Here I sit, reflecting on this day last month; another Independence Day come and gone. The 4th of July was very surreal for us last year. Elijah had been laid to rest on June 30th. Just days later, we found ourselves sitting in a park that coincidentally overlooks the same hospital where I gave birth to him, waiting for the fireworks to begin. It was the first “normal” activity we’d done since his funeral and burial. I watched in silent agony as toddlers and older kids ran around the playground without a care in the world, their laughter echoing across the park. I cried inside as saw all the pregnant women and parents with newborns out enjoying the festivities with their families. There were strollers of every variety scattered about. I felt like we stuck out like a sore thumb, sitting there just the two of us. It’s the same feeling I experience on a daily basis now. We are parents to a beautiful little boy. Nobody can see him though, so most people file us mentally away in that awkward category of “sort-of parents.” Many avoid talking about it since they simply have no idea what to say. Some do acknowledge our parenthood but still struggle to understand what kind of parents we really are.
I’ll tell you what kind of parents we are. We are parents who are head over heels in love with our son. The second we laid eyes on him we were over the moon. You see, when you give birth to a stillborn baby, you still fall in love. It’s not only tears and sobbing. We are meeting our child for the very first time just like any other parents in the world. Brad and I studied every single one of his delicate features as we held him, trying so hard to burn the images into our minds so we’d never forget. We are parents who had to try to fit a lifetime of memories into a few hours. We are parents who had plans for our son’s nursery design, his daily infant schedule, his elementary school days, the scary teen years, even college and future grandchildren. We are parents who wake up each morning and have to use every last bit of courage in our bodies to force ourselves to live another day without our baby. We are parents who visit a cemetery on holidays and birthdays. We don’t get to watch our child perform in church or school programs, open presents, blow out candles, sing adorable Christmas carols, hunt for Easter eggs, or make cute valentines for his classmates. As his parents, we try to find creative ways to still include him in those celebrations. We are parents who silently think of all the different milestones our son would be hitting as the months and years pass. Four years from now, we’ll think about how we would’ve been sending him off with a backpack full of supplies to his first day of kindergarten. We are parents who grieve but at the same time are filled with gratitude for the blessing of this amazing boy and we want the world to know it. If we could go back in time and choose not to have him to spare ourselves the pain, we wouldn’t. We are parents who try to make the world a more loving, giving, and beautiful place, all in his name. We are parents who decide to celebrate our child even though he is not physically here. This is our parenthood. Please don’t take it away from us.
One woman shared a recent experience she had at her local grocery store. A fellow customer in the checkout line asked if she had any kids. She replied that she has three kids, all of them angels. Hearing the woman’s comment, the cashier proceeded to say that she didn’t “actually” have kids so she could not understand what parenthood is like. This was incredibly painful for the woman. Sadly, those types of comments are all too common. Let me clarify this issue. There is no “actually” having kids. You either have them or you don’t. No matter how long their life was, they still existed. Yes, it is true that still parents may not experience the same situations as parents who are raising living children. We may not go through the stress of bedtime routines, temper tantrums, and the daily messes kids create wherever they happen to be. We may not be changing diapers, breastfeeding, giving baths, going to school events, or taking our children to the zoo or Disney World. Those things are definitely parenting and believe me, we’d give anything to be in those shoes. Our child dying was not in our plans. We did not choose this. While you are parenting in your way, we are parenting in our way. Angel babies are more than just a sad tragedy. The relationships between loss parents and their angel children are so much more complex than you can imagine. We are not as fundamentally different from earthly parents as many might think.
One of our biggest jobs as loss parents is to figure out how to incorporate our angel babies into our lives. They are our whole world. It would break us to the core if we were forced to just forget about our babies. Loss parents often feel embarrassed and/or face ridicule from others outside the loss community about how they choose to incorporate their angels into their lives. This should not be happening. For those who haven’t lost a child, try to imagine waking up tomorrow with one of your children dead. Would you want to simply forget they ever existed? Of course not, but this is often what angel parents get told to do. Some loss parents order special teddy bears that are the exact weight their baby was at birth or bears that play their child’s heartbeat when squeezed. Many set up memorial areas, a shelf or other type of space in their home, to hold all of their child’s mementos. Others put elaborate and beautiful touches on their child’s final resting place. We write and talk to our babies. We celebrate/memorialize their birthdays and angel anniversaries in a multitude of ways. For Elijah’s first birthday, we got a full size cake from our favorite local bakery and shared it together. For Christmas, we encouraged family members and friends to donate baby boy toys to charity in Elijah’s name if they wished to do so. We take and post pictures of our son’s grave and the different flowers we bring him when we visit. People often don’t know what to make of the things we do in regards to our angel babies. If you are a non-loss parent reading this, just know that the things that may seem strange or off-putting to you are the only ways we can continue to involve our child in our lives. If you truly care for us, please don’t make us feel ashamed for however we choose to remember and honor our babies. Doing so is a big part of our parenthood.
Another thing I’ve noticed in the stillbirth community is that loss parents themselves are afraid of acknowledging their own parenthood. I often see the question posted, “how do I answer when someone asks if I have kids?” in support groups. How sad is that? Now, I absolutely do not blame any loss parent who simply does not feel comfortable sharing the fact that they have an angel baby or the story of their loss. It is alright to feel that way and you are entitled to say/do whatever feels right to you. I’m speaking more to the loss parents who desperately want to acknowledge their baby and share their child’s story but don’t out of fear of making others uncomfortable. Sometimes people, even if they’re well-meaning, will try to change the subject when a loss parent tries to speak about their angel baby. Sometimes they’ll even tell a loss parent that they shouldn’t speak about their baby because it’s too depressing. Well, I personally believe that is a sad perspective to have about a precious life. I understand that talking about loss is so incredibly hard but we cannot let the loss itself become the only focus. All of these children gone too soon had beautiful lives and amazing impacts on the world around them. My son only lived for months when he should have lived for decades and that is absolutely tragic but I don’t want to focus only on the sadness. I want to focus on how his life has changed us and our families for the better and how through his existence so many wonderful things are happening. How can we expect people to acknowledge our parenthood if we don’t acknowledge it ourselves? We have to become the catalysts for change. Don’t be afraid to speak about your child. They aren’t dirty words or taboo subjects. Your child will always be your child, in life and in death. Discussion of miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss will only become less taboo when we join our voices together to make it that way. We can’t keep hiding in the shadows.
Elijah made us parents. We can’t ever thank him here on earth for that amazing gift but we try to live our lives in a way that reflects his impact. He inspires us both to try to take better care of ourselves, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We want to make him proud. He may have only been on earth for a short time but he still lives his eternal life in heaven. He has taught me and continues to teach me so many lessons and new perspectives. He has taught me to cherish every moment because moments don’t last forever. He has taught me to look for beauty where I’d never thought to look for it before. He has taught me that laughter is truly healing. He has taught me that kindness is the fuel that keeps us all going in such a cruel world. Countless acts of kindness have been done in Elijah’s name. He taught me that tiny can be mighty. He helped me find a strong voice in the depth of my soul to speak out and raise awareness for stillbirth. He inspired me to create care boxes for my fellow stillbirth parents and to volunteer for other pregnancy loss causes. He awakened a love inside my heart that I didn’t know was possible. That love makes the world I see around me brighter. His spirit shines through all who love him. You see, death cannot erase or extinguish his life! Death cannot steal away his impact. Death cannot win and it cannot take our parenthood from us.
In my belief, parenting consists of two major things, love and work. Bereaved parenting is a journey of love and work just as earthly parenting is. The “work” may be different but it’s still there. The love for an angel child is no less deep than the love for a living child. We should not have to fight to defend our parenthood or the legitimacy of our children. Every human being was once a tiny baby. Tucked safely away in a memory box, I have an ultrasound photo of me when my mom was only 8 weeks pregnant. Most of you don’t know me personally but just imagine the nearly three decades of memories and experiences my family would have missed out on with me if my mom had lost me during pregnancy. You certainly would not be reading this article right now. If we can acknowledge the legitimacy of older children and adults who have passed on then there’s no reason we can’t acknowledge our angel babies. They are people too. We’ve already lost so much and cannot bear to have anything else taken away. Acknowledging us as active mothers and fathers to our angel baby (or babies) is one of the greatest gifts we could receive. It doesn’t just acknowledge us. It also acknowledges our precious children and that is truly priceless.
Amy Peterson lives in central Minnesota with her wonderful husband, Brad. Their beloved son, Elijah David, was stillborn at 22 weeks on June 22, 2016. They currently share their home with Brad’s service dog, Empire, another sweet dog named Baylee and a spunky cat named Peanut. In her free time she enjoys writing, reading, music, photography, being out in nature, cooking, and spending time with family and friends.
Amy is finding purpose in working for the pregnancy loss community through volunteering and charity work. This journey has led her to meet some of the most compassionate and amazing people. She is passionate about giving a voice to the issues surrounding miscarriage, stillbirth, and neonatal death. Her biggest focus now is to honor the life and memory of her son.
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