This week has been filled with a lot of emotions. We have officially hit the “one month to go” mark in our pregnancy with Jelly Bean, while also hitting the 18-month mark since losing Austin. Jelly Bean is doing well, passing their NST and fluid checks this week. We also crossed off many of the items on our list to prepare for their arrival – car seat bases are installed, homebirth supplies are gathered and organized for our midwife, postpartum care items are at the ready. Beyond a few minor items, we are ready for whenever Jelly Bean decides to make their appearance.

Emma's 35-week bump - Remembering our Angels

Author’s Personal Collection/Emma DeVanzo

On Sunday, my husband and I attended a Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Ceremony.

The organizer is a fellow loss mom and nurse at a local hospital who also leads a monthly support group for loss parents that I am a part of. Those in attendance customized a paper bag that was lit with an electronic candle to honor all of our babies gone too soon. A few of the loss moms spoke about their experience and their babies and the chief neonatologist said a few words and shared a beautiful poem.

I was among the moms who spoke, and below is what I shared.

Exactly 18 months ago today, my world changed forever. On Friday, April 10th, 2020, I walked into my 39-week prenatal appointment alone, my husband at home. It was my first appointment ever without him by my side because he wasn’t allowed in the office due to COVID. And all alone in that room, I learned that our baby’s heart had stopped beating. I was in shock and disbelief. There were no other doctors in the office, so I needed to wait to receive confirmation that our baby was gone at the hospital, but I knew that wasn’t necessary. They were gone. We had lost them.

I left the appointment, sat in my car, and called my husband. Thankfully, he had just gotten back home from a morning run around the neighborhood and answered the phone. I tearfully told him there was no heartbeat. I don’t remember what he said but I remember he was still breathing heavy from his run. I told him the plan. Get showered, grab the hospital bag, and I would be home soon. I love you. He said he loved me too.

After the most difficult drive home and then to the hospital, we arrived and were taken back to Labor and Delivery. We were put in the very first room on the left of the long hallway. Maybe that was why we never heard another woman in labor or a baby crying while we were there. The doctor came in with the ultrasound and confirmed there was no blood flowing through their heart – it was still. They drew my blood to run as many tests as they could to figure out why this was happening. They tested me for COVID.

An IV was placed with Pitocin to start the induction. The contractions grew strong and 2 minutes apart very quickly, but they were nothing compared to the emotional pain that I was blocking out. At some point, we called our doula and she talked me through every contraction for the rest of the delivery. Less than 7 hours after the IV was placed, we learned that we had a baby boy.

Austin Parker DeVanzo, 6 pounds, 11 ounces and 21 inches long. The cutest chubby cheeks, just like me and his cousins when we were born. We kissed his forehead, wishing there was anything we could do to bring him back. His lifeless body felt so heavy in our arms. We told him how much we loved him and how sorry we were. We shared our hopes and dreams that we envisioned for his life. How we would support him no matter what path his life took.

luminaries at a Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Ceremony

Author’s Personal Collection/Emma DeVanzo

18 months ago, we said a tearful goodbye to Austin. The kind of goodbye that you don’t ever want to imagine. We said goodbye to our first baby. We said goodbye to our old life, the life before knowing this kind of loss. We left the hospital the next morning with empty arms to go back to an empty house filled with all of the items we had carefully prepared for his arrival.

Our parents showed up shortly after we returned home. They packed away all of the baby things and shut the door on the nursery. And then we opened the memory box that the hospital staff had prepared for the first time. We found a lock of his brown hair, casts of his hands and feet, and his light blue hat which I had asked for. I didn’t want to take his blanket away because I wanted him to stay wrapped up in the cold morgue.

Once our parents left, we were all alone. Just the two of us in an empty house. The only cries heard were our own as the reality sank in. Beyond the pain of losing Austin, we just wanted to know why. The lab results from the hospital didn’t give any definitive answers, and we would end up waiting weeks for the final autopsy and additional labs. I became obsessed with trying to find the cause, reading every medical textbook and research article related to stillbirth I could find. But nothing gave me the answers I was looking for. And nothing I did was going to bring him back to us.

Two days after saying goodbye, as I laid in bed unable to sleep with silent tears streaming down my face, I couldn’t stop replaying every detail of that day and the days leading up to it in my mind. Was there something more that we could have done to save him? Was there something I did during my pregnancy that led to this? A million what-ifs ran through my mind. I wanted to be able to go back in time and change whatever the offense was so that I could bring Austin back.

I read about the stages of grief. I looked for suggestions of how to honor your baby. I looked for resources for parents of stillborn babies to help navigate us through. At some point in my research, I came across the idea of journaling and writing letters to your baby. I don’t know why, but this idea resonated with me. Three days after losing Austin, I wrote my first letter. The first two words, Dear Austin, took me almost an hour to write. I could barely say his name at that time, let alone write it. The pain was so deep.

I poured my heart onto those pages every single day for the first two months after losing him, some days spending hours writing. I processed all of my emotions in those letters, saying all the things I wanted to say to him if he were still here. I thought about what he would say to me if he could. I didn’t think he would want me to cry and be sad the rest of my life, but the thought of not living in my grief made me feel guilty.

I felt guilty the first day I didn’t write a letter. I felt guilty the first day I didn’t shed a tear. I felt guilty with any glimmer of happiness I felt. There was so much guilt with every step of progress, which led to setbacks along the way. With each setback, I would just continue to tell myself that Austin would want me to be happy. He would want me to enjoy life, living it in his honor, carrying his memory with me.

My husband and I went for many walks. We felt connected to Austin in nature – in the sun and wind, in the birds and flowers. We found organizations that we resonated with. Organizations that supported further research of stillbirths so that future parents wouldn’t need to feel this kind of pain. Organizations that helped other parents going through similar losses. Organizations that raised awareness and didn’t shy away from loving our angels or saying their names.

With help from my therapist, I was introduced to a local support group for loss parents. We talked freely about our babies each month while supporting each other as we navigated our grief. It was in this group that I found a connection to the sixth stage of grief – finding meaning. Beyond supporting organizations whose causes I resonated with, there was something different about the support group. Not only did I feel supported by my peers who understood what it was like, but by sharing my story, I was able shine a light to help guide others through their grief as well.

So say your baby’s name. Tell their story. Love on them no matter how long it’s been since you lost them. Don’t be afraid to find things that are meaningful for you to honor your baby’s life like writing letters or creating a special place in your house to memorialize them. Find friends, old or new, who create a safe space for you to feel all of your feelings.  There is no guidebook or timeline for grieving the loss of your baby, the loss of a life you hoped for. Know that you are not alone and that there will be a light that finds you, even on your darkest of days.

Sharing my story was difficult and filled with many tears.

Despite the difficulty, it feels great to know that so many people know Austin’s name and his story. The added bonus of knowing that it may help someone else process their grief gives me a deeper purpose in life, which is also part of the reason why I decided to be a Bump Day Blogger. I hope that sharing my and Jelly Bean’s story helps even just one person get through their pregnancy after loss journey. And I hope that anyone reading this feels like they are not alone and that they are able to find the light even on the darkest of days.

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