This is an excerpt from Still Breathing : My Journey with Love, Loss, and Reinvention by Katie Joy Duke.
I was sitting alone in the quiet nursery reading a book on my Kindle. My eyes were swollen from crying, and my body was sore from giving birth. Eli and I had been home from the hospital for less than a week, and reality was beginning to sink in. Our baby was never coming home.
Poppy was dead, stillborn at full term. Nothing would ever be the same.
I looked up from my book and stared out the window of our three-story townhouse. The sky was wet and gray, typical for a November day in Seattle. I closed my eyes and remembered Poppy’s sweet face.
I’d always wonder what color eyes she had. I never imagined something so horrible could happen. How would I survive this devastation? I was a childless mother, with empty arms and shattered dreams.
My focus shifted to the mother whose memoir I was reading. In An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination,
Elizabeth McCracken wrote about her first child, a baby boy named Pudding, who was stillborn at full term. Her story comforted my aching soul. I wasn’t alone. Days into mourning, I related deeply to McCracken’s heartbreak and her need to keep Pudding’s memory alive.
As I sipped on warm chamomile tea that Eli, my husband, made me, I imagined writing my own story about loving and
losing Poppy. The possibility that I, too, had a story to share sparked a shame in my spirit. I’d just begun to grieve, and
already I was desperate to share my experience with others.
What would it look like to become a whole person again after my life felt ripped into a thousand pieces? How might
Poppy’s story make a difference in the lives of others?
She had already transformed mine. I immediately started writing. I filled journals, took an online memoir writing class, and
eventually started a blog. Writing gave me solace and helped me make sense of the pain and sadness that enveloped me as
I existed without my daughter.
Before Poppy died, I had no clue stillbirth was so prevalent. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
reports that stillbirth affects one of every 160 pregnancies. Stillbirth is defined as a death at twenty weeks gestation or
greater, and each year about 24,000 babies are stillborn in the United States alone. The Star Legacy Foundation reports that every year over 2.6 million stillbirths occur worldwide.
Poppy’s death was unimaginable. Love and naivety carried us so far, and then what seemed like a sure thing was ripped away at the end.
I heard it over and over in the early days of my grief: Losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to a person. I agree. It’s an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but my grief was a catalyst for change and personal transformation. Because of my grief, I grew spiritually, learning how to be with pain and discomfort rather than turning away from or minimizing it.
I learned to sit with the uncertainty of life and began living outside my comfort zone. Now, I am no longer afraid to talk about death, and I’ve learned how to hold space and empathize with others in their grief and pain.
Poppy died in October 2015, and life was hard for quite some time. My rainbow baby, Moxie, was born two years later in October 2017. Pregnancy after loss was an act in faith and courage. Just as my dream of becoming a mother to a living
child came true, my father’s health rapidly declined, and he lost a long battle with prostate cancer on February 27, 2019.
Writing this book has helped me make sense of the things that happened, and even when I had no idea how I would make it through, I never gave up on the story. In Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené Brown says, “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do. We own our stories, so we don’t spend our lives being defined by them or denying them. And while the journey is long and difficult at times, it is the path to living a more wholehearted life.”
My path to healing was both long and winding. Now, in the wake of both birth and death, I own this story by choosing love over fear, acceptance over resistance, and being over doing.
If you have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant death, this book is for you. If you are missing a parent or loved one, this book is also for you. Perhaps someone you love is grieving and you want to help them, but you don’t know how. Let this story guide your way. Even in our darkest moments, we are never alone. Join me on this journey of understanding and growth, as I open my heart, admit my fears, and learn to ask for help.
Grief is a messy process, and life after loss can feel impossible. Even when you don’t feel it, there is hope. You have
permission to slow down, unravel, and question everything. That’s what I did, and I made it through.
Poppy taught me how to face the hardest things in life courageously. She taught me how to hold space with myself and others and how to talk about things that hurt without shame. She was a sacrifice, and she became my spirit guide.
I’ll never know who I would have become had Poppy survived, but I do know I am proud of who I am now and how I’ve transformed because of my loss. My writing is a testament to the love I have for my daughters and my father.
Sharing my story with the world is the most vulnerable and courageous act I’ve ever taken.
I hope Poppy finds a place in your heart. She’ll forever be alive in mine.
Visit Katie Duke’s website at Katie Joy Duke