One Year With Our Rainbow

Today marks one year with our rainbow baby.  Our son, Hunter Emmanuel, is ONE year old today!  I am sitting in a nice, quiet house as I write this, while my husband and mother-in-law are at the park with my son, reflecting on what a beautiful year it has been.  Like most moms, today is an emotional day.  My baby boy is not a tiny baby anymore.  He is entering into the toddler phase and growing more independent with each day.  I think about this past year and how different it was than the year before it.

If you’ve read my blog previously or know me, then you know that we lost our first child, our son Luca Gabriel, in 2015.  And while my grief has lessened, I will always have a pain in my heart – a heartbreak that can never fully be repaired.  Many months of unbearable sorrow after Luca’s death were eventually followed by an anxiety filled second pregnancy with Hunter.  When I got pregnant for the second time, I knew I was as ready as I ever could be, but it was an emotional rollercoaster and I was a mess half the time, worried that all my hopes and dreams would once again be shattered.  I will never forget hearing Hunter’s first cry the day he was born.  He emerged and screamed and the doctor said, “He’s a big boy!” That sound filled the room and brought me so much relief – a stark contrast to the deafening silence when Luca was born still – all two pounds nine ounces of him.  And here was my newest sweet little boy, all eight pounds twelve ounces of him, breathing and crying and looking into our eyes, his warm little body right up next to my skin allowing me to feel every breath he took.  The hospital staff asked us if we wanted to get home as soon as possible or have a longer hospital stay.  I told them I wanted to stay as long as insurance would possibly cover, since I felt safer being around nurses and doctors who could look in on my baby and make sure he was doing okay.

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Looking back on this year, I feel SO grateful.  So incredibly grateful to have experienced this joy – a level of joy that I never would have fully felt if I had not had to say goodbye to Luca.  I think about all of the cuddles… holding my precious Hunter in my arms so many times to nurse him, comfort him, or just simply stare at this perfect being while he slept so peacefully.  Watching his chest rise up and down as he took each breath, many times while I cried silently feeling like my heart could just burst from the love I felt, thanking God over and over for this beautiful gift and praying to keep my baby safe from harm.

I am so fortunate to be able to stay home with Hunter each day.  While this was a big change for me, since I’ve always worked, I cannot imagine having it any other way.  Quite honestly, it’s very difficult for me to leave Hunter with anyone.  Particularly in the beginning, I just could not bear to not be watching over him every second.  There is no one else who could possibly do everything as carefully as I would!  I am sure that some moms may judge me – I hold him all the time and never let him cry.  He slept next to me for months while my husband was deployed, because that was the only way I could ever feel safe, knowing that I would hear every breath he took… if there was an emergency, he would be right there.  If he flinched or made a strange noise, I would immediately wake up.  We even bought an Owlet monitor for him to wear on his tiny feet to ensure that he had a healthy heart rate and oxygen while he slept.  My husband would have bought anything to try to ease my worry.  I knew he had his own worries too.  He stayed in our room until recently, because we just needed to have him near to us.  These were the best choices for us given the journey we are on.

In the beginning, I also felt sad and guilty.  That I was able to take Hunter home and not Luca.  What would Luca think?  Would he feel sad that we now had Hunter?  How would I ever have enough love for both of my children?  Was it okay to feel this happy?  Was it okay to also feel very sad?  Hunter is very much his own person.  I did not have him to replace Luca or to fix my broken heart.  But being able to parent Hunter has helped me to heal.  I can channel the love and yearning I had to give Luca a wonderful life into nurturing Hunter each day.  When I look at their pictures, I can notice some similar features.  Seeing Hunter each day reminds me of Luca in a happy way.  I can imagine what it might have been like.  I think about how much fun they would be having at this age together and it makes me happy to think about what that would be like.

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Luca gave us the gift of appreciating each and every moment with Hunter.  Every second, every minute, and every hour of each day.  When I put him down for a nap or bed, I hug him and kiss him and talk to him like it could be my last chance.  To most, perhaps this is a morbid or scary thought, but I have learned that life is precious and also fragile.

With each day, it gets easier and I am less anxious.  Hunter is so happy and good natured.  He is independent, but loves coming back to mama for a quick snuggle here and there while he plays.  He also has a great sense of humor and loves to make us laugh!  I love watching him grow.  I cherish each milestone and special moment… skin to skin in his first minutes of life, first smiles and laughs, tummy time, rolling over, learning to crawl, making all kind of sounds and now a few words… his sheer joy every time he sees our kitty, Momo, when he wakes up in the morning, his giant grin when Daddy gets home from work, petting my face as I cuddle and nurse him, giggles when he does something silly, clapping and waving and dancing, his love of food and the fun that is meal time… the list goes on!  I do not ever want to miss a thing.

Sometimes I feel guilty for not making time to blog more, since that is one way I honor Luca.  It is hard to find time for anything these days!  My life revolves around naps and mealtimes.  Dishes and laundry pile up more often than not.  However, I feel as though I can also honor Luca by trying to be the best mom I can be to Hunter.  Unnecessary tasks can wait a little, so I can enjoy these days that go by way too fast.  Happy birthday to my precious boy, Hunter!  I love you to the moon and back! ❤

Good Days & Bad Days

I started writing this post as a continuation of Luca’s story, but this week has not been easy and I cannot seem to focus on remembering those details at the moment.  The holiday season is hard.  It is a time to celebrate with family and be with loved ones. For someone going through grief, the holidays magnify what you have lost.  All I can say is that grief is very unpredictable.  I never really know what the day will be like until it is here.

Last weekend was six months since Luca’s birthday.  I thought that day would be extremely difficult, since six months is a big milestone for a baby, but surprisingly it was a really good day.  I purposely did not plan much for the day, since I knew that I would need some quiet time to myself.  I thought a lot about what Luca would be like at six months.  What would he look like by now?  I asked my mom to send me a picture of me around that age and searched for baby photos of my husband too. It makes me smile to think about what his cute little face would look like and who he would take after.  Here are our baby pictures: 🙂

As usual, my friends were wonderful and this day did not go unnoticed.  One friend delivered beautiful cookies to celebrate Luca – so sweet to remember and they were delicious!  My husband’s squadron Christmas party was that night and another friend decorated a candle for Luca and put it at our table, so we could think of him throughout the night.  There was a beautiful sunset that evening and we had a great time at the party surrounded by wonderful friends.

I had also just so happened to get a message that very day that Luca’s Christmas stocking was ready!  I had it made locally and wanted it to have something to represent that he was born here in Japan.  I LOVE how it came out!

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In Japan, cranes are a symbol of peace, happiness, good luck, hope, and resilience – all things that remind me of my Luca.  If you would like to read about how the crane became a symbol of peace and healing in Japan, this is an interesting article!

While Luca’s six month birthday was a happier day for me, the days after were not.  Sometimes you wake up and realize that it’s just not going to be a good day.  For me, my grief is magnified when I am overtired, so I try my best to get adequate sleep, but I’m not always the best at that.  On these bad days, my heart physically hurts thinking about my son.  I ache to be able to hold him, smell his sweet baby smell, and touch his soft baby skin. I sit in disbelief that this has really happened to us.  I tell my husband that a lot. “I just can’t believe that this happened.”  And, I cry a lot.  Most of the time it’s not one thing that suddenly makes me sad.  It’s perhaps just being alone with my thoughts.  While I truly feel that those sad days are necessary to keep making progress, they are hard to get through.  They are absolutely exhausting.  They are lonely.

On those days, to cope, I sit in his room and have quiet time, I cancel many of my plans, and I try to muster the courage to tell my husband and friends that I’m hurting.  I think for many grieving people, we worry that our sadness will be a burden for our family and friends.  Or, you think, why bother telling someone you are sad if they can’t fix the problem?  I want to write more specifically about how to help a grieving person in future posts, but I am learning that it is best to tell someone you are hurting and being very honest about what it feels like.  It’s also best to tell people how they can help you.  For me, that is talking about Luca.  On one of my bad days, my friend came over and I showed her Luca’s room for the first time.  We sat in there for awhile and talked.  I felt so much better after being able to share what brings the most joy to my heart – my son.

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Flowers from the farmers market to brighten a sad day

A college friend of mine who is a counselor did a great piece on dealing with loss over the holidays.  I think it’s so true when she says “there can be pain and sadness alongside joy and happiness.”


 

A few months ago, when I was beginning to get over the initial shock of our loss, I told my nurse friend who helped to deliver Luca that I wanted to help in some way.  I wanted to visit families at the hospital who had experienced a loss similar to ours.  I certainly hoped that there wouldn’t be many such losses, but I felt that I could help give other families hope, and that perhaps helping others would help me heal too.  I knew that I had to be careful to protect myself in my grief process – that maybe not every situation would be something I could handle – so, we handle it on a case by case basis.  Recently, I was notified that a family had lost their son and I went to the hospital and sat with them for awhile.  I won’t discuss the details of the visit, but will say that it was so nice to be with them and do my best to offer comfort to them after they had said goodbye to their child.  One of the hardest things is to be alone in that hospital room after you say your final goodbye.  Or to wake up the next morning and realize there is no baby in your arms.  When I was in the hospital, I would have loved to talk to someone who truly understood that kind of emptiness.  I would have liked to see someone who had been through the same pain, yet could find happiness again.  I asked them to show me pictures of their baby and explained how perfect and beautiful he was.  I tried to think of all of the things I would have wanted someone to ask me or talk about after Luca was born.  There were times that not much was said, but just sitting in each other’s presence was peaceful.  I feel honored that they allowed me to be there with them during that special, but heart wrenching time.

On my way out of the hospital, I had a question for the nurse.  In my last post, I wrote about tracking down the clothing that Luca had worn to make Luca Bear.  The only thing that was missing from Luca’s memory box was his tiny blue knitted premie hat.  I asked the nurse if they would, by any chance, have an extra one of those hats that I could have.  She went to look and after awhile she reappeared with the hat!

She said it was the only hat left like it and it was meant for us!  That made my day!  Moments of happiness like this one help me get through the worst days.  I am thankful for everyone who has been so patient and kind and willing to walk this difficult path with me. ❤

Getting Away

Normally, I try to post weekly to this blog, but with being on vacation and gearing up for Thanksgiving, it’s been a busy week!  Since I do this blog mostly for myself, I’ve made it a rule that I will never rush through a post for the sake of getting it done.  I really want to take the time to organize my thoughts, so for that reason I’m sorry I missed posting last week!

Last week, my husband and I managed to get away and take a vacation to Kyoto in mainland Japan.  We haven’t had a real vacation in quite some time, especially just the two of us.  He did take me on a work related trip back in July, but since it was an evacuation for a huge typhoon, I am not counting that as a vacation!  Anyway, with everything that has happened this year, including funeral expenses for Luca and my husband starting a busy job, vacation just hasn’t been at the forefront of our minds, but I knew we really had to plan something for ourselves, so we succeeded in booking a last minute trip to Kyoto and I’m so glad we did!

To me, Kyoto is like the New England of Japan – so much history and beautiful fall weather and foliage.  We lucked out and I think we were there for the peak of the foliage.  I had seen pictures of Kyoto, but didn’t believe that it was actually going to be that beautiful.  I was wrong; it was even more gorgeous than I could have imagined!  We climbed Monkey Mountain, rode a rickshaw through Arashiyama’s bamboo forest, enjoyed a traditional kaiseki meal, participated in a traditional tea ceremony, and toured so many gorgeous temples and shrines.

While it was so nice to have a relaxing time with my husband, our vacation always highlighted that Luca wasn’t there with us.  I imagined carrying him around in the baby carrier everywhere we went as he happily took in the surroundings.  I thought about how our trip would be so different if he was here.  We would trade our late dinner dates for early nights in to tuck him into bed.  I would have had to bundle him up in warmer clothes, since it was much chillier in Kyoto.  Most of the time, I was able to smile when I thought of him, but sometimes the solemn silence and peacefulness of the temples we walked though and the surrounding natural beauty gave my emotions nowhere to hide.

On our last full day in Kyoto, we had a wonderful, friendly guide, Ayano-San.  She is a student at a Kyoto university and is part of the Good Samaritan Club, which is a group of students who volunteer their time as tour guides in order to practice their English.  All we had to do was pay for her meals and entrance fees to the various tourist spots.  It was Ayano’s first time being a tour guide by herself and she was amazing!  She asked me ahead of time if there was anything in particular that we wanted to see aside from the packed schedule she had suggested for us.  I had heard about certain temples that had special areas and rituals to honor babies and wanted to find these places.  I looked online, but couldn’t find much information, since everything was in Japanese.  I was hesitant to ask Ayano, since it was such a sad and sensitive subject and most Japanese people who hear about Luca do not want to talk about it, as I’m sure they have no idea what to say or how to react, not to mention with the language barrier it’s impossible for them to know what to say.  However, I took the chance and told Ayano I really wanted to find these places.  She was so mature for a 19-year old and worked so hard for us tracking down the answer to our one request.  She found two temples to take us to in order to learn about how Japanese people honor their babies that have died.

One place we went to was Sanjusangendo Temple.  This was a huge Buddhist temple, built in 1164, that is best known for the 1,001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy.  While Kannon is the Japanese name, Guanine is the Chinese name, which means “perceiving the cries of the world.”  This temple was absolutely incredible.  I wish I could have taken pictures of this amazing sight, but no photography was allowed.  (Google it!)  While I am not Buddhist, I am always so interested in learning about other religions, particularly in Japan since we live here.  And, I welcome anyone to pray for my baby or send him good thoughts. 🙂  One of the monks explained to us (with Ayano’s translation help) that the temple offered three wooden tablets (Ayano called them amulets) – a thin piece of wood with Japanese writing – one for adults, one for babies, and one for ancestors.  We selected the one for babies and the monk asked us to please write Luca’s name on it.  Then he had us carefully pronounce his name so he could rewrite it in Japanese, so that he would know how to pronounce it when he prayed.  The monks at that temple would keep this amulet to chant a sutra and pray for our Luca for one week, then after that week, it would be burned.

The other temple we went to was Tohfukuji Reigen-in Temple.  This temple practices Mizuko Kuyou, a Japanese Buddhist ceremony, which roughly translates to “water child memorial service.” This ceremony is a way for Buddhists to recognize children lost from miscarriages and stillbirths and honors Jizo, the god responsible for bringing babies to “the other world,” where the baby can then be reborn into the future.  In the past, mizuko (“water child”) were buried under the parents’ home, and are believed to go from the water of the womb back to their natural form upon death, and flow into the natural springs of the earth.

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Reigen-in Temple, Kyoto

We were permitted to enter a special area of the temple where parents displayed small statues of Jizo in honor of the children they had lost.  (This is similar to what we saw.)  The tiny statues all had red bibs and other personal adornments like tiny hats and other little items that each family had left in memory of their baby.  The bib and adornments are set out to thank Jizo for saving the baby from an illness, or to ask him to protect that baby.  It was incredibly emotional for both me and my husband to see all of these little memorials to so many babies that had been lost who were just like Luca.  Luca’s room is our special place to remember him and I felt like the parents who had placed those statues there were proudly telling us about their babies, just as I do when I show someone Luca’s room or tell his story.  Everything was placed with such care and I could tell that each little decoration had such special meaning to the family that had put them there.  It was truly an honor to spend time in this temple and learn how many Japanese people honor their babies. It was sad, but comforting to know that we were not alone in both our sorrow and our wishes to remember our child.

With the holidays quickly approaching, I worry about how we will handle them without Luca.  Already, the stores are getting more crowded and crazy and I have to admit it can give me a lot of anxiety.  When I attend events with a lot of strangers or run to grab groceries when the commissary is packed with people, I tend to get pretty anxious, sometimes to the point where I feel like I need to get away immediately. For some reason it just stresses me to be around so many people who don’t know about Luca.  They are going about their day, toting their kids around, happily running their errands, or getting irritated with life’s smallest annoyances, while I am carrying this enormous sadness that they do not know about, or that can’t be talked about.

After visiting all of these temples and shrines, I read about some of the Buddhist teachings, like this story here.  As this story teaches, I must remember that even though many times I feel like I am the only one who can understand such suffering, that is not the case.  So many others have experienced terrible losses in their life.  Like all of the parents who placed Jizo in that temple for their own babies.  And probably many of the people who I walk by at the grocery store or post office every day.  I’m trying to remind myself, lately, that I can help myself through those anxious moments by reminding myself of these things… and also by telling people I encounter about Luca, which makes me the happiest.


When I was on my way to teach this week, I encountered this beautiful butterfly!  I really do see butterflies EVERYWHERE I go – this is proof!   And they always remind of my angel.  This one hung around for awhile and let me get very close to him.  I didn’t notice until after, but his right wing looked different than his left wing.  This actually had special meaning to me, because my sweet little Luca’s right arm was different than his left. Because of his diagnosis, the radial bone in his right arm never grew properly.  It is difficult for me to talk about, but at the same time this little butterfly reminded me of those tiny little arms and sweet little fingers and toes. How I wish I could kiss them again!

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I had another happy moment this week when my cousin, Kristin, surprised me with a message that she and her two sweet little boys visited Luca’s grave.  This made me so happy!  It really warms my heart to know when Luca receives visitors, especially when it’s his two little buddies, Bodi and Bryson.  I bet Luca was smiling down on them!

I am so thankful for our family and friends who can visit his gravesite while we live so far away.  This year has really highlighted how far away we are from family and some days that can be really difficult for that reason.  To our family and friends in the U.S. – we miss you so much and wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!  And to our friends who are like family here in Okinawa, we are so grateful to have you in our lives and look forward to spending the holidays with you Okinawa-style. ❤

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Okinawa “fall” weather

Walking to Remember Luca

I’m going to take a little break from Luca’s story for today to tell you about my wonderful weekend!  First off, if your weekend starts with a baby elephant, then you know it will be a good one!

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On Friday, my friend who is a zoologist took me to the Okinawa Zoo and we got to pet and feed a mommy and baby elephant!  It was so amazing!  The baby’s name was Ruby and she was absolutely the sweetest thing ever!  My friend had her son with her who is just a few months old and Ruby was so interested in him – it was adorable to watch.  Ruby was very eager to interact with us… until the zookeeper put on her Halloween costume and she became very shy and embarrassed and hid under her mommy!

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Elephants just seem like such intelligent, emotional, and gentle animals.  It was so special to interact with them.  That morning I had been in a terrible mood.  I felt really sad and anxious, and was really missing my son.  Seeing the animals and having that time with Ruby was so calming and really therapeutic.  I’m so thankful to my friends for including me in this special outing!

The next morning on October 31st, I participated in the 7th annual Walk to Remember at Torii Station here in Okinawa. The event was hosted by the U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa (USNHO), the Okinawa Nurses Association, and the Angel Babies neonatal loss support group.  The Walk to Remember is typically held in the month of October, since October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month.  Many of these walks or vigils take place across the U.S. throughout October, so I am glad that I will hopefully be able to continue this tradition wherever the military sends us.  I had been helping some of the USNHO staff plan this for weeks through the Angel Babies support group that we are a part of and looked forward to having this special event to honor Luca and all of the other beautiful babies who have been lost.  A week prior, I posted the event info to my Facebook page to see if any of my friends might want to join me.  My husband was away for work and unfortunately would not be able to come to the walk.  I was a little anxious at the thought of going by myself.  I wasn’t really sure about posting it, because my friends have already done so much for us and I didn’t want them to feel obligated or uncomfortable at the thought of going.  The response was overwhelming – I seriously have the best friends in the world!

The morning started out with a service at the chapel on Torii Station.  It was so good to have my friends beside me and also to see the familiar faces of the hospital staff who helped to deliver Luca.  I read the following poem, “Gone from My Site” by Henry Van Dyke, which has been very comforting to me:

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone.”

Gone where?

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me — not in her.

And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

And that is dying…

After reading the poem, I took a minute to thank the USNHO staff who had helped us plan for Luca’s birthday and who were there to deliver him.  The Walk to Remember was not only for the families who had lost babies, but also for these medical staff members who help families every day – whether that is trying to save a baby’s life, help someone through a miscarriage, deliver a stillborn baby, or a healthy baby.  They are there for the good and the very bad and they grieve for these babies too.  Because of their care, compassion, and professionalism, my husband and I can remember the day we had Luca as the best day of our lives.  Even though it was also incredibly sad, these doctors and nurses made sure we had everything we needed to be comfortable and enjoy that peaceful time with our son to the very fullest.  I will spend more time in future posts talking about these special people, but I can never ever thank them enough for what they did for our family.

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Towards the end of the ceremony, we lit candles in remembrance of our babies.

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Then, everyone gathered to write messages on balloons and we walked down to the beach.

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My friend Randee made me this amazing shirt for the walk, and my friend Erin made everyone beautiful stickers to wear, so everyone knew that we were walking for Luca – so thoughtful!  When we reached Torii Beach, we had a moment of prayer and then released our balloons into the sky.  It was so peaceful to watch them slowly float away into the clouds.  I pray that Luca received all of our messages – that we all love him so much!

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My midwife and nurse who delivered Luca :)

My midwife and nurse who delivered Luca 🙂

Team Luca!

Team Luca!

After the balloon release, we enjoyed a picnic lunch.  All in all it was a great day.  I was so happy to have time to chat with the few people who met our son in person – our midwife, nurse, and chaplain were all at the event.  There are very few people who actually got to see my baby and hold him.  It is incredibly comforting to see those people again who understand how beautiful and peaceful our day was with Luca.  They were there to help us care for him, dress him, sing him happy birthday… they helped us to give him a bath and prayed with us… those are all priceless gifts that will last a lifetime in our hearts.

And again, I cannot thank my friends enough for joining me on such a special day, and my friends and family who I know wanted to be there, but couldn’t – you were there in spirit!  I can only hope that I can be half as good of a friend as they have been to me.  We live thousands of miles away from our families (7602 miles to be exact!), yet it is hard to feel lonely here among our “Okinawa family.”  Everyone truly supports each other and I believe that the steps forward that I have made in this grief journey are largely thanks to these wonderful people in my life who have patiently walked beside me.

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We love you, Luca!