‘Stop trying.’ He wasn’t coming back. That pale, limp body wasn’t my son. I pounded the wall.’: Mom insists rainbow baby ‘helped fill the void’ after son’s death, ‘she’s my reason to keep going’

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“March 17, 2016: It would be impossible to forget the worst day of my life. I woke up and found my 10-week-old infant son dead… cold, pale as paper and stiff. The details of that morning randomly resurface. Waking up to put my contacts in, remarking to his dad that he looked pale, hearing his dad say, ‘He’s not breathing!’ I was so confused, he was fine a few hours ago. Then the call to 911, his dad slamming the window shut, me screaming over and over, shaking him gently, crying his name. ‘Nick! Wake up Nick! Please wake up Nick!’ Me running outside in bare feet to flag down the police officer and running back inside, begging him to save my baby. The EMTs arriving and starting to work on my son, telling me they had to ‘go now,’ so I grabbed shoes and a sweater and ran after them. The ambulance driver asking me questions to keep me calm, arriving at the hospital and praying they’d save him. I paced the hospital corridors alone, while my boyfriend was stuck at home, dealing with the police and a million questions.

‘Would you like to see what we are doing?,’ the doctor finally asked.

A small spark of hope flared in my chest. But when I walked in, I knew he wasn’t coming back. They asked me what I wanted to do now.

‘Stop trying,’ I had to tell them.

But the absolute worst memory is of my son – so tiny, pale and lifeless, blood around his mouth from a breathing tube. They brought him to me and I almost threw him back at the nurse. I didn’t want to see that pale, limp body because that wasn’t my son. I ran outside to pound on the hospital brick wall, sobbing… ‘Why my son??!! Why me??!!’

We left the hospital empty handed and broken hearted, full of guilt, pain and still to this day, unanswered questions. SIDS does not care, it does not discriminate, it comes in silently and lives on in the screams of broken, grieving souls.

We went home and packed up his clothes, Pack ‘n Play, toys, etc and had his paternal grandparents hold onto everything because we couldn’t bear to. But we destroyed the Rock ‘n Play he died in. Recently, I’ve been seeing news stories about Fisher Price Rock ‘n Play recalls. And of course, it makes me wonder if that’s what happened to my son. We will never know, but I make it a point now to tell anyone I know with a new baby not to use them. SIDS can’t be prevented, but I can raise awareness about faulty baby products.

Courtesy of Grace Manuel

After coming home, I kept checking my boyfriend’s breathing, wondering if he’d die next. I couldn’t eat, I just cried when I was awake and tried to sleep all day to avoid the pain.

We had him cremated and his ashes distributed to both sets of his grandparents. My mother and I have urn necklaces, mine in the shape of a sun for my ‘sonshine.’ It helped me through that rough first year, wearing it and to know he was still close to my heart.

Courtesy of Grace Manuel

Within a few short weeks of his passing, I was pregnant. Intentionally. We had talked and agreed, no baby could replace Nick and the dreams we lost, but we wanted to feel like parents again. We figured it would take a few tries, plus 9 months of gestation, and didn’t want to wait too long. I found out on Mother’s Day of 2016 I was pregnant – and I already knew it was a girl. That pregnancy, that rainbow after the storm, gave me a reason to keep going. Gave me a purpose again, showed me a light in all the darkness. However, I had a new fear now though – miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects. Every doctor appointment brought terror and hope. Finding out for sure it was a girl, I knew her middle name would be Nicole in honor of her brother Nicholas.

Courtesy of Grace Manuel

I knew being pregnant so soon was a risk, I knew I’d have a planned c-section as her brother was born via emergency c-section. I had planned to wait a few years before having another baby, but after losing her brother, I couldn’t fathom waiting. I had family, on both sides, express their concern about being pregnant so soon, but I didn’t care. I knew what would help me get through this in one piece, I knew I needed a reason to stay strong, a reason to smile despite crying inside for my son. I often wonder, as my daughter gets older, how she’ll feel knowing she came after losing her brother. But I will make sure she knows she was never intended to replace him, that she is the best part of my life and that I always wanted a daughter at one point in my life.

Courtesy of Grace Manuel

My pregnancy was easy, no morning sickness, no gestational diabetes, no extreme weight gain. Unfortunately, pregnancy after loss isn’t easy. I was bitter, I was stressed out and tired, I kept thinking about how I shouldn’t even be pregnant right now, but instead, enjoying my baby boy.

After her birth, postpartum depression reared its ugly head. I can admit, not proudly but not shamefully, I started to regret having her. Not because I didn’t love her, but because the lack of sleep was killing me. It wasn’t lack of sleep because she was a newborn, it was fear keeping me awake, paranoid thoughts, heart stopping moments when I needed to check her breathing but was frozen in fear, drowning in flashbacks. She struggled with breastfeeding but after reading that it lowered the SIDS risk by 33%, after remembering how I gave up on nursing my son and he had now been gone for 9, almost 10 months, I forced myself to keep fighting through the tears and frustration on both ends. And I will never regret it, despite the rough start, because nursing has forged an amazing bond between us. It helped her through so many tantrums, picky food phases, bumps and bruises, as well as a very rough time of illness.

Courtesy of Grace Manuel

We had a bad scare last May 2018 when she was 16 months old. She was hospitalized with the flu after having two febrile seizures in a 10-day period. She slept for two days straight in the hospital and took another few days to get better. Since then, I am even more paranoid, if that’s possible. She hadn’t been sick since then, until April of this year. After losing her brother and her hospital episode, I was so on edge. I barely slept, checked her fever every five minutes, checked her breathing all night and cried myself to sleep after she got better.

Every time she bumps her head, falls down, chokes while drinking water or coughs while eating, the time she flipped her pool floaty and went under, I stayed awake for days, researching dry drowning symptoms and checking her every two minutes as she slept or played. Every whimper of pain or bad dream cry, every time she acts sleepy and unlike her normal, energetic, sweet, social, loving, smart, stubborn, defiant, determined little self, my heart skips a beat. I wonder if she’ll wake up to see the next day. 2.5 years later and I still check her breathing throughout the night. This is my new reality, every loss parent’s life after experiencing the worst possible thing imaginable.

Courtesy of Grace Manuel

The worst question I get asked whenever we go out – ‘Is she your only child?’ I used to answer no. I talked about Nicholas. But after so many awkward pauses, stilted conversations and pitying faces with a murmured, ‘I’m sorry,’ I stopped mentioning my son. Not because I was ashamed, but I got tired of the pitying looks, the awkwardness of the other person, of having to say thank you. What am I thanking them for, their apology? Now, I simply say my daughter is ‘enough right now,’ with a sad, forced laugh.

Then comes the thought of another baby, not wanting my daughter to grow up alone. Her dad and I both have siblings. But I don’t know if I can handle the paralyzing fear again, because a sleeping baby no longer holds warm, cute thoughts for me, but instead induces terror. While uncommon, SIDS could strike again, and it’s not just about me anymore. What would that do to my princess to witness her sibling being found dead, the same way we did with her brother?

Her presence dulls the ache of her brother’s loss but doesn’t make it disappear. Her existence helps fill the void he left, though she can never replace him. But she has brought back joy and happiness to both sides of the family. She adores her grandparents and they adore her. She is so sweet, loving, and social. Whenever we go out, she waves and says hi to everyone, which in turn leads to people commenting on how sweet and beautiful she is. She makes everyone around her smile, like the bright beauty of a rainbow.

Courtesy of Grace Manuel

She is my best friend, my heart and soul, my reason to keep going, my light in the darkness. Because of her, every milestone from her first word, to first step, has been extra meaningful yet bittersweet. I will never know what my son’s voice would have sounded like, never know what his personality would have been like… but because of my rainbow, I finally got to hear the sweetest first word ever: ‘mama.’ I get to hear her tell me daily, ‘I love you, mommy.’ I cherish her little hand gripping mine, every hug, every kiss, every sweet, high pitched little chirp, song, or demand from her dimpled mouth. Her smile lights up the day and her laugh melts my heart. My dreams have found a new place to thrive because of her.

Courtesy of Grace Manuel

But I am not perfect. I have lost a baby and I have kept going. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get annoyed or frustrated, it doesn’t mean I’m not tired or over touched, it doesn’t mean I don’t need a break from her as I’m a stay-at-home mom, (I know how lucky I am to be able to)… it just means I feel more guilty when I get mad, because shouldn’t I be so thankful for her that I never lose my cool? Shouldn’t I want to spend every waking and even sleeping moment with her, because what if she dies, too?

It’s a cruel road to walk, an unfair path I and other loss parents have been sent down. Life is never the same after child loss. You as a person are never the same. And no one should expect anyone to be who they once were after losing their innocent and naive mindset.

Pregnancy after loss is nerve wracking, life after loss is an everyday challenge. It’s a day by day process. Everyone handles it differently. Some go on to have more kids, some are too scared, some need therapy, some suffer from depression or PTSD in silence. Some of us talk about our angels daily while others don’t and feel guilty, but we are all strong in our own ways. We’ve all been bonded by an unbelievable grief, but we’re still here. We’re still fighting.”

Courtesy of Grace Manuel
Courtesy of Grace Manuel
Courtesy of Grace Manuel
Courtesy of Grace Manuel

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Grace Manuel of Fullerton, California. You can follow her 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.

Read Grace’s powerful backstory of losing her son:

‘He looks oddly pale,’ I said. I thought it was bad lighting. I felt him. Cold as ice. His father slammed the window shut. I couldn’t stop screaming!’

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