July is bereaved parents month. It is also the month when we met and lost our son Joey. Joey was born on July 7, 2016. We had no indications throughout my pregnancy or when he was born that he had a heart defect. But it turns out he did and just three weeks later on July 29th, something seemed to be wrong with him. My first indication was that he was fussy and wouldn’t nurse. When one feeding turned into three, I called the doctor who sent me to the ER. For the next eight hours we watched him fight for his life while we fought to remain hopeful and calm. I’ll never forget the doctor telling us that it was time for us to say goodbye to him. I said, “We know where he is going, and we can let him go.” The words were heart wrenching to utter, and yet I could already see the beauty of heaven that awaited our son and I was confident that he would be welcomed on the other end of this journey into the loving arms of God. So my husband and I spent our last moments with our son Joey. We sang to him “Jesus loves me” we took footprints and handprints and we held him and then, cradled in my arms, he took his last breath. When I gave him to the doctor he said, “You can hold him longer if you want.” But I didn’t want to hold him anymore, “He isn’t here anymore” I said to the doctor.
Then came the hard realities: telling our other children, telling friends and family, taking down the baby things, choosing grave clothes, a coffin, planning a funeral, designing a tombstone. Things you never imagine you will do as a parent. I knew that motherhood required bravery, and yet I had no idea how much would be asked of me.
It’s been two years now and I begin to feel July coming sometime in May. Joey is in heaven, but the wound on my heart is here on earth. This is what bereaved parents do – they carry that wound through life. We decided as a family that we would celebrate Joey’s birthday every year and this year was no different. He will always be a part of our family. We can’t hide him away like a secret as they used to do generations ago. We know more now. We know that part of healing requires acknowledging. So this July on the 7th, I drove to the party store and bought balloons. Joey’s cousins were visiting and we took a picture of my children and my sister’s children in Joey’s memory garden that is planted in our yard. Then we went to a local restaurant named “Joey B’s” and shared a meal. It was a simple celebration – but more importantly it was an acknowledgement to let our children know that it is okay to talk about death and dying and it is certainly okay to remember their brother Joey.
For many parents there is a missing place at the table, an empty seat in the car or someone missing from the vacation photo on the beach. It is a pain that no parent should have to face. I think we all feel that way – something seems wrong and unnatural about the reverse order of the whole thing. I think this confusion, this acknowledgement that we all have, points to the reality that this world is not the way it was meant to be. I also think that the hope that we feel, and the healing we experience on this side of heaven points to the reality that we are on a journey to a place where everything will be made right again.
That is why on July 29th we will gather in Joey’s garden again to celebrate his heaven day because Joey is worth celebrating and heaven certainly is. Perhaps the people who know this best are the parents we remember this month – those parents who are loving a child in heaven. Peace be to all of you.