‘Dropping off my 5-month-old for a nap, a car came flying through the intersection. We spun 360 degrees. 25 years later, I still smell the burning airbags.’: Bereaved mom details grief journey

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“Life is good in your 20s. You’re sure you know it all. Your life is FINALLY starting, because you’re all grown up now. You’ve had a few bumps and bruises along the way, but you came out okay. You’ve figured out what you want to do with your life. The possibilities are endless! For me, I wanted to be a wife and mother. I knew that at an early age. I was always so good with kids, so patient with them. I loved to babysit in my tween/teen years. And let’s face it, you had to love it back then because it sure wasn’t for the money. I got a dollar an hour, per kid.

I wanted to find my perfect match, my soulmate, my best friend. And after a few losers, I found him. I realized pretty quickly he was perfect for me. It took him a little longer to realize how perfect I was for him, but he eventually caught up. We started dating in February 1992. We were engaged Easter weekend of 1993. I have ADHD. I have a tendency to put the cart before the horse. I have impulse issues. I knew we were going to get married. We had talked about it. He was in his senior year of college. He wanted to wait until he graduated before tying the knot. I completely understood, but I also had a mission. My mom lived out of state at this time. She was coming in town for Easter, plus the bridal dress shop was having a huge sale that same weekend. So, what could a young girl in love do? Go wedding dress shopping, of course! I bought my dress on Friday and Jeff proposed on Saturday. I was not a confident person when I was younger, but I was very confident I would marry Jeff. (BTW, our 28th anniversary is coming up in October.)

young newlyweds smile big at their wedding ceremony
Courtesy of Christy Renfrow
Young newlyweds share a sweet smooch at their wedding reception
Courtesy of Christy Renfrow

So, we got married and started our journey together. In the spring of 1995, I found out I was pregnant. We hadn’t been trying very long. I was so surprised and beyond happy! And then morning sickness hit me. I was so sick. I was throwing up constantly. I lost 20 pounds the first couple of months, which landed me in the hospital for an overnight stay. I was dehydrated and so weak. My doctor had a nutritionist come speak with me and she got me on the right track. In my last month I got pre-eclampsia, aka toxemia. My blood pressure was through the roof. I was prescribed Phenobarbital and bed rest for the last week of my pregnancy. I was due January 20, 1996. That was a Saturday. I had a doctor’s appointment on Friday the 19th. My doctor decided it was time to have this baby. But he couldn’t get my blood pressure and swelling down, so he arranged for me to be induced Monday morning the 22nd. My mom had come in town because she wanted to be here for the birth of her first grandchild.

Pregnant woman smiles big at her baby shower
Courtesy of Christy Renfrow

That Friday evening, me, my mom, and Jeff decided to have a nice big meal and relax. We knew when the baby was coming. The guessing game was over. We were going to chill this weekend and prepare for Monday. We went to bed Friday night with a nice sense of calm. I was having some very vivid dreams that night. I dreamed I was in labor. It was so real. I was feeling the contractions in my dreams. I was feeling them so well, they woke me up. I woke up, sat up thinking this was crazy, and then…my water broke. For real. Not in a dream. And then the contraction hit me. So, off to the hospital we go. I was in labor for 18 hours. My son fell asleep in the birth canal. Good grief. They thought they were going to have to do a C-section, but fortunately I had a great nurse. She looked at me and said, ‘Don’t you worry! We can do this! Let’s wake this baby up.’ And we did.

First time parents take photo together in the hospital before wife gives birth
Courtesy of Christy Renfrow

I delivered Hunter Todd. He was 8lbs 2oz. (A big baby! But he wouldn’t be my biggest!) He was born dehydrated and his blood sugar was very low…all because he couldn’t bother to stay awake while being born. Because of those two things, he had to stay in the hospital a day longer than me. At the time, leaving the hospital without him was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. Once we got him home, life truly began for us. I LOVED being a mother! I finally felt whole. I had my wonderful little family. We were invincible. What could possibly go wrong in our little world?

First time mom holds newborn son in the hospital after giving birth
Courtesy of Christy Renfrow
First time dad catches up on sleep while holding his newborn son in the hospital
Courtesy of Christy Renfrow

On Monday, June 24, 1996, I was running errands in town with Hunter. It was getting time for his nap, so I asked my mother-in-law if I could drop him off so I could finish my errands. She was happy to have him. Hunter was 5 months old. He was my first born. This was back before they told us to put kids in the backseat of vehicles, so he was strapped in his car seat in the front seat of the car where he had fallen asleep. I went to make a left turn at a light. Halfway through the turn, a car came flying through the intersection from the opposite direction and T-boned my car on the passenger side. My car spun almost 360 degrees. I hit my left arm on the door. It broke my wrist. The airbags deployed. To this day, 25 years later, I can still remember the burning smell of the airbags.

A bystander called 911 immediately. The ambulance got there quickly. They worked on him. Hunter’s heart stopped once in the ambulance, but they got it going again. He had taken the full impact of the car hitting us on the passenger side. They decided he would need to be flown to Le Bonheur with Life Flight. Once at the hospital and after MANY tests, it was determined he was brain dead. Due to his age, by law, they were required to perform these tests every few hours for 12 hours to make certain he was brain dead. That was the longest night of my life. The next morning, Tuesday the 25th, he was declared dead. He was 5 months and 5 days old. My husband and I decided to donate his organs. We felt, if we could save another mother and father from this kind of grief, we had to do it. Five lives were saved because of my Hunter…four children and one mother.

Mom takes photo of young son sitting near a window wearing a hat and a bib with Tigger on it
Courtesy of Christy Renfrow

We left the hospital Tuesday morning. This was now the second time I’d had to leave a hospital without my son. The only difference this time was I wouldn’t be coming back the next day to get him. We went back to a friend’s house. I could NOT go back to our house at the time. I just couldn’t do it. Our friends were so wonderful. They let Jeff and I and all our family stay over a week with them. On Wednesday the 26th, we planned Hunter’s funeral. Jeff and I were completely numb during the process. Thankfully, our family was with us to help. On Friday, June 28th, we buried our son.

The day before Hunter’s funeral, my uncle had a heart attack. We weren’t very close, but he and his wife had come for the funeral. I honestly don’t remember much about the day before Hunter’s funeral. We made it through the funeral, barely. I don’t remember much of that day as well. The day after we buried Hunter, my mom had a heart attack. To this day, I believe it happened because she had a broken heart. Back to the hospital we went. On top of being numb, now I was scared to death…again. What kind of cruel world had I fallen into? Dear God, how could you take my son and my mother all in one week? Someone please wake me up from this nightmare!!! Luckily, my mom would be okay. Unbelievably, life moved on…whether I wanted it to or not.

Mom takes photo of her 5-month-old son's grave after fatal car accident
Courtesy of Christy Renfrow
Mom takes photo of 5-month-old son's memorial after he died in a car accident
Courtesy of Christy Renfrow

The first year after Hunter’s death was awful. It was full of all these firsts without him – first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, first birthday. What made it even worse is we didn’t even get to experience all those firsts with him to begin with. We never had a Christmas or a birthday with Hunter, so now we had to mourn these special days in 2 different ways. I went into a deep depression and Jeff became a workaholic. We were both in so much pain. Jeff was so angry and I just didn’t care about anything.

A couple weeks before Christmas, the phone rang. It was around lunchtime and of course I was still asleep in bed. The ringing woke me up. I answered. It was someone from a local charity wanting a donation. Something in me started to crack. My anger started to rear it’s ugly head. This poor woman was going on and on about how I must donate. When she finally stopped talking, I exploded. I told her I had donated my son’s organs this year and it was all I would be donating for quite some time and then I hung up on her. Clearly, this was not my finest hour. Most of my life, I have been an overly polite people pleaser. That outburst shook me to my core. A few months later, it all came to a head and I finally had the breakdown I so desperately needed. After that, I went to counseling. We found a grief support group for bereaved parents, Compassionate Friends. We met once a month. The healing began…finally.

Mom looks down at newborn son while they play together on the floor
Courtesy of Christy Renfrow

At first, we just went through the motions of living. Eventually, it wasn’t just motions. Two years after Hunter passed, I delivered a beautiful, healthy, baby girl (8lbs 2oz, also). While I was pregnant with her, I prayed to God it would be a girl. I was ready to have a baby, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to have another boy. Thankfully, my prayers were answered. Now I just had to keep her alive. And for reasons I cannot explain, I felt if she could make it to the age of 5 months and *6* days, she would live forever. Almost 7 years later, when we had our 2nd son (9lbs, my biggest baby!), I felt the same way. I just needed to get him to 5 months and 6 days.

I hope I can offer you some hope and comfort. The pain and grief never goes away, BUT you do learn to live with it. Eventually, it won’t be a gut punch every time you think of your child’s death. There will come a time when you think of them that your first thoughts are good and happy thoughts, not devastating thoughts. Talk about them. Do it as often as you need to. And most importantly, don’t forget to take care of yourself! I made the mistake of trying to take care of everyone else but me, that way I didn’t have to think about what I was feeling.

Don’t think about all the ‘what ifs.’ What if I had taken a different route to my in-laws? What if I had just sucked it up and taken him with me on my errands? You could ‘what if’ yourself to death. Try not to focus on why. Why did this happen to me? I’m not a bad person! Why is God punishing me? After some time, I found comfort in the fact that one day, I will find out why. I will see my Hunter again and find the why. Learn how to answer the question, ‘How many children do you have?’ I freely admit, it took me years to figure this out. I didn’t want to leave Hunter out of the count, but I also didn’t want to have to explain where he was every time. When asked, I say I have 2 kids. Once I get to know you better, I will introduce you to Hunter. I had to learn to let go of the guilt of not counting him every time.

Mom snaps photo of newborn son taking a nap in a laundry basket
Courtesy of Christy Renfrow

Learn grace. People mean well. There will be some that say they’re so sorry. They understand your grief. That was the one that pissed me off the most. Unless you have experienced the loss of a child, NO, you do not understand. I had to learn a lot about grace once I hit the anger stage of my grief. To this day, I deeply regret that charity phone call. Learn grace towards yourself. You don’t know how to do this. How do I live again? How do I move forward? Moving forward and learning to live this new life is not a betrayal to your child. Life goes on and so must you. You will find hope again. You will find joy again. You WILL find happiness again! What they say is true…grief is a process. There is no time frame or time limit in this process. You cannot avoid the process as a whole or in part. Go through the process. Get help when you need it. There is no shame in getting yourself help, be it a friend or therapy. Do NOT try to bypass the process with the help of drugs and alcohol. This will only delay your grief. It won’t make it go away. It will only hurt you and everyone who loves and cares for you.

It’s been 25 years now since Hunter died. It still hurts. I still occasionally have panic attacks. I still have bad days. BUT, I’m happy with the life I have made. I’ve worked so hard for this life. I have way more good days than bad. My first thoughts of Hunter are happy, not sad. I came out on the other side a different person, but a stronger person. Don’t ever give up! God is not punishing you. He is definitely testing you, but not punishing. Bad things do happen to good people. Could you truly appreciate the good if you never experience the bad? I realize this is as bad as bad can get, but once you start living again (and you will live again), just think how much more you will appreciate and love the good in your life.”

Mom shares photo of a 'Garden of Angels' sign where her first born son is buried
Courtesy of Christy Renfrow
Mom smiles while holding her first son in a hat and onesie
Courtesy of Christy Renfrow

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Christy Renfrow. Submit your own story hereand be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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