On Losing a Child… 20 Years Later… And Beyond

UPDATE: This post was originally published on October 23, 2013. I try to share it each year as every year there are more families who, unfortunately, experience the loss of a child. I pray that this might be a blessing and help to someone grieving the loss of their child. There is nothing that can replace the hole in your heart, but there is a God who can give peace that passeth all understanding to help you as the years go by.On Losing a ChildOctober 23, 1993, twenty years ago. We were excitedly planning the arrival of a baby, a brother or sister for 17 month old Nathan. Without going into all the details, I had a pregnancy complication that would recur in several other pregnancies. Despite all the best efforts, including emergency surgery in hope to prolong the pregnancy, at 18 weeks, I delivered our second child – a baby boy. We named him Andrew Stephen. I was not able to hold Andrew; I physically and emotionally did not have the strength. (Hemorrhaging following delivery sent me to the OR for hours and recuperating for weeks.) I remember those early hours and days as if I were watching someone else experience them. How much was morphine induced and how much was simply a God-given way to cope with the circumstances I know not.

Through the years, I have been reticent to share. Too difficult, painful, raw. Too personal. Too depressing. And, at times, simply because I didn’t want to face the awkward silence that inevitably comes when someone doesn’t know what to say. “How many children do you have?” “Five…” “Oh, what are their ages?” “…but four are already in Heaven.” (Cue crickets.) Conversation killer. So, my standard answer, unless I know that they are sisters in grief, is usually: “One, Nathan. He’s (filling in age, current activity, etc.).”

It hurts not to be able to freely say that I am the mother of five. However, I do understand that most people don’t understand. Which is why I have felt pressed to finally share our story.

I want to let those who have walked this path know that they are not alone; to know that you will survive; to have hope that you will go on with living. To those who have no reference on what it is to lose a child, I hope to give a glimpse into the grief, thoughts, and feelings on losing a child. So often, we find we can identify and comfort those who have lost a parent or spouse; it may be difficult, but we can imagine and understand those losses. However, it is very difficult for someone to approach one who has lost a child because it is unimaginable.

The doctors and nurses were terrific, empathetic, and concerned. They moved me to a general ward floor instead of the recovering mother’s floor so that I did not hear the cries of newborns as they were brought to their moms. They placed a card with a flower on it on my door. When I asked what it was for, the nurse quietly told me that it was to let the staff know that I had suffered a loss. This way they would have the appropriate demeanor as they entered. (She didn’t say that, but that was the intent.) Finally, three or four days later, I was sent home with many booklets and pamphlets regarding grief and the loss of a child. “When you are up to it, they might be a help in some small way.”

As the weeks went by, I began experiencing terrible, shooting pains in both my arms, so much so that I thought I was going insane. I finally picked up one of the booklets I was given. From it, I learned that I was experiencing a phenomenon called “empty arms syndrome.” It was described as similar to an amputee patient feeling phantom pains in the limb that has been amputated. I wish I could find the booklet; several moves may have caused the misplacement or loss of it. There isn’t much on the internet about empty arms syndrome. However, it is real.

Should you find yourself experiencing unexplained pain in your arms following a miscarriage or infant loss you may be experiencing empty arms syndrome. Many suggest holding or cuddling a pillow, stuffed animal, pet or, as I was able to do, my toddler. It took several weeks for it to subside. I then begged God to never let me have to experience that again. Unlike not holding Andrew, I was able to hold Caleb and Naomi, both second trimester babies, and I did not experience empty arms syndrome. Even following my 10 week miscarriage, I did not experience the syndrome. Some things can’t be explained; but, I know, God graciously answered that prayer.

If you have the chance to hold your baby, do. Take pictures. Keep the baby clothes they give you. Add their birthstone to a mother’s ring, bracelet, or necklace. Remember your baby in some tangible way.

Losing a child is losing a part of your own self; a part of your future, or rather, what you thought your future to be. It is the loss of hopes and dreams for that child. Part of my grief are the missing faces in the photos. People say: “Oh, it’s so good to have all the family together!” Although it is good to be with extended family, I see four little faces missing from around the table. No first words, first steps, first days of school, ball games, recitals, graduations, weddings, … or perhaps, grandchildren. Holidays can be difficult because there are presents that aren’t purchased, baskets not filled, valentine’s not sent, birthdays not celebrated.

Mother’s Day is extremely difficult for me, as it is for many mothers who have lost children to death or those who suffer from infertility. In the first years, tears would flow the day before, before church in the morning, during church, after church, nearly all weekend long. Nathan does a wonderful job of spoiling me, but there are still faces, hugs and kisses missed. Some years I just wish that day didn’t come.

The Mother’s Day following the death of our 17 day old preemie son, Caleb, our pastor realized that I was hurting terribly. The death of Caleb had affected many in our church as well. That Mother’s Day morning, for the first time that I remember in any church that I had been a part, the pastor honored all moms who had lost children — miscarriage to adult children. That meant a lot to me. I appreciated it because it acknowledged the lives of my babies.

Even twenty years later, tears still happen suddenly, without warning, without knowing or understanding what has triggered them, though it is not nearly as frequently as it once was. This is especially true around the birth, delivery, and death dates. Time, though, has helped; there are far less tearful bouts than there once was.

But, how do you continue on? How can you suffer loss of this magnitude and still go on?

The Great Comforter helps. He is the translator when I cry out in my prayers; when I don’t know how to pray or what to pray. He is the One Who is there in my darkest hours — in my tears, anger, depression, anguish, despair. He is the One Who carries me through, lifting me up when I cannot go another step. He is the One Who gently prods me to keep going. He is the One Who gives peace in an unexplainable way in the midst of an unfathomable despair.

What I do that helps me is read the Word. King David lost a child to sickness. He grieved himself sorely while the child was sick, so much so that his servants feared telling him when the child died. However, David sensed, by the way his people were behaving, that the child had died. When asked how he could pull himself together now at the death, David replied:

22 And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live? 23 But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me. (2 Samuel 12:22-23)

I remember in the Word that Jesus was “acquainted with grief.” Jesus was fully God, and, yet, He was also fully man. Jesus suffered grief. He knows the pain that it causes. Because of that, I know that when I cry out to Him with my questions, my anger, my depression, and all the other feelings that go along with grief… He knows. He understands.

That is how I view grief now: grief is an acquaintance. It is someone you know. You have had a shared event with them, but they are not someone that you constantly see. Grief isn’t something that is always there, but I bump into it from time to time. Sometimes unexpectedly. Sometimes I see it coming. It is like living with a shadow. Shadows are not always present, but we know that they will appear.

The loss of a child is something that you carry all your remaining days. We must go on living, but we do not have to forget. When those tears come, let them fall in memorial to your child, cleansing away the hurt, the loss. It is okay.

When those feelings of loss surface, channel them for good to remember your child. Encouraging or helping others is a wonderful way to help yourself through bouts of grief. Donate toys or clothes to a women’s shelter or a pregnancy center, make a Christmas shoebox, choose an angel from an angel tree, send a birthday box to missionary kids, surprise a Sunday school class with ice cream coupons. {Or agree to make ‘n’ take 10 personal pans of brownies for Nathan and his college friends when we go visit for Thanksgiving! 🙂 } And, when you feel you have an opportunity to share their short life with another, do so.

The doctors have since told us that I should never have carried Nathan to term. He is our miracle. Little did we know when we named him how appropriate it would be: Nathan – “a gift,” Paul – “small.” He most definitely is our small gift from the Lord, our blessing. But, I do miss my other children. However, I have a great hope because I know that I will see them one day. There’s a saying: Having a child is like having a piece of your heart walking around outside you. Four pieces of my heart are running streets of gold right now. Their little lives were short, but they made a huge impact on this world, on my world. I love you Andrew Stephen (’93, 18 week delivery), Caleb James “C.J.” (’97, born at 24 weeks, died at 17 days old), Gabriel (’98, 10 week miscarriage), and sweet Naomi Grace, (’99, 23 week delivery).  

October is national pregnancy and infant loss awareness month. October 15th is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. For more information, go to October15th.com.

 photo credit: photopin.com

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