A mother’s viewpoint of grief: deep and profound
Nicole Alston recalls: April 29, 2005, was our due date, and like any typical first-time parents responding to the initial signs of labor, my husband Paul and I dashed to the hospital full of hope and promise. After years of unexplained infertility and a miscarriage in 2003, we had rehearsed this long-awaited occasion countless times.
However, there was no dress rehearsal for what happened next. Only minutes after being admitted and taken to a labor and delivery room, our lives took an unexpected and painful turn. With a quick glance at the monitor, the nurse’s face became pensive and grim. Immediately our minds replayed the accumulation of events over the last nine months — sonograms, doctors’ visits, baby shower, planning a nursery, endless cravings, choosing a name — that we had imagined would build to the happiest moment of our lives.
But everything came to a screeching halt when we heard our physician say, “I’m sorry, there is no heartbeat.” Suddenly, the same labor and delivery room that once carried an air of hope and joyous expectation had become permeated with unyielding agony and muffled cries of bewilderment and despair. The horror continued after being induced and having to endure the merciless pain of labor and delivery. Hours later, the probability of a miracle was shattered by a macabre new reality: our seven pound, one-ounce baby named Skye was born still.
Consistent with African American culture, our funeral directors and pastors conducted her wake and funeral service (Rosenblatt and Wallace, 2005). The haunting loss that followed Skye’s death made us feel like two rookie boxers in the ring, fighting against a set of frightening opponents: rage, despair, depression, the loneliness of social isolation, and unparalleled grief.
Amid the deluge of grief, I became consumed with reading about stillbirth, and learned that African American women were twice as likely to have this experience (Ananth, Shiliang, Kinzler, and Kramer, 2005). Most salient was the mounting research showing that despite income or educational level, this disparity continued to persist among black women (Jackson, Phillips, Hogue, & Curry-Owens, 2001).
A father’s viewpoint – grief delayed and sometimes denied:
Paul Alston recalls: Skye’s death was deeply traumatic, but my grief was often overlooked. Most of the focus was on Nicole and her pain, and her grief should in no way be minimized. Conventional wisdom suggests that a mother’s grief is felt in a most intimate way, due to the physical bond between mother and baby. For 40 weeks, Nicole carried Skye; she knew our baby’s schedule, her favorite foods, and her “in utero” personality. Although my bond with Skye was different indeed, it was still significant. I enjoyed talking to Skye through Mommy’s tummy, watching her respond to my voice with powerful kicks or slow, deliberate movements.
Growing up, I had learned to imitate the model established by the men in my family – my father and uncles. “Being strong” emotionally was the hallmark of becoming a black man. Head (2004) wrote, ”from the time we are young boys, black males have ingrained…an idea of manhood that requires a silence about feelings, a withholding of emotion, an ability to bear burdens alone” (p. 3). I emulated this behavior as I knew of no other strategy to cope with Skye’s death (Rosenblatt and Wallace, 2005).
I was taught that my assignment as a man would be to take care of my family. But Skye’s death left me emotionally bankrupt, rendered helpless against this most challenging grieving process. “Fixing” this overwhelming problem required doing something I knew was impossible – bringing Skye back. Strong feelings of failure and frustration emerged: I had failed my wife and my child. Was there something I could have done to save Skye and prevent this tragedy from happening (Head, 2004; Rosenblatt & Wallace, 2005)?
A crusade is born:
We have always relied on prayer and fasting to aid us in our search for understanding and wisdom. Disability ran out, and Nicole was laid off from an 11-year career. The hard road of disappointment was becoming even harder. A 21-day partial fast would reveal a glimpse of our purpose.
Four months after our daughter’s death, the Skye Foundation, a non-profit organization, was established with the standard of care for bereaved women and families at the forefront of our mission. Within a year, Skye’s story had been shared in national magazines and on television and radio (Gray, 2006; Power of parents, 2006; Whitfield, 2006). Additionally, Nicole produced a video on infant mortality from the African American perspective. Our vision became clearer after Nicole began speaking to audiences of nurses, social workers, and physicians about providing comprehensive psychosocial support to families experiencing the death of a baby.
Painted on the canvas of our imagination is the wish that our due date would always commemorate Skye’s “birth” day rather than her death. Yet, we realize that our life’s work could not have been discovered except through this experience.
On what would have been Skye’s third birthday, we followed the tradition of decorating her gravesite with flowers and balloons. This year, one of the balloons slipped away. I (Nicole) stood there quietly, following its journey into the clouds for as long as I could — smiling and crying. As on most days, I was caught on an emotional see-saw of wishing Skye were here, while feeling immeasurable gratitude for the mission that her life has initiated.
Ananth, C.V., Shiliang, L., Kinzler, W. L., & Kramer, M. S. (2005). Stillbirths in the United States, 1981-2000. An age, period, and cohort. American Journal of Public Health, 95 (12), 2213-2217.
Gray, K. (2005). Do you need a faith lift? Essence, 36(8),158-162.
Head, J. (2004). Standing in the shadows: Understanding and overcoming depression in black men. New York: Broadway Books.
Jackson, F.M., Phillips, M.T., Hogue, C.R., & Curry-Owens, T.Y. (2001). Examining the burdens of gendered racism: Implications for pregnancy outcomes among college-educated African American women. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 5(2), 95-107.
Power of parents. (2006, December). Parents Magazine, 26.
Rosenblatt, P. and Wallace, B. (2005). African American grief. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
Whitfield, T. (2006, April 24). Finding hope. New Morning Show: Hallmark Channel. Lightworks Producing Group, Inc.
About the Authors:
Nicole and Paul Alston are co-founders of the Skye Foundation, www.theskyefoundation.org. An international speaker, Nicole is pursuing her Masters at Columbia University School of Social Work; her research interests are grief and suicide. Their e-mail address is [email protected].
This article originally appeared in The Forum, the managzine of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Reprinted with permission.