Trigger warning: child loss
Within the time span of one year, I will have held my 3-year-old son for the last time and welcomed his baby sister into the world, holding her for the first time.
My husband and I always wanted 3 kids. After two daughters and a son, we felt the sense of finality (and, let’s be honest — exhaustion) of our family being complete. We were definite about this decision until that unsuspecting Sunday evening when we witnessed the end of the world, but it didn’t take us with it.
Our precious son, Levi, drowned during a non-swim time on June 10, 2018. He somehow slipped out of a room filled with people — including both parents — during dinner while we were on vacation. One moment he was sitting on the couch, eating Cheetos; the next, I found him at the bottom of the pool. I never knew a toddler could drown in less than one minute, or that almost 70% of children who drown do so during a time when they weren’t even swimming. I will never stop asking myself how I did not see him get out the door.
Levi’s tragic death sent us tumbling into an abyss. In the darkness, my husband and I grasped onto the tiniest flickers of light. Filled with horror and confusion, we were forced to make decisions we never imagined would be part of our parenting journey. One was simultaneously the hardest and easiest all at once: Will we try for another baby?
As we stood outside Levi’s hospital room after hearing the worst news I will ever hear, he said to me, “We are still a family.” Since that moment, he has led the way for how we will survive the loss of our son. He didn’t hesitate on the decision of a baby, knowing immediately the only way to survive would be to move forward, to go through the grief. He is a man of action and logical thought. I am a woman of overthinking and emotion.
“A baby?” I questioned him, “But, I had my last baby. His name was Levi. I just want him.” My mama-heart was much more guarded. But even I could see this was the only glimmer of light in the fog that clouded our future.
A few months before we lost Levi, my husband and I had both taken steps to ensure that our family of five was complete. After Levi’s death, we had to undo those actions in order to expand our family. Am I oversharing? Probably. But I am determined to break the barriers of drowning and also of child loss. We felt an added layer of guilt, as if maybe we had jinxed our lives by our previous actions to not have more babies. Why did we suddenly deserve a second chance?
I readily acknowledge how unfair it is that we had the luxury of choosing when to stop having babies, when so many long for just one. I am aware that good people do not always get the good things they deserve. I have connected with countless heartbroken women grieving the loss of a future they never imagined. I don’t know why I had to walk out of a hospital room without my son. And I don’t know why I get this chance when others do not.
Of course, I am grateful for this baby, and it is impossible not to see God’s hand in this gift. But I hesitate to proclaim “God is always good” because those words, however well-intentioned, seem to be casually thrown around on social media. They are daggers to the heart of the mama who has fallen to her knees in desperation and fervent prayer, who has pleaded for God to take her, instead. I know about praying for a miracle that never came. I wish I could bring back every child ever taken from a mama’s arms and connect every waiting mama with the soul meant to be theirs. I wish, but I can’t. Please know that I see you, and I am sorry.
Before tragedy interrupted my own life, I understood little about child loss. I knew friends and family who had lost children, but mostly I watched from afar, the unimaginable horror being impossible to process.
Often, these families would have another baby. Relief and attempts at justification would swirl inside my head and heart. Of course, this new baby doesn’t replace the one they lost … but logic proves they wouldn’t have this child unless they had lost the other. Doesn’t this make it okay? They can survive much easier now, right?
But now I know a new baby after child loss is never simple, never black and white.
To be honest, I avoided sharing this news for as long as possible. (Although as it turns out, fourth pregnancies do not allow for much secrecy). I dreaded seeing the mental checkmark pop over people’s heads, as if suddenly our lives are perfect now. I worried about the inevitable disappointment for others that she is a girl and not a boy.
I do not take the support and love of anyone — family, friends, strangers — for granted. Truly, I feel undeserving and grateful every day. I know it still takes courage to talk to me, and I can see the doubt in people’s eyes when they second-guess what they say to me. People mean well. I see only love in their words and in their hesitation around me. We really are all humans together. And, this is exactly the world where I want to live — one where our human nature is to look for the hope and meaning.
But, even as I acknowledge the importance of hope, the truth is that talking about this pregnancy is difficult for me. People congratulate me with sincerity. They ask how I am feeling, and I momentarily freeze every single time before managing a lukewarm, “I’m okay.”
If I say, “My heart is still broken,” does this new baby feel less loved, less wanted? But my heart IS still broken. So, I just stand there, confused. My arms are overflowing with well wishes, while I keep trying to find the voice to say: “But, Levi. He is still dead. Don’t you realize Levi still doesn’t get a childhood? That he will never learn to ride a bike or start Kindergarten?”
I have yet to find the balance between grieving Levi and celebrating this baby. I know I will, because I am determined, but I’m not there yet. I was never expecting for my life to have changed so much in one year. This baby is due at the very end of May, right before the one year anniversary of losing Levi.
Within days of finding out I was pregnant, I had a nightmare that has visited me more than once. Levi is there, wearing his light blue Paw Patrol shirt and holding his sister: a pink blanket with a tuft of black hair peeking out. He is grinning proudly and looks up at me, letting one giggle escape. That Levi giggle says it all. It is probably what I miss most about him.
Levi would have loved her and been incredibly tender with her, despite his very un-tender nature. It is such a beautiful sight of a big brother and his tiny baby sister. But in this nightmare that is my actual life, I have to choose. You see, in this unfair twist, I can’t have both of them. I can only have one. Every time, I am paralyzed, unable to make the choice. How could I possibly? So, in the blink of an eye, in the time it takes to slip off of a couch and out a door unnoticed, they are gone. In the next second, I find them both at the bottom of the pool.
I want to throw a tantrum, like a child, and demand that I get to have both of them. I want to stomp my feet and argue and plead that I be allowed to defy the rules of logic and time. I just want both, whole and healthy, here together. If only my anger or despair or regret or love or hope could make it true.
Of course, we are not marked off some master tragedy list now. Once you have personally witnessed how your life can change in a split second of looking over a balcony, you know that tragedy is real and it does not play fair. So, alongside our grief for Levi, a specific fear always sits with us, like a boulder we cannot push away. My husband and I have acknowledged this fear only twice, both times in whispered confessions, as if speaking the words above a whisper will make them true: “What if we lose one of the girls, too?”
This thought steals my breath every time. But we cannot let that fear weigh us down. We acknowledge it and keep moving, keep living. Baby Girl, please enter this world healthy. Live to see one year. Four years. Please let us celebrate your 4th birthday. I make these pleas and prayers urgently but silently, as if my greed will surely jinx me. It feels too much to even hope for, but please, let this baby have a childhood and an adulthood.
Choosing love feels like a risky move, and I really just want the safe route. But my Aunt Paula, who lost her two year old son Jeffrey in 1973, told me, “It is absolutely necessary that we continue to love no matter the outcome.” She is right, of course: It is the only way. So, even if I am holding my breath just a bit, we are choosing love.
This baby is not “instead of” Levi, and I have struggled with the reality she is “because” Levi died. She WILL only be here because he died, and I cannot reason around that fact. But, she will be ours not just because Levi died but also because he lived.
BECAUSE he lived (Levi rearranged makes the word “live”), we know our hearts and home can expand. Because he lived we know we need a 3rd baby on this earth with us. It is because of our love for him that we are determined to live intentionally despite this sorrow, to not let his life’s legacy become one of despair and anger. So, she is not instead of Levi, but she is because of him.
Does Levi know? Does he think we are flipping a switch, replacing him? Does he think we have already forgotten him, that we choose her over him?
But also: Does Levi know? Did he call in a favor? Hand-pick her for us? Send her to us as a gift, a reminder that he wants us to keep living?
We love her. She is part of our family’s story, this fourth baby with two big sisters and a big brother. I feel her kick and see her little heartbeat, each tiny thump reminding me that despite our immeasurable loss, we are gaining as well.
We will love her, because she is our daughter and our sister. Our love for her will never be measured in terms of being Levi’s replacement. I struggle to identify her as a “rainbow baby,” despite the beauty and meaning behind this term for a baby born after loss.
There was a rainbow in the sky during the moments when we were fighting to save Levi. Beautiful rainbows appeared over the beach and our house within hours of officially losing our son. But, is she a “rainbow baby?” The rainbow comes after the storm, and the dual storms of grief for Levi’s life, and of anger for not knowing the real truth about drowning, are most definitely still raging inside me. These storms are not over.
I worry about tucking her neatly into some category. It is not her job to heal us. Her job is to be a baby, to let us snuggle her, and fight over her, and then to get slightly exasperated by her once she turns into a toddler.
As our friends fought to save Levi, the rainbow in the sky broke through a cluster of storm clouds. So, maybe this baby is a light determined to shine even in the midst of this darkness.
Levi’s legacy has become one that will hopefully prevent more children from drowning. But it is also deeply embedded in this new life — and I feel certain that this baby girl will be my favorite part of the legacy he left behind.