Our Stories

The following essays are contributed from parents who have lost a child.  They are grouped in categories descriptive of the type of loss.  I hope you find them helpful.  If you have writings that you would like to contribute, please let me know (janiegcook@austin.rr.com): 

     Infant Loss
    Suicide Loss
    Sudden Loss

About Infant Loss

The Things They Said                                                             by Catherine Avril Morris

When my son August died unexpectedly at birth, people said, “God needed another little angel in heaven.” Which, since I am not religious, did not comfort me. They said, “Everything happens for a reason.” Which made no sense, because what could possibly be the reason for an innocent baby to die? They said, “You’re so strong. If anyone can get through this, it’s you.”

That one hurt me the most. I thought, Are you kidding me? I did not feel strong. I felt broken, chopped down at the knees. For months postpartum, my body and my spirit felt loose, chaotic and raw, as if I had been stabbed, over and over. As if August had been ripped away from me. Strong? I felt torn apart. Irreparably and irrevocably shattered.

Besides, I wondered, what was the real message? Did other people get to keep their babies because they were just too weak to endure what my husband and I were going through? Was this one of those “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” experiences—was there some lesson I was supposed to learn from our tragedy? If so, wasn’t there a way I could have learned it that wasn’t so devastating?

Twenty months later, our daughter Pearl was born at home, late at night, in a mad, bright, dizzying rush of sound and energy. Her birth was a painful and exhilarating experience, and I basked in its miraculous glow: We did it! We brought a healthy, living child into the world. Pearl was here, safe and sound.

Thirty seconds after she was born, I looked into her face and exclaimed, “She has Down syndrome!” Our midwife said, “No, she’s just a little swollen.” But a week later, our pediatrician gave us the official diagnosis—Trisomy 21—confirming what we already knew.

At first, I wallowed in devastation. How could this have happened? How could we have one child who had died and another who had a chromosomal abnormality? It felt like losing another child all over again, and in a sense, I had: I believed I had lost the child I’d expected, the baby I had hoped for so fervently.

When our friends and family heard the news, they said, “Pearl has found the perfect family. If anyone can do this, you two can. It was meant to be.”

Again, I thought, Are you kidding me? You see, I heard this in a grim, duty-bound sort of way—as in, the road ahead would be tough, but we would do a good job caring for Pearl because we had to. Because my husband, a Special Ed teacher, already knows American Sign Language. Because we’re blessed with lots of love and support from our family and friends. Because we have access to resources that can help Pearl become who she is meant to be. Because we are the kind of people who will do the best we can, no matter the obstacles.

All of the above are facts, and I can’t argue with any of them; we’re undoubtedly in a better position than many to care for a child with special needs. But does that mean we were meant to do so? The concept smacked of bad karma, of being chained to a predestination that made my soul shudder.

Besides, since August’s death, I hadn’t been much for thinking in terms of “meant to be.” Our baby died and my entire worldview turned inside out. His death seemed to confirm one of two things: Either we were being punished by the universe for some unknown crime, or life was harsh, random, with no order or meaning at all. For a long time, I couldn’t determine which was true. I tried my best to believe life was random, despite my superstitious mind continually cycling back around to believing we were cosmically screwed. Discovering that Pearl had Down syndrome only added to my confusion—at first.

But now, months into our life with her, my worldview has changed again. I do think Pearl was meant to be ours. I think we fumbled and blundered toward her blindly as she claimed us with a true and certain aim. She’s the daughter we called into being amidst heartbreak and hope. We are the family she decided, with great purpose, to join.

And I am inexpressibly glad she’s here. At first I thought of her having Down syndrome as a bad thing, and as something separate from Pearl, herself. Now she and her extra twenty-first chromosome are one and the same. Down syndrome no longer seems like something negative to me, any more than her being a girl or having two arms and two legs: It is part of who she is, and she is so much more miraculous than I can adequately express in words.
When a child dies—a real, flesh-and-blood child like August, not a fantasy, hoped-for child like the one I envisioned when I became pregnant again—there is nothing anyone can say to make it better, except, perhaps, “I am so sorry.” But here is what I wish someone had said to me during those first three weeks of Pearl’s life when I was once again so very, very sad:
You are going to fall utterly, madly, obsessively in love with this child. Not in several months or years, but in a matter of days.
This baby girl is going to delight you down to your toes. She will bring you more joy than you thought possible. She has already begun doing so.
This little one is going to make the pain of losing your son all the keener, because she will show you exactly how much you lost when you lost him.
This is the child you have been yearning and hoping for. She is the child you begged the universe to send you. She is here. Your longed-for life has begun.
I wish someone had said these things to me back when I was very, very sad. But if they had, I wouldn’t have believed them. These were things I had to learn on my own. And now I send out enormous gratitude to the universe, and to Pearl, for the fact that figuring them out for myself hardly took long at all. And I send out the hugest love to August. After losing a child, something like Down syndrome just doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.
Catherine Avril Morris is a writer, teacher, self-appointed custodian of the English language, wife, and mother of two beloved children. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and daughter. Her firstborn child, August John, died at birth on January 12, 2010, the same day the catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti. Visit Catherine at www.catherineavrilmorris.com or worstbestthing.wordpress.com, her blog about losing August.


About Suicide Loss

Photograph by Ashley Unbehagen

A Love Letter To My Son For Mother’s Day                             by Vicki Heise
My Dearest Sweet Boy Chris,
I have been wanting to write you for a long time, but I didn’t have the courage or the words but I’ve decided that now is perfect because it’s Mother’s Day. There is also the feeling that because I had 9 months with you before you were born and it’s been 9 months since you had to leave, this time is feeling very sacred to me.
It has been hard for me as Mother’s Day got closer to face that for the first time since you were born I wouldn’t get a big bear hug, see your face, hear your voice or read your loving, funny, touchingly sweet cards signed BooBoo. I guess you can tell I have been feeling a bit sorry for myself.
I’ve been trying so hard to hang on and feel better, and now finally I can hear you say, “Mama, I’m all right and it’s all going to be OK.” In my still broken but healing heart I know this is my Mother’s Day gift from you. You have reminded me of all the things and times that I am so grateful for.

     How can I not be grateful that you chose me to be your mom, even if it means that you would need to leave before I was ready?
     How can I not be grateful that I got to experience how much I adore and love you (and always will) and how much you loved me, even if I feel so much sadness now?
     How can I not be grateful that you gave me the gift of watching you grow from a little guy into the most tender, loving, amazing, kindhearted, smart, funny (next to your dad) man I’ve ever met?
     How can I not be grateful that even though you were afraid to fall in love and have children, you were brave enough to open your heart when you found the right person.
     How can I not be grateful that even though you were an only child (I’m so sorry that I wasn’t as brave as you because I know that hurt you) and you knew you had to leave, you brought Betsy, Will and Anna Bea into our lives.
     How can I not be grateful and feel so blessed that you were born and such a big and wonderful part of my life even knowing now how things turned out?
     How can I not be grateful to you my dear sweet boy Chris for the love and joy you brought me?

So this Mother’s Day and for all the rest of my days I’m going to remember your gift to me: How in the world can I not be grateful for every little thing in my life?
Hugs, smooches and sending you a heart cookie filled with all the love in the world,
Love always, Your L’il Mama


 Living In New Skin                                                                                           by janie cook

We do not always get to choose what life will teach us. 

On April 19, 2007 our lives slammed to a halt when our son, Matt, died.  He was 35 years old, a graduate student in wildlife biology and on an exciting new path in his life.  He was strong, tenderhearted, smart and devoted to all of us who loved him.  And then  . . . he was hit with a major depression so devastating that he could not recover.  He tried hard to heal for 8 months doing all that we and the wise ones around us told us was most helpful, but he only sank deeper and deeper  . . . until he gave up and took his own life.  Since then our family has been putting our pieces back together slowly, agonizingly emerging from the awful pain that losing Matt has been.  W. S. Merwyn says it with such clarity:  
“His absence goes through me like thread through a needle
and everything I do is stitched with its color.”

One way to think of the wounding that grief causes is to imagine our lives as a narrative - a story that we are telling as we live each day.  It has a “beginning”, a “middle” and a perceived “ending”.  It is shaped by all the decisions we make as we do what we do and believe what we believe.  Then when some unimaginable pain hits us, our story stops cold.  Everything is suddenly unclear.   

What we face next is the hard task of re-starting our story.  We must re-frame it with this new chapter we had not expected to write.  We must, re-order the direction we are going, try to find a new rhythm and even re- name ourselves in the process because we are no longer the same person we were before all this happened.  It is huge and it is hard. 

It seems to me that even though grief experiences can be very different, everyone goes through at least 3 similar phases.  I call these phases “living in the fog”, “living with the questions” and “living into new skin”.   

“Living in the fog” feels like stumbling around in the dark having no idea where you are and finding it hard to care.  In this first phase of grieving,  nothing looks, feels or sounds the same.  When my dad died, my mother said, “I feel like an actress in a play.”  It is numbing. 

For me this initial part of grief felt like a full body assault.  All I could do was feel and most of the time that was exhaustion.  Emotional pain takes  enormous energy. Heartache is a real physical ache in the chest.  Grief can be very visceral.

With emotions taking control, the brain doesn’t work very well.  Decisions are hard to think through and train of thought gets confused. To say you are overwhelmed is putting it mildly.

People can feel very vulnerable during this time.  They don’t want to go anywhere because they sense that everyone is staring.  They feel like they “stick out like a sore thumb” and there is no energy to mask the devastation or try to “be normal”.   Small talk is impossible, but naming the pain is worse.
It is a brutal time – fragmenting and ragged.  If the loss is traumatic and violent in any way, this time can be intensified and healing from the terror becomes necessary before grief can even begin.   

So what helps?

Simply being willing to be with them in this uncomfortable place and to join them in bearing their pain is an enormous gift.  Grief can be surprisingly lonely.  Ask them what they need.  Don’t assume you know.  Listen open heartedly to their story again and again, because in telling it, denial slowly fades.  Don’t be afraid you will make them sad.  You cannot do that.  They are already sad. Share what you remember about their loved one.  Nothing comforts like someone cherishing precious memories with you. Then you are not so alone.  Don’t try to fix this for them or give it meaning.  You can’t do that.  Don’t judge their reactions.  They may be wildly different from what you expect. They may even change dramatically from one time to the next.  Just love them as Mother Teresa says, “with a unique and particular love”.

As the fog lifts and the brain begins to function again, the questions emerge.
          Questions of confusion . . .
                   Why? What if? Why now? Why this?  Why us? 
                   What will I do?   How can I live with this? 
                   How can I stand this?
          Questions of Blame and Guilt . . .
                   What could I have done?  Is this my fault?  Why didn’t they do this or that ? 
          Questions of Faith . . .
                   Why did God allow this pain?  Where was God? 
                   What does this mean? 
                   Where is God now ?  Who is God? 
I thought I knew these things, but I don’t know anything. . . .   

It would seem that we have no help to offer agonizing questions like these, but there are some things we can do.  We can simply validate the questions.  Reassure them that these are normal and appropriate.  Listen to them.  Encourage healthy coping mechanisms, like writing, reading, seeking counseling, or joining a support group where the questions do not seem so strange. Remember that grief journeys can be very different and what seems helpful to us may not be helpful to someone else.  Reassure them that they can ask these questions as long as they need to and trust that the day will come when they won’t need to ask them anymore.  Offer patience, because patience is what a grieving person needs so desperately to give themselves.  
Eventually the time will come when new skin begins to grow. This is the transforming part of grieving.  Hope and resilience are reborn.  John Schneider, PhD says that at first a person who is grieving can only see what is lost, then they begin to see what is left and finally they are able to see what is possible. The time thankfully comes when the new skin begins to feel more familiar and no longer a place you struggle to avoid.
With the new skin come certain realizations.  There slowly grows an awareness that your life has prepared you for what you need to do.  Being able to reflect on steps you have taken in the past that have led to the strength you need now is reassuring. Being able to recognize and take seriously the “glimpses of hope” that come unannounced. These are the co-incidences that seem like more than coincidences – they seem like special communications between you and the one you lost. Honoring this new communication helps. Taking time apart to develop contemplative practices, like meditation or yoga, can help to open you up to what is possible.  Planning for the marker days that are difficult to face like birthdays and anniversaries.  Having a ritual to intentionally remember special times makes living through those days easier.

 Being active,  especially being out in the natural world, is energizing.  Walking, hiking and soaking up nature makes it easier to recognize that the wholeness and beauty of the world doesn’t depend upon us. 

And finally,  focusing on gratitude  . . . realizing that the reality of your loved one’s death that is so front and center for you,  so tangible,  is held within the Reality of Love that is able to hold all the pain and hope together. Only the heart can grasp this truth.  


it is enough                                                                            by janie cook

The current “hurdle” in my effort to heal more deeply from our son’s death, seems to be the ache in my heart about Matt’s pain – his depression, his frustration and effort to make his life work, his self-blame that was so intense and his ultimate “solution” in suicide.  My mother’s heart has had a very difficult time thinking about that, remembering that part of his life and aching for his pain.  This struggle has been a really hard knot to untangle. 

Recently, two ideas came together to help.  One is a Hebrew word that a friend introduced to me.  “Dayenu” - which means “it is enough”.  It is part of the Haggadah, the Passover Seder ritual, and explains that each one of God’s liberating acts would have been and were “dayenu” – enough.  It suggests to me that we so rarely realize when something is actually “complete”, “whole” and “enough”.  And when we do, how freeing that is!

The other idea came from reading Norman Fischer’s thoughts on “vowing” and how much it sounded like Matt’s personal effort and commitment in his life.  He was whole-hearted and, strange as it sounds, the very strength he thought he lacked – courage, trust and devoted commitment – were the strengths that led him to his final choice.  He believed by dying he was giving us a gift and freeing us from his painful struggles. He had vowed to be the kind of person his loved ones could rely on and that made his choice obvious.   “Suicide” so rarely raises images of this kind of commitment. 

So, two ideas meshing in my mind to bless this struggle of the heart – vowing and “dayenu” -  commitment and wholeness.  My understanding opens a little wider and the tangled parts begin to come undone. 

And so . . .

Matt lived his life in love . . . dayenu
He gave himself away for those he loved . . . dayenu
He is remembered with deep hearted kindness . . . dayenu
He left this life loving us . . . dayenu
And if we are the only ones who understand . . . dayenu


About Sudden Loss

First Poem since Trey entered the Mystery

Standing alone on the high plains
witnessing earth meeting sky
in every direction,
I sense I am surrounded
by The Presence
also infused by It
and totally supported.

Or is this just awareness
in the silence of the morning
of all this aliveness, this is-ness
available every moment
of my be-coming.

Held in a womb of wonder
my poet's soul awakes.
In awe I discover
this grief
in truth is love--

judy kaishin myers