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As the holidays have passed, I feel like I can finally breathe again. A fresh new year, wondering where it will take me this time. However, after losing my first baby girl I reflect on my journey and where it has brought me. Who I have become and where it will take me now. I am honored to share my story with you this coming year. I want to share about the baby that changed my life. I’m going to be real with you, reveal the nightmare I had to live through, the dreams I was forced to let go, and the daily hardships I have to overcome. But, also, the grace that saved me, the love that held me, and the wisdom that grew me.
My name is Kaitlin, and I am a bereaved mother. My daughter was stillborn November 12, 2017. Deep down in my soul I know that my daughter’s story will touch countless people, far beyond the number of her days. This blog is about my experience as a bereaved parent, what I went through, the realities I was forced to adapt to, the pain through it all, and the joys of being a parent. Possibly, reading about my family’s experiences will bring hope or a measure of healing to your heart. Allow me to share with you the story of our sweet baby girl named, Wendy.
My husband and I received the news that we were expecting on February 19, 2017. We were so incredibly excited. Immediately, we started dreaming about how our lives would change forever. We dreamed of seeing our child learn to walk, talk, and grow in front of our very eyes. I was so excited to experience the feeling of holding our newborn in my arms, the sweet smell and softness of her skin, and the warmth of her presence. I started to plan the baby’s room and dream of how I would decorate it. I even bought this awesome diaper bag from Amazon, anticipating the day when I would use it. Yet, that diaper bag still has the tags, never used.
In May of 2017, we had our routine 15-week ultrasound. However, our blissful and dream-like reality quickly went up in flames. We heard our doctor’s crushing words, “Your baby does not have a skull.” How could this be? How is that possible? What does that mean? Our dreams – gone. Our baby’s future – gone. Everything – gone. Our hopeful world burned to the ground and collapsed into dust. I felt so helpless, powerless, hopeless, hurt, and so incredibly broken and defeated. Our baby wasn’t going to make it. Being informed that our baby was “not compatible with life” was a living nightmare from which we would not wake up from.
Our baby girl was diagnosed with a rare, neural tube defeat called Anencephaly. Her diagnosis prohibited her skull and brain to fully form. Thus, she would not survive outside the womb. We sat in an office, eyes swollen, chins quivering, and hearts completely broken. We were given two pieces of paper. One was information about termination. The other was about Forever Footprints. We got home and sat in silence, staring at those two pieces of paper knowing our baby’s life would be determined by either one. Forced to make a choice, I couldn’t help but focus on our precious baby. I thought, “I am her mother, and my husband, her father. Just because she isn’t what we expected, doesn’t mean we can give up on her. How could we? How can I give up on my baby now when she needs me the most? We need to love her now more than ever.”
Today, here I am, a member of Forever Footprints, the organization that supported my daughter’s life without fail. We chose to continue our pregnancy to 41 weeks and 4 days and delivered our beautiful Wendy. She was so perfect, so pure, so beautiful. She had silky, dark hair, creamy white, alabaster skin, and long beautiful eyelashes. Wendy was perfect in every way. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about her. She is constantly on my mind, and my heart yearns for her.
I am incredibly thankful for the time we had with Wendy. We purposed to create many, beautiful memories with her while she was tucked away in my womb. We took Wendy to the beach, a baseball game, read many books to her, and watched our favorite shows together. I miss those days, but my daughter changed my life forever. I am not who I used to be, as my old self has passed away. The new Kaitlin developed a passion to reach out to other hurting parents. My Wendy opened my eyes to a need. And, I want to tell you that I love you, understand you, and your baby is precious in every way. I hope as the year goes on, our story will give you hope and healing and reveal to you my understanding heart. Thank you for taking the time to read this blog about my Wendy. Stay tuned for February’s reflections, as well.
Kaitlin McLaughlin lives in Southern California with her husband Ryan. They welcomed their daughter Wendy into the world on November 12, 2017 but was born still due to her fatal condition. When Kaitlin was 15 weeks pregnant, doctors diagnosed Wendy with Anencephaly, a rare neural tube defect. From then on, they lived with the grief, pain, and joy of becoming parents to an angel. Since then, Kaitlin grew a passion for reaching out to others who have experienced newborn loss. She is the creator and writer for www.wendyforever.com hoping to provide support to other bereaved parents. She also works at a non-profit that provides an education and job training program for young adults. Ryan and Kaitlin love doing everything together including spending time with their one year old Golden Retriever Leona.
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.