I had always thought of gratitude and grief as polar opposites. To me, gratitude is associated with appreciation, relief, and provision. It fills your heart with warmth when you are pleased with something. It often follows something you had hoped for. Grief, on the other hand, is associated with deep sorrow. It can feel so painful, so isolating, and so cold. It often follows your worst fear. They couldn’t be more different from one another, thus it made perfect sense to me that they could never coexist. Surely grief was an enemy of gratitude, and gratitude was the remedy for grief.
Then I lost Ethan.
Holding my firstborn son in my arms as he took his first and final breaths, my assumptions on grief and gratitude were challenged in ways I found difficult to articulate. All at once, I was overcome with both gratitude and grief–incredible gratitude for the privilege of being this strong little boy’s mama and unthinkable grief over losing him. It was then I discovered that grief and gratitude do not cancel one another out. Grief and gratitude can coexist. Contrary to what I once assumed, grief is not the enemy of gratitude. Thankfulness can grow and thrive in the midst of pain.
To clarify, this does not mean that I was thankful for loss. Gratitude in grief does not mean that we are grateful for losses or for heartbreak. We have the freedom to call those things what they are–horrible, painful, confusing. Grief demands to be felt and my gratitude did not take away my permission to grieve. Finding gratitude in the midst of grief did not mean slapping a superficial smile over tears and searching for silver linings, but rather it meant acknowledging the gifts my broken heart had been given as I grieved.
As Thanksgiving approached that first year, I was challenged to give myself permission to embrace both grief and gratitude. I chose to be grateful–grateful to have known my son for the 28 weeks he grew inside of me and the 93 minutes after. Grateful for the ways his life has shaped and challenged me. Grateful to have caught a glimpse of the purest form of unconditional love–a love that is stronger than death. I challenged myself to give thanks for the gifts I have been given, while allowing myself space to grieve.
This November, let’s all give ourselves permission to feel both grief and gratitude. Let’s be kind to ourselves and to one another, allowing ourselves to miss our babies and share a good cry, while recognizing how special they are and how fortunate we are to have known them for whatever time we had. There is enough room for both joy and sorrow, grief and gratitude.
Three years ago, I attended my first Walk to Remember. It had only been two months since I had said goodbye to my infant son, Ethan, and my grief felt so deep, so raw, and so fresh. The previous months leading up to that day had been incredibly painful and isolating in ways I couldn’t quite put into words. When a friend told me about the Walk to Remember, I felt nervous yet excited all at once–I had no idea what to expect, but something inside of me longed to connect with people who understood. I longed to celebrate my little boy and to simply say his name to someone…anyone who would listen.
I am so grateful I put my fears aside that day. From the moment I checked in, I felt seen and understood. My walls crumbled down with each person I spoke to. As each baby’s name was spoken and each rose was passed out, I felt less and less alone. While it didn’t take away the grief of losing my son, stepping into this community of like-minded people softened the jagged edges of grief in ways I never expected. I received an indescribable gift on that day—the gift of hearing Ethan’s name, the gift of honoring him, the gift of being surrounded by people who didn’t try to brush him aside or just tell me to “think positive”. I received the gift of meeting other parents and hearing about their babies–the simple gift of “me too”.
This event and the community that I’ve found in it have been a comfort to me over the years, as my husband and I said goodbye to four more babies–four more tiny babies added to the baby memorial banner. Each year, my aching heart has found comfort in knowing that I’d be surrounded by my tribe of some of the most beautiful, brave, and broken people, who shine so bright in spite of all they’ve been through. This year, I’m looking forward to including my newborn son in celebrating the five babies we lost before him.
When I look back on each year, I cannot help but see how much I’ve changed—I see the ways grief has brought out the worst in me, but far more I see the ways being a mother to five babies in heaven has made me better. And for that I cannot help but be grateful for the joy I have been given in the midst of something so painful and for the opportunity to meet and connect with so many beautiful hearts along the way–the mothers, the fathers, the siblings, grandparents, medical professionals, and friends whose hearts have been touched by a special baby in a very big way.
Each year, I’ve looked out at the crowd of attendees and have felt surrounded by support and understanding. Though the details of our stories may be different, these people know. They understand. Whether they’ve walked through loss themselves or have held the hand of someone who has, they have stood exactly where I stand. They know the pain of a due date that never comes—of “what ifs” and unfulfilled plans. They know the devastation of the words “not compatible with life” or “I’m sorry, there’s just no heartbeat”. They know the pain of laboring and delivering a child who never opened their eyes, or one who did but couldn’t stay long. They know the long days in the NICU, they know the devastation of planning a memorial service for an infant.
They also know the joy of knowing someone so small, but so special. They know the joy of knowing a love that is stronger than death. They know what it’s like not to take one sunrise for granted. They know the pride of being part of such a beautiful legacy, sparked by someone so small.
Of all people, we were chosen to be our baby’s parents. We are the best mother or father they could have asked for. We, of all the mothers and fathers in the world, were hand picked to experience a love stronger than death and to carry their legacy.
I’m looking forward to taking another another step toward this goal—together.
Forever Footprints’ Walk to Remember is an annual walk that takes place to honor babies that have died due to pregnancy loss and infant death. Parents, and their loved ones and friends, are invited to come walk the steps our babies will never take.We’d love for you to join us this year at the OC Walk to Remember or the IE Walk to Remember.
Kristin Hernandez lives in Southern California with her husband Chris and the newest addition to their family–a baby boy they welcomed home in April. 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.
“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.”
— Ernest Hemingway
I felt especially connected to the seasons the year Ethan died.
The previous spring had been filled with so much excitement and the promise of new life. As the tree in our front yard filled with green lives, hope bloomed inside of me with eager anticipation over all that was to come. My heart felt warmer than those beautiful springtime afternoons.
Summer was the season of Ethan. One day we were driving home from the beach, windows rolled down, discussing baby names, and laughing over the irony of how many girl names we both liked and how few boy names we could agree on. Days later I went into the hospital for a routine ultrasound, blissfully unaware of the tidal wave lurking over the horizon. Soon after that we were sitting across the table from the geneticist as we received the devastating news that our little baby boy would likely fight for every breath. As the temperatures continued to rise, it felt as if we had been thrown into some sort of fire. Week after week brought more appointments, more scans, and even more bad news. Weeks later, we rushed to the hospital in the middle of a warm, August night. We uttered joyous hellos and tearful goodbyes. I can vividly feel the wall of thick heat that met me as I was wheeled back outside with empty arms, as sobs shook my entire body.
My broken heart welcomed the arrival of Autumn. The trees were stripped bare, their leaves falling like tears, and I felt understood. I found comfort in the way the changing of the season seemed to reflect my own feelings. Everything that had once bloomed so vibrantly now felt so lifeless and bare. As the cool of winter set in, questions, anger and defeat swirled around me like harsh winds. I struggled to stand beneath the force of it all. Everything felt so cold and I struggled to remember what spring had felt like.
But it came. Just like clockwork, spring returned and brought life to the trees that had once looked so dry and barren. As the warm afternoons returned, my weary heart began to find comfort and Hope. I was reminded that, though a part of me would remain changed by the seasons I had faced, spring would come again. Though a piece of my heart may ache, there was still hope–there would be spring again.
Autumn is more than a season of loss and grief to me. It is a season of harvest. It was as if I were pruned through the harsh winds of grief, and entered spring changed–more compassionate, more grateful for the sweet gift I had been given. Unlike the literal seasons, we have no idea how long the harsh winters of our lives may last–but we can cling to hope that winter can pave the way to spring. Springtime would cease to exist without Autumn and Winter.
Kristin Hernandez lives in Southern California with her husband Chris and their Queensland Heeler mix, Dakota, and the newest addition to their family–a baby boy they welcomed in April. 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.
Main photo by Artur Rutkowski on Unsplash