Finding Hope and Strength When Your Children are Grieving

By: Kayla Leibner

I love my children more than my own life.  All of them.  I want what’s best for them.  My husband, Ben, and I have four children – Jace, Kiley, Melody, and Jamie.  We sound like a typical large family, right?  Well, things aren’t always as they seem.  There are things about our family that you cannot see just by looking at us – things that define our family differently.  For example, we are Christians.  We are also a blended family.  Our house is probably a lot quieter than one would think, too, because two of our children are not with us.  

On August 21, 2017, we experienced the worst kind of loss.  Our daughter, Melody, died.  She is our third child.  She was a newborn preemie, born at just over 30 weeks by emergency cesarean, when we lost her very suddenly from medical issues resulting from a severe heart defect.  We had no idea that she was even sick until five days before she was born.  Five days is not enough time.  No amount of time is enough when it comes to your children.  

I remember bits and pieces from that day, but due to the nature of Melody’s abrupt delivery, I was already in a heavy mental fog from anesthesia.  The shock and pain from the day’s events just added more distortion to the mix.  There are, however, a few tragically clear moments that I can recall.  

I remember painfully and vividly when my kids arrived. 

Jace, who was nearly eleven years old at the time, had been told about Melody’s death and was prepared as much as possible before entering the room with Ben.  Although, nothing can truly prepare you for something of this magnitude.  Seeing the heartbreak that engulfed him was absolute torture.  Losing one of my children, resulting in the brokenness of another, is more emotional strain than any parent should bear in a lifetime.  

Kiley was only two-and-a-half years old when her baby sister died.  The idea of having to tell such an innocent and hopeful heart that the baby we were supposed to bring home would never come home at all was intimidating, to say the least.  They were going to share a room.  Kiley had even helped me sort through her old baby clothes to pass down to Melody.  How does one tell their blissfully joyful child that the world is not as bright as she thinks it is?  

When she entered the room, her face lit up like a million candles.  She immediately ran to Ben, who was holding Melody at the time.  Her life was already gone, but we were spending time as a family with Melody.  Kiley asked, “Is that my baby sister?!”  She gushed love and excitement and joy all over a room that was filled with a dark and somber disbelief.  Her naiveté was heartbreaking.  I yearned for that kind of innocence for myself, to have never felt the searing disappointment that burned in my heart.  

Throughout the next days, weeks, and months, we continued to consistently explain death to Kiley as best we could.  It’s hard to say how much of it she really understood at the time, but she finally came to grasp the reality that her sister would never come home.  

Watching my children climb their way out of such a deep hole was excruciating and discouraging.  We spent many evenings in tears, talking about Melody as a family and hearing their many questions.

Why was Melody sick?

Am I sick, too?

What if…?

Why didn’t the doctors try harder?

Why didn’t we know she was sick?

What happens to her now?

Is Melody in heaven?

We consistently held these conversations with Jace and Kiley together, and separately, whenever they needed to talk.  Unfortunately, we didn’t always have the answers.  We remained diligent in reminding our children to trust God and to remember that He has a plan for us.  Though this was a hard thing for even Ben and I to acknowledge at times, we knew this to be true and wanted to remind our children of their God’s love for us, and that He is always on our side, even when life seems dark and unfair.

For Kiley, confusion about how babies and families work was a particularly difficult obstacle to hurdle.  We knew several people who were also expecting babies, and it was baffling to her that other families got to bring their babies home when they were born.  I remember the first time she asked me, “Mommy, why do they get to bring their baby home?”  Sometimes life can leave you breathless, and sometimes it just punches you right in the gut. 

After answering this question several times, she began turning her question into a statement: “Other people get to take their babies home, but we don’t.”  Oh, if I could only describe the agony this simple conclusion of hers brought to me, as her mom.

The discussions Ben and I had with Jace were fewer and farther between, mostly due to the fact that he was older and had a better understanding of death and sickness.  This didn’t fool us at all, for we knew his heartache was deep and very real.  His struggle was equally difficult, but he wrestled more with the fact that he wasn’t able to see Melody until after she was already gone.  He wanted so badly to know her and for her to know his love for her, to be her big brother.  He also battled with a great internal guilt, feeling as though he could have or should have done something to prevent our terrible loss.  We stayed on his level and shared in his feelings, letting him know that it was normal to feel all of those things, and we reminded him repeatedly that Melody’s death was not his fault.  There was nothing he could have done to fix it or change the outcome.

As the months went on, it didn’t get easier, but we became stronger and were able to get through each day a little more easily.  We fell into step with our new “normal” and came to expect the hard days, the sad nights, and the continuing “what ifs” that haunted our minds.  We were on the mend, growing a little stronger each day, and relying on one another to survive the burdensome journey of grief.  I was and am so proud of how far they’d come – how far we had all come in the months following Melody’s death.  

Many believe that a funeral brings closure, but it is, in fact, only the beginning of a lifelong journey of grief.  We worked hard each day, carrying the heaviest of loads.  We focused on moments, led our children by example, embraced every single feeling they had, and showed them our own painful and raw moments.  Eventually, we were able to see the sunshine again.  We were able to feel hope again.  Once again, they laughed and played, helping Ben and I to find a lighter outlook on each day, embracing gratefulness for what was in front of us, even though we desperately missed our sweet Melody.

When you go through something like the death of a child, you tend to think to yourself, 

“Things couldn’t ever be this bad again.”

This is where we found ourselves in March 2018.  We found out we were expecting again!  While terrifying (to say the least), this seemed like a second chance, like a blessing for healing.  God had given us a rainbow baby.  Everything checked out perfectly during an ultrasound at my appointment on April 26.  After everything seemed to be going well and the baby appeared to be healthy, we finally decided to tell Jace and Kiley that we were having another baby.  Everyone was a little nervous, after such devastation, but so excited about a new beginning.  We decided we would announce our rainbow pregnancy publicly to our loved ones on Mother’s Day.  Then everything changed.

Nearly nine months after Melody’s death, the truly unthinkable happened.  On May 6, 2018, we found ourselves reeling from loss once more.  This time we lost what would have been our rainbow baby at almost eleven weeks gestation due to another rare medical instance.  We didn’t yet know our baby’s gender, so we picked a gender-neutral name for him or her – Jamie.  

How did we find ourselves here again?

It felt as though we’d been catapulted more than a million miles backward, when really, we’d only made a few good strides since Melody’s death only months before.  Instinctually, our energy went toward supporting and protecting Jace and Kiley.  If it hurt this much for us, then how devastating was it for them?

Parenting is hard, and it is always changing.  There are constant and unpredictable challenges that arise despite our best efforts to prepare our children for the hardships, unfairness, and disappointment the world has to offer at times.  We teach our children about joy and finding it in each day.  We encourage them to be positive and to work hard.  We educate them on responding with respect and kindness in the face of misfortune, treating others the way they want to be treated, and how to “try, try again” when they fail or fall short of their goals.  

But what about the days when it truly feels like there is no positivity in the world?  

Or when joy is nowhere to be found?  

Or when life is so unfair that getting up out of bed and facing the world is the last thing you want to do?  

How do you continue to be a parent on those days?

The feelings of missing someone you desperately love is complex and messy business.  It’s hard, and it sucks, if I’m being honest.  I think about how difficult and complicated it has been for me to wrap my mind around and how unbelievable this heartbreak truly is for me.  Then I consider how my children must feel.  I have been given a toolbox full of coping skills throughout my experiences in life, but none of these could prepare me for this kind of loss.  However, I do believe that the hard times in my life have helped me to develop the coping mechanisms I need to survive now.  But my children?  They don’t have those experiences.  They don’t have the coping skills.  This realization about my children hurts my heart so deeply as I think about our losses from their point of view. 

Within my toolbox, I have acquired my own set of sibling grief tools.  

Many don’t know this, but I, too, have an angel sibling.  His name is Wade.  I never knew him.  He was born before my other brother, DJ, and I.  When my mom was almost six months pregnant with Wade, she was victim of a drunk driving accident.  As a result, my brother did not survive.  Just as my own mom has tried to be a useful and relatable support for me in my grief, I have tried to do so for my own children.  

I have learned that the “what ifs” never go away.  I am thirty years old, and Wade has been gone for thirty-three years now.  I often wonder what he would be like – what he would look like, what he would enjoy doing, what kind of job he would have.  Would he be married?  Would he have kids?  Where would he live now?  Would he have gone to college?  I also find myself wondering and imagining about what things would be like if that driver hadn’t been drinking, or if he had been pulled over for suspected intoxication.  Would Wade be here, or was it always God’s plan for him to leave this earth?

I find myself wondering about what Melody and Jamie would be like today, and I know from experience that Jace and Kiley do, too.  Just today, Jace asked me what color hair I thought Melody would have.  We speak of them often, but not in a morbid kind of way.  My kids know they are always welcome to talk about their siblings with their dad and me.  I feel like our open-door policy concerning this has greatly contributed to their healing over the last two years.  I believe that knowing they can freely express and share whatever it is they feel is crucial for their ability to process their stages of grief and to make progress on their journey, as non-linear as it may be.  They will always know that their feelings are valid and acceptable.  Even though others may be uncomfortable with our children’s grief over their siblings, Jace and Kiley can always find comfort with us.  

We’ve been criticized for this by some.  We’ve been told that our grief is too much, and that our expressions of grief are the reason our living children remember their siblings at all.  I disagree, wholeheartedly.  I believe that my children are fully aware of their siblings, and to deny them the opportunity to speak of them and to mourn the loss would be unfair.

Melody’s and Jamie’s well-being are out of our control, and obviously they’re in the best care one could ask for, with the Lord.  But Jace and Kiley – these two beautiful souls that God has entrusted to us on this earth are our responsibility.  Their grief is unique, just like anyone else’s.  Their journey will be unique, as well.  This loss has not stunted my love for my children, nor has it channeled in one direction or another.  Rather, my love has grown to a magnitude that I did not know possible.  My love covers my children here on this earth with me – I hurt when they hurt, I feel joy for them when they rejoice, and I feel pride for them in their accomplishments.  But my love also reaches beyond the realms of this world to Melody and Jamie.  Jace and Kiley know that I love their siblings and that I miss them very much – that it makes me feel sad and hurts at times still.  But I pray that they never doubt my love for them, that they never feel that it waivers.  My love for my children is as strong as it’s ever been, if not stronger.

It has been almost two years since Melody died, so we’ve made considerable progress as a family.  However, this isn’t something you can just cover with a Band-Aid.  It’s not a process, but rather a way of life.  It’s not a singular moment, but instead a lifetime of moments.  It’s not something any of us will ever “get over” and we’ve told our children that.  They know that we don’t expect them to be “okay”, whatever that means, but rather that it’s okay to be where they are on their journey.  Ben and I have hard days – ones where we find ourselves on the verge of tears all day long, days when we think of Melody and Jamie constantly – and because of that, we are fully aware and acknowledge the fact that our children will also have these kinds of days.  They still have questions.  Sometimes we don’t have all the answers, but we talk about it.  We talk about our babies.  

Our children have been encouraged to speak of their siblings in our home, because we carry them deeply in our hearts.

About Kayla Leibner

Kayla is a Christian, a wife, a mother, and a preschool teacher.  She and her husband, Ben, have been married for five years and live north of St. Louis with two of their children, Jace (12) and Kiley (4).  They also carry two of their children in their hearts – Melody, and Jamie.  Kayla and her family have deep and strong roots in their faith and have relied heavily on God and His comfort in their journey of loss and grief.  Kayla hopes that her writing would be of help, comfort, and encouragement to families who are suffering this same tragic loss.

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