By Sue Sprang
WOODLAND – “I cannot think of anyone stronger that a mother who has lost her child…and still breathes.” – Robyna May
On Oct. 24, 2018 an ecstatic and seven-months-pregnant Kayla Cole, a member of Zion Lutheran Church, Woodland, arrived for her monthly check-up. Things soon took a horrible, unforeseen turn when the ultrasound technician announced, “I’m sorry; I can’t find a heartbeat.”
“It was the day the rug was pulled from under our [Kayla’s and her husband, Andrew’s] feet and our hearts shattered,” Cole said. “When she first said those words, the words no expectant parent should ever have to hear, I honestly didn’t believe her.”
True to human form, Cole’s initial response was denial. When the technician left the room to get the doctor, Cole found herself coming up with any other scenario than the one she now faced.
“I laid there staring at the ceiling and running every possible scenario through my mind,” she said. “She might be new and have no idea what she’s doing. As the minutes ticked by I thought, just for good measure, I’d say one prayer. In that prayer, I didn’t ask… I told God, ‘this isn’t happening,’ that I would do anything to make it be a mistake.”
The doctor arrived and did a second ultrasound. She confirmed that there was no heartbeat.
“The world stopped,” Cole said. “I sat in shock as the doctor talked… too stunned to hear her or even cry. Finally, she told me that she would get it all figured out and would let me know when I needed to go to the hospital. She handed me a tissue, asked if I’d make it home okay, and told me to skip checkout and just walk out.”
From there, Cole headed home, shocked, numb, and beyond reeling.
“To this day, I don’t remember the drive home,” she said. “I just know I was speeding, going ninety miles an hour, and I could barely see through my tears.”
She now had to break the news to her husband, Andrew.
“When I got home, I had to walk into the house and tell him that our son, that Wesley was gone,” Cole said. “I still can’t imagine what Andrew felt waking to my sobs or how he even understood me through them.
“The rest of the day is mostly a blur. I felt like a zombie and a lot went on in those next few hours. Then we had to call our parents to tell them and had several imaginably hard decisions to make.”
There are two things prior to this day that have a significant impact on the rest of the story.
First, Cole, an active, lifelong Lutheran, was never afraid to talk about Jesus or embarrassed by her Christian faith. But how she experienced and viewed that faith took a massive turn on October 24 and 25, 2018.
“I always thought I was a faithful person. I grew up here, going to Sunday school and church every week,” Cole said. “I went to all the [synod youth] gatherings and was a big part of the youth group. My family prayed before dinner every night.
“I wasn’t afraid to tell people I was a Christian,” she continued. “Yes, I had my struggles in my youth – but it was never a struggle that tested my faith. I was that stereotypical Christian who thought that God doesn’t test people. I wasn’t Daniel in the lion’s den or Moses in the wilderness. And I’ve always been the stereotypical human who saw other people’s tragedies and, despite being sympathetic to them, I always thought it would never happen to me.
“I used to listen to the speakers at the [synod youth] gatherings and they all had a story. They had some big ‘come to Jesus’ or an ‘I saw or felt God’s presence moment.’ And I just remember thinking, ‘yeah okay, sure you did.’ I never really thought that people truly experienced God in such huge ways, until I did.”
Second, the Coles’ road to pregnancy was not an easy one.
“The actual start of our journey was in 2017, when we were struggling to get pregnant,” Cole said. “We learned I have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, which basically is a hormone imbalance that usually makes it extremely hard to get pregnant.
“After around a year of probably a hundred negative pregnancy tests, I finally tested positive in May 2018. We were shocked, thrilled, and so excited. Our prayers had been answered and our struggles felt worth it.”
On Oct. 25, the day after learning that Wesley was dead, Cole carried that weight, along with the above history, into the hospital to deliver her and Andrew’s son. Their mothers accompanied them.
“When we left our house to head to the hospital, I was still in shock,” she said. “I was numb with fear. I focused on simply getting through the day. I didn’t think about anything beyond getting through labor. Hour after hour passed and more and more medicine was pumped into my body to help speed up the process. The pain became both physically and emotionally worse and worse.
“I confess, I grew angry with God. I felt like He’d left me. I didn’t know where He was because He certainly wasn’t there in that room with me. He wasn’t there as I cried out in pain or when the medicine made me shake so badly I thought I’d shake off the bed. How could He be and let this happen?”
The following October (2019), when Cole’s pastor, Rebecca Ebb-Speese, asked if she’d like to use a sermon time during worship to share her faith story with the congregation, she accepted the invitation. Preparing her sermon for that day wove itself into the grieving process. She could recognize God’s work and his care on the day Wesley was born and in the depths of her sorrow.
“When I look back on that day, I realize that God was there,” she said. “He was there in the nurses who were nothing short of angels on earth, as they cared for me in my darkest hour. He was there, in Andrew, who stayed by my side and put me above himself. He was there in our moms who stayed by our side the entire time. He was there in our brothers and sisters-in-law who came to be with us when they could. He was there as our moms, my sister-in-law, and Andrew took turns holding my hands through the pain. He was there in Pastor Becky, who sat for hours waiting to bless Wesley.”
It was during this time that, even though she felt God had left her, Cole also felt his presence.
“When I really think about that day, despite my anger and fear and the feeling of being completely abandoned by God, I knew He was all around me,” she said. “When Wesley came into the world, this feeling washing over me. It’s really hard to explain, but the only way I can is that it was this overwhelming peace, and this voice-like thought that told me that I could do it, that everything was going to be okay.”
The grief was still raw, and after months of tests and other medical procedures it looked like Kayla and Andrew would never know why their son died. Just when they were beginning to accept the idea of not knowing, it was discovered that she has an extremely rare clotting disorder that makes her more clotting prone. Wesley was not getting the nutrients he needed, which eventually led to his death.
Even though there is still lots of grief to plow through, Cole has been learning more about herself and the way the world works.
“I learned that life isn’t fair, and that no matter how good you are or how good you try to be, bad things still happen,” she said. “I learned that no amount of planning can prepare you for losing the one thing you wanted more than anything in the world. I learned how to survive my grief even when it felt fatal. I learned that you can be happy and sad at the same time and that that’s okay. I learned to never take even the smallest things for granted.”
Cole shares her story with women who have lost their babies to make talking about pregnancy and infant loss easier and more common; to show they don’t have to feel ashamed, guilty or worthless when they experience these losses, and that they don’t have to feel they need to hide it; to let them know they aren’t alone; and to give them the love and support they need as they grieve.
Kayla and her husband also find that sharing their story is part of their personal healing process.
“I do believe that our story is important to tell,” Cole said, “because our story isn’t just about Wesley or our losses or even raising awareness about Pregnancy and Infant loss. Our story is so much more than that. Our story is about a journey that we never expected to be on. Our story is about being strong when you feel weak. Our story is about choosing to have faith when you have lost all hope. Our story is about experiencing God in the time of our deepest sorrows.”
Cole is aware that grief is an on-going process and that God is with her all the way.
“Despite all I’ve learned, there are things I’m still figuring out,” she said. “I’m still figuring out what moving forward without Wesley means. I’m still figuring out how to accept that I’m different than I was before. I’m working on truly putting my faith in God, in a way I’ve never had to before.
“But most of all, I’m figuring out how to have hope again. To hope that things will get easier. To hope that we can heal. To hope that our journey to parenthood isn’t over. To hope that even if Wesley is our only biological child, God has a child out there that needs us just as much as we need them. To hope that great things are in store for us. To hope that our story can somehow help even just one person. To just have hope. Because without hope then we don’t have faith. Without hope we can’t trust God and have faith that he has a plan.
“Faith had always been easy for me,” Cole added. “Now I realize that was because I never really had to use it. I never had to sit down and say ‘Okay God, you’ve got this, do what you gotta do.’ But I also had never experienced God like I did that day in October 2018.”
Ebb-Speese reflected on the Coles’ journey.
“The whole congregation was deeply affected by Kayla and Andrew’s loss of Wesley,” she said. “Kayla grew up at Zion and everyone is family here. We were all so excited to have a new baby in the church family so their loss brought deep grief to everyone.
“Kayla could have taken time away from church activities for a time but she did not. She sang a few weeks later for our Zion Lutheran Church Women’s thank offering service. She jumped right into planning and leading the Sunday School Christmas program. I asked her if it would be too hard for her, but she said it was healing for her to sing and to work with the children.
“Over the next year, I saw Kayla grow so much in her faith,” Ebb-Speese continued. “She was open to share her story with anyone who asked her about it. Certainly, she struggled with why they lost Wesley and had her times of questioning God, but she did not let go of her faith.
“Kayla has been an inspiration to all of us. And it’s been exciting to see her take opportunities to be a lay preacher at church. I am honored to be her pastor and to have been able to walk this journey with her.”
Things Cole suggests to help you navigate supporting someone amidst their loss of a child:
Words aren’t hard! You don’t have to come up with something fancy or try to comfort us. Simply saying “I’m sorry” is all we need to hear. We know you don’t know what to say. We understand it’s awkward and uncomfortable. We know you have the best intentions when you respond to us, but depending on how new the loss is, our emotions could be all over the place and while you meant to say something comforting, you may have offended us. So just keep it simple. Say “I’m sorry”.
Don’t let that fear of not knowing what to say, make you remain silent though. Silence is the worst — especially if it is someone you are close to. It’s easier to forgive well-intentioned phrases that offend us than it is silence. Silence tells us that you don’t care. Silence tells us that you don’t want to try to push past the awkwardness and uncomfortableness. If you can’t say you’re sorry in person, send a card or text. Anything is better than radio silence.
All we want is to be acknowledged as moms, to feel like our baby mattered and that our pain and grief are valid. No matter how early the pregnancy is lost, it is a loss. Many women, like me, struggle for a long time to conceive and even if it’s only a few weeks, that positive test means the world to us. We are moms and our babies matter. Let us talk about them, say their names, let us share our stories. Pray with us, cry with us, grieve with us. Include us in your list of mom friends.
Remember that everyone is different. We all grieve differently. There is a difference between a loss at four weeks and a loss at seven months. Nonetheless, they are both tragic losses. What offends some may comfort others, and what may comfort some may offend others. Everyone handles their loss differently. The best thing you can do is be there for them. Let them know that no matter what, they don’t have to go through it alone.
Be patient with us. Our lives were thrown upside down and the pain is crippling. We might not want to go to the party or dinner or celebrate a holiday. We might want to just sit on the couch in our pajamas and mindlessly watch TV. That’s okay. Be patient with us as we are learning to live with this constant ache in our hearts. This is not something we get over or move on from, but we do learn to move forward with the pain. We all move forward at different paces. We all have days where we break down or back track in our grief. So please, be patient with us.
Lastly, for those of us whose loss is not fresh and even for some of us when our loss was fresh, do not treat us like we’re fragile. For me, this one is the worst. Don’t be afraid to talk about pregnancy and babies with us. We are thinking of our babies 24/7, so you won’t set us off. When we say their name or talk about when we were pregnant, don’t panic. Talk to us like you would any other mother. We long for the day when we can say our sweet baby’s name and not bring tears or sadness to anyone’s eyes. Until you experience it, you can never understand how we can be happy and sad at the same time. We are learning to be happy for you at the same time we are sad for ourselves. So while it may be hard or uncomfortable for you, please do not shy away from these conversations. When you do, we feel ashamed or like you don’t care about our story, us, or our baby.
These are just a few of the things that can help you navigate through someone’s loss. The more we talk about pregnancy loss and infertility, the more comfortable we become with it. When we are more comfortable talking about it, we can better support our women and their families, when they experience it.
Things that helped Cole through her grief:
Journaling: “A coworker of mine had given me a journal. I used it to write letters to Wesley and to just write in daily so that I could see how far I had come. It allowed me to be 100% honest about how I was feeling.”
Reading and Bible Study: “The first book that helped me was Mending Tomorrow: Choosing Hope, Finding Wholeness by Alyssa Quilala. I found a lot of what she went through during her loss and the things she felt were similar to how I felt. The second book that really helped me was It’s Not Supposed to be This Way by Lysa TerKeurst. While the book is about her dealing with the blow of an unexpected divorce, I found the book to be extremely helpful. It had a bible study book and DVD that goes with it.”
Therapy: “When it was coming close to a year since losing Wesley, I finally decided I needed to talk to someone who wasn’t emotionally connected to our story. So I found a therapist to talk to. It was helpful that she was a spiritual person (Roman Catholic), so we could talk on a spiritual level as well. She helped me to see things from new perspectives.”
Music: “Music has always been a huge part of my life and it has been a huge part of my grieving process – whether it has been singing in church or just blaring it in the car and singing my heart out. A few of the songs on my playlist are. ‘I Will Sing’ by Kari Jobe, which was also the song that I was singing in the car when I first felt Wesley move; ‘I Will Carry You (Audrey’s Song)’ by Selah; ‘Gone Too Soon’ by Chris Daughtry; ‘Winter Bear’ by Coby Grant; ‘I Want You Here’ by Plumb; ‘Worn’ by Tenth Avenue North; ‘Why God’ by Austin French; ‘You Don’t Know’ by Katelyn Tarver; and ‘Even If’ by MercyMe.”
Church Community: “The huge thing that helped me was continuing to stay involved in my church. No matter how angry I was at times, I had to stay involved. It was a huge support system for me. And it helped me continue to hold onto my faith.”
Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month is in October and began in the U.S. in 1988. You can find more information, resources, and activities at https://nationaldaycalendar.com/national-pregnancy-and-infant-loss-awareness-month-october/