Pain and happiness: my mom died five weeks before the birth of my daughter

November 5 2012 | Guest post by Dina
The author and her mom.

My mother died five weeks before I gave birth. Most people's birth stories begin when they go into labor, but my mother's death and the birth of our child are still inseparable in my mind. My mother's death was a tragic accident (carbon monoxide poisoning two days before the baby shower my mother had been planning for eight months) and it landed my father in the hospital. I always expected my mother to be here for the birth of our baby and the compounded loss was almost too much to bear.

The weeks that followed were a blur of sympathy cards, baby gifts, and helping my father recover. My wife, Meghan, and I sobbed as we opened the gifts my mother had gotten for us: handmade quilts, outfits bought during a trip to France, a pink baby food maker. Meghan was doing all the household work for both me and my father, who lived with us while his house was being repaired. People saw how big I was getting and would exclaim "You must be ready to have that baby!" but the truth is I would have gladly stayed pregnant for an extra month or two to give us more time to prepare.

It was also five weeks before I gave birth that we realized our baby was holding steady in a breech presentation. Meghan and I had planned an unmedicated home birth and the realization that the baby was not turning devastated us. We had spent too much time in hospitals already and were so raw from grief we worried how we would manage surgery and recovery with strangers. Those weeks were filled with acupuncture, moxibustion, downward dog, visualization, and handstands in the pool, trying to turn the baby. We watched and felt the baby move inside me and hoped and prayed. When an external version didn't work I began to suspect that we really might have to have this baby not only in a hospital, but by scheduled cesarean section. Meghan and I agonized over our limited choices, raged at a Western medicine system we felt turned to surgery too easily, and ached with loss.

We had a wonderful team of midwives, both for the home birth and at our backup hospital. With the help of these amazing women Meghan and I began to plan for a cesarean birth. I met with our hospital midwife and we discussed choices and preferences. We wanted our home birth team to be with us, in the hospital and the operating room, we didn't want the baby bathed, we wanted to hold our baby immediately skin to skin rather than using the warmer. We laid out everything that had made home birth appealing to us and like a miracle worker our midwife arranged everything.

That is how we arrived at the hospital, bags in hand and homemade cookies for the nursing staff, on February 29th, 2012 (yes, leap day!) at 11:00am to have our baby. We were scared, sad and angry, but we were also excited about meeting our baby and relieved the decisions had been made. We were terrified of the surgery, and Meghan told me later she worried something would happen to me or the baby, but the first part of the day was still somehow anticlimactic. There were no increasingly intense contractions, no excited phone calls to announce the baby was on the way. I changed into a hospital gown, reviewed the procedure, signed consents, and we were ready to go. Our nurse assured us she was known as the "skin to skin" nurse and would do everything she could to get us holding our baby as soon as possible.

Things went quickly in the OR. We were pleased to find everyone very warm and respectful, trying to put us at ease. Meghan came in dressed in scrubs and she stayed next to me the whole time. The anesthesiologist was very attentive and had allowed one of our home birth midwives to be in the OR with us. Our midwife took pictures and videos of the whole procedure, assuring us we would want them later. As I started to zone out, our midwife asked me to try to stay present. And then… our baby arrived.

The OB held the baby up over the curtain, butt-first as Meghan had requested, so we could see what flavor we got. She came into the world with a "WTF" expression on her face. She immediately pooped all over the OB and the room erupted in laughter. She was weighed and wiped off and placed against my neck. I couldn't see her and could barely feel her, but I knew she was there. When I felt a little too hot and sick, they put her down Meghan's shirt to stay warm. Months earlier Meghan and I had decided to name a girl after our grandmothers. After my mother died Meghan changed her mind and wanted to include my mother's name. I remember Meghan saying her name out loud for real for the first time: Helen Crete, known affectionately as Lulu.

Dina (the author) and her daughter, Lulu.

Over time the pain vs. happiness ratio has evened, and while I remember the hurt I felt at that time I don't feel it as acutely now. Those first months were difficult for all of us. Meghan says I shut down, but "shut down" sounds too voluntary. I became primal, trying to survive each day, each moment, while loving Lulu with a ferocity that flattened me. I remember sobbing with Lulu when she couldn't nurse because of a tongue tie, and wondering how this alien came from behind that curtain at the hospital into our lives, but now I also remember taking endless pictures of her because her face looked more and more beautiful each moment of each day. I remember my resolve that we would learn to nurse, and celebrating the first time she successfully nursed five weeks after her birth. I remember the kindness of the hospital staff, the first time my father held his first granddaughter, and our family and friends joyfully welcoming Lulu into the world.

I think of all the people who mothered us when we needed it most: our midwife at the hospital who orchestrated our reluctant hospital birth, friends who made sure their shower gifts got to us because "we would need them for the baby," friends who kept us fed, my sister who dropped everything to come help when Meghan had to go back to work. It is not the birth story I thought we would have, but it has brought us here, and here is very good.

  1. What a fantastic piece. I am so sorry for your unimaginable loss, and glad that you found a way to honor your mother. Lulu is very lucky to be surrounded by so much love. I'll be thinking of you and your family.

  2. Words can't express how sorry I am for your loss, but I hope my story might give some comfort. My mother had decided to have a baby when she found out her father had terminal cancer. I would be the first grandchild. He died when I was 3 weeks old. I was named Victoria, as I was his "little victory." I've always felt a deep connection with him, and the highest compliment I ever received was my aunt telling me that he would have been so proud of me.

    I told my story to an aboriginal story teller once and she explained that when a birth and death occur close together, the spirit of the deceased lives on within the new baby. I like to think that a part of my grandfather lives within me.

    I know how hard it must be now, but I hope your daughter has the same connection to your mother as I do to my grandfather.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. Last October, I found out that I was pregnant… 3 days after my dad was diagnosed with stage 4 renal cancer which had spread to his lungs. He was already close to the end and would have died before Christmas if some very caring doctors hadn't pushed hard for him to have his kidney removed, a surgery which should have and nearly did kill him. My whole pregnancy was a roller coaster of finding out whatever new treatment he was on had stopped working. By mid June he was almost out of options. Jasper was born June 28th around 2am at home and my dad was able to be here and see him grandson at just a few minutes old. That night my father started coughing blood and we all just sort of knew. He died August 23rd with Jasper 7 weeks old to the day.

    As much as I love my son, it's so very hard not to look at him and think of my dad. Throughout the whole pregnancy, which I had wanted so badly, people would constantly make statements about how excited I must be. And I would have been, if not for the apprehension and sadness and general shock that I wandered around in. Thinking of my kids growing up without their Grandad still brings me to my knees.

  4. Your story gives me a little insight into what my mother may have gone through, her mother (my grandmother) died of cancer 6 days before my brother was born. We lived in another state to my grandparents, so my Mum couldn't go to the funeral, being 9 months pregnant. Even worse, the family kept my grandmothers condition a secret from my Mum, so they wouldn't stress her out too much. She knew her mother had cancer, but had no idea it was so bad.
    Thank you for sharing, I am so sorry for your loss.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I can't compare, but I've been in something a little like it. My brother and his wife lost their son at 20 weeks in utero. That was March 7th. April 16th I found out I was expecting my first after 4.5 years of infertility. I can't ever explain why things happened like that, but it has never left my mind.

  6. My maternal grandmother died 2 months before I was born. She lived in NY while I was born in the UK. This summer while I was pregnant with my daughter (in Chicago) I had occasional thoughts about how I would cope if I lost my own mum at this time in my life. She may not be physically close to me but we talk often and it's of course comforting to share similar stories of starting a new family away from your family.
    My sympathies to you and your family on your loss <3

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