By: JoAnn Cantrell
It was a cold day in April when our infant twin boys arrived too soon, after I had carried them nearly six months. Ironically, it was the same time of year that the crocuses were making their comeback after a harsh winter. Like the flowers, my babies were early in blooming, yet they lacked the strength to survive.
A contradiction, I thought — how insensitive of the flowers to scream “life,” trumpeting the arrival of spring while everything surrounding me portrayed “death.” It seemed a defiant mockery of the sorrow and grief that consumed me. How I wished that all the flowers had closed up and died that season, just the way that I did.
My husband and I buried our babies, Kevin and Art, together in a tiny coffin in a cemetery near our home in the rural town of Altoona, Pennsylvania, two days after their birth. It also happened to be our wedding anniversary, a day intended for celebration rather than sorrow. I clearly remember my heart feeling as frozen as the snow-covered ground.
Even the undertaker wept as he placed their coffin near the grave, and I felt that they might as well have buried me too. My emotions were on a wild roller coaster after the unexpected labor and delivery of our twins, followed by their death and making arrangements for a funeral and burial. I left the hospital with a memory booklet containing imprints of their tiny feet and the only photographs of Kevin and Art that were taken minutes after their birth, laying side by side, dressed only in the hospital-issued infant T-shirts.
In the following weeks, Mother’s Day was erased from the calendar that year though Kevin and Art were our fourth and fifth children. Well-meaning relatives and friends attempted consolation with the inappropriate reminder that at least we had three others, but that failed as recompense.
For the longest time after, the photos of our babies remained in the keepsake book, tucked in a box and placed in a closet. Each time I took it out, I was told to put the photos away because they were too sad and too difficult to look at. Advice was often to “move on and forget.”
Instead, I held my sons in my heart and I never forgot.
The worst part of the grieving was that people felt uncomfortable with the loss. It was confusing to acknowledge a birth while expressing sympathy over a death. My grief was expected to be temporary, being there was never time to really know the babies and support was hard to find.
My infant sons were born in 1990. Had it not been for the sympathetic staff at Altoona Hospital who pointed me in the direction of a local organization then-known as Share, a Source of Help in Airing and Resolving Experiences, I don’t know how I would have managed my grief.
I was fortunate to find support through a compassionate and understanding woman who was the Share coordinator as she offered the comfort so desperately needed. She encouraged me to attend a meeting with others who suffered the loss of a baby, knowing that we would be connected with the same heartache.
The mothers, fathers and family members who attended the monthly Share meetings knew the feelings of emptiness from being unjustly robbed of a son or daughter who only came to be for a brief time. Together we bonded by “sharing” our stories and the meetings became a time when grieving families received the comfort they sought. It was encouraged to talk about the experience of losing an infant with people who understood and the compassion was endless, providing hope that was thought lost.
Though the support I received with Share, I learned that although time is supposed to be the healer of all wounds, there are some things you just never quite get over. The question: “How many children do you have?” resounds through a lifetime and will always be answered with hesitation. Mother’s Day, our wedding anniversary and the annual return of the crocuses continue to bring bittersweet memories, and I know I will always feel the void of two people missing from my family.
It is hard to believe that today my twin sons Kevin and Art would be 27-year-old grown men. As the cycle of life continues, I am encouraged to know that the stigma of infant loss is no longer considered a silent sorrow.
I never forgot what a valuable resource the Share organization was for me in my time of need.
Having come so far in my grief journey, I wanted to give back with support and help newly bereaved mothers, just the way that others did for me.
I recently donated my wedding gown to a group in Pittsburgh that takes the material and remakes Angel Gowns for infant burials. Thinking back to the photographs of Kevin and Art in their hospital T-shirts, I initially thought it would be another heart-wrenching reminder of my loss. Yet seeing the Angel Gowns replaced the bittersweet memories with feelings of gratitude for the group Share that was there for me so long ago.
A reminder that hope springs eternal and that I, too, can be defined as the crocuses — capable of surviving the harshest conditions.
About JoAnn Cantrell
Joann Cantrell lost her infant twin sons, Kevin and Art on April 2, 1990 shortly after their birth at Altoona Hospital, Altoona, Pennsylvania. At the time, the most valuable resource was the support and understanding of the group Share (known then as a Source of Help in Airing and Resolving Experiences). With the need ever-present to help women cope with the loss of a newborn, it is the author’s intent to give back and provide a resource of comfort, just as the Share organization did for her more than 26 years ago.