by Anna McClary
My journey started on December 26, 1991, when my first grandson, Christopher Scott McClary, died at age 4 months 9 days of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Still today, those four words take my breath away. How does anyone express how a healthy, happy, and loving baby just stops breathing in their sleep?
The call came from my 20 year old son, Chris. He was at the hospital in the ER room. Christopher was not breathing. “Mom, you need to come”. No amount of time could ever prepare you to rush into an ER and find everyone in horror and shock. No one talked. No crying. Just a small room of two young parents shocked and full of fear that their baby was DEAD……. NO, this was not happening!!
Back up 24 hours earlier: It’s Christmas Day. Christopher’s first one with his parents, step brother, Matthew, proud grandparents, and two aunts and a great uncle. All opening up gifts and sharing a meal with this very special baby. He meant the world to me. For months, I had planned and waited for this baby. To spoil and love. I started sewing outfits that I tenderly picked out. I crocheted several blankets for a boy or girl. I was in the hospital the night he was born and heard his first cry. A boy. 8lbs 6oz, 21 inches long. A baby with all his fingers and toes. My heart flowed over with love and dreams of what he was going to bring to me and his family.
The next few days were spent making funeral arrangements. Too stunned to feel anything but numbness. He was to wear his dad’s christening outfit. The day came and his little coffin was laid inside our crypt. Just a few words by a minister that we didn’t know. Just words that he would rest eternally with the Lord.
Days passed into each other. My family went back to work and the girls to school. Life went on… Me? I stayed in my bed and prayed I would wake up. This had to be a bad nightmare. Eventually, I reached out to the hospital chaplain. He was the one who tried to comfort me at the hospital that day. We set up an appointment to meet a few days later. I knew that this would not take place. The day came and I received a call that the chaplain was ill and we had to cancel the appointment. Left alone with my pain and tears.
I received a call from a SIDS mother. She ran monthly meetings nearby. We talked a long time and she told me about her little baby, Keaton. He had died several years before of SIDS. Time kept passing by. Me? I was growing more and more paralyzed in my home with a sadness I had never felt before. I just laid there and looked at his crib and all the items I had made for him.
This was not real… Christopher was fine. How could this happen to ME? I asked questions and prayed to God. WHY? WHY? WHY? I never got an answer. Silence was my friend. Life went on all around me. The tears would not stop and my heart was empty. Split in two.
I was drowning and I knew I had to do something to save myself from going crazy. I picked myself up and went to my first SIDS meeting. I took along his pictures and cried out my pain to strangers who shared my grief. So many questions. How do you go on? How could he die in his sleep? When did SIDS start? No one could give me any answers.
Back home to my room. Hour after lonely hour. I was sinking fast, deeper and deeper into the darkness. I was told about a support group that met monthly at the same hospital where Christopher had died. It was run by the chaplain who had to cancel. Once more, I walked into the hospital where Christopher was taken. Step by step. I moved closer and prayed I would get some help for this pain.
Many people were standing together and talking. Some were crying. The meeting started and we took a seat. We were introduced to the chaplain and his grief adviser. They started around the room with their name and a little about who they lost. I didn’t lose Christopher. HE DIED!!! Why was I here? I had to get out of there. Flee back to the safety of my room.
Grief was explained with many different stages we would go through. Like a roller coaster going up and down with many loops in between. Some stages would last longer than others depending on where we were with our loss. The man next to me stated his name was Earl and he lost his wife to cancer on Christmas Eve. That must have been a great night for him. To deal with his loss all by himself. He had no kids, just him. His wife died in the same hospital that Christopher had died. They died and left us behind to survive this madness.
Back home and more time in my room and in bed. Life went on. Days past by and so did the long, lonely nights. Alone in a body that just went on with no joy or laughter. Empty arms. Empty crib. Heart shattered in a million pieces. Never to hold, feed, or hear the words one day. Grandma, “I LOVE YOU”.
I continued going to the support group and the monthly SIDS meetings. Poured out my heart and cried many tears with ones who were hurting and alone like me. I needed to pick myself up and try to go on with life that didn’t include Christopher. How can anyone pick themselves up? Out of a hole that is so deep and dark and go on. Did I even want too? Who would care? Who would notice me gone? I didn’t care what anyone thought or said. I just wanted my precious little Christopher back with me! Nothing else mattered and I cried out over and over. Why take HIM? Take ME! Such pain! Such emptiness! I WANTED TO DIE!!
My husband and two girls left me alone and walked on egg shells around me. Leaving me alone to deal with my broken heart. Never to be fixed. I blamed myself for Christopher dying. You see, I wanted his parents to leave him with us that Christmas night. I could have saved him. I knew for sure. All I knew for sure was that IF I Shoulda… IF I Woulda….IF I Coulda….. Those small, two little words, “IF I”, tormented me and invaded my dreams at night. DROWNING in a sea full of darkness; farther and farther and deeper and deeper down. Oh, so much pain!
I bet you are wondering why I didn’t get comfort from my family. My parents were elderly and didn’t even know Christopher had died. My mom was in the final stages of Alzheimer. My husband’s parents had both died. The doctors didn’t do much for us dealing with grief and depression. Friends felt I should move on. “He was only a baby.” “My son could have another baby.” My son didn’t want or feel that he needed help. He went back to work and life went on. His son was dead and that was it. Don’t talk about it.
I went to the library to get books to read about a loss of a baby. Walls started building up with every step I took. I went to the information desk and choked out the words. I need help finding books on SIDS. She looked at and me and said, “Books on PIGS!!!” “No, on Sudden Infant Death”. “OH. Go up those steps and turn left at the top. Down two aisles and on the far wall.” I stumbled away with tears falling down my face. I started to climb up those stairs in a complete haze. I picked out a few books and checked them out. I ran out of that cold place as fast as I could. I sat in my car for a long time and just cried.
One sunny day, I went to get groceries. I saw a friend from our church. She asked how I was doing and I told her about Christopher dying. “That’s too bad. Chris can have another baby.” She then said, “Let me show you my new grandbaby pictures.” On and on she talked, unaware of my tears. Finally, I was in my car. The tears just would not stop. How could she treat me so heartless? No words of comfort or even a hug. I was a lost soul. ALONE. ALONE. I was ALONE in this world. All ALONE. Without my precious little one.
At one of the grief group meetings, we had handouts of a poem, An Elephant in the Room. I felt his presence and his huge mass and no one noticed. This is it. No one wanted to talk or say his name. Christopher——-Christopher——Christopher. If we don’t talk or say his name, we then can ignore the sadness and feelings it can bring out. Leaving me alone in a room with an Elephant. That was me. All alone on the roller coaster ride called grief.
Elephant in the Room
by Terry Kettering
There’s an elephant in the room
It is large and squatting, so it is hard to get around it.
Yet we squeeze by with, “How are you?” and “I’m fine.”
And a thousand other forms of trivial chatter.
We talk about the weather.
We talk about work.
We talk about everything else-except the elephant in the room.
There’s an elephant in the room.
We all know it is there.
We are thinking about the elephant as we talk.
It is constantly on our minds.
For you see, it is a very big elephant.
But we do not talk about the elephant in the room.
Oh, please, say his name.
Oh, please, say “John” again.
Oh, please, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
For if we talk about his death,
Perhaps we can talk about his life.
Can I say “John” and not have you look away?
For if I cannot, you are leaving me
In a room…
With an elephant.
I started to volunteer at the hospital. Calling churches to let them know one of their members was having surgery. I also became a runner, taking patients to x-ray and helping in the gift shop. The first time I stepped in the hall to ER, I froze and could not move. Taking a deep breath, I took it step by step. Closer I came to the room where I left my little one; my grandson, Christopher. Through the tears, I finished up my task and ran outside into the cold winter air. I survived this wall smashing me in the face. Pushing forth, I went back inside and finished up my hour. Was this healing? Or one of the firsts that we deal with in grief? Was I seeing a hint of light through the darkness?
Are there SIDS conferences held in your state? My husband and I, with our youngest daughter, attended. I met many people who had suffered the same loss of a child to SIDS. We had guest speakers and doctors and emergency room nurses and paramedics that made up this group. We learned what their experiences had been. At the end of the conference, they held a memorial service to remember all the babies we lost to SIDS. We all carried lighted candles. Each baby’s name was called. Many tears were shed because of the loss of our babies.
Driven to do all I could to get the word out about what SIDS was and dispel the myths of what it wasn’t, I wrote an article and sent it to our local newspaper. I had purpose for the first time in months. The elephant still existed in my home, but I could talk and share with the grief group and SIDS group. I was accepted and no one judged me for how I felt.
Yes, I questioned my faith and turned away from God. I traveled many lonely roads to survive the many stages of grief. I was not left alone in a room with an elephant. Pushing down those walls was hard. I knew I would find a way to survive and go on and live a life the best I could.
I tried to talk to my son who had so much pent up anger built up inside. He needed to get it out. Men grieve different than women do. They hold it inside and try to be strong, thinking it will somehow go away. I purchased some plates and cups and gave them to him. I told him to take them outside and throw them against the wall. The breaking sound lets the piece by piece of all the pain and anger fall. What a relief this can be. It helps by letting go and releasing the loss of your child. Your flesh and blood and that life can and does go on. It was a start to heal for both of us. Mom and son sharing in a loss that no one should ever have to deal with. He told me he had left me down by not being able to save Christopher.
I continued to go to the meetings and the bond we shared helped us grow. Most of them had lost their spouses. Their “past.” I loss my “future.” We blended together and traveled the journey together. We went out to eat, met at the river and walked and shared our stories. We sent each other cards for birthdays, phone calls to remember anniversaries and welcome new members to our group.
I started to write in a journal about the “firsts” and how much I loved and missed Christopher. Another wall came up and this was something I struggled long and hard over. My son and his girlfriend were having another baby. I felt no joy. Only deep sadness that another child was replacing my Christopher. How could I ever let another child into my still breaking heart? What if he died from SIDS too? I could bear no more. More pain and sadness. I could not survive. I was again drowning back in the hole of darkness. This time, I had support to lift me up and gently guide me to believe that another grandchild could be a “new” beginning.
I attended a conference in Pittsburgh and attended all the meetings about men in grief. I needed to hear all I could about “subsequent babies.” I talked to many fathers who had loss their baby to SIDS. They opened up with the feelings and struggles they dealt with. They blamed themselves for their babies’ deaths. Just like I did with the WOULDA—SHOULDA—COULDA. Their marriage or relationship that took it’s toll, as each tried to grieve in their loss.
I sat on a televised panel with four fathers. We talked about all the issues we had dealt with. I talked about the journey I was on. The helpless feelings to reach my son and the new baby coming. These brave fathers opened their hearts up and told me that I could accept and love the new baby. That this child would not replace Christopher, but add to it. Life would be good again. It goes on and we grow stronger. We ended with tears and hugs and I realized another wall was tumbling down. Yes, we were taking steps. Small ones at first. Learning how to survive. Life will be better once again.
About the Author: About the Author: Anna McClary was born and raised in Moline, Illinois. She married her first love, Jim, in June 1969. She is the mother of three: Chris, Beth, and Angela. A stay at home mom, Anna was active in PTA and all the sports her kids joined. After the death of her first grandson, Christopher, she joined the Illinois SIDS group. She attended several of their conferences as well as a grief support group at a local hospital.
Anna’s second grandson, Jesse, was born in 1992 shortly before the one year “angel anniversary” of Christopher’s death. She and Jim moved to Indianapolis, Indiana in 1994 and took guardianshipof Jesse whose parents had divorced. Jesse lived with them for seventeen years as their son/grandson and enriched their lives in many ways. They share their life now with two dogs, Princess and Bozo.
Anna wrote this story so that she could give insight into the grief of a grandmother. The death of a grandchild affects a grandparent doubly; once for their child and their grief and the other, the loss of a grandson to SIDS.