What I Learned From Losing My Son
*This blog post is written by Butterfly Run Committee member Emily Cordonier. She initially wrote it for her own blog, one year after losing her son on December 29, 2018. She is sharing it again with us here.
I didn't know much of anything about grief until my son Lachlan was born still. His death followed a tumultuous pregnancy that included miscarrying his twin at 16 weeks, and then finding out at 20 weeks that Lachlan had a serious heart defect. Nothing could have prepared me for the "after" - what life after the loss of a baby looks like.
Those losses and the grief that followed taught me a lot. I learned a lot about what can helpful (and what isn't) when you are grieving a child, or grieving anyone for that matter. I am grateful for a chance to share some of what I found helpful, in the hope it might help even one other person.
Memories and Keepsakes Are Precious
I knew I would want professional photos of Lachlan, but I didn’t realize just how important those keepsakes would be. When you lose a loved one, all you have to remember them are photos, mementos and memories. Lachlan was stillborn. We only got eight hours with him before our caring maternity nurse took him from our arms forever. I cherish every photo from that day. I also hold close the outfit his brother Lucas chose for him and my husband dressed him in when he was born. We also have Lachlan’s stuffed elephant “Trunkie”, who we keep close and try to include in some family photos and special occasions. We have a lock of his hair, and hand and foot casts and prints. These items are few but so precious.
I also hold dear the mementos friends and family sent in the days after losing Lachlan – memorial necklaces, works of art, a star map from the evening of his birth and more are displayed in our home.
I DO regret not having any video from Lachlan’s birth. I remember our photographer saying she would stick to photos as we probably wouldn’t want video, and at the time I agreed. But, in the weeks that followed I realized how desperately I would have loved to see video of my son and daughter holding their little brother. Even if Lachlan was still, to see all the movement around him and the love in that room, would be very powerful to me and help keep memories more clear as the years pass. Not having that is one regret I have.
My husband Leo and my eldest son Lucas saving a lock of Lachlan's hair
Say His Name
A few years ago a friend of mine lost her son following the 20 week ultrasound. We didn't live in the same city at the time, and though I tried to support her from afar and ask how she was doing, I don’t think I ever brought up her son by name, perhaps thinking somehow that would make it more painful. I know now how wrong that is.
It is so appreciated when others are comfortable saying Lachlan’s name to me. I have been so grateful to those who will ask questions about him, bring him up, and want to know more about him. Sometimes people might not want to cry around me, but really crying is just fine. What happened is sad, and perhaps we could cry together. You bringing up my son’s name doesn’t make me think of him. I am always thinking of him.
I think often our inclination is to want to keep things happy, and perhaps to distract someone who is grieving. But, if you don’t give them the space to grieve openly and share their loss, you could be missing out on something that would in fact bring you closer together..and instead you risk driving a wedge between you.
Sometimes when someone is grieving they won’t always feel like talking about their loss, and that’s fine too. I think it is helpful to at least let them know you are open to hearing all about their loved one if and when they are ready to talk. Something as simply as opening the door to conversation by asking “how are you doing today?” might just be enough.
Saying Something is Better Than Nothing
Sometimes we don’t say anything because we are afraid of saying the wrong thing. I get that, but it can actually be more hurtful to say nothing at all. Firstly, you don’t have to say much and it’s also okay to simply say, “I don’t know what to say.” Instead, let them speak and just be a willing listener. Offer a hug, hold their hand, maybe invite them to sit and share a cup of coffee and let them know you are there whether they want to talk or not. Avoid saying cliches such as “Everything happens for a reason” “Maybe it’s better this way” “God has a plan” “You are young and can always have another baby” or “At least you have two healthy children.” These are not helpful.
Let Them Know You Are There
I am so thankful for the family and especially friends who showed up for me in the days after losing Lachlan. An amazing tribe of mom friends set up a meal train and brought our family dinner every evening for a month. We had so much food, more than we could eat (!), but regardless, the gesture of support meant more than anything. I appreciated every message, card, gift and meal that was offered. I was even so grateful for the comments of love and support people would leave on social media. Even now, every once in a while, I scroll back and read the comments people left and those words offer me strength.
It is often better to just do something and not wait to be asked. You may say “I’m here if you need anything”, but often grief brings about such a daze that you don’t even know what to ask for. Instead, I suggest just showing up – bring food, send a card, or even simply a text with words of love but with no expectation of getting a reply back.
Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds
The loss of a loved one is not something you get over with time. I don’t cry as often as I did in those early days after losing my son, but I still think about him all the time. When I am alone driving in the car, or when I crawl into bed at night – his face comes to me in all those quiet moments. I don’t even know what I used to think about when I had those moments to myself?
It can feel very lonely to think you are all alone in remembering your baby. That’s why it means so much when people reach out saying they are thinking of Lachlan too. One of my best friends gave birth to her first child just one month before Lachlan was born. My friend is so good about messaging me when she is looking at her own daughter and thinking how Lachlan would be just a month younger than her (had he lived). One day she sent me a photo of how she keeps both her daughter's and Lachlan’s photos from birth side by side. Seeing that didn’t make me feel sad that my child died and hers lived. Instead, I felt so honoured that she would remember Lachlan like that, with no sign of discomfort at all.
Remember Dates and Holidays
Making note of those particularly important dates (anniversaries, birthdays, due dates) will hold tremendous weight for someone who is grieving. Try to mark these dates in your calendar and reach out in subsequent years to show them you remember too.
Holidays can be a challenging time for many people who are grieving. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas – these can all be a flash point where the bereaved will be thinking about how the holiday was supposed to go. It helps to just remember this and reach out. Perhaps, ask if you can incorporate the memory of their loved one into the holiday somehow. I really appreciated any mention of Lachlan around this Christmas season and I loved finding him a few special ornaments for our tree.
Children Are Resilient and Amazing
When we found out that Lachlan wasn’t going to live, my husband and I were so scared to tell our other son and daughter. They were 4 and 2 years old at the time and I thought they wouldn’t be able to handle this kind of sad news. I was wrong. Lucas and Rowan coped with the loss of their little brother tremendously well. They have been an endless source of comfort to me, because no one keeps Lachlan’s memory alive better than they do. Both Lucas and Rowan bring up Lachlan all the time, in the most matter of fact and natural way. I love the way Rowan adores looking through Lachlan’s photo album or how Lucas includes Lachlan in his family portraits. Every time we drive by a graveyard they bring up Lachlan’s name, and they enthusiastically help me find ways to incorporate his memory into celebrations and holidays.
I have learned that we cannot underestimate a child’s capacity to cope, understand and provide healing during times of grief. It has been so much better to not hide this reality from my children, but instead walk together through our grief and understanding of what our family now looks like.
Don’t Forget About the Dads
Men don’t generally emote or express themselves the same way women do, but that doesn’t mean they are feeling things any less deeply. Leading up to delivering Lachlan I was speaking and sharing with lots of people about what we were going through. I had to! I was pregnant, really, really pregnant, and there was no getting around the questions of what had happened to my baby. Leo didn’t have the same visible reminder, so he didn’t share with as many people, and that also meant he didn’t have as many people to lean on when the waves of grief hit. In the days after losing Lachlan my phone was blowing up with calls and texts of support and love. Leo’s phone was definitely quieter.
When I feel depressed and just can’t bring myself to get off the couch, my husband is the one who steps up and picks up the slack – but he needs help too. Leo has grieved deeply for the loss of Lachlan. He also had the incredibly difficult job of heading back to work, where he is an emergency room doctor, and face losses (some not so different from our own) on a daily basis.
So please – don’t forget the dads need support too.
Grief and Anxiety Go Hand in Hand
After losing Lachlan suddenly everyone else I loved seemed that much more vulnerable. Any feeling of invincibility was gone, and instead feelings of worry and anxiety filled my brain. I worried for the health of my other two kids, for my husband, and for my parents. Mentions of my mom visiting the doctor immediately had me fearing the worst. I had a feeling that anything could happen and I also feared that I wasn’t strong enough to withstand another loss. Those fears did subside over time, but they have not gone away entirely.
You Can’t Replace One Baby with Another
That anxiety undoubtedly seeps in to any subsequent pregnancies after suffering a loss. The curtain has been pulled back and unfortunately there is no going back. There will never be another blissful ultrasound where the only expected result is finding out the gender and getting a cute photo of your baby. Every step is filled with worry and worse case scenarios, and hope and happiness are held at bay.
There are people who think that having another baby will automatically make everything better and the grieving stop. But, this is NOT the case. A baby cannot be replaced and a mother’s memory cannot be erased. However, happiness and grief can co-exist alongside each other. We can feel joy about the possibility of new life while still grieving the life that was lost.