Learning to dance with grief and joy
Everyone tells you what to do when you come home with your baby. But no one tells you what to do when you don’t.
It was three years ago this month that my husband and I brought home a teddy bear instead of our daughter.
My pregnancy was perfect—no morning sickness, no complications and no reason to worry. Which is why my OB told me at 41 weeks and one day that we could wait just a few more days to induce. It’s why we were completely blindsided after one last kick.
We screeched to a halt in the emergency room driveway, the smell of hot rubber in the air. My husband Tony ushered me into a wheelchair and we rushed to OB triage. Shaking, I filled out insurance paperwork.
After a handful of people tried unsuccessfully to find Ashlie’s heartbeat, the attending physician entered the darkened room and sat down. He turned from the ultrasound screen after five seconds and abruptly announced, “Your daughter is dead.” The finality of his statement hung in the room for a split second as Tony collapsed into a chair. I silently took in the news, spearmint gum resting in my mouth.
Wait. What did he just say? I asked myself, completely detached and in shock. This probably means I was going to be a bad mom. I’m obviously not supposed to have a baby. I must’ve done something wrong. Why is Tony calling my parents? The hospital can fix this.
As my dad picked up on the other end, Tony’s voice broke.
“Rick,” he choked, willing his voice to continue. “We lost the baby.”
And in that moment, I felt sudden clarity: We have to bury our daughter.
I flung my arms around Tony’s neck, the floodgates of hell streaming down my face and from my throat as I apologized to him over and over, as if somehow this was my fault. My voice became a guttural wail of pain. It mixed with longing, disbelief, guilt, emptiness, loneliness, sadness, anger, helplessness.
The next 24 hours were a blur of medicine, doctors, questions, family, tears and really…nothing. Looking back, I know that last one was a survival mechanism. I participated in every moment but wasn’t really present.
Everything happened so quickly. I had Ashlie on a Wednesday night. The following Tuesday was her memorial. In less than a week, we’d met our first baby, lived a lifetime of memories with our first baby and buried our first baby.
The days that followed, though…those were slow. As the numbness wore off and I started to feel again, every day was the same: Wake up with a sinking feeling, cry, drag myself out of bed and cry again, Google “cord accidents,” get angry, cry, force myself to eat, sob in Tony’s arms, then cry myself to sleep.
In the middle of December, I woke up with an idea so crystal clear, I knew it couldn’t be ignored. I told Tony I wanted to start a non-profit organization to provide CuddleCots to hospitals across the United States. CuddleCots are cooling pads that slow the natural changes that occur after the death of a baby, whether due to stillbirth, SIDS or another cause. To put it plainly, it allows parents and families more time with the baby before death starts taking its toll on outward appearances. Research shows that this time is critical in the grieving process. It’s time we didn’t have, since our hospital didn’t have a CuddleCot.
While Tony built the most beautiful memorial waterfall in our front yard, I poured every waking moment into building Ashlie’s Embrace. It gave me an outlet for my pain—something to focus on as I pulled myself together and tried to make a difference for other families. I worked on it without shame for hours every day—crafting documents, networking and raising funds. Even after we announced that we were blessed to be pregnant again, no one questioned me or wondered why I wasn’t doing something else with my time.
Until our son AJ was born.
Because Ashlie was our first baby, I “parented” her by keeping her memory alive through Ashlie’s Embrace. There were no colicky nights, first steps or food all over the floor. But when we had AJ, I was suddenly tangled in a dance of joy, relief, grief and guilt. Am I doing this right? Is he going to be OK? How do I keep him safe? How do I remember Ashlie without it being weird for him?
I’d hold him in the middle of the night, willing him to just go to sleep. Then I’d feel guilty. I had a baby in my arms. I wasn’t allowed to be tired.
On the joyous day of his baptism, I choked back tears. Ashlie’s baptism had been in the cold of an operating room while I lay practically unconscious on a table three feet away.
Society sees me load one child into the car. There’s one high chair at the restaurant and one toddler in the cart. But my arms held two babies, and my heart sees two toddlers.
I’ve run across a handful of people who acknowledge two babies but think I should only see one. They don’t understand why I would continue to pour into Ashlie’s Embrace, to take time away from AJ to tend to something created out of grief. He’s here, she’s not. It makes sense.
But this is where I dance. In the early days, I would hold him for hours and just stare at his adorableness, grateful and relieved we’d gotten a second chance. He looked so much like Ashlie. I still watch him sleep, in awe of how big he’s getting and how he barely fits into my arms anymore. When he buries his head in my chest, I want to stop time and never let go. He’s lovable, happy, joy-filled, funny, intelligent, fairly well behaved and overall healthy. I’m a little biased, but he’s basically perfect. And I’d lay down my life for him in a nanosecond.
Words cannot express how much I love AJ. He fills my heart in ways I never thought possible. He is a gift that I am truly grateful for, and I love him with every ounce of my being.
But can’t I love Ashlie, too?
If she were here, I know there’d be nights I’d leave AJ with a sitter to take her to dance class. Or I’d take AJ on a movie date while Ashlie had dinner with Daddy. If they were older, Ashlie and I might go away for a weekend shopping spree while AJ went to Boy Scout camp. I’d be willing to bet no one would judge any of what I just described.
However, the guilt I feel can be overwhelming. I put it on myself and feel it from others. I’m torn between the child who’s here and the one who’s not, and I often feel like I’m doing it wrong. Parenting is no joke, but in my experience, parenting after loss is even harder. So I’m working on grace—for myself and others. I spend a lot of nights praying that my time (wherever it’s spent) is intentional and purposeful, that AJ will always feel my love and that I will show him it’s OK to pursue a passion.
I know that as Ashlie’s Embrace grows, we’ll find more people to help and I’ll gradually start giving away responsibility. I know I’m part of something amazing, and that when God asks you do to something, you do it, even if it’s hard or some don’t fully understand. I know AJ knows he’s loved. Every day is a dance. Sometimes I stumble and step on feet, other times I gracefully glide. I’m a work in progress, and I’m trying to be at peace with it.
If you’ve judged someone in my situation, I implore you look at the heart of whoever you’re judging. Just because you don’t agree doesn’t mean it’s wrong. If you’re caught in the throes of grieving a child while you parent another, you have my empathy. Be kind to yourself as you figure out how this is supposed to go. Because even if everyone tells you what to do when you come home with your baby, no one tells you what to do when you don’t. That’s up to you to figure out.
To learn more about Ashlie’s Embrace, visit www.ashliesembrace.org