never show this quilt, but I do. It sits on the big chair in the living room, visible to everyone who comes through my front door.

It’s the truth about me, and so many mamas just like me. We had a vision of what life could be. For a while, the pieces didn’t fit, or make sense.

Maybe we thought about quitting.

But we didn’t, and through love and prayer and hard work, we put it back together into something whole. Crooked. Wiser. Messy. Precious.

May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month. Perinatal mood disorders can start in pregnancy. They can look like depression, mania, anxiety. If you have a history of mental health issues in your life or your family—as I did—you may be at higher risk. But PMD can strike any women in any pregnancy.

Here’s what you do:

If you need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

#askher: Ask the pregnant and newly delivered moms around you if they are ok.

If you or someone you know is struggling, call the Ob/GYN first and then visit www.postpartum.net for support. If the doctors cannot or do not help, call Postpartum Support International at 1-800-944-4773.

PSI Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month Blog Hop

Put the “Be Jesus” Back

Lenten reading can be hard on your soul.

It challenges and convicts. It parks your heart in the shadow of the Cross and makes you look up.

I have never been good at looking up. I don’t want to see. I tell myself it is enough to know.

Everything I read tells me that I’m wrong. My suffering has not been enough, although it has taught me so much about life and myself and fear and pain. It’s only the first step.

To truly walk where Jesus did, our suffering has to be used for someone else.

Which means I have to see. I have to look up from the foot of the cross and see.

I don’t want to read the Facebook post from my cousin’s friend who lost her six year old to cancer two years ago. On the second anniversary of her daughter’s death, she’s asking me to stand with her against pediatric cancer. I don’t want to see, because I have a sweet girl who was six two years ago. I don’t want to know that children we know get sick from cancer and die.

I want to look away and go about my business.

I don’t want to read the story about the woman in my state who tried to kill her newborn and toddler. I have to see that she is vilified in the media and the comments underneath the articles. I have to read until I see what my heart is already telling me, that she was sick, like I was sick. I don’t want to remember how that time felt to me. I don’t want to admit that she is me and I might have been her if we hadn’t made the right call, finally.

I want to look away and go about my business.

I don’t want to see pictures of drowned toddlers on the beaches in Greece, or news reports of the danger and squalor of refugee camps. I don’t want to know about the migrant camps in my own city. I don’t want to consider that in this day and age, families suffer while others turn them away. I’ll write a check or make a donation, but that’s as much as I feel I can handle. It’s a swamp of hopelessness.

I want to look away and go about my business.

But then I read this, in Richard Rohr’s Hope Against Darkness:

“When we’re not sure what is certain…we’re going to be anxious. We want to get rid of that anxiety as quickly as we can. Yet to be a good leader of anything today—to be a good pastor, a good bishop, or, I’m sure, a good father or mother—you have to be able to contain, to hold patiently a certain degree of anxiety.

(…)That’s probably why the Bible says so often ‘Do not be afraid.’”

This is me. I am not good—terrible, actually—at holding anxiety.  I do want to get rid of it as quickly as I can. I work hard to not invite it into my heart in the first place. My leadership skills are horribly limited by my anxieties. So I have convinced myself that I am safer occupying my space, and my space only. I busy myself with controlling the heck out of what I can control: my home, my family, my personal relationship with my church and my God.

Rohr says that “expelling what you can’t embrace gives you an identity, but it’s a negative identity. It’s not life energy, it’s death energy. Formulating what you are against gives you a very quick, clear and clean sense of yourself. Thus, most people fall for it. People more easily define themselves by what they are against, by who they hate, by who else is wrong, instead of by what they believe in and by whom they love.”

I’m convicted. In giving my anxieties primary place in my life—whether managing them, medicating them, avoiding them, expelling them—I have chosen not to see. If I don’t see, how can I help? Walk beside? Love?

Have I literally scared the “Be Jesus” out of myself?

There’s a reason this is in front of me now. I have no idea what it might be, but I’ll hold on patiently and wait for it. And while I do, I’ll work at replacing my fear with my faith.

Look up and see.

Hold the anxiety.

Be not afraid.

Put the “Be Jesus” back where it belongs.

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This popped up on Toby Mac’s Facebook feed as I was typing this post. Thanks to Mr. Hybels and Mr. Mac for the reminder!

 

Hurricane Mama

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Why are we changing the rules? Did something happen when I looked the other way? Why do things feel different? Are we ok?

This is what anxiety sisters do when the applecart is upset. We ask a lot of questions, rapid-fire. We wait a good 1.5 seconds for answers. When they don’t come, we know this is a sign of the apocalypse.

I’m going to give you a moment to send blessings on my husband.  Especially since most anxiety sisters are of average size and turn into Category 3 hurricanes at the most.

Not me. I am six feet of Category 5 coming at you.

The last seven days have been stormy in my house.

I have a child in a new school through no fault of his own. Because he came from me, he also hates change. And now he is the new kid. Again. In the middle of the school year. Again. He doesn’t know where the pencils are. Again.

Plus, when you’ve been bullied repeatedly over a long period of time, you may come out of that with some anger. You may have a really short trigger when you think people are not listening to you. You may even feel guilty that all of this is somehow your fault.

Then, it was Thanksgiving. We do it small but still. There’s shopping and parties and 3 year olds who run fevers right before the whole world goes on vacation for four days.

To call the pediatrician or not call the pediatrician?  That is the question that will spin a tropical storm mama into a Category 2.

Then on Friday after dinner my mom was crying into the phone. I think the number of times this has happened in my life is less than the fingers on one hand. My dad—who’d had surgery ten days before—was experiencing a complication that required another emergency surgery. They’d been up since 4 am, sitting at the ER since 10 and my dad was so hopped up on pain meds that he was barely awake as they rolled him away.

WEATHER BULLETIN: Hurricane Mama is now Category 5 with winds in excess of 200 mph and a 100% chance of precipitation. All humans living within the affected area are directed to take shelter immediately. And STAY there, for the love of God.

It was a dodgy 12 hours. I activated every prayer chain I know, and women all over the country called down the power of heaven to be with my family.

My dad came through surgery like a champ and is on the road to recovery. My mom got some sleep and her feet back under her. Gabriel came home from school with an invitation to a birthday party. Some might even say that things are looking up.

Hurricane Mama is not so sure. Or maybe it’s that the stress of it all seems to linger. Why these things seem to come in clumps, I’ll never understand. I am grateful for the calm after the storm, I truly am. I revel in it.

But it takes me a minute to get there.

If you have an anxiety sister in your life, can I make a plea on her behalf? This is a tough time of year. Chances are, she’s had it planned out in her head for months, but life happens, like last week. She’s going to need a minute to reorder it in her head and her heart, and there may be wind and rain before she does.

Tell the kids to take shelter, because we don’t need to add guilt to the storm. Then help her by doing something, by taking something off her list. The fastest way to calm the storm is by controlling the things that are easy to control. I can’t explain why, but it makes the big, out of our control things seem so much easier to bear when the little things are going right.

It will pass and she will be your uber-competent, joyful wife-daughter-sister-friend again before you know it

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. (1 Peter 5:10)

 

 

 

What I Will Tell My Kids by Jen

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The first time I told the story of my severe postpartum anxiety, I had to think about what I was doing.

Telling my story out loud, on the internet, where it would live forever. Where someday, my kids will see it. That was scary, so I almost didn’t tell it all.

I was going to leave out the part about seeing a demon hallucination because Good Lord, I don’t want my kids to read this someday and think I was crazy.

I was going to leave out the part where my husband couldn’t figure out a way to take care of me, because he is such a good man and I don’t want his name to be bad at the village gates.

I was going to leave out the part where my family doctor and pediatrician both told me that I should really just try to calm down, take a bath and drink some chamomile tea, because they were good doctors really, even though they dropped the ball on this one.

I think the instinct to sugarcoat is legitimate and for lots of reasons. Maybe I wasn’t ready to handle the whole truth of the thing. Maybe I felt that if I gave them less attention, I could strip those days of their power over me.

My biggest fear was that my kids would not understand my story when they were 12 or 15 or 25. That they would think I didn’t want them, or couldn’t handle them. Or that I was unhappy with them. I never want them to see a story in the news like this one and wonder “Did you ever want to do that?”

The answer is no, but I hesitate to give it, because I know it’s not that easy. The honest answer is more like no, but…I understand how a choice like that can be made and how it can even look like the greatest act of love in the eyes and heart of a sick mom.

Ultimately, I decided to tell the whole truth. I did it for right now, because there are still too many women who stand in front of doctors and husbands and mothers and friends who just don’t know how to help them.

Not because they are bad doctors or husbands or mothers or friends. But because we still don’t have enough support systems out there, enough classes, enough hotlines. We still see mental health as a very personal issue and we look away.

We look away.

So I also did it for years from now, when I will tell my kids this:

I went through a bad time, caused by all the crazy hormones running through my body. I didn’t sleep for days. Your dad was just starting a new job and he thought I was a really, really strong mama and that I would pull myself out of it. And he couldn’t miss his first week of work. He took me to the doctor who told me that I just needed to relax. He took me and Annie to the pediatrician who told me take a bath and drink some tea. He trusted them to know what to do.

I finally did get help, but not before some really scary things happened.

During that time, I never stopped loving you. I never stopped wanting you. In fact, hugs from you were the only thing that made me feel better. When I thought about leaving, I was taking you with me.

There was never a moment when I didn’t want to be with you.

Lots of mamas get sick like this. And it happens in different ways. Some mamas look like they didn’t want their babies, but we can never know what a sick mama is thinking. What she needs, more than anything, is love. Love and help. Don’t judge her. Help her.

Even though it was hard, the best things came from me telling my story. It helped all the mamas who knew me to be more aware of themselves and their mama friends. It helped more than a few mamas get the help they needed. Until we do better with organized outreach for sick mamas, this is what we have, telling our truth and spreading it one mama at a time.

So that if you or someone you love ever feel this way after having a baby, people will know what to do.

And remember…It’s not your fault. You will be ok.

If you or someone you know is struggling with pre- or postpartum depression or anxiety

  • If you need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • If you are looking for pregnancy or postpartum support and local resources, please call or email us:

May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month. In honor of Dana and me and all the mamas who have recovered, please don’t just look at the new babies. Look at the new mamas. Are they ok?

PSI Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month Blog Hop

The Wasteland

My dear and beloved T.S. Eliot begins his epic poem, “The Wasteland” with the line, “April is the cruelest month,” and for me, the end of April through the beginning of May feels like a wasteland.

On April 23, 2013, my dad received a radiation treatment that was a last resort for us, for him. Beginning in October of 2012, as his lymphoma spread, his chemo treatments failed. In the month of April, we received two big blows. We were hoping that he would go to San Diego for stem cell therapy, a treatment that held the hopes of really good results. The day before he and my mom were supposed to leave, they got the news that his cancer was growing, rendering him ineligible for the treatment. I was with my parents when they got the call and it was the first time, during his whole bout with cancer that I had seen my dad truly break down and cry.

The second blow came the day before the radiation shot. The hospital called to inform him that this particular treatment isn’t covered by Medicare, and would cost $40,000. They then asked if he would like to go ahead with the treatment. For the second time, my father cried. He told us that he didn’t want to use that much money.  He cried in the kitchen where I had eaten every breakfast of my childhood. Where he fixed chocolate malts in the summertime. At the table where we laughed. Where we fought. Where we three now cried together.

The dates are hard for me. On the 23rd he got that shot, which had the most negative of side effects. On the 28th, we went to see him in the hospital where he was in treatment for extreme pain. Mazie and Violet picked him a white rose and brought it. His face lit up with joy to see those girls. May 3rd, he collapsed at home and my mom realized she couldn’t care for him alone and he went back to the hospital. May 5th, a CT Scan showed lung caner and we stopped all treatment. May 7th, we decided to bring him home. May 9th, he left the hospital. May 11th, he left us.

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The days leading up to April 23rd, then to May 11th, wear at my soul. I feel physically different. My anxiety picks up. It’s hard to breathe sometimes. My body aches. I told my friend and dance instructor that my muscles are so tight lately and that even though I’m faithfully in yoga classes, my flexibility seems to be getting worse. “It’s because you’re not releasing.” He said matter-of-factly. “What do you mean?” I asked. “You know.” he said, “Emotionally and physically. You can’t do it right now.” And he’s right. Don’t you love friends who know? I feel like if I release these emotions, I’ll drown.

But what is the lesson? What I am learning is to be gentle with myself. I don’t fake being ok. I don’t overcompensate with loud laughter or a huge smile. And that’s all right. My friends who know are loving me right through this.  Many of us feel like we always have to be strong, like we can’t be the ones who break down.  But right now, I am broken, and that is ok.

I spend my days not stressing about what didn’t get done. Right now, that stress is too much for me. My girls and I take longer at dinner, listen to French music, dine by candlelight. In my sadness, I delight in them.

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Many people tack on to their grief advice the phrase, “your dad wouldn’t want you to be sad,” and I hate that. Because deep down in my heart, I think he would want us to be a little sad. Who wants to be forgotten? Who wants to be not missed when they’re gone? What I don’t do is allow my grief to stop me from living. There can still be smiles among the tears. There can still be bursts of light in the darkness. We do a poor job of thinking that things must be black or white. There are not only two choices.

So during these 18 days from April 23rd to May 11th, I’m remembering that. I take my girls on outings and we have fun, but I also allow a space for my sadness. We talk about things that Zsa-Zsa would have loved and I let them see the tears flow from my eyes. We go to Disneyland. We opt for a little longer of a walk and push bedtime back 15 minutes. We live gently. But at night, when the house is quiet, the hole that he left in my heart opens up and I feel utterly lost in a world that just doesn’t make sense without my daddy.

If you are grieving, if you are struggling emotionally, please be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself a space to grieve. Forgive yourself for your moments of sadness or anger. Embrace your struggle. Avoid people with whom you have to “fake it.” If you take a hard look at it, they probably aren’t your true friends, anyway. Surround yourself with your definition of beauty, with things that make you happy. Get a latte. Or a beer. Or a vodka gimlet (the drink Dad and I had together in New Orleans) and raise your glass to us. Smile and cry. And know that the sun will rise again tomorrow.

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Mother of mothers

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with Mary.

It gets less complicated as I get older. Motherhood has made her more real to me. After Dana’s post about the spoons, I wondered if Mary ever ran out of spoons.

A two year old is a two year old is a two year old, right? Plus there’s the business of the missing teenage years.

Part of what I struggled with for so long was my church’s characterization of her as small, meek and sugar coated.

Because I’m not.

I resented the Renaissance depictions of her that hang in churches and museums all over the world, beautiful in form and face even as she grieves at the foot of the Cross.

I wondered, if she is the ultimate example of womanhood and obedience, in all her delicate beauty and grace, then what are the rest of us?

Then I became a mom and I knew the truth.

She was a lot like the rest of us.

She labored and gave birth.

She felt mama fear, as we all do. Probably more, after meeting Simeon in the temple and then being forced to flee in front of the slaughter of the innocents.

She felt mama anger, too. The bible tells us that she searched wildly for her son for three days when he was lost. And when she found him in the temple, she spoke up to him, in front of the men surrounding him.

The strongest word I could find to describe her tone is “questioning”.

Yeah, I bet. She probably wanted to question him all the way home and into his room until he was 30.

Which would explain the missing years. Huh.

She was Immaculately Conceived, gave birth to the Son of God and lived a sinless life (hey, I said she was a lot like us, not just like us), which makes her the Mother of mothers. She walked our path and then some. She gets it.

That’s what matters—not how she is depicted in a painting from 700 years ago.

When I descended into the darkness after Annie was born, and my counselor told me that meditation would quiet the loud and ugly voices in my head, I turned to the rosary.

For Catholics, the rosary is meditation. It’s also closely connected to Mary, and I needed the Mother of mothers badly at that time in my life. On the nights when the fears were chasing me, I let the beads slip through my fingers,  begging Mary to pray with me for peace in my heart and thoughts, to add her voice to mine and ask God for healing.

I never made it all the way through before falling asleep. But when I awoke in the morning, my rosary curled up in bed with me, I felt peace and knew that Mary was with me in my struggle.

My friend Steffani is the one who brought me closer to this understanding of Mary. She’s a homeschooling mom with eight kids, and her family is a great big joyful bundle of noise and love. In the midst of this, she is a very calm and wise woman. I used to think this was because she’d seen it all. But then I realized it’s because she gives it all to God. And she asks the Mother of mothers on a daily basis to pray for her and her family.

So I started praying the rosary beyond bedtime, looking for support and wisdom. I do feel that those moments of quiet reflection bring me closer to God, help me clear out the distractions and listen for the answers to questions and prayers.

A few weeks ago, my 36 year old rosary broke. I knew right away what I wanted to do. I had a rosary handmade for my godson Owen, out of his birthstone, for his First Communion last year. I got it from ClaresGift (Agnus Dei Creations) on Etsy.

I went back to the same shop and asked Ellyn if she could make me a mother’s rosary out of my birthstone and the birthstones of my kids. But of course. It arrived on Saturday:

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I love it.

I love what it represents, a powerful way to pray for my babies.

I love that it connects me to the Mother of mothers, who is ever ready to pray for me and with me in support and love.

I love that it brings me closer to God, and creates a quiet space where I can ask, honor and listen.

It’s another way to remember I am never alone.

I’ll bet Ellyn can make any kind of custom rosary—mother’s, grandmother’s, dad’s, godmother’s, First Communion, Confirmation, Wedding, Quincineara, etc. Or she has a standard collection of Catholic and Anglican rosaries at https://www.etsy.com/shop/claresgift.