by Heather Carnaghan
On April 21, Charlotte will have been missing from my arms for six months. Half a year of sleepless nights have given me a lot of time to ponder some pretty big thoughts. I’ve thought about religion and science. I’ve thought about loss. But mostly, I’ve thought about love.
When it is dark and silent, I think about religion, because in my loss religion has often felt dark and silent. Sometimes it’s a lonely silence, and other times it feels meditative. I wonder where she is. I don’t believe in a golden heaven floating on clouds (though so often I wish that I could). I doubt a 5 pound, 11 ounce winged angel with her brother’s nose and mommy’s red hair is watching our shenanigans from above. I do, however, believe that there is more to us than our fragile one-time-use bodies might suggest. I believe this because I see evidence of it everywhere that I look. A glass of water that sits on the counter is liquid, filling its container with a glorious ability to quench thirst and taking up a measurable amount of space. Yet that same glass of water, when heated to a high degree, turns into steam. Is it gone? No. It is invisible and dissipated back into the infinite universe; those billions of molecules that once made up a unique glass of water will likely never collide again in exactly the same way, but not a single particle of it is gone. I believe that pieces of Charlotte surround us. Her soul is recycled into our entire existence just as her body has been recycled back into the earth; my daughter is physically and metaphysically nourishing new life.
When religion exhausts me, I think about science because it seems more concrete and visible. There is a great deal of science that surrounds grief and loss. A 2012 study found that your risk of heart attack is increased by 21 times in the day after a loved one’s death. Takotsuo Cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome” happens when your heart chambers balloon due to high levels of stress and prompt symptoms much like a heart attack. Stress wreaks havoc on the bereaved. The stress hormones that help us in fight-or-flight situations, hurt more than just our hearts over long stretches of time. Neuroscientists have found that prolonged periods of depression can stop neurogenesis, the process by which we form connections needed to learn and remember. I remember feeling like my brain was “holey” in the early days, like I couldn’t remember what day it was or if I had eaten recently. I once forgot my best friend’s name while I was on the phone with her. That same high level of cortisone that makes the bereaved’s memory spotty, also depletes their immune systems by impeding the production of white blood cells (the hungry blobs that gobble germs in middle school animated biology videos). So how do the members of my awful club keep cortisone in check? Well, with love.
More than anything else, in those long, insomnia-laced nights, I think of love. Not the light, airy, eyes-meet-across-the-room kind of love, but the deeper, I’d-die-for-you sort. Without fail, every bereaved parent that I have met has a primal need to “do something” to express this love for their child that is so intense that even death couldn’t stop it. They write love letters to their lost babies. They light candles and donate to causes. They tattoo their child’s name into their skin. They lift up others in the loss community through care packages and hours spent crafting memorial necklaces, bears to fill empty arms, cards, and burial gowns. They do acts of kindness to spread a little bit of love in a world that can feel void of it when the casseroles stop arriving on our doorsteps. This community of those who have experienced arguably the biggest loss one can endure are some of the most generous and resilient people I have ever known. They reach out in kindness because they have found, like I have, that the positive feelings that we spread to others return to us and lighten our burden, if only for a minute. And, in grief, a minute of respite is worth the many hours of service we paid to get there.
In our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps culture, we tell ourselves that the strong don’t need anyone. The hero stands on the pedestal, alone. The cowboy rides off into the sunset, alone. The truth is, I need a lot of support right now and will probably need a lot of support for a long time. I know I can’t do it alone so I solicit help in a sneaky way. I ask you to stand beside me in helping others. What’s sneaky about this? What you’re really doing by joining me in service is standing by me, supporting me. Resilience and depth are traits that I am cultivating, one sweat-drenched step at a time. I am learning that love will get me so much farther along that journey than any drug, therapist, or grief sherpa might. Here are a few “love projects” that I’ve been working on in the last six months so that I can channel my love for Charlotte into healing for me and others in the loss community. Thank you for supporting me as we lift up others through each of these projects.
LOVE PROJECTS FOR CHARLOTTE
My biggest labor of love has been a website choc full of grief resources, projects, and support for families who have experienced stillbirth. Charlotte’s Purpose will be working toward gaining nonprofit status this year to further support all of our projects.
How you can get involved:
WRAPPED IN LOVE PROJECT
This project repurposes donated wedding dresses, formal dresses, and even some menswear into burial gowns for lost babies. I started it with my own wedding dress and have since had 62 more donated. With a tiny team of sewists, we have already donated 29 burial gowns & pockets and 26 more are ready to be packaged and delivered!
How you can get involved:
CUDDLE COT FUNDRAISER
A Cuddle Cot is a cooling device that allows families of stillborns to have extra time with their baby. Our GoFundMe Fundraiser aims to raise $3000 to donate a Cuddle Cot to Holy Cross in Charlotte’s honor.
How you can get involved:
BEREAVED OPTIMIST’S BOOK CLUB
This is an online book club that aims to share, discuss, and discover books that help us navigate our unique grief as positively as possible. I started this club after a long search for grief books that were uplifting, tailored to baby loss, and supported my healing. I found that the discussion I had with others as I asked for good book recommendations were just as valuable as the books themselves.
How you can get involved:
We “pay it forward” with acts of kindness in honor of Charlotte and leave a special card behind to encourage others to pass the kindness on.
How you can get involved:
Dear Labor and Delivery Team,
First, thank you. Thank you for doing a job that requires so much of you. Those long shifts, full of running back and forth between rooms with the responsibility of so much new life on your hands, can’t be an easy burden to bear. I am in awe of your ability to counsel, coach, and console an entire wing of crying mothers and crying babies.
Sometimes the babies don’t cry, and that is hard for you too. No one goes into your field thinking, “I’d like to deliver stillborns”, but it is a devastating truth in 1 out of 160 delivery rooms. My daughter, Charlotte, was stillborn on October 21, 2017. Her heart stopped beating for unknown reasons at 38 weeks gestation.
My stillbirth experience was a mixed one. It was 3am when I came to the hospital, alone and worried about my baby’s decreased movements. The nurses who checked me in and set up the doppler were were honest, but gentle, saying that they were having trouble finding the heartbeat and were going to call the doctor to do a sonogram. My own OB-GYN happened to be on call that night. She teared up when she said, “I’m so sorry, I can’t find her heartbeat.” This life shattering news was delivered in the kindest way possible. She apologized, not in an admittance of any guilt, but as a mother showing compassion to another mother. She acknowledged my baby’s gender. Hearing “her heartbeat” was important to me. It spoke of this doctor’s respect for my child and the hug that followed spoke of her respect for me. There were many times after this moment in which that tiny word was replaced with “it” or “he” and each one stung. It might seem like a silly mistake to someone who has never lost a child, but chaplains, nurses, doctors, and even cleaning crew made it over and over that day. Each one told me, “your baby doesn’t matter” by forgetting that Charlotte was a she.
One nurse went to get me a blanket (I was already shivering uncontrollably from shock) and another went to get a wheelchair. My doctor asked if there was anyone I could call and explained that I would be induced to deliver. I was wheeled to a room at the very end of the labor and delivery wing. It felt like a cruel place to put me, passing room after room of happy conversations and bright balloons on our way, but I realized later that this was a purposeful placement. My labor was loud and awful. My screams were hollow and sad. New moms with crying babies didn’t need to hear my sorrow and I didn’t need to hear their joy that day. I didn’t hear a single baby cry during my stay at the hospital- not mine nor anyone else’s. That gave me the quiet space to focus on my own grief and how I could survive this storm.
My husband and mother sobbed with me in the room, and probably more profusely outside of it. I wish that there had been a place for them to go. They were rushed from the hallways when they stood there too long, but they needed moments away from the agony of my room as they began to process their own grief. My mom took to walking the halls so she wouldn’t be scolded for standing outside of the delivery room. She took a wrong turn near the NICU door and a nurse joked, “you don’t want to go that way!” before pointing her toward labor and delivery. In another life, she would have chuckled along, but that day she wished more than anything that she could visit the NICU. Small comments like these etch themselves onto your heart when you are grieving a child. The most hurtful ones dismissed my baby as unimportant. A cleaning crew member congratulated me on the baby while I was still in labor and, when I tearfully said that she would be born still, she said, “you’re young, you can try again”. I sobbed because I wanted this baby, my baby that I had waited 38 happy, healthy weeks for. A nurse asked if I was “a believer”. My beliefs are my own and were so complicated by this experience with infant death, that I simply said “no”. She continued with “well I believe…”. Those three words said, “You’re wrong. In the depths of your despair, what you believe is wrong.” The platitudes she shared were unwelcome and insensitive. Though your hospital has religious affiliations, not all who enter it share them. I hope that, after reading this, staff will consider their words very carefully. It is so much kinder to say, “I am so sorry that your daughter passed” or “There are no words that can take this pain away” because there simply are none. I have spoken to many parents who have lost a child and what each agrees upon as most helpful is a caregiver who listens and acknowledges that this child was important. One nurse who was with me until just before the delivery talked to me about my job, my living children, my family. She asked me about my baby. How did you pick her name? What was your pregnancy like with her? Did you bring something special for her to wear? She used Charlotte’s name when she spoke of her and told me that she would think about her when she remembered to hug her own son a bit tighter that evening. This nurse held my hand when I started to cry and answered my questions thoughtfully. When I asked about donating Charlotte’s organs, she was honest, but gentle as she explained why we couldn’t do this. I am so grateful to her for giving me a small glimpse of what to expect in the hours to come.
Despite enduring a long labor, I was not prepared for many aspects of stillbirth. My own doctor finished her shift shortly after my arrival and, in that 27 hours, the doctor who delivered Charlotte only visited to introduce herself and then for several minutes after my husband had tracked her down, desperately asking for a C-Section to put us all out of the agony of labor and waiting. I wish that the delivering doctor had prepared me for the fragility of my baby’s skin or the blood pooling in her lips when she was born. I wish that she had realized that, though my baby didn’t need her that day, I did. I needed reassurance that I could indeed survive this natural birth and this very unnatural grief. My husband needed reassurance that he wouldn’t lose his wife along with his baby that day. When Charlotte was finally born, the doctor asked if someone could hold “the baby” while she stitched me up. I refused and said that I wanted to hold her while she was warm. The doctor rolled her eyes and continued chewing the gum she had during the whole delivery. Had I not already been at the very lowest place in my life, perhaps I would have mustered up the strength to express my disgust. After we held Charlotte for that hour, the doctor stitched me up and I never saw her again. I was surprised that no doctor visited to check on me before I was discharged only 12 hours after giving birth.
I wasn’t prepared for how quickly my child would lose color, plumpness, and warmth. A photographer arrived to take pictures of Charlotte, but I didn’t have anything prepared for her because I didn’t know that they were coming. We spent precious minutes of the single hour that we held our daughter searching for an outfit in our suitcase. Had I known that the photographer would arrive after birth, I would have set this out during labor. My mother gave her cross necklace to the photographer. I didn’t know this until we received the pictures later that day and each had this symbol draped over my baby or clasped in her tiny hands. I’m glad that I took my own pictures because those cross-filled images are disturbing to me. I don’t blame the photographer, she was simply listening to my mother, but I do wish that she had listened to me, Charlotte’s mother, instead.
I was moved to a room without a baby cot and visited by another nurse and a counselor. They were both kind and sincere. The counselor listened to us express our disbelief and profound sadness over losing our baby girl. Her words preserved Charlotte’s dignity and acknowledged that she was so very important to us. We wished that we had been able to meet with her during the long labor so that we could have better considered some of the overwhelming options that were presented. Burial, cremation, autopsy...these are not things that you are prepared to face in the best of times, much less an hour after sending your baby to the morgue.
When we returned home without our daughter, our lives were forever changed. I have learned that helping other people survive the trauma of stillbirth is something that I am passionate about, something that begins to fill the gaping hole of Charlotte’s loss. I created “Charlotte’s Purpose”, a website dedicated to positively dealing with grief, in an effort to heal my own heart but it has already become something bigger. It is full of the resources that I found helpful in this journey as well as a project initiated in Charlotte’s memory. The Wrapped in Love Project is a program in which we take donated wedding dresses and repurpose them into burial gowns and pockets for babies lost before, during, or shortly after birth. This first batch is made from my own wedding dress and many of the gowns currently being repurposed were donated by mothers who have lost a child to miscarriage or stillbirth. I hope that you can help me by offering these gifts to bereaved families. It is my sincerest hope that sharing my experience with you and starting the Wrapped in Love Project will make the next mother who faces stillbirth at this hospital feel some comfort in a moment that is likely her worst.
Thank you for all that you do and all that you strive for,
The preceding letter was by Heather Carnaghan and was included with the very first donation of infant burial gowns through the Wrapped in Love Project. For more information about the Wrapped in Love Project, or to donate a dress or time as a sewist, please click here.
Heather is an educator, writer, artist, and most of all, mother of four. Her three boys inspire joy in her life and writing. Heather's eagerly awaited daughter was stillborn in October of 2017, which focused her creative energy on grief and healing. She created and maintains CharlottesPurpose.com, a website dedicated to dealing with grief positively.