This weekend I had the honour of speaking at a beautiful event honouring the lives of babies gone too soon. It was a humbling opportunity, as I knew looking out at the crowd that each and every person there had a story equally worthy of sharing. Spoken through tears, this was my story...
I have always wanted to be a mommy. From the time I was a little girl, there has never been one moment of doubt that being a mom would be the most important thing I’d do with my life. My husband Mike and I met as teenagers and were married in our early twenties. I dedicated my career to working with babies, and always imagined that I was preparing myself to be an even better mother one day. But when the time came to start a family, months of hopefulness quickly turned into years of disappointment. Then one day we sat in the office of the director of a fertility clinic and he told us we should expect never to give birth to children. It shook me to my core because I knew that I was meant to me a mother. Mike and I decided to pursue fertility treatments, a journey that proved far more difficult and emotionally draining than we could have anticipated. But then, during what was to be our very last attempt at treatment, we got a phone call from a nurse at the fertility clinic. We were pregnant.
The first months of my pregnancy were so full of happiness. I watched with joy as my belly began to grow, felt the first amazing little flutters of movement. And then, when I was 18 weeks pregnant, we went for a routine ultrasound. I will never forget the way the technician’s hands shook as he handed me the sheet of ultrasound photos. Something was very, very wrong. Five days later we went for further testing at BC Women’s Hospital. And as the radiologist shut off the ultrasound machine, she lay her hand on my belly and began to cry. The first words she spoke were “poor, poor baby”. And my life was never the same again.
That was the day that we were told that our baby boy was going to die. He had multiple, life threatening abnormalities considered incompatible with life outside of the womb. We were told that at most he would survive just minutes or days in our arms. Mike and I were heartbroken and terrified. But we made the choice to just love our son, and to give him the best chance at life possible every moment that he was with us. We named our baby boy Owen Michael, and determined not to hold our hearts back from loving him. We poured all of our hearts and souls into cherishing our time with him. Then, when I was 35 weeks and 5 days pregnant, I went into labour. Our beautiful, much loved baby boy was born at sunrise on the first day of spring. Our brave little Owen fought so hard, and was with us right until the moment of his birth. And as he was born, a great shudder ran through my body, as I looked to see if he would cry. But as he was placed in my arms, there was only silence. And the room full of doctors and pediatricians quietly and respectfully grew empty. And as I held my son in my arms, all I could think of was how beautiful he was. I looked into his precious little face and repeated the words “he’s so beautiful, he’s so beautiful” over and over again.
Even knowing for all of those months during my pregnancy that we would lose our son, I could never have fathomed how intense the pain would be. At nights I would sit on the edge of my bed, clutching the soft baby blanket that still smelled like him, my heart pounding so frantically and hurting so intensely, that I thought for certain it could not keep beating. I remember sitting there and actually waiting for it to stop. And I would have moments when I’d be disappointed that it didn’t.
Several weeks after losing Owen, my husband and I started going for grief counselling. On our very first session I explained our journey through infertility, the blessing of becoming pregnant with Owen, and the devastation of his loss. And the very first thing the counsellor said to me was, “How hard to want to be a mother so long, and then suddenly not to be a mother anymore”. And I remember feeling something crumbling within me, because I knew that others around me probably saw it the same way - they didn’t see me as a mother any more. The day that my breast milk came in, I was sitting in a funeral home with pictures of tiny white caskets spread out on the table in front of me. I had been asked to endure the hardest test that could be asked of any mother. But they didn’t see me as a mother any more.
That night I awoke sobbing in the middle of the night, my heart breaking in a whole new way. And something happened that really changed the course of my grief process. I know that all of us here come to our losses from a different place. I came to my loss as a person with a deep faith in God. During our pregnancy, praying, reading scripture and meditating on God were the only things that kept me going. After we lost Owen, I lost all ability to hold onto my faith. And that is when I believe God held onto me. That night it was if God whispered something to me – You are forever a mother. And each and every day you are still mothering Owen.
And so I began the work of mothering my Owen. I threw myself into the work of grieving well, knowing that it would be what Owen would want for me and wanting to make him proud. At first it was small things, like opening the blinds in the morning, going for a walk, or forcing myself to eat. I was very intentional about my grief, spending much time creating and sending out handmade birth announcements, arranging photo albums, and journaling my pain. We went back to counselling, and after correcting our counsellor’s mistake, found our sessions helpful. Eventually I took on bigger challenges, like returning to my work with babies at the end of my four month maternity leave. I began to connect with other grieving parents, something I would highly recommend doing. I could talk to my angel mom friends openly without worrying that they thought I was going insane. When I was with them, I felt like I could breathe again.
Seven months after Owen passed away, Mike and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. I was deep in the throes of grief, and there was no part of me that felt like celebrating. But I knew that it was what Owen would want for his mommy and daddy. So we went away on a little vacation. And one morning on that vacation I woke up with the strangest sensation. For a minute it felt so foreign I thought that I was sick. And then I slowly realized what that feeling was – I was happy. For a moment I panicked – how could I be happy? And I had to intentionally stop myself, take a deep breath, and know that this was what Owen would want for me. He would want his mommy to be happy. So I would be happy for him.
And then one day happiness returned to our lives in a whole new way. Nine months and eight minutes after Owen went to heaven, his baby sister was born and joined our family through adoption. We were instantly filled with such deep joy. But that didn’t erase the pain of Owen’s loss. We faced fears no one knew of, as I awoke multiple times every night in a panic, certain my baby couldn’t breathe. We experienced the greatest joy and deepest pain of our lives at the very same time, and had to give ourselves permission to embrace both.
And learning to walk that balance between joy and pain was important, because pain was about to enter our lives again. When our daughter was 17 months old, we adopted a beautiful two week old baby boy named Michael. We loved Michael completely from the moment he was placed in our arms, and he was without question our beloved little son. When Michael had been at home in our arms for six days, his birth mother whom we love changed her mind and revoked the adoption consents. We were told that we had the night to say goodbye, and then we were to give our baby back in the morning.
During the months that we were pregnant with Owen, I thought I knew what the hardest moment of my life would be. I thought that the hardest moment of my life would be the moment that my baby died. But I was wrong. The hardest moment of my life was the moment I wrapped Owen up in a little blue blanket, kissed his soft baby cheeks, told him I loved him, and walked away forever. Two years and two months later, I was forced to live my worst nightmare all over again, as I wrapped Michael up in a little blue blanket, kissed his soft baby cheeks, told him I loved him, and walked away forever.
Michael’s loss shattered me. I felt battered, broken, and betrayed. Like nothing was safe. Life there was no reprieve from pain. It was by far the most traumatic experience of my life. But as strange a thing as this ever is to say, the loss of my first son prepared me in many ways for the loss of my second. Michael’s loss was the loneliest experience of my life, because it was a loss that so few people understood. But Owen had taught me that I had earned the right to grieve as a mother. He taught me that regardless of whether or not anyone understood, I needed to grieve the way I needed to grieve. With Michael’s loss, as with Owen’s, people reacted in vastly different ways. There were some people who amazed us, who were determined to be there for us even when it was hard, sometimes the people we least expected. There were others who tried to fix us or to give us "words of wisdom", when all we needed was for them to look with us at the empty crib where our baby should be, and say “I can’t even imagine”. But mostly there were the people who felt so uncomfortable with our grief that they simply disappeared. It hurt us deeply. But another lesson Owen had taught us that we needed to forgive. We didn’t need to hold on to all of those relationships, but we did need to let go of the hurt and the anger and the betrayal. If we hadn’t, it would have killed us. Forgiveness was what allowed us to live in peace.
I remember the cold spring day that I stood in a church foyer following my son Owen’s funeral. And as friends and family struggled to find something to say, I heard a lot of promises: “One day the pain will go away”, “I know you will move on”, and “time heals all wounds”. I didn’t believe a word of it then. I still don’t believe it now. I still have moments, even today, when the pain comes back as though it were yesterday. No matter how much time goes by, I will grieve. Because no matter how much time goes by, I will love them and miss them. There are so many people who don’t understand our losses. They want the pain to be over with. They want us to move on. So whether intentionally or unintentionally, they try to quantify our pain. I cannot begin to tell you how many people over the years have wanted to know whether my Owen died in the moments before birth or the moments after, as if that would make some difference to the depth of my grief. No. One thing I know for certain – what matters most is not how long they grew in your belly or how long you held them in your arms. What really matters is the depths of love you hold for them in your heart, and the bond that you have with them that will not and should not end.
Since losing Michael, we have adopted another beautiful baby girl. So I stand here before you now as the mother of four children – one in heaven, one in my heart, and two in my arms. I cannot begin to tell you how proud I am of that fact. Every single day, I do the very real work of parenting all four of them. As I hold and kiss and snuggle my two girls, my joy and appreciation of them is so much deeper because of the gift of my two boys. And as I grieve my two boys, they continue to stretch me and shape me and teach me new things. I am a different person than I was before they came into my life. I have purpose and meaning and direction. And I have deeper JOY in my life today than I ever could have known before. I can stand here before you today and honestly say that if given a chance to do it all over, I would choose to go through it all again. Because even a moment with them was better than no time at all. I refuse to see my boys’ presence in my life as a tragedy. Because in reality, they were gifts. Beautiful, soft cheeked, baby scented gifts, whose tiny hands I got to hold in mine for far too short a time. I believe that one day I will see my beautiful babies again in heaven. And when I do, I want nothing more than for them to be proud of their mommy. Every day I strive to live my life in a way that honours the gifts that I’ve been given. And every time I speak their names or share their stories, I am given a chance to be a mommy to my babies. It at the same time breaks my heart and brings me great joy.
I am honoured to stand here with you today as you do the very real work of parenting your babies. Thank you for allowing me to share my story with you, as your grieve and celebrate your own precious and beautiful little ones.