The Urn

Beyond the immediate family and close friends whom my husband and I had informed about Leah’s fetomaternal hemorrhage during our time in the hospital, one of the first people to learn of my daughter’s death was the superintendent in my apartment building. As anyone who has lived in comparable accommodations will tell you, it’s difficult to exist in such close quarters with a community of people and not gain insight into each other’s personal lives. Likewise, it is essentially impossible to avoid discussing the details of a full term pregnancy with neighbours while running into them in shared hallways and stairwells day after day.

I can still remember the encounter like it was yesterday. My parents and sisters escorted my husband and me back home after our two day hospital stay. I was beyond exhausted, both physically and emotionally, and in fierce pain from my surgery as I gingerly made my way through the corridors toward my apartment. Suddenly, there she was, presumably in the company of new tenants who were carrying a mattress down the hallway. Drawing the same conclusion that most people would from the scene unfolding before her, she smiled at me and said: “I’m assuming congratulations are in order?”

Unable to speak, my husband breezed past her and didn’t say a word. Not wanting to ignore her well-meaning query, I paused, raised my red, swollen eyes to meet hers, and offered the only response I could muster: “She passed away.”

Her face was instantly overcome with an unforgettable expression of shock, horror, and sadness. She said nothing in response, and I didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to wait for a reply. Instead, I wobbled as quickly as I could to my apartment and closed the door behind me.

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Early the next day, my husband ran into her again when he took our dog out for his morning jaunt around the building yard. When he returned, he told me all about their conversation. As fate would have it, in addition to her two adult children and the grandchildren they had given her throughout the years, she had lost two babies decades ago. I instantly realized that there had been something unique in the look on her face the previous day when she heard our news. It had expressed more than the shock and surprise that all people feel in the wake of such tragedy. Instead, it had also conveyed a palpable devastation that could only have come from knowing what I was going through.

A number of weeks passed before she and I would speak in-depth about our shared yet unique experiences of loss and maternal bereavement. It was a sunny afternoon in July, and I was returning home from my dog’s afternoon walk. She was sitting alone at a picnic table in the building yard, and as soon as I approached her, she enveloped me in a hug that silently expressed a lifetime’s worth of pain and understanding. And then she shared her story with me.

Her firstborn daughter had come into the world without incident while she and her husband still lived in a Maritime province halfway across the country. However, in the years that followed, she would watch a son, Maxwell, and a daughter, Lucy, die in the hospital after delivering them both prematurely.

She told me how, when her contractions started with Lucy, she called her husband and told him that another one of their babies was going to end up at the cemetery where Maxwell was buried. She recounted the fear and agony of giving birth alone in a hospital room, knowing that the child she was about to deliver wouldn’t live for more than a few hours. And she shared how, when she eventually became pregnant for the fourth time, she was convinced that there was no way this baby would make it home. As such, she did not purchase a single item to prepare for his arrival during her pregnancy, and it was of little surprise to her when, once again, the familiar signs of labour began while she was still in the second trimester.

However, she was surprised when her fourth child and second son clung to life during his extended stay in the NICU. And she was downright shocked when the doctors told her on a cold and blistery Christmas Eve that he was going to be okay, and that she could finally bring him home.

She laughed sardonically at the absurdity of the situation, recalling how she had no crib, no car seat, nothing at all at home to care for a newborn. Since no shops were open on Christmas Eve in her small Maritime town, she began calling her friends in an effort to cobble together the basic items she would need to get her son through his first few days at home.

She told me how difficult it was when, years later, it was decided that their family would move to Ontario in search of better job opportunities, even though two of her children would remain buried halfway across the country. She still visits their graves every year, and she still cries for them every Mother’s Day. And then she told me something that I will carry with me until my dying day. Despite her adult children’s objections, she has made it clear to her family that, when she dies, she wants her body to be cremated and her ashes scattered over the graves of her two deceased children:

I told my son and daughter that I got to spend this life with them, so I want to spend the next life with the children that I didn’t get to raise.”

The love and wisdom in her words resonated with me for a number of reasons. You see, there is a bit of a story behind Leah’s urn. After she died, I knew immediately that I wanted to have her cremated and keep her ashes so that she would always be present in our home. When my husband and I visited a local funeral home several days later to select her urn, I also knew immediately that I wanted the beautiful, hand-painted floral design that was available in both adult and keepsake-sized urns. The funeral director assured us that a keepsake-sized urn would be big enough to house an infant’s ashes, and so the selection was made right then and there.

However, two days later, I received an unexpected telephone call from the same funeral director. In a voice rife with awkwardness and trepidation, he explained that he had misjudged the amount of ashes that would result from Leah’s cremation, and the urn we had selected was not big enough to house all of her remains. I was shocked, to say the least, but I felt too badly for the poor man to be angry. He proceeded to outline our options: We could select an additional keepsake urn to house her remaining ashes; we could scatter her remaining ashes in a special location; or, we could select an adult-sized urn with the same design to contain all of her remains, and in the future one of us could have our ashes added to the urn if we so desired.

He apologized again and told me there was no rush to make a decision. Unsure of what else to say, I thanked him and hung up the phone. I spent the next half hour or so considering my options. It was true that I had always liked the idea of having my own ashes scattered some place with sentimental value, but the thought of not having all of Leah’s remains in a single place filled me with an inexplicable sense of panic. I discussed the situation with my husband, who said the decision was completely up to me. Since I was hardly in an emotional state to ruminate over the various possibilities, I opted for the simplest solution: Within the hour I called the funeral director and told him we would like to keep all of Leah’s ashes in an adult-sized version of the urn we had selected.


I didn’t think too much about the urn in the weeks that followed, until I had the aforementioned conversation with my superintendent. As soon as our discussion ended and I returned inside, I was struck by a heartening epiphany. Later that day I told my husband that, after I die, I want my ashes added to Leah’s urn.

Much like the fellow loss mama who shared her heartbreaking story with me on a sunny afternoon in July, I don’t know what awaits me when my time on this earth comes to an end. But I do know that, when that time comes, I want to be with the much-loved daughter that I didn’t get to raise in this life—in whatever way I can.

The Question Mark

Like many mamas who have walked the devastating path of infant loss before me, one of my most helpful coping strategies during the weeks following Leah’s death was to immerse myself in other women’s stories of loss. As soon as I was physically mobile enough to leave my apartment two days after my cesarean section, my first outing was to the local library, where I proceeded to scour the shelves for any books that would help me feel less alone in my grief.

It may or may not be a coincidence that the first book I stumbled upon was a lesser-known text in the loss community called A Piece of My Heart: Living Through the Grief of Miscarriage, Stillbirth, or Infant Death by Molly Fumia. In this beautifully written memoir, the author recounts her experience of losing her firstborn son, Jeremy, to a sudden infection several days after his birth. This book continues to resonate with me for a number of reasons, including Fumia’s use of liberation theology to emphasize the shared experiences of grief and loss that humanity holds in common. Yet at the same time, she explains how the death of a child is unique from other types of loss. Whereas the death of an adult marks the end of a life narrative with a definitive period, the death of a child can only leave a question mark, reflecting the plethora of unknowns that define an unlived life.

It seems that this is an aspect of my grief that many people fail to grasp. When a spouse, parent, grandparent—or any dear one who was able to fully experience all the love and beauty that this life has to offer—passes on, there is no doubt that their absence leaves a painful, gaping hole in our lives. When this happens, we grieve for the lost relationship, yet we can also look back fondly on the memories we shared with them and celebrate their legacy. But the grieving process is different when a child dies. My daughter did not get the chance to forge her own relationships, fall in love, have her own children, or make a broader difference in the world. She never had the opportunity to be more than a dark-haired, porcelain-skinned baby whose life was cut tragically short. And as her mother, this can never simply be “okay” with me.


Since Leah looked strikingly similar to me as a baby, I always think about her when I see photos of myself as a child. Would she have grown into a girl who likes to cuddle the family dog on the couch when she has a cold, like I did?


Would she fall off a rocking chair and break her arm, making her mama sick with worry?

This is why it frustrates me to no end when bereaved parents are expected to “move on” and reach a peaceful resolution with their grief. Sure, I can choose to change my state of mind by being thankful for the time I got with Leah, just as I can purposefully reflect on all the joy she brought me during her brief life. Similarly, I can choose to look toward the future and hope that I will eventually have a living child to bring home, rather than dwell on the daughter I lost. I can engage in all of these mindfulness techniques in an attempt to make myself feel better, but at the end of the day, such practices only diminish the injustice of Leah’s experience by making her life and death all about me. Yes, I lost out on a relationship with my daughter. But Leah lost so much more than that.

Think about this for a moment: Generally speaking, it is expected that parents will actively bear witness to any pain and hardship that their children experience. We assume that parents should live their lives for their children, sacrificing their own happiness and comfort along the way. So why do we expect parents to grieve for their children in purely selfish terms? All too often, bereaved parents are advised to focus on the positive, perhaps by being thankful for any living children they have, or by looking toward the future with the hope of having more children—anything to detract from the fact that a person they created was robbed of an entire lifetime. Such platitudes ultimately deprive the deceased child of their humanity, reducing them to an object that can be easily forgotten and replaced.

Now, I understand that this may be a moot point for those who believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that these children are in Heaven (or another similarly idyllic afterlife), celebrating each day in the presence of their divine Creator. To those who believe this…well…to be frank…I envy your certaintyAs noted previously, I struggle with the idea of Heaven, despite my Christian faith and my aching desire to believe that I will see my daughter again someday. To be sure, an unshakable belief in the Christian conception of Heaven would simplify my grieving process by allowing me to focus solely on my lost relationship, while otherwise drawing comfort from the knowledge that Leah’s spirit lives on in a place with no pain or suffering. However, the INFJ-analytic within me inevitably questions if this belief is merely an attempt to absolve myself from fully confronting the brutal reality of my daughter’s death.

Regardless if Leah continues to exist in a spiritual realm, the question mark that defines her existence in this present life haunts me each and every day. While I certainly grieve for the mother-daughter relationship that I have been deprived of, mostly I think about the experiences that Leah will never have in her own right. Many of my own most treasured memories involve my first tastes of independence on the road toward self-actualization. It pains me to think that Leah will never get to strike out on her own in this world and forge her own identity. She will never huddle together with friends at a sleepover party, snacking on potato chips and giggling wildly about nothing in particular. She will never get the chance to discover a social cause that ignites her passions and inspires her to make a difference in the world. She will never become immersed in a gripping novel, be moved to tears by an exquisite piece of music, find herself breathless at the simple beauty of a bright summer’s day, or feel the warmth of a lover’s embrace.

Leah will always be my beautiful and much-loved daughter, but she should have had the chance to be so much more than that. She never got the opportunity to make her mark on the world as a friend, a student, an artist, an activist, a spouse, a mother, or any other identity that might have suited her passions and skills. She deserved to be all these things and more over the course of many years. Ultimately, she deserved far more than the question mark that will always define the parameters of her unlived life.