Tough it out. Don’t cry. Don’t be a girl. We have been told for years that to show pain, or to speak of it, is weakness. We are the children of stoicism. The American roots run deep into this ancient philosophy. At the heart, we know something is wrong with it, but from day one this belief has been a part of us. Growing in this harsh soil of stoicism paired with the miracles of modern medicine we as a people find ourselves wholly unprepared for the unexpected death, the death of a child.
Unlike most, my introduction to bereavement was gentle. It happened over years. I learned through stories, the memories of my grandmothers. It seems that I always knew about Jonny and John. Great Grandma Margaret would settle herself into a chair and then call all the children to her, saying, “I am going to tell you about all the naughty things your parents did when they were children.” And she did.
She told us stories of little boys ruining their Sunday best, of nighttime bicycle rides through the countryside, and of the history of our family. She told us about our great-grandpa, her first husband, who died before his time. She told us about her parents who worked the grounds on a Scottish estate until they took a boat to America—a poor family looking for a better life. Among all these stories and more were the stories of her son Jonny, who died at the age of eight from appendicitis.
Great Grandma Margaret was a poet. Her poem “Jonny” is my favorite:
Is he close to your breast, Gentle Jesus,
And by wondrous Celestial Grace,
Have you taught his lips once more to smile
And erased the pain from his face?
He is so small to be away
Lord lead him by the hand
When you walk by ‘The Still Water’
Upon the Heavenly Strand.
Was he taken from us Father
So our unseeing eyes might see
A beckoning hand,
A radiant face
And a glimpse of Eternity?
My great grandmother was not the only storyteller in the family. My Grandma Ina, her daughter, is as well. Grandma Ina’s stories are not as dramatic, but they are no less interesting or poignant. As a child, I loved to hear her talk about life on a farm, how things were when she was a girl. She would also tell us about John, her second child, who was born premature and died two days later.
As a child, it seemed a normal thing to talk about those who were gone. It did not matter that we never met them.
John is my uncle and Jonny, my great uncle. They are a part of the family that has made me. We are part of the same lineage. I love Jonny for his bravery in the face of death. My heart breaks for John and my grandmother—he was never held by her because she was never allowed the chance.
No one is prepared to become a bereaved parent, but I have always said that I was as prepared as humanly possible.
When those around you, those you love, speak about the realities of grief it gives a perspective, one that our culture frequently ignores.
My cousin Josh and I were the oldest of the grandkids that Great-Grandma Margaret would gather around her chair. As the oldest two, Josh and I have always shared a bond. I was in college when Josh married his sweetheart Kim. They were in their early 20s when they decided to get pregnant for the first time. Kim was healthy. They were young. Although, there was every reason to believe the pregnancy would go perfectly, at 20-weeks they were informed that baby Calvin had Trisomy 18.
Josh and Kim spent the next 21 weeks enjoying every moment they could with their little boy. Both wrote and talked about their experiences, even going into their thoughts on Heaven and life after death. I read most of what they published which was on a topic I am sure I would have not given much thought to otherwise as a college student.
Then the day came. After a hard labor, Calvin was born still but beautiful. A photographer friend of theirs documented his birth. Beautiful pictures of their family of three and of the entire extended family flooded my Facebook home page. Josh and Kim were saying hello and saying goodbye. In the months following, Josh and Kim continued to blog about their journey, describing raw grief and bittersweet memories, keeping on during the impossible.
Although I tried, I could not wrap my head around what had happened to them. One thing is for sure though, I was watching. I was paying attention.
A few months later, I hopped in my ‘96 Ford and headed east to visit them. Eight hours of driving and I was tired. Plopping my bag on the wood floor, I was greeted by Augie, their incredibly happy little dachshund.
Looking up and to my right, I saw Calvin’s picture on the wall. Never forgotten. Always loved. Prominently displayed next to Josh and Kim’s wedding pictures.
These moments of life shaped me. I have grown in the soil of this American culture, but my beliefs about death escaped the shade of its indifference. No. The legacy of my uncle, my great uncle, and my cousin’s son, this is how I learned to interact with grief. It is good to remember. It is good for us all, no matter what our culture may say.
Earlier I stated that I was as prepared as is possible for any person. The truth is though, that no one is prepared to become a bereaved parent. No one is prepared for that moment when the doctor comes in and tells you the news—the unthinkable.
I was 23-weeks along with Kuyper when I stopped feeling movement. I came into the hospital a half-hour prior to my shift on the Same Day Surgery Unit and headed up to OB. It was not long before every nurse on the unit and the ultrasound techs had been in my room.
The doctor walked in and time froze in place. Then came the induction. One pill and I was in labor. Seven hours later and I was holding my son.
My husband and I did not have long to make decisions. The example of my family guided us. We knew already that we wanted to bury and not cremate. We knew we wanted pictures with our son. I knew it would be traumatic to hold Kuyper but for me, to not hold him would have inflicted a greater trauma. My heart swells with gratitude for this choice which my grandmother never received.
We wanted to celebrate his life, inviting friends and family to a graveside service. We talked about our son. Seven years later and we still talk about him. He is our child. A part of our hearts. Our little girls know about their brother and love him. He is no less a part of our family for the brevity of his life. When all my hair is gray, I will tell my grandchildren and great-grandchildren about Kuyper, Calvin, John, and Jonny.
Bereaved parent . . . when you tell the story of your child, you do more good than you realize. You are opening the doors to an alternative perspective. You are letting others know that their grief is safe with you. The things you say about your baby, which fill your heart, may fill the hearts of others. You may help a niece, nephew, neighbor, daughter, or grandson to face the worst days of their life.
It is your choice and only yours to share. What is right for me and my family, may not be right for yours. If it is your desire to share, I hope you will not be diminished by those who hold onto stoicism. I pray that kindness and tender hearts forever meet you along your journey. Your story and your child’s story hold great power. Love always does.
Originally published on Share Pregnancy & Infant Loss Support