For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.
As I spoke those words back in 2011, I truly meant them from the bottom of my heart. Sure, I knew marriage wouldn’t always be easy and I knew there would be hard days, but this wide-eyed, innocent 20-something had no idea of the depth of what those words would truly mean until years later when stood beside a tiny cemetery plot and buried our infant son.
For worse, for poorer, and in the wake of devastating sickness, our innocence was stripped away and things were suddenly so much harder.
On the evening our son died, a kind nurse took my hand and warned us that things were about to get hard. She encouraged us to dig our heels down deep, to remember the vows we had meant so fervently those years before, and to fight for one another when things would become difficult–and difficult they did.
Loss has a way of changing you. In some ways it made me better, and it other ways it brought all of my imperfections to the surface. It challenged my thinking, shifted my perspectives, and altered pieces of my identity. I grieved the person I was before losing our son and I struggled to figure out who I was. I quickly learned that when two people are simultaneously being shaped through the pain of suffering and loss, things become even more complicated. We were both grieving, changing and growing. I was still trying to get to know this whole new me, all while trying to get to know my husband as we grieved and grew in different ways.
So how can we fight for our marriages and our relationships when we’ve changed so much? How do we pick up the pieces and fight for one another, rather than with one another?
In those first few months when my grief was especially intense, I craved closeness. I just wanted someone to sit with me and let me cry on their shoulder. My husband, however, craved space. On the days when he was in the most pain, he needed time to process–alone. This was especially difficult in the beginning and it was so important to communicate our needs with one another–not only that, but to try to understand where the other person was coming from. Neither of us was grieving better or worse than the other. Our needs were simply different. It was helpful to understand what the other needed and to create a safe space to share our needs without fear of judgement.
There is an unnecessary stigma associated with counseling and I believe that needs to change. Before I experienced it for myself, it seemed intimidating and almost like a last resort. I haven’t heard many people speak openly about their experiences with counseling, but I will because I think it’s important. My husband and I attended counseling both together and alone after the death of our son and it played a significant role in our ability to communicate and in own growth, both as individuals and as a couple. Forever Footprints is another great resource and offers three monthly support groups. We’ve also found support by joining hundreds of other parents at Forever Footprints annual IE Walk to Remember.
Make time for one another
In the midst of the struggle, don’t forget to take some time to unwind. Go on a date. Watch your favorite TV show together. Don’t be afraid to laugh, even when it feels foreign.
Hold on tight
After our son died, my husband and I looked each other in the eye and reaffirmed our commitment to one another. We decided right then and there that we wouldn’t allow our son’s death to drive us apart. We resolved to fight for our marriage no matter what it took. The journey hasn’t been easy, but I am thankful for all of the tears, the late night conversations, the frustrations, and the growth that has taken place between now and then. I am thankful for the ways conflict and pain have ultimately drawn us closer as a couple. I am thankful to be able to walk alongside the only person who truly understands everything we’ve been through. I am thankful to be able to look upon the face that so closely resembles that of our little boy each day.
I am thankful for someone who has seen me at my best and worst, in seasons that felt rich and seasons that felt poor, and in seasons of sickness and in health.
Kristin Hernandez lives in Southern California with her husband Chris and their Queensland Heeler mix, Dakota. After struggling with unexplained infertility for several years, Kristin was thrilled when she became pregnant with Ethan. The celebration quickly turned to concern when doctors discovered Ethan had a serious heart defect and was missing a piece of his brain–likely indicative of a chromosome abnormality. Ethan was born on August 16, 2015 and spent his 93-minute life in his parents’ arms. Kristin is now a mother to five babies in heaven, including four of Ethan’s younger siblings who she has never met. Despite these struggles, Kristin has resolved to embrace the life she has been given and to leave a legacy for her family. Kristin works in communications by day, but can also be found running, camping, writing or having a conversation over a cup of coffee. She writes at www.sunlightindecember.com and is the cohost of the Through the Lens Podcast.
Gold confetti, champagne bubbles, and excited grins pierced my aching heart like knives as I scrolled through social media. The entire world welcomed 2016 with open arms–not just welcomed, but celebrated it–and I wasn’t ready to move forward. My son was born and had died in 2015. There was no dash between years on his headstone as there should have been. My entire pregnancy and his short little life had all been crammed into that year and I didn’t want to step forward, let alone throw a party over it.
New Year’s Day can be blindsiding when you’ve lost a baby. In December, many of us brace ourselves for the social gatherings, the unfulfilled traditions, and the constant reminders of the empty seat at our holiday tables. We breathe a sigh of relief as the holiday season draws to a close, only to be faced with the unexpectedly difficult transition of leaving another year behind without our children.
So how do we step into a new year and into this “new normal” when a piece of our heart is missing? What resolutions can we set for ourselves when we may not even know which way is forward?
Make a list of things you are thankful for in the previous year. As we transitioned into 2016, I resolved to write down the blessings that had come in 2015. At first, I could hardly come up with one thing, but as I began to write my teary eyes began to shine with pride and gratitude. Perhaps the previous year made you a mother, even if it came with struggle and sorrow. Perhaps you learned something about yourself, gained deeper relationships, or witnessed personal growth in your own life. Let’s take some time to be thankful for these changes and to acknowledge that the best gifts are not always the most comfortable.
Acknowledge that it is hard. Take time to mourn what you are leaving behind in 2017, whether it’s a loved one, a dream, or a part of yourself. Give yourself permission to feel, to grieve, to care for your heart and to set healthy boundaries. Give yourself some grace.
Don’t be afraid to make resolutions for 2018. It was especially difficult to make plans the following year after Ethan died, but I found it helpful to have something positive to look forward to. Start a blog, join a 5K (Forever Footprints hosts an annual memorial Walk To Remember every October), join a support group (Forever Footprints hosts groups in Long Beach, Orange and Chino,) finally try those recipes you’ve been pinning for years, or take the first step toward a personal dream.
Remember that moving forward isn’t the same as “moving on”. Embracing the new year does not mean that we are “forgetting” or “moving on”. It does not mean that we love our babies any less. Moving forward happens when we take all of the love and the pain we’ve faced and allow it to refine us and make us better. It happens when we open our hearts to more love (and potentially more heartache), free of guilt. It doesn’t simply slap on a smile, but rather it acknowledges both the joy and grief we’ve experienced as we step forward to live authentically and leave a positive legacy.
Whether 2018 fills your heart with excitement, sadness, or a little of both, we’re all in this together. Wishing you and your family a wonderful new year.
I will never forget the first time I felt it. I was sitting in a room full of women, who were all laughing, talking, complaining about their husbands, bragging about their children. It was five months after my son Joseph had died, and I thought I could do it. I thought I could join the world again. I wanted to feel normal. But sitting in that room—with a newly formed women’s group—I never felt so alone in my entire life. The sounds all became one, like a constant buzzing. My hands started to sweat. My heart started to pound. And I ran for the door.
I ran from new friendships and I ran from my old friendships. I isolated myself from those who had children and babies. I couldn’t face my pregnant friends, because I was a reminder to them of what could go wrong. My friends’ worlds were moving forward, and my life felt as if it was standing still. I didn’t know how to be anyone’s friend.
I was different. I had held my son and watched him take his last breaths. I watched his casket being put in the ground. I had gone home to leaking breasts full of his milk, an empty nursery, and a broken heart. And my friends would never understand that.
As the months after Joseph’s death turned into years, and I sought the help of support groups and private therapy to deal with my grief, I tried to repair old friendships and begin new ones. I started to accept this was the new me. And I began to see, I didn’t have to run.
And I wasn’t alone after all. Through Forever Footprints I’ve met thousands of other women just like me. Women who have lost their child or children. Many of them have become my friends. We may not talk every day. We may not see each other for months. But I know they are there for me, and I am there for them. We are forever connected by the love of our babies.
I found I could become a friend to others that struggled with pain or loss. It doesn’t just come in the form of losing a child, but also through things like divorce or illness. I’m not always the friend people call to go out for a movie or to go on a girl’s trip, but I’m often the one they call when they are going through a difficult time.
There are still times I sit in a room and feel so different than anyone else. But I don’t run. I embrace that being a mom who has lost a child has formed me into a person who is strong, brave, resilient, and compassionate. And I tell my story, because more often than not, there someone else in that room that needs a friend.