Through the Dark Valley
by Julie Erickson
When I first learned of Jordyn’s fatal diagnosis in November of last year, the perfectionist and workaholic in me took over almost immediately. Though I was heartbroken that Jordyn would not be with us to grow up, I imagined the good that could come of her short time on earth. I pictured building a legacy in her name which included a charity for fetal heart research, a blog to tell her story, and many speaking, fund raising, and mentoring efforts to support those who were hurting in the same way I was. Though I could not save her life, through whatever power I had I needed her memory to be preserved.
My ambitions were high for Jordyn from the start. However, as noble as they were I confess that I forgot to consider one very important detail in my quest to change the world: I needed to heal and restore myself first. My desire to see these changes manifest in my lifetime continues to remain my ultimate desire. What has changed over time is that I am now in a more capable place to carry out these goals. This was only able to come with patience.
I have a long way to go before I would ever admit to being “whole” again. However, by taking several weeks to bandage my broken heart and try to live once more, I believe I have done a greater service to Jordyn’s memory than I would have been able to even 2 months ago. My motivation and dedication are far more solid now that I have had time to walk the dark valley of loss and find my own inner strength.
I continue to believe in the depths of my heart that Jordyn can and will one day inspire so many people, but I have found that through being kind to myself during the initial loss and the time following, I have already done so much to ensure a bright future on which to build these dreams.
Allowing myself to confront such a terrifying chapter in my life took a lot of courage. I was very much afraid to begin such a painful journey. My body was already weak and ill from not eating or sleeping, and exhausted from delivery and sadness. I knew what lay ahead would only increase my pain for a time. I was also afraid of pausing to care for myself for another reason: that every second I spent not reminding the world that Jordyn existed and building awareness in her name would mean the eventual loss of her memory altogether. Over time, I feared the world would move on and forget her.
An old saying expresses that “Every man dies 2 deaths. The first happens when he is buried, and the second happens when his name is spoken for the last time.” I was petrified that if I didn’t make haste, Jordyn would simply become another faded name on a weather-beaten gravestone. It tore me apart to picture this fate for her. There was no way that I could imagine my cherished daughter, half a century from now, laying forgotten to the ages as life continued without her.
Once I was able to let my wandering and worried mind rest for the first time following Jordyn’s delivery, I was able to find moments of clarity that afforded me the faith to step out and begin finding the person that I had become in my loss, and restoring myself to the person I knew Jordyn would want me to be. I began to realize that even though I could not accomplish my ambitions immediately, it did not mean for a second that somehow Jordyn’s memory would vanish. Everything that I set out to do would eventually be done in due time, but rushing the process could lead to unfinished goals, half efforts, and abrupt pauses and abandonment of ideas. Once I was able to look at things from this perspective, my journey to true healing began.
I tried many different coping mechanisms during those first difficult months. as I sat alone in my home day after day, with heavy arms that held nothing and a broken spirit from the memories I couldn’t outrun. Some self care strategies I found helpful, others not so much. However, I was willing to do, try and learn in an effort to feel better as soon as I could.
I knew that life could be gentle with me for a bit, but not forever. With that in mind, as I found things that improved my outlook and attitude, I wrote them down and held onto them to go back to as needed. After some time it became clear to me that I had amassed quite a list, and that maybe it could prove useful to someone else as well. Thus, I began to focus on explaining my journey of self healing to other moms maybe just stepping into those first lonely and confusing days. I wanted to leave them with a gift in assuring them that they were not alone, and a reminder that hope is possible and will come again. I also wanted to speak to the moms that had been in their losses for some time, and were possibly still looking for a way to restore on those days where even getting out of bed and taking a few steps seemed like an outrageous challenge.
If you are finding yourself in one of those spots today, dear mother, I invite you to read on and experience my own journey. I hope this list of tips that I kept for myself can prove useful to you in your time of need, or maybe to someone you know. Whatever your situation, if I can bring even 5 minutes of hope to your day, I am glad to have had the chance to help you.
While at first this may seem a selfish waste of money and time, I can assure you, sweet mommy, that this was an immense help to me. About 3 weeks following the death of my own daughter, after the visitors, cards, and flowers stopped coming, I boarded a plane to San Antonio with my husband and let myself “run away” for the weekend. We spent the next 3 days sightseeing, dining on the ocean, and just getting comfortable with living again in a city filled with strangers that didn’t know me or my story and were guaranteed to leave me alone.
I know that not everyone has the financial flexibility to be able to just hop on a plane as I did, but at the very least, if you can manage it, take a weekend away from home in a nearby town you have never been to and allow yourself to get lost for a couple of days. Shut off your phone, computer, TV, and just be alone with your thoughts. You will be surprised by how much you learn about your own strength.
I currently belong to a Facebook group which unites moms in situations similar to my own. It is helped to be able to discuss things I feel with this strong, close knit, and powerful group of women whom I have never met, yet love me as a sister in loss.
Belonging to a support community has been a critical part of my healing because, as much as people want to support me, most truly have never felt the level of despair and daily struggle that comes from losing a baby. They do not understand how someone can dread Holidays like Mother’s day and Christmas. Nor do I find that they comprehend or the impact and significance of angel dates, diagnosis dates, and lost milestones in the same way angel mothers do.
While some might prefer an in person group to a Facebook community, this has proven to be a difficult option for me due to my introverted nature and daily schedule. I do hope, however, to join an in person group very soon and am currently adjusting my schedule to be able to do so. Early on, I recognized the need to maintain connections to other loss mothers: not only to keep me grounded, But to reduce my feelings of isolation on this strange new journey.
Yes, I am speaking to you, dear momma: the one who just kissed her child’s casket and watched desperately as it was lowered out of sight. The one who, this very day might still be in shock that this happened, or angry that God chose her to shoulder such a terrible burden the rest of her life.
My heart cries with you. I know firsthand the stabbing pain that grips your chest each night as you cry yourself to sleep. I know the feeling of alienation you carry with you, because nobody else seems to “get it”. And I know how you pick your body up out of bed each day and pretend to be unaffected, even though with every step you can hear your own heart shattering like broken glass.
One might think that creating memories centered around an already dead child is bizarre and pointless, but humor me for a moment. This is still your child. Why not decorate that nursery, or buy that outfit you wanted to bring them home in? How about putting together a baby book? These things can be such a powerful way to connect with and remember your baby, and can even be therapeutic in your harder times. They can be used to share your baby’s story with others, and to keep your child’s memory vivid in your mind and the minds of others.
I mother both a living daughter and an angel daughter. For each of my girls, I worked on a nursery and a baby book when I was pregnant. Each nursery had its own theme and color: for my living daughter, Hannah, we chose pink and purple butterflies. For Jordyn, we chose the color yellow and a room decorated with Elephants. The only difference in both situations was that I knew Jordyn would never sleep in her room.
After painting, we placed a shelf in Jordyn’s room with books, toys, outfits, gifts that were purchased to especially for her, and covered the walls with tender photos of when, for just a few hours, we were a family of four.
I am not going to lie and say that I don’t cry every time I step into Jordyn’s room, but it is not because I regret having this place in my home. I am touched with tears over the reminders that I did the best I could for my baby while she was with us, and that she is no doubt proud to still be loved, even in death.
Regardless of their length of their lives, each of my girls holds such a special place in my heart, and I have made the promise to treat them both as equally as I can , for they mean the entire world to me.
I wish that I would have not had to face the end of my maternity leave and inevitable transition back to the working world. I didn’t feel ready. After all, how can anyone expect someone to resume a normal life after something so tragic? But my job and responsibilities couldn’t wait for me to feel confident again to return to them. I have now been back at work for 3 months. Looking at my current situation since that first hard day going back, I admit that I have moments where I still don’t feel completely ready. Yet confronting my fears and resuming my normal routine has been helpful. I have discovered as the weeks and months pass, that I truly have little to fear.
With the support of a caring and attentive medical team, and an accommodating employer, I was able to return to my job with permissions in place to take a break when things just got too hard. I have had, and continue to experience many moments in which I am completely blindsided and caught off guard by my grief. However, choosing not to be ashamed if the likely occasional rough day chappened has allowed me to heal at a pace I can handle. By forcing myself not to be strong when I can’t, I am becoming stronger.
The further I travel in time from that fateful day when Jordyn’s heart stopped beating, the less often I find that I cry. The intensity of those hard times, though, when they do come, continue to bring with them as much crippling sorrow as if it were still that first day.
It has never been my agenda to demand that people seek organized religion for themselves. I simply can’t emphasize enough, though, how much the Lord has carried me through this unthinkable disaster. I would be omitting the most important detail in my path to healing were I to leave this out.
I have spent much time in prayer, contemplation, and scripture as I have tried to make sense of why God wanted me to carry a sick child and ultimately let her pass from this life instead of healing her.
I have found as I go, that my prayers are often not answered in the way I request, but that is okay.
I serve a big God who has been there at the beginning and end of my life already. He answers my prayers according to his wisdom in understanding not what I want, but what I need.
I remain convinced if I did not know God, I would not be healing as quickly or successfully as I currently am. I have a long way to go, but God is carrying me there using his strength. He is crying with me in the times that I cry, and celebrating with me in the times when I find joy. He has promised to make by burden light, and not to leave or forsake me.
Knowing and understanding the promises of God as outlined in the word has given me confidence in knowing that I will see my baby girl again before too long, and that when I do, we will never have to consider being apart for the rest of eternity. It has also lessened my anxiety about where Jordyn is now and how she is doing. I know someday I will be there with her, standing in joy and glory. That promise brings tears to my eyes and a beautiful peace to my heart that transcends all understanding.
My final suggestion, dear mother, is to not analyze your actions or compare your grief to others. The absence of tears is no sign that you are a bad person or that you do not have a heart of love for the baby you lost. Nor does crying alone for hours at night make you weak and pathetic. It is important that you take actions and make choices that will allow you to heal. Whether that looks the same as someone else’s journey or not is unimportant. What matters is that it is your journey, and it is not wrong.
My heart breaks with you as you face this difficult new reality, sweet mother. I wish I could compose the perfect words to help you through this without any struggle. But I can’t take your pain from you any easier than I can outrun my own. It’s a part of me now. I have spent my time surfing the web endlessly, and have dog eared the pages of dozens of grief books in search of that one miracle that will stop my hard days from being so hard. Sometimes, a good cry does the job better than a million suggestions will. So I close with this cry with those who want to cry with you, extend grace to those that will turn their backs out of ignorance or awkwardness, and absolutely forgive yourself, for you never did a thing to deserve or contribute to your child’s fate.
Julie Erickson is mom to a cute, rambunctious 22 month old named Hannah and is currently pregnant with her little sister, a heart warrior by the name of Jordyn Hope who has received a life limiting diagnosis.
Julie’s family braves the winter cold of Minnesota each year in their Minneapolis home keeping busy writing, decorating, baking, and visiting friends.
Julie recently joined up with Hannah’s heart and Love as a contributor after learning of her unborn daughter’s condition at 20 weeks pregnant. She has decided to do what she is able to bring encouragement into the lives of other hurting moms like herself and spread awareness of pregnancy and infant loss as a means of empowering women who have fallen victim. She welcomes email messages to firstname.lastname@example.org .