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.

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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 lifeā€”in whatever way I can.