On May 15, 2006, less than a week after Will was born, my family came together for what I remember as one of the happiest days of my life. My mother-in-law already was staying in our rural South Carolina home, to help my husband and me care of our newborn son. My family drove from Greensboro to celebrate Mother’s Day and meet the newest member of our family.
A beautiful spring day greeted them when they met our miracle son. The odds of my husband and me ever having children had been remote at best. I was 43 in the fall of 2005 when I learned I was pregnant—while my husband was undergoing treatment for a life-threatening condition. For the most part, I had a normal pregnancy, but between my age and my husband’s medical issues, our loved ones had held their collective breath until Will arrived. After 20-some hours of labor, I held all 8 pounds, 2 ounces of his precious little self in my arms, knowing I would never let him go.
On that Mother’s Day, we celebrated Will’s life. We kissed his 10 perfect toes and 10 perfect fingers. He was held, blessed and passed from one set of loving arms to another.
Later that evening, I wrote in his journal about Mother’s Day and his grandmothers, aunts and niece—the blanket of protection they would give, the lessons they would teach and the crap they wouldn’t tolerate. I was tired, and after a few paragraphs I signed off. “That’s enough for today, my son,” I wrote. “We have a lifetime.”
That lifetime was eclipsed four months later in the early morning hours of September 15 when I found his lifeless body in his crib. The team of police and forensic investigators that combed our house found no obvious cause of death. The medical examiner determined it was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Events of that morning still seem surreal, incomprehensible. Just two days earlier, during Will’s four-month check-up, his pediatrician marveled at how smart and healthy Will was. They played together, and Dr. Patel upped his diet to include baby food. I remember sighing with relief, thinking he had made it through those first critical months of life.
Will was a sweet soul with a precious giggle who loved bath time, riding in the car and rocking in his swing. Suddenly, he was gone.
He would have grown up to be a kind man. He would have learned to talk, walk, read, drive, vote, fall in love. He would have stumbled, and I would have encouraged him through difficult, confusing times. In the evenings, we would have talked about his day. He would have taught me to operate the remote control. We would have danced together at his wedding. He would have made me Mother’s Day cards.
One of the most consuming and unexpected consequences of Will's death has been the sheer power of my grief. Its blunt force has no logic or reason—at times, it is punishing and unforgiving. It’s slippery and messy; untangling its tentacles has been exhausting and traumatic. But it’s also become an exercise in perseverance, patience, giving and forgiveness.
The morning after Will’s funeral, I woke up on the floor in front of his crib with a paralyzing sense of despair. I had no idea what to do.
In my grief-crazed state, I decided to learn everything I could about SIDS. My education would be a deviation from the emptiness, and I would be able to prove his death was my fault. It would feel empowering to blame someone—me. Action. Consequence. And whatever that action was, I had convinced myself it had to have been caused by me or occurred on my watch. I contacted leading SIDS researchers, sent them Will’s autopsy report, analyzed scientific data and wrote articles about my findings. But while the knowledge I gained helped me understand the biological and physiological theories behind SIDS, I couldn’t pinpoint the “smoking gun”—except my own mother’s remorse.
Isolation fueled my grief. Being from North Carolina, most of my family and friends lived in Triad, but my husband and I lived some 125 miles away. In the wake of Will’s death, my inclination was to emotionally distance myself in an already lonely environment. Mercifully, friends and family showed tireless support with phone calls, visits, cards and outings. They lifted me when I couldn’t lift myself.
There were, of course, awkward moments and comments that I didn’t know how to handle. The local pharmacist, who had a daughter about Will’s age, no longer spoke to me. One woman told me I should have his body compressed into a diamond that I could wear around my neck. While extreme, her expression of sympathy was sincere. As bizarre as that suggestion seemed, at least she extended what she thought would be words of comfort. For the record, I didn’t follow her advice.
Still, an all-consuming powerlessness shrouded my days. That’s when Heartstrings helped save my life. And I don’t write that lightly. A few days after Will’s death, Tracey Holyfield, the organization’s founder, contacted me. She had learned about Will from my brother’s wife. Tracey talked to and emailed me for years, listening, sharing, consoling and remembering. She and subsequent Heartstrings supporters have provided a safe space for me and other parents to grieve and find a purposeful life after unimaginable loss.
By Tracey’s example, I found the emotional fortitude to connect with others who had suffered similar losses, giving me “been there” help that provided empathy. In turn, I found it healing to hear their stories while, hopefully, offering a compassionate ear.
The most healing way for me to fill the void left by Will’s death was to keep his memory alive. While there have been countless times when losing him has consumed me, knowing that he would be remembered has given me a sense of meaning. I couldn’t stand the thought that the end of Will's life to would be the end of his story.
Closure is a terrible word. There is no such thing, no demarcation of the end of my son’s life and the guilt I always will feel. While relinquishing the intensity of my grief terrifies me, I realize that it hasn’t waned as much as it has shifted. For me, grief has become about keeping his memory alive, even if I couldn’t keep his body alive. I find comfort in honoring the 130 days he lived—to show his picture, to say his name, to make a donation in his memory, and to accept and appreciate the gestures my family and friends have taken to memorialize his life. Remembering is much easier—and more powerful—than forgetting or assigning blame.
This Mother’s Day—May 8—my husband and I, supported by family and friends, will celebrate Will’s life on what would have been his 10th birthday. And we will honor all the lives taken away, remembering that the mark they left on those who loved them will endure. Always.