You will survive. You will come out the other side. You won’t get over this, but you will get through it.
I remember hearing these words from people over and over again when our daughter, Helen James, was born sleeping one year ago. I could not comprehend what they were saying or how that would even be possible.
I don’t want to survive. I don’t want to come out on the other side. I just want to be with my daughter.
That’s all I kept thinking. Simple as that.
But somehow, one year later, my husband Joel and I are still standing. We love each other, our friends and family, and our daughter Helen more than I ever thought possible. I never dreamed that experiencing the death of my own child would teach me how to love more fiercely, how to be grateful for the smallest of things and how to not take one second of this life here on earth for granted. But here we are.
Our daughter, Helen, was born sleeping on June 5, 2018, when I was 38 weeks pregnant. The term “stillborn” felt a bit foreign to me then, and it still does now — somehow that term makes me feel like other people don’t think our baby was real, that she was actually born. But we know better.
We know Helen was alive and well with me for nine months — that she was a beautiful 7-pound, 7-ounce baby when she came into this world. She was perfect in every way. She had a head full of hair, long toes like her dad and the cutest button nose I’d ever seen. Holding my daughter was by far the best thing that I have ever done in my life, and I long for the day I get to hold her again.
The cause of Helen’s death was never determined. There were no visible signs of issues with the umbilical cord or placenta when I had a C-section. We chose to have an autopsy, but that also did not provide any answers. Looking back now, I’m not sure that a concrete cause would have provided us the closure we need, but we knew we had to try to find out what happened. One year later, I’ve replayed everything I did throughout my pregnancy trying to pinpoint that one thing that ultimately hurt my daughter. Deep down, I know I won’t find answers down that road, but as a parent, how can I not feel that I have to take some of the responsibility? Right now, that seems like something I will struggle with forever. But over time, I hope the pain and guilt will subside.
One thing that helps is having a mission — somewhere to funnel our grief and confusion and love and energy. The hospital where Helen James was born had a device called a Cuddle Cot. This cot turned out to be a life-changing device that allowed us to have Helen in the room with us for three days while friends and family traveled from near and far to meet her. Joel and I are firm believers that the Cuddle Cot is a crucial part of acceptance and healing when experiencing the loss of a baby.
Following our experience, we felt led to start a fundraiser in Helen’s honor to help place more Cuddle Cots in hospitals across Tennessee. In the past year, we’ve raised over $26,000 for six Cuddle Cots thanks to kind and gracious friends, family and strangers. Additionally, we were able to donate funds to Saint Thomas Midtown Hospital where Helen was born to help with the construction of a new Family Bereavement Room. There families who have lost a child will have a place inside the labor and delivery unit to spend time with their baby. They will be able to give their child a bath, dress them and create hand and foot imprints keepsakes in a private space.
As we move forward, Joel and I have continued to honor our daughter by creating the Helen James Foundation. Its mission is simple: To support grieving families who are experiencing a pregnancy or infant loss. We will focus on Cuddle Cots for the immediate future for Regional One Health (formerly The Med) in Memphis, Tenn. and for Northwestern Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, Ill., where our nephew, Jamie Sebastian, was born. My sister Lindsay spent a lot of time there when she was pregnant with Sebastian, and Chicago is like a second home to our family, so we know it will be so special for us to have Helen’s presence there.
To help spread the word of the foundation’s launch, we emailed friends and family and began an Instagram page. Within five days, we were able to raise more than $6,000 for our Cuddle Cot campaigns for these two hospitals. We continue to be amazed by the generosity of others and their constant, ongoing support.
There is not a moment that goes by that I don’t think of Helen. It warms my heart when others talk to me about her or send me a message about how much they miss her. I often forget that it is not just Joel and me who experienced this tremendous loss. Our friends and family did as well, and they will forever remember and mourn her too.
Joel and I are expecting another baby in December. We feel so blessed to get the chance to be parents to another child. We hope and pray every day for a healthy baby, and we have no doubt Helen is with us every step of the way, watching out for her sibling and her parents. To those parents who have lost children, our hearts are broken with yours. It is truly a pain like no other. Joel and I do believe that there can be hope and joy amidst your grief. We are living proof of that.
Looking back over the past year, I can say that, somehow, we have managed to survive. I cannot say yet that we have come out the other side. Our hearts are still so heavy, and the loss of our child is sometimes almost too much to bear. However, the deeper understanding of what it means to love is more apparent than ever.
I can only thank one person for that: our daughter, Helen James.