Remembering the Littlest Angels
by Joan Rhine
It’s a rare person who doesn’t know what it’s like to lose someone to an unexpected death. But when it involves a child, an infant, the loss can seem doubly hard as it carries the additional tears of all the future hopes and dreams loved ones felt for the young life, dreams now dashed, unresolved, and unlived.
After years of tireless efforts by activists supporting grieving parents of infant loss and miscarriage, in fall 2006, October 15th was designated Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, coinciding with National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. A special evening of remembrance is sponsored by The Tristesse Grief Center and Floral Haven Memorial Gardens, with families invited to join a memorial walk to the Garden of Angels for a candle-lighting ceremony honoring these young lives. Throughout the year, The Tristesse Grief Center holds evening grief groups, with one specifically for those dealing with miscarriage and infant loss.
“The only thing that really helps is to talk about it, to share with someone who suffers with you and understands,” explained Brian Routh, who with his wife Sonia Lopez, is an alumnus of the grief group.
Lopez started first, with a couple of individual sessions. “I read in the booklet on grief that when others carry a burden with you that you feel lifted. When mothers cry with you about what happened, it helps. I don’t want others to suffer, but you need that empathy.”
Their second daughter was Emma Maria, and she died 15 months ago at just over 3 months of age from hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Diagnosed in utero, the condition occurs when part of the left side of the heart does not develop completely, and is corrected with three surgeries before the child is 3 years old. The family had to travel to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston for the birth, so specialists could perform the first surgery when Emma was 6 days old. She responded better than doctors anticipated, giving everyone great hope. Her next surgery was scheduled at 3-and-a-half-months, but she died enroute to Houston.
The Smiths, another couple who praise the grief center, lost their young son Ean in January from an infection caused by a weakened uterine wall that Mrs. Smith was not aware she had. Still going through this early grief, she had some words of advice to others.
“Anytime somebody approached me first about Ean and what happened, that meant the world to me,” she said. “When someone asked to see pictures of him, or when friends made the comment that they missed him, too.”
The Smiths recognize that others feel uncomfortable about what to say, and don’t want to make them feel sadder. They understand the dilemma, but getting through uncomfortable moments is just something that must be done.
“They know it’s real sensitive for you,” added Mr. Smith. “I think people are real cautious—I can see that happening a lot.”
Both couples commented on how people were there for them for a while, but then went back to the normalcy of life and expected the grieving parents to do likewise. Family helps, but even family members too often give those gentle ‘it’s time to move on’ comments.
“What I’ve realized,” said Brian Routh, “is that as the parent I’m going to carry this with me from now on.”
He and Sonia have found ways to let their remembrance of Emma transform the lives of others. To celebrate what would have been her birthday on April 15, Sonia organized a blood drive with the Oklahoma Blood Institute.
“We had Bounce U so kids could play while their parents gave blood,” she said. “There were refreshments, a big cake, and a picture of Emma.”
Too often, however, no one talks about loss until something else brings up the subject, as Sonia Lopez discovered when their next door neighbor came over after Emma’s death to explain that she could go to the funeral, but the burial was too much for her as she had twin infant sons also buried in the cemetery.
This surprised Lopez, but learning about an earlier loss only after a recent one is too often the norm, especially in the case of miscarriages.
“It was only in the 1980s that miscarriage was clearly acknowledged as a source of bereavement,” explained Ginny Perkins, Miscarriage and Infant Loss Grief Group facilitator. The sad fact is miscarriages happen more often than people generally think, and it’s often only a chance remark, when one woman comforts another who’s miscarried, that people become aware of earlier miscarriages.
One mission of the grief group is to ‘explore healthy ways to express feelings of grief.’ Dealing effectively with such feelings can only be achieved when they are brought into the open. Being able to talk to others and remember is good therapy.