Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Beautiful Goodbye

When I was young, I thought funerals were a waste of time.

My grandparents died in the 1960s, and my mother took pictures of them in their open caskets.

I thought it was morbid and depressing, and I vowed I'd never have a funeral myself.

Then, I got old enough to watch my father and mother and a close friend die.

I realized how comforting it was to be with friends and relatives and to tell stories about the loved ones we had lost. These funerals were exhausting, but they were also uplifting. Instead of grieving alone, it was good to be part of a community of people saying goodbye and promising to remember.

That is how I think of the day Skylar Tianna Brooks was born.

I was honored to be invited to be with her parents, Shannon and Kip Brooks, at the hospital as they prepared for her birth and celebrated her 99 minutes of life.

Shannon and Kip got to hold their baby and tell her how much they loved her. Their 2-year-old son Jadon got to see his baby sister and touch her perfect fingers and toes. Those of us who had waited outside during the delivery got to see the couple smiling and crying -- but most of all at peace.

After Skylar died, we each got to hold her and have our pictures made with Shannon and Kip, pictures they showed at the memorial service later and have posted on Facebook for all the world to see.

Someone could have thought, as I might have years ago, that this was all morbid and depressing.

But those of us who were there know how beautiful and meaningful it was.

I hated to leave. And the next day, I couldn't stop thinking of how warm and wonderful it had felt in that room with the late afternoon sun shining through the window, casting an other-worldly golden glow.

As one of their friends put it later: "It was magical. A miracle."

Monday, November 15, 2010

Who Are We To Judge?

As expected, the ongoing series about Shannon and Kip Brooks and their decision to give birth to a baby with a fatal birth defect has prompted debate about whether they made the right choice.
One blog reader wrote:: "...Shame on this selfish couple to bring a dead fetus to term..."

On the contrary, many have praised Shannon and Kip for their courage and love in choosing to meet their daughter Skylar if only for 99 minutes.

Most of us will agree with one reader’s comment: "I’m glad I never had to face that decision."
To me, one of the main points of the series is that Shannon and Kip, faced with two terrible choices, made the decision that was right for them even though it might not have been the easiest or most common.

Many parents who have faced similar prenatal diagnoses say they didn't feel they had a choice.
In response to the series, someone I have known for years confided that she "terminated" a pregnancy several years ago when she got the news that her unborn baby had anencephaly.

She had a full-time job and a 3-year-old at home, and although she knew intellectually that she had a choice, she felt pushed toward “termination,” which didn't even seem to equate with abortion.

"What I heard (the obstetrician) say was 'This is what you should do. This is what everyone does in this situation.'...I personally didn't really feel like there was a choice."

Maybe the story of Shannon and Kip will teach health-care professionals to explain the choices more clearly, with the understanding that not all people may choose what is medically most expedient.

And maybe it will teach the rest of us to withhold judgment and respect the difficult choices others are forced to make.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Parents Can Find Meaning in Loss

Until they learned about their own child’s fatal prenatal diagnosis, Shannon and Kip Brooks didn't even know there was such a thing as a "baby loss" community.

Through the Internet, they quickly connected with other parents who had faced similar choices and decided to continue their pregnancies.

Many people ask, Why would anyone do that?

Parents who have been through it can explain it better than anyone.

Here’s Tracy Winsor, a Charlotte mother who had two miscarriages. (She's second from left, back row, in the above photo). Tracy co-founded Be Not Afraid, a group to support parents who give birth despite terminal prenatal diagnoses:

"When you have a (terminal) diagnosis, you have a loss that can’t be fixed. Nothing makes it better," Tracy said. "If you end the pregnancy, you’re still a bereaved person. Everybody wants everybody to be OK. But there are some things you can’t wish away. They just have to be met."

Since 2008, Tracy and other volunteers in her support group have accompanied many mothers during pregnancy, labor and delivery of babies they knew would die.

On Aug. 7, they were at Lake Norman Regional Medical Center in Mooresville when Shannon and Kip (seated in the above photo) welcomed their baby Skylar Tianna, who died 99 minutes later.

From these experiences, Tracy said, "We know we can squeeze some meaning and joy out of this experience…You can carry to term and not be emotionally damaged."

Sandy Buck of Huntersville, the co-founder of Be Not Afraid, lost three babies -- two miscarriages and one stillbirth at 32 weeks. (She's second from right, back row, in above photo.) Like Tracy, she wants to help other parents feel the support she didn't have.

"We're (here) when nobody wants to hear your story about your baby that's going to die," Sandy said. "It's important to see that other people have done this and survived."

Friday, November 12, 2010

Shannon and Kip Brooks: A Remarkable Journey

Last summer, when I first met Shannon and Kip Brooks, I was touched by their willingness to allow me to follow along as they continued a pregnancy anyone would view as tragic. Their baby had been diagnosed with anencephaly – a birth defect that meant her brain didn’t develop early in pregnancy.

When we first talked, they had known this for about three months, and they were focused on trying to help another family by donating their baby’s organs or tissues. I found their story fascinating.

But when I spoke of it with friends and colleagues, reactions I got ranged from puzzlement to horror. I was often asked why parents would choose to carry a baby to term if it was going to die. People seemed to think this would just be a sad story that no one would want to read.

I could never say exactly why I saw it differently. Yes, their story is about grief and loss and a terrible physical deformity. But it’s also about trying to find something good in a bad situation, about finding beauty in pain.

This week, one of my yoga teachers read a passage at the end of class that seemed to express everything I’ve been feeling about Shannon and Kip’s desire to meet their baby Skylar.

The passage is from Marilynne Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist:

"The ancients are right: The dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of it, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege."

Shannon and Kip surely experienced pain and sorrow. They grieved more deeply than they ever have.

Kip expressed his emotions in poetry, a craft he loves but had put aside when life got busy.

Shannon found comfort in a beautiful song, "I Will Carry You," about another couple who chose to continue a pregnancy and meet their baby who lived for only a short time.

Shannon and Kip made the decision to pass through their "valley of the shadow."

Instead of viewing pain and grief as something they could avoid, they let their hearts break.

And they found strength and beauty on the other side.