They say “time heals all wounds,” however, I’m not so sure that’s true.
Eight years ago my life was headed in the direction my dreams had always taken me. My husband and I were married on July 22, 2006. We had built our dream home and just moved in. Three months later we were expecting our first baby, the one I had dreamed about, the one I had created all of my goals in life around. I was going to be a Mommy. Life was PERFECT, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Five months later, on March 6th, 2007 my life was turned upside down. The night before I began having terrible back pain around 9:00 pm. I figured it was the normal back pain people had described to me, I was pregnant after-all and I had just cleaned the house, given my cat a bath, and baked a cake- back pain was to be expected, right? Not long after the pain started, the vomiting began. By 1:00 am my fever had spiked and off to the emergency room we went. I was triaged to Labor and Delivery and put on IV antibiotics for a kidney infection. I was told my stay would be 3 days while we allowed the antibiotics to kick-in. As the day progressed my condition worsened. By 4:00 pm my blood pressure had dropped to 66/40, the Intensive Care Team was called in and I was being whisked away from the Perinatal unit to the ICU. I was in Septic Shock- the infection had spread to my blood and my organs were shutting down. By 10:00 pm that night I was put into a medically-induced coma and intubated.
The next morning, March 6th, my only son was born due to premature spontaneous rupture of the membrane at 18 weeks and 5 days, too soon to survive, while I slept. My infection was just too much for the both of us. I remained in the coma for 7 days. My son was given the name Justin Christopher. He was baptized and blessed, pictures were taken, he was held by his Daddy, and both of his grandmas and grandpas. Then he was cremated. All while I slept, fighting an infection that was threatening to also take my life.
Seven days later, after a long hard fight, both by myself and the medical staff in the Intensive Care Unit, with my family by my side, the infection was gone, the respirator was removed, and I was taken out of the coma. I was weak, but otherwise ready to begin the road to recovery, completely oblivious to the fact that my road to recovery would be an emotional recovery that would likely never fully be complete. I was ready to tackle the physical recovery, that was easy. I gave them two days to discharge me once they woke me up, sure I needed a walker while I regained physical strength, but I was truly blessed with my physical health.
What I wasn’t ready for though, were the horrible days ahead. When I woke up I remembered being visited by a good friend of mine while in the coma. I knew what day it was and where I was supposed to be. I knew it was going to be one-heck-of-an-expensive medical bill (my first words were “who’s going to pay for this?”). But, I also knew I was pregnant. I can still remember my nurse weighing me. I was about 20 pounds less than when I was admitted. I told that nurse they weren’t feeding me enough, that I was pregnant, and they needed to feed us. I can still remember the respiratory therapist coming in to get x-rays, and reminding him that I was pregnant. They needed to protect my baby. And I remember the moment my husband told me that our son had been born, and had passed away. That we named him Justin. That he was cremated. That he was gone. It was the worst day of my life. And I remember it like it was yesterday.
I still remember the ride home, without my baby. I felt empty, lost, incomplete. Two weeks after being discharged we went to the funeral home where we picked up his ashes, in a box the size a necklace would come in. I could still feel him kicking me. How could this be? Surely they were wrong. I was in denial for months. He was due August 3rd. And August 3rd came and went. No baby. Many of my friends were pregnant at the same time I was. They were still pregnant. Still having baby showers. Still getting nurseries ready. And then came their babies. It was a living hell. And how could I, the person that wanted to be a mom more than anything in the world, be so hurt by the presence of a baby. How did I turn into this resentful person? Why couldn’t I just be happy for them, even though my heart was broken? It was such a deep, dark, horrible place to be.
Days went by, weeks went by, months went by, but the pain was still as sharp and present as the very day I found out. Even as I sit here writing this, 8 years later, the tears just flow. Where does a mom go from here?
I tried counseling, but it’s just so hard to vocalize the pain. I read book after book about grief, death, pregnancy loss, and the death of a child. My friends and family were amazingly supportive. My husband was by my side every step of the way, waking up with me in the middle of the night and watching “The Fresh Prince of Belair” when my own reality became too much to handle. He held my hand through it all. But NOTHING was making it better. My heart was so broken, could it ever be fixed? Would I ever be able to learn to live in this “new normal”?
I read in a pregnancy loss book at one point that when you suffer the loss of your first pregnancy there are actually 2 losses that occur- the loss of your child and the loss of your dream to be a mom. Losing Justin was the worst thing that has ever happened to me. I had bonded with him in a way I would have never thought possible in those 18 weeks and 5 days. We had seen him every other week through ultrasounds, as I was considered high-risk (for completely unrelated issues that ended up never being an issue in my pregnancies). Being high-risk turned out to be a blessing, as I got to spend quality time watching him move and grow, and we bonded. He was perfect.
After he died, as time passed, and I worked through the process of grieving I thought back to that book. I realized that some of the pain in my soul was likely from also losing that dream of being a mom. It was my lifelong dream. All other dreams I ever had revolved around my dream of being a mom. It was my purpose in life. The problem is, when a doctor tells your family you have 15% chance of surviving because of a condition that happens when you’re pregnant, it becomes difficult to convince anyone that loves you to get on board with the idea of trying again. The medical team swore that the chances of this happening again to me were similar to the chances of being struck by lightning twice. In fact, I’ve NEVER heard of this happening to anyone else during pregnancy, so why would we think it would happen to me again? And if it did, so what? I would rather die trying to be a mom, than to never be a mom.
The journey to have another baby was rough. It was the most daunting, emotional thing I’ve ever done. I was told to wait six months before trying again after we lost Justin. When you are in the emotional state I was, and longing so badly to be a mom, 6 months might as well be a lifetime. I gave myself two months before we began trying again. But of course, doctors know best, and my body was not ready. Month after month after month the pregnancy tests came back negative. Was my pregnancy with Justin a one-time fluke? It happened easily with him, but maybe he was destined to be my only child. The fear of a dream unrealized was paralyzing. My heart broke over and over again, with every month that passed. Then finally, in September 2007, it happened! A big-fat POSITIVE! I was ecstatic. And scared.to.death! What if it happened again? It would have been totally worth it in my book, but still scary none-the-less. We had ultrasound after ultrasound, healthy, healthy, healthy! But there were multiple problems- the many blood transfusions I had while in Septic Shock had given me an antibody in my blood that could attack my brand new baby’s blood. And on top of that, we were extra vigilant to make sure I didn’t have any urinary tract infections that could lead to a kidney infection like the one that sent me into Septic Shock, but… even with a daily dose of antibiotics to prevent a UTI I was still getting them regularly. It was a scary, scary ride. And then was delivery day, one that went smoothly until the cord wrapped around her neck and the forceps were brought in. I remember the fear of leaving that hospital empty handed again. It could NOT happen. And, thanks to a remarkable medical team (and an Angel on my side), it did not. My baby girl, my rainbow baby, was born on May 22, 2008 and came home three days later. I was finally a mom. Two years later we would go on another bumpy ride to bring home our second daughter. Our family of five was complete.
One thing that I was not prepared for as a “new mom after loss” was the emotional impact losing our son would have on bringing home a newborn baby. This is not something I have heard anyone else talk about, so maybe it is isolated to our experience only, however, I had a really hard time bonding with my first little girl. As much as I had dreamt about her, as hard as I worked to get her, as much as I was willing to die for her (both by taking the risk of getting pregnant again AND once she was born knowing I would lay down my own life for her in an instant), it was really, really hard to bond with her. I was so afraid of getting attached and feeling that pain I had just somewhat worked myself through if something were to happen to her. I had felt what it felt like to have your earth shattered and your soul destroyed. I had no choice but to put a guard up to protect myself. And knowing that losing a child could (and did) happen to me, I was terrified of losing my heart and soul again.
Now, looking back over the past 8 years, I can truthfully say that the day I got pregnant with Justin is the day I became a mom. I have raised him in my heart. I have the utmost faith that he is with me every day. I nurture him through my memorial garden, but he is walking through this life with me. In fact, he protected me the day he was born, as the doctors were unable to treat my infection aggressively because I was pregnant. And he has protected us through the birth of two beautiful, healthy baby girls, his little sisters. And as we begin the process of letting our girls go into the world without us, I am confident he is protecting them as they walk through this life too.
The birth of Justin’s sisters did alleviate some of the pain in my heart. They filled my soul and fulfilled my dream of being their mom. My life became instantly worth living for again once my first daughter was born. My heart is completely full, but there is always a piece of me missing. Time has not healed any of the wound my heart has felt due to Justin’s absence here on Earth, but it has made the pain manageable. Time has given me the tools to work through the pain, but also the experiences to know that he is not completely gone from me. The hurt in my heart is much less than it was eight years ago, I am able to enjoy life in ways I would have never thought possible in my darkest days.
I have chosen to raise Justin alongside of my daughters. I am the mom of a son and two daughters. Anyone that talks to my girls knows that they have an older brother. We celebrate Justin daily and remember him always. One of the first ways I found to raise him here on Earth was by planting a garden, I bought the largest pear tree I could find and planted it in a memorial garden. As we added babies to our family, a pear tree was added for each of them. It’s healing to my soul to look out of my back window and see the three trees together, the biggest for big brother, the middle for our first daughter and the smallest for our youngest baby girl. Those trees flower every spring, I always tell our girls that their big brother is sending us flowers to show us how much he loves us. And in the spring, we return our love to him by planting flowers in the garden.
These flowers from Justin are not the only sign that he is with us as we walk through this life. Not long after he was born I received an interview for my dream job, one where I could work from home and never have to leave my children (if and when I had them). Not only did I interview, I also got the job. And the true sign that this gift was Heaven-sent was that my very first day of orientation and training was on Justin’s due date. I am convinced my sweet boy did not want his Mommy sitting around the house devastated about how that day should have gone, instead he sent me a gift that would forever change my life on a day when my mind needed to stay busy and preoccupied. And even still, 8 years later, on Justin’s birthday (also the day he passed), my amazing little girls just happened to be watching a children’s show called “Justin Time” and it was also Justin’s birthday on the show. What are the odds? I KNOW my boy is with us, and he always finds ways to show us. It truly fills my heart to know this. And this year, as I began to feel like others had forgotten about my son (which is one of my biggest fears in life) and were expecting me to have “moved on,” I received a message asking me to write this very story. He is ALWAYS with me.
To those going through the darkness, know that eventually you will see light again. Every story is different. Every ending is different. But as you acquire the tools to grieve and cope, and the experiences to know that your child will always be with you, a part of you, and you will forever be his or her mom, the darkness will subside. It is my belief that it will always creep back in from time to time, but it will not define you.
At my darkest times there were a few quotes that got me through, I hope they will help you, as well:
Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.
You are not God. (I saw this on a church road sign while driving one day, as I was contemplating how I was going to get Justin back and what I could do to become a mom even when I was still getting negative pregnancy tests)
Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith. It is the price we pay for love.
Grief is the last act of love we have to give those we loved. Where there is deep grief, there was great love.