“I like the concept of Sisu: perseverance, guts, determination. But I also think that’s what gets me in trouble.” With family hailing from Finland, Sisu is a common household word, encouraging bravery and resilience. But for my new friend, Heather, it’s extra pressure that makes her feel like she should be able to “do it all on my own.” When she lost her first baby at 20 weeks, after years of dealing with the agony of infertility, confidence was at an all-time low.
Heather and her husband started trying to have kids in 2009, and ended up spending multiple years with specialists, waiting for treatments. Fortunately, intrauterine insemination (IUI) proved successful on their second attempt and they started tracking the baby from the time he was the size of a poppy seed. In fact, the baby would be referred to as “Seed” throughout the pregnancy and for many months after. It wasn’t until after the baby’s official due date that Heather’s husband decided to formally name him: James.
Heather was over the moon to be pregnant, but also, understandably, very anxious. As an engineer, she is a numbers person. When you’re pregnant, statistics can be both comforting and alarming; while one in four women will bear a miscarriage, more than eighty percent occur within the first trimester. Consequently, when Heather went to the doctor at eighteen weeks pregnant with a Listeria scare, she was relieved but not totally surprised that her baby was fine.
But just ten days later, her scheduled twenty-week ultrasound found a problem. “I knew something was wrong when the lab tech said ‘I’m going to go get your doctor.’” With no heartbeat confirmed, Heather felt the heavy weight of guilt pull her underwater. As she thought back to the possibility of eating or touching something infected with Listeria, what-if questions piloted her thoughts. Despite genetic testing and counseling to investigate any chromosomal issues, there was never any answer/reason that her first baby died. This made it even more logical to blame herself. “I don’t think I’ve accepted there was no reason. It’s just too hard to live with the mystery.”
Two days after the ultrasound, on October 18, 2013, Heather and her husband presented back to the hospital and prepared for surgery. Given the option to be induced and deliver him or undergo the dilation and curettage procedure (D&C), Heather chose the latter. She never held or saw her baby, as the vacuum procedure doesn’t separate tissue from the baby. Like many parents who undergo this kind of miscarriage, Heather and her husband used a funeral home and were able to cremate all of the remains. Their baby, James, now rests on top of their dresser in a pressed sand urn with footprints covering its surface.
“Everyone was so kind and compassionate at the D&C. The loss nurses helped us so much. But the person I remember most clearly was actually the anesthesiologist.” When he arrived to prepare Heather for the surgery, his simple “Well, this sucks,” were the most reassuring words she’d heard.
I can relate to that. So many well-intentioned but hurtful words come out of people’s mouths after a sudden loss. As many young widows like me were told that “You’re young, you’ll find someone else,” many parents who endure miscarriages are told, “You’re young, you can try again.” And here’s the thing — it’s not that these statements are untrue. Said out loud, they devalue the life of your loved one by implying that this loss shouldn’t be life-changing.
Pregnancy loss and infant death aren’t discussed out loud like other losses are. They are complicated and often invisible. Heather found minimal relief herself talking at an infant/miscarriage/stillborn loss group that the hospital facilitated; hearing everyone else’s story elevated her fears about trying again, and how much worse her own situation could have been.
The peace that Heather eventually found was centered in the earth, specifically a community memorial for children, hand-crafted jewelry, her own garden, and meditation. The memorial, named Angel of Hope Arboretum, is a collection of pavers/bricks that families purchase after a child dies. The bricks form a beautiful pathway around an angel statue, which is one of more than 50 “Christmas Box Angel of Hope” statues in the world, all for persons grieving the loss of children, with a design based on a best-selling book by Richard Paul Evans. Each year, the community gathers for a secular Candlelight Memorial, a Walk to Remember, and the National Day of Remembrance and Loss; approximately 300 people attend the events.
When Heather goes to the arboretum now, she wears special jewelry that was custom-made after James died. Specifically, a necklace that honors both his name and the truth that “I will carry you in my heart forever” with engravings and dark green Tourmaline — October’s birthstone. Truth be told, Heather’s not much of a jewelry person; she doesn’t even wear her wedding ring consistently. However, on special occasions or times with her friends and their children, it’s something tangible she can hold.
Throughout the seasons, she also honors James’ memory by maintaining a garden surrounding an apple tree her family planted in their backyard for him. The garden’s first flowers were blue irises, as they are noted for remembrance, as well as poppy flowers, since Heather and her husband first called James their “poppy seed.” Focusing on those specific varieties were helpful for that first year, but now, it’s become more important to see bright, lively colors. “I like going out now. Kait can play a little bit independently. And just being out there and seeing it bloom, I can kind of be with both of them.”
On January 14, 2015, Heather successfully gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Kaitlin. Therapy, massage, acupuncture, meditation, cleaning the house, and eating only cooked vegetables helped her deal with the anxiety of this pregnancy. She swears by them all, especially meditation, which she began after losing James. At a yoga center in Minneapolis, Heather practiced guided meditation. Concentrating on candle flames and other natural elements, the shaman paired classic imagery with gentle yoga techniques and heart drums. “It helped me get my body to relax. I would be super tense and have trouble with clenching my jaw after the miscarriage. With meditation, I breathe deeper and calmer.”
(On a humorous side note, one of Heather’s therapists advised her to “just blow some bubbles.” This therapist was not seen again. And it’s important to share, because finding a good therapist takes trial-and-error. Many times!)
Kait’s road has not been easy — being born with reactive airway disease, low muscle tone requiring physical therapy, and then suffering pneumonia twice and bronchiolitis at least three times in her first fifteen months — but Heather’s experience with James unpacked a new perspective. “It’s made me super appreciative. If you would have told me when I was 30, that I’d be a stay-at-home mom, I would have laughed. Even the idea of having kids was crazy enough. But now, I’m completely focused on my family. When we got pregnant again, I didn’t care if it was a boy or a girl.” The phrase — “as long as they’re healthy” became her mantra.
This year, 2016, was the first year that Heather didn’t cry at the Angel of Hope statue. “It was different: the walk was close to Kait’s bedtime and we were on a schedule. Sometimes I still struggle with the fact that if James was here, I wouldn’t have Kait. I feel guilty for thinking this way, but then, it does help. She’s an absolutely amazing little kid.” While Heather thinks about him less now, she also knows her grieving, and complicated feelings, for him will never end.
Again, I find myself able to completely relate. My child, born just one month after Kait, has been a huge source of unexpected healing. Years ago, I used to say things like “I’ll never be this happy again,” but the truth is, my daughter makes me happier than I’ve ever been. It’s just different. Kids have a way of forcing you to live and think in the present; they demand your complete attention. Like the little boy at our restaurant, whose head popped up over our booth every thirty seconds as we finished our conversation. With his infectious smile, enthusiastic “Hello!” thirty-six times, rumpled hair, and inability to sit down, baby James felt a bit closer.
And as she reflected on her progress, Heather’s Sisu felt closer too.