Infertility. Pregnancy. Miscarriage. Loss. PAL (Pregnancy After Loss). Rainbow Baby. All words that take on a whole different meaning when they describe moments in your life; not just reading someone else’s story. When it’s your story, time stands still.
The Stephens endured a journey filled with heartache over many years as they created their family together. A roller coaster of high and lows, filled with every emotion imaginable. Each of Crystal’s three little miracles have contributed to the person, wife, mother, and friend she is today.
“I am the mama to three children: two who play among the flowers here on earth and one who dances among the clouds in heaven.”
The Long Road to Pregnancy
It took Crystal and Allen eight years to get pregnant with their first son, Cameron, due to endometriosis-related infertility. Cameron entered the world on February 21, 2008 via an emergency c-section. This traumatic experience nearly took a year off Crystal’s life. It felt like an eternity as the medical team worked diligently to suction Cameron and help him breathe. Hearing him finally cry was a blessing and relief. Cameron’s cord has been wrapped around his neck twice and under his arm once. Crystal assumed getting pregnant and enduring his traumatic delivery would be the hardest moments of my journey to motherhood. Little did she know what the future held.
When Cameron was three years old, Crystal and Allen were shocked to learn that they were expecting a Christmas/New Year’s baby. Baby boy’s estimated due date was December 30th. With their oldest, the Stephens were quick to announce their pregnancy. The pregnancy stick wasn’t even dry before they shared the news.
For some inexplicable reason, Crystal found herself more protective the second time around. They cautiously waited until after the 12-week checkup to share their pregnancy news, assuming they were out of the danger zone and in the clear.
At her four-month checkup, everything went as expected. Crystal talked about her near constant nausea and only being able to eat plain mashed potatoes, the tiredness of being a pregnant mama with a young preschooler, and the excitement of being able to schedule the anatomy/gender ultrasound at the end of the appointment.
Suddenly, a cheery room filled with smiles turned quiet as the doctor couldn’t find baby’s heartbeat with the Doppler. She laughed it off and said that the baby must be shy…these things happen! Crystal and Allen soon found themselves in the ultrasound room receiving a sneak peek at baby, hoping to get a glimpse of their uncooperative baby.
Everything changed in the blink of an eye.
“I will forever remember the moment I knew, just by the look on her face and the change in her posture, that my baby was gone.”
The doctor said, “I’m so sorry but there is no heartbeat. Your baby has died.” A lot of what followed was a blur for Crystal. She was admitted for an induction the next day and 12 hours later, Nathan slipped silently into the world. He was born on July 21, 2011 at 2:32am.
Nathan’s Birth Experience
“Nine years later and the memories of Nathan’s birth still feel like an open wound with a barely healed scab over it.”
Crystal’s local hospital doesn’t allow women to labor or deliver in the maternity suites unless they are at least 20 weeks gestation. Since she was just shy of 17 weeks, Crystal was placed in a postpartum wing alongside mothers and their newborns.
During an extremely upsetting time, Crystal was fortunate enough to be blessed with an amazing nurse, Heather. Heather did all she could to ease the pain of Crystal’s experience with the resources she had. Heather cleaned Nathan, as he was born in his amniotic sac, and cared for him, doing her best to prepare him to meet his mama. Crystal discovered later on that Heather prayed over him and talked to Nathan during their time together. Not only did Heather provide Nathan with exceptional care, she showed Crystal the same love and care as she gently explained how Nathan looked and prepared her to meet him.
Regardless, Crystal was completely unprepared for how perfect Nathan would look.
“He looked like a miniature little baby doll.”
Crystal remembers holding him and staring. She was in complete awe of his tiny fingernails and toenails and his perfect little facial features. The shock and numbness of those precious moments took over her, no time to focus on taking pictures or anything else. She will forever regret not taking pictures and not holding Nathan longer. That night was all she’d ever have with her son, and it wasn’t until it was over that it hit her.
Those moments would have to last Crystal for the rest of her life. The next morning, Crystal asked if she could have Nathan back and was told that he wouldn’t look the same after being in the morgue. It was not encouraged. Thankfully, she recorded all the details on paper while they were fresh in her mind and she was able to commission a pencil sketch of Nathan based on that and family photographs.
For Crystal, it still upsets her to think of Nathan lying there in the morgue, naked and alone, with no blankie or lovie; nothing to show that he was so very wanted and loved.
Crystal and her husband discovered that Nathan’s umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck twice. That was the only thing they could find wrong.
“The one thing meant to keep him alive was the one thing that took him from us.”
Roughly 10 hours after Nathan’s birth, Crystal walked out of the hospital empty handed, a feeling no parent ever wants to experience. A week later, the funeral home hand delivered Nathan’s ashes to the Stephens Family.
As time passed, Crystal began questioning the hospital:
“Why weren’t we given or offered footprints, weight/height measurements, and other mementos that stillbirth parents are offered?”
The labor and delivery manager responded:
“Why would we? We don’t count miscarriages in our statistics.”
As if Nathan’s birth wasn’t heartbreaking enough, to be told that her baby didn’t count…that he didn’t matter. Crystal’s heart broke and anger poured in. It took a lot of years and professional counseling to release that hurt and anger.
Surgery and Pregnancy #3 After Loss
About a year after Nathan’s birth, Crystal had another surgery for her endometriosis and was told that she’d likely never be able to have children again. Let’s just say it was a HUGE shock when Crystal and Allen found out they were expecting baby #3 six years later!
At 34 weeks pregnant Crystal ordered her first Audrey & Bear blanket. Her husband finally convinced Crystal that they needed to decide on a name for baby girl. She hadn't even been able to wash or take the tags off of anything that they bought (which wasn't much) ...let alone decide on a name for a baby, who may or may not come home.
Crystal felt guilty for not bonding with her baby girl. The fear of losing her weighed on Crystal throughout her entire pregnancy. She worried that it would affect her and/or her ability to bond with baby girl postpartum. Crystal spent most of the pregnancy terrified. Nervous that she’d do something to jinx herself or cause something to happen to baby girl. Difficult does not even describe the journey.
“Irrational... I know. That's PAL (pregnancy after loss) life, I guess.”
Crystal and her husband decided on a name and she swore him and their living son to secrecy. She still didn't want to "share" her with anyone yet. They were able to keep her name a secret and let their son be the one to announce it after she was born.
Receiving her Audrey & Bear swaddle in the mail was a “take my breath away” moment. It was then, seeing her name in print, that Crystal realized she was really real. Regardless of the outcome, she would have something with her baby girl’s name on it and something that she could be swaddled and loved in. Even in a worst-case scenario, Crystal wouldn’t have to think about her lying in the morgue naked with nothing to show how important and loved she was. And that gave her a sense of peace and comfort.
In happy news, Madison was born on May 16, 2018 via scheduled c-section due to her being transverse breech. Hearing Madison cry and holding her for the first time was such an overwhelming tangle of emotions for Crystal.
It will always be difficult for Crystal to reconcile the fact that Madison is only here because Nathan died. Crystal had actually planned to have a tubal ligation after Nathan’s birth, but due to circumstances she decided against it.
“I will forever miss him and wonder who he would be today. On the other side though, I can’t imagine life without her. Her two big brothers play a part in her life story and she will know about the brother who came before her but couldn’t stay.”
Madison is not and never will be a replacement for Nathan. She is her own person, created to fulfill a purpose only she can.
Crystal and Allen have officially closed the chapter of infertility, pregnancy, and all things baby. That season of life is over for the Stephens family forever.
“It’s bittersweet to close an 18-year journey but they are excited to make a lifetime of memories with Cameron and Madison. Memories that will take eternity to share with Nathan when the time comes to find him, love on him, and tell him all about the lives of the ones who missed him the most.”
Crystal copes after loss
Crystal started seeing a therapist. She needed an outlet to work through her feelings and release her anger and pain. Crystal’s husband stayed at home with their living child while she was in the hospital and the aftermath of that decision was larger/harder than they could’ve imagined. Crystal harbored a lot of anger and resentment and felt like “he was spared” the pain since he wasn’t there and didn’t have to/get to see him. She didn’t realize beforehand just how much she would later wish that he’d been there with her. All that, coupled with the anger and pain of the entire experience surrounding Nathan’s birth/death, Crystal needed someone to professionally help her navigate those first couple of years.
During the first year, Crystal pushed herself to go out each month and do something fun with her living child on the day of Nathan’s passing. It served as a reminder that she still had a child to live for and that she needed to live life for Nathan and do all the things he would never be able to.
Every year on Nathan’s birthday he gets a birthday cake. A special birthday cake that the Stephens family imagines Nathan would like if he were alive at that age…The Hungry Caterpillar, Handy Manny, a Construction theme, Silly Monsters, Toy Story, Homemade Cupcakes, and Super Heroes to name a few. Even a generic store-bought cake with his name on it because sometimes life gets busy and that’s better than nothing.
Every Christmas, the Stephens family asks friends and family to participate in “Nathan’s Stocking.” During the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, friends and family are asked to commit to a random act of kindness and dedicate it to Nathan. They ask participants to write their random act of kindness on a piece of paper and mail it with their Christmas card or email it to them with “Nathan’s Stocking” as the subject line; as to not to read it until Christmas. The random acts of kindness are added to “Nathan’s Stocking” throughout the holiday season and on Christmas morning, the Stephens family takes Nathan’s stocking down and reads all of the random acts of kindness together.
“It’s a nice way to ensure his stocking doesn’t sit empty and it’s a way to include him in the Christmas morning activities. It’s been beautiful seeing the impact Nathan’s short little life has had on other people’s lives (often perfect strangers) over the years.”
Each year at Christmas time the Stephens children choose a new ornament to add to the tree. In some way, it tells a story about their life that year…whether it’s something they like or captures a memory. Nathan gets a Hallmark snowflake ornament every year and it’s just perfect; each one is unique just like him.
“Nathan Bear.” Crystal and Allen had a custom, hand-weighted teddy bear made to be the same weight Nathan was at birth. Molly Bears is the wonderful organization who made their “Nathan Bear”. “Nathan Bear” goes with them on vacation, is included in family pictures, and traditions. He posed with their oldest son in the birth announcement picture for their rainbow baby. “Nathan Bear” was even at the hospital when Crystal gave birth to her rainbow baby.
Crystal’s advice for coping with pregnancy or infant loss
Be gentle with yourself. Treat yourself like you would a friend going through the loss of their child. Offer yourself compassion and grace.
Seek counseling. It can be professional counseling, a spouse or a trusted friend. Find someone who you can talk to, be open and raw with, and who will support you for the long haul. Grief doesn’t end a month, six months or a year after your baby dies. You will miss them for the rest of your life. Find someone who understands that and can commit to being that support for you.
Understand that grief doesn’t have a timetable. It is different for each and everyone. Crystal once saw a drawing that showed how grief resembled a jumbled mess of lines and it struck her as being such an accurate visual/description. For Crystal, the second year was the hardest. She spent so much of the first year in a “fog”. She anticipated all the milestones such as Nathan’s first Easter, first Thanksgiving, first beach trip, first birthday, etc. and treated it like a countdown. On the hard days Crystal found herself saying, “You can do this. Just make it to this day or that day or his birthday.” However, it didn’t dawn on her until Nathan’s first birthday that nothing would actually change once she made it through that first year to the end of the countdown. The second year Crystal did a lot of grieving, soul-searching, and finding a purpose again in life. The year Nathan would have started kindergarten was a tough one. There will always be tough times.
Give yourself permission to live life wholly and joyously again. It sounds odd but the first time you find yourself laughing or having fun, it can sometimes bring a wave of guilt. There were many days in the beginning where Crystal thought people (even in my support groups) who said, “You will survive this” and “You will find joy in life again”, were crazy. She couldn’t fathom life ever being joyous again back then. Now, nine years later, grief is so different looking.
Occasionally, Crystal will allow herself to “wallow in grief” and go back and re-read journal entries from those early days. It is often an emotional release that allows her to see that she did survive and to understand how far she has come. To understand that, while grief will forever be a companion, it doesn’t have to be as raw, overwhelming and all-encompassing as those first days.
Journal. Don’t proofread, edit, erase…just let the words flow. You don’t ever have to show it or share it with anyone. Do it just for you. It can serve as a guide for you to look back and see how your child’s life and death have changed and shaped you. Crystal kept a digital journal (a blog that was set to private) and there were times where my most honest, raw writings were written between wiping her tears. Crystal usually slept best on those nights because she’d be so emotionally exhausted. Sometimes she would journal and not even read what she wrote until days or weeks later. She knew she could process the actual writing later, but she just needed that emotional outlet at the time to purge her thoughts and feelings.
What you should know about pregnancy/infant loss and how to help according to Crystal
There is no one size fits all guide to surviving the loss of a child. Pregnancy and infant loss are personal experiences. Nobody else lost THAT baby. Nobody else experienced those EXACT precious, painful moments. Even those of you who’ve gone through it can’t compare your experience to anyone else’s. You must try to remember that your journey is yours and that because you experienced or feel a certain way, it doesn’t mean it is the right way or the only way for others. Gestation, age and/or number of memories shouldn’t quantify the time that we’re allowed to claim as grief.
Avoid platitudes and try to zip someone’s grief in a tidy little box. If you don’t know what to say just keep it simple, “I’m sorry your baby died”, “I’m here for you”, “I’m praying for you”, “I’m here anytime you want to talk about your baby”, etc.
Write down important dates. Send a card, text or email and let them know you are thinking of them during those times and throughout the year.
Don’t offer support and then jump ship. Parents, especially in the early days of grief, will likely be numb and experience brain fog. Even simple tasks like doing laundry and making dinner can be exhausting. Do something you know will help your friend or ask someone who knows them better for assistance in choosing something. For example, instead of saying “I’m here if you need anything” and then waiting for them to reach out and ask for help… commit to an act of helping. Call, send a text or email and say, “I’m bringing dinner for your family on Thursday night. It’ll be on the front porch. I’ll ring the bell/knock and leave so don’t feel obligated to answer. I just want you to know I’m thinking of you and this is my way of easing a task for you this week.” Make sure that you include plates, cups, plasticware… everything to make dinner as easy as possible. Don’t burden them with having to do dishes afterwards or commit to returning a casserole pan, etc. Offer to take their children on a playdate. Offer to do their laundry while they nap. Offer to do their grocery shopping. Ask them out for lunch, to the movies, window shopping, a picnic at the park, to the gym, or whatever… even if they say no. Eventually, they’ll say yes.
“It’s nice to feel loved, included and thought of when you feel like the world has moved on while you stand frozen in time.”
October is Pregnancy and Infant Awareness Month. Here at Audrey & Bear we are here to support you on all life’s journeys. The ups, downs and everything in between.
Our sincere condolences to all of those that have lost your precious babies. You lost a part of yourself, a family member, a chance at a future filled with love and joy. We see you, we hear you, we feel you, and we are here for you. We will never know the true heartache you’ve experienced, but when you choose to be a part of the Audrey & Bear family, please know that you are not alone. Join our Audrey & Bear Community Page to be a part of life’s journeys.