Some people are lucky to never have to deal with grief.
The kind that’s crippling.
The kind of grief that makes you sleep during the day and awakens you at night.
The kind that makes you forget to eat or paralyzes you from functioning.
The kind of grief where, because of the loss, you’ve accepted the world will never again feel the same.
Some of us have never felt that type of grief. We may have lost grandparents or distant loved ones, but those people were older, their time came, it was painful to lose them, but also exemplified the circle of life, and so it was.
Sometimes we feel so stressed by the pressures of everyday life that we forget how good we truly have it. Racing to get to kids’ birthday parties. Unloading the hundreds of dollars of groceries from the car and getting them inside the house. Career deadlines. Getting locked outside the house. Rainy days when you wanted to go to the beach.
Then we see someone who experiences such horrible grief or sadness that we are reminded our “stressors” are small stuff.
And we don’t know how to treat that grieving person.
Because we don’t know how we would handle being in their shoes.
We want to reach out to the grieving person, but we might not know them “that” well, or addressing their sadness feels awkward, so instead, we do nothing.
It’s not because we don’t care or because we aren’t thinking about them, it’s just because it’s difficult to know the right thing to do without feeling we are overreaching or doing something that “isn’t our place.”
In 2015, my high school classmate, Heather Gast, experienced true sadness. The kind that you see on the televison and wonder how you could ever go on if it happened to you.
I watched the events unfold as Heather bravely kept everyone informed via Facebook, and I closed the door to my office at work, read the updates on my computer screen, and sobbed.
Like seeing tragedy occur in other peoples’ lives, I wanted to reach out to Heather and give her a hug. Tell her I was praying for her. Tell her I’m so sorry and there were no words but that she and her family would be on my mind.
So many of us feel this way. We want to be there for the grieving person, but don’t know how.
Heather has been kind enough to share her story and her insight about the people who showed their support and helped to make the loss more bearable.
Here is the story, in Heather’s words.
In March of 2010, I married the love of my life. Just over three years later, we began the crazy journey into parenthood when we welcomed our beautiful twins, Nathan and Sophia. The first years were dotted with career changes, moves and chasing babies. Life was crazy, but we managed to settle into life as a family just fine.
Then, in March of 2015, I discovered what I initially thought was the flu was actually a surprise pregnancy. I soon found out that our then 14-month-old twins would have a little brother. I was shocked, but elated! My husband and I were definitely open to baby number three, but it happened a lot sooner than we anticipated. The next several months were filled with routine OB appointments, tiredness from chasing my toddlers around, deciding on nursery decor, and looking forward to my third November baby, due just before the holidays. I missed the newborn snuggles stage, and was really happy to have another baby to add to the armful!
Henry’s pregnancy announcement that was shared with friends, family, and on social media.
We took maternity photos. Sweet friends threw me a baby shower. After a traumatic birth experience with my twins, I looked forward to an uncomplicated singleton delivery. There were no pregnancy complications, and our sweet boy passed every scan with flying colors. I managed to dodge the bullets of swelling and pregnancy induced hypertension this round. I was relieved. This time there would be no NICU. I made it to 40 weeks.
Maternity session during pregnancy with Henry. Photo Credit: Ann Axon Photography.
At 40 weeks and 3 days, my husband and I decided it was time to meet our son. We hadn’t finished the nursery yet, but it didn’t matter. We were going to meet him.
The day was November 9th.
That is the day our family was changed forever.
At 5:52 p.m., Henry James was born. It was a beautiful birth. My doctor and the OR staff were nothing short of amazing. My husband got to watch our baby’s birth. I’ll never forget the soft little cry I heard and feeling the warm tears of relief rolling down my cheeks.
Henry was here.
We heard him cry.
But we soon learned that things were far from okay.
Within minutes of his birth, the NICU staff assembled around Henry. He began to turn purple and struggled to breathe, and his oxygen saturation levels remained low. Henry was immediately taken to the NICU so the doctors could figure out what was wrong. I sent my husband after them, while I stayed behind as my OB was still sewing me up.
I was wheeled to recovery.
With empty arms.
How was this even happening?
My husband and I remained hopeful. My OB and the attending nurses assured me that some babies just need a little help transitioning from inside the womb. Henry probably needed some supplemental oxygen. I waited in the recovery room for what seemed like an eternity. The recovery nurse kept calling the NICU for updates and information on Henry’s condition. It was shortly after that we received the news that Henry needed to be airlifted to a children’s hospital, more than 80 miles away.
Thankfully, the nurses wheeled me into the NICU before the flight crew wheeled Henry away. He was beautiful, and had a thick head of hair like is big brother Nathan. I reached out to touch him, and he grabbed my finger. I was a goner. I was in love. The attending neonatologist suspected a cardiac issue, but Henry needed further testing that our birth hospital was not able to provide.
Henry, after he was placed on life support.
That night, we learned Henry had a defect with his pulmonary veins, and would need surgery right away. My hours-old son was 80 miles away, and there was nothing I could do for him.
I never felt so powerless.
The next few days were a blur. By the next morning, Henry had deteriorated so much that he developed hypoxemia and was placed on a machine considered to be the last ditch “Hail Mary” of baby life support. Henry was very sick. He was diagnosed with what we later learned was an exceptionally rare and serious congenital heart defect: Obstructed Total Anomalous Pulmonary Veinous Return (“TAPVR”).
The obstructed kind.
The “critical” version of this defect because, not only was the “plumbing” around Henry’s heart all wrong, his veins were also abnormally thin. Tragic fact: TAPVR is most often discovered after birth, because the pulmonary veins are not visible on routine anatomy scans. Or even on the level 2 scans that I had. Henry was due to have his open heart surgery on Friday, November 13th. Henry’s cardiologists determined that he had healed and was stable enough for surgery.
But this was not to be.
Over the course of that Thursday evening, Henry suffered a catastrophic complication that necessitated his removal from the life support machine. He wasn’t going to make it. We had to let him go. My husband consented to the withdrawal of life support. At 3:02 a.m. on November 13, 2015, Henry drew his last breath on Earth and took his first in Heaven. Our world has never been the same since.
There we were, my husband and I, left in profound grief and shock. Instead of cuddling our newborn son at home, introducing him to family and friends, we were sitting in a funeral home making arrangements.
Purchasing a tiny casket.
Choosing a burial plot.
How were we ever going to get through this?
The days, weeks, and months that followed Henry’s tragic death have been the most difficult our family has faced. However, this time also really taught me about caring for those who are grieving. When tragedy strikes a friend or loved one, most of us are left wondering what to do and how to help.
I can attest to the fact that those who are grieving are just trying to survive, and they don’t have the energy to advocate for themselves and reach out for the help and support that they so desperately need. I wanted to share some simple do’s and don’ts, and I hope that they will help you find ways to reach out and help your friends and loved ones who may be grieving.
Do show up with food. I know this one might sound a little silly, but keeping a hurting family fed removes a HUGE burden. My friend, Keri, organized a month-long meal planner for us, and we had meals delivered several nights a week. We were grateful for the food, but even more so for the familiar friendly faces, hugs, and company. If you don’t cook, consider sending a gift card to a favorite restaurant or mail a care package with all of the essential (read: disposable) cups, plates, and utensils.
Don’t disappear because you don’t know what to do or say. I repeat, don’t disappear because you don’t know what to do or say! Trust me when I tell you that, to a person who is grieving the loss of a loved one, silence is deafening. I was amazed at the people who I barely knew who came out of the woodwork with texts, calls, cards, and who showed up to support our family at Henry’s funeral. I can’t even begin to tell you how much it hurt to have people who I thought were close friends and even family members not reach out. The friends who I had been there for who never even so much as sent a text message. I felt so sad and even a little angry. I may have moved forward and forgiven those people, but their lack of support is difficult to forget.
If you did disappear, it is NEVER too late to reappear. This is important. I had many friends who eventually reached out, and were honest about not knowing what to do or say. They worried about hurting me by saying the wrong thing, and were trying to give me space. Just know that it is totally okay to not know what to say! You don’t even have to say anything. Just be there.
Don’t say, “let me know if you need anything.” Just don’t say it. This puts the responsibility on the grieving person or family to coordinate their help. Please don’t do this. If you really want to help, ask when you can bring a meal, or when you can help clean, or whatever it is that you know would help the grieving friend the most. We will gladly accept.
Do say their loved one’s name. Talk about them. Even nearly a year later, friends often mention Henry by name. It is such a gift when the people in my life talk about my Henry or ask about him, and often say they are willing to listen anytime I want to talk about him. Some people have said that they worry about reminding me about my loss, but no one needs to worry about reminding me. I’ll never forget that Henry was here, and that now he’s gone. Acknowledge often. It’s a wonderful thing.
It’s common knowledge that death is a part of living. It is a certainty that every last one of us will be touched by grief during our lifetime. Our society often doesn’t do well with caring for those who are thick in the weeds of their grief journey, but it really doesn’t have to be this way. As long as we have compassion, we can find ways to come alongside those who are hurting and love them.
Talk to them.
Listen to them.
Having walked the difficult path of grieving my son for nearly a year, it has given me the gift of perspective. Being Henry’s mom has made me a more compassionate human, and seeing the impact his life has made in the lives of so many has truly been a gift.
The Gasts’ 2016 holiday card, which honors Henry. Photo credit: Ann Axon Photography.
The most heartfelt thanks goes out to Heather for having the courage to share her family’s story. Henry is gone but never forgotten.