One Year

Dear Leah,

It is June 21, 2017. Today you would be one year old. It seems impossible that an entire year has passed since I experienced the best and worst 33 hours of my life. Contrary to my fear that the passage of time would dull my memories of your brief life, I can still vividly recall every beautiful and excruciating detail of the day you came into the world.

I remember breaking into sobs while poking and shaking my belly in the early midnight hours, trying desperately to get you to move before finally deciding to go to the hospital.

I remember hearing my midwife say that I still had a “happy baby,” but you wouldn’t be happy for long, so it was a good thing that I came in when I did. I remember thanking God for protecting you as the nurses prepped me for my emergency c-section. It pains me to recall these final moments in which I still believed that I would get to bring you home.

I remember seeing you for the first time in the NICU after the doctors told me they would have to send you to a special children’s hospital for further treatment. I asked them if I could touch you, and a nurse opened your bassinet so I could stroke your hair. It was heartbreaking to see you hooked up to so many machines, struggling to cling to life in that cold hospital.

I remember the visceral shock that enveloped my body when they told me your condition was far worse than any of us could have anticipated, and that you were unlikely to survive the intensive interventions that would be undertaken if they sent you away.

I remember the sense of awe I felt when they brought you to me for palliative care and placed you in my arms for the first time. To this day, I still have not seen anyone or anything so beautiful. I remember holding you against my skin and kissing your head over and over again, caught in the throes of absolute joy and utter devastation.

I remember crying in the evening as your initial dosage of medication began to wear off, and I started to see and feel the effects of the seizures that were continuously ravaging your body. Were you in pain? Were you afraid? Did you somehow know that you were with your mother, and that I would have gladly traded my own life for yours if given the choice?      

Instead of celebrating one year of cuddles, kisses, and laughter with you, today marks one year of tears, heartache, and longing. It is agonizing to imagine what you would look like, sound like, and be like if you were here, growing into the beautiful girl I know you would be. Instead of crying over still photographs and combing through your mementos, today I would be creating and capturing new memories to cherish. I would be dressing you up in some frilly monstrosity and watching you smash into your first birthday cake. Later on, I would hold you on my lap and read you a bedtime story before kissing you goodnight. 

I wish I could say that I have found some celebratory way to honour your memory today, but any attempt I make to shroud your unlived life in positivity ultimately feels hollow. As grateful and proud as I am to be your mother, you should have lived long enough to be more than my precious baby. Today I am haunted by the reminders of what will never be: You will never smile; you will never laugh; you will never experience any of the light and joy that this life has to offer. It is crushing to think that your legacy will ultimately live and die with me, and that you never got the chance to leave a broader mark on this world in your own right.        

People often say that you are still with me and that your spirit lives on. Even if this is true, it cannot quell the crushing pain of a mother’s empty arms. I want so badly to do the things that non-bereaved parents are able to do each day. I want to rock you back to sleep in the middle of the night, comfort you after you’ve taken a tumble, and feel you wrap your arms around my neck while I hold you. More than anything, I want to know for certain that you understand how deeply loved you are.

It has been one year of a lifetime in which I will continue to wonder who you would have been. No matter what the future holds, you will always be the irreplaceable daughter who first made me a mother.

I miss you, baby girl. 

All my love and a kiss,

Your Mama

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Six Months

Dear Leah,

It is December 21, 2016. Today you would be six months old. If you were here, your dad and I would be relishing in this snowy-white December and celebrating each moment of our first holiday season with you. It still frustrates me to no end to see the rest of the world adorned with bright lights and festive cheer, impervious to my sadness and oblivious to your absence.

Indeed, with each passing week I become more painfully aware of the joy that seemingly surrounds me at every turn—other people’s joy, expressed by the smiles and laughter of those whose lives are untouched by tragedy. Lately it feels like I am existing in an invisible realm that is completely disconnected from these non-bereaved people, observing them from afar without the ability to comprehend or share in their happiness. Each day I stand alone, outside these parameters of joy, clinging tightly to my tear-filled memories of you.

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Yet even in your absence, you remain my constant companion. I find myself overcome by a state of paralysis each time I catch a glimpse of a dark-haired baby in a crowded shopping center or a bundled-up toddler in the park. They make me wonder about the girl you would be growing into before my eyes each day, just as they remind me of all the experiences we have been so cruelly deprived of.

People often say that you are still with me in spirit, and some days I believe this to be true. Yet this sentiment does little to quell my aching arms that long to hold your living, breathing body. Still, I do find solace in any material relic that pays tribute to your life. This week I brought home a crystal angel ornament that I will hang in your memory each and every December in the years to come. It is a meager substitute for the ornament that I had hoped to purchase for your first Christmas this year, but I do draw comfort from its symbolic beauty. 

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Likewise, the abstract notion that you continue to live on in my heart cannot possibly compensate me for the lifetime of memories we have been robbed of. I long to watch you fall asleep at night, to hold your warm skin against mine during late night feedings, and chuckle as you fuss and squirm during a diaper change. It cuts me deeply to think about all the hugs, kisses, and “I love you’s” that we will never get to share—so deeply that I occasionally wonder if it is possible to die of a broken heart.

It has been six months of a lifetime in which I will continue to ache for you, my firstborn daughter. Yet during my darkest grieving moments I remind myself that, if given the choice, I would do it all again. These days it seems the only resolution that brings me some semblance of peace is the knowledge that every moment of joy you brought me during our brief time together is worth the anguish that greets me with each new sunrise. I miss you, my darling girl, more than words can possibly say.

 All my love and a kiss,

Your Mama

 

Three Months

Dear Leah,

It is September 21, 2016. Today you would be three months old. Sometimes it feels like an eternity has passed since the fleeting moments we spent together in our grey hospital room, looking into each other’s eyes and saying our “hellos” and “goodbyes” all at once. Other times it feels like it was only yesterday. One thing has not changed, though: My arms and heart still ache for you every moment of every day.

If you were here, I imagine it would be readily apparent by now that I have very little knowledge and even less practical life experience when it comes to taking care of babies. I don’t really know how you would be spending the bulk of these crisp, late summer days or what sorts of milestones I would be anxiously anticipating. I imagine you would still be sleeping a lot, and that I would diligently come to your bassinet every hour or so to assure myself that you are still breathing. I expect our lives would feel like a perpetual carousel of feedings, diaper changes, crying fits, and naps, but I know that any frustrations on my part would dissipate each time I hold you close and see you smile.

Sometimes it’s difficult not to slip into an imaginary alternate universe where our lives are indeed unfolding this way. I long for this other life, one where I am not commended for being “brave” or “strong” or “inspirational,” and you are not the baby who “touched so many lives” during her brief existence. I don’t want us to be any of these things—I just want you. All I want is to be “just another mom” who is too frazzled to hold a coherent conversation and who elicits judgemental glares from strangers in the grocery store when her child won’t stop crying. More than anything I want you to be “just another baby” who will eventually grow into a demanding toddler that throws temper tantrums and leaves an unending trail of toys and cracker crumbs on the floor for me to clean. I want this mundane, messy, and thoroughly unremarkable life for both of us more than I can possibly say.

As the weeks continue to creep by and I continue to move forward simply because there is nowhere else to go, there is another thing that has not changed: I still see you everywhere. During the months that I carried you I saw you in every baby and young girl who crossed my path. I would smile to myself when I watched them, wondering if you would also grow into a bumbling toddler who dances with carefree abandon when a catchy pop song plays in the mall, or if you would perhaps be a shy girl who hides behind her parents and hesitates to introduce herself to strangers. I still see you when I cross paths with these children, but instead of imagining whether you will share their interests and dispositions, I blink back tears as I think about what will never be.

It pains me to no end that your life will always be a list of unanswered questions and a slew of unrealized potentials. Every day I wonder about the person you would be growing into before my eyes if we had been able to walk through this life together. I often have to remind myself that, no matter what, it was inevitable that you would break my heart. Had we shared the life that I hoped for, you would have broken it piece by piece as you grew slightly more self-sufficient and individuated yourself from me each day. The ache would have been subtle and perhaps unnoticeable most days, but it would have always been there. However, instead of this dull ache I have been inundated with a lifetime’s worth of pain all at once. It is the crushing, unnatural heartbreak that comes from an instantaneous and total separation between a mother and child.

I long for you every day, my darling girl. I cry for you every morning and pray for you every night. You will always be the person who taught me about the ferocious, soul-crushing reservoir of love that resides within me. You are also the one who made me acutely aware of the delicate and finite nature of this life. Because of you I no longer shrink away from whatever may or may not await me when I eventually breathe my last breath; if that is where you are, that is also where I want to be.

Still, I resent that you will never simply be the daughter I got to bring home from the hospital and raise into adulthood. You will never be the baby who throws food at me from your highchair or cries for my warm embrace in the middle of the night. You will never be the mischievous toddler who pulls the dog’s tail and sits on my lap to hear a bedtime story. You will never be the prepubescent girl who tells me how embarrassing I am when I try to joke with you and your friends, or the young woman who gets trapped in my barnacle hug when you pack up to move away from home.

It has been three months of a lifetime in which I will continue to miss you. While my days remain cold and bleak, I take comfort in knowing that each one brings me closer to you, wherever you happen to be.

All my love and a kiss,

Your Mama

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Summer’s End

Even though it will be several weeks before the first day of autumn is officially upon us, for me the experiences and expectations that encapsulate summertime conclude when students and educators alike prepare to head back to school. While this transition is sometimes bittersweet, more often than not I find myself looking ahead with anticipation during this time, rather than dwelling on what I’m leaving behind. I’ve never minded trading summer barbecue fare for spice-laden soups, floral-print dresses for comfy sweaters, or blazing heat for cool, crisp breezes. Likewise, after several months of relative freedom in my academic pursuits, I often look forward to preparing weekly lessons and meeting new groups of students as another semester commences each September.

This year I feel quite differently about it all. I imagine it would still be this way if Leah was here with me. I know it would have been difficult to return to a fall work routine after savoring these first two months with her, even if I would only have to venture away from home to teach once a week. But now I suddenly fear leaving summer behind for entirely different reasons.

As an exercise in mindfulness, during the final weeks of my pregnancy I had adamantly resolved to restrict my anxious imaginings by only picturing immediate and positive outcomes. I purposefully decided not to fret about where I would go to pump breast milk on a busy university campus several times a day in the fall, or how I would manage to meet new writing deadlines while caring for a fussy newborn. I did not allow myself to worry about how my husband and I would juggle the logistics of childcare arrangements if we ended up teaching on the same days each week in the winter term, or whether we would find a daycare space at all during that time.

Instead, I forged a psychological contract of sorts between myself and my anxiety, acknowledging that I would eventually concern myself with these future uncertainties, but for now I would simply anticipate and enjoy my sweet girl’s first weeks in the world. I imagined strapping Leah into her carrier and taking her for afternoon walks with my dog each day. I pictured feeding her late at night in bed while my husband slept next to me. I thought about celebrating my 30th birthday at home with a bottle of wine and takeout sushi, welcoming the first of many years that we would spend together as a whole, completed family.

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One of many summer afternoon walks with Matthew and Kiwi

In many ways, I had envisioned summer 2016 as the “summer of Leah.” And this certainly has been the case, although the outcome has been strikingly different from what I had hoped for: This was the summer of Leah’s birth, but also of her death. Rather than spending my days and nights changing Leah’s diapers and holding her close, I have spent this time aching for her presence and grieving for the life she will never get to live. When I take my dog for his afternoon walks, I can actually feel Leah’s absence, and more often than not it causes tears to flow behind my dark sunglasses. When I go to sleep each night I begrudgingly wrap my aching arms around a childhood teddy bear, rather than the beautiful baby I long to hold.

As I awake in the mornings now and feel the cool breeze creeping in through my bedroom window, I am silently reminded that the summer of Leah, and the “official” period of time that I have been able to set aside for mourning her, is coming to a close. If Leah was here, I would be heading back to work in the coming weeks and preparing to balance these responsibilities with my new role as mother. Now that she is gone, I must still venture back into “the real world,” but learn to do so while carrying my grief, rather than the tiny girl who captured my heart less than a year ago.

Likewise, it is often said that the pain of grieving begins to alleviate with each passing day. But this brings little comfort to me when the passage of time also takes me further away from the fleeting hours that I got to spend holding and caring for Leah in the hospital. As each new morning eventually fades into night, I sense my memories of her sweet face, soft skin, and heartbreaking cries growing dimmer. While it may not be rational, I fear that my memory of her all-too-brief life may eventually fade into nonentity as these final summer days grow shorter, colder, and darker.

In this sense, the prospect that grief will remain my constant companion from here on is a strange comfort to me. I may not have allowed myself to vividly envision Leah’s life beyond these initial summer months, but I do anticipate new triggers to emerge with each temporal milestone that passes. Indeed, it is safe to say that I will actively seek out these little reminders of her wherever I can find them. As much as they will provoke feelings of pain and longing, they will also keep me connected to all the latent hopes and dreams that I carried for my daughter’s life during my pregnancy. In the most profound sense, they will keep me connected to her.

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The tree outside our second story window in full bloom several weeks before my due date

 

 

 

 

 

The Aftermath

Shortly after Leah’s death, I began regularly conversing with a fellow loss mama. After sharing with her how mystified I felt by my grieving process, she sent me this image:

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Image source via Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation

I think that pretty much sums it up.

When I first returned home from the hospital, I was indeed too shocked to fully process all that had happened. For the first two weeks there were many moments where it felt like I was still waiting to go into labour and bring my daughter home. I also experienced a healthy dose of denial, where my mind blatantly refused to accept the magnitude of my loss. I would place my hand on my soft postpartum belly and shake my head, wondering how the tiny girl who had been kicking fiercely against my ribs for so long was suddenly nowhere to be found. I was no longer pregnant, yet I had no baby. I had a c-section scar, newly widened mama hips, and engorged breasts overflowing with milk that was meant to nourish and sustain Leah’s life. I was a mother without a child, and it made no sense.

At the same time, there were many other moments where I felt like I would be crushed under the weight of this devastating new reality. Each morning I woke up thinking how I should be taking care of Leah, yet she was not here. I had tied up all my ongoing academic projects weeks ago so that I could spend the entire summer exclusively being a mother to my daughter. I physically yearned to hold her in my arms again and feel her soft newborn skin against mine. I spent hours alone in my room, rocking back and forth and sobbing from the sheer agony of missing her. Suddenly all the light and purpose was gone from my life. The world seemed full of joy and promise before Leah came into being, but as soon as I saw that positive pregnancy test I began carving out space in my life that was specifically for her. And now that she was gone, no other person, thing, or experience could fill that void. This gaping hole will remain for the rest of my life; it is the price I have to pay for loving and losing my darling girl.

In the seemingly endless moments since those initial weeks of mourning, I have grieved for all the pain and struggle that Leah experienced in the hospital. I have grieved for the life she will never get to live. And I have grieved for all the moments I will never get to share with her. I will never watch her take her first steps, or board the bus for her first day of school. I will never sing to her as she blows out the candles on a birthday cake, or snuggle up with her to read a bedtime story.

Most of all, however, I have grieved for the love I will never get to share with her. From the moment I knew she existed, I began cultivating a love that was and will always be just for her. By the end of my pregnancy I was simply bursting at the seams, ecstatic to finally shower this love upon her outside the womb. Now I must carry this love with me until my dying day. It is often said that grief is love with no outlet, and I am now acutely aware of what this means.

More than anything, I grieve because Leah will never know that, of everyone who has ever lived, loved, and lost, for the brief moment in time that she was here I loved her and still love her with every fiber of my being. And I grieve because I will never feel her wrap her little arms around me and hear her say “I know you love me, Mommy. I love you too.

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In Loving Memory Part 2: Paying Tribute

The days between Leah’s death and her memorial service are now a blur in my mind’s eye. Getting through each day was difficult but manageable since there was always a task to get done, a visitor to entertain, or a phone call to return. This busyness prolonged the initial numbness that often jump starts the grieving process, and I was grateful for it. As long as I didn’t have too much time to spend alone with my thoughts, I was able to put my emotions aside and function like something akin to normal.

I spent the days leading up to the memorial service putting together a picture slideshow and writing a eulogy to share. Finally, the day before the service, Leah’s urn was ready to pick up. Its hand painted floral design was almost as beautiful as she was, and it was strangely comforting to bring it home.

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Leah’s urn with the framed photos we displayed at the memorial service

At last the day arrived. My husband and I were deeply touched that so many family and friends traveled from near and far to join us for the service and take part in honouring Leah’s life. People kept commenting on how strong we were and how impressive it was that we were able to maintain our composure for the service. For me, however, this was not a challenge. As tragic as my loss was, I was proud to share my daughter’s story with everyone and was determined to do her memory justice. I did not waver or hesitate when I read the eulogy, which was addressed as a letter to Leah from my husband and I:

Dear Leah,

It’s difficult to explain how a single day can be both the best and worst of our lives. Because of you, we will always remember Tuesday, June 21, 2016 this way. This is the day that you entered the world and we were able to meet you and hold you in our arms. However, on this day we also learned that our time with you would be much, much shorter than we ever could have imagined.

I vividly recall the day that you initially came into our lives. I can still see the shocked expression on your dad’s face when I showed him my positive pregnancy test. You were a surprise, to say the least, but one that was much wanted and instantly loved. I remember walking home from the doctor’s office the next day in the beautiful October sun and feeling overcome with joy that you were going to be a part of my life from here on.

I’m grateful that you took it easy on me for the next nine months. Only one bout of morning sickness and some sporadic cravings. At fifteen weeks I started feeling your little flutters and by nineteen weeks you were kicking every day. I savored every interaction that we had during this time. Unfortunately you seemed a bit shy of your dad, since you would hide away each time I told him to come feel one of your kicks! It made me so happy to feel you growing big and strong, and I prayed every single day that God would keep you healthy and safe.

Needless to say it was quite scary for me when, the day before your birthday, I didn’t feel you kicking quite as much as usual. Dad and I had already been expecting your arrival for a few days, so we decided to head to the hospital rather than take any chances. Things progressed very quickly from there. Within an hour I was being prepared for an emergency caesarean section. Still, despite our fear, we were excited that we would be meeting you very soon. It broke our hearts that they had to take you away immediately and hook you up to so many machines to try to preserve your delicate little life.

Several hours passed before we heard any updates about how you were doing. The news we received was far worse than we could have anticipated—not only were you very sick, but it was also unlikely that you would live through the day. When your dad and I heard this, we knew we wanted to spend as many precious hours with you as possible, so we asked them to bring you to our hospital room so we could spend the day together as a family.

I can’t describe how wonderful it felt to hold you against my skin and kiss your head for the first time. I took in every inch of you—your smell, the creases in your legs and arms, the same full crown of dark hair that I had as a newborn, and your dad’s beautiful deep green eyes. We marveled at how strong you were as you grabbed your blanket and raised your head off my chest. I was even able to feed you, and it meant so much to be able to give you every bit of love and care that I could during our short time together. Dad and I stayed up with you all night, rocking you back and forth when you cried and telling you how much we love you.

By Wednesday morning we could sense that our time together was growing short. We could tell that it was becoming more difficult for you to breathe and the seizures you experienced in the first hours of your life were returning. Still, you spent the morning and afternoon in our arms, and I was even able to feed you again. I am so grateful that I was able to hold you and comfort you when you breathed your last breath several hours later.

And so, my darling daughter, your dad and I want to say thank you for coming into our lives. The love we have for you has fundamentally changed us, and it will never fade away. Thank you for being so brave and strong; you fought so hard to stay with us, and the two beautiful days that we spent together far surpassed what any of the doctors had expected. You touched so many lives during your short time on this earth, and you will always be a part of our family. You are God’s gift to us and we love you more than you will ever know.

Hugs and kisses,

Mom and Dad

It meant so much to receive such palpable love and support from our family and friends that day. Strangely enough, I did not want the day to end. For a moment in time, it felt as if the world had stopped to take notice of a precious baby girl whose life came and went in the twinkling of an eye. On that day my grief for Leah was truly shared by the most important people in my life.

However I also knew that, after this moment passed, the world would have to start turning again. I knew that in the coming weeks the visits, messages, and phone calls would dwindle as everyone around me continued on with their lives. As much as people could sympathize and offer their love, only my husband and I would have to return home to a bassinet that still stood silent and empty next to our bed. In many ways, it wasn’t until this shared day of mourning ended that my own grief journey truly began.

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In Loving Memory Part 1: Making Plans

Touching Leah’s body for the last time before leaving her behind at the hospital was undoubtedly the most difficult moment of my life. Never again would I caress the soft folds of her skin, which had now turned pale and cold. Never again would I hold her warm belly against my chest, our hearts beating together as one. I returned countless times to her bassinet in the corner of my hospital room to stroke her cheeks and hold her tiny hands, all the while she lay still in her white dressing gown. Even in death she was beautiful, like a delicate porcelain doll. As we packed up and prepared to leave, I finally bent down to give her one last kiss.

Goodbye my sweet girl,” I whispered into her ear. “Mommy loves you more than you’ll ever know.”

The grossly unnatural act of returning home without my daughter was initially eased by my lingering shock and exhaustion. I had not slept in 48 hours and so much had happened during that time, it was beyond my mental capacity to process everything just yet. I don’t believe I cried too much that first night. Instead, my husband and I lay next to each other in bed, holding hands and discussing our disbelief that any of the previous days’ events had happened at all. It felt like a bad dream that we would wake up from after a good night’s rest.

Of course it wasn’t a dream. When I woke up the next morning the empty bassinet standing next to my bed was all too real, and the crushing weight of this new reality hit me afresh. “She’s supposed to be here,” I thought to myself as I let the tears wash over me. Still, there were plans to make for Leah’s arrangements, and they mercifully gave me a sense of purpose and a place to focus my energy during that first week of mourning.

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The contents of Leah’s memory box: My positive pregnancy test, her pacifier, the blankets she used in the hospital, her hand and foot prints, her knitted hat and “angel wings”

I knew immediately that I wanted to have Leah cremated and keep her ashes so that she would always be present in our home. It was decided that we would hold a memorial service for her in my hometown so that we could share her little life with all our family and friends. In the meantime my husband and I printed out all the photos we had taken during our hospital stay and put an album together. I savored every moment of this process. In a strange way, making these preparations allowed me to feel as if I was taking care of her. I was still her mother, after all, even though I was perusing urn and funeral card designs for her instead of changing her diapers and fussing over which outfit to dress her in each day.

Part of this process also included writing something for her funeral card. At first I resisted the idea, feeling too numb to channel any emotional or creative energy. But one evening my inherent writer’s instinct kicked in, and the poem that I would title “Leah” came together in my mind in a matter of minutes:

 

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The poem I wrote for Leah as it appears in the funeral card

Read the second part of In Loving Memory here.

 

 

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Leah’s Story Part 2: Saying Goodbye

Roughly three hours after delivering Leah by emergency cesarean section, the doctors gave her medication to suppress her seizures and brought her to my hospital room for palliative care. My husband and I waited with bated breath, since nobody knew how long she would live once her life supports were removed. Since the drugs from my surgery were now wearing off, I was finally able to really see her when they placed her in my arms. She was bigger than we had anticipated, weighing 7 pounds, 2 ounces and measuring 20 inches long, and she was more beautiful than I could have imagined. She had my lips and, as my family and I had long speculated, she had the same full head of dark chestnut hair that I had been born with 29 years ago.

I can’t describe how wonderful it felt to hold her skin-to-skin for the first time. “There you are, my darling girl,” I whispered into her hair. “I’ve been waiting for you for so long.” I traced each fold of her deliciously chubby body with my fingers and stroked her head for hours. If given the choice, I would have continued to do so for an eternity. Exhausted and sedated from the drugs she had been given, my baby girl nestled into my chest and slept. I would like to think that she instinctively knew she was finally in her mother’s arms, safe and warm where she belonged.

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While I relished my time with Leah, my husband assumed the difficult duty of calling our family and friends to share our tragic news. My parents and sisters were already en route to the hospital from my hometown three hours away. Soon our room would be filled to the brim with love from our family, but it is those first quiet hours that I shared alone with my daughter that remain most vivid in my mind’s eye.

As the hours hurried on and evening approached, Leah finally opened her eyes. They were a beautiful deep green, just like her dad’s. At the same time, the seriousness of her condition was becoming more tangible as her initial dosage of medication wore off. It was evident that her body was being continuously ravaged by seizures, resulting in sudden, robotic movements that made my heart break. After my family left for the evening, my midwife helped me express colostrum to feed her, which proved difficult since she had not developed a sucking reflex. Even so, it was important that I give her the nourishing liquid that my body had produced for her, and I desperately wanted to care for her in every way that I could during our short time together.

Refusing to miss a moment with her, I stayed up and held Leah all night. Despite the pain from my c-section, I managed to gingerly walk around my room and bounce her gently when she cried. Early in the morning, my husband curled up next to me in bed where we stayed side-by-side, holding her together.

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Leah in my husband’s arms in the early hours of June 22, 2016

It soon became apparent that our time together was growing short. Leah’s breathing became increasingly laboured and her seizures were becoming more frequent and pronounced. She held on for the morning and my family was able to spend more time with her. The nurses kept coming in to check on us and they attempted to give her more medicine to suppress the seizures. Her lack of sucking reflex made this difficult, however, and the sound of her choking coughs brought tears to my eyes.

Shortly before 1pm, Leah’s lips suddenly turned blue and the colour drained from her face. Her eyes rolled back before snapping shut, and her body began convulsing in my arms. My husband asked everyone to leave before sitting next to me in bed once again; we knew that it was time. I sobbed and silently begged her not to open her eyes. I simply could not stand to look into them during those final moments. A nurse placed her stethoscope on Leah’s chest and confirmed what we already knew.

She’s gone.”

And just as suddenly as she had crashed into my world nine months ago, Leah left us after exhaling one final breath in my arms.

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One of the last photos taken of Leah on June 22, 2016

Leah’s Story Part 1: Saying Hello

Even though Leah had rattled my world with her sudden and unexpected presence, she did take it easy on me during the nine months that I carried her. My first trimester nausea only triggered one bout of full-blown morning sickness, and my other physical symptoms throughout the second and third trimesters were bothersome but manageable. Each ultrasound throughout my pregnancy showed that she was growing healthy and strong, and by the time her June 17 due date came and went, my midwife and I were confidently awaiting the arrival of my healthy baby girl.

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Leah’s 20 week anatomy scan

I was 40 weeks, 3 days along when it all changed. Like many expectant mothers before me, I had been trying to induce my labour naturally for the previous week by drinking copious amounts of raspberry leaf tea, eating entire pineapples in a single sitting, and going for purposeful walks each morning. However, despite my best efforts, the signs of labour continued to elude me. Luckily Leah had begun kicking fiercely and regularly by 19 weeks gestation, so keeping track of her movements in the meantime was easy and reassuring.

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Me barefoot and pregnant with Leah at 36 weeks

Until it wasn’t. My belly rocked with her movements after breakfast on June 20 as per usual, and after dinner I waited for it to happen again. It didn’t. I tried to console myself with the conventional wisdom offered by medical professionals and my mama peers: “It’s getting cramped in there! You won’t feel her kick as much this late in the game.” Ultimately this didn’t work; I poked and prodded, and even blasted music through headphones to try and get her to move. Soon enough I was drinking a glass of cold orange juice and lying on my side to do my first and last self-induced kick count. Still nothing.

I did my best to suppress the encroaching panic. Since we live close to the hospital, I even told my husband to drop me off at the emergency room and head home afterwards so we wouldn’t have to pay for parking. Just a quick confirmation that her heartbeat was fine and I would be back home; back to waiting for labour to begin; back to normalcy. But that didn’t happen. Since I was so far along they sent me straight to Labour and Delivery and hooked me up for an ultrasound and nonstress test. She was alive, but she wouldn’t be for long. Before I knew it, I was calling my husband to bring my hospital bag while being prepped for an emergency cesarean section.

The hours that followed were a blur. I remember my husband holding my hand and speaking words of comfort to me through a hospital mask while a team of doctors removed my daughter from my body. She was born at 4:03am on June 21, 2016. They took her away immediately, and in my drug-induced state I was only vaguely confused as to why I couldn’t see her or hear her cry. I would later learn that she had technically been born “dead” and it took them 14 minutes to revive her. I don’t know how much time passed before they wheeled me into a different room and a doctor began speaking about fetomaternal hemorrhage, tonic seizures, severe anemia, asphyxia, and brain damage. While I didn’t understand half of these terms, I knew in my core what they meant: Despite all my precautions, praying, and planning, the worst had happened.

At this point we were told that Leah would be sent to a children’s hospital in a nearby city for three days of “cooling.” Her extensive brain damage could not be reversed, but they were going to see if they could halt it from progressing. As soon as a bed was open for me, they would send me to the same hospital. I asked if I could see her before she was sent away, and they wheeled me to the NICU. The experience was surreal, to say the least. I could not quite wrap my head around the fact that the tiny girl who had been practicing her kick boxing near my ribs a mere day ago, warm and safe in my body, was now hooked up to endless tubes and machines and struggling for life in this cold hospital.

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The first photo we took of Leah on June 21, 2016

Another hour or so passed before the doctors returned. Despite their best efforts, Leah was not getting any better, and they were not confident that she would survive three days on the cooling pad. Suddenly, mere hours after our daughter came into the world, my husband and I were faced with the unthinkable decision that is every parent’s worst nightmare: We could send her away for further treatment and risk losing her in the process, or we could take her off life support and keep her with us for palliative care. The possibility that my baby girl might die without ever knowing the touch of my skin or the sound of my voice outside the womb was too much to bear, so we made the most loving and heart-wrenching decision we possibly could.

Through a steady stream of shocked tears, we asked them to bring her to us.

Read the second part of Leah’s Story here.

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New Beginnings

Since I’ve spent the last twelve years of my life in academia, first as an undergraduate student, and then a graduate student and course instructor, I conceptualize my years according to the school calendar. For me, each “new year” really begins in September and ends in August. And according to this academic time frame, this past year has been full of more drastic endings and new beginnings than any other of my life.

I considered this last week while my husband and I took a day trip to a nearby beach for our sixth wedding anniversary. We had done the same thing to celebrate our fifth anniversary exactly one year prior, and it was almost like stepping back in time. One year ago, I was beginning the final year of my PhD degree. The prospect of finally wrapping up my time as a graduate student left me anxious, but also excited about what the future might hold. One year ago that was all that really concerned me. The prospect of becoming a mother was not even on my radar. Now the prospect of spending my days thinking about anything but my daughter seems surreal and downright unfathomable.

I’ll never forget the day that Leah’s presence seemingly catapulted itself into my world. It was October 2015, the tail end of Canadian Thanksgiving Weekend. For the previous three years I had been using the Fertility Awareness Method as natural birth control with great success. Recently, however, I noticed that my basal body temperature had not returned to its normal range following what I believed to be an unusually light period. I chalked the former up to my old thermometer needing a new battery and the latter to my new exercise regimen. However, as the holiday weekend came and went and I found myself with the opportunity to drink more than a few glasses of wine, I quietly began to wonder “What if?

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My husband and I at a wedding the weekend that Leah was conceived

With the seed of doubt planted in my mind but still convinced I couldn’t actually be pregnant, I decided to buy a home test to put myself at ease. I can’t quite describe the feeling of shock that overcame me when I saw the second pink line appear, bold and clear as the bright October sky. This would be confirmed once again when I visited my doctor the next day, ushering in the beginning of my mothering journey.

I vividly recall walking home from the doctor’s office, the crisp autumn air filling my lungs and red and yellow leaves crunching beneath my feet. The initial shock had worn off, and I was overcome with feelings of excitement and love for the little life that was growing inside me. That day I placed my hand on my still-firm belly, thanking God for this gift and asking that my baby would be nourished and protected. I would repeat this prayer multiple times a day, every day until fate seemingly intervened with other plans on June 20, 2016, the day before Leah’s birthday.

Despite carving out space in my life for this unplanned but much-wanted pregnancy, as well as all my planning, research, and top-rate prenatal care over the next nine months, the “new beginning” I had envisioned for my life with my daughter did not come to pass. Just as she crashed into my world suddenly and unexpectedly, so too did she leave it in a whirlwind of unanticipated pain, tears, and grief. Yet here I sit, still poised to journey into another, albeit very different, type of new beginning. Rather than getting to know my daughter and taking care of her in the physical world as I had planned, this summer marks the beginning of my new life as a bereaved parent and my spiritual journey toward healing as a loss mama.

As I sat on the beach with my husband last week, I could not help but feel like I had stepped into a bizarre time warp. How was it possible that Leah’s little life had come and gone in less than a year’s time, yet I know it will change me forever? How could I be so indescribably consumed with love for a little person who did not even exist this time last year? And how could I be utterly crushed under the weight of grief that I feel for a tiny girl whom I only got to spend 33 hours with outside the womb?

These are only a few of the many questions I will explore as I navigate my grief journey on this blog. I hope to share this journey with you as I plunge ahead and learn to live again, one breath at a time.

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Me holding Leah several hours after her birth on June 21, 2016

Continue reading about Leah’s Story here.

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