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My View: Unfinished grief work on a 'Walk to Remember'

By Andrea R. Sullivan

It happened more than two decades after the fact, but I wouldn’t say that it happened too late.

On Oct. 7, I participated in the “2018 Walk to Remember,” sponsored by the Western New York Perinatal Bereavement Network in honor of the daughter I lost to a stillbirth 24 years ago.

This annual event held at Cheektowaga Town Park is part of a nationwide gathering of parents, family members and friends in observance of October being Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month. Approximately 870,000 babies die each year due to miscarriage, ectopic (tubal) pregnancy, stillbirth or early infant death. And events such as these walks give us bereaved parents a chance to take the next step of our journeys in the company of those who understand that grief lasts a lifetime.

Andrea Sullivan

My own walk began on Dec. 4, 1994, when I delivered my daughter Elizabeth Ann. She implanted near a cleavage in my uterus, resulting in her placenta eventually pulling away. Had a second egg not also implanted, the result would have probably been a transverse positioning with a C-section delivery of a live baby. (I lost her twin in the first trimester.)

Things began to go wrong around Thanksgiving and by the next week I was in Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital being induced to deliver a baby whose heartbeat could no longer be detected. In what was the darkest moment of my life I was sustained by the hospital’s remarkable bereavement team, headed by Kathleen Skipper.

I held my daughter, was given a beautiful handmade gown in which to bury her, was compassionately tended to by the staff, referred to a support group, and a brick in the hospital ground’s Memorial Garden bears her name and delivery date. But seeing my mother’s own grief resurface over the young son she lost 39 years earlier made me realize that my own painful passage was just beginning.

What took me so long to make the “Walk to Remember”? There were several reasons: At the time of my loss I had neither the physical nor the mental strength; for a number of years I lived outside of Western New York; and 10 years later I found myself navigating the uncharted waters of widowhood. It was a recent conversation with my friend Michelle, who lost her daughter Amanda to cystic hygroma and hydrops fetalis, that motivated me to join the walk this year. I realized that I had some unfinished grief work to do.

At the conclusion of the opening ceremonies, balloons were released in memory of the children we had to let go of all too soon. As I watched them take flight into the misty sky I thought of Tahlequah, the orca whale whose own grief journey was documented last summer. She carried her stillborn calf on her rostrum for 17 days and a thousand miles before she released her to the ocean. Clearly this trek was something she had to do in order to literally let go of her calf.

Emotionally letting go does not mean forgetting, rather it’s making room for the love you should allow yourself to experience over the brief life that had intersected with yours.

It comes in stages and it’s best accomplished with compassionate support. I was glad I had Michelle by my side Sunday as we strolled the perimeter of Cheektowaga Town Park, passing banners along the way bearing the names of children, and sharing our stories as we continued with our own walks to remember.

Andrea R. Sullivan, of Williamsville, is an academic librarian.

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