6 Things Grief Has Taught Me Since I Met My Son
Trigger warning: child loss
This was Christmas morning, 2016. That’s me, my beautiful wife, Mackenzie, and our son Connor.
Connor wasn’t going to be around for a few more weeks, but as you can imagine most of the stuff strewn about our place was for him. We were going to be parents soon and couldn’t wait to meet him.
The next day, we rushed over to the hospital. A little earlier than we planned? You bet. But after hearing from all the doctors, we buckled up and prepared for a few weeks’ stay.
That first night in the hospital really sticks out to me, and I have no idea why. I was awake late and just sat next to my sleeping wife, listening to my son’s heartbeat.
That memory is etched into my brain, and it’s such a peaceful one. I’m not sure if I should have been scared, or if I could go back I would feel the same way, but for some reason those couple of quiet moments stick out from all the others.
The next few days went by pretty normally. Watched a lot of movies, family brought in meals, even celebrated my birthday on the 27th. Mackenzie’s great. Connor’s great. We were just hanging out waiting, super bored honestly.
But mid-morning on the 29th, our doctor pulled an audible, and decided it was time to deliver Connor. She didn’t like a few things, and thought it was better to deliver now, and have him hang out in the NICU for a while.
About 90 anxious, terrifying, “holycrapwe’reabouttomeetourson!!” minutes later, at 3:10 in the afternoon on December 29th, 2016, Connor Richard Moran was born.
Seeing Connor for the first time changed my entire life.
You always see it in shows or movies, hear friends or family talk about it, but I couldn’t possible comprehend how that felt until the moment I laid eyes on that beautiful, pink little guy.
I was standing over this little human that looked like me, and it was like discovering a whole new section of your heart you didn’t know was there.
Naturally I did a quick check: 10 fingers, 10 toes, 2 eyes, no tail.
After the nurses got done hooking him up to some equipment (we knew he was headed to the NICU), I got to get right up next to his head and touch him. And the moment I did, he rolled his head over, and looked right into my eyes.
As the nurses wheeled him past Mackenzie, Connor rolled over again, and stared right at his mom.
Moment #2 that will be etched into my mind for as long as I live.
During our time in the NICU, we got to hang out with him, talk to him, meet him. Connor was super tall. Big beautiful, dark eyes. And thankfully, he looked much more like his mom.
At 8:40 p.m. that night, Connor went home, with Mackenzie and I right there with him.
To be honest, everything that happened next was a blur, and there are plenty of details that I’ll keep private. But that was the longest night of my life.
Looking back, I am so grateful for the family, friends, and doctors who so willingly dove into everything with us that night. But in the moment, I was so enveloped by the terrible collision of joy and heartbreak.
Watching Mackenzie hold our son was an answer to prayer. But now we had to say goodbye.
That’s where my experience with grief started.
This post isn’t about me. I’m writing this because Connor has changed me. And I mean like a deep-down, to-the-bones sort of change.
For the past few months, I’ve felt compelled to share his story and our experience working through the pain of losing him. The past 12 months have been slow, agonizing, and painful. But they also have been profoundly meaningful.
My hope is if you are going through something yourself, Connor’s story can provide hope. Or if someone you know is going through something, that somehow this could help you connect with them and make a heavy time a little bit lighter.
I’ll talk about this more in a second, but pain isn’t something we (culture? humans? I dunno) talk about openly. It’s a hell of a lot easier to post pictures of your dinner than it is to admit you’re hurting.
What happens when that honest post doesn’t get liked, right?
But pain is what really binds us all together. Doesn’t matter where you come from, who you voted for, or what you believe. We’ve all felt pain, loss, and hurt. And this year showed me that sharing pain creates bonds a heck of a lot stronger than rooting for the same team.
This stuff deserves a full week of deep conversation. It’s been really tough to boil this down to something that makes sense, but I am sort of just trusting that this will hit home for some people. But here’s what life without Connor has taught me:
1. Pain is invisible.
It’s tough to describe how hollow it felt to leave the hospital. We were headed home, but Connor wasn’t coming with us.
Going back out into the real world, with everyone just going about their day, was the most infuriating thing I’ve ever experienced. Our world had stopped spinning, and here’s everyone getting ready for New Year’s Eve parties.
And there’s the first thing grief taught me. Pain is invisible.
Whether you’re at work, shopping for groceries, or even surrounded by family, you can feel completely invisible. There have been countless times where Mackenzie or I couldn’t handle being around people. How could I feel this empty, and no one else notice?
Pretty isolating feeling. If everyone else is happy, and we physically cannot exert the effort to even seem happy, then we’ll keep to ourselves. Lock the doors, and stare at the walls.
But what I have learned is the opposite is true. People couldn’t see our pain, but we were far from alone. Everyone is hurting. It’s not all the same, but everyone has pain. And the more we opened up, the more others did the same. And the less alone we felt.
2. Pain is not a measuring stick.
If there’s one thing I would love you to remember after closing this, this is it.
Pain shouldn’t be treated like a measuring stick. Pain shouldn’t make us feel better by comparison. If we look at other people’s pain and think, “Man, at least I’m not going through that,” we’re missing a huge opportunity.
Pain is what binds us together. We’re all stuck in a broken world, where terrible, painful things happen. If there’s one thing that everyone can relate to, it’s pain. Instead of placing people into tiers, where those who know pain the best are above those who lost their phone, use it to find common ground.
The people who know the darkest parts of how life without Connor feels are the people we are the closest to. And it’s not the same group of people we were closest with before December 29th of last year. It’s the people who have met us at the bottom and shared their own loss in return.
When you open up (which really wasn’t easy), you invite intimacy and closeness that you can’t fake. And that closeness has a way of making other stuff not matter
3. Who you’re with matters.
My wife is an incredible person. I have no idea where I would be if I didn’t have a wife who was as patient, loving, honest, vulnerable, and strong as her. I loved her before we had Connor, but my appreciation for the woman I married has deepened every day.
I am so blessed to know that my wife will stand by me during the hardest of times, pick me up when I’m at my lowest, show patience when it’s needed, and demand the best out of me when that’s needed. I don’t have to guess, I’ve lived it with her right there next to me.
When the door to Connor’s room was shut, and I was terrified to open it, Mackenzie grabbed my hand and took us inside. That room has become my favorite place on Earth, and she made that possible.
It was Mackenzie’s idea to see a counselor together once life got back to “normal,” but before the wheels started falling off in our marriage. Talking with a pro together, having a structured time and place to talk about Connor, has been a huge source of healing. And Mackenzie’s wisdom made that happen.
Thanks to a huge effort on her part, and the generosity of a ton of incredible people, Connor Cares was able to make a donation in Connor’s memory. There are now bedside iPads in the Howard County General Hospital NICU helping new parents get more time next to their newborns and share critical health info on how to best care for them. Mackenzie made that happen, too.
By the way, while Connor Cares met its goal months ago, if you are feeling a pull to do something, we strongly recommend a donation to Rising Hope. Rising Hope is an organization whose entire mission is supporting parents who have lost their newborns. They were there for us in the hospital, and have been a support for us ever since. Incredible people who are just diving head first into people’s worst moments, doing what they can to help.
What I’m trying to say is that my wife is the best person I know. She has done more than I have time to share to support me and to be the best mother Connor could have ever hoped for.
Let her know that sometime. It means so much to be recognized as the incredible mom she is.
4. Get help.
I mentioned it already, but counseling was one of the best decisions we’ve made all year. Neither of us had done it before, but I’ve learned more about myself, my wife, and my marriage talking with Brooke than I have in 8 years of dating Mackenzie.
Covered under insurance, offered for free at church or a hospital, whatever it is. Just give it a shot. There are people whose job it is to understand complicated layers of real life stuff. And I can’t recommend it enough.
5. Community heals.
Something really magical happens when you open up to other people. I really wasn’t ready to do that right away, but when we were and took the hard step of being vulnerable about how we were doing (spoiler: It wasn’t great), some serious healing rushed into our lives.
Talking with other parents who had lost kids of their own was sort of Step #1. It was tough to dive right into the pain at first, but understanding that we could survive this changed everything for us. Rachel and Sean, Jason and Amy, we can’t tell you what you’ve done for us.
Then it was close friends. Honestly, I was scared that our pain would just scare people off. Telling Connor’s story is kind of a show-stopper. But every time we talked about how we were doing, it was one more safe spot we could go. One more person we could text when we weren’t doing great. We had people in our own house months before I ever thought we would be ready for that. And really it’s a credit to our friends. They were willing to just be there and listen.
And, of course, there’s been our families. Sometimes it’s the people you’re closest with that its the hardest to be open with. Our families have supported us, loved us, and cared for us in some difficult ways. All while dealing with their own grief and loss. I know how blessed we are to have families that love us, and that part of our community has made all the difference.
There’s this old quote that I’ve been trying to track down the origin of. Most sources credit it to a Swedish Proverb, but here it is…
“Shared joy is a double joy. Shared sorrow is half sorrow.”
That’s what community does. Community lightens the load, and shares the burden. All it takes is the scary first step of being honest with those around you, whoever that might be.
6. Take your time.
Last one, I promise.
Maybe the single most daunting thing for me was the idea of getting back to “normal.” In the weeks after Connor was born, “normal” seemed so impossible. How could life every go back to how it was?
What I had to learn (Mackenzie was way better at this) was to give myself some slack. I did some damage trying to rush back to normal way before I was really ready for it. I wanted to shop for our own groceries. I wanted to get back to Bible Study. I wanted to clean the house on Saturdays. I wanted to dive back into a full work schedule. I wanted to be back at family events.
But the truth was, I needed to take care of myself first. A great dude who had also lost his son told me something I’ll never forget. He said, “There is a new normal now.” Man, is that true. Little by little, painful little lesson after painful little lesson, I learned to take my time. To stop chasing my old “normal,” and start figuring out what life should look like now.
Maybe the toughest single lesson had to do with my own family. This year, our family has welcomed in my stud of a nephew, Cooper, and my beautiful little niece, Morgan. I killed myself with guilt about not being at the hospital. I’m his uncle, he’s my brother. I should be there. But I wasn’t ready for it.
Naturally, family events this year consisted of a lot of babies. I wanted to be there — family stuff is something we love. But I wasn’t ready to do it for a long time. And every time we dipped our foot in too early, it hurt like hell. We had to learn to take our time, give ourselves some grace.
It’s OK that we’re not at friend’s baby showers. It’s OK that we’re not at every family event. It’s OK that we’re not super “with it” at work right now. We still love our friends, our families. We’re happy for them, we love our nieces/nephews, but we’re had to take care of ourselves first.
And we’re incredibly thankful that our friends and family understood that too.
Connor’s First Birthday
This past year has been long. Mackenzie and I both feel pretty beat up. But we are so thankful for the healing that has happened, and the people who helped us get here.
And you know what really helps? When we are recognized as Connor’s parents. When people ask about Connor. Who he looked like, how big he was, if he kicked Mackenzie a lot.
We are his parents, and we love talking about him.
Christmas came and went this year. There wasn’t a tree in our house. We didn’t go to Christmas Eve service at church. My Christmas spotify playlist got way less air-time this year.
It was less joyful, but it was infinitely more meaningful.
I have an entirely new appreciation for the idea that God wanted to be with me so badly, that He willingly felt the pain of separating from His own son. I would give anything to be with Connor. God gave everything to be with me, and with you.
So really, I just experienced a new side of Christmas last year. And for the first time in a while, we’re hopeful. We’ve spent the past few weeks writing notes to a huge list of people who have supported us this year.
And today we’re probably going to hang out in Connor’s room, and spend a lot of time remembering.
We ache to be with our son. But that time will be here before we know it. We love him, and are so proud to be his parents.
Happy birthday, Connor.
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