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.

You Get What You Get

IMG_7874“Are you mad you don’t have a girl?”

The question caught me off guard, like the car in your blind spot when you’re changing lanes, the one that lays on the horn and gives you the finger and sends your heart into a series of herky-jerky palpitations that make you wonder if you should dial 911.

I had just finished telling the story of Avery’s stillbirth to a near stranger, a story I’ve told hundreds of times, a story that typically elicits awkward nods and sad smiles and “I’m so sorrys,” not brutally honest questions with the potential for politically incorrect answers.

Am I mad that I don’t have a girl?

A saying danced through my head, words stolen from my son’s kindergarten teacher, words I tell my kids multiple times throughout the day. “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.” It’s true, too. Whether you’re talking about a Happy Meal toy or second place in the spelling bee or horrible diseases or even death – there are so many things that are out of our hands, things we humans wish we could control but are ultimately powerless against.

Am I mad that I don’t have a girl?

I’m sad that seven years ago my daughter died. I’m frustrated that I did everything right but nobody saw it coming. I’m irritated that I had to have three full-term pregnancies to have two children. I’m heartbroken that I have to try to explain to my boys how the sister they never met died, and how that little girl changed so much about our lives. But am I mad that I don’t have a girl?

I think of the parents that only have girls, up to their ears in glitter and bows, twirling through a world of dance recitals and nail polish, and wonder how they see me. I wonder if they feel a little left out of my world, the world of fart noises and monster trucks, the world of bug collections and pretty-eyed mama’s boys whispering, “I love you so much, Mommy,” right before their lids become heavy with sleep.

I’m sure there are a lot of things I’m missing out on in the Land of Pink. I’ll never shop for bras or prom dresses or wedding dresses. I’ll never know that special mother – daughter bond that people always post sappy memes of on Facebook. But am I mad I don’t have a girl?

“No,” I finally answered. “I’m not mad.”

And it’s the truth.

I’ll always have that tiny pang in my heart – perhaps mine is a little bigger than most because once upon a time I had a girl and then all of a sudden I didn’t. But I’m not mad. I adore my boys; I adore my life. It would be useless to be mad about something so out of my control. To hold onto anger like that would only cloud the spectacular road ahead and keep me from truly enjoying the ride.

Even if that ride is in a monster truck riddled with fart noises.

While I was away…

11825805_10206618548678356_2981678389871303118_nEvery summer I venture back to the deep woods of Northern Michigan to remember my roots.  (And to visit my family and be eaten by mosquitos the size of helicopters.) Cell phone service is sketchy there to say the least, so imagine my surprise when I discovered, three days after it was published, I had a little snippet about Avery published in The New York Times!  You can check out my story, as well as the stories of a handful of other brave women who chose to share there experiences with stillbirth, here.

An Early Gift

Avery Birth RecordEvery now and then my book Holding Avery gets entered into a contest – the latest was the Foreword Reviews‘ 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards.  It’s a well-known competition in the literary world, with other winners being the likes of screenwriter Zack Whedon and the infamous Dalai Lama, to name a few.

When I found out I was a finalist a few months ago I was thrilled; I know it’s entirely cliche, but, given the competition, it truly was an honor to be nominated. I knew that winning was a long shot. The awards were given out this past Friday night at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference in San Francisco.  I wasn’t there – I was sitting on the couch watching House Hunters International with a very jet-lagged husband who had just returned from a work trip overseas. I was trying to convince him that it was completely practical for us to move to St. Croix when I got the email. The winners had been announced, and I had to blink a few times before I processed that it was Holding Avery that won the Gold in the Grief/Grieving category.   My little book, my little story, my little daughter – the big winner.

It’s exciting being a winner.  It’s incredible to have people talking about Holding Avery, to have people recognizing it not just for the writing but also for broaching an uncomfortable subject that is often ignored.  It’s not The Nobel Prize but it’s enough to make me feel special for a few days, to reaffirm that I made the right choice writing such a personal book in the first place.  Winning is also very timely.

Avery was born on July 2, just three days from today.  (It’s 1:32 p.m. as I type this; she was born at 1:43 p.m.) Surprisingly, July 2 doesn’t really bother me – it’s tomorrow, June 30, that puts the pit in my stomach.  If you’ve read my book you know that June 30 was a pretty boring pregnant day back in 2008.  I took a walk, I ate a sandwich, I went to Target. A few things happened that had me convinced Avery was on her way, and just past midnight my water broke.  Seven years later I still find myself doing a play-by-play of that day, wondering how and why things turned out the way they did.  I said it in my book and I stand by it today – as the years pass, it doesn’t get easier.  It gets different. I already feel the beginnings of that squirm in my stomach, that feeling of sadness and loss blended with the happiness of the beautiful life we’ve built post-Avery.  This year I can add the accolades of my book, Avery’s book, to that cocktail of confusion.

Yes. It’s nice to be a winner. But I’ll never forget that Avery’s loss is what made this all possible in the first place.  Happy Birthday, sweet girl.  This year you won the Gold.

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.

 

 

Through the Heart

I recently had the pleasure of being the guest blogger for the fabulous organization Through the Heart, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide support to anyone who has experienced a pregnancy loss.  You can read my post here!

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words…

10897108_10205164402165602_3390385594772897571_nMy kids were off from school Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday. Since I’ve learned that it’s impossible for me to get any work done on school holidays, I’ve come to relish the laziness that comes with them. My husband left for work at 6:45 a.m.; I grabbed my phone and crawled back into bed. I checked my email, perused Facebook, and checked Jane.com to see if there were any worthwhile daily deals.

At 7:15 my oldest son Carter climbed into bed with me; his younger brother Preston wasn’t far behind. We sat in bed and chatted for a while, then the boys asked to do one of their favorite things – look at pictures on my phone.

“Do you have any pictures of me when I was a baby?” Carter asked eagerly. “Like right after I came out of your tummy?”

“I sure do,” I answered, searching my phone. “Here you go. This is right after you were born.”10399737_1201454232453_2331358_n

Carter stared at the picture in awe, trying to recognize himself. “Why are you wearing glasses?” he finally said.

“I want to see!” Preston grabbed the phone from his brother’s hand.

“Do you have any pictures of Preston right after he came out of your tummy?” Carter asked.

“I do.” I took back the phone and scrolled through the album. “This is me and Preston.”

316245_2432770934601_1270626852_nMy youngest gazed over my shoulder and started jumping up and down. “That’s me, Carter! That’s me and Mommy!”

I got up to brush my teeth while the boys were busy analyzing their younger selves.

“Mom?” Carter followed me into the bathroom, sounding much too serious for his five years.

“What, buddy?”

“Do you have any pictures of Avery on your phone? Right after she was born?”

For a second I froze, unsure of where to begin. Avery was my first child. When she died I could have easily hidden her existence from my future children. It would have been simple to sweep her short life under a rug, to only whisper her name when I was certain no one was listening.

But I chose to go the opposite route. I wrote a book about my daughter that anyone with ten dollars can read. Every year at Christmas we hang a stocking for her – she doesn’t get presents, but we collectively fill it with our love. Our house has bursts of pink toys here and there, reminders that a girl almost lived in a home now dominated by boys. Avery’s existence has always been celebrated, and in doing so I’ve inadvertently placed my sons in the middle of something they don’t entirely understand. The older Carter gets, the more questions he asks about his big sister, and I always try to be as truthful as possible yet delicate with the harsh realities of life.

My son looked at me with his huge green eyes – they always remind me of Gizmo from Gremlins. He is so inquisitive, so thirsty for knowledge, so desperate to unlock the secrets of The Universe. My thoughts fell into a tangled mess in my head; there was so much I could say. Why don’t we have pictures of Avery on our phone?

It was almost seven years ago, we didn’t have an iPhone, the last thing on my mind was pictures, we were so sad…

“Mom?” Carter asked.

“Yeah, buddy?”

“Is it because she was dead, and pictures are meant for happy things?” he said.

I smiled at my son, once again amazed by the depth of his reasoning. “That’s exactly it, Carter.”

My five-year-old walked over to the picture of Avery we keep on our dresser. “So this is the only picture you have of her, huh?”

“We have others,” I softly explained. “But you need to be a little older to look at them.”

Our other pictures include my husband and me and radiate grief; I’m not quite ready for Carter to see his parents so haunted.

“Can I say hi to her?” Carter asked, picking up the urn with his sister’s ashes.

“Of course.”

“Hi, Avery,” he sang, tickling the top with his fingers. “Coochie coochie coo!” He gently placed the urn back on the dresser and stretched, his hands finally resting on his stomach. “Man, my belly is hungry. Can we make waffles?”

“It’s a holiday. How about we go get donuts instead?” I offered.

My room erupted into screams of joy over their favorite deep-fried pastry.

“Donuts! I love donuts!” Carter exclaimed.

“Donuts! Donuts! Donuts!” Preston cheered from the bed.

“Come on Preston,” Carter instructed, pulling his brother from the bed. “Let’s go get dressed so we can go get DONUTS!”

I watched my boys bound up the stairs to their rooms, so wise beyond their years, but with so much left to learn about life.

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.