Tahlequah

I’ve been wanting to write about this Mom for over two weeks now, but it has been hard to put my thoughts and feelings into words. Tahlequah, also known as J35 to scientists, is a Mama Orca who lost her calf shortly after birth. She became a global phenomenon as the world watched her grieve so openly.

Tal 1

When I first heard of Tahlequah I felt instantly connected to her. I told my husband that I wanted to fly to Seattle to try to be with her. I wanted to climb into the ocean to hold her. To tell her I knew what she was feeling and that she was not alone. She was showing the entire world what I’ve felt inside for last 6.5 months.

I checked daily to see if she was still carrying her calf and to see if she was ok. Ok meaning, still alive, because I don’t think anyone who loses their child is really “ok” in the typical sense. She continued to carry her calf for 17 days and traveled 1,000 miles with her.  The female members of her pod started to take turns carrying her calf for her so she could rest and eat. They surrounded her and supported her for over two weeks.

I knew that when she eventually let go of her calf that it would affect me, but I wasn’t entirely sure how. This morning I was waiting for our Starbucks order when I saw the headline, After 17 days and 1,000 miles, mother orca Tahlequah drops her dead calf. I took a quick screenshot to send to my husband as I tried to not break down in Starbucks. Once our drinks were ready I rushed to my car and let the tears out.

Tal

Someone recently asked in an online support group that I am in what the hardest moment for each of us has been as it relates to the loss of our child. Many said how quiet their deliveries were as they wanted so badly to hear their child cry. Others said the stillness of their babies. No chests moving up and down. For me, I said, was placing my baby into her coffin knowing I’d never hold or see her again.

For Tahlequah, choosing to let go of her calf, or simply not being able to carry her any longer due to to the physical state of her child’s body, must have been one of the hardest moments for her. As I sat in my car it all rushed over me. I was back at the funeral home laying Estelle down for the last time, but wanting to hold on to her forever. I told Justin and the funeral director that if I could run away with her I would. I watched the funeral director place the top of her casket on and seal it.

I thought about asking him to take it off because I needed more time, but I also knew we had people waiting for us in the chapel. Our circle of support was waiting for us, just as Tahlequah’s pod always waiting for her. Our oldest brothers would come in soon to walk her casket to the front of the room and we’d spend the next 30 minutes talking about her short life and the entire future that was taken from us. When it was over, our other two brothers would walk her out to the car so we could bring her to the cemetery.

At the cemetery, Justin asked if we wanted to stay and watch them lower Estelle into the ground. I said yes. We watched as the machine slowly put her into the ground. Piper would say, “That is my baby sister. Where is my baby sister going?” And we’d continue to watch until her casket reached the bottom of her grave. I imagine that Tahlequah watched her calf slowly drifted away from her. Knowing that she was the only one who felt all of her child’s movements and was the last one to ever touch her child’s skin. Just as I was with Estelle.

Now that Tahlequah is no longer carrying her calf doesn’t mean her grief is over or that the hard part is past her. It doesn’t mean that a weight has lifted now that she is no longer carrying the physical remains of her calf. Instead, it is almost like her journey is just beginning. The longest road is ahead of her, as it is for every mother who has lost a child, as they continue to somehow move forward carry the greatest weight but with the emptiest arms.

To read more about Tahlequah, visit the following:

The Seattle Times

I Will Carry You

Let Us Be the Whale

‘It’s heartbreaking’: Killer whale continues carrying dead calf for ‘unprecedented’ length of mourning

 

Advertisements

Estelle’s Little Free Library

Shortly after Estelle died we knew we needed to do something to honor her short yet meaningful life. At her memorial service we found out that the Little Free Library (LFL) organization had recently partnered with Bradshaw Celebration of Life and had three library models created for memorials. I have always been a fan of LFLs so when I saw them I told Justin, This is it. This is what we’re doing.

We thought more about it as we received memorials in the mail and decided that the library should go in the park by our house. It would have been where Estelle would have played with Piper and it would allow Estelle to be part of our community. But because it wasn’t our property we knew we’d have to ask permission.

Justin contacted the local Parks Board and got our ask on their agenda in May. All three of us attended and the Parks Board approved to pass our request on to the Township Board later that month. We didn’t think we’d have any trouble but were still a little nervous. Luckily they were all in favor but we did have to sign a contract and provide backup families who would help support and care for the library.

Next up we had to order the library. Thankfully we had just enough funds to cover the library. Not surprising, but I chose the biggest and the most expensive. Only the best for my kids. 😉 After the purchase was made, we were able to personalize the sign, and Justin’s older brother, Troy, along with our nephews, Axel and Porter, poured the concrete and installed the library late June.

Three days after installation we held a neighborhood dedication. We want the library to be successful so we wanted to make sure our neighbors were invested, too. We had about 85-90 people show up. We had cake, beverages, and Justin said a few words, along with the founders of Little Free Library.

We received over 200 books and had the first official exchange. We created labels for all the books and had special ones created for books to be dedicated in honor of other children who have passed away.

We are so excited to have Estelle be known around our community and to raise awareness about stillbirth and infant loss.

  • Stillbirth is the death of an infant before or during delivery at 20 or more gestational weeks
  • 1 and 160 American pregnancies end in stillbirth
  • Almost 50 percent of stillbirths occur at or near full term and often seem to be otherwise healthy babies
  • Nearly 2/3 of all stillbirth deaths remain unexplained
  • The stillbirth rate in the US has not changed in the last 50 years
  • The US ranks 48th out of 49 developed nations in the world for annual rate of reduction of stillbirths
  • Stillbirth is the most under-studied issue in medicine today

All stats received from starlegacyfoundation.org.

We hope that if you’re in the White Bear Lake area that you’ll swing by Brandlwood Park and pick up a book for yourself and your children and think of Estelle! 💛

Mother’s Day

Today we celebrated my fourth Mother’s Day. I received many messages from mom friends and non-mom friends letting me know that I was heavy on their hearts today. It is nice to know that less than four months later, we are still being thought of often. And by people I don’t regularly talk to at that.

Today actually went better than expected. Just thinking about Mother’s Day a few weeks ago made me anxious and emotional. I anticipated the day to be a dark one. One that would pull me in multiple directions as I tried to feel the joy of being a mother to Piper and the deep sorrow of being a mother to Estelle.

We decided to turn down all Mother’s Day invites this year and essentially sit this one out. Luckily our own mothers understood and honored this decision. I believe this decision set me up for success today. I didn’t have to be on. I didn’t have to act. I didn’t have to do anything I wasn’t up to doing. I was able to use my energy to be in the moment with my living child while still being able to honor the one who isn’t living. I also stayed mostly off of social media which helped keep my mood level since pictures of other people’s whole families remind me of the ache I feel deep in my core.

Yesterday I spent the day cleaning Estelle’s room. After she was born we put all baby items in her room and shut the door. I don’t know why, but yesterday felt like the day to organize it. We put the car seat, rock and play, and other items back in storage. I put sheets on the crib mattress, and I laid out the same blanket she was buried in (I bought a duplicate when I came face-to-face with it at Target a month or so ago) over the edge of the crib. It felt good to spend the afternoon in her room and leave the door open when I was done. I even hung up a crystal we received from a friend that sends rainbows across the room when the sun hits it.

That night I slept great. When we woke up on Mother’s Day morning Justin said we could do whatever I wanted. We started the day at my favorite gluten free bakery in Minneapolis. We then headed to Stillwater for a donut and cupcake picnic at the cemetery. It’s funny how quickly that has started to feel normal and honestly, quite peaceful. Piper ran around, collected rocks for her sister, and we watched other grieving people come and go.

After our visit with Estelle we stopped at the grocery store and headed home. Justin planted the Forsythia bush my parents got me, and Piper played with the neighbor kids. I took a walk outside, prepped dinner, and at the last minute we decided to eat with our neighbors since the kids were still playing.

It was a relaxing and enjoyable evening that I am thankful for. I snuck in to give Piper one more kiss before she fell asleep, and I kneeled by her bed and told her that I was so happy to be her Mom. She gave me a kiss, rolled over, and whispered, Happy Mother’s Day. As I walked down the hall I looked at the sunset through Estelle’s window and felt a slight moment of peace about what motherhood looks like for me.

When Life is Backwards

I find that I’m slowly sharing the story around Estelle’s birth. It comes out in pieces when I’m ready, but also when someone has the courage to ask. It feels good talking about her, but I know my limits. I know what I can share and say out loud that won’t make me cry. I can steer the conversation in a way that allows me to keep my composure until I’m by myself again. Sometimes it’s easy to talk about things. Sometimes it’s not.

Estelle’s memorial service was small and private. Only our parents, siblings, and nieces and nephews were allowed to come. I use the word allowed because others would have been turned away. Opening up and sharing that raw of grief with people was just too much, and having to deal with others would have crippled me.

The pastor we called on to lead Estelle’s service understood that I was in charge. What I wanted, or in many cases, didn’t want, ruled. I could tell that he knew I was setting up boundaries to protect myself and to protect Estelle and he was going to support me 100 percent. I asked him not go heavy on religion, to not tell us that this was in God’s plan. I asked him to let me say fuck if I needed to. And I asked him to keep the service short. I didn’t want to sit there pretending to listen while the inevitable burial of our daughter was prolonged.

One of the first things he told us was that this wasn’t God’s plan. God didn’t have me carry my daughter to term just to take her at the very end like some sick joke. I wasn’t being taught a lesson so don’t think that there is a reason for everything. He said that God doesn’t take children, God receives children. He also said that he never gets feedback that he’s long winded so I told him he was allowed to stay.

I’m glad I did because his sermon during Estelle’s service was thoughtful and is something we’ve held on to. He did his best to deliver comforting words when he knew there was nothing he could say to take away our pain and bring our daughter back to life. He wanted us to leave the service with an idea or thought that might bring us hope in the future.

Piper referred to the baby throughout my entire pregnancy as Tiger. If I asked her if we could name the baby something else she always exclaimed, No, Tiger! Tigers are not often found in these parts of Minnesota so the pastor went another direction with a bee.

He explained that her service was backwards. Losing a child is backwards in life order, and we were mourning the loss of a future instead of the past. Bees have the ability to buzz freely, even backwards, as they navigate in and out of flowers, and Estelle’s initials backwards spell BEE. I chuckled to myself a bit thinking I’ll never be able to kill a bee again, but I liked that bees can also represent spring and a new beginning. There was no carrying on from where you left off from after Estelle, it was a complete course redirect with the hopes of eventually straightening back out. We were just left to hope that somehow God could turn this terribleness around.

The days and weeks following her service had us contemplating what we wanted to do to honor her. We knew we’d eventually build the Little Free Library, but we wanted to do something else as well. We’ve read in more than one grief resource guide that making major decisions early in grief isn’t always the best plan…so we got tattoos!!!

Justin acted pretty quickly and alone and ended up with a beautiful tattoo as a memorial to Estelle. I, on the other hand, needed some encouragement from my experienced little brother. He researched artists and I just rolled with it but eventually set up our appointments. He was going to get a bee and so was I.

I had a lot of time on my hands during leave and ended up designing mine myself. The artist cleaned it up a bit, but it still had the heart and essence of my initial drawing. Rick went with real looking bee.

I was incredibly nervous and embarrassed my brother with my bizarre and frequent questions. I even asked the likelihood of me getting a terrible infection and dying. I mean it is 2018 and all, the year attempting to take us down. It took only about 25 minutes and felt like she was doodling on my skin with a tiny knife.

I had the idea to add the orange to the stripes shortly before our appointment to pay homage to Piper’s nickname for her sister.

After we were all wrapped up we headed outside to meet up with my brother-in-law for dinner. As we were walking to our cars he stopped and asked, I wonder what type of bush this is? I squealed, because I hadn’t noticed the beautiful forsythia bush just outside the shop.

And if that wasn’t enough of a hello, the sky had the most amazing sunset that evening.

Paying it Forward

“But we were so ready. We were so prepared.” Those were some of the first sentences Justin spoke as he tried to make sense of the fact that our baby was dead. How could this have happened to us?

For three months the door to Estelle’s room has been closed. When we got home from the hospital Justin put every baby item he came across in there. We have only gone in there out of necessity or just to make sure this really was our reality and that it was indeed empty.

We talked a few times about what to do with her things. We didn’t, and still don’t, want to donate her clothes, but we had formula, diapers, wipes, a hospital grade breast pump, nursing pads, etc., that we didn’t want to go to waste. We came to the conclusion that we wanted the items to go to a mother who was about to embark on her journey of motherhood feeling less prepared than we did.

YoungLife of the St. Croix Valley has a program for teen parents called, YoungLives. I have donated items in the past and they seemed to be a perfect fit once again. I got their contact information from a friend and reached out to them. A woman responded right away and knew of a Mom or two who would benefit from our items.

She agreed to meet with me over the weekend. It was hard going into Estelle’s room and emptying her drawer that was packed with diapers. It was hard to remove the Costco sized box of wipes from the shelf in her closet, and it was hard to place the little pack of pacifiers on top of the bag knowing they would be used by someone else’s baby.

When the woman met me at my car she gave me a hug right away, and I immediately started to cry. She gave me no fewer than seven hugs in our short time together and assured me the items would find a good home. It felt good knowing we were paying it forward in honor of Estelle. Motherhood isn’t easy, and I hope the mother who receives the items will have a moment of relief even if it is short.

Unbeknownst to me, while I was making the arrangements to donate some of Estelle’s things, her marker was being installed at the cemetery. I knew donating her things and seeing her name permanently etched in stone would make it feel like things were moving forward while I was still stuck back in time.

I still feel a moment of panic when I sip alcohol because I think I must still be pregnant. Sometimes I feel a phantom kick when it really was just a gas bubble. I asked someone the other day what day it was and then realized I sounded absurd because it was my birthday. But how can it really be the end of April?

Reality continues to crush down on me each and everyday. Being strong is exhausting, but being strong is what is required to carry grief for a lifetime. I think of it like training for a marathon, even though I’ve never trained for one and likely never will, but not every run is going to feel good, but you hope it will help you make it to the finish line.

This is 33

If you told me last year, heck, even the morning of January 25, that this is what my 33rd birthday would look like, I wouldn’t have believed you. I never would have thought that my birthday would include cupcakes and a cemetery.

I love birthdays. I’m a firm believer in never working on your birthday and always celebrating. It doesn’t have to be big, but another year of life complete should be honored. As my birthday approached this year I found myself having no desire to celebrate. I felt numb towards the idea. Indifferent.

Many people asked me what I wanted, what I was wishing for. I can’t exactly respond with, “I wish my dead baby was alive,” because I don’t want to make someone feel bad for caring about me. But honestly, will I ever wish for anything more as long as I live? Hard to say, but I doubt it.

Wishing and hoping for something that can never come true hurts, a lot. You know in your head that it’s an irrational thought, but your heart continues to plead. It continues to hope that there is somehow an alternative ending.

As year 33 comes to an end and I begin my 34th year, I will do my best to continue to move forward. I will do my best to have a positive impact on those around me. And I will do my best to parent both Piper and Estelle.

And special shout out to those who did make my day as special as another day without my daughter could be. From the treats, cheese, paint supplies, sweet hellos, office decor, and more, I continue to feel loved.

A Sign

First day back to work…check! The day went well, but I’m exhausted. I sure missed my daily nap. Before I turn in for the night I wanted to share a more hopeful moment in my grief journey.

On one of my more recent hard days, the day that would have been her second month birthday, I began pleading for a sign. I needed God, Estelle, or anyone who would listen to send me sign. I needed a sign that Estelle was with me. I needed a sign that loved ones looking down on you isn’t complete rubbish. I needed a sign that I wasn’t alone.

I wasn’t sure when I’d get this sign. I figured it could be hours, days, or even years, but I clarified my request to have it not take too long. The next day I was heading to support group alone for the first time. Justin had been gone for a few nights already at an oddly timed drill weekend. My biggest fear about going alone was having to speak our story aloud. Usually Justin does that for us. As suspected, the story of Estelle came out in bits and pieces as I failed to sound coherent, but in the end it was ok and I made it through. As our time together was coming to an end, one of the facilitators gave us each a gift—forsythia branches.

They looked like random branches she picked up on a walk, but she explained how she brings these branches into her home because it’s one of the first plants to bloom every spring. She loves to garden as a way to honor her daughter and when winter gets long they bring her hope.

We joked about what it would mean if our branches never bloomed, but she insisted they would when we least expected it, and that they would bloom yellow flowers. Yellow. I stopped dead in my tracks, and thought, yellow. I was so happy to hear the blooms would be yellow. I can’t explain why, but yellow is the color that reminds me of Estelle. My first sign. (Side note: The Forsythia plant is named after William Forsyth who was royal head gardener and a founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society. Take that for what you will as well!)

Fast forward a week and a half later. I’m writing and tubbing and of course, crying. I’m worried about my first day back to work and settling back in to “normal.” I worry about what it will be like for all of us to be getting back into a routine that was once so familiar but now felt strange.

After getting the words out, and the tears, I started to feel better. I was making dinner, prepping for the next day, when Justin let out a little gasp. He said, “Look! The branches are starting to bloom!”

And just like that, the night before I returned to work, Estelle sent a little message to let me know she’s still with me.