Surviving Stillbirth: Life After Loss

IMG_6072My daughter Avery would have turned eight this past July. She’d be nine weeks into life as a third grader. I would no doubt be frantically running around, completely occupied with ballet lessons and shopping for frilly dresses and packing Queen Elsa lunchboxes and making pretty pink bows to clip in her long brown hair.

But Avery was stillborn three weeks before her due date. My daughter’s ashes sit in an urn in my bedroom, a little silver container from Hobby Lobby that gets a kiss every morning and every night. The pathologist’s report labeled the cause of death “asphyxia due to a tight nuchal cord,” which, to put it bluntly, means my daughter was strangled by her own umbilical cord.

Losing Avery was devastating. I had a healthy, active pregnancy. Everything was perfect. I couldn’t understand how my body had failed me – how my body had failed Avery. My world shattered into a million pieces, and the beautiful future I’d envisioned for our soon-to-be family of three became a bleak, desolate landscape of two. I’m generally a happy person, but for a very long time I was a lonely, depressed, guilt-ridden mess.

Stillbirth is horribly unfair. You are given the most incredible gift in the world only to have it taken away in a literal heartbeat. There are so many unanswered questions, so many what-ifs. It’s also something so archaic, so 18th Century, a thing that shouldn’t be possible in this age of medical miracles. Yet it still happens, and it happens a lot, nearly 30,000 times each year in the United States alone.

Stillbirth took my daughter, and it was a heartbreaking journey. I allowed myself time to grieve, but I didn’t let stillbirth take my future.

My oldest son just turned seven this past July. He’s nine weeks into life as a second grader. I’m frantically running around, completely occupied with baseball games and shopping for khaki shorts and packing Batman lunchboxes and convincing him to comb his thick brown hair.

My youngest son just turned five, and he keeps trying to convince me he’s ready to be a second grader, too.

People often say that time goes by in a blink of an eye, but I know exactly how I got here. Right after we lost Avery, I knew that if I didn’t try for another baby soon, I would never have the courage to try again. I was pregnant a month after my doctor gave me the green light, and 385 days after Avery’s birth/death, I delivered my son, Carter.

Carter didn’t magically cure my grief. He didn’t miraculously fill the hole that Avery left behind. There were concerns about me having Carter before I “got over” my daughter, and in truth there were moments where Avery dominated my thoughts. There were many nights when, overcome by hormones and exhaustion, I looked into my son’s newborn face and saw my daughter staring back at me. There were times that I sobbed hysterically because I had to dress my baby in a blue onesie instead of one of the pink ones tucked away in a storage closet. It wasn’t an easy time, but I don’t think it would have been any easier had I waited five years. Stillbirth isn’t something you just “get over.” It’s something you learn to live with, an invisible scar that represents both misery and strength.

Carter didn’t replace Avery, but he gave me hope. He renewed my faith in miracles and my faith in myself. His sticky fingers and chubby thighs made me smile, and, like the story of The Grinch, my scarred heart grew three sizes. By the time I had my second son two years later, I was finally able to breathe, to accept my story as it was written and be happy with both the laughter and the tears.

Today I can honestly say I’m at peace with losing my daughter. That doesn’t mean I don’t miss her or think about how my life would have been different had she lived. It doesn’t mean I don’t cry or feel that pang in my soul when oblivious people ask me if my husband and I are going to “try for a girl.” It simply means that I’ve grown to accept that life is often unfair, but there is beauty in the madness.

In her short life Avery gave me many things. She gave me clarity about myself that I didn’t have before, and she made me stronger than I ever knew I could be. She gave me the courage to quit my day job and follow my lifelong dream of being a writer. She gave me the gift of appreciating every sunrise, every snowstorm, every inexplicably beautiful thing that reveals how precious life really is. But most importantly, Avery gave me her brothers, two little boys that give me dandelion bouquets and tell me I’m pretty every morning, two little boys that are lucky to have Avery for a sister.

Eight years ago I didn’t know if I’d ever be happy again. I couldn’t fathom feeling normal or waking in the morning without an onslaught of sadness and guilt. It may seem impossible when you’re stranded in the vast sea of loss, but there is life after stillbirth – a wonderful life, even. It takes patience, courage, and love, but brighter days do come.

To my daughter on her 8th birthday (in Heaven)

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It’s been 2,922 days since I held you in my arms. So much has changed since that awful day when I learned I wouldn’t be taking you home. For starters, you have two little brothers now. Carter turns seven in just a few weeks. He’s exhaustingly curious and smart as a whip, and he talks about you all the time. Last week he asked me why I wanted to have three kids, and I did my best to explain that I’d only planned on having two. When he was a baby, he looked exactly like you, so much so that I often had to catch my breath when he opened his eyes. He’s all boy, but I can’t help imagining that you would’ve been the girl version of him, with thick brown hair and enormous green eyes wise beyond your years.

Preston is four and sweet as can be. It was a bit of a miracle he even got here, as I had a whole slew of complications when I was pregnant with him. He was early, but he came out healthy and strong and hasn’t missed a beat. He goes to a Christian preschool, and he talks a lot about Heaven and how his big sister ended up there. He sleeps with three of the Avery Bears your Nana gave out at your baby shower, and he swears up and down that every time he hugs them, he feels your angel wings hugging him back. (I like to think the same thing.) The boys still have a few of your toys, like the giant pink ladybug and the frog prince, and they always tell people they’re hand-me-downs from their big sister.IMG_0115

We live in Texas now, a thousand miles from the little house in the woods where your life began and most likely ended. I’m guessing subconsciously your death was the catalyst for your father and I’s decision to move, though I doubt either of us will ever admit it. I’m not sure if we were trying to run away from something terrible or run toward something beautiful, but whatever the motive, I actually think we managed to recover some of the happiness that was destroyed the moment we saw your perfect, still face.

Can you believe it’s been eight years? Time is such a funny thing. After your death, the days lasted forever. It was like staring at a giant hourglass, watching the sand drip out grain by grain, until my eyes grew heavy with the setting sun, until I woke at first light to do it all over again. Then one day, the sand began spewing, churning faster and faster. Now I long for it to slow down before I forget what it felt like to hold you.

Eight years. An eternity in a blink of an eye, thousands of giggles and a few hundred tears. I wonder who you would be, Avery Mae Chandler. A girlie girl or a tomboy or someone who defies labels? I wonder if you’d want to be a doctor or an artist or the first woman to set foot on some distant planet far away. Everything about you will always be wonder, because for some reason I still can’t quite comprehend, you became a speck of dust, a beautiful soul far too good to plant feet in this cruel world.

Eight years. So much has changed, but one thing never will. Your mother still loves you so much, Avery. So much that it hurts her heart.

A Reminder This Mother’s Day…

IMG_6072I remember the first Mother’s Day after I lost Avery.  It was a strange day filled with sadness and complex emotions. I was also angry, furious at a holiday that seemed to be made for everyone except me. Every TV commercial reminded me of what I’d lost, every grocery store display reminded me of the child I’d held in my arms but couldn’t keep. Avery was stillborn, and I struggled with my new identity as a childless mother.

Prior to being discharged from the hospital after my daughter’s birth/death, my doctor had grabbed hold of me, looked me in the eye, and whispered, “You are a mother.” In that moment, I believed her.  But after being shoved back into the real world, surrounded by a society that doesn’t fully understand stillbirth and people that couldn’t look me in the eye, I wasn’t so sure.  I knew I was a mother, but did anyone else? I had a nursery, a closet full of baby clothes, three strollers, a Baby Bjorn, toys, car seats, pacifiers…I had everything I was supposed to have. But I didn’t have the one thing that truly makes you a parent. I didn’t have a baby.

But I did have a baby.

I had a baby that I nurtured and sang to for nearly nine months. In those fleeting moments, we had thousands of conversations about the past, present, and future.  I knew how her foot tickled my ribs, how her fingers brushed the inside of my belly when she did her daily gymnastics. I knew every single time she had the hiccups. Avery was the first person to ever hear my heartbeat from the inside. How could I not be a mother?

It took me a long time to realize it, but I finally realized that other people didn’t determine my maternal status – it was up to me. I had given birth to a beautiful baby girl, and Mother’s Day was still my holiday. So on that Sunday in 2009 I celebrated my motherhood. I picked up my daughter’s urn and sang her a song.  I shook her ashes, listening to the soft swoosh-swoosh that always reminded me of her heartbeat. I sat with her for an hour, remembering that while her short life brought me incredible grief, it also awarded me immense happiness.

I was a mother.  I was Avery’s mother. And no one could take that away from me.

It’s been seven years since that first Mother’s Day without my daughter.  I’ve since been blessed with two healthy, rambunctious little boys that have made this holiday so much brighter. Yet as this Mother’s Day Weekend approaches, I can’t help but think of all of the other mothers out their struggling.  For some the wounds of stillbirth may still be very fresh; others may have been grasping at an identity for quite some time.  To all of you, please remember that even though your child may not walk this earth, you are still a mother.

And don’t ever let anyone tell you differently.

 

 

The Gift of Pictures

photography-love1When a baby dies, it is, in short, terrible. I remember sitting in my hospital bed, waiting to deliver a stillborn Avery, a million thoughts rushing through my tortured brain but none I could actually grab onto and process. The nurse had mentioned taking pictures after her birth, and the same thought kept pounding through my skull:

Why would I want a picture of a dead baby? 

After my deceased daughter was cleaned and dressed, we passed her around like the porcelain doll she was, took deep breaths, and fake smiled for the camera.  They aren’t the most artistic pictures in the world, but six years later I feel so blessed to have them. I’ve heard other bereaved parents say that they don’t have any pictures of their children, and it breaks my heart.

The non-profit organization Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep was founded in 2005 to provide the gift of remembrance photography for parents suffering the loss of a baby.  They train, educate, and mobilize quality photographers to provide beautiful portraits to families who have lost a baby too soon.  They didn’t take my pictures, but I can’t stress the void these amazing photographers fill and the importance of these portraits for grieving families.  Cosmopolitan Magazine recently did a story on this incredible organization and published a few beautiful pictures of these angels.  You can read the article here.

Today

photoToday is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of Days. If you’ve ever lost a loved one – a child, a parent, a relative, a friend – you know that their loss is felt daily. Having a designated day to remember them is kind of like saying you’re not supposed to miss them the other 364 days of the year. At the same time, pregnancy loss is something many Americans don’t like to talk about, and I’m thankful that today brings the heartbreak of losing a child to the forefront.

For me, today is a reminder that while years may pass, I will never, ever, forget my daughter Avery. It’s a reminder that though a horrible thing happened to me, I am not alone. And today is a reminder that when you hear terrible statistics, statistics about death and sickness and hurt, there are real people behind those numbers, real people who need support and love.

Every October 15th I light a candle for Avery.  This morning as I lit the flame I thought not only of what I have lost, but what I have gained. I have so much love in my life, yet I often get stuck in the monotony of the daily grind and forget how lucky I am.

I also found myself thinking of the fragility of life. Our world has always been a scary place, but lately that badness has been creeping a little too close to home. Children the same age as my boys are dying from Enterovirus.  Seventeen miles south of my house people are fighting Ebola, a disease that wasn’t supposed to be possible here. While it’s shocking and horrible and terrifying, it’s also a much-needed reminder.

Life is precious.  Life is fleeting.  Tomorrow is not guaranteed to any of us, so make sure you appreciate today.

Today is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, and I will remember my daughter.  But I will also take some time to cherish the beautiful life I’ve been given, to hug my husband and my boys, to tell my parents that I love them. Today is a gift, and I intend to treat it that way.

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 Please take time tonight to participate in the International Wave of Light. Light a candle from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. in your timezone in remembrance of the babies lost too soon.

No One Wants to See That

photo 3Trending on social media these days is the story Emily and Richard Staley, the California couple whose stillborn daughter was photographed by photographer Lindsey Natzic-Villatoro. These photos are heart-wrenching yet beautiful, and they magically capture the silent grief that accompanies stillbirth.  As with everything on social media, people have their opinions, and, as I was gleaning through some of the comments on Facebook, I was pleased and disappointed all at once.

At first so many people offered support for the Staleys, for parents of stillborn babies in general, that I grew optimistic that stillbirth might actually gain a voice.  Perhaps we’ve finally entered a time where parents can talk about losing a child without feeling like pariahs.  Maybe the world is ready to recognize that stillbirth happens A LOT, that it’s not a dirty little secret that belongs locked away.

Then I read a few of the negative comments. (Granted, the comments were far more positive than negative, but there were still a few that stung.)  I read of the inappropriateness of sharing the photos, of how “no one wants to see that.” I’m a member of a number of stillbirth-related groups, and I’ve seen many pictures of stillborn babies.  While I firmly believe every baby is beautiful, the Staley’s photos are quite possibly the most amazing stillbirth pictures I’ve laid eyes on. I wholeheartedly disagree that no one wants to see that. We easily celebrate the lives of those who have walked this earth upon their deaths.  What’s so horrifying about celebrating the life of a little one never given the chance to put their tiny feet on the ground?

When my daughter was stillborn six years ago, a nurse took pictures.  I’m so happy to have them, but the majority are painfully awkward.  None match the raw emotion of the Staleys, and they aren’t the least bit artistic. I’ve always been uncomfortable sharing them, primarily because I’ve clung to the fear that no one wants to see that.

But as time passes, I’m not sure why I’ve been so afraid.  My story, Avery’s story, is a full-fledged book. I’ve showed the world my daughter through my words. I’ve shared my darkest times, my depression, my fears…Yet I’m still terrified to share a picture of the beautiful child that changed my life? All because no one wants to see that.

A few weeks ago an acquaintance told me she wasn’t going to read Holding Avery because she’d rather not think about me having a stillbirth.  It’s too depressing for her, and she’d like to pretend it never happened. Fair enough. There are lots of people that would prefer to ignore the fact that there are around 30,000 stillbirths in the United States every year, and I suppose that’s their choice.  But today my choice is to share a picture of my daughter, even if no one wants to see that. I apologize if you find it offensive, but it happened.  And it’s not something I can ignore.

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A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore…

10492212_10203595970355787_8702093362303428279_n-1Two weeks ago I went to Old Navy to buy new clothes for my kids.  My boys are growing like those little magic capsule thingies they love to play with – one night they drink a glass of milk, the next morning their pants are three inches too short and they’re sporting belly shirts.  It’s insane.  Anyway, Old Navy happens to be next to a Barnes and Noble.  It had been a little over a week since the release of my book, and I decided to take a stroll through B&N to see if Holding Avery was on the shelves.

I knew Barnes and Noble carried my book online – tons of bookstores carry my book online – but I wasn’t 100 percent sure they’d have it in-store.  I walked in, took a deep breath, and told myself not to be disappointed if it wasn’t there. I wandered through the biographies, breathless, and came face-to-face with Hillary Clinton on more than one occasion.  Not the actual Hillary Clinton, of course, but the giant picture of her on the cover of her brand-new memoir.  (The memoir that came out the same day as Holding Avery, I might add.) I passed scores of books by famous people, but I didn’t see my own.  I headed for the self-help section. My story is a memoir – a biography – but it’s also classified as self-help.  Since I’m not exactly on the same plane as former first ladies and aging superstars, I figured it was worth a shot. As I turned down that aisle, my heart stopped.  There it was, the white feather, my name in print, Avery’s name in print…I had a faceout, too, so my book was right there for the world to see, begging to be read.

It’s hard to actually put this feeling into words – think being five years old again on Christmas morning, and then multiply that by a thousand. In short, it was amazing. I looked around; a man sat on the floor a few feet away, perusing a book.  It took all my willpower not to tap him on the shoulder ask him if I looked like the lady on the back of Holding Avery.  Instead I shamelessly took a selfie with my book, stared at it for another minute, and left.

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A few days later we had a rainy Sunday.  After breakfast with my husband and boys, we took a bookstore tour through the Dallas Metroplex, and yes, I took selfies every time I found my book on the shelves.  I couldn’t help it.  It was exciting stuff.

It’s also a timely distraction for me. The last few days of June and the first few days of July are always hard for me.  At this very moment six years ago, I was sitting in a hospital bed trying to decide if I was ready to start the process of birthing my stillborn daughter.  I felt pretty lousy; I felt extremely hopeless.   Back then I couldn’t imagine the beautiful future that was waiting for me, completed by two incredible little boys who would come into my life and help me find happiness.10339637_10203315588106406_8543961783156059448_n

I also couldn’t fathom that the little girl I was mourning, a baby who graced this earth for just an instant, would have the ability to leave such a long-lasting impression on so many.  Tomorrow is Avery’s sixth birthday. While she may not be here to celebrate, her legacy lives on in print.

And that feels amazing, too.

 

Happy Mother’s Day

IMG_6072I remember the first Mother’s Day after losing my daughter.  It was a strange day for me, filled with sadness and complex emotions.  After Avery was stillborn, I struggled with my new identity as a childless mother. Prior to being discharged from the hospital, my doctor had grabbed hold of me, looked me in the eye, and whispered, “You are a mother.”

In that moment, I believed her.  But after being shoved back into the real world, surrounded by a society that doesn’t fully understand stillbirth and people that couldn’t look me in the eye, I wasn’t so sure.  I knew I was a mother, but did anyone else? I had a nursery, a closet full of baby clothes, three strollers, a Baby Bjorn, toys, car seats, pacifiers…I had everything I was supposed to have.

But I didn’t have the one thing that truly makes you a parent. I didn’t have a baby.

But I did have a baby.

I had a baby that I nurtured and sang to for nearly nine months. In those fleeting moments, we had thousands of conversations about the past, present, and future.  I knew how her foot tickled my ribs, how her fingers brushed the inside of my belly when she did her daily acrobatics…  I knew every single time she had the hiccups.

Avery was the first person to ever hear my heartbeat from the inside. How could I not be a mother?

It took me longer than it should have, but that Mother’s Day I finally realized that other people didn’t determine my maternal status. It was up to me.

So on that Sunday in 2009, I celebrated my motherhood. I picked up my daughter’s urn and sang her a song.  I shook her ashes, listening to the soft swoosh-swoosh that always reminded me of her heartbeat. I sat with her for an hour, remembering that while her short life brought me incredible grief, it also awarded me immense happiness.

I was a mother.  I was Avery’s mother. And no one could take that away from me.

It’s been six short years since that first Mother’s Day without my daughter.  I’ve since been blessed with two healthy, rambunctious little boys that, with their macaroni necklaces and dandelion bouquets, have made Mother’s Day a whole lot brighter.

Yet as this Mother’s Day Weekend approaches, I can’t help but think of all of the other mothers out their struggling.  For some the wounds of stillbirth may still be very fresh; others may have been grasping at an identity for quite some time.  To all of you, please remember that even though your child may not walk this earth, you are still a mother.

And don’t ever let anyone tell you differently.