If you are a parent who has lost a child, it’s probably pretty safe to assume that at one point or another, you’ve wished you could go back to that day when your baby took his or her last breath.
I have. Many times.
Even though all of our stories of loss are different, they all started with finding out we were going to be parents. In that moment, your mind starts racing away. Usually your initial thoughts are some combination of excitement and hope, sprinkled with a little fear. I don’t know about you, but when I found out I was pregnant with my first child, Marco, that sprinkle of fear in my wave of emotions wasn’t even close to the darkness we would encounter on our pregnancy journey with him. My fear was more of the “oh my gosh, are we ready for this” variety, not the “I hope my baby doesn’t die” variety.
No, I did not see the enormous 2 x 4 that was ominously headed in our direction. And once I was aware of it, my vision was instantly blurred and my eyes watery. Maybe if I had seen it, I would have given more thought about how I would spend those few precious hours that we had with Marco.
Marco was born 4 ½ years ago at 29 weeks 4 days gestation. He was very small (1 lb 10 oz to be exact) and very sick. By the time I was being wheeled into the operating room to have him delivered by c-section, my dreams of him being a bouncing 7 lb 15 oz healthy baby were long gone, as we had found out 7 weeks prior that he had “multiple anomalies”. While we knew he would be very sick, we did not know exactly what to expect as no one could give us a definitive diagnosis or prognosis. We were terrified, but we were also trying to stay as hopeful as humanly possible in the grave situation we were facing. Despite the fact that Marco had major issues, we had never given much thought to what we would do if and when he died. Instead, we had been focusing all of our energy on putting one foot in front of the other in order to get through the days until he was born.
Within an hour after Marco’s birth, it was clear that his life was unsustainable. We were forced to make the decision that (thankfully) very few parents ever have to make to withdraw care from our sweet boy. Before he was disconnected from everything, the nurses encouraged us to give him a sponge bath and dress him in a white gown they provided. As we did this, and later as we held him, I remember one of them taking pictures. At the time, I didn’t understand any of it. I couldn’t see why they were having us bathe and dress him. And why were they taking pictures? I didn’t get it. It was the saddest moment of my life, and here was someone photographing it.
And what is “enough” anyway? Even if we would have held him for an extra day or 2 or 3 or 50, it would never have been enough.
Reflecting back, I am left to think that I would have done at least a few things differently. I also realized, as early as the very next day, the significance of us bathing him, dressing him and taking pictures with him. That moment October 6th, 2009 was the ONLY time we would ever get to bathe our son. It was the ONLY time we would ever dress him. Those photos are the ONLY ones we’ll ever have of him. There will be no preschool, grade school, graduation and wedding photos for Marco. Never. There will only ever be pictures of him on that day.
As I’ve talked to more and more bereaved parents and heard their stories, I’ve often asked myself what I would have done differently. I’ve heard stories of parents reading to their child. Stories of them dancing with their child. There are stories of extended family members all being there to meet the child and say their goodbyes as well. I’ve heard of the child being wrapped in a special blanket or put in special clothes. Some have professional photographers take photos.
It’s a tortuous question to ask, because the answer doesn’t really matter. There is no going back in time. Having said that, I can’t escape the thoughts at times of what I would have done differently.
What would you have done differently? Maybe you couldn’t bring yourself to hold your child, and you wish so badly that you could go back to change that. Maybe you would have sang your child one more song or handed him off to someone special rather than placing him in a bassinet to be wheeled off.
There’s the obvious thousand more kisses I would have laid on Marco’s soft skin. I would have liked to hold him at a different angle so that I could get a better look at him without all of the tubes and wires. I would have wanted my family to say a more proper hello and goodbye to him. And the list goes on…
No matter what you wished you would have done, you did as much that day as you possibly could have. We can ask ourselves the what-ifs, we can imagine what it would be like to live that day again, but try as we might, we can’t get it back. Your baby knew that you loved him or her, and that is enough. It has to be.