“I knew something was wrong. I was 35 weeks pregnant and my daughter had stopped moving. I was laying in the labor and delivery triage room, waiting to hear her heartbeat on the monitor, but there was nothing. The nurse said, ‘Maybe she’s just positioned weird. I’m going to grab an ultrasound machine so we can see where she is.’ She returned and I saw my daughter on the screen, just as I had a week before. Except she wasn’t moving. I didn’t see her heart flickering away like we usually did. A resident came in next and scanned my belly with the wand. She told the nurse to go get the attending physician. I barely managed to say, ‘It’s not good, is it,’ in an attempt to break the palpable silence of the room. The resident replied with, ‘I’m not seeing as much movement as I’d like to.’
A sickening feeling took over and my chest tightened when the attending physician walked in. I could see bad news written on everyone’s faces, but I still didn’t believe it. Until, with six words, my world came crashing down: ‘I’m sorry, there is no heartbeat.’
I’d heard these words far too many times before, as we’d had multiple first trimester miscarriages. But I didn’t think my baby could die at 35 weeks pregnant. I thought we were safe. My husband was at home with our oldest son, and I wanted to run. Run out of labor and delivery, run to my car, drive home, and escape the reality that is a dead daughter. I wanted to leave and pretend this wasn’t happening, to resume life as we had known it up until that point. This couldn’t be real. Yet I stayed, my body frozen to the hospital bed, an abandoned fetal monitor on my left and blank ultrasound screen on my right. I made the most excruciating phone call of my life and told my husband she had died. The sound of pain in his voice as he repeated, ‘No,’ will stay with me forever.
My labor was wrought with pain and fear. The epidural had failed and I was so afraid of what she might look and feel like. There were far fewer cervical checks and the galloping sound of my girl’s heartbeat that should’ve filled the room was absent. Though I hoped the doctors were wrong, I knew I was giving birth to death… there’s nothing that can prepare you.
Lillian Ruth was born on July 16th, 2016, at 7:52 a.m. after 14 hours of labor. I kept saying, ‘She’s beautiful,’ over and over, and she looked just as I’d imagined during my pregnancy. She had the most perfect dark curls. At just 4 pounds 2 ounces and 17 inches long, she was a petite little girl. The love and connection between us was just as intense and instant as with any living child. I couldn’t believe she was ours, just as much as I couldn’t believe we had to say goodbye.
All the dreams we had for her life were stripped from us, and time stood still during the hours we spent with her. But when we left the hospital with empty arms, I realized it had gone by all too quickly. Life veered off course, as I was thrown into an ocean of grief, its vastness unknown to those who haven’t experienced it. The last 3.5 years have been a crash-course in navigating its waves —I’ve come to know they’ll last a lifetime.
In the immediate days following her death and birth, we were faced with decisions no parent should have to make — Which funeral home should we trust to care for her? Do we want her cremated or buried? What type of urn or headstone should we get her? What should she wear or have with her? Should we do some sort of memorial service for her? Those early weeks caused my head to spin and I felt entirely detached from the rest of the world. I was physically sick. My milk came in and I spent most nights sobbing over our cruel reality. How had we gone from having a healthy, textbook pregnancy with our little girl to considering questions like these? We ultimately decided to have her cremated and instead of bringing a living breathing baby home, we were left with ashes in a cardboard box.
“He likes to see pictures of her and read books to her memory bear. ‘Why did Lillian die? Why can’t she come back?’ I could never keep her from him. He has ‘two brothers and a sister.’ The love they have for her reaches across the boundary of death.”
One of the more difficult questions we faced was how to tell our oldest son, Jack, and we continue to wrestle with it today. One of the deeper regrets I carry (and there are a lot of them) is that he never met his sister. I would give almost anything to have just one photo of the two of them together. He was only 20 months old when Lillian died and had a limited understanding of pregnancy and birth, let alone the death of a baby. This is a dilemma many bereaved parents face: when and how do you tell siblings (both older and younger), and how do you include your baby or child who has died in day-to-day life? We never really hid anything from Jack and decided as he got older and asked more questions, we’d explain things as best we could. He grew into a toddler who knew where we displayed her urn and keepsakes and loved to read books with her memory bear.
He likes to see pictures of her, and he holds a special place for his little sister in our family. He asks very big questions for a 5-year-old, like, ‘Why did Lillian die?’ and ‘Why can’t she come back?’ Both of these are nearly impossible to answer. It’s an incredible and paradoxical task for any parent to undertake because our instinct is to protect our kids from pain, and here we are openly exposing them to one of life’s greatest heartaches: death. I could never keep Lillian from him, and the way he talks about her is just as beautiful as it is painful to hear. Lillian’s younger brothers, Lawrence (2) and Gilbert (1) are experiencing their sister in their own ways too, which we try to tailor to them, most often through pictures and simple explanation.
What is particularly striking is the fearlessness these kids have for death. Not in the sense they aren’t afraid of dying, but they aren’t afraid to talk about it. If a stranger asks about our family and I tell them our daughter died, I’m met with various reactions. Perhaps the most common is discomfort, though we frequently experience an awkward smile, forced ‘I’m sorry,’ quick change of subject or the person simply walking away (yes, it happens). This type of reaction takes a particular toll on the heart of a bereaved parent. All I really want is for Lillian to be acknowledged, to have her thought of, and treated like any other member of the family instead of stigmatized or shied away from. Talking about her isn’t painful, it’s thinking she’s been forgotten that’s excruciating. Having her included and recognized as the daughter and sister she is, is one of the greatest things I can think of, but sadly is very hard to come by.
We’re trying to cultivate that understanding in our sons and teach them death is an inherent part of life. Jack is 5 now and recently was asked by a stranger if he had any brothers or sisters. He proudly proclaimed he has, ‘Two brothers and a sister.’ For all the times I doubt myself as a parent or feel immense guilt over the things he’s experienced and witnessed in his short life, it’s these moments that restore little pieces of me. He’s not ashamed of his family, and the love he has for all his siblings is endless.
I want our living children to grow up knowing talking about those who’ve died is not only healthy but entirely normal too. Grief, though painful, is okay to feel. It’s guaranteed they will experience the deaths of other loved ones and they will have friends (eventually coworkers, spouses, etc.) who are suddenly forced into the world of grief too. I want them to be equipped to approach everyone they meet with compassion and hold space for the tragedies life can bring. I want them to know just because a person is grieving, it doesn’t mean they lack the ability to feel happiness, gratitude, or any other emotion. These seemingly conflicting feelings can, and do coexist.
I’ve recently started referring to this aspect of our life as ‘raising a generation of grievers,’ because they are the bereaved generation in our family. There’s no guidebook for this and no right way to go about it — whether it’s sharing life and death with bereaved siblings from the start, waiting until they’re older, or choosing to keep everything close to the heart. There’s nothing ‘right’ about the death of a child, so I spend much of my time doing what feels ‘least wrong.’ But what works for me won’t be what works for everyone else. I’m sure some view this as placing an enormous burden on her brothers, and I agree. After all, grief is heavy to carry. That’s why we keep things open-ended and let them lead. I know there may come a day when they choose not to say her name and that’s their decision to make. How people grieve is an entirely individual experience and one I’ll always respect, even if it’s different from my own.
Comfort comes from knowing my babies will always be connected. I can only imagine what life would be like without them knowing their sister. The love they have for her reaches across the boundary of death, and it is so beautiful. That love is what makes us grieve so strongly, for the two cannot exist without each other. My hope, as a mother, is they always offer the same kind of love to everyone they meet in life.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Anna S. from Minnesota. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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