Coping with the Loss of a Child
Author: Becca Edwards
The natural progression of life is structured by milestones we have come to expect to reach. After we are born, we learn to crawl then walk, we finally ride a bike without training wheels, we dance at our first prom, we graduate from college and into the real world, we meet someone and get married, we have children and the cycle of life continues. But what happens if that cycle is broken by something earth shatteringly unexpected? Something no one, or perhaps no amount of faith, can explain?
When Jennifer Gleitsmann and her husband Pepe Vargas were headed to the hospital to deliver their first child, Gleitsmann could still feel her baby girl kick inside her belly. Their car was packed with all the necessary baby gear—as well as the hope of welcoming a life into this world. But by the time Gleitsmann was settled in her labor and delivery room and the fetal monitor was placed on her belly, her daughter Sophia had already passed away from a nuchal cord.
“It was as if this sense of innocence was ripped from us,” Gleitsmann said.
As she tells her story, I am transported back to that tragic day. It was December 20, 2010, and I was in the hospital room next to hers having my third daughter. I think about that day often. The doctor who delivered her baby delivered mine, and though my daughter struggled, she did survive. The fragility of life engulfed the entire maternity ward that day and that night ended with a lunar eclipse—which in itself is shrouded in lore and the duality between light and dark, life and death.
“Before I lost Harper, I had never heard of a mother losing her baby,” said Heather Quinn. “It wasn’t something people talked about so when it happened to me, no one knew what to say. Sometimes they would tell me to talk to Jennifer [Gleitsmann], because it’s such a small island and so many people knew her story.”
Quinn’s daughter Harper was born via cesarean on April 26, 2012 and lived only 12 hours due to a fetomaternal hemorrhage. “Usually with a fetomaternal hemorrhage, there is a trauma to the abdomen, but that didn’t happen to me. It was spontaneous. No one could explain it. It was shocking. Even now I’m still like, ‘Did that really happen?’”
“My story is why the garden exists,” said Amy Metzger, holding a pamphlet about the Children’s Memorial Garden at Hilton Head Hospital. “I will never forget leaving the hospital empty handed and thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’” Metzger’s son Jacob was born stillbirth in 1988. “I was only 25 years old,” Metzger said and then paused. “You see, the death of a child makes you a different person. You step over a line. The hardest part for me was that I knew I was suddenly different, and I didn’t know how I was going to handle being different. I liked my life the way it had been… I wanted to make peace with my loss but I remember wishing time away. There was this constant fear that everything around me was doom and gloom, and that’s not my true colors.”
In September of 2000, Metzger took her then two-year-old daughter Sarah to Dolphin Head park to play and serendipitously met Julie Feldman who had recently lost a child. “Sarah was playing with Claire (Feldman’s daughter) and we just started talking. We shared our stories and then decided we should do something.” Metzger, who had previously worked for Hilton Head Hospital, approached her former coworkers about starting a memorial garden and, with many fundraising efforts and support from the community and hospital, May 6, 2001 she and Feldman broke ground. “This past May was our fifteenth ceremony. We have over 300 bricks, and this garden is dedicated to children young and old, stillbirth, infant, teenager or adult. There is a brick for Dr. [Glenn] Love and for the Sandy Hook and Emanuel AME Church victims.”
Metzger’s hope is that the garden provides a peaceful and loving place for parents, siblings, friends and other family members to remember the ones they have lost and the printing of the name on the brick is significant to her. “It’s important we say their names and validate their existence.”
In their own special way, Jacob’s, Sophia’s and Harper’s moms have had a profound impact on other parents in the area coping with loss. In addition to Metzger starting the Children’s Memorial Garden, Gleitsmann, who grew up on the island and is loved by so many people, gave a face to infant loss, and Quinn started the Harper Project which merged with the TEARS Foundation, a 501©(3) non-profit organization that “seeks to compassionately lift the financial and emotional burden from families who have lost a baby” and is “committed to helping grieving parents honor the life of their child.”
“It’s not a club I ever expected to be part of. No one does. But I’m in it, and I want to help others,” Quinn said.
Quinn, Gleitsmann and Metzger, as well as everyone interviewed for this article, will also tell you grief is a complex emotion. “Grieving is a combination of depression, sadness and the forever-ness of the unknown,” explained Dr. Debi Lynes, LPC, CEDS, CBTI. “There are no steps; there is no algorithm, no recipe for grief. The stages of grief are not linear they come and go and ebb and flow, and while the pain never goes away, it becomes more manageable. The life of your child is more in the forefront of your mind rather than the death.”
Jenni Lyle, who lost both of her sons—one at age 17 and another at 24—used her hands to describe grief. “When you are mourning the loss of someone you love, the grief is right here,” she said bringing her hands together like an offering and then covering her face. “But as time goes by,” continued Lyle slowly separating her hands and moving them toward her temples, “it moves around to the back of your head.”
After interviewing several different parents and healthcare professionals, I discovered two misconceptions about parents grieving lost children. First, it is presumed that women and men grieve differently. Yet, according to Rosemary Clark, LPC, LMFT, “There are roles in each relationship and those will play out while coping; but this is not necessarily gender specific. Women and men are more similar than different. Masculine energy presents itself with, ‘Come on we can do this.’” It should be noted that masculine energy can be exhibited by either sex and even change moment to moment, with one partner playing the masculine role one minute and the feminine role another. Second, it has been reported that couples coping with the loss of a child are eight times more likely to get divorced.
However, once researchers dug a bit deeper, they found that the death of a child doesn’t create new issues; it just brings dormant ones to the surface. Although parents dealing with losing a child understandably encounter contention and sorrow, all the couples I interviewed seemed to be stronger from their loss.
When I asked each interviewee what they would say to a parent coping with loss, they each shook their head and said that it is different for every individual. Many talked about support groups like Quinn’s TEARS group, all the work Hospice provides (which is extensive), and the different books and blogs out there. Each also talked about the importance of the mind-body connection whether it was eating well, breathing, yoga, walking or body work with holistic practitioners like Tina Burr, who lost her daughter Heather in 1974 dur to hyaline membrane disease, eight days after she was born. “Heather inspired me to be a holistic therapist,” Burr said. “Therapies like myofascial release, acupressure, cranial sacral and therapeutic massage help people rebalance and also rest and nurture the parasympathetic system.”
Lyle is Burr’s client and she opened up about her healing process. “The grief in your mind overshadows the grief in your body. Years after both my sons’ deaths, I had a lot of pain in the muscles of my body… and tested for conditions like Lyme disease and fibromyalgia.” Lyle paused for a moment and then smiled subtly. “After my first myofascial session with Tina, I started to feel less pain. I’m now in the process of the grief leaving my body. I feel like I’m going to be whole again, and it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Listening to Lyle, I feel like I am witnessing an important milestone for her, and I’m reminded of the natural progression of life—or what we perceive as the natural progression of life. Could it be—without those big moments like that first bike ride without training wheels, that first dance, that wedding day and so on—that the cycle of life continues despite death. During her interview Lyle said, “My sons are still spiritual beings. They are still here. Physicists will tell you energy is neither created nor destroyed.”
Her words reminded me of the last thing Gleitsmann said in her interview. “Sophia is a yellow butterfly. Whenever we see one, we know it’s her.”
Becca Edwards is a wellness professional, freelance writer and owner of b.e.WELL+b.e.CREATIVE (bewellbecreative.com).