Stories of Hope and Grace: Mental Health After the Death of a Child

April 14, 2017

Editor’s note: the person interviewed did not want her name or identity revealed, so we’ll just call her “Stacy.” She is a personal friend of mine, and she wanted to tell her story about what it was like to lose her son last year so that other parents may know they’re not alone.

I’m a mom. That’s the first thing I say when I introduce myself to anyone. I say my name, and then when people ask me what I do, I say that I’m a stay-at-home mom. Being a mother is the most important job I’ve ever had. I quit work the day my eldest was born, my baby boy with the bright blue eyes. I remember thinking that I knew what I was born to do, that I would give my life to protect him. I looked into his precious face and told him that I would keep him safe from harm, that he never had anything to worry about as long as Mommy was there. He was my little angel. We’ll call him “Seth.”

I went on to have three more babies after my Seth was born, one just as precious as the next, and my husband and I agreed that I would stay home with them and that he would be the sole breadwinner. I can’t say I was crushed at this news. Like I said, I only wanted to be a mom. I was good at it. By the time we decided we had enough kids, we joked that we had two salt-and-pepper-shaker-like matched sets: two boys, two girls. Each about two years apart. It was perfect.

I prided myself — still do — on being a hands-on mother. I spent my entire life managing multiple schedules like a CEO: school, dance classes, soccer practice, piano lessons, trips to paint pottery or run around in the park. We had that life that looks pretty perfect from the outside: four kids, loving family, great house. I took it for granted a lot. I can say that now. I took it for granted more than I should. I would have never relaxed if I knew what was coming.

We had eleven perfect years of life like this. My kids got older, my babies developed their own personalities, and I loved them all, but there would always be something so perfect about my Seth: his kind nature, the way he always seemed to want to help me, the inexplicable bond we seemed to share. Seth could finish my sentences, and quite often took the role of Mommy’s Helper. He was my rock. At night, after all the kids were put to bed, he would crawl on the couch with me for an extra 30 minutes before his own bedtime just to put his head in my lap and watch tv. He would give me a butterfly kiss on my cheek and walk to his own bedroom, saying, “Love you, Mommy,” on the way. I can still remember the smell of his hair, the softness of his face against mine. I will never forget it.

On a beautiful spring day last year, we were playing a game of T-ball with the kids in the front yard of our home. My husband was coaching, and I was on the porch excited to take a break for a bit with a book and some iced tea. I was half-watching the game since I knew my husband had it under control. About an hour into playing, my second son hit a fly ball far off into the slope of the yard toward the street in front of our house, and Seth yelled he would get it. As he ran backward to catch it, my husband spotted a car careening around the corner, coming down the street toward us at top speed. “Look out for that car, buddy!” he yelled, and I looked up in enough time to see the car come crashing into our lawn. I screamed for Seth as he looked back just in time for the car to hit him.

My entire life stopped. We raced down to Seth, tried to revive him. I called 911 from my cell in my pocket. I don’t remember any other noise other than my own screaming. There was so much blood. Everything else was a blur. My husband called the police on the driver, drunk in the middle of the day from a party that started the night before. Our other children stood and watched in horror as I broke down. The ride to the hospital, the race into the operating room, waiting to hear what was going to happen to my baby boy as he lay unconscious and bleeding – all of it to me is a blur of lights, noise, and muffled voices. He lay in a coma for six days. Bleeding on the brain. There’s nothing we can do. No one could help him. I prayed by his side, I never left. I don’t remember eating, I barely remember using the bathroom in his room with the door open so I could see him at any given second. If he woke up, I wanted to be there.

Eventually, after weeks of no response and his organs failing one by one, we made the decision to let him go in peace. We each said our goodbyes, they pulled the plug, and I watched my baby boy leave my world to go onto the next. He took a piece of me with him, one I will never see again. I was numb without this piece of myself. I didn’t want it back. I wanted to go with him.

The funeral was one of the hardest things I have ever done. The casket for my boy was so small. I have never cried as much in my entire life. I tried to be there for my other children but found that I couldn’t. We spread dirt into the gravesite as they lowered his body into the earth, and I fell to my knees, screaming and crying with grief. At some point, I passed out. I woke up at home in my bed. I missed the entire dinner after the funeral. I slept for what felt like days.

For months after Seth’s death, I lost the will to live. My husband had to take over the schedule for our kids, hiring a nanny who could help fetch the kids from school and take care of some cooking here and there. I stopped bathing, I all but stopped eating, my hair became matted to my head from depression and grief. I was oblivious to the requests of my other children; I locked my bedroom door when they were home so they couldn’t come in. I hated to be that way, but better they not see me dying when they had just lost their brother. I was sure I was next. I would never forgive myself for the vow that was broken, that I couldn’t keep my baby boy safe from harm. I had failed him, I thought. My husband grew exasperated and worried with my condition, not sure how to help, afraid of my continual decline. He kept using words like “depression,” and I said nothing. Why bother? The light in my life, my reason for living, I thought was gone.

Eventually, my eldest daughter figured out how to break into my door, and found me lying in bed in a state of decay. The look on her face was of complete sadness, but behind it was a fierce determination.

“Mommy, you have to get up.” She tugged at the covers. I rolled over.

She came to the other side of the bed, climbed on and started to shake me. “Mommy,” she said again. “You have to get up.”

I think I muttered something like, “Leave me alone.”

She started to cry. “I wish it was me instead of Seth, Mommy. Then you wouldn’t be sad.”

I looked up at her. “What?”

She was full-on bawling now. “The only reason you’re in here is because it wasn’t one of us! If it had been me, you would be okay!”

I forced myself to sit up and pulled her to me. I explained that I would never have wanted any of them to be hurt, but that I was just very, very sad. But in that moment with my second child in my arms the way my first one used to be, I realized that I had to get it together for my family and for myself. I was still a mom, and I had three other lives to protect. I put on a robe and, holding my daughter’s hand, went to the kitchen to make us all a snack.

From there, we called our primary care physician and got an appointment with a psychiatrist. I still wasn’t convinced this would help, but according to both my doctor and my husband, I needed help. I can report that I’ve been on anti-depressants ever since and that I go to therapy every single week to talk about what happened. I’ve learned that there was nothing I could do to save my baby boy and that I am still a viable human being, a good mom, and worthy of happiness once more. I’m slowly getting back to full speed, and I’m taking the time to practice self-care along with being there for my family. I’ve realized that the extent to which I grieved isn’t indicative of how much I loved. Seth would have wanted me to move on, and I’m doing this for both of us.

I’m writing this to say that the loss of a child is unnatural and horrifying, but that there is life afterward. You have to take care of yourself, to realize that mental health conditions happen because of both nature and nurture, and that trauma can make you sick. I’ve found life on the other side of death, and I hope anyone else in my condition will as well. A step at a time, you will move on.