Today we’re honored to be able to share Ashley’s story of becoming a mother and then having to say goodbye to her son far too soon. Today, Ashley is one of our parent mentors – specifically in the area of grief – and we are so grateful to her for her service and for sharing her story with us in observance of Parents of Preemies Day.
What would you like to share about about Gavin’s life?
Gavin was born at 23 weeks, 6 days gestation. We were given a pretty lengthy list of things that could happen during and after his birth prior to delivery including but limited to his immediate death upon. When he was born he had a head full of velvet hair, one dark brown eye open and he even let out a cry. We expected silence so hearing his voice (which ultimately became the only time we would ever hear it) was beautiful. He lived for 60 1/2 hours. He held onto our fingers, was comforted by our voice, was extremely tall for his gestational age and only ever knew love.
Did you know he would be born so early?
I found out at 18 weeks that I had an incompetent cervix. I was admitted to the hospital for an emergency cerclage placement. I was put on bed rest and then admitted back to the hospital at 21 weeks because my cervix was continuing to shorten. We knew he was going to come early but weren’t prepared for how early. He was born at 23 weeks, 6 days. I never knew anyone born that early. It was terrifying.
How did the NICU staff support you through his passing? Is there anything you wish they’d done differently?
We were called back to the hospital because Gavin had been coding on and off. Our NICU nurse Sonya sat us down and explained in great detail what was happening and what our course of medical inventions we could take. As we talked, Gavin started to code again. As they worked tirelessly to revive him, Sonya explained in detail what they were doing. My husband and I, with the support of his parents, my mom and our beloved nurse, we decided to stop intervention and allowed Gavin to pass peacefully in our arms.
Every nurse, doctor, therapist in the NICU stopped what they were doing to help us transition us into a private room. We were given endless warm blankets. Gavin died an hour later, in my arms. We were given a clipping of his hair, the clothes he was wearing, every blanket he touched, his hand & footprints, and a mold of his feet. They called Now I Lay Me Down to sleep to come and take photos for us. The best gift of all? They gave us time. They allowed us to lay in that room and hold our son for as long as we wanted to. I’m eternally grateful for them giving us the space to love on him in a private room. I’m still actively involved in my local NICU. The nurses that cared for my son during his life and helped us transition after his death are still close family friends, 6 1/2 years later.
What about friends and family? How did they help you? What should people reading this know about supporting someone through grief?
Grief is complicated and no matter how much you want to share it, you can’t. Everyone grieves differently. My husband and I struggled with our relationships with a lot of our close family and friends in the beginning. Perhaps it’s because, at the time, we couldn’t allow our grief to occupy the same space as others who were also grieving. We were grieving our son, but they were grieving their grandson, nephew, cousin, etc.
The people we loved and appreciated the most during the early months and years of our grief were the people who didn’t project expectations on us. They allowed us to talk if we wanted to, to be silent, offered hugs, sent cards and never let us forget we were loved and being thought about. The worst part of grief, other than the loss itself, is that the world around you keeps turning. It’s a cruel reality but for people to stop what they were doing to light a candle, send a meal or card, or just a phone call to let us know they were thinking of us was the best support.
If someone you love is grieving the loss of a baby, don’t offer advice on what they could or should be doing. Support them unconditionally, even when it means they need space. Honor their child by saying their name and telling their story. The greatest fear I have is that over time, no one will remember my son Gavin. It’s a welcome breath of fresh air when, out of the blue, someone mentions him. Don’t be afraid to talk about the child who died.
How did Gavin’s birth and death shape the person you are today?
Gavin’s life and death has indelibly changed my life. I truly understand unconditional love, the kind of love that not even death can break. I deeply value making memories with my family, especially my four year old daughter Nora. I take more pictures and write down more memories. I deeply understand fear and how it can help you overcome what feels impossible. It can also knock you to your knees and make moving forward feel equally impossible. Grief is forever apart of who I am. I learned to embrace the waves and know that it’s okay not to be okay. At the root of all things in my life is love, the desire to love and be loved.
How do you honor his memory in the present?
I’ve found my voice within the loss community and have been involved in many memorial walks and talks in the years since his death. I am a parent mentor for both my local infant loss support group and of course, Graham’s Foundation. Supporting other parents through this unimaginably difficult journey gives me hope and purpose. We hold annual fundraisers for our local Ronald McDonald House and donate books every Christmas to our local library. We hang his stocking and fill it with toys for a local toy drive. I proudly share memories and photos of him with my daughter (born 2 1/2 years after his death). We go somewhere new and always eat cake on Gavin’s birthday every year. We hang his picture and tell his story.
If you were talking to a preemie parent who’d just experienced a loss, what would you feel it was most important to tell them?
Grief is a difficult, lifelong process. Allow yourself the time and space to feel however you’re going to feel when you feel it. It’s okay not to be okay. Set boundaries early and stick to them. If you don’t feel like going to a family event or to that baseball game, don’t. If you want to take a long walk, take that walk. Self care is of the utmost importance, especially in the beginning. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help in any form you feel appropriate (a local support group, a therapist, a friend, family, parent mentor, etc.) Most importantly, know that you are never, ever alone.
If you’d like to share your story on our blog, email [email protected] to find out how.