I had been so focused on Ryan leading up to his birthday I hadn’t really considered the “big picture.” The fact that I’ve been grieving his loss for one whole year.
I’m sitting here, in the cemetery, on a hot and sunny day, with burnt orange leaves on the ground signalling a change of seasons. And I’m realizing I’ve been here for 4 seasons now. I’m about to enter my second Fall at the cemetery with Ryan. A year can happen so quickly.
Who I was one year ago at this time is so far gone from who I am as I’m sitting here now. The fog of my grief eventually lifted, though I still can’t pinpoint the exact moment. And it became a manageable load that I carry each day. And I carry it willingly. Because carrying my grief means he was loved. He is loved.
Loved with a love that is as strong today as it was when we laid his sweet little body to rest. Writing here now, I’m reminded that a little over a year ago, on September 12, 2015, we held Ryan’s memorial. We memorialized him that day. It was the first of many ways we have celebrated him since he died.
His grandparents, aunts, uncle, and great-aunt gathered here. His dad and I collected his ashes in an urn much too big for his little remains, but the thought of something smaller seemed too disproportionate to the importance he held for us. We laid him to rest along with various other small tokens of our love.
A baseball to represent all of the hopes and dreams we had for him.
A cross given to his dad from his great grandmother to represent the love waiting for him in Heaven.
A photo and love note from his dad and I to represent the love still held for him here on earth and so that he would never be alone.
And the 11 people who attended his service that day each left him with a rose on which we spoke a prayer or wish for him.
I read once that inviting a lot of people to a memorial or funeral for a baby helps others to understand how real the loss is. And although I sometimes wish we had invited more people. Allowed our friends and extended family to come witness this great loss. Experience at least some of our pain up close. I know, in the end, he was so surrounded by love that a million more people could have stood by his grave that day and it wouldn’t have made any difference.
The love for my boy is so strong.
And I’m so relieved to still feel that one year later.
To see myself out of the darkness now.
But to still feel so much love for him. From inside my own heart, and the hearts of so many others.
It's been one week since Ryan's birthday. With the anticipation and preparations for that giant event behind me, I suddenly find myself face to face with the next "milestone."
Baby Brother himself.
There is so much anticipation for his arrival. I'm starting to feel it everywhere. Family, friends, coworkers, students. Even parents of students pulling me aside to chat about the excitement that is baby's approaching due date.
To be clear, I'm excited, too. I am. Partly. But that excitement has some pretty stiff competition.
Anxiety, fear, and mistrust are fighting for top billing with that excitement. And lately, they're winning.
Ask me how I'm feeling and I'll tell you, "Okay." "Pretty good." "Getting tired." "A little sore." "Alright." "Hanging in there."
I don't try to be trite. But let's be honest... When you ask, you don't really want to get into it, do you? Because here's what happened at my doctor's appointment today. After a routine visit, baby looking good, health questions answered, she asks, as she usually does: "And how are you feeling?" She asks it in the way that I know she's not talking about my sore pelvis or heartburn. She's going deeper, and checking in on me emotionally. I usually respond with one of the standards. Maybe a "Not too bad, actually." Try to sound a bit more optimistic.
But today was different. I needed it out there.
"Not great," I said. "The further along I get, the more I worry."
Cue the tears forming. And the passing of the tissues. A few "medical professional" type-suggestions. That's when I interrupt her with the words I've been dying to admit out loud:
"I just don't trust myself to know when something is actually wrong."
Trust. I have none. And all of the motherly advice says, "Trust your instincts." "Mother's intuition is never wrong." "Go with your gut."
I broke down in my OB's office today because the fact is, we are rolling up into the "home stretch" of this pregnancy and despite countless "textbook" NSTs, and biweekly "beautiful, perfect" ultrasounds, I can't trust from one appointment to the next that something catastrophic isn't going to happen and I'm going to miss the warning signs.
I have a hard time accepting that, "Everything is good" doesn't mean, "Everything is good... for now."
And now it seems, to top off my own personal mistrust, I find myself (privately) questioning the decisions of my "team." The nurse who scans my NST and casually says, "Looks great! See you next week." I want to shout, "Look harder! Don't miss anything! Take this more seriously!" Or when my OB misspeaks herself and gets a date wrong, I inwardly roll my eyes like she should know better.
And it makes me feel ugly.
Everyone is trying so hard to put me at ease. To alleviate some of my worries. Yet the worries escalate to such a point that I find no comfort at all.
I'm temporarily reassured at his movements. A rhythmic hiccuping. A jarring attack on my ribcage. Elbows, knees, feet poking out in all directions.
And then he takes a nap. Is soothed to stillness by my busyness. And the fear creeps in. I fret. Should I call someone? In my head I hear, "Babies need to sleep." But what if this is a real problem and I've just used some mother-placating phrase to trick myself. I did it before with the real gem, "Near the end, babies run out of room to move." But I can't think like that. I don't call. Not right away. I recline. I drink water. I stay perfectly still.
Then he starts back up again. And I breathe again. But in the back of my mind is the question: "Is everything really all okay?"
I know I need to relax.
I know I need to find trust in my doctor. The nurses. Myself.
I know all of this, but it doesn't change anything.
I lost a baby who was supposed to be safe inside me. And every day I get closer and closer to that time that he slipped away from me without my knowing it.
Inside of me will just never seem like the ultimate "safe place."
I'll take it a day at a time. I'll accept my constant and close monitoring as a positive. I'll do what I can to cherish these last 4 or 5 weeks.
But I'm going to be worried. And you should know that when you ask me how I'm feeling, what I'm not saying is, "I'm scared."
I woke up this morning to a Facebook memory that made me pause. I had gotten used to the pregnancy memories. The happy moments with Ryan growing inside, anticipation building, preparations and plans being made. This morning was my first loss memory. One year ago today I published Ryan's birth announcement.
Richard and I had wished for a baby but were sent an angel instead. On September 7 at 1:02am, Ryan Kendrick Russell came into the world but only to live in our hearts. 5 lbs, 14 oz, 20 inches long, a head full of hair, and the most perfect of everything. We know our hearts will take time to heal, and we appreciate your care and support in this most devastating time.
Bits and pieces from other similar announcements I found online, it still chokes me up and takes my breath away to rewrite those words here. But the last lines, written one year ago, are still so true and profound I read and reread them over and over this morning as I laid in bed.
Our hearts still have not healed, nor do I now believe ever really will. Healing from the loss of a child is a forever-type journey. But it's one I have been able to wake up to every day because that care and support I hoped for back then, I have felt nearly every single day since losing by first born son.
I was especially reminded of that love coming at us from all around the world this past Wednesday as we celebrated Ryan's first birthday.
I was terrible at thanking people for their help, consideration, compassion, and support one year ago, and I'm sure I won't do an adequate job even still. But I wanted to take a moment today to say a giant thank you to everyone who celebrated Ryan's first birthday, to everyone who acknowledged the day in some large or small way.
In a selfish way, I'm posting today to keep a lasting memory of all the ways my baby boy, Ryan was shown love on his special day. So here we go.
Thank you to my family and friends and their coworkers who made donations to the PAIL Network in Ryan's name. We know first hand how their work can help with healing, and it's a beautiful gift to be able to support other families like mine.
Thank you to the Farrell family who sent me the most special Ryan pillow that now has a special place on our bed. Right between his mom and dad's.
Thank you to my parents for the butterfly necklace. Every day since Ryan died I've worn a little piece of him in some form of jewelry. And I know I will continue to every day as my way of keeping him close. Thank you for understanding that, getting it, and supporting it. It's beautiful and I love it so very much.
Thank you to Rich's parents who drove to visit him at the cemetery. Who took us for lunch and chatted for hours with us about life and our boys. These "little things" are really not so little to me.
Thank you to Kelly who brought me a September-blooming flower to add to Ryan's garden. Not even an 8 months pregnant belly and 100% humidity could keep me from planting it as soon as I could.
Thank you to the friends who wore some special jewelry of their own on Ryan's birthday as their way of carrying him with them throughout the day.
Thank you to Amelia and her son Jake who spent some time enjoying the day blowing bubbles, and having some fun with Ryan on their minds and in their hearts.
Thank you to the Whitesides who donated a sweet Blessing Bag to their local hospital full of gifts for the first baby boy born on September 7.
Thank you to the Santoros, Stilins, Caputos, and former student, Caitlyn, for sending love up to my boy with your balloons.
Thank you to the MacIsaacs, for the beautiful handmade garden sign, and for enjoying some cupcakes with your little ones. Thank you especially for singing him Happy Birthday and making a few wishes, too. (And sending me the video. My heart quite nearly exploded at the sight).
Thank you to Jessica for having the most beautiful cookies made for Ryan. Thank you for sharing them with the little ones in your life. And thank you for bringing some to my parents. I'm glad they could enjoy them in celebration of their grandson on his special day. That gesture alone means so much to me.
Thank you to the Bainbridges for celebrating with some birthday cake. These kinds of "normal" birthday celebrations are so important to me. Just seeing his name on a cake was a very powerful thing.
Thank you to Ange for taking time to put together a thoughtful and creative bit of word art for Ryan. I can imagine the time you put into it and thinking of him and that means everything to me.
Thank you to the Sudbury woman who is a stranger to me, but who was moved enough by our story to commit a random act of kindness and then share Ryan's story to have that kindness passed along. Words fail me to express how very much this means to us. We always say how much we want Ryan's life to mean something more -- to do some good in the world. This act is an embodiment of that. So thank you.
Thank you to everyone who sent a card. To everyone who called. To everyone who lit a candle. To everyone who wrote us a special note. Not one went unread or uncherished.
The only way Ryan's birthday could have been any brighter was if he was here with us. Your never-ending love and support carries us through the difficult days and makes the bittersweet, happy moments a little less bitter and a lot more sweet. I know I don't say it enough, so I'll say it one more time.
From the bottom of my always-healing heart.
Today is meant to be a happy day. I set out to celebrate you and the fact that you, on this day one year ago, made me a mom in the physical sense. (Though you know I considered myself your mom long before you were born.) Our year long journey has not be a conventional one. It has not been an easy one. But as I wrote to you in your birthday card today, I am proud and blessed to be your mom.
In only one year, you have made such an impact on not only my life, but the lives of so many people. I have tracked as best as I could all of the wonderful things that have been accomplished in your name -- because you exist.
You have made a difference.
In this first year of your life...
Your dad has said it best. Today is no different from any other day. I miss you terribly today, as I missed you terribly yesterday, and the day before that. I love you as fiercely in this moment as I did the day you born. It's not conventional to have the anniversary of your death come before the anniversary of your birth. But that is part of your story. And today, despite loving and missing you as much as I do every day, has been an incredible celebration and day devoted just to you.
It started at 1:02 am, the time you were born. I woke from my bed, and I lit your candle. Snuggling your bear, I read to you the story "On the Night You Were Born." It felt right to be awake with you at that moment. The house was silent. And I really was reminded of the night you were born. But not in the sad, awful way I remembered it yesterday. In the peaceful way you slept in my arms that night. The house felt peaceful. And I knew I was starting your birthday in the most perfect way.
When it was time to actually wake up and start the day, I baked your cake. Chocolate zucchini, just like the random craving I had in the weeks before you were born. Your dad and I will sing to you and enjoy a slice later tonight.
At 10:30 we headed to the hospital. We had to deliver the memory/bereavement box to Labour and Delivery and conveniently had an appointment scheduled to checked in on Baby Brother with our weekly NST. He was wigglier than usual today. Your dad thinks you two were having a little party, what with us being so close to the exact place you were born. I'm inclined to believe him -- Baby Brother has never been so active before. It was a really special moment made even more special by the fact that we got to meet with the head of the bereavement program in Labour and Delivery. We got to share a bit of your story and gush about the amazing and supportive care we received the night you were born. All things I've been trying to write in a letter to the nurses, but haven't been able to find the words. We also got to chat about things I wish had been different, and she was so receptive. It really meant a lot. She was grateful for the box, and I am so hopeful it will bring another family some comfort -- though I wish it didn't have to.
From there, we headed straight to the cemetery. Your Gramma and Grampa Russell were there too. We set up the flower arrangement I made for you. Your dad and I wrote you a special birthday note. And then we read to you again. This time, "Wherever You Go, My Love Will Find You." We cried of course. I don't think I'll ever be able to read that book without crying. But the words are so true, it's like it was written from me to you. I meant every word I read. It's yours now. It could never be for anyone else but you.
We had lunch with your grandparents and talked about this year. What a journey its been. We talked about some of the other moms I've met and the ways you've made a difference to me, to them, to so many people. It felt great to talk so openly about you.
Tonight, my Fall yoga session begins. I think it's pretty special that it starts up again on your birthday. I wasn't going to go at first. But your dad insisted. And I do agree. I like to think that you do too. I feel good when I'm there. I feel close to you. And to your brother. New sessions always begin with introductions. Maybe tonight, if I'm brave enough, I'll introduce you too and have the other mamas dedicate their practice to you.
When I get home, we'll sing and eat cake and write out our wishes to you. We'll do what we can to send them up to meet you.
Just like your life, today has been beautiful. And special. And so full of love.
I love you so much.
Always and forever.
Happy birthday, baby boy.
There aren’t many words for the way I felt last night as I tried to fall asleep.
September 5, 2015 was the last time I felt you alive. I went to bed that night with no understanding of how hard life was about to get.
And so last night, as I climbed into bed with your brother alive inside me, I was sad. And so scared that it could happen all over again.
I woke up several times last night. My hands gravitating to my belly. Hopeful for a kick of reassurance. They came. And I would drift back to sleep somehow.
But there are no words once again for how I felt waking up this morning.
“Babies on the inside are allowed to sleep.” A constant reassurance from my own doctor and doctors I’ve met at the hospital. But that is no reassurance when you’ve given birth to a sleeping baby. Waking up today, I felt your brother’s stillness as he slept. I took deep breaths. I held him through my belly. And there came the kicks. The wiggles.
Everything I did not feel the morning of September 6, 2015.
This morning there was no need to drink some orange juice and lay quietly on my side. Holding my breath.
No. This morning, there was life, safe inside me. And it only made me miss you more.
I was wide awake when your dad left for work this morning. The first day of a new school year. I could have gone. And had I, I know I would have made it through the day. Drama free. Meeting my new students and their parents. Doing my job and doing it well.
But now, as I sit here by your grave with your teddy bear in my lap and the sun at my back, I know there is nowhere else I should be today.
Today is the day you died. Just one year later. And I owe you my whole heart today. Alive or not. Here or gone. You will always be a priority to me. Today is important to me because it is the first day I survived without your spirit here on earth with me. A day that I look back on and wonder how I could have ever survived it. But I did.
I can remember the pain and the fog of this day like it was yesterday. The calls to the hospital. The reassurances that “it will be okay.” The patronizing look on the nurse’s face when I showed up to the hospital 30 minutes after calling. (I was instructed to wait a couple hours). The silence on the heart monitor. The look on your dad’s face when he recognized what was happening before I was ready to accept it. His hug in the ultrasound room after the words, “There is no heartbeat.” The phone calls we had to make. The waiting for the induction medication to do its job. The fear I had of this unknown situation. The pain of labour and birth that I insisted on feeling without medication to take it all away. And the absolute pride at seeing your sweet face the first time. The feeling of not wanting to let you go. The joy of seeing you held by your dad. And the heartbreak of knowing these moments wouldn’t last long. The indescribable moment of having to give you up. To say, “You can take him now.” Leaving the hospital hugging a pillow instead. The silence of the drive home. I still don’t know how your dad did it. Did anything in those days following your death. I remember being such a zombie. And I remember him holding me together. He’s a special guy, your dad. I’m pretty sure I survived the day you died in large part because of him.
I sit here now and think of how some memories fade over time, but the day you died and the day you were born will be forever vivid in my mind.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’ve chosen to be here today, with you.
To remember even the hardest of memories.
To let myself cry over the things I haven’t cried about in a while.
To give myself the freedom to just grieve and not worry about the rest of the world.
Because today is the day that changed everything.
Today is the day that you died.
One of the things I've really struggled to learn throughout this grief journey is that if you need something, you have to ask for it. Most of the time, especially early on, I didn't know what I needed. And for the most part, that was okay. People from all walks of my life came through and filled the needs I didn't know needed filling. Now, nearly a year later, sometimes, though not nearly as often, I find myself still "in need" of something specific, but can find myself left longing, mainly because I'm afraid to ask.
I haven't always been good at asking for things. I have never wanted to seem demanding, or needy, or nagging. It always seemed easier to just hope people could figure out what I wanted or needed on their own, without my telling. The truth is, especially in grief, if you need something, you have to ask for it. Or else sometimes you can be left waiting, and the waiting can lead to extra hurting.
Which is why, one week away from Ryan's first birthday, it felt prudent to say that it is okay to celebrate him on September 7. In absolutely no way do I want that day to slip by without feeling he's been joyfully remembered.
And I know he is remembered every day. But I also know that sometimes, people want to do things, or mention him, and are afraid it will make me sad. And it's true that sometimes (a lot of the time) people will do things, and mention him, and it brings tears to my eyes. But that's only partly from the sadness that he's not here. It's mostly from the joy I feel that he is being so lovingly thought of.
Nothing would bring me greater joy than a flood of messages on September 7, showing me all the ways my boy is being celebrated on his birthday.
I've been asked a few times if there's anything I need or want for his first birthday. But the answer is as simple as just doing anything you feel is within your realm of possibility to celebrate him. In the past year I've seen and celebrated so many birthdays of babies who are no longer on this earth. Some of these celebrations included:
One of my family members has plans to donate a basket of baby boy things to her maternity floor to be given to the next baby boy born on or near September 7. A beautiful way for Ryan to be part of a new life.
Richard and I have put together a memory box we will be donating to the labour and delivery ward of the hospital where Ryan was born. It will be given to the next parents who will leave the hospital without their baby in their arms. The box contains a teddy bear, picture frame (to encourage lots of photos -- I always regret only having the one), a mould for hand/footprints, a kit to make hand/foot ink prints, and two engravables (a necklace and a keychain they can take anywhere to be engraved). The nurses will add the hospital related mementos, like the crib card and certificate of life. I remember feeling so lost at the hospital, not knowing what to do. I hope that by providing such a gift, the parents will be more confident in making memories with their baby in the short time they have together. It's something for us to do to help make more meaning out of Ryan's brief life.
And yes, we'll also visit him at the cemetery, and light his candle, and eat cake, and make wishes, and write, and just spend the day feeling our little boy surround us with love...
The point is, we will be celebrating him.
And it's absolutely okay for you to celebrate him too. And even more okay for you to feel comfortable sharing your celebrations with us. In fact, nothing could mean more to us than knowing how much he is still loved.