THE TRUTH ABOUT CHILD LOSS
The birth and death of our first-born, Olivia Hope on October 5th 2013, is and will always be a huge part of our life’s story. Her time, however short here on earth matters just as much as the life of our now 4-year-old “Rainbow Baby” James. He knows that he has an older sister and that she is dead and gone to be with the Lord in Heaven. We have learned to lean into telling the honest truth of Pregnancy and Infant Loss with friends, family and especially our son.
It is easy to say that Olivia “Passed Away” or that she “Went to be with Jesus in Heaven.” James made us realize this vividly when at age 3 he asked if he could go see sister in heaven after telling him that Olivia went to be with Jesus in Heaven. It was obvious that he was ready to be told of her death and that she did not decide to get up one day and go to heaven, but that we believe you go to heaven when you die and are no longer able to live on earth.
The narrative of our lives as a married couple and parents of child loss has forever been altered by Olivia’s death and that is okay, it is a part of living in this beautiful world. We share our story as a light unto the darkness that befalls our Child Loss Community.
Our society is still slow to act in bringing our children’s stories out into the mainstream of daily life. It is for this exact reason that one can feel awfully alone in their “New Normal” after being diagnosed and even more isolated after the loss of their child. Know that you are not alone, we see you and you are loved.
A GUT-WRENCHING DIAGNOSIS
Let us begin our story from when we received our pregnancy diagnosis. Everything was going fine for the first few weeks of the pregnancy. When we went in for our “Big” ultrasound at 19 weeks, we could tell that the technician was having some trouble during the scan and she wouldn’t really tell us why. All she told us was that she couldn’t see everything so she could not tell us the sex of our baby.
Shortly after this visit we received a call from our OB saying that our genetic testing came back with possible Down Syndrome. We were referred to a perinatologist by our OB to do a thorough ultrasound. The doctor came in after the scan and she looked at us and said that they couldn’t find any of the kidneys.
We were told that with no kidneys, the baby wasn’t producing enough amniotic fluid and that without amniotic fluid, Olivia would not be able to develop her lungs. Then came the gut-wrenching blow that we did not anticipate, the specialist said that her condition was fatal.
SHOCK AND SORROW
Toni: I remember sitting there in that chair thinking to myself, “fatal, fatal”, so our baby isn’t going to live? Olivia was kicking me so hard, moving around, she was definitely alive.
I just remember the doctor was talking and it just sunk in that our baby was not going to live. I didn’t know what that looked like and it just feeling like it was a huge punch to my gut. I don’t really remember the drive home. I know I was crying a lot.
Geoff: I was numb… It’s pretty instant. The line has been drawn in the sand and all at once life is dictating terms. At that moment your partner, my wife is just crushed and there is nothing I can do to save Olivia and take away the pain.
Toni was instantly taken to zero and I was completely numb, I didn’t say anything. I held her hand as she sat on the observation table listening to the doctor. I was just in shock.
Geoff: I don’t remember the drive home but what I do remember, is the following 3 days or so after being diagnosed and going home. I remember it being a very neat, unexpected experience. From that point forward God was in the driver seat and He wanted us in the passenger seat, we didn’t have a choice. We were being told to be calm and to let Him hold us, let Him wrap His arms around us and care for us.
In almost an orchestrated fashion without even trying, either one of us would be uncontrollably sobbing and just, I like to say this phrase, “Vomiting out all that raw emotion,” that you do not know what to do with. It is during this time that I’ve got an amazing partner sitting right by my side that is at that moment able to be stable, calm, collected as I’m falling apart in her arms… And then all of a sudden, my well would run dry and then her well would be overflowing and I could be that strength, I could be that comfort, that pillow.
Toni: After our diagnosis, the song, “His Eye Is on The Sparrow.” It kept coming to mind and that that’s how much more important to God Olivia is than the sparrows. So, if God can take care of the sparrows, God will take care of Olivia whatever may come. And that may mean having to let her go.
That was just continually on my mind about the sparrow. Her being the sparrow kind of became this theme during the pregnancy and afterwards. We found different appearances of the sparrow coming into our lives throughout the pregnancy. We would find sparrow trinkets in stores with a crown on one side and the word “Hope” on the other which is what we had already given as Olivia’s middles name. Of course, we had to buy these items and now they are throughout our home even to this day.
A SENSE OF PEACE
Toni: Fast forward to the day Olivia was born. I woke up probably about 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning on October 5th, 2013. It was just us the sun was starting to come up. I was just lying there by myself and I was just kind of thinking and praying. Slowly but surely there’s a shadow of a sparrow, a bird a bird like shadow on the ceiling.
Really what it was is the light shining on my Ivy pole and the bags, but it created the shape of a bird on the ceiling. I remember looking up at that and saying, “Huh, that looks a lot like a bird.” I kind of got this message and I can only say it’s from God. A peace in knowing that we had to let her go home, we didn’t know if she was going to be born alive or what was going to happen but there’s a sense of peace that I knew that she was going to go home that day.
Then eventually Geoff woke up. When he gets up, he looks up and he says, “That looks like a bird.” I’m like OK, you see it too. I think that was kind of the moment where we felt and we knew that regardless of what happened that we had to completely surrender her.
RAPID DELIVERY AND DECISIONS
Toni: At around 7:00 o’clock the nurses came in and examined me again and said I was ready for delivery. It was about probably a little bit after 8:00 o’clock, we were in the delivery room. They did another quick ultrasound and they told us that she was still alive and so I started pushing.
It was very quick; I only remember really pushing three times, but it may have been more. By 8:15 I was starting to push by 8:27 she was out. She came out and I remember feeling her on my stomach. I heard a little squeak and that was about all that we could hear from her. She couldn’t cry. They had to intervene right away, and then they took her to NICU.
Geoff: It was instantaneous, Olivia comes out and there was a little squeak, they touched on Toni’s stomach, they snipped the cord and then they got her out of the room where there was a NICU Emergency Cart. I get outside and right away they are like, “Dad do you want to intubate and keep her breathing?” I said, “Yes!” right away.
Toni was still in the operating room and she doesn’t have a clue what’s going on with Olivia at this moment. Everything’s rapid and moving quickly. It’s all about keeping the baby alive if that’s what the parents want. For me the entire time at the hospital was a numbing experience because it’s was all new. You don’t have a clue what’s coming next. It was crazy and unreal at the same time.
Toni: We weren’t prepared. I had no idea what to expect. I had done a little bit of research but found little information as to what to expect, what to do, what do parents do in a situation like this. I had very few ideas. We couldn’t find any local support. In terms of the whole hospital and delivering experience, I had no clue what to expect. I was kind of winging it. It was kind of whatever came and whatever choices were presented to us, we did our best to make the choices as best as we could.
A PEACEFUL PASSING
Geoff: As the team of NICU doctors and nurses kept Olivia’s lungs inflated with machines, we told that we had the time to say goodbye to her while she was still alive. The pastor that married us 5 years to that day was able to come and preside over saying goodbye to Olivia. It was just what we needed without knowing “What” we needed.
All we had to do was just be there; for our hearts to be open and for our ears and eyes open to visualize what God was presenting before us. When Pastor David George read the 23rd Psalm, it was so emotional for us. The hospital staff wept along with us while recording this special time in video and pictures.
The NICU doctors did everything they could but we eventually had to decide when it was time to turn off Olivia’s breathing machines. It sucked to have to make this choice, but it also gave us a sense of peace and comfort that we were with her when she passed from this earth and went to be with Jesus.
MORE THAN MEDICAL CARE
Toni: We could not have asked for a better medical team. It was just amazing how cohesive they were and supportive and they were just really respectful of our wishes. They supported us and that was just amazing. We’ve been in touch with them ever since.
NICU Childlife worked closely with us at the end. After Olivia passed, a Childlife Specialist arranged for a memory box to be put together. They had material to make ink prints as well as plaster casts of her feet as well as other items that again you just would never think about ahead of time.
All of the staff have been very important in our story. When we think of Olivia’s birth, we think of the nurses, doctors and the NICU Childlife Specialists. Dr. Veille, Dr. Sosa, Janessa, Suzanne, Jodine and Lisa, we love you as you loved us and our sweet Olivia.
WALKING ALONGSIDE MOTHERS
Toni: Since Olivia’s death, we joined Sharing Parents of Sacramento Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support Group as Parent Volunteers. Geoff facilitates monthly Grief Support Groups and a Navigating Grief 4-week series a few times each year and is currently on the board as Volunteer Coordinator.
Geoff: Both of us are Certified Grief Recovery Method Specialists and Toni is a Certified Birth and Bereavement Doula. In November 2019, we started Our Little Sparrows Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support Group. Our mission is to serve mothers currently faced with or have been faced with a challenging pregnancy that may or may not result in the loss of their baby. We walk alongside moms during and after their pregnancy no matter the outcome. We seek to provide comfort, emotional support and resources through personalized Doula Services and Grief Recovery Method Programs.
You are loved,
Geoff and Toni Brabec
Founders of Our Little Sparrows, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support