After Lach died I read a book called Hello, from Heaven. It was a lovely little compilation of stories that people told of their "visits" from their loved ones. There must have been a chapter in there of people who had their visits in the form very vivid and vibrant dreams. I wanted to have that experience so terribly. I did have one dream about toward the end of that first year. However, it was not the peaceful hope-filled dream that I was yearning for. Instead, this one left me feeling the wound torn open and the ache of living without him feeling very fresh again. I definitely didn't want to have that experience again.
I had a different kind of dream about a month ago and I'm finally deciding to share it. Sometimes things are too big for words and it feels like you are taking something away from a powerful experience by trying to make it conform to our language. However, in the case that it might bring a ray of hope to someone else, here goes:
It began as I was parking my van in a grassy area of a park that was somehow connected to Nehemiah, a local high school boy that was killed in a car accident 2 years ago. This is a kid that I had some secondary connections to, but had never met myself. As I was backing into the spot, suddenly I could see Nehemiah through my rear view mirror and he helped me get parked. Then he playfully came around the car and greeted me with a warm hug as I got out. As I started to look around, I saw groups of people around the park. Some of the people had colors that were brighter and more saturated than everything else around them. I came to understand that those who were brighter were of heaven and everything that was more dull was of earth. I stood there in awe, slowly taking it in, and Nehemiah communicated to me without words that he'd see if Lach could come. I turned toward my left shoulder, slowing taking in the view in amazement, and as I got about 2/3 the way around, there was a grand piano sitting just off in the distance. Lach was sitting on the bench reaching toward the keys of the piano. He was still 10 months old, wearing the green and orange striped shirt that he wore both in the picture we used for his obituary and on the day he died. Everything is about him was bright and radiant. When I spotted him, he made eye contact with me and gave me a sweet and knowing little pursed-lip grin. I ran toward him and scooped him up, hugging him and kissing him.
There was SO MUCH love and peace and joy. SO MUCH! As I held him, I came to understand our grief response as a teeny tiny completely natural response to being separated from something we are enjoying. In comparison to the joy of the moment, that all-consuming grief of losing a child dwarfed into an insignificant and temporary loss. It became more like the feeling that we have when something ordinary that we are enjoying comes to its natural end... The amazing movie that is now over, the fall of the leaves in autumn, the roller coaster ride that comes to an end...the faint "that-was-great, too-bad-it's-over" response.
At the same time as I was holding Lach and coming to understand the loss in a new perspective, I was also waking up. I knew that I would be waking up to continue living in my separation from him. I was SO ok with this! It was no big deal! It is so small and temporary and insignificant in comparison to the overwhelming love and joy that is to come. I woke up with tears in my eyes...Joyful tears that came from a delight at the glimpse of the what that reunion might be like, and the the peek at a joy, a peace, and a love that are so abundant they dwarf even a life-changing grief into something that is barely perceptible.
I don't dream often, and when I do, there is usually not much to make of it. This dream was something else. It was so clear and so vivid. It gave me new perspective to hold onto as well as hope and courage for the journey. It's a perspective could be applied not just to the loss of Lachlan, but to the rest of life's struggles too.
Hold onto hope all you grievers...as much as your hearts hurt now, they will rejoice a million times over!
In October 1988, President Ronald Reagan declared October as National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month saying, "When a child loses his parent, they are called an orphan. When a spouse loses her or his partner, they are called a widow or widower. When parents lose their child, there isn’t a word to describe them." The campaign for the October 15 Infant Loss Remembrance Day began in 2002, and the “wave of light” has been adopted worldwide. If we each light a candle in memory of the infants we’ve lost at 7pm local time, then together we create a continuous wave light reaching all the way around the globe. What a cool, yet simple way, to support each other, and embrace and acknowledge that these little lives mattered and we are changed because of them.
Because today is designated as an awareness day, let me share some numbers with you:
• 90,000 children die annually in the United States before their first birthday
• Nearly 2,500 babies die per year in the United States due to SIDS
• Nearly 30,000 babies per year are stillborn in the US. Worldwide that number is 4.5 million per year.
• 15-20% of all clinically recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage.
• There are an additional 700,000 babies per year whose lives are ended by choice in the US
And because SIDS is my special reach-out point:
SIDS is the leading cause of death for babies between 1 month and 1 year of age. Most deaths occur in babies 1 to 4 months of age and 90% of them occur before a child is 6 months old. SIDS in unpredictable and unpreventable. It occurs in both genders (in boys slightly more than girls) and across all races and socioeconomic classes. It is not due to vaccinations, suffocation, or choking. SIDS is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that when every other potential cause has been ruled out, then a diagnosis of SIDS can be assigned. As pointed out by the CJ Foundation: Increasingly, as the years have gone by, fewer and fewer medical examiners and coroners have been using SIDS as a cause of death. If an infant dies unexpectedly, the death may be listed as KSIDS, SUID, SUDI, SID, Cot Death, plus many more. To make it personal, Lach’s death certificate said SIDS on it, but when I had an opportunity to talk to a medical examiner who did not do Lach’s autopsy, he told me that he would not have used SIDS as the diagnosis because Lach was significantly older than the “typical” SIDS baby, though he was still under a year old.
While SIDS cannot be predicted and can still occur even if you’re following all the recommendations, there are some important things you can do to reduce the risk. Some of these things can be difficult to follow with a newborn that won’t sleep and exhausted parents. Educate yourself. Know the risks. When parents are choosing how to put their child to sleep, I ask them to consider the scenario that their child doesn’t wake up. Would you be comfortable saying to yourself that you did everything possible to minimize that risk, or if your child died during this sleep time, would you regret the sleep environment that you chose for them? Here are some ways to help reduce the risk, as outlined by the American Academy of Pediatrics…with some of my added notes in caps:
• Breastfeeding is recommended and is associated with a reduced risk of SIDS. THE RISK IS REDUCED BY AS MUCH AS 60%
• Infants should be immunized. Evidence suggests that immunization reduces the risk of SIDS by 50 percent.
• Bumper pads should not be used in cribs. There is no evidence that bumper pads prevent injuries, and there is a potential risk of suffocation, strangulation or entrapment. DO NOT RISK THE LIFE OF YOUR CHILD FOR A CUTE BUMPER…USE IT AS WALL DÉCOR, A WINDOW VALENCE, OR PUT IT IN THE CRIB TO TAKE A PICTURE AND THEN TAKE IT RIGHT BACK OUT.
• Always place your baby on his or her back for every sleep time. WHEN BABIES CAN FLIP THEMSELVES OVER, BUT DON’T ROLL CONSISTENTLY, GO AHEAD AND PUT THEM BACK ONTO THEIR BACKS IF YOU FIND THEM ON THEIR TUMMIES. ONCE THEY ARE ROLLING WELL, THEY CAN BE ALLOWED TO ADOPT WHICHEVER SLEEP POSITION THEY PREFER
• Always use a firm sleep surface. Car seats and other sitting devices are not recommended for routine sleep. THIS INCLUDES SWINGS, BOUNCERS, ETC.
• The baby should sleep in the same room as the parents, but not in the same bed (room-sharing without bed-sharing). I KNOW HOW AWESOME IT IS TO SNUGGLE A SLEEPING BABY WHILE YOU LAY IN BED AND HOW CONVENIENT IT IS TO NURSE A BABY WHILE ARE IN BED. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO IT AGAIN THE NEXT DAY AND PUT THE BABY IN THEIR OWN SPACE BEFORE YOU ALLOW YOURSELF TO DOZE OFF.
• Keep soft objects or loose bedding out of the crib. This includes pillows, blankets, and bumper pads. I KNOW WE LOVE TO SEE OUR BABIES ALL SNUGGLED UP WITH A BLANKET AND A STUFFED ANIMAL. TAKE A PICTURE AND THEN TAKE THOSE THINGS AWAY. IT IS NOT WORTH HAVING TO PUT YOUR BABY IN A CASKET THE NEXT TIME YOU TUCK THEM IN.
• Wedges and positioners should not be used.
• Pregnant woman should receive regular prenatal care.
• Don’t smoke during pregnancy or after birth.
• Offer a pacifier at nap time and bedtime.
• Avoid covering the infant’s head or overheating. WHEN MOTHERS WHO HAVE LOST BABIES COME ACROSS OTHER BABIES SLEEPING IN A CAR SEAT WITH THEIR FACES COVERED, WE PANIC FOR YOU. IF YOU COVER YOUR BABY’S FACE FOR MORE THAN JUST A FEW MINUTES TO PROTECT THEM FROM THE FRIGID WEATHER, DON’T BE ALARMED IF A STRANGE WOMAN COMES UP TO YOU AND FRANTICALLY UNCOVERS YOUR CHILD. THANK HER. I HAVEN’T ACTUALLY DONE THIS TO A STRANGER, BUT I WANT TO.
• Do not use home monitors or commercial devices marketed to reduce the risk of SIDS. I PERSONALLY HAVE USED THESE DEVICES. THEY CANNOT PREVENT A DEATH, THEY CAN ONLY ALERT YOU TO A POTENTIAL PROBLEM, BUT THEY GAVE ME SOME PEACE OF MIND AND REDUCED MY ANXIETY WHILE MY BABIES SLEPT. THE WARNING FROM THE APA COMES MORE SO AS NOT TO RELY ON THESE DEVICES TO PREVENT DEATH.
• Supervised, awake tummy time is recommended daily to facilitate development and minimize the occurrence of positional plagiocephaly (flat heads).
Even as a mother who knows the loss, I was not able to practice these safe sleep recommendations perfectly. However, I always kept an attitude of working toward that. There were times that I was absolutely exhausted and the baby only cried if they were not snuggled up next to me. There were times that I needed to make a brief exception, and then work toward a better sleep environment the next time. Keep after it, babies will adjust to the sleeping environments that you give them. If, God forbid, your child dies during sleep, give yourself the gift of not having to wonder if you could have prevented it by following these recommendations.
I find that I am offended when people that I love regularly and casually choose unsafe sleep environments and positions for their babies, simply because it's easier, their baby sleeps more soundly on their tummy, it's cute, or they just like it. Many bereaved mothers feel this way, and struggle with how to handle it. We often don't say anything, so as not to force the reality of death on another mother. I make a conscious effort to not be judgmental, every parent has unique circumstances that influence their decisions. I usually won't say anything because I am too emotionally charged, or worried that I'll seem crazy or paranoid, but I can't help but feel angry. It feels like a disregard for the significance of my loss, and though it's not my child, that unsafe sleep environment is putting me at risk for losing another child that I love, too. It is more than just the parents who grieve the loss of a child.
One of the biggest ways that you can honor a mother who has lost a child is to choose a safe sleep environment in memory of the child who died. Put your child in a safe sleep environment, take a picture and send it to that bereaved mom you love. Include a note that is something like "In honor of (baby's name), we are choosing a safe sleep environment. (Baby's name) life has made a difference to us." It will be like a little living memorial! What a simple, beautiful and powerful gift.
She showed up first. We were little more than acquaintances at the time. She knew of Lach’s death and she came. She had such a way about her that things seemed better when she was there. She stayed in the background but relieved me of the pressure of having to tend to people. She let people in, she answered the phone, she made coffee, and she gave us a ride to the hospital. We had been away from home for a week or two during the time of Lach’s funeral and burial. She called and asked if it would be ok to clean the house for us. As we were returning home, I couldn’t help but be a little anxious about this new normal that we were going to have to find, and that we were going to have to start back into the daily chores of living. It lightened my heart to find things cleaned and tidy. Lach’s room was untouched, his things as we left them, the fingerprints still on the mirror. There was a vase of fresh cut lilacs on the table, fresh fruit and a new gallon of milk in the fridge. Maybe it’s because she was the first one, maybe it’s because we didn’t know each other well enough that I might have expected it from her, maybe it’s because those things were outside the box of casseroles and sympathy cards, but those were some of my most memorable moments of empathy. Since then, we have grown to be good friends and she has continued to be a wonderful support for me along the way.
Empathy is as unique as the individual who is giving it. I think they key is just to do something! You don’t have to know the person well to give an incredibly kind and meaningful gesture, even if it is small and simple. Many people out of true love and concern make themselves available, “Call if you need anything. I’m here for you.” Even on the hardest days, I would let the dishes and the laundry pile up before I would ever call someone and ask them to do those things for me. People bring casseroles. They know you’ll have company that needs to eat even if you can’t. Those things are certainly appreciated, but the things that stood out to me were the things that were outside that box. Having someone take care of mowing the lawn, offering to take Westin for a couple hours, getting a group together to help us create a memorial garden for Lachlan, help in creating the memorials, Lach’s Legacy, and the Run for Their Lives, and even simply a coffee date and a loving conversation or a walk around the neighborhood.
Here are my tips on offering empathy to a newly bereaved parent:
1. Know that there is more going on than what you can see. From the outside, I may have appeared to be holding myself together. I may have been playing with Westin at the park, I may have been talking about my trip to the grocery store, I may have been working just like everyone else. But what was on the inside was something different. I was being eaten up inside that I could give Westin undivided attention without Lachlan there, that the grocery trip was too easy when you’re not wrestling a 10 month old while you do it, or that I could work without a baby in my arms.
2. Ask. Coming into a conversation with a newly bereaved parent can sometimes be scary. We are unsure of what to say or how to say it, we are afraid we might say something that will be hurtful. Keep in mind that grief is as unique as a thumbprint. There are some common threads, but no two people will look at any part of it the same way. What might bring comfort for one griever, may be painful for the next. Don’t expect to know what they might People who could come to me with an open mind and an open heart were always a blessing.
It was a relief to be able to talk about Lachlan without feeling judged or worrying about falling short of expectations, or feeling like I wasn’t doing it right because I wasn’t doing it as they thought I should. It was healing for me to have a conversation with someone who was willing to ask and ready to hear.
The questions you could ask to show your empathy and your love are endless: Are you able to eat? Are you able to sleep? What are some of the things that have brought you the most comfort? Is there anything in particular that has been hard for you lately? Have you thought about any kind of memorial? How are you feeling about going back to work? Are you finding it hard to take care of your other kids? Can I see some pictures of your baby? Tell me about him… Those kinds of questions helped me to know that someone cared, that they were interested in actually knowing my struggles and not giving any expectations on what I should think or feel or do. Share your own experiences of loss or grief, but remember that they are your own and what worked for you may not be helpful for them.
3. Do something. Pick out something you would like to do for them and ask for permission to do that. It was much easier to say yes to someone who said, “we would like to take care of your lawn for the next couple weeks, is that ok with you?” than to call someone to say, “my heart hurts too much today, will you mow my yard?” Remember that now every item the child has ever touched is sacred to the parents. They are the physical proofs that the child was there. Make sure to ask before helping with anything that is the baby’s. Even the unfinished bottle, the poopy diapers, and the dirty laundry. A time will come when those things will have to be addressed, but the right time to address them is different for everyone.
4. Remember. Remember birthdays and anniversaries. Remember that Thanksgiving and Christmas are happening without their child to share it with. Mother’s day is hard when you can’t hold the child who made you a mother. Remember times that you spent with the child and memories of the child. If you didn’t know the baby ask them to tell you about them. When you see something that makes you think of them, tell them that.
The summer after Lach died, I saw a picture similar to this one of a family sitting in a line all wearing their embroidered Mickey Mouse hats. There was a set embroidered and sitting on the ledge to mark the place of the missing child. Something about that picture spoke volumes to me. It was a family, living and loving, enjoying the the things the world has to offer, but still acknowledging that someone was missing. I loved it the instant I saw it. I've never been able to find it again, but have kept that in mind all these years, waiting for the opportunity to take my own version of that picture. Mine isn't as pretty as the one that inspired it, but is a little treasure for me anyway!
The image of our family is always hard. It’s not what I planned. It’s not the complete picture that I had envisioned. There is something missing. What we have makes it hard to answer “How many kids do you have?” An innocent question that can’t be answered without what feels like an awkward exchange. When we have a formal family picture taken, I bring a dragonfly to mark his spot in the photo. That's more for me than it is for anyone else. It's better for me to have his spot marked in some tangible way.
In my mind’s eye, the picture is as it should be. Four stair-step boys and their baby sister, but what I have to show to the world is something different. Lach’s pictures are on the wall in line with the rest of them, but it isn’t right. It never will be. I should have a school picture of my second grader on the wall with the standard head and chest shot and smooth gray background. It should be right there, between my 4th grader and kindergartener, instead of the close up snapshot of his adorable face with a laundry basket backdrop.
While Lach leaves pictures on the wall missing something, I think the images in our hearts are enhanced. When we imagine our family together, it has to be with heaven as the backdrop. With his place being in heaven instead of our home, we are left with a constant reminder that we are destined join him and we destined for something beyond here. The kids all know that Lachlan is in heaven and that if we play our cards right we will someday have the opportunity to join him in paradise. We dream together of what heaven might be like. Emmett grins and giggles at the thought of a new and improved body. Leo will at times ask in exasperation, “When can I die? It takes sooo long! I want to go to heaven!” While it’s a little disturbing to hear your preschooler whine about why he can’t die already, I love that he is looking forward to his place beyond earth where we can be together forever and where our family picture will finally reflect what’s in our hearts.
After a significant loss, it becomes immediately crystal clear the things that are most important in life. It's the people! Living to love them in their imperfections, forgive them for mistakes, to enjoy their company and to make someone else's day a little bit better.
For a long time it was almost painful to hear people talk about the mundane troubles in life. So many of the things that upset us are nothing when they are put into the bigger picture of life, love, death, and eternity.
Over time, "life as usual" has returned to me in a lot of ways. I find myself frustrated when kids aren't behaving or when I've cleaned up the 3rd mess and it's only 7:30 am. I worry about when I'm going to find time to get the laundry done, or running late for something on the schedule. I get lost in following my facebook feed or the latest pinterest find, or reading the news. I don't always give people the undivided attention that I want to. I can't help but wonder how many moments like the one pictured that I have missed because my mind was elsewhere. I would give almost anything to re-live that scene.
There are moments, especially in hearing the tragedies and suffering of others, that I am again reminded of what's really important. My intention, then, is to continue to strive to be mindful and present in the moment, living it to the best of my ability. After all, this may be the last one we get to share together.
"Sudden and tragic loss leads to terrible darkness... The darkness comes, no matter how hard we try to hold it off. However threatening, we must face it, and we must face it alone... I had a kind of waking dream shortly after [the darkness set in]...I dreamed of a setting sun. I was frantically running west, trying desperately to catch it and remain in its fiery warmth and light. But I was losing the race. The sun was beating me to the horizon and was soongone. I suddenly found myself in the twilight. Exhausted, I stoped running and glanced with foreboding over my shoulder to the east. I saw vast darkness. I wanted to keep running after the sun, though I knew that it was futile, for it had already proven itself faster than I was. So I lost all hope, collapsed to the ground, and fell into despair. I thought at that moment that I would live in darkness forever. I felt absolute terror in my soul...
The quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.
I discovered in that moment that I had the power to choose the direction my life would head, even if the only choice open to me, at least initially, was either to run from the loss or to face it as best I could. Since I knew that the darkness was inevitable and unavoidable, I dicided that from that point on to walk into the darkness rather than try to outrun it, to let my experience of loss take me on a journey wherever it would lead, and to allow myself to be transformed by my suffering rather than to think I could somehow avoid it. I chose to turn toward the pain, however falteringly, and to yield to the loss, though I had no idea what that would mean."
-Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised
When I read this, it really struck a chord with me. In the wake of losing a child, there is so much uncertainty and fear. At the time, I would have preferred for my life to have ended with Lachlan's, but because broken hearts still beat, I had to make the choice to walk toward the east in hopes of eventually coming into the light.
This picture, to me, represents those moments when you find a tiny bit of light in the darkness, a ray of hope that eventually the sun will rise and that we will be able to regain some peace and joy. That despite the loss we can find meaning and purpose in life again. That is part of why I chose to start Lach's Legacy. Those glimpses of light brought hope and encouragement for me, and I wanted to be able to share that light and hope with other families who have suddenly found themselves in that all-encompassing darkness. All I have to offer is the tiniest bit of direction on where I found those rays of light on my journey. My prayer is that other families will find comfort in some of the same places that I did, and that the tiny bit that I can offer will somehow bring a glimpse of hope for them too.