“You’d better come into the hospital to get checked.”
Those words on the phone from my doctor signaled the beginning of one of the toughest times in my life. I was 22 weeks pregnant with my first son Peter, and my husband and I had only been married for about 8 months. As we gathered together a couple of things for what we thought would be a quick visit to labor and delivery for a nasty migraine, there was no way we could have imagined what was coming.
When we arrived at the hospital, we found that my blood pressure was very high and I was spilling protein from my kidney. I had earned an overnight stay, which turned into a diagnosis of severe preeclampsia and 2 weeks in the hospital fighting for my life and that of my son, too. There were several ups and downs as my blood pressure soared to stroke levels and my entire body swelled up like a balloon with 60 pounds of extra fluid. We were told that Peter would probably have to be born early if my condition did not stabilize, and after a week and a half of trying to get my blood pressure down (with very little success), Peter was born via emergency C-section on February 11, 2013. He was just barely 24 weeks gestation and went straight to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). He weighed only one pound and four ounces.
My husband spent the first day of Peter’s life between our son’s tiny isolette in the NICU and my bedside as I was hooked up by IV to some very strong medications. Peter did surprisingly well that first day and we were all optimistic that he would be able to spend a few months there and then come home with us. I was still sick, but I was getting better too.
The next day, I got to spend a little more time in the NICU with my little family. Peter was not doing quite as well as the day before, and the doctors were running a lot of tests on him. They changed his breathing equipment and put him on some more medications. Just as I finished my dinner that night, we got a visit from the neonatologist. We needed to get down there immediately. Peter was not doing well and we should hold him close to us to help him get better. When we got there, his pulse, blood pressure, and oxygen were beginning to slowly drop. The news got gradually worse. His lungs were not mature enough and his tiny body was not able to regulate his blood pressure. Our son was dying, and our world came crashing down.
We spent about 6 hours holding him and comforting him as he slowly passed from this world after only two days. It was the most difficult thing I have ever done. Our beautiful little boy was the spitting image of his daddy; he was perfect in every way. We had to go through the steps to plan the funeral and bury our sweet boy, but it was all a blur. Our hearts were completely broken. I had a very long recovery period due to the surgery and the toll the preeclampsia took on my body, but that did not matter much. We were completely immersed in grief, and for the next few months we could barely function.
There is something about losing a baby that completely upsets the natural order of the world. Parents are not supposed to bury their children; it just seems wrong. All hopes and dreams of the future are gone when your child dies. It’s like time stops and all you can think of is the massive hole where your heart used to be.
My husband and I held on to each other and tried to make it through the first few months the best we could. But as the shock wore off, we realized that we were grieving in completely different ways and that we did not have the energy or emotional strength to support each other in the way that we wanted. Even though we wanted to grieve together, grief is a very personal and individual process. We decided that we needed to find support outside of each other so we could get through this. We each saw grief counselors separately and eventually together. We also leaned heavily on our families. We promised each other that we would not let this tear us apart.
As we continued to grieve, we also found that we were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from all of the traumatic events surrounding Peter’s birth and my illness. The treatment and counseling that we received during this time was extremely helpful and healing, and I encourage anyone suffering from something traumatic or stressful to get the help they need.
Gradually, the pain lessened and we started to feel somewhat normal again. It’s impossible to feel the same as before because losing a baby completely changes your life and the way you see the world. As a couple, there was a lot of learning to do as well. Originally, we thought that we would make it through together and do everything together, but we learned how to respect each other in the different ways we each expressed our grief. We were afraid that if we took time to ourselves we would not come back together as a couple. But we found that by giving each other space to grieve that we were taking time to nourish our relationship too. When we were feeling more whole, we came together and took time to work on issues in our marriage that we did not even know existed, such as communication and trust. Overall, it has strengthened our marriage greatly.
In time, we healed enough to be able to have another child. I was excited and scared because the risk of the preeclampsia returning in this pregnancy was about 50 percent. At one point, I was feeling very anxious and I found comfort in talking to Peter and telling him how things were going with his little brother David. That night, I had a very vivid dream that a little 6-7 year old boy with a sweet face came to see me in my bed. I knew instantly it was Peter. I told him that I really missed him and he said he missed me too, but not to worry because we would be together again. It was then that I knew things would be okay. I still see that sweet little face when I close my eyes.
After that, I had hope for my pregnancy with David and, despite some health challenges and preterm labor, I made it to the scheduled 36 weeks to deliver him without preeclampsia. He is now a sweet, funny, and rambunctious one year old and he has helped fill some of the parts of my heart that were empty after losing his brother.
After all of this, my advice to you is to remember that you are stronger than you think you are. Even the most catastrophic of events will make you a better person and a better couple if you allow them. We have had so many things happen and have met so many beautiful people that we never would have if we had not lost our son. It’s all about how you look at things.