September 23 is a date that will forever take my breath away, just at the sight of the numbers on a paper. I don’t cry anymore, and for the most part I hardly even think about it, about her, but the date…it remains one of the only triggers to the emotions of that day twenty years ago today.
When I think about who I was as a person when I was twenty-six years old, I cringe. It’s embarrassing. I tell myself that if I wasn’t embarrassed about who I used to be, that would be a bad sign that I hadn’t grown at all. But still…
I thought I had life all figured out. I was well on my way to working out my “happily ever after” plan. Nothing had gone exactly to plan, but that hadn’t stopped me from assuming that soon, everything would fall into place just as it “should”.
We had been married for over four years when we got the official news that we would be having a baby. As all young mothers know, there is a definite unwritten but very important rule that you not give this news out until you hit the three month mark. You know…just in case…So we told our immediate family and not really anyone else.
At the ten week mark, I had my first prenatal visit. The doctor found a “growth” he wanted to check out the next week, but didn’t seem terribly concerned about anything. Mark was on a youth trip when I returned for my very first ultrasound the next week, but it didn’t seem like it would be a big deal for him to miss it. After all, it was too soon to see if we were having a girl or a boy. It took hours, and there was virtually no explanation as to why. At the very end, I was told that there was a small spot on the baby, but that the baby is so small at this stage it’s too hard to say if it’s significant or not. My “growth” was considered nothing abnormal, which seemed like a much bigger deal at the time, so we waited another week and went to another appointment.
This time I was sent to a perinatologist who explained some options of what could possibly be wrong with my baby and why she needed to do an amnio. She seemed confused when I asked if it was possible there was really nothing wrong. I started getting a really sick, sinking feeling. Another week passed.
By now, I was thirteen weeks and the baby was large enough for the ultrasound technicians to get a good look at the “spot”. It turned out to be my baby’s bladder. She had no way to drain it. For the next four weeks we made two to three 45 minute trips a week to the doctor for more tests, more ultrasounds, more needles… and finally week 18 arrived and we received the devastating news that the tests were showing Kelsey’s kidneys were failing badly, and there was nothing we could do about it. Less than a week later, there was no longer a heartbeat, so I was induced and spent eighteen hours in agonizing labor.
I was able to hold her little 6.7 ounce body in my arms, dressed in handmade clothes that volunteers made for the hospital just for that purpose. To this day when I see handmade Barbie doll clothes it brings a lump to my throat. A few months later, on her actual due date in February, we had a little memorial for her. My Bible is still wrinkled on the page it was open to as the snow was falling. We read the verse in Job about how he wished he had died in his mother’s womb and gone straight to heaven. I don’t think my in-laws or even my husband understood why I needed that little service, but it was incredibly important to me.
What happened over the next six months of my life is a huge part of how I became the person I am today. In fact, though I would never in a million years purposely go through that again, I am not sure that I would be willing to give up all I have learned in exchange.
Here are some of the life lessons taught to me by my brief relationship with my first born daughter, Kelsey Grace:
~Telling everyone you are pregnant from day one is not tacky. In fact, it’s wonderful. When everyone knows you are expecting right away, they also know when you suddenly aren’t expecting anymore – which makes that loss all the more real for everyone. I felt like I got to know little Kelsey on that ultrasound screen, but a lot of people barely even knew she existed yet. And what was even worse was that some people were just finding out in time for me to tell them that she probably wasn’t going to make it. Why do we wait until three months to get attached? In case they don’t make it?
~Grieving is a different experience for everyone, but it’s also very important for everyone to experience. I received a few letters after Kelsey’s death from women who had host children years and years earlier. I remember thinking “if I still feel this bad in twenty years, just shoot me now”. A lot of mothers are shamed into thinking it wasn’t really the loss of a child, but the loss of a “pregnancy” so it somehow isn’t worth being all that sad about. When you aren’t allowed to fully grieve, you have a much harder time moving on.
~Don’t be afraid of the tough questions. For months after Kelsey’s death, I would hear people say that somehow God would teach me something through this, and good would come of it. That made me mad because I was sure that somehow what they were telling me was “ God needed to teach you a lesson”. Instead of just getting angry at God, however, I expressed these feelings to Mark. Thankfully, he didn’t tell me that it was somehow disrespectful. He simply said, “that’s ridiculous – God doesn’t work that way and you know it.” I searched for myself for a long time and though I didn’t get all the answers I was looking for, I did get a far greater understanding of the heart of God in general.
~Honesty, especially painful honesty, is very frightening to some people. It was completely uncomfortable for a lot of people to even be around me for the next few months. They didn’t like the sadness. They had nothing to say. They wanted me to be able to “move on”. They were desperate for me to be pregnant again so everything would be “okay” again. In fact, it’s so uncomfortable for some people that they are downright mean about allowing you to grieve. They come up with verses and quotes that are supposed to inspire you and encourage you to move past it. They insinuate that you are weak if you don’t. That somehow you will ruin the rest of your life if you continue to “wallow” in this sorrow.
~People really want a happy ending. I’m not sure what would have happened if I had not eventually given birth to three beautiful, healthy girls. I think I honestly would have lost a lot of “friends”. I know I would have lost any sympathy. When you have a short term loss, people feel bad for you. But when you have chronic loss, people start to blame you for it in an effort to prove you somehow deserved it. You see, if they don’t do that, they have to admit that it could happen to anyone – even them. And that’s simply not acceptable. Everyone knows that if you live a good life and do everything right, good things will happen for you, right? It’s what I call “Christian karma”. Not only is it completely untrue, but it’s a sick and twisted fantasy that causes us to blame the victim so we can hang onto our own hopes and dreams.
~Everything does NOT happen for a reason. I know a lot of people find great comfort believing that there IS a reason for everything, but for me personally, it was like the kiss of death. I frantically tried to figure out what a possible “reason” could be so I could be sure to avoid the need for a repeat tragedy. For me, it was much more comforting to believe that bad stuff happens, good stuff happens, and God sits with us through it all, helping us make the best of it.
~When in the middle of a crisis of faith, it’s easy to freak people out. When I was pregnant the second time I had many well-intentioned people tell me I didn’t need to worry as long as I just “had faith”. I would look them in the eye and say “I did that the first time. Wasn’t very excited about the results.” I got a lot of “back slowly away from the crazy lady” looks after that.
~And finally – you can survive great loss without getting bitter and without shoving it under a rug. You don’t even have to wear it on your sleeve, either. You just have to honestly work through those feelings, possibly with another person you trust. It took me over fifteen years to tell the story of Kelsey without tears. When I think about her, I still feel sadness and loss. Sometimes I wonder what she would be doing now and what she would look like. I am not the person I was before she came into my life and I will be forever grateful to her for that.