Little Townhouse on Helmsdale

Five years ago today we closed on our first house.

We knew Joanna was on her way, though we didn’t know it was her specifically. After an early loss a few months before, we were still holding our breaths in hope and anticipation when we signed the papers and took possession of the keys.

Walking into OUR home that night, we had such big dreams, but not just for us, but for this baby. I was already planning the nursery before we moved one thing into the space.

Back in June of this year, as we drove over the Virginia state line, into familiar but distant territory, I cried. For all the things that I miss. For all of the people. For all of the convenience. For all of the memories made in our first seven years of marriage.

But mostly I cried for her; for how I felt closer to her again. For how her home and the hospital she was born were so close to me again. For how that place had brought healing, and friends who’ve walked the same road. For how she was there, how she physically existed there. For how she held my heart there through pregnancy after loss and through bringing home her baby brother into a space that was still hers, too.

That home will forever hold a piece of my heart. I loved it so. I love her so. I miss it. I miss her, painfully, still. How can it be five years already?

I am glad that she is here too, in our hearts. In our memories.

Little Townhouse on Helmsdale, thank you. xo

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Even Though

Time moves so quickly, passing by like a raging river, though most days it feels like the trickle of a small brook. Somehow we have already made it four years — four years today since we found out Joanna had passed at 25w5d and tomorrow is her birthday. Four years. It feels as if the days have gone so slowly and yet I can still remember the physical pain like yesterday. I can remember what it felt like to hold her. To touch her skin. To look at her face. To sing her special lullaby to her.

But even with all the passage of time, I don’t have to remember the emotional pain. The heartbreak. The ache for her, so much that it physically hurts. These are the things we still feel now. The effects of great loss, the toll of great love.

But even four years later, I can still say I would do it all again. I would suffer every type of pain to carry her for nearly 26 weeks. To hold her in my arms again, even for just those few short moments of time. To sing to her. I would let my heart break a million times over to be with her.

We are so blessed with our beautiful rainbow babies, both who are here because she was here. Because she showed us what love is, made us parents, and made us brave.

But we will never not miss her. We will never not wish we could hold her in our arms and not just our hearts.

It’s a break up song, but I have recently come to love the song Break Up in the End by Cole Swindell. I cry every time I hear it because I feel the same about Joanna. I would do it all over, even though I know how it ends.

If you read this post and you think of it, please do something kind in honor of our girl tomorrow. A simple random act of kindness. A donation to a charity you love, or to our Facebook birthday fundraiser for Emma’s Footprints.

We love you, Joanna! Happy birthday!

Even if I knew you’d be the one that got away
I’d still go back and get you
Even if I knew you’d be my best and worst mistake
Oh, I’d still make it with you
Over and over, again and again
Even though we break up in the end

Joanna’s Gifts – The Third Birthday

Tomorrow is Joanna’s third birthday… It’s incredible how fast the time moves, and how much our love for her grows, even though we aren’t holding her in our arms anymore.

It’s hard to imagine what Christmas could have been like with an almost three-year-old and an almost 18-month-old. Leo loved pulling paper off of his gifts, but didn’t quite connect that the unwrapping meant he was getting a new toy to play with. I know Joanna at nearly three would have had the most magical Christmas. I don’t know what she would be into at three, but maybe unicorns and a Doc McStuffins play set. It’s not hard to see those aspects of the holiday, it’s hard to imagine because it still hurts.

It still hurts that she is not here. It still hurts so much. When I go to get my nails done and there’s a little girl getting her first manicure about Joanna’s age. When we go to weddings and dads give toasts and dance with their daughters and moms help brides into their dresses. When I listen to the radio and hear songs written to daughters, or children in general.

When I think of all the moments I will miss of her life, when I think of the small moment in time when she was here with me, in my belly, in my arms. It all hurts.

Even three years out. I have a feeling the hurt won’t ever go away, even old wounds still ache. And so this will too. Every reminder will bring on a little pain, a little longing for that little girl, my firstborn. Every time I hear her name belonging to another, the hole in my heart will open, raw, all over again.

The truth is that time can heal you in some ways. I wouldn’t say time heals all wounds, no. But, it can make you see how strong you are. It can make you see how much love you are capable of. It can show you how love can even be multiplied and how loss is not the end. Time can’t heal your heart after a child is taken from your life, because that wound will always burn; but time can help you move forward, find purpose, use your pain to help others.

I wish I could say that I see the reasons why Joanna died – you know the “everything happens for a reason” reason. But in three years I have not found one and I don’t think there is one. I don’t think there’s a purpose for babies to die and I don’t see it as “God’s plan.” I don’t think everything happens for a reason. I don’t. But I think through the struggle and through the pain, Joanna’s life and death have helped me to be a better person.

From being able to share my story to help others to having more empathy in almost any situation. I have learned the value of time–how there is never enough to spend with the ones you love and to be more present in those moments. To laugh even in hard times but also to cry when I feel like it and let my feelings out so they can be processed and understood.

I’m still learning to love myself, to not feel guilty about Joanna’s death, to not be angry at myself. These are harder to accept but I am making an effort each day.

Bill gave me a necklace for Christmas that I have been wanting; it says “And if not, He is still good.” And in all things, I still believe He is good. In good times and bad times and in long lives and those cut too short. In my life — even if He doesn’t save me from the fire, He is still good. I know three years ago today when I found out Joanna had died, in that exact moment, God was still good. When I held my beautiful girl in my arms, He was so good! Even leaving the hospital empty-armed — still good. Nothing that can happen in this life can change who He is, which is good.

And when I was pregnant with Leo I had the words “But if not…” written on a post it, stuck to my computer at work where I saw it all day long. It was my motto, my mantra. To remember that God was in this with me and even if I didn’t get to bring Leo home, He would still be good.

Because Joanna was good. Short life. But good life. She will always be the one who made me a mama. That’s good. She will be my firstborn. That’s good. She was perfect. That’s good. She was mine. That’s good. She will always be with me. That’s good.

Happy birthday tomorrow to my girl. We love and miss you so much!

xo

If you’d like to help us celebrate, check out our Facebook event. We are having a random acts of kindness day and would love you to participate and share what you do in J’s honor.

Dear Joanna (4.4.17)

Dear Joanna,

It’s me. Your mom. It’s been a while since I have written. I’m sitting here in our Virginia house, snuggling your little brother on the kitchen floor while we have our carpets cleaned. 

I’m not really sure what to say right now, but I know there is something in here to tell you. First off, we are moving. We are moving home to PA, close to family. We miss them and want Leo to know them, like we know our grandparents. I wonder, if your arrival had been different, would we have moved back to PA sooner? Would we still be here, listening to the whir of the carpet cleaner, you playing next to me while Leo sleeps?  

I needed to tell you we are moving because somehow I feel like leaving this home is like leaving you. Somehow leaving here, though you are not here, feels like leaving you behind. All of my memories of you are here. Finding out you were on your way just as we bought this house. Immediately planning the nursery once we moved in, but having it come to an abrupt and heartbreaking stop. A birthday with you in this house. A Thanksgiving with you in this house. An annual tree decorating party with you in this house. You were here.

And after you died, this was still your home. We planted your winterberry out back and we celebrated what should have been your due date. I slept on the floor in the nursery because it made me feel closer to you. We celebrated two of your birthdays here and created Joanna’s Gifts boxes in your memory for other loss families. We ate cupcakes and released sky lanterns. We sent you a balloon on Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day last October. 

Then, we found out Leo was coming. This baby promised to us, our rainbow, was on his way. And we began working on the nursery again. The one that was gender neutral, the one that was for you. And now for him. Together. A place you share, a place you both physically exist. And now we are leaving–you will never physically share a space with your brother again. We will move into a new home and he will get a new room, maybe dinosaurs or superheroes. And you will not share it, or get your own new room. 

We will take all the pieces of the nursery and create a similar space, continuing the elephant theme. We will still hang your footprint and handprint with Leo’s and any other baby who comes along. And though pieces of you will be in the room, you won’t have had a physical presence. 

We will take your winterberry. Your memory boxes and ashes are already awaiting us in PA at Gramma and Grampa’s house. That’s where to find us. 

I guess just as you are physically gone, so we will be gone from this place as well. But we do know you are in our hearts. You are ours forever. You are our firstborn and we will see you again someday. 

Last night I rocked your brother for the last time in the nursery. It was hard, but also I was thankful knowing I would rock him and put him to bed for many, many more nights. I so miss that I couldn’t do that with you. Today I looked into the empty nursery and all I saw were walls painted with so much love, but I also saw the dreams that were dashed when you left. I feel blessed to have your brother to dream with. Tomorrow we will leave. Our first house. Your first house. But your new home is the best of homes…the home where Jesus holds you until we can wrap our arms around you again. We just wish you could be with us now. 

Sweet girl. Until we see you again, sending so much love heavenward. 

xoxo,

Mom

Triggers

It’s been quite some time since I have written. I would like to say it’s because we aren’t sad anymore, but that’s not true. Not a day goes by that we don’t think of and miss Joanna. It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 14 months since we held J, and just a few weeks ago was the first anniversary of my blogging about our baby girl and our journey through pregnancy loss, stillbirth, grief and healing.

And a lot of healing has happened. Late in the summer of 2015 my blog posts started to taper off. I think this is because, though I always have a lot to say, especially to Joanna, I was getting to a place where words weren’t what I needed to continue healing. Just living was the thing – training for my first 5K, celebrating my birthday, going on vacation with my husband and best friends. Getting out and doing things I’ve wanted or needed to, and not feeling scared to make them happen. Not being afraid of triggers and not being afraid to tell my story.

That is not to say life is not without triggers. In living more fully and celebrating my own life, as a way to honor J, I have found many things that bring me to a stop. That immediately draw tears. That make my heart drop. I don’t think there will ever come a day when certain things won’t make me sad and miss Joanna.

Recently Bill and I went to a pet adoption event just for fun, after doing some furniture shopping. We were having fun petting the little puppies, holding them, playing with them. Then we walked to another area in the store where the older dogs were hanging out, hoping for someone to adopt them. We ran into a pretty lab/retriever mix. She was golden and so sweet, but seemed pretty antsy. That’s when the handler told me that she was feeling a little sad because her puppies were taken away that day.

I looked down and walked away so fast. The tears were immediately in my eyes. Of course that dog was sad, and not just a little. Her babies were gone and she wasn’t going to see them again. I know things are different in the animal world, but I have a dog and I know he understands a lot more than I think. I know he has feelings that have been hurt and he expresses joy and happiness. So I know that mama dog was heartbroken over her pups being taken. It hurt my heart and took me back to the day I left the hospital without my baby.

It’s so crazy how quickly something can trigger me. But at the same time, it’s not. It’s going to be a lifetime of grieving – of parenting a child who is not here. There is no “getting over” it. Healing comes slowly, but even when we are feeling better, there will be weeks, days and moments of deep, deep grief that will take over. No matter what happens in our lives from here on out, we won’t forget, we won’t stop loving, we will always miss our Joanna. No one can replace her. No one can take away the special place she holds in our hearts, and in our family.

God, in His mercy and grace, has started to heal my heart, and in His power and compassion, He holds me when I feel broken all over again.

Reflections

A year ago today marked four weeks since I gave birth to Joanna, still, at just shy of 26 weeks.

That first month was so hard, as are the months that continue to come, season by season, without Joanna.

But if you had told me at the four-week mark that eventually I would not feel physical pain every day from the emptiness, I would never have believed you.

Around the two-month mark, you might have said that I would not cry every day from the sadness, but it seemed such an unlikely scenario.

At three months, I heard that I would not be angry forever from the injustice, that I would truly laugh again and feel pure joy. But it seemed like the feelings would be my daily routine.

If you had told me at the four-month mark that a time would come when happy memories of my pregnancy and Joanna’s birth would come more often than the sad days, I would have certainly rolled my eyes and pulled the covers back over my head.

Five months in you might have said, it will get easier, and I would have cried oceans of tears, telling you it hurt too badly to believe that could ever be true.

At six months, when people asked if I had any children, I didn’t know how to respond. Practice makes perfect, you might have said. I would have said there is no way to tell my story to people who don’t understand.

At seven, eight, nine months, as babies were born who weren’t even conceived before Joanna’s birthday, bitterness tried to make its way into the cracks of my heart. I fought to keep those cracks filled with my love for Joanna.

And you know? If you had told me I would laugh and celebrate and smile and love, and so sweetly ache for my baby on Joanna’s first birthday, and not hide under a blanket and cry, I absolutely would have laughed in your face.

But this year has gone by, and these changes have come. Tears do come less often, not because we miss her less, but because we have found our “new normal” – we have figured out how to live without Joanna in our arms, though always in our hearts.

I have found the right way to share with strangers the story of my daughter, a way that brings peace to my heart and a smile to my lips – a story where my happy memories of her outweigh the sad memories of her death.

There are days I still ache, days where my chest hurts, that physical manifestation of my broken heart. But I know that love and hope and healing are filling the cracks, and I know Joanna is happy we are healing.

 

Cuts Like A Knife

If you’ve been following my grief journey here on [Still]Gracious, you probably came across my post Someone Said Her Name. This was the first time that I heard someone say “Joanna” referring to a child who was not mine.

It’s not often I hear her name, and since that first time, I can’t even remember hearing it out and about, other than when Bill and I oh-so-happily binge on Fixer Upper.

But last night, at our support group of all places, my heart broke, over and over again. A grand total of six times. Yes, I was counting.

A new loss family came to our meeting, their son recently passed at six months old. This family also has three living children. One of their daughters, Johanna.

I realize the name is not quite the same. But oh, how is rolls of the tongue just as beautifully, sounding so similar, cutting my soul like a knife.

Every time she said her name, my heart dropped. Every time she said her name, my stomach churned.

The fifth time, I got up and left. I had this unrealistic idea that if I stepped out, by the time I came back she wouldn’t mention her living daughter again. Of course, I was wrong, but I knew my limit at that moment and I did what I had to do.

This was a very new experience, because the group is a safe place where you expect to go and heal. To talk to people who fully understand you. To grieve with other loss families and to support each other.

I’m still struggling today, wishing I could talk about my Joanna as that mom spoke of her Johanna: happy, healthy, alive.

For Father’s Day

For Mother’s Day I wrote a post meant for all mothers in all stages of their motherhood journey. And so I thought, all fathers should be honored and recognized, no matter what part of their fatherhood journey they are on.

Happy Father’s Day to all men. Whether you have children, want children, have a child on the way, have lost a child, or have an empty nest, Sunday is your day. You have love in your heart for a child(ren) that will be, already is, or was.

Once you become a dad, you’re always a dad. It’s a really special thing to be a dad. You have the privilege of leading a household and raising children to do the right thing, to be caring, to show them and teach them compassion, to show them love and teach them how to love.

Love, to me, is the most important. I learned a lot about love from my dad. He loves my mom with all his heart. He is good to her, he puts her first, he is kind. In turn, he also loves his children and cares for them and supports them in all they do. Watching him love my mom has shown me how a man should love a woman. One of the greatest lessons I learned from him is love. Because I knew what to look for, I have the most amazing husband. I also have the most amazing father for my children.

Since losing J we have found that fathers often get the short end of the stick when it comes to mourning and grieving. People always ask the dads how the moms are doing but they forget that the dads also lost a child. Their hopes and dreams have been dashed. Their hearts broken. Their pain is just as real as the pain of the moms.

So this Father’s Day, remember the bereaved dad. For his burden is heavy: taking care of his wife, assuring her he loves her and will always be with her. Remember him, because he carries his child in his heart, but he loves her just the same as if he were holding her in his arms. Remember him, because though he seems strong, his heart breaks every day.

Be kind to him. He puts on a happy face but he is still sad. Love him, because he is one of the strongest dads as he carries the weight of grief on his shoulders.

I have often heard that because we love deeply, we hurt deeply. No one loves these little lost lives as much as their parents. No one knows, aches, with the hurt as much as them.

If your babies are still with you, hold them close for the dads who can’t cuddle their daughters. If your babies have grown and are away from home, call them and enjoy the sound of their voices for the fathers who can’t laugh with their sons. If your babies are on the way, sing to them and feel them tumbling around in the womb for the dads who will never hold their babies again.

Whatever kind of dad you are, you’re wonderful and you’re someone’s hero. I know Joanna’s dad is both of these things to me, and to J.

We love you! Happy Father’s Day!

Coexisting

Joy and grief. Coexisting. A lot of my writing touches on this interesting phenomenon. A very common topic at our support group and perhaps the most common theme of my every-day life since Joanna’s birth.

I’ve seen it many times in my life, the coexisting. I was so joyful to graduate high school, college. I was excited and happy to be done, to be leaving, to be moving forward in life! Then I thought about leaving all of my dear friends, my safety net, my familiar little world. And suddenly I was also grieving the past few years and I just wanted to hold on and never leave.

Another instance. Someone I love, my Grandpa, was sick. He was dying. I love him so much and was so grateful for each remaining moment with him. There was joy in hearing his voice in my ears. There was joy in the sound of saying his name. There was (and still is) joy in my fantastic memories of growing up with him. Sharing a birthday. His laugh. Love of George Jones. Slammin’ air guitar. There was even joy for him when he took his last breath and entered the gates of Heaven – for there is no more sickness or pain in his body. But the second I’d realized he was really gone, the grief washed in and over me and pulled me under. Happy and sad, all at once.

Of course, there’s also the situation where I’m having a baby, and she dies. What? There is joy in that? I’m going to tell you – yes. Some days it is hard to see the joy, but it’s there! You just have to look. I read this quote recently in a book I just finished making my way through (crying my way through). It captures the situation well.

It was the most anticipated moment of my life, and I knew in an instance, it would forever be the most painful. Having the best and worst moment of your life share the same space within your heart is indescribable… -Three Minus One

My mom asked me a few months after losing Joanna if I thought that 8:07 p.m. on Monday nights would become easier or be happier for me someday. But what I told her was that 8:07 is often less sad than other times. Maybe my baby came quietly into the world at 8:07 p.m. on a Monday night. Maybe I was in a lot of pain and tired and heartbroken at 8:07. But at 8:07 my firstborn child, my daughter, was born. She was perfect aside from the non-beating heart. Perfect and mine. I could not have been more proud and joyful in that moment. But of course, that coexisting grief was right there too, since Sunday morning when the doctor told us those four words no parent should ever have to hear, there is no heartbeat.

This week I was promoted at work – it was joyful! But at the same time, there was such sorrow because had Joanna been born alive, it probably wouldn’t have happened. I would choose her over the promotion.

Tomorrow is my cousin’s wedding – a joyful and happy celebration! But Joanna was supposed to meet her great grandma for the first time while we are there.

A week from Sunday is Father’s Day. We are so happy Bill is a dad, and such a good one. But we are so sad his baby girl is not here to cuddle and love on.

So and it will go for the rest of my life, joy and grief together.


With all my heart I will praise the Lord. I will never forget how kind He’s been.
Psalm 103:2 CEV

Dear Joanna (6.8.15)

Dear Joanna,

I thought I would write a letter to you today.

I wish I had some great lesson or encouraging insight to share with you so that you know I am healing and I am growing through this experience. But, I don’t really have anything much to go on this week. Plus, I miss you just the same.

Would you like to hear about our weekend?

Your dad and I went to WMZQFest – the first concert in our country mega-ticket deal. There were a lot of artists there who you liked. I know you liked them because I could feel you moving around when some of their songs came on. You know the playlist I play in the car all of the time? The one I made for you? One of the songs is Leave the Night On by Sam Hunt. He was there this weekend, and he sang that song. It was a cool experience to hear a song I like so much live. But it also reminded me that if you were here, we wouldn’t have been at that concert.

And so it goes, J. We make it through each moment, day, week, month without you. Some days it’s hard to get out of bed, some days we can’t keep the tears from falling. But other days we just are. We go to the movies. We go to work. We go to concerts. We smile and we have fun, your dad and me. And then, in the midst of a good moment, we are pulled back into moments of sadness. The grief comes in like a wave, washing over me, and in an instant has receded back into the ocean.

That’s how it felt watching Sam Hunt perform. I was so happy, then, for a few minutes, all I wanted to do was cry. A moment later, I was squeezing your dad’s hand and felt stronger once again. However much we do miss you, those moments of joy are slowly beginning to overtake the moments of sorrow. Thank you for that – for being our daughter and for bringing joy into our lives.

Something else I accomplished this weekend, for which I’m sure you’d be proud, I finished painting the nursery, aside from the striped accent wall. (That seemed like too much work to do on my own.) I had been feeling ready, so I thought I would make an attempt. I taped off the ceiling, the trim and the window and finally completed the entire first coat of paint. While I was waiting for it to dry to put on the second coat, I began talking myself out of finishing. I’d already spent a few hours in the nursery and was ready to stay away, to give myself a break. But when the two hours were up, I marched myself upstairs determined to finish.

You were supposed to be the first to occupy the nursery, but we planned a gender neutral theme in order to keep the nursery the same for all of our children. Completing the job is a labor of love, for you, even though you’re only in the room in spirit. Also a labor of hope. Hope that another little one will someday fill the room, and our lives, with as much joy and love as you gave us. So much love.

For just as the swan’s last song is the sweetest of its life, so loss is made endurable by love. It is love that will echo through eternity. -Call the Midwife

Love you, sweet cheeks!

XO,

Mom