The Message
Betsy Bottino ArenellaBy Betsy Bottino Arenella –

My spiritual awakening began on December 11, 2004, with a life-altering phone call. I was walking down the front hall stairs in a bathrobe, my wet hair wrapped in a towel, when I saw my husband standing at the bottom. He was holding the telephone and looking up at me with a strange expression.

“Bad news,” my husband said. “Sophia passed away last night.” My legs buckled and I fell into a sitting position on the stairs.

Sophia was my best friend Melyné’s rosy-cheeked, active toddler. She had turned one the week before and, as far as any of us had known, she was perfectly healthy.

“What?” I heard myself say. “Are you sure? Are you sure?” I kept repeating this, positive that my husband somehow had misunderstood. How could Sophia have died? “I was just there the other day. What happened? Are you sure?”

“I’m sure, Honey,” he said. “I don’t know the details.”

I wandered around the house in a daze as my husband took care of our two young children; I had no idea what to do next. Should I drive over to Melyné’s and her husband Michael’s house? What about Melyné and Michael’s older daughter, Isabelle, age three? Was she with them? Did she know her sister had died? Did she understand?

If I made contact now, would I be intruding?

Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I dialed Melyné’s number.

“Oh, Betsy,” Melyné said, and we both started to cry. “They think it was SIDS…they think it was SIDS,” she repeated between sobs.

“What?!” I gasped. SIDS? Sudden Infant Death Syndrome? But that was only a risk for babies under age one. Sophia was a walking, talking, strong toddler, into everything, not a fragile little infant. How could this be?

The next day, I drove the five minutes to Melyné and Michael’s home. It was a bitterly cold December day, but the sun was shining and the sky was a clear, perfect blue, as if nothing had happened.
Melyné and Michael were home; Isabelle was at Melyné’s sister’s house. Melyné and I sat on the living room couch holding hands in silence, staring out the window at the ridiculously blue sky, tears streaming down our cheeks.

I kept thinking, where is Sophia? I wondered where her physical body was, but didn’t dare ask. But what about the essence of Sophia? Where there had been laughter and joy, I now sensed only a profound emptiness.

As a non-practicing Catholic, I always had approached the spiritual world with a certain degree of skepticism. But as a mother, the question struck me to the core: where had this beautiful child gone?

In the months after Sophia’s funeral, I continued to worry about Melyné and Michael. How could any parent survive such a soul-shattering loss?

It didn’t occur to me to worry about three-year-old Isabelle. She’s probably too young to understand, I told myself.

But during our daily conversations, as Melyné told me snippets of what her daughter had been saying and doing, I realized that this child was deeply grieving her sister’s death.

Isabelle, Melyné told me, had been gazing out her bedroom window at night asking for Sophia. Melyné and Michael had explained to Isabelle that Sophia’s body had stopped working and that her spirit had gone to Heaven. Crying, Isabelle said that in that case, she wanted to go to Heaven, too, so she and Sophia could be together again.

My heart broke for this little girl and her devastated family. At night I would awaken with a sick feeling in my stomach. Unable to go back to sleep, I would surf the Internet for hours until I was exhausted; then I would go back to bed, finally falling into a fitful sleep.

How to comfort this child? I felt helpless.

One day, standing in the living room pondering this question, I experienced the most extraordinary sensation. An intense wave of emotion rolled over me, accompanied by chills and goose bumps from head to toe. Thoughts, words and phrases poured into my head, accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of the purest, deepest love.

My eyes welled with tears, and my heart felt near to bursting. A complete story was in my mind:
Sophia visits Isabelle in a dream, alighting on her bed. Together, wings shimmering with the most beautiful colors of nature, the girls visit Heaven. Sophia explains that Isabelle needs to go back to earth.

But, she reassures her sister, although Isabelle can’t see her, Sophia still will be right there with her:
In the spring I’ll send a colorful butterfly to remind you of our wings. In summer I’ll whisper into a seashell and leave it on the beach where you can find it… the snowflakes falling gently on your cheeks in winter will be my kisses, and the two brightest stars in any night sky will be my eyes, shining with love for you.*

For days, I did nothing. Should I make Isabelle a book? Was I crazy to think that this story – or anything else – could comfort my friends?

But the words kept coming back to me, over and over, as I got my son ready for school, as I made dinner, as I tucked my children into bed. I’ll whisper into a seashell…

Finally I bought a blank book and started drawing with colored pencil, painstakingly filling in the sisters’ wings with multi-colored glitter glue and penciling the words at the bottom of each page. The snowflakes will be my kisses…As the glitter glue took hours to dry, and as I had my hands full with my young children, I was only able to complete about a page a day.

Tears rolled down my cheeks as I worked, but as the project progressed, a strange sense of peace came over me. The two brightest stars will be my eyes…When I woke up at night, instead of aimlessly surfing the Net with a knot in my stomach, I worked on the book.

After an hour or so, I would look at the completed, shimmering page, then go back to bed and fall into a deep sleep.

Despite the unexpected sense of calm Isabelle’s Dream had brought me, I was apprehensive about sharing it with Melyné and her family. Who was I to think that I had something to say that could comfort them?

For several months, I kept the book in a cupboard, taking it out daily to look at it.
One day Melyné mentioned that Isabelle again had been looking out her bedroom window at night and crying for Sophia. The next day, I brought Melyné the book, hidden in a white plastic grocery bag.

During the whole visit, I said nothing about the book, paralyzed with the fear that giving it to her might be the wrong thing to do. What if it upset her and her family even more?

Finally, as my daughter and I were leaving, I awkwardly handed Melyné the bag and stammered something about having made a book for Isabelle. The rest of the afternoon, as I picked my son up from preschool and ran errands around town with the kids, I wondered.

Was she reading it? What was she thinking? Had I done the right thing?

When I got home, I pressed the blinking message button on my answering machine and heard Melyné’s voice.

“Bets, I read the book this afternoon after you left. It is so beautiful.

“It’s just perfect,” she continued, her voice breaking. “The words – the pictures…Thank you so much.”

Later that week, Melyné and Michael told me that the book had affected their family deeply, and that it was the only one of the many books they had received after Sophia’s death that had given them a sense of hope. They listened in amazement as I explained how the story had come to me.

When Melyné read the book to Isabelle, she listened intently, then asked to read it two more times. At the end of the third reading, she said, “I want to go to sleep now, so I can have a dream.”

Melyné and Michael asked me to try to find a publisher so that Isabelle’s Dream could help other grieving children and families, and thus began a yearlong quest. I began submitting the manuscript to traditional publishers, sending out several proposals a week. Melyné and I reached out to anyone and everyone we could think of who might be able to help – ministers, rabbis, grief experts, friends – and their positive responses were overwhelming.

As Melyné and I pursued this project, she and her family continued on their grief journey, receiving incredible support from a national charitable organization for families who have lost children to Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood (SUDC), which is similar to SIDS but affects children after their first birthdays. Created in 2001 by the CJ Foundation for SIDS, the SUDC Program provides information, support and advocacy to affected families.

By February of 2006, a year after we had started submitting manuscripts, I had racked up 35 rejections, and Melyné and I were growing despondent over our chances of publication. But then, that month, the founder of Quality of Life Publishing, which publishes gentle grief materials for hospices and families throughout North America, informed me she wanted to publish Isabelle’s Dream. Melyné and I were overjoyed.

In November 2007, Quality of Life published Isabelle’s Dream as an interactive, 60-page fiction story and activity book for grieving children ages three to 12. The December 2007 issue of Redbook featured the book, and that month Isabelle’s Dream topped Amazon’s “Hot New Releases” sales list in the category of nonfiction children’s books about death. Just a few months after its release, the book currently is in use at children’s hospitals and hospices in 28 states.

In Sophia’s memory, all of my royalties are going to the SUDC Program and will be earmarked for research into this mysterious and devastating killer. Melyné has thanked me over and over for what she calls “an incredible gift of hope and friendship.” But in the end, I believe this powerful message’s greatest gift of all has been given to me.

© Betsy Bottino Arenella 2007. For more information about Sophia’s life and about ISABELLE’S DREAM,” visit

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Monica Novak

Monica Novak became a bereaved mother in 1995 with the stillbirth of her daughter Miranda, learning firsthand the devastation of saying goodbye to a much-loved, much-wanted baby before having the chance to say hello. Three weeks later, she began a journey towards healing when she attended her first Share support group meeting. Along the way, she and six other bereaved mothers formed a close bond that carried them through the grief of miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death, as well as the challenges of subsequent pregnancy and infertility. Having been at the opposite ends of grief and joy; despair and hope; indifference and compassion; fear and peace-sometimes simultaneously-she has captured these emotions and the story of her journey in a highly-praised new memoir titled The Good Grief Club. Monica writes and speaks on the subject of pregnancy loss and infant death and is involved with local and national organizations that provide support to families and caregivers. She is a member of the Pregnancy Loss and Infant Death Alliance (PLIDA). Her mission is to bring comfort and hope to bereaved parents worldwide and to educate and promote awareness to the physicians, nurses, clergy, counselors, family, and friends of every mother or father who has or ever will be told that their baby has no heartbeat or that nothing more can be done. The mother of three daughters, Monica lives in the Chicago area with her husband, children, and a rat terrier named Sami. For more information, please visit or e-mail Monica at Monica appeared on the radio show “Healing the Grieving Heart” discussing ”Miscarriage and Infant Loss.” To hear Monica being interviewed on this show by Dr. Gloria & Dr. Heidi Horsley, go to the following link:

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