On most nights, at the end of bedtime prayers with my 2 year old daughter, Audrey, we finish by whispering “Goodnight, Nicholas” and the small delicate hand of my surviving twin blows a kiss to her brother in heaven. My nearly 5 year old little boy, Jackson, will also randomly ask questions like how did Nicholas get to heaven, and without any hinting, I will ask “How DO YOU think he got to heaven?” Jackson then describes in detail only a child could imagine that he drove a car the color of the rainbow.
Every day our family encounters some reminder about the loss of our baby boy; it isn’t that hard since his twin sister is a sweet and joyful presence in our daily lives. I remember being so excited about having boy/girl twins, mostly because I wanted my older son to have a brother. Granted, the excitement about being pregnant with multiples took a while because I knew of the potential complications. So when the doctor told us our son would be stillborn but our daughter would be born healthy, I felt like I had willed this awful tragedy bestowed upon us.
Since the day my twins were born, I’ve grown as a mother, a wife, a friend, and a Christian. After returning from maternity leave, I even had a co-worker ask me “Where is the old Melissa?” She probably doesn’t know how that phrase has echoed in my head for nearly two years. I’m definitely more compassionate, extremely skeptical, and more driven to help others.
I’ve put together MY list of life after loss…I’m sure a lot of these thoughts are not exclusive to me. I hope that one person, possibly a grieving mother, a person questioning their faith, or someone harboring bitterness deep down, may read and feel totally normal and know that you will once again find joy and light.
1. Going Viral
I truly can’t count the number of loss stories that have “gone viral” since losing Nicholas. Did I ignore articles like this before him or did they just not exist? I read about baby Shane, born with anencephaly. His parents wanted him to have worldly experiences, so while he was growing safely in his mama’s belly, they took him across the US, checking off baby Shane’s bucket list. A grieving mother recently posted her story about her baby girl, Eleanor, who was stillborn. She offered heartfelt advice about finding gratitude and appreciation during the some of darkest moments of bringing home baby.
These are real people and real stories that bring so much awareness to the general population who haven’t experienced loss. These families experienced a flood of support from strangers. This is truly wonderful for them…but there are more stories about loss and families whose stories don’t make it across the internet or on the morning talk shows. Our family was able to share our story locally. I was even stopped at Target by a woman to say she enjoyed reading the article in a local magazine.
2. Measuring Time
I’ve always been pretty good with dates. January 26, 2013, my first ever positive home pregnancy test. February 15, 2013, I learned I was having twins. May 2, 2013 found out we were having a boy and a girl. August 23, 2013 bed rest. September 6 was the last time I heard my son’s heartbeat. September 13, 2013 my daughter and son were born; Nicholas’ death preceded his birth. October 9, my actual due date. October 15, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day…..
Anniversaries swim around in my head until sometimes I feel like I’m drowning. Around these dates, I become a little fuzzy, scatterbrained, anxious, and really just sad…and it shows. When celebrating Finley’s first birthday in heaven, my friend, Rachel thanked her friends for loving her family even when they were unloveable. Over the last two years, I’ve had many many moments where I was unloveable.
The people that helped the most were the ones who loved my family when we were not at our best. I received a text from my friend, Elaine, when October finally arrived. I felt immediate relief that I made it through another September and relief to know that people still cared.
3. A community of loss
A family friend from childhood has an amazing story including multiples losses and four decades later she still tears up when sharing. I was so grateful to reconnect with her this year and listen to what she wanted to share with me.
I remember when my cousin, Jennifer, lost both of her twins when I was a teenager. I remember one of my best friends telling me she had a miscarriage and truly thinking the same offensive thoughts that people have shared with me over the last two years. “At least….” “You’re still young” I’m hoping I didn’t share these thoughts at the time. I also will never forget the day one of my best friends from college lost her infant nephew.
These are the stories of real people. These women and several people I’ve met were put in my life to help me get through my loss. I watched my co-worker and his family care for their son with a degenerative condition and was amazed at their faith. The first time I met my friend, Harmony, I was so amazed to see her standing in a room pregnant only 6 months after losing her son, Van. We met only 9 months before I lost Nicholas; we were paired together randomly but if you are a person of faith you know that God had a hand in our friendship. I learned about several other friends who lost a baby only after my son died.
Look around you, and take inventory. Whatever you are going through in life, infertility, loss, cancer, parenting troubles, you have resources in your life, on your block, or you may not have even met them yet, but help and normalcy awaits you.
4. Eternally incomplete
Our family is eternally incomplete. Standing in line at Old Navy, the cashier said she was ready for another baby as she admired Audrey in her infant car seat when she was only 4 weeks old. Immediately after our loss, I wanted another baby too. I wanted to fill the void and fix the gap in our family. I was supposed to be embracing the chaos of life with twins.
In the loss community, the baby after a loss is called a rainbow baby…well, I had my rainbow baby and my angel at the same time. But even a rainbow baby can’t take away the pain of loss. My husband and I are grateful for our children on earth and heaven. We don’t plan to have any more babies. However, I have a slight twinge of envy when I hear a new pregnancy announcement knowing that will never be us again.
5. Grief sucks the energy out of you
Grief is a process that consumes so much energy. I started sharing our story through Knitting for Nicholas to help families like ours. I’ve knit hats and gowns for babies who’ve died as a keepsake item or for the baby to wear for burial. Since starting Knitting for Nicholas, we’ve grown and expanded to making Angel Gowns. The great part is through sharing, people have contacted me to tell me their stories. Somehow, I’ve inspired others. This wasn’t exactly my life’s goal, but I feel privileged that people want to read about Nicholas and that he has a legacy that measures beyond his short time on earth.
We’ve redirected our energy to helping others including local and national organizations. These groups are available and want to help grieving families. After our immediate needs for memorial planning, decision making, etc, we were able to give back through fundraising and participating in memorial walks.
6. Parenting after loss
“My children are my world.” I remember hearing this sweet cliche as a non-parent, probably rolling my eyes far back into my head. But it is true. I’m protective to a fault, yet not quite a helicopter mom. I tell my children I love them more than anything in the world; to the moon and back. I rock my baby girl to sleep nearly every night and sing “You Are My Sunshine” to get her to stop crying. I have tried to enjoy every possible moment since Audrey was born. Yet, I’m seriously flawed as a mother too. I still lose my temper and say all the wrong things. Over the past weekend, I’ve read several parenting books to help with my energetic and impulsive son who may eventually get himself kicked out of preschool. (That’s another story) I can’t feel guilty for the real parenting moments just because I lost a baby. I just continue to work hard at providing them with unconditional love, a safe home, and a reasonable amount of discipline.
7. Rainbows & Butterflies
At my husband’s work picnic after our loss, I felt lonely and lost. I barely knew anyone and I felt like people were looking at me with pity. To be fair, I’m sure no one was staring and they were all very nice. As I was sitting with Audrey, a dragonfly landed on my toe, a small sign of hope. I took a picture of my little visitor. Some people believe when the dragonfly shows up in your life, it represents change and transformation and will bring joy and lightness to your life. Every time I see a rainbow, I think of both Nicholas and Audrey. Rainbows are a sign God’s promise after the storm.
Last year, I spent my birthday at the Children’s Museum for the special butterfly event. We’ve frequently been visited by monarch butterflies, a colorful sign of life, transformation, and joy. Monarchs, the beauty of the crescent new moon, the competitor bib number 13 that was assigned to us at our memorial walk; the table number 222 which was the twin room at the hospital, the list of symbolism over the last two years is endless. Seeking symbolism after loss can be enlightening. I love when little signs of hope show up at the times when it is most needed. These signs of hope are never coincidental.
8. Love and Marriage.
Losing Nicholas has been a very dynamic part for our marriage but I firmly believe we are stronger because of it. Our first visit to a grief counselor was brief. He mentioned some statistic about divorce and loss. I smiled because he didn’t know us. We have seen strong marriages end after decades, sold two houses, bought three houses, lived in 3 states, finished veterinary school, went through infertility treatments, and waited 13 years for our first child. We were strong. This wouldn’t fracture us!
I’m proud to say that although we handle our grief in very different ways, we can still communicate semi-effectively and share our feelings. However, the past two years haven’t been always been sunshine and roses. We still get fired up about the silly marital woes and entertain minor disagreements. Our parenting skills are challenged; mostly by the kids. We are not the picture of perfection but we’ve created a beautiful family filled with love. We try every day.
9. Faltering Faith, Restored
Our pastor was the first person to join us in our hospital room to baptize Nicholas. He offered us his thoughts. One of his first thoughts was God did not do this to us but he was present in it. When I posted this on Knitting for Nicholas, someone said, that is OK to be mad at God. WHAT? Shouldn’t I be afraid of lightening bolts or something awful happening if I’m angry at God? I’ve seen inspirational quotes, bible passages, explanations for the death of a child. None of it makes sense and probably never will.
One Sunday in September, my friend went into labor early at 34+ weeks. I was nervous for her as I’ve been with most of my friends who are pregnant. My husband leaned over to me in church, “Are you worried?” One word and tears. “Yes.” The sermon that day was about Abraham and Sarah, and God providing this couple a baby named Isaac. I already knew the story very well. At that moment, I knew my friend would be OK. I’m excited to meet her healthy baby girl next week. My trust and faith in God has been tested, repeatedly. But each time, I find myself doubting God’s plan for my life, I see a sign that helps renew and restore my faith.
I look back at the events that led up to my water breaking. What did I do wrong? Where did I go wrong? Since he was stillborn, when did Nicholas die? Was it that fateful Monday when I thought something was weird? My first words to my husband from my hospital bed were “I’m sorry.” I did everything I could to keep our babies healthy. I questioned every step, relived each moment, and in detail I could list out the nearly three weeks of bed rest and what I was doing every moment of the day (I spent a lot of time knitting and binge watching new series). I questioned my doctor, the on-call doctor, the choice to not go to a specialist. I questioned everything. Over time, I realized that I didn’t do anything wrong. This was the life we were meant to live. Eventually, I had to forgive myself. I’m still working on it daily.