The Christmas I Lost My Daughter

by Laura Gaddis
praetorianphoto / Getty

None of us leaves this world without suffering some type of loss, some type of pain. The best wisdom that I unearthed from my own heartache was this: what I did with the anguish, how I let it influence me and my life’s path, was the purpose I so wanted to find.

Seven years ago, I was pregnant for the first time. I say first, because I did not realize it would not be the last, and that, in fact, there would be three more pregnancies. What I also did not realize was that in the end of it all, I would be left standing, brave and raw and full of grief and love all mixed together, as I held my only surviving child Evelyn.

All those years ago, I decorated our home for Christmas, excited to have my family over to dinner; it was the first time I ever offered to host a holiday meal, even if it only was a mere five of us. Our small ranch home, with a meager eat-in kitchen and no dining room, posed a problem when we tried to arrange five chairs around the table. We rearranged the living room, turned our television into an electronic simulation of a fireplace, and transformed it into the dining room we so needed. A few days before I devoted myself to making a rich chicken marsala stew for the holiday dinner, I learned my first baby had major problems.

“Your baby has some abnormalities,” the doctor had said. Sitting on the exam table, I had not anticipated any issues–we came to get our routine anatomy scan and to find out the gender. While I had dreamed of whether or not we were having a boy or girl (although, deep in my soul, I had felt she was my daughter), I had never fathomed that she would have stiffened bent joints, a diminished chin, low-set ears, and a host of other possible organ defects.

“These abnormalities are not compatible with life,” the doctor had told us. We left that appointment with heavy hearts. Our lives screeched to a halt. We no longer needed to continue down the path on which we had embarked three months earlier: making lists of baby names, choosing colors for a nursery, planning baby showers, looking at strollers at the nearest baby goods store. Despite this abrupt pause in our plans, the world did not stop. Calendar days passed by and Christmas came nearer with each sleepless night that overtook me.

When the day finally arrived, I faced a choice: cancel and wallow in my grief (totally understandable) or put on my new warm long black winter sweater, wash my hair and make the curls presentable, and get myself into that kitchen to cook a meal. As I busied myself with measuring ingredients and mixing a bubbling pot of thick stew, my mind found a small respite in the furthest corner of my thoughts. It found a moment of peace–the very peace that alluded me since the day of the fatal diagnosis.

Crowded around the small rectangular table, so cozy our knees touched, I felt the love fill our house. Like a down pillow made to catch our tired heads at night, this cushion of love caught my broken heart when it should have hit the hardwood floor and shattered. None of us made it out of that holiday unscathed, that year we lost more than just our daughter, Sophia. My parents lost their first grandchild. My grandmother lost her great-grandchild. And from miles away, my husband’s and my sisters lost their niece.

That one choice, to go on with the world and celebrate Christmas the way we had planned, showed me how I could proceed with my life. Through two more losses–early miscarriages–my world carried on. I excelled at my work, I celebrated others’ babies, and I woke up each morning knowing I would have to fight again to make the right choices through my grief.

Sophia relighted my interest in writing. Now armed with fresh emotion, bits of wisdom, hordes of failure, and all the words I needed to express it, I found a voice. Through it, I shared my story, I learned of others’ losses, and I pieced together a joy I never thought I would find again.

Seven years later, I now know that Sophia entered my life with intention, but not the one I had expected. She was never meant for me to mother. She was never supposed to live, never supposed to grow into a curious toddler, independent child, adventurous teen, and end as a successful adult. Her life was much briefer than most–an hour and a half long. But the impact she had on the trajectory of my life has changed me for a lifetime. It is because of my first daughter that I write. It is because I held her tiny body in my arms that I found the courage to pursue new interests, leaving a career path I had thought was set.

That Christmas, packed into our cramped home, I could not have understood the pain I was feeling. It was too fresh and left my heart too exposed. Yet I carried on. I put one foot in front of the other, and while still pregnant with a tremendously sick child, I put together the best Christmas I knew how.

But now, I get it. My daughter has brought solace to others who are suffering. Her story, and her inspiration, has touched the lives of people I will never meet. She may not be here in my arms. I may not be able to rear her into a lovely human being, but she is alive and strong. And she showed me how to live out this purpose.