Our third child and second son, Robert Elias McCall, died just before he was born. I have never been through an experience as terrifying as laboring and delivering him was. Would I be able to look at him, hold him, love him even though he was already gone?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
There was absolutely nothing different about Eli than our other children when he was born except that he wasn't breathing. We were incredibly blessed to spend several hours memorizing his black curls, his pointed chin, his long feet, and his slender fingers. We were able to bathe him, christen him, sing lullabies to him.
Then, when it was time, we dressed him and watched the nurses wheel him away. I would never see him again.
Not many people talk about stillbirth. In fact, many people equate it to being the same thing as a miscarriage. It's not. Miscarriages are terrible, horrible experiences. I know the most terrible thing about miscarriage is usually the fact that you never get to meet your baby, never get to find out if they were a boy or girl. But with a stillborn baby, you know. You've spent eight or nine months planning for this baby to join your household. In our case, we left the house giddy with joy about meeting our son, and were then told that the baby who had been kicking moments before was gone. What was supposed to be a joyous day turned ugly in a moment. You leave the hospital and go home to a house with a nursery all set up for your baby, filled with clothes and toys and furniture that they'll never get to use.
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can prepare you to watch your child leave you for good. There is nothing that can prepare you for making calls to the funeral home instead of excited friends and relatives. There is nothing that can prepare you for the days and weeks and months and years after you've said goodbye, when it feels like you're the only one who remembers your baby.
There's nothing I can say to prepare you, except to say that you should take every opportunity to commemorate your baby. Make footprint casts. Call a photographer from Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep to get professional portraits taken. Spend every minute you need and do not let anyone tell you when time is up. When you decide it's time to let go, remember to keep ever memento you can. Even if they're too painful to look at right away, there will come a time you're glad to have them.
When you go home, remember there is no right or wrong way to grieve your baby. If throwing yourself back into the swing of things is what gets you by, do it. If hibernating for a while feels right, that's okay, too. Our family took a vacation to New York City just a day after Eli was born. We wanted to be somewhere we could be sad by ourselves. We wanted to be in a place where no one knew us and where there was a lot going on so that we could try to enjoy ourselves when we could. It was one of the most bittersweet experiences of my life, and we now celebrate Eli's birthday every year by taking a trip to New York City. It's his place, the place I feel him most, even though he's never been there.
If you're reading this because you know someone who is going through a stillbirth or infant loss, remember that everyone helps in the beginning. In many cases, the shock doesn't wear off for a while, and the real support is needed weeks or months down the road. Remember that the family didn't just lose their newborn, they lost the one year old, five year old, fifteen year old that baby would have become. There are innumerable layers of grief, and I am still shocked and surprised by them at times, almost three years since his death.
Most of all, I want to tell you that if you can find something to do in honor of your baby, that might be the most healing thing of all. After Eli's death, I became a child passenger safety technician. Every family I educate, every carseat I install, is done in his name, and I know that lives have been saved because children have been safer in the car because of me and of him.
Another really important thing for me has been continuing to talk about Eli, to keep his memory alive even after years have gone by. Sometimes it's awkward, and I can tell it make people feel bad, and that makes me feel bad. But Eli is just as real, just as important as any of my other children, and he deserves to be remembered right along with them. The missing step in my stairsteps is painfully obvious to me, and talking about him, sharing his story, it helps. Especially when his story makes a difference in someone's life, whether that means they tell their OB when they have a bad feeling about their pregnancy, or they appreciate the children they have more, or they come closer in their relationship with Christ because of him.
I will never believe that God wanted us to lose our son. I know that He has wept right along with us as we've grieved him. But I do strongly believe that God is bringing joy from the ashes, that he is making Eli a lasting, beautiful legacy. Eli, in his too short life here on earth, has done more than many people do with a lot more years to work with.
If you have or you know someone who is going through a stillbirth or poor prenatal diagnosis, or who has lost a baby, please feel free to contact me. I would love to talk. There is no rhyme or reason most of the time, and these things truly can and do happen to anyone. It sucks. There is no way to be ready or to get over it, but it is possible to grow from the experience, and I know that my kids and I have all been blessed beyond measure by my son and their brother.