Most families treasure memories of shared experiences and holidays, stories and anecdotes that make us laugh, piles of photographs waiting to be put into albums….. In our family, we each have a “special box” containing various treasures we’ve collected throughout the years. Perhaps a first pair of shoes, some special cards or letters we’ve received, some of the kids’ poignant pictures or photographs and other various mementos. We each have one box.
Cody, our son who lived for only nine hours and six minutes, has two! Two boxes of mementos from a life that lasted a mere 546 minutes.
Every year on his anniversary, I allow myself some time to remember my son who was earthside for such a short time, to reflect on the impact his death has had on our lives. The grief gets easier to live with as time goes by, and these days I usually find that compartment of my heart buried beneath the busyness and joy of sharing life with my husband and four living children. On this day, however, I give myself the gift of some personal time and space to blow the dust off the boxes, open the lids and reflect on all the keepsakes collected there.
This year, on Cody’s birthday, which happens to also be the anniversary of the day he died, I took some photos of the various box contents, and thought I would share them here for posterity’s sake.
Unlike our special boxes, Cody’s are not filled with memories of anything he did in his life; instead, they are filled with memories of our pain, our loss. The photos I have are photos of my son on life support, of us holding our dead baby, of Cody in his coffin, of us standing in shock and horror at his graveside.
However, there are other treasures, too. Treasures that shine like little lights of love; messages of love and care from dear friends and families who reached out to us in our sorrow, who walked alongside us when we could not bear to walk alone; gifts that were given, pictures that were drawn, words that were shared to encourage and support us on our path through pain.
Cody’s “Special Boxes” (which are actually falling apart after nineteen years! I think it may be time to get a little wooden box that will hopefully last a bit longer, but still be light enough to carry in case of emergency):
Blessed by the kindness and compassion of others….
Giving something back…..
Feeling cared for, even after all these years…..
I have received so many lovely messages and comments today, some from people we no longer see but who walked those early years with us, others from people who didn’t know us then, but know us now and reach out with love and support, even diarising his birthdate so they won’t forget. There has also been support, of course, from our immediate and extended family who have been there from the start.
If you know someone who is recently bereaved, please don’t hold back from showing compassion and empathy. Perhaps you will be inspired by some of the wonderful things our friends and family did for us (not all of which are recorded here, of course). Perhaps you will be inspired by this post, too.
And please don’t assume that grief ends as time passes. It changes, for sure, but random acts of kindness are always appreciated. Let’s do our bit to make the world more kind, loving and compassionate.
I can now look at another baby without being blinded by tears.
I can now – almost – watch a helicopter without feeling sick.
I can live an awesome life without feeling burdened by a weight of grief.
The brick doesn’t feel so heavy anymore.
It feels familiar and simply part of me.
“Do babies grow up in heaven?” my daughter wants to know.
She thinks they probably do,
but I think maybe that’s not fair
because I want so desperately to hold my baby in my arms again.
I don’t know how things are in eternity, but I know this:
I miss my little-baby-come-big-grown-up-teenage-boy.
Whether I get to hold my baby in my arms again one day,
or whether I get to have a great big bear hug with an adult,
I know this one thing:
My faith in a life that goes beyond our final breath is my sanity in all of this.
It is the hope that has kept me …. hopeful.
It is the root of peace in my soul.
Cody, you were so wanted.
You are so grieved.
I still miss you!
I wonder how different life would have been if you hadn’t left so soon.
I would change so many things if I could,
hoping it might have led to a different outcome
but I would never change the decision to bring you into the world.
I like to think my experience of birth, loss and grief has made me
A better mum to your siblings,
A more compassionate person,
A voice of hope to those who suffer.
You have two other brothers and a sister now.
Only one of them met you, but they all know of you, and speak of you.
And this is such a comfort to me.
I am thankful for society’s newfound awareness of the need to
our little babies who died too soon.
Today we had birthday cake in your memory.
I just wish you were here to blow out the candles.
I wonder how you would have celebrated your 18th birthday?
An 18th Birthday – Without the Birthday Boy
I’ll finish off with how our night finished off: having a bit of fun with our new toy! That which was once a source of pain and despair, has today become a source of fun and laughter.
Well, a milestone has come …. and gone.
Which is pretty much how grief is, I guess.
The hard days come, but the hard days also go.
And even in the midst of sadness and grief,
there can be laughter and good times.
It is not a black and white, linear process.
It is a black, white, grey, and sometimes multi-coloured
swirling sea with patches of calm, great depths,
and sometimes wild, crashing waves.
In a way, Cody’s birth and death feel like yesterday,
and in another way it is as though it happened to someone else,
or in a different lifetime.
The end result is, the loss never goes away,
the hole is always there.
But you get used to living with it.
Like a hole in a favourite pair of jeans
The hole moves with the fabric and adds character.
You move on with life, living differently than how you did before.
Your perspective on what matters is different, for the better!
You don’t stay the same as how you were;
hopefully you become more gracious, empathic and understanding.
Pain can be a pathway to peace;
the kind of peace that is not dependent on good times,
or happy circumstances;
the kind of peace that is a constant uncurrent beneath the storms of life.
To those who grieve,
You will be okay.
I will be okay.
I AM okay.
If a mother never gets to hold her living baby, never gets to take her baby home, never gets to breastfeed, comfort, or snuggle with her baby, is she still a Mum?
I say yes!
The conception of a child is quite possibly one of the most miraculous, exciting and wonderful moments of a woman’s life. The knowledge that a wee one is growing within the womb is mind boggling!
I still remember the first time it happened to me. After almost two years of desperately hoping for that little blue line, my dream finally came true.
I remember walking out to my husband and simply stating, “So….. Would you like a baby for Christmas?” The smile on his face, and the joy in my heart, are something I still treasure to this day. Well do I remember the first flutter of movement, the first maternity outfit, the first ultrasound, the first trace of the baby’s heartbeat. I don’t exactly remember the moment of birth, because I slept for fifteen minutes after delivering the head! But I do remember lying in bed afterwards, gazing at my son’s beautiful face (but don’t tell him I said that, he’s now almost twenty!)
For some of us, those firsts are all that is left of “the pregnancy”. We have a delivery, a death, and a burial all in quick succession. This pregnancy test stick is actually the one that confirmed the pregnancy of my second baby, who died after 42 weeks of pregnancy and nine hours of life outside the womb.
Some mothers never get the thrill of a baby born alive, instead giving birth to only ….. silence. No “first breath”, no living memories at all.
Others have a pregnancy cut short by the fateful news that there is “no heartbeat”, only the trauma of having to go through labour knowing their precious one has already died.
Then there are those who bleed too soon, and miss the thrill of seeing their baby’s heartbeat and moving limbs on the ultrasound screen. There is no knowledge of whether the baby was a boy or a girl, no joyous announcements, just a shedding of blood and dreams. And the proclamation by many that it was just “a pregnancy”, not a baby at all. No gravestone. No recognition. No birthdate.
There are some who have the joy of a live birth and the thrill of raising a child, only to bury their child at a young age. Treasured memories that bring both comfort and pain.
And lastly, there are those who have the heart of a mother, but never even one conception. So much hope, yet only an empty womb. To those women, our hearts break with yours, knowing that you are filled with longing and desire, yet there is never the culmination of that desire, never the experience of entering the unreachable world of motherhood. Unattainable dreams.
Motherhood: a natural, biological instinct, an inner drive so strong for some that it is all encompassing, matched only in intensity by the corresponding despair and devastation when it goes wrong.
To women who have dreamed of being a Mum, yet not had their dreams become a reality,
To women who have only enjoyed a fleeting experience of motherhood,
To women who have a child or children to love, yet hold in their hearts an unfathomable pain for the one or ones they have farewelled,
To you I send love.
May you know the joy of little people, even if not your own flesh and blood.
May you have the thrill of loving a friend or relative’s child, and being loved in return.
May you feel the warmth of pudgy little fingers in the palm of your hand, perhaps not born by you, yet loving you by choice.
May you find enjoyment and pleasure in life as it is, not as it could have been.
May you find purpose and vision for your life, in spite of your loss.
May you feel complete. And loved. And at peace. May you find a reason to smile today. 🙂
One of our challenges, in the early days after Cody died, was the growing realisation that our favoured midwife had not acted wisely in the early minutes and hours of his life.
We had developed such a trust and connection with her during the pregnancy, that the idea of her having acted negligently did not at first enter our minds. In fact, we even invited her to the funeral, and spoke glowingly of her during the service! In photographs of the burial I can see us standing by her side speaking with her.
But slowly the light started to dawn and we began to question Cody’s care. Every single time we shared one of the aspects of Cody’s management with a midwife or other health professional and asked, “Is this normal practise…..?” we would be met with shocked faces and strong responses of “NO! that is NOT normal!” The dawning light was growing much brighter and we were shell-shocked by the reality that the way he had been managed was wrong. Very, very wrong.
A couple of days after Cody was born, when we were just starting to ask these questions, we were surprised to receive a phone call from the paediatrician that had been called to the hospital to care for our son. He was away on holidays and said it was not normal for him to call people in our situation, but he had a very important message: he thought it was imperative that we have an autopsy done on Cody’s body. He was very concerned about what had happened, and thought an autopsy may shed some light.
An autopsy certainly wasn’t something we wanted to think about, and it was obviously quite upsetting, but we agreed that it was best. I remember saying to Geoff, “It’s hard enough feeling sad; I don’t want to feel angry too.” I knew there was the potential that we were opening a big ugly can of worms. And yet open it we must.
When the death certificate and autopsy results came through, the paediatrician met with us to explain things. He was extremely angry as he explained to us that Cody must have been without oxygen for at least 20 minutes for his blood levels to be as acidotic as they were when he was tested upon entry to the intensive care nursery. The only time he could have been without oxygen for that length of time was while he was alone in the utility room, while the midwife sat outside writing up his notes in one long stream of handwriting, smoking a cigarette….
We later met with the hospital obstetrician who voiced similar concerns about the care Cody had (or hadn’t!) been given.
A review done by one of the head health professionals in the area health service found twelve specific areas of negligence and clearly stated that, had even basic medical care been provided for our son, he almost certainly would have lived. That was very hard to read. Unfathomable. Heart breaking. 🙁
By the time we settled out of court with the hospital, we had bulging files full of reviews and reports and statements from a wide variety of doctors, midwives, and so on, all of which stated over and over again that the care given to Cody was far from adequate. The hospital’s barister had empty files. They had found no one who would validate the actions (or lack thereof) undertaken by the midwife.
The midwife was found guilty of gross negligence. Her negligence wasn’t one simple, split-second error of judgment, but a number of choices throughout a two hour period to withhold treatment needed desperately by our baby. Our Barister had informed us we could have sued her for criminal negligence, but we weren’t on a witch hunt.
We simply wanted the hospital’s insurers to make the Birth Centre a safer place, so that hopefully a situation like ours would not happen to anybody else. (We had already had discussions with the hospital regarding our experience and they had admitted wrongdoing and offered compensation, but they were non-committal to making policy changes to make the Birth Centre safer; hence the court case to ensure they had no choice.)
Such a simple, three syllable word. It rolls so easily off the tongue. Yet it is, perhaps, one of the most difficult of all human acts.
To forgive another.
To forgive oneself.
To forgive God.
Letting go of our “right” to hold another to ransom requires incredible strength, courage and hope. It takes a certain kind of humility and trust. It feels so much easier to stay angry, hurt and resentful. For awhile. But slowly the insidious poison leaches into the very fabric of our being; it becomes like the blood that courses through our veins, bringing not nourishment to our bodies but toxicity to our souls.
It is normal to be angry, pissed off, furious! But when we hold on to that anger for too long, and allow it to fuel us, to justify our growing feeling of resentment, it is more likely to take the reigns. It likes to be in control. And before long we are feeling fully justified in holding on to feelings of blame.
When our focus is on blame and anger, which we can easily justify in view of a wrong having been done, feelings of resentment and hatred can start to take root and grow, spreading their poison throughout our mind and body. It is a bitter poison and the person it poisons is me.
I will never forget an interview I saw with the father of a girl who had been murdered. The killer had confessed to the crime and was in jail. The father was speaking publicly, campaigning for – wait for it – the end of the death penalty as the punishment for murder. Not just a random murder of someone “out there”. We’re talking the murder of his own child. He wanted his daughter’s killer to be taken off death row, released from the death penalty! The interviewer was incredulous and asked him how he could forgive the murderer of his own child. His words still haunt me: forgiveness is freedom from hatred.
Can I forgive?
I didn’t want to stay angry. I didn’t want to be filled with hatred. But I didn’t want to “let her off the hook” either.
Being raised as a “good christian girl” I knew I should forgive. But this wasn’t a simple case of forgiving someone for eating the last cookie. This was about forgiving the midwife who had allowed my baby to die before our very eyes, without doing anything to help!
I had to consciously remind myself that forgiveness does not mean that the act was okay. It is not a declaration of the other person’s innocence. It is removing myself from the position of judge. It is separating myself from the other person’s guilt or wrongdoing. It is taking responsibility for my own choices and emotions.
It is letting them off the hook. Off MY hook.
I have a friend who goes spear fishing. It is not a pretty sport! And it got me to thinking: some of us not only keep the offender on the hook, we shove a spear right in there and give it a twist!
I think that forgiveness is about removing the hook (or spear!) and trusting that God, the justice system or “Karma” will deal with the one who has hurt us. It isn’t our place.
Refusing to “let them off the hook” keeps us tied to them. Letting them off the hook isn’t anything to do with whether they are guilty of wrongdoing or not. It is about us letting go of our attempts to punish them in our hearts and minds.
I mean, seriously, do you really want to sit there holding a fishing rod for the rest of your life!? Especially with the same old fish on the end of the line for ever! It would get fairly boring after a while, surely. And it would certainly limit us from living a free, unfettered life.
Seventy Times Seven
A couple of months after Cody’s death, I was feeling challenged about this idea of forgiveness, but I wasn’t sure I was ready. I mean, I was still in the very early days of grief, and my feelings were big and strong.
I had this idea that to offer forgiveness meant I was “over it” somehow. That I was ready to move on.
But it suddenly occurred to me that Jesus’ answer to the question, “How many times should I forgive” wasn’t just about how many times we should forgive for a repeated offence. It was also to do with the idea that sometimes we need to forgive over and over for just one offence.
We can forgive at the level we’re at, at any given moment. Then later, as we move forward in our journey and come face to face with the hurt again, we forgive again. Each time we forgive, the healing goes deeper within us, and it helps to free us from that hatred that so easily turns putrid and toxic if it is left to fester.
So, I forgave our midwife.
It was definitely an act of the will; a decision of the mind. I didn’t feel very forgiving or loving. But I chose to let go of my “right” to hold on to the hurt, to lay blame at her feet and to make her suffer in my mind.
In reality, if I didn’t forgive, the one who would suffer was me.
I wrote her a letter of forgiveness and although I never heard back from her, that’s okay. I did what I needed to do, for me. I knew that I would have plenty more opportunities to choose forgiveness again, and trust me, I have!
Forgiveness has not erased the memory, but it has set me free from hatred and anger. It hasn’t had any bearing at all on the midwife’s journey but it has certainly helped me in mine.
It has set me free, even if sometimes I forget how free I am.
I love living free! And sometimes to be truly free, I need to forgive me.
Waking up the morning after Cody’s funeral was ……. surreal.
Surely this wasn’t true. Surely it wasn’t happening to us. To me. It must be someone else’s nightmare! Head-shaking-disbelief.
And suddenly – the cry of a toddler hungry for Weet Bix!
Reality like a splash of icy cold water hits me in the face!
Conflicted emotions tug at my heart strings and threaten to rip them apart.
Part of me wants to lie prostrate on my baby’s grave, as close to him as possible. Part of me can’t bear the thought of leaving my toddler and husband. I am needed. But I am empty. Everything I had to give poured out of me with my tears.
But give I must.
In a robotic trance I go about my day, doing what must be done. And nothing more.
I just want to sit in utter silence, rocking back and forth,
Weeping for my wee one who is with us no more……
And so began day 6 of my grief walk. Sometimes it felt more like limping. Or lying down in the foetal position wishing the world would go away and leave me alone.
I honestly don’t think I changed a nappy for the first two weeks. I don’t remember cooking, or doing anything practical at all.
I just remember the tears. Waking up in the middle of the night, finding myself standing in the darkness of the kitchen, sobbing with gusto.
Other times the tears were silent, invisible even; falling within, unseen by other eyes.
I had a framed photo of my son, which I would sometimes clutch to my chest, but its hard wooden frame, cold glass and pointed edges were a stark contrast to the warm softness of a baby’s skin; a painful reminder of what I was really holding. Sometimes I would kiss the photographed image of my son’s lips, but between us was the cold, hard pane of glass. There was to be no more physical contact between me and my son. I was alone.
I vividly remember the first time it rained. I had a panicky, irrational, frantic, desperate desire to rush to the grave and rescue Cody from the falling raindrops, falling like tears upon the now sodden, muddy ground. I couldn’t bear the thought of his grave getting wet. I wanted to keep my baby dry. My tears fell like raindrops and there was no umbrella large enough to stop their wetness getting through to every part of me.
Such was the madness of maternal grief.
Til Death Do Us Part?
Grieving for a lost child, while parenting another child, and somehow navigating the tricky waters of shared parental grief, is a minefield of potential disasters. Geoff and I promised we would always be honest with each other, and refrain from the desire to “be strong”, or pretend. But we found that was easier said than done. The natural tendency, when one of us seemed to be doing “okay” and the other was falling apart, was to try to shield them from the intense emotions. That shielding could easily become a wedge that divided us. The intention was good but the outcome not always so.
I still remember the intense loneliness on Geoff’s first day back at university, three weeks after Cody died. A friend’s presence provided temporary comfort, a partial distraction from the life that lay ahead.
One of the things I learned throughout all of this was how differently men and women grieve.
I cried, I wept, I sat by the grave. I drenched my friends’ shirt sleeves with my tears. I shared numerous cuppas, walks, talks and tissues with supportive sisters. I often looked through the little collection of memorabilia from Cody’s short life and treasured every card and photo and keepsake even though they drew out my tears. I journalled my feelings, shared my thoughts, and sought comfort in the care of friends and family.
My husband’s grief was, for the most part, shut away behind his relentless effort to support me and be strong for me. When it did come out, it was often an angry grief. He yelled himself hoarse as he drove home from work, he threw things, he visited the midwife to plead desperately for answers, he shut himself away in a cave, he avoided the grave, he tried to be strong and supportive for me and yet struggled with volatile emotions that scared even him.
He didn’t get anywhere near the support from his mates as I got from my friends and family. I’m not sure whether his angry emotions scared them off, or if it’s just what blokes do? Take him out for a beer and talk about the footy.
“She’ll be right.”
“How’s the wife?”
I don’t for a moment doubt their compassion. I think they were simply products of a society that just doesn’t know how to handle male despair. I remember reading once about a primitive ritual in a far off place where a grieving man chooses a tree from the forest, and takes out his despair upon the tree with a machete, then throughout the days, months and years ahead, he visits the tree and observes its gradual healing, a symbol of that taking place within himself. I have read of cultures where men construct the coffin, often beginning with the chopping down of a tree. The physical outlet for grief, I imagine, is a significant part of their grief journey; an outlet so desperately needed for the huge emotions impossible to contain.
I think Geoff felt much more alone in his grief than I did in mine. Why is it that guys find it so much harder to show compassion towards those who are suffering? To take the time to really find out how they are going, and lend an empathic listening ear rather than a slap on the back with a beer in the hand? Why do people in general assume that a father grieving the death of a newborn doesn’t suffer as much as the mother? Why do they ask how a man how his wife is going, rather than asking him how HE is going?
Dads grieve too.
Whilst we at times tried to shield each other from our darkest days, we were also a lifeline of support from which we each gained incredible strength. We went together to a SANDS Support Group. We went together to grief counselling. We were a team. We were partners in this shared nightmare.
It was at counselling that we were challenged to consider the idea that always agreeing with each other, shielding each other, and thinking we could be each other’s “everything” was a bit “1950’s-ish” and that it was okay to be disappointed in each other, angry with each other, real with each other.
I think we’ve progressed well beyond the 50’s now. 🙂
The SANDS Support Group was certainly another lifeline, especially at first. It was amazing to walk into a room and find a group of people that had some idea of what we were going through.
Family and Friends
One thing that was strange for me was laughing. It didn’t happen much, but when laughter erupted it felt almost….inappropriate.
Our family and friends seemed to like it when we laughed or seemed happy though, because it made their job easier. Evaluations of me being “strong” were unhelpful to me, because it wasn’t always true, and I didn’t want to feel pressured to make it so.
It is hard to hang around with someone who is experiencing emotions that we deem “negative”, and who is morose a lot of the time, so I am deeply thankful for those friends who could manage it.
In fact, to be honest, I felt an incredible amount of support from my family and friends. I felt their compassion and love deeply. One or two people in particular were a strong lifeline of support for me.
There was a time, though, when I began to realise that this was really hard for them, too. We had “lost” our baby. They had lost their happy, fun-loving friends and in a way, they had lost Cody, too. It was amazing at times to visit the grave and discover that someone else had left some flowers or a toy there.
Strangers and Acquaintances
I remember walking through a shopping centre once, and feeling as though I was encased in a big glass box. People could see me, but I felt completely disconnected from my surroundings. I couldn’t believe that the world was going on around me as though ours hadn’t just ended. I was almost offended in a way, and felt like shouting out, “Do you not realise my baby just died!!!”
Everywhere I looked there were pregnant women or parents with newborns. I’m sure there hadn’t been this many previously! And whilst I could sometimes cope with it, there were other times when, seemingly out of the blue, I would burst into tears.
One day a new lady came to my women’s Bible Study group, and she had a baby boy who was about the same age as Cody would have been, which was 7 months by then. My other friend who’d had a baby 2 weeks before me, and had been an incredible support, was obviously there with her little boy too. The babies were old enough to be very cute, and everyone was laughing and enjoying these two baby boys. And I just lost it! It should have been Cody! Our two boys were going to grow up as great mates. But not any more.
There were strangers who said the most ridiculous things, such as, “You’re lucky your baby didn’t live for six months! Imagine how hard THAT would be!” or “Hmmm it’s been six weeks. You must be feeling better” or “God must have loved your baby more than you did” or “God needed another angel in heaven”. I could go on.
And then there were the strangers who gave love. Empathy. Understanding. Grace.
One of our dreams had been to have a large family, with our children born closely together, so we knew that the longer time marched on, the more salt would be rubbed into our Cody wound, because we would end up having two siblings with a big age gap. Travis was 21 months old when Cody died. We decided that we didn’t want to wait too long before having another baby for Travis to play with, and for us to hold.
It was complex, though.
In no way, shape or form, did we see a subsequent child as a replacement for Cody. Such a thing would be impossible! And undesirable.
But we didn’t want to live forever with this extra wound of widely spaced children, when we had desired them close in age.
So, against advice, we went ahead with….. Well, let’s just say I was pregnant again eight weeks after Cody died!
We were absolutely ECSTATIC with the news that we were going to have a baby. In fact, we wanted it so badly that we just kept repeating the negative tests until we finally got the positive result we were looking for! I think we got 3 negative results until finally, on the fourth day, we got the result we were looking for!
Our joy and elation was tempered by our grief and sadness. It was complicated and messy. It was hard to separate the two situations when I was experiencing them simultaneously.
We were in the early stages of grief.
We were in the early stages of pregnancy.
We chose to cease attending SANDS meetings. Listening to the variety of tragic tales of things that had gone wrong and which had resulted in the death of a baby was doing my head in. I needed to do all I could to believe that this baby might actually live! Focussing on all those pregnancies that had resulted in death was not what I needed. There were also people at the meetings who minimised our loss because we already had a toddler and were now pregnant again.
It is ridiculous to try to compare losses.
One thing that was hard about our situation, in spite of the blessing of a toddler and another pregnancy, was grieving and parenting simultaneously. I didn’t hide my tears from my now two year old son, but the extent of my emotional expression was restrained somewhat by his presence.
One thing that was very difficult was his innocent assumption that this baby would die. It was all he knew. Mummy had a baby in her tummy, the baby came out, the baby died and everybody cried. A lot.
I still remember the day he said, “Mummy, when THIS baby dies and goes to heaven in a helicopter……” Sigh.
We ended up walking the path of memories, taking him to the same hospital where Cody had been born, to visit a friend who had just had a baby boy, so that he could see what the end result was for most people. To get to the postnatal unit we had to walk right past the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where Cody had been treated. I almost vomited.
Grieving the death of one baby, whilst growing another, was complex. Conflicting.
Throughout the pregnancy, I would often place my hand on my growing womb, feeling an immense depth of love for this new baby, accompanied by a sense of guilt on Cody’s behalf. Was I betraying him? The womb which had been his but weeks ago, was now inhabited by another.
Could two babies, two pregnancies and two extremes of emotion co-exist?
I was very fortunate that we were in grief counselling throughout this first year, because I had someone who was paid to listen to me! I mean, I had my friends and family too, but they were also grieving. It was great to be able to go to our counsellor and be totally real and honest, knowing that he didn’t have an attachment to our loss. Although he did at times get very angry when we explained the circumstances of Cody’s mismanagement. One of the most beautiful times was when our counsellor lit a candle for Cody, so we could remember and honour him together.
Our plans for this pregnancy were quite different to the last one. Whilst we still thought a natural birth was absolutely desirable, we also realised that one day of natural childbirth was worth nothing in comparison to a lifetime of grief. If I had to choose between the two, it was a no-brainer.
We opted for high level medical care from an extremely experienced obstetrician who had the bedside manner of a bull but the skill of an expert. He was also very open to natural childbirth! He told me I could give birth standing on my head if I really wanted to, provided I was on the bed. That was his only stipulation. It probably had something to do with him being sixty-three years old. 🙂
The pregnancy was, as usual, uneventful. But there was no way we were going to be able to cope with 42 weeks of it this time. We pre-arranged an early delivery by induction, which I had mixed feeling about. My induction with Travis had been hell. My natural birth with Cody had been easy(ish). But both Geoff and I knew that we were going to get more and more anxious as time went on, so as soon as it was safe to deliver, we wanted that baby in our arms: warm, breathing and alive.
At 38 weeks our obstetrician agreed to an IV induction, on the condition that if labour didn’t progress we could stop the procedure, with my waters intact. Half way through the day he examined me and smugly stated that nothing was happening, as he’d expected, so we’d be turning the drip off and going home, when suddenly, as he was completing his examination, WHOOSHKA!! Amniotic fluid all over him. 🙂
A Living Baby!
Brady was born on 5th September, 1996, just three weeks shy of Cody’s birthday. During the pregnancy we had been interviewed on ABC radio by Richard Glover, about the death of a baby, support systems etc. and he had asked us to ring him on air when this baby was born, which we did. So Brady’s birth was announced far and wide on ABC radio, and it was such a joy to celebrate his birth in that way!
For the labour, I had two support people in addition to Geoff. We knew that if something happened, we wanted one support person each. People said we shouldn’t even consider the possibility, that everything would be fine this time, and that nothing bad would happen. We knew better.
What had happened to us with Cody was as rare as hen’s teeth. Umbilical cords rarely break in half during delivery. Babies are rarely left to fight for breath, alone, in a storage room. A freakish thing had happened once. We knew it, or something different, could happen again.
We had been real about this with Travis too. We never said, “This baby will not die”. The last thing he needed was false hope.
He needed to know we would be okay, no matter what. And that most babies don’t die. But yes, some do.
When Brady was born, my volume of tears just about equalled the amount I had cried when Cody died, but this time they were tears of pure joy. And when Travis came in to meet his baby brother? WOW!
The day after Brady was born, he was taken to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. I was absolutely shocked! I couldn’t see a foot in front of me as we made our way to the ward. A torrent of tears was blinding my vision.
This time, however, the problems were nowhere near as serious. He simply had “blood group incompatibility” which had caused early onset jaundice. But I tell you, going to that ward was the one thing I did NOT want to do. We were surrounded by babies fighting for their life, and I had to go back to my room to rest – alone. Although it was not life or death this time, the experience of being there was really, really hard.
When we took Brady home from that place, our dreams were finally coming true. Our two boys in the back seat of the car together just looked right.
But three weeks later we had to face an enormous hurdle. The anniversary of Cody’s birth and death. I relived every moment. Moment by moment.
This time a year ago I was drinking castor oil to try to induce labour.
This time a year ago I was shouting out from the bathroom, “If this isn’t labour I think I’m going to die!” as the castor oil did its trick and brought on sudden contractions.
This time a year ago we were ringing the Birth Centre, so excited to know that our favourite midwife had just started her shift.
And so on.
I knew I needed to go to the grave.
I felt such guilt, almost that of an adulterer, sitting at my baby’s grave, holding my new baby. I had a little chat to Cody about it which helped. But I sadly think that this guilt caused me to hold back somewhat from bonding with the beautiful gift in my arms.
Grieving and Bonding
Every time Geoff would check on Brady when he was sleeping, I fully expected to hear those fateful words, “OH MY GOD, HE’S NOT BREATHING!” Every time I would hold my breath ….. and then finally exhale it with relief when I discovered that my precious baby was, in fact, still breathing.
When I would breastfeed him and he would fall into a deep sleep, with his body limp and his arms completely floppy , I would get flashbacks to holding Cody in those first two hours, with his heavy, flaccid limbs falling away from my embrace.
This desperately wanted and loved baby slowly crept his way into the depths of my heart, and is still there now. How blessed we are to have him. And our other children.
It has been a complex thought to realise that I almost certainly would not, in normal circumstances, have fallen pregnant eight weeks after giving birth to a 5 kilogram baby! So whilst Brady is in no way at all a replacement, his life is a gift that we may otherwise not have been blessed with.
And we are so very, very thankful. He is our silver lining.
We had walked down the aisle of our church many times, including on our wedding day. Today wasn’t such a fun walk. Instead of my husband waiting for me at the end of the aisle, it was a tiny white coffin with our baby inside.
Again, we were surrounded by a huge support network of friends and family. So many people had been touched by Cody’s birth and death. Strangely, the midwife who had been present at his birth was one of those in attendance. Stranger still, we had invited her to come. We hadn’t yet come to terms with the full extent of Cody’s negligent care, so her presence there on the day was a positive thing for us at the time. We felt a sense of connection to her. I will write more about this, and my journey to forgiveness, in a later post. Today I write about Cody.
This is one of the songs that we had at Cody’s funeral service and I am still moved to tears when I listen to it. Not just because it reminds me of my little boy, but also because it gives me hope.
We held the funeral service at our church “home”, a place where we felt very comfortable. It was the church I’d grown up in, the church we’d gotten married in, and the church we had attended together for many years. The people there were like our extended family, and together we had experienced great joy, community and fun. What we didn’t realise was that holding the service there was going to attach a memory to that special place that was darker and more sombre than what we were familiar with.
I still remember the day, some weeks or months later, as we walked into that church building, and noticed immediately that the song being sung was one of the songs that had been sung at Cody’s funeral. The juxtaposition of memories of both great joy and deep sorrow in the one building added a complexity to our experience of attending church services there in the months to come.
Hold me close, Let Your love surround me
Bring me near, Draw me to Your side.
And as I wait I’ll rise up like the eagle
And I will soar with You, Your Spirit leads me on
In the power of Your love.
During the service, our ‘big’ boy, Travis, was free to wander and play. The service was for him too. And he chose to spend most of the time playing with his little matchbox cars, driving them all around on the floor underneath the coffin, and up over the wheels of the coffin trolley. The idea of him playing with his brother did not escape unnoticed. It was the closest they would ever come to connecting, other than the time Travis dropped cracker crumbs over the body of his brother, during our time together after Cody died.
Geoff and I both spoke at the funeral. I did not believe it was possible to have such a thick veil of tears blocking my vision throughout the whole ordeal, making it almost impossible to read the words. Windscreen wipers would have come in handy!
I remember an older lady coming up to me outside the church after the service. She said that she had felt unable to cope with coming inside, having had one of her babies die many years earlier (she was now a grandmother), but she had a message for me, wanting me to know that “Time does heal”. I found it hard to believe, being as she was still, after all these years, unable to attend the funeral of another baby. Strangely, though, I did find her words comforting at the time. Perhaps because I knew her as a lovely lady who lived a great life, and so I knew it may be possible for me to do the same.
We made our way to “Babyland” at a beautifully landscaped cemetery near our home, for the burial of our son. It was a short, simple, and very, very sad service. Thankfully we had someone pre-arranged to care for Travis during all of this, because we were, for the most part, completely incapable of functioning. We did, however, manage to have some time at the grave side with him, to scatter rose petals on the coffin and “say goodbye” (I couldn’t say those words though – it was too soon).
A dear friend sang the simple song, “Jesus Loves Me”, without accompaniment, as the coffin was lowered into the ground. I think the pictures say it all.
One of the hidden heartaches of the funeral was the presence of cabbage leaves in my bra, in an effort to dry up the milk that was pooling there, waiting for a baby to feed. I was developing mastitis, because I had no baby. My body was telling me in every way that I had just given birth, but my baby was in the ground and my arms were empty.
Fortunately, there were arms around me. Arms that held me up when I couldn’t stand. Arms of love, compassion and support. Arms that carried us along in those early days. I am forever thankful for my grieving, loving family and friends – “God with skin on“.
Cody died the day he was born. Nine hours isn’t much time to spend on earth. I’m glad he was born alive though and I’m glad I got to hold him. I wish desperately that I had been allowed to feed him and still find it incredulous that I wasn’t, but at least I got to see into his eyes.
It is said that the eyes are the window to the soul and it did feel like that. But for those who sadly never get to see the eyes of their little one, the parents whose baby dies before taking the first breath, I’m sure there is a soul connection of a different kind. In fact, I believe there is, or can be, a deep connection with a baby while they are still in utero. We may never be able to understand each other’s pain and loss, but I want to honour those who have suffered the death of their child at any age, either in utero or much, much later.
I don’t remember much of what happened between the time I was informed of Cody’s death at the end of his helicopter journey, and us arriving at the big children’s hospital about two hours later. I don’t remember who drive. I think we briefly stopped at our house on the way.
I DO remember the wheelchair journey from the car up to the “Grace Ward”. It didn’t feel like grace to have our baby taken from us so soon. But there were hints of it.
One sprinkling of grace was the midwife, Karen, who had come out with the NETS Team. The one who had held my baby while he died. Her shift had finished hours earlier, but she waited for us.
She, the one who had held our son as he breathed his final breath, wanted to hold us.
We wept. Oh, how we wept.
And then came the moment I did not want to face. I could not believe it was true. I didn’t want to believe it was true. But what I was about to face was an unmistakable, inescapable reality, whether I wanted to believe it or not.
They ushered us into a small, dimly lit room with wood panelling on the walls, and a sofa against one wall. We waited there, to be reunited with (the body of) our son.
They wheeled him in, in one of those plastic bassinets hospitals are so fond of. He was wrapped in blankets, and dressed in nice clothes, which was of some comfort. The plastic bassinet wasn’t so nice. I wish someone had carried him in to us, and placed him in our arms.
I held back from touching him. If I touched his cold skin, it would be true.
But they had done a remarkably kind thing and kept him warm for us. Strange to think that he was given better, more attentive care after his death, than in the first two hours of his life. He was warmer now than he was when he was alive.
Yet I still couldn’t touch him. Even if his skin was warm, I knew that it was his body in the room with us, not HIM. Not Cody. It was his shell, and I needed time to prepare myself to hold him.
Geoff went first. Oh, how thankful I was for his courage and strength throughout all of this. I fear I depended on it too much. I didn’t expect it but I certainly appreciated it.
I had to be encouraged to hold him. It certainly wasn’t something I’d planned to do when I woke up that morning. Actually, thinking about it, I hadn’t woken up that morning. I hadn’t slept since Friday night. I had gone into labour on Saturday night before going to sleep, and it was now Sunday afternoon. I don’t think it was my exhaustion that had me falling apart at the seams though. It was my dead baby, the one I loved whose body was about to be placed in my arms.
It was the strangest thing to hold him and I was tentative in my touch at first, yet once I took hold of him, I did not want to let him go.
After awhile they let our big boy in to see his baby brother. This was absolutely gut wrenching. It was certainly NOT the “hello” we had anticipated between two brothers. Travis was 21 months old, and already he was facing the death of a sibling. He had no idea of the hugeness of it all though. He poked him, cuddled him, and ate crackers while we posed for the type of family portrait we had never anticipated. The one with Mum, Dad, and two kids. One alive and munching crackers. The other, dead.
Our parents came, too. I felt their love. And also their pain. It was hurting them, too. They were still coming to terms with being grandparents, and yet here they were saying goodbye to a grandchild. Their strength and support in the midst of their own grief was a tower of strength to us. I imagine they cared for Travis for the rest of our time at the hospital. Or maybe they drove him home. My mind and heart were in that little room with the ugly wood veneer panelling.
My beautiful, desperately desired, much loved baby was gone.
The reality of it was sinking in. Through tear-filled eyes we gazed at each other in disbelief. Through our fingertips we felt his body going cold.
The staff were again so amazing. They cut off a lock of his hair. They helped us get hand and footprints of our baby. They pretended not to notice that we were finding it hard to stretch out his fingers for the handprint because his poor little body was succumbing to the hard realities of death.
It was time to go.
And yet I didn’t want to.
I couldn’t bare the thought of walking out that door without my baby.
Geoff felt a strong desire to leave, as Cody’s cold, hard body was becoming a stark reminder that this awful nightmare was, in fact, reality.
As much as I had found it so hard to hold him at the beginning, I found it almost impossible to let him go at the end.
It pains me deeply even now, after seventeen years, to think of it.
Cody Luke Ahern.
Born: 1st October 1995, 3.40am at Camden District Hospital Died: 1st October 1995, 12.39pm at Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, Sydney
Our only child so far who has ever had a ride in a helicopter.
Days 2 – 4
I have to lump these days all together because they are a blur. Not because it has been seventeen years, but because I was in a state of shock. These are the things I remember.
The dark solitude of night time when all was still and quiet, and there was no distraction from my pain. Oh how physical is the grief when a baby dies.
My breasts were engorged with milk yet I had no baby to feed.
My eyes were overflowing with tears from a well I thought may never run dry.
My arms were desperately aching to hold my baby.
I was bleeding, in more ways than one. It was as though my whole body was weeping for the one who was gone.
A house filled to overflowing with friends and family who loved us.
People arriving with flowers, sympathy cards and toilet paper.
My friend Bonnie, rescuing me from the one phone call I’d so bravely tried to make to the funeral agency. The only words I got out were “Our baby died….” before collapsing in a heap, thankful for a friend standing by my side. She also accompanied us to meet with the funeral agency to make arrangements for the Thing we didn’t want to do.
My friend Pateenah, somehow managing to visit us and show such compassion, leaving her newborn at home so that I wouldn’t be confronted with seeing him.
My friend Jane who lovingly sewed a beautiful little outfit for Cody to be buried in.
Our extended families somehow managing to rise above their own despair to be a tower of strength and support for us in uncountable, immeasurable ways.
Our church family and other friends gathering around us with such love and compassion, and doing a house and yard blitz while we left the house to make funeral arrangements.
We felt carried. We somehow floated through those days in a state of shock and despair and oblivion to the practicalities of life. Other people just did it all. I don’t remember changing a nappy for the first two weeks. I’m sure someone did. Probably Geoff.
Ah yes, Geoff. Thank you for being my rock during those early days. Without you I think I would still be in that ugly little wood panelled room clutching on to the body of my second born son.
The longings, expectations, hope and excitement surrounding the pregnancy and birth of our precious second son were similar to that of most expectant parents:
Parents envisage who the child might look like and whether it will be a boy or a girl.
There may be a baby shower or blessingway.
There are discussions (and perhaps arguments!) about baby names.
Baby clothes are purchased.
Dreams are dreamt of all sorts of possibilities for this precious little life in the days, months and years ahead…..
For some of us, sadly, what we end up with is death.
It is the furthest thing from the mind of most expectant parents. “Do you want a boy or a girl?” we are asked. “Oh, so long as it’s healthy”. No one thinks to say, “Oh, so long as it lives.” The truth is, in our modern, westernised society, the majority of babies DO live. This is a great thing! But it also sets us up for the shock of our life when the opposite happens.
We expect: “Congratulations! It’s a girl!”
We get: “I’m sorry. Your baby is dead.”
In my previous post, I wanted to celebrate the life and existence of Cody Luke, because he did live. Not for long. And it certainly wasn’t an easy nine hours for him. Or us. But live he did. Both before he was born, and for a short time afterwards.
The headstone on his grave reads:
Nine months to know you
Nine hours to be with you
A lifetime to miss you
Eternity to be together
When he died, we received many many cards of sympathy, one of which congratulated us on his birth. I must admit I would never think of sending such a card, but the truth is, it really blessed us! It was an acknowledgement of his life when what we were facing was his death.
Here is the story of his transition from the womb, to our arms, to the neonatal ward and a helicopter, and then to the grave.
Early Hours After The Birth
When I was pregnant with Cody (precious memories, those ones!), I was declared to be “low risk” and “perfectly suited” to a Birth Centre delivery. How quickly those predictions can change, like the toss of a coin, or flick of a light switch.
Cody’s triumphant moment of entry to the big wide world was accompanied by a strange sound. A kind of thud. It was the sound of his ruptured umbilical cord dropping to the floor (I was standing up). It was so random and unexpected that even the midwife didn’t notice and we had to bring it to her attention. (This was the first of her many mistakes.)
One of the failings of the Birth Centre where Cody was born was that, if a delivery occurred during the night, there would be only one midwife in the entire unit and no one else would be called in to assist at the moment of birth. One midwife can only observe and deal with so much. (This is one policy we fought hard to have changed after Cody died.)
When we brought the ruptured umbilical cord to our midwife’s attention and she noticed the large volume of blood on the floor (sorry, this might be a messy blog post!), she suddenly started barking orders at my husband, Geoff, instructing him on how to provide medical care for his baby while she attended to me. Mistake number two. Unless the birth had occurred out in the bush or some such, she should never have expected the father of the baby to carry out any medical procedures on his own baby.
She did not call for help from any of the trained staff that were readily available in the delivery suite upstairs, or in the postnatal or antenatal wards. Pressing the buzzer that was attached to the belt of her pants, or pushing the emergency buzzer on the wall was a simple thing to do, really. Yet she didn’t do it. Not at the moment of birth, nor at any stage during the next two hours. Mistake number three.
She busied herself massaging my abdomen, fearing that the massive blood loss indicated a haemorrhage. Meanwhile she shot rapid instructions at my husband, telling him where to find the resuscitation equipment in the bedside table and how to use it, to enhance our son’s oxygen intake. (He was breathing but needed help.) When she glanced over to see if he was doing it correctly, she seemed quite angry, and raced over there showing him how to press the oxygen mask down over Cody’s nose and mouth to force air entry into his lungs, rather than just holding the mask above his face as my husband had been doing. Mistake number four.
It was this act of forced air entry, without having first cleared his upper airways of possible meconium, that was ultimately a major contributor to Cody’s death. And it was Geoff’s participation in this act, following the exact instructions of the midwife, that has caused him so much distress over the years, due to strong feelings of guilt. Even if guilt is completely unfounded and illogical to an outsider, it can eat someone up from the inside, displacing logic and rationality, and in their wake leaving fear, regret, shame and despair. I feel so sad that he still blames himself for following the instructions of the midwife, trusting in her competence and instructions, and blaming himself for not somehow knowing better than a midwife with 25 years of experience.
……. Pause to collect myself and settle my shaking fingers ……
After awhile, Cody was given to me with the excited proclamation that he was a massive 5150 grams (11 pounds 6 ounces). It seemed that the midwife was very proud of our successful and comparatively simple birth process, considering his size! I felt quite proud too!
As she handed him to me, she commented that he was a bit cold and needed to warm up a bit, so she wrapped us both in a warmed blanket with skin to skin contact, and made me a cup of tea! She then left us to relax and enjoy our new baby. Mistake number five. A baby who is born in anything less than normal circumstances needs careful monitoring. This cannot be done from a separate room, relying on inexperienced parental observations only.
I was oblivious as to what was “normal” for a newborn, because I slept through the first hour of my first son’s life (in fact, I also slept for the fifteen minutes between the delivery of his head and the rest of him!). So to me, the fact that Cody was pale, whimpering occasionally, and very floppy, was not as much of an alarm bell as it should have been. When my third son was born 11 months later I suddenly realised what a healthy newborn looks like! Cody did NOT look healthy.
The midwife came back into the room once or twice to check up on us. I informed her that he was quite floppy in my arms and just grunted if I tried to move him or scoop his legs back into my embrace, because they kept flopping down. Our midwife simply gave me a freshly warmed blanket and another cup of tea. Was she British perhaps? No, a cup of tea really doesn’t fix everything!
She said that he would have to be taken to the intensive care nursery at some stage because he was over 10 pounds and asked us what we wanted to do about that. We deferred the decision back to her, saying that she could decide because she was the midwife, but that if it was important for his health then of course we wanted him to go now. She declared that it was “A silly hospital rule” and left him with us.
After quite awhile, she took Cody from my arms to perform the Apgar tests, which should be done at 1 minute and 5 minutes after delivery. This had obviously not been possible, due to the fact that he was having air pumped into his lungs at that time, and the midwife was busy with me. When the Apgar results were written in his notes, it was stated that they were in fact performed at 1 minute and 5 minutes, which they were not. He was also given a rating of 8 out of 10 for his 1 minute Apgar, and 9 out of 10 for his 5 minute Apgar. She rated him 2 out of 2 for “respiratory”, even though he was being given oxygen at the time the tests were supposedly carried out! I’ve lost count of the number of mistakes.
At the time of performing the Apgar tests, the midwife called us over to the bed and specifically pointed out the “signs of respiratory distress” present in our baby. She showed us his chest recession and the nostril flaring and the grunting sound he was making with every breath, as he struggled to get enough air to survive.
She gave Cody back to me for some more “bonding time”, and again removed herself from the room. I will not bother trying to keep count of her mistakes.
During this time, as day was now dawning, Geoff began making what should have been excited phone calls, but they were tinged with a sense of tension, using words such as, “He is apparently a little bit stressed from the delivery” and “Please pray”.
After awhile, the midwife returned to our room, felt Cody’s skin and decided that he was still a bit cool and needed to be helped along a little bit. She took Cody from me and I decided to have a much-needed shower. My wonderful husband helped to clean me up, which took quite awhile, due to the messy nature of the delivery and the length of time since. It felt good to be clean!
I needed some supplies from the car, so Geoff went out to get them, surprisingly discovering our midwife outside smoking a cigarette and writing up Cody’s medical notes (one long entry of what she could remember from the last two hours since he was born)!! Geoff asked her where our baby was, assuming he was in the intensive care nursery upstairs, but she replied, “Oh no, he’s in the utilities room.” Up the hallway. Alone.
Geoff was shocked! He quickly came back inside to where I was waiting for him, gave me my things, and then went to get Cody from where he had been left ….. alone ….. under the warming trolley, surrounded not by professionals or loving parents, but by empty urinals and other medical equipment.
Geoff, with his heart full of love for his son, asked if he could carry Cody up to the nursery, rather than having him wheeled along in a trolley, and the first thing he did was to bring him to me so I could see him once more.
Okay, now this is very hard to write, but write it I must. When I saw Cody I was shocked. He looked…. grey. His mouth was sort of hanging open, as he gasped for intermittent breaths. It seemed very odd to me, and I commented on it to Geoff. We were both VERY concerned by this time, and very angry that he had been left alone.
The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit
As we made our way to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, with Geoff holding Cody, he mentioned to the midwife on more than one occasion that Cody seemed to be “gasping for breath”, to which she replied glibly, “Oh you’d be a bit stressed too, if you’d just been born”…. ????
Upon entry to NICU, the midwife did something that she had only done a couple of times in the past hours. She laid him down, fully removed his blanket covering and actually looked intently at him.
“OH MY GOD! HE’S NOT BREATHING!!!!”
Those words haunted me for years to come.
The staff at NICU were absolutely and completely amazing. They literally RAN to Cody’s aid. With lightning speed they had his blood tested, and his poor body prodded and poked and hooked up to life support equipment. They immediately summonsed the on-call paediatrician, whose Sunday morning plans no longer mattered. A life was at stake.
Upon arrival to NICU the fantastic paediatrician immediately set to work. The first words I heard him utter were, “WHO THE HELL DID THESE APGARS??!” He was looking at a baby in full respiratory arrest, with blood tests that were incompatible with life, and he was reading test results that showed he had scored 2 out of 2 for the respiratory part of the Apgar test. He later told us that the only rational reason he could think of for the inconsistency was a rare medical condition that can cause a respiratory shut down after two hours. But this was not the case.
The next few hours are a bit of a blur. I remember asking for a lady from our church who I knew worked at the hospital as a midwife, and she was thankfully just coming on for a shift. She came straight to us and was literally a tower of strength for which I am still thoroughly thankful. I remember telling her a bit of the story, and mentioning something about the broken umbilical cord, which really shocked her! There had been nothing written in Cody’s notes about this very important fact. She rushed down to the birthing unit and discovered (in the rubbish bin!) the discarded cord, which she retrieved and sent away for pathological testing.
….. Pause Breathe Cry …..
I remember a blur of people coming and going. Friends. Family. Medical staff. I remember the paediatrician asking if we wanted to have our baby baptised, the suggestion of which made me angry. Or perhaps shocked. I was in such denial at the reality of what was going on, and this suggestion was like a slap in the face, trying to wake me up. I did not want to be woken.
We were informed that Cody would need to be airlifted to the major children’s hospital in Sydney, and that the Newborn Emergency Transport Service (NETS) team would soon be arriving by helicopter. Reality was beginning to sink in.
Airlifted to the Children’s Hospital
The team that came to help our baby were so wonderful. They were competent and professional, which helped us trust them, and compassionate, which helped us feel cared for. The nurse, whose name was Karen, was particularly supportive to us.
I was surprised how long it took them to do their thing. I thought they would rush in, grab him on a trolley, and rush back out the door to the helipad. It took almost over five hours for them to stabilise him enough for transport!
I remember being informed that by this stage, with his blood levels severely acidotic after extensive oxygen deprivation, if he lived (IF??!), he would almost certainly be severely brain damaged and require major ongoing medical care for his entire life. Again, I was angry at the assumption that this somehow seemed to diminish his worth! I told everyone that I would love him, no matter what, and do whatever it took to care for him. Of course I would have preferred that “healthy baby” we all wish for, but I knew that I could and would love my baby in any condition. I just wanted him to live.
The thought that he might not live was still far, far from my mind.
Thank God for the numbing benefits of shock!
We had to make a very, very difficult decision regarding his helicopter trip to the hospital. The number of staff required to provide his care during transportation meant that there was only one spare seat on the helicopter. This meant that only Geoff or I could accompany him. At this stage we did not think we could cope with being apart, so we decided to travel together by car to the hospital, desperately needing each other’s support to get through this. I still regret that choice to this day.
When Cody was finally prepared for transportation, we were able to say goodbye to him. It was gut wrenching to see him with so many cords attached to his (not so little) body. I managed to stand up to get closer to him, and said the words I didn’t want to say: “Good bye Cody. I love you.” I still assumed that I would see him soon. Now some may think it is my wishful imagination, but I am absolutely sure he opened his eyes just a little bit at that time. It was the last time I would be able to look into those deep, beautiful, soulful eyes.
I felt so connected to him in that moment, as though all the life-giving cords, the resuscitation equipment, and medical teams were not even in the room.
Time stood still.
The Final Moments
We prepared ourselves to leave for the Sydney Children’s Hospital at Camperdown, but before we were able to depart we received the phone call that no parent EVER wants to receive.
“I am so sorry. We have done all that we can do. Cody suffered seven more cardiac arrests during the twelve minute flight. We are keeping him alive artificially and need to know what you want us to do.”
It was my husband that took the call and gave them permission to turn off Cody’s life support. If it had been me, I may never have been able to make that choice. When I allow myself to think of it, I still feel a deep, deep sadness that I was not with my son when he died. That I did not have the courage to go in that helicopter with him, so that he could die in my arms.
The midwife who had come with the NETS Team was called Karen and she had been so lovely to us, so it was a small consolation to know that she held Cody in her arms while the life support cords were removed, and she poured into him some of the love that I desperately wanted to give, as he breathed his final breath.
I’ve left the photos until last, because they may be upsetting to some people.
My next posts will talk about the early days of grief, forgiveness, and life after loss. They may be awhile in coming!
Once upon a time there was a girl. She dreamed of being a mum when she grew up, and never doubted that her dream would come true. She eventually fell in love, got married and after a few years they decided to start a family. They dreamed of many children, born close in age so they could grow up as friends, but when at first no babies came along she began to wonder if her dreams would come to nought.
Eventually they were delighted to discover that they were in fact going to have their first baby, and the dream that had been but a flickering hope, began to grow into a solid reality. Their firstborn son, Travis, decided that he liked life in the womb and seemed to have no intentions of departing, even in spite of a major car accident. He was eventually enticed, with the help of much medical intervention and many, many hours of labour to depart his warm and cozy home, and begin his life in the big wide world.
His birth was certainly not the natural one they had hoped for, but nonetheless they were ecstatic to welcome their not-so-little one into their loving arms, and so their life as a family of three took its next step.
In keeping with their desire for a large family with children close in age, they were soon pregnant again and once more were beyond ecstatic at the thought of expanding their brood. The positive pregnancy test was kept in a special box, along with other treasures for safe keeping. Big brother loved to cuddle his mum’s tummy and talk to the baby. They took photos of different places they went as a little family of 3.5 people.
Filled with desire for a more natural birth this time, they attended a local birth centre where the lovely midwives provided personal, professional, womanly care and attention. They felt particularly comfortable with one midwife who soon became their favourite, and they hoped that she would be the one to attend the birth of their much-wanted baby.
At 41 weeks gestation, during an ultrasound, it was accidentally discovered that this baby was also a boy. They were so excited that their firstborn son was going to have a little brother. From that moment on, they always called him Cody and he became a very real part of their family, especially for Travis, who even learned to say his name, and used to kiss his mummy’s tummy all the time and say, “Cody“.
The news was kept secret, except for one little slip up to a dear friend who had just given birth to her second son. It was so exciting to think that they were going to have little boys born just two weeks apart, especially because 21 months earlier they had both had boys born three weeks apart.
This baby, it seemed, also preferred life inside the safety of the womb. Much gentle and natural coaxing was undertaken to encourage this little one to take the journey, but it seemed to be in vain. Another induction was reluctantly booked in, but fortunately labour began in the nick of time and the excited call would soon be made to the Birth Centre advising that the birth was imminent.
The parents held off until midnight before making the call, knowing that their favourite midwife would be starting her shift at that time. It was a dream come true to have this woman as the birth attendant for the delivery of this longed-for child.
Care was arranged for Travis, and the parents drove excitedly to the Birth Centre. It was warm, cozy, friendly, and everything they had hoped for. The labour too, was a beautiful experience and the parents felt so supported by the midwife in their quest to bring this child into the world using only natural means.
After a brief three hour labour, the baby made his appearance, weighing in at a hefty 11 pounds 6 ounces. Their dream had come true! A natural birth without intervention, in the Birth Centre, with their favourite midwife. What a contrast to their first, lengthy, induced, medicalised birth!
The parents were absolutely thrilled to welcome their little boy into their arms at last, naming him Cody Luke.
Cody: of Irish/Gaelic origin, meaning “helper”
Luke: of Roman origin, meaning “light” or “giver of light”
Cody Luke. A dream come true. They thanked God for his life, talked to him, stroked his face, and made lots of joyous phone calls (at 4am!!). His mum sang him a special song that she had made up. They eagerly anticipated that beautiful moment when they would be able to introduce Cody to his big brother. Happy happy times!
“Sometimes when one of my friends is really, really sad, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know whether I should say something, or leave them alone.”
(My daughter, aged nine)
Have you ever been in that awkward position where you unexpectedly bump into someone that you know has recently suffered a terrible tragedy and you panic, thinking, “What the heck do I say!?” Or have you been walking alongside someone who is in a dark tunnel of pain and you don’t know how best to help? And you wonder if you should walk alongside, or keep your distance or…… Have you ever “put your foot in it” and wished you could remove it? Have you ever second-guessed yourself about something you said or didn’t say, about something you did or didn’t do, and wished desperately that you could rewrite that moment in time?
I think we’ve all been there. I know I have. Actually, I’ve been on both sides of that equation, and I write this post from those two perspectives: my own attempts to give help to others (when a friend’s husband suicided on the day of her daughter’s fifth birthday, when my brother-in-law died unexpectedly at the young age of forty-one, leaving behind a wife and three young girls, when a good friend died in Africa aged twenty-seven) and my experiences of having the whole gamut of “help” given to me (when my baby died and when my father died), ranging from that which was super helpful, right through to the disastrous and even offensive. Yep, truly!
So here goes. Here are some of my ideas about how best to help someone who is grieving.
Give Comfort Even When You Feel Uncomfortable. Don’t be so focussed on how awkward you feel that the grieving person ends up comforting YOU! We often had people say “I don’t know what to say….” and then just kind of … stand there …. looking awkward and uncomfortable and saying … nothing. I often ended up being the one to offer comfort, reassuring them that many others felt the same way as them. Which is backwards! If you don’t know what to say, a simple “I’m so sorry” and a hug (if appropriate) is often enough. Your discomfort is minimal in comparison to what the hurting person is experiencing. Use your discomfort as a catalyst for empathy.
The “Soap Opera” Slip-Up: Don’t add more drama to their drama, more story to their story. Speculating and assuming based on your limited understanding of the other person’s situation will not help them at all. Let’s face it, humans love drama! We love movies, stories, news reports, gossip…. you name it. If there’s a story to be told, we want to hear it. Even my youngest child dreams of following an emergency vehicle with its sirens blaring, to see where they’re going and what’s happening. (Although after once being right next to a police car that suddenly careened off in hot pursuit, with one officer jumping out of the car and pursuing someone on foot, she has decided that she doesn’t want to follow a police car thank you very much! And she also feels sad when she sees an ambulance. So I guess that leaves fire engines!) The truth is, we like to find out the juicy details about what happened. I’m sure psychologists have a name for this, but my purpose here is simply to say: resist the urge. It is not nice for a hurting person to feel that someone is more interested in getting information about what happened, than they are in finding out how they are and what they need.
Beware the “Saviour Syndrome”. Grieving people don’t need a hero to fly in and rescue them, they need people who will love them, and quietly serve and support in the background. Swooping in as the saviour-come-hero may stroke your own ego, but will be unhelpful and perhaps even detrimental to the grieving person.
Beattitudes, not platitudes. Jesus said, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” And that’s what grieving people need: comfort. Not simplistic “solutions” or “bandaids” or platitudes. Here are some that were offered to us: “God must have wanted your baby more than you did” (Really??), “Gosh, you’re lucky he didn’t live for a few months, imagine how hard THAT would be” (What I would have given for a few months of memories), “Oh well, at least you can have another baby” (I didn’t want another baby, I wanted this one!), “Wow, it’s been 6 weeks, you must be feeling better” (Really? Says who?), “You’re suicidal? Here, let me tell you about my new business venture….” (That really happened to us), “I know just how you feel” (No, you don’t), “God works all things together for good” (Said at the funeral – too soon!), “When my grandma died…..” (Losing a grandma is sad but normal, losing a baby is unimaginable and out of “chronological order”), “Oh well, at least he’s in heaven” (But I wanted him with me! – although heaven did later become a very real comfort). There were more platitudes like this from well meaning people, but you get the idea!
Keeping Up Appearances. One of the comments that was often directed to me after our baby died was, “You’re so strong” which sounds lovely, but in fact served to set up an expectation that I should remain strong because it was obviously admirable. I also felt a bit invisible, that people weren’t really seeing me, that they were just seeing my public face. It increased my sense of isolation; the sense that my private tears were shed alone and people preferred the image of “togetherness” that they often saw in me. Telling people to “stay positive” has a similar effect. Expectations of strength and positivity at a time when weakness and sadness are the norm do not help the hurting person. Validation of HOWEVER they are feeling is imperative. Feelings of overwhelming sadness, negativity, despair, devastation and anger are totally, absolutely and completely OKAY. They may not be pleasant, but they are normal, if that is what the grieving person is experiencing at any moment. There is a season for everything, and this season will pass. But not yet.
Comparisons. If you had a similar experience to their loss, or know someone who did, it is almost never helpful to share the lengthy details of the story, although a brief mention of it might help build a bridge of connection. And seeking to compare their situation to another one is just… irrelevant. The suffering that a person is going through is the worst possible thing for them right at that time, and their suffering will be unique to them. It is highly unlikely that they will appreciate hearing any kind of comparisons. When my brother-in-law died last year, a huge natural disaster occurred at the same time. Thousands of people died and you know what? My sister-in-law had absolutely zero interest in what was going on. To her, the worst possible thing was the thing that was happening to her. I have literally seen people’s eyes go glassy whilst trying to feign interest in the monologue of one who has apparently “been there”. Use your experience to equip you with empathy.
One of a Kind. Everyone grieves differently. Some people like to talk about what happened and how they’re feeling. Others seek to avoid the issue and “get on with life” as best they can. Some process it verbally, and other process it internally. When I told my fifteen year old son tonight about this post I was writing, he said “Everyone is different, Mum. I think people just need to ask the person what they want. Ask them if they would like to talk about it, or would they prefer not to. Would they like to do something to help them get their mind off it, or would they like to talk it through?” Out of the mouths of babes….
Men Cry Too. They really do. A lot of the time they’ll try to be “strong” though, either for their wives, or because they subconsciously think society expects it. Don’t expect it of them! They often need to return to work and so they attempt to push their grief aside to help them cope with life’s demands, but suppressed grief often turns very ugly in the long term. Men grieve deeply, but differently, to women, and they have different needs, and different ways of expressing it, so they often need a different type of support. They often need physical outlets for their pain, which is usually honoured in other societies better than our own, through the man digging the grave, building the coffin, etc. And remember, even with a neonatal death, the father is grieving too, not just the mother. Countless number of people would ask my husband how I was going, and never think to ask him how he was! Stay tuned for my husband’s guest post on this topic!
Let Kids Be Kids. Diane McKissock’s book “The Grief of our Children” is a very helpful read on this topic. And thank goodness there are now some great children’s grief centres that use play therapy and other kid-friendly methods of helping children to explore and cope with their grief. In a nutshell, children know how to grieve, and it is best to allow them to grieve in the way that is right for them. One of my nieces, who is five, likes to dress in her Dad’s clothes (he died last year) and talks openly about him and her sadness, whereas her sister is more reserved and expresses her grief in more subtle ways such as nighttime wakefulness, and a need to have her mother with her at that time. Grieving children need permission to process it their way, opportunities to talk and remember if and when they want to, physical outlets, art and play opportunities, and mostly, love. If you have children of your own, don’t be afraid to talk with them about what has happened.
Don’t Stay Away. Grieving people often feel incredibly lonely and will probably appreciate a (brief) visit. Sometimes they prefer solitude, and it is important to respect that too, but don’t assume they would prefer it. If you want to call, call. If you want to visit, visit! But ALWAYS ask if it’s a good time and make it easy for them to say no if not (be careful of the “It’s fine” response and don’t stay too long – see below). Don’t assume they’ll have so many visitors that you’ll just get in the way. And remember, the influx of visitors will subside before their pain does. It’s often weeks later when they need a phone call, a little note in the letterbox, or a cup of tea with a friend.
Don’t Stay Too Long.If you’re visiting, keep it brief. Very brief. Take something to give them, to make it easy for them to simply say, “Thanks…. OK, bye then”. If you turn up empty handed, it is obvious you came just to visit, and the grieving person may feel pressured to invite you inside. Don’t assume they want you to enter their home. It is their sanctuary, and sometimes they do not want visitors in it. Simply offer your “gift” (see below) and a few words, give them a hug if they want it, and then begin to leave. If they want you to stay, they will say so. If not, they will be relieved to have an easy way to avoid unwanted company at that time. When our baby died, we were SO exhausted, and had a steady stream of visitors. Some people did not seem to realise when they had overstayed their welcome and we needed rest. We even had one visitor arrive after 10pm on the day our baby died! He stayed and stayed until my husband eventually asked him to go home which is something he shouldn’t have had to do. This is really important! Some people want to be in the home of the grieving, to feel part of the circle, because it makes them feel important and included, but this is not helpful; it’s an invasion of privacy. Please, please, please be respectful of the hurting person’s need for very short visits or phone calls unless they invite you to stay longer.
Listen. When you visit, don’t be afraid of silence. There is no need to fill every second with chit chat. Give them time to find their voice, for it is often in those quiet moments that the most profound sharing will occur. Sometimes a hug is enough. Sometimes sitting in silence without touching is better. Tune in; you will work it out.
The elephant in the room. Don’t be afraid to speak about the one who has died. To remember them. To speak of shared memories. But again, be very sensitive to whether this is wanted or not. It usually is.
Toilet Paper. Flowers are lovely and all, but there is nothing quite as awesome as extra rolls of toilet paper when a grieving family is inundated with many visitors! Other things you could take when you visit (rather than going empty handed as mentioned above) include: tea, coffee, milk, bread, fruit and other snacks, non-perishable grocery items, a simple gift for any children (such as colouring books or a cuddly toy), a pre-cooked meal (in a disposable container) that can be eaten now or frozen for later, a loan of an extra freezer to store meals in, a journal to write in, a candle to light in memory of their loved one, a thoughtful poem or quote, a CD of beautiful music…. But really? Don’t forget the toilet paper. And tissues.
But I Want to DO Something! It is said that true “religion” is caring for widows and orphans in their distress (James 1:27), not just offering the well-meaning words, “Go in peace, be warm and filled” without actually helping to provide for some of their needs (James 2:16)! The catch cry of “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” helps the helper think they’ve helped, but in reality isn’t all that helpful. A grief-stricken person usually does not have the mental capacity to be able to think of something you can do. And they are also unlikely to think of something later and remember to ring you. Think and pray about something you CAN do, and offer to do that specific thing, but with a sensitive awareness of whether or not it is appreciated or wanted. Do not railroad the grieving person, giving help where it is not wanted. One thing that often works well is to have someone accompany the grieving person to any appointments while a team of people clean the house, mow the grass etc. Other possibilities for offers of practical help might include: ringing to see if they need anything when you’re at the shops, setting up a notebook to record the various acts of kindness from different people, listening to the answering machine or intercepting calls and writing down messages, offering to make some of the hard phone calls, offering to do simple errands, offering to collect or drop off children or have them over for a play, offering to notify the newspaper, helping with housework, etc. I’m sure you could think of other things! This is God’s love in action.
Data Base. It can be really helpful to set up a data base listing people who are willing to help as it can enable the coordination of a support network for the early weeks. Later, the list can be given to the grieving person so they know who they can call when they need a particular thing. Helpful additions can include people to help with housework, child minding, lawn mowing and other maintenance, car repairs, grocery runs, financial or legal advice, online and in-real-life support groups, telephone support organisations, etc.
The Buffer Zone. Help them to create a buffer zone around themselves. If they don’t have an answering machine, get them one, and encourage them to “let the machine get it”. When my brother-in-law died suddenly and unexpectedly last year, I was thankfully able to intercept a phone call just before midnight from one of my sister-in-law’s (not close) friends, who had firstly phoned WAY too late, and secondly talked for way too long. I was thankfully able to be my s-i-l’s answering machine and protect her from a call she didn’t want to receive. Real digital answering machines around the clock are an even better idea! They don’t get as tired or impatient! The volume of calls received can be immense, and the grieving person can feel obligated to return them, so if you leave a message, tell them you do not expect a call back. Make them a sign to hang on their door or front gate that says something like, “Thanks for your visit. I’m currently resting or needing some alone time. Please leave a message or come back another time.” Have a pad of paper or a whiteboard for people to write a note on. The Buffer Zone means two things: the grieving person has an easy way to get solitude when they need it. Friends and family will know that if the sign is not up, or the machine is off, it is probably okay to call or visit. It is still wise to always check if it’s a “good time” though, because sometimes they may have forgotten to hang the sign!
The Long Haul. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and grief isn’t over in a day. As time goes on, and their support dwindles, make sure you remember them, and keep being supportive. Diarise the date of death, birthdays and anniversaries, so you can remember in the years to come. Perhaps put your hurting friend in your diary as a regular recurrence, to remind you to call or check on them. Remember to invite them over, and invite them to join in on social activities, particularly if it was the loss of a spouse. Invite yourself over for movie nights, so they have company in the evenings. There are so many ways to remember, include, and love our hurting friends. “Lest we forget.”
Ask, Don’t Assume. Remember this, if nothing else. Don’t assume anything, whether it be about what they need, or what will help. Simply ask! “I was thinking of popping in, would you like that, or would you prefer another time?” or “Would you like to talk about it?” or “Would you like me to take your kids to the park while you go to the grave, or would you prefer to take them with you?” or “How are you going for meals? I have one here I could drop around but if your freezer is full, I can drop it in another day. Is there a particular day that would be most helpful?” It takes all the guesswork out, and enables you to care with mindfulness and respect. And the bonus is, it’s actually easier!
Love. When all is said and done, it’s really all about love. Heartfelt, practical love. Let love guide you.
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.