It was simple how she broke the silence.
“I was nine when my baby brother was born. I remember I would come home from school and my mother would hand him to me and I would sit and rock him, sometimes feed him a bottle, so my mother could make dinner before my father arrived home from work. He was a little bit of my baby, too. What nine-year-old girl wouldn’t want to have a baby to herself?”
I sat listening, my mouth hung slightly open in confusion. I had just confessed the truth to Grandpa’s question, “How ya doin’, kid?” I was miserable. Sleepless and in so much indescribable pain. Just a month before, our youngest son had been born without breath. We were going through the motions of life after loss, but we struggled to find people who initiated talking about Reece.
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Grandma Vivian continued, “Roger died when he was just four months old. He got pneumonia and back then, penicillin was thought to be a cure-all. The doctors and my parents didn’t know it was going to kill him. I remember my parents not being okay for a long while after his death. A long while.”
I nodded as I cried, feeling the weight and importance of her words. Vivian didn’t often bare her heart to me, and I knew she was sharing something special in that moment. She spoke her truth into the silence that surrounds baby loss. I felt the sense of permission she was giving me to not be okay for a while. And to talk about him. To keep him part of the family even though his Earthly stay was brief. My husband and I were both surprised how comfortable both she and Grandpa were in discussing the heartache of baby loss. Part of their sharing made me feel normal and less alone in my grief.
On another visit, we learned of grandpa’s sister having a stillborn son and no children born after. They shared these stories openly with us, as we gingerly shared our pain with fewer and fewer people. Grandpa told us that his sister had been forbidden by her husband to talk about the baby to anyone. She had been forced into silence. Perhaps something in her immense hidden pain they discovered many, many years later, they felt compelled to do better. Don’t believe the idea that talking about baby loss is a generational thing. The pain is still there, whether or not it’s acknowledged is the difference between continuing to hurt and a step toward healing. Grandma and Grandpa were helping us heal.
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The Christmas of 2015 is one I will never forget. As we gathered the extended family, I noticed a little something on the tree. Among all the hand-stitched mittens for the great-grandchildren hung one with just a little bit of sparkle. And his name. Identical to all the other ornaments for all the other kids. Inside the mitten was a little flag that said “Our little angel.” I was so validated in that moment, knowing that Reece should be here with us, and even though he wasn’t, effort was made to keep his memory alive.
Months later, at lunch, I was surprised to learn Vivian had been upset that due to Reece’s small size, he had gone to the crematorium without clothing. This spurred her into action, gathering her church friends together to create outfits for babies born too small for off-the-rack clothing. The hospital had asked for her organization’s name and after some thought, she chose “Reece’s Footprints.” My heart was so swollen with gratitude. For once, I didn’t even quite have the words. I was overwhelmed into silence. She showed me one of the outfits and for the first time, I considered that she was probably grieving Reece’s loss, too.
Just last week, we circled around Vivian on her deathbed. I watched her labored breathing, the result of a cancer that came and took her quickly. As her death neared, I saw her rocking her baby brother, Roger. I saw her meeting my Reece for the first time. I turned to my mother-in-law and mentioned this vision of Vivian and baby Roger.
“Yeah, I knew she had another brother and that he died as a baby. She didn’t talk about him, though.”
That was the moment I realized that Vivian had given me a tremendous gift. She broke the silence around baby loss for us. She shared her own story so I could confidently share mine. She and Grandpa were part of the movement that is now talking about baby loss, even 70 years later. In sharing about the loss and the grief she witnessed in her parents, she gave us permission to say Reece’s name. To admit the pain. To be the parents that “weren’t ok” for a while.
What a powerful way to love someone who is hurting. In this month of awareness, I encourage you to bravely share your story of loss. You never know who you will help heal as a Silence Breaker.
Photo by David Laws of Unsplash