One So Young

One So Young

From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

One So Young

The measure of life, after all, is not its duration but its donation.

Peter Marshall

Grieving over the death of my newborn twin sons taught me many lessons. The most important was, whatever the challenge, we all have enough strength within us, as long as we have enough support around us. I resolved to do my part in providing that support to as many grieving parents as possible, including gentle encouragement of the family to take advantage of every opportunity that would help them heal. Since the luxury of time for decision making is not allowed in the days following a death, time was of the essence. I never heard a grieving parent express regret for something they had done, but many times I’d heard, “I wish I had. . . .”

On a late winter evening, a mutual friend informed me that a young couple’s baby had died the day before, apparently of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). She told me that the mother especially was having a very difficult time and asked if I would visit them.

Armed with photos of my own babies, I was met by the grieving father as I walked up the driveway.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. He nodded and showed me into the house.

At the table, seemingly oblivious to my entrance, sat the baby’s mom, Rhonda. She stared at her hands with swollen eyes. Our mutual friend and her daughter were with her, looking sad and feeling very helpless.

We were introduced, and Rhonda barely tipped her head in acknowledgment. I sat next to her and waited. When she offered no conversation, I started talking about my own experience with my twins. Although I was aware that in no way could I know what she was going through, I did want her to know that I had endured a similar situation, and yet I was still here, whole and alive.

Finally, Rhonda spoke about how she had found her daughter. Rhonda had picked the infant up and handed her to her husband, hoping beyond hope that Barry would be able to revive their baby. Automatically, he tried, but it soon became apparent that Sarah was dead.

When the coroner arrived, he placed baby Sarah on her parents’ bed while he made his preliminary examination. Rhonda shivered, “How could I ever sleep there again?” Now it was clear. Not only did she detest death because it had separated her from her baby, but also because it had contaminated her home and family. Rhonda had little energy left, and she was spending the remainder on loathing her vile enemy.

I brought out the photos of my little boys. “When Josh and Cole died, we kept them with us for several hours,” I said quietly.

For the first time, Rhonda looked at me, her eyes penetrating, searching my face for answers to questions she didn’t even want to ask. I continued, “We took locks of hair, had our babies footprinted and just held them close.”

“But they were dead!” Rhonda had stumbled into a territory so foreign to her that she couldn’t even believe she was saying the words.

“Yeah. They were dead. But we had to make the transition from loving them as earthly bodies to loving them as spirits. It’s one of the hardest things to learn to do, but it can be done. Even though the spark of who they were, their soul, was no longer in those little bodies, nonetheless, the bodies were there for us to hold. And for that, I will be eternally grateful.”

She looked back at her hands. “Barry wants to go see her. He wants to say good-bye,” she whispered. “I don’t want to, though. . . .”

I knew that Rhonda was reliving all the feelings of horror that she felt when she found her still daughter. “She won’t look the same as when you discovered her. She will be more peaceful,” I offered.

After a good hour of mild persuasion, this young, frightened mother murmured, “Well, maybe I’ll just take a peek. . . .”

Now I had to convince the staff at the small town hospital.

A phone call had me discussing the situation with an administrator, the head nurse and a social worker, until finally I was connected to the pathologist. I explained the scenario to a shocked and very reluctant doctor. “But I’ve already autopsied that baby!” he exclaimed.

“That’s okay. It just means she has some stitches. We can deal with that.”

“But I wouldn’t want to see my kid that way!” He was incredulous.

I wanted to say that he wouldn’t want to see his child dead either, but this family had to work around that reality.

Persistently, I told him about my own sons, and how we had held them for hours. I could feel him starting to bend.

“Well, all right. But you have to come, too.”

“Absolutely! I’ll be there.”

We parked our cars and as we walked toward the hospital entrance, I talked to Rhonda and Barry about the fact that men and women grieve differently. “After the initial phase, when you both support each other beautifully, men tend to not want to talk much about it. They want to get on with life and don’t feel that they can do so when they think about their child constantly. So they put it aside. Now women, on the other hand, will talk to anyone who will listen, and sometimes even if they won’t. They bring it all out, over and over, and heal from the inside out. The problem is, the mom thinks that the dad didn’t really love the child since he doesn’t seem to care. Whereas the dad thinks his partner has gone crazy because she is dwelling so much on it. The thing is, if you understand each other’s method of grieving, you can get through it intact, as a couple. Just realize that Mom needs to get her support elsewhere for awhile, probably from another woman. But you must be aware that you both loved the baby just as much, and you both will miss her terribly.” They walked in silence.

When we arrived at the room where Sarah was, we were met by the pathologist. He was obviously anxious, seemingly nervous that this young woman would pass out, or sue him, or maybe both. I left Rhonda and Barry in the hall. “I’ll go in first.”

I looked at the sweet baby in the bassinet. A bonnet covered the stitches on her head, and she was wrapped in a blanket. I noticed the area on her face where the blood had pooled after she died. I returned to the couple.

“She has some mottling on her cheek. It just looks like a bit of a bruise. And you’ll notice that her lips look different— not as full. But that’s all normal,” I told them.

Rhonda reached inside herself and gathered every ounce of strength she could find. She marched into the room, like a soldier to war, the pathologist close behind. The attending nurse picked up little Sarah, and Rhonda immediately reached for and cuddled her daughter.

The doctor held his breath as Sarah’s mom looked her over carefully and then glanced up at me, her eyes shining with emotion. “I told you she was beautiful, didn’t I?” she beamed. The anger, fear and disgust visibly drained from the young mother. The transformation was miraculous, and the only adjective that could truly describe Rhonda now was peaceful.

I left her and Barry alone with their little girl and walked into the hall with the doctor. He nodded at me, smiled and returned to his duties. After a while Rhonda realized that Barry needed private time with Sarah, and she joined me, closing the door behind her.

As we left the hospital, a noticeably calmer Rhonda walked with us. She began to plan her baby’s funeral, even including an open casket viewing. Later, when Barry lifted their eighteen-month-old son to see his little sister in the casket, Mathew pointed to her and declared, “Baby!”

And it was a serene, brave mom who stood at the front of the congregation and, with a steady voice, read a poem for her daughter.

Rhonda and Barry brought another baby girl into the world and named her Kathreen. She and her brother are much loved and appreciated in a way that only parents who have lost children can understand. Every moment, including the difficult ones, is experienced with gratitude, thankful for being able to nurture the gifts that are their children.

As is the way of the world, the events surrounding Sarah’s death turned what could be viewed as a tragedy into an extraordinary formation of hope. Rhonda began facilitating grief support for bereaved parents, even accompanying some while seeing their dead babies. As she learned more about bereavement, she started to perceive a correlation between poverty and infant mortality. Eventually, her journey led her to work for a large antipoverty group in British Columbia.

Baby Sarah’s impact on the world in which she lived so briefly is profound. Although I had never met her in life, she touched my heart in the way of an old, wise soul. The love that she brought to this Earth has grown with its own momentum, and it’s spreading still, a gentle, healing wave, helping to wash away sorrow.

It’s quite an accomplishment for one so young.

Diane C. Nicholson

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