By: Jennifer Haake
When your baby dies you are bombarded by a tsunami of emotions. Especially over the first few years. Everything is raw and there is so much to process. It requires a lot of grace. Not only from others, but yourself as well. Here I am almost 13 years (still seems surreal) from the day we lost our boy. I can honestly say that I have learned so much from losing him.
In the early days there was absolutely nothing anyone could say or do that made it better. There are poignant conversations that I recall even today. For instance, when my husband called the airline to arrange for our son to be flown to St. Louis to be buried; they referred to him as luggage. Now, as a newly bereft father this absolutely infuriated my husband. He refused to fly with them (he still refuses unless forced). It didn’t matter that they treated my mom with compassion and respect when she boarded the same flight as her grandson. Or that when we arrived at the gate they wept with me while I sat in the wheelchair barely a week post c-section sobbing. Or when the ultrasound tech was doing that final ultrasound and they told us he “expired” as if he was a carton of milk; I had issue with that. Never mind, I had a medical background and understood that she was simply using medical jargon. It didn’t matter. She was talking about MY son.
I understand now that these are words. Words used innocently and with no malice. I learned to forgive those people. All of the interactions I have had with people where Charlie is mentioned have an undercurrent of something. Sadness, awkward stares/silence, personal similarities, and people simply being human. When people ask me how many children I have I generally say 4. Nothing much comes of it. However, when they ask their ages of my three girls present and I say 12, 12, and 9. You can see the cogs start to turn. Then the inevitable – Are they twins? Sometimes one of the girls pipes up before me and says “no, we are surviving triplets.” A lot of the times I get a simple “oh” and they quickly change the subject. Last week a woman at my daughter’s dance class sat quietly and must have been stewing on what I said. After class she approached me and apologized. I looked at her with empathy as I know how awkward my statement likely made her feel. Perhaps she had never encountered someone so bold as to declare their loss. Maybe she had a loss at one time and has never shared it with the world. For me, it is just a moment where I can acknowledge him.
Grief is messy.
Grief is hard.
Grief will steal everything you thought you ever knew.
Grief can also be the teacher.
I will not say that my 12 ½ years of grieving has been easy. I won’t say that I started out with any kind of compassion, understanding, empathy, or any ability to forgive. I would be lying. It took years. I am still learning. I not only have to offer forgiveness to those who said or did something that hurt us inadvertently, but I have to forgive myself. I have to show myself the same level of empathy I would for any other person. Am I always great at it; not at all. That is where the grace comes in.
If I were to have a heart to heart with the airline representative or the ultrasound tech today, I would ask them to perhaps change their verbiage. Be softer. Be kinder. To the nursing staff who bombarded us with funeral options as soon as I was wheeled out of recovery. I would suggest they hold off a little bit. Yes, those decisions must be made. But, not right at that moment. To the nurse who was holding my son and softly singing to him; I would tell her she is an absolute angel. And thank her for treating my baby like any other baby. To the neonatologist who forced my scared and overwhelmed husband to sit down and hold our son; I would thank him for giving him that gift.
I would ask that nursing staff either get a professional bereavement photographer in to take photos of my son or make sure I had hundreds. And I would ensure that there were photos with both Derek and I holding him. Looking at him. Loving him. We took our own photos. We only have one with the both of us and his sisters. Those 88 photos are priceless. I would suggest that every hospital provide 3D molds of feet and hands if possible. So that you can remember every tiny crease. Every intricate detail. Like his crooked pinky fingernail.
I suggest every newly bereaved parent find a support group. It might take going to a few meetings to see if it is a good fit, but go. Surround yourself with people in all the various stages of grief. New grief can swallow you whole. It is so difficult to imagine there is any kind of joy after. The shadowy veil is slowly lifted, and the sun does begin to show itself. Even just a little.
There will always be gray days. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, special moments that you should have shared. Seeing people who have lived it, survived it and often times flourished because of it makes the journey almost bearable. The road to healing is bumpy. It is riddled with turns, roadblocks, and dead ends. But each obstacle teaches you something else. Something about resilience, empathy, forgiveness, and grace.
About Jennifer Haake
Jenn and Derek Haake reside in the St. Louis area with their three daughters. Jenn and Derek have been married for 20 years and enjoy St. Louis sports, supporting Share, and whatever other adventures abound. Jenn is a parent companion with Share. She found Share when her son, Charlie, was stillborn in 2010. J. Volunteering for Share is a family affair. Derek serves on the board of directors for Share while the girls can always be found passing out water and helping out at the Walk for Remembrance and Hope.