MADISON (WKOW) -- 27 News anchor Dani Maxwell and her husband's triplet boys were born premature in April and died a few hours after birth. During the month of October, which is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, she decided to participate in the "Capture Your Grief" project, an online healing blog started by CarlyMarie, another loss parent. Dani felt it went well with the story she was telling about the Janesville family and the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep organization, which captures the lives of little ones who pass away from miscarriage, stillbirth or SIDS. "Capture Your Grief" uses pictures and words to help parents get through the grieving process, using a new subject each day. Dani decided to share her "Capture" project with you.
Day 1 - Sunrise. Madison, Wisconsin, USA 6:58 a.m. As I watch the sunrise right after today's broadcast, I breath deeply and think of my boys... McKay Maxwell, Asher Thomas and Kenji Stephen, born April 8, 2015. I think of the six (maybe more) I lost before I had Rylan, and the two between Rylan and the boys to either miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy.
A wonderful woman named CarlyMarie had helped a lot of parents worldwide begin to heal from the painful lost of a child. She started a project four years ago called #CaptureYourGrief, where you take a picture every day that corresponds with each day's subject. Despite putting on my "best face" every morning, I certainly have not been feeling my best, so I've decided to give this a try. Day one's subject is "Sunrise."
Day 2 - Intention. I've thought a lot about what I intend to do to honor my children. It happened quite naturally, but it's grown over the last 6 months since I lost them. I intend to be a strong voice for parents who have lost children through miscarriage, premature birth, stillbirth or SIDS. I want to help people start conversations because so many parents feel they need to be silent. They don't. Some parents want to grieve alone and that's okay too. But what I found when I shared my story publicly was that other parents wanted to talk too, some for the very first time. A few messaged me privately as I was the first person they were telling, besides their partner. But at least it was a start. Most shared their story with the world. Many shared pictures of their child. I intend to get rid of the stigma of talking about child loss. I don't want it to be taboo to ask about it. Of course, people need to be sensitive, but I think a little education will go a along way in how to approach and help grieving parents. I intend to have those conversations too, with your help. Long term, I intend to do a lot more for parents who have lost infants, but those plans are just ideas, so I'll keep them to myself for now.
Day 3 - In Honor. This project is in honor of my three infant sons, McKay Maxwell, Asher Thomas and Kenji Stephen. We were completely shocked we were having three fraternal boys! Coming from a family of five girls and having mostly girl cousins, plus a daughter, we thought for sure I was carrying either all girls or at least two girls. We thought we would be lucky to have a boy in there. Boy, were we surprised (pun intended) when the nurse revealed at our 20 week ultrasound we were having all boys! They were born a short two weeks later, but in those two weeks I imagined so many things about having three boys at once. What kind of men they would grow up to be. How they would treat their older sister. What kind of mischief they would get into together. How sweet they would be. What they would do when they were adults. Who they would love. How we would love them no matter what they wanted to do or who they loved.
As it were, the boys only lived a few hours. They didn't have enough time to do any of the things I imagined. We were prepared for an early delivery. We were prepared for children who would have health problems; probably cerebral palsy, maybe heart or lung problems, developmental delays. Many other things had crossed my mind. But it never crossed my mind that they would come so early, we would lose them all. It never crossed my mind.
So we had a few hours with them while they were alive and I have comfort knowing all they knew was the loving touch of a mother and father's arms. We spent a couple days with them at the hospital after they passed while I recovered. We held them. We kissed them. Rylan met her brothers. She sang to them and kissed them and held them. We had close family visit. We took pictures. This was the only "family time" we would ever get.
Day 4 - Dark + Light. There are dark and light sides of grief. I have thankfully seen light already since my sons passed away. The dark is the worst darkness I have experienced. I had been through depression before. I think many people have. But this was different. Losing a child is.... unimaginable grief. Parents who have gone through it know what I mean. I thought I might die, too, if I didn't have another child to look after; to love and love me back. Rylan helped save me. "Milestone" days were pretty bad, but I would hurt for a week or so. Meaning when I should have been giving birth (around 32-33 weeks) or when they were going to schedule my C-section (36 weeks) if the triplets hadn't come yet. I really lost it when my actual due date came and went. After that, everything stopped. The boys should be here. They weren't. Everything was painful. Everything went dark.
My light was, is and always has been my sister Jill. And somehow, she is again. She carried me out of my depression once before and now it seems she is connected to my "light" again. Jill is pregnant with her first child, a boy, and she's due at the end of this month, October 29. No it's not bittersweet. I wish people would stop asking me that. It's just pure joy. Jill was the first person I truly loved. I cannot wait to meet my nephew!!!
Day 5 - Empathy. So many people don't know what to say to bereaved parents and they end up saying things that make us feel worse. Some of the things were heard were just plain awful like, "It was God's plan", "Everything happens for a reason" or "They're in a better place now." I know people mean well, but think about how that makes the parent feel when you say that. It makes us feel that we were not fit to take care of the child and so we're being punished somehow. That our loving, willing arms were not good enough, and so "wherever" is a better place than with us. Instead, it's OK to just say, "I'm so sorry this happened." Or maybe ask about our sons or daughters. I love talking about my boys. Try it. You may think it's awkward, but I assure you, it's really empathy.
Above photo courtesy: Shelley Maxwell
Day 6 - Books. I haven't read any books that have helped in my grieving process, but I have an idea for writing my own book to help in my grieving process. In fact, I've started to write it already. I think it'll help me not only to process my sons' deaths, but also the deaths of my mother, sister and father. My mother and sister died when I was 12. My sister was just six years old at the time and my mom was quite young too; just 32 years old. They were killed in a car accident so, of course, they were out of our lives very suddenly. My father died last year of brain cancer. He was pretty young himself, just 59. I won't give away the idea for the book; it's just something I'd like to do for myself someday. I love to write and I think it's good therapy.
Day 7 - Memory. I'd like to share a positive memory here. These are the last pictures I took of the boys before I went into labor. It was probably the day before, maybe two. They were alive and well! My belly at its biggest! (Sorry it's bare!) Funny thing is I was trying to show that at about 22 weeks with triplets I was about as big as I was at full term with Rylan!
Day 8 - Wish List. My wish for this grief journey is to feel better at the end of it... so I can begin to help others. I have not been feeling well (understandable) and I want to begin to feel like myself again. I want to start helping others through their grief because I've found there are a lot of other parents in my community who are dealing with this. I feel I can be a voice for them. I can start conversations and listen and be there for them when they need someone.
Day 9 - Family. My family today is full. It doesn't look like it is, but it includes my husband Steve, myself, my daughter Rylan, my sons McKay, Asher and Kenji AND eight other children we didn't get to meet at all. Many of you know I have significant fertility problems as well. I had six documented miscarriages before we had Rylan. We had another, then an ectopic pregnancy between her and the boys. Fourteen members of my family and all you see are.... 3. Each one means something, though. We may have only met 4 of our children, but I carried the others and had hopes for them. I prayed they would make it. I cried when they didn't. My husband held me and comforted me when they died. Rylan may end up being the only child we raise. But she has many, many brothers and sisters.
Day 10 - Words. I copied these words from a poem my sister, Shelley, wrote for us after the boys passed away. Shelley is a gifted writer and created a poem that we used during their funeral. We put this portion of the poem on their headstone and today's "assignment" was to write something by hand. It could be anything. One word, a phrase. I could write until my heart's desire. I picked this. Thank you, Shelley. "Though our time was short, it was never short on love." - Shelley Maxwell
Day 11 - Glow In The Woods. Glow In The Woods in an organization that helped CarlyMarie through her grief. I have gotten help from a psychologist (Thank you, Dr. Zweifel) and numerous loving friends and family members. You may have come across this article from the story I did on the organization Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. It helped our family tremendously in that we now have amazing family photographs with our sons and we can look back on that time with love. Mikayla's Grace provided boxes filled with blankets and clothing our boys could wear and use, plus Teddy Bears to cuddle with. It was such a comfort, especially since we had nothing to dress them in. In fact, they are buried in the clothes provided in the Mikayla's Grace boxes.
But when I think about my "Glow In the Woods" - the thing that has been the light in my dark tunnel of grief - it's been my Rylan. If there's anything that can help you overcome grief, it's children. Especially when you love them and they love you. She knows when I am sad and she comforts me. She's not even four years old yet, and she will actually come up to me when I'm sad or crying, ask if I'm OK or why I'm sad and give me a hug and tell me it's going to be all right. And I know it will. She knows just what to do. And when you know you have to take care of someone other than yourself, that certainly gets your butt in gear a little too, doesn't it?
Day 12 - Normalizing Grief. Today is about normalizing grief and sharing something that I might think is strange that I do to grieve. Okay - here goes. I recently started sleeping with a shawl my mother-in-law made for me that was supposed to be three baby blankets for the triplets. She started making three blankets for them, and turned it into a shawl for me to remember them. She just gave it to me recently and it came at exactly the right time, because I was probably at my bottom or close to it. I had also recently met another "loss mom" who shared for awhile she slept with her son's baby blanket, the one he was wrapped in after his birth/death. Even though the boys were never wrapped in this, it was meant for them, so I started sleeping with it. I felt silly, but it helped a lot. I was able to sleep a lot better and felt comforted like my boys were there with me.
Day 13 - Regrets + Triggers. I don't really have many regrets in life and I can't think of any now as I'm asked to think about regrets during my grieving process. But triggers - there are a few. Mostly they have to do with Rylan, my daughter. It has been very hard to watch her process this and try to understand what has happened. She has recently started talking about death a lot. She asked where we will bury Aunt Jill's baby when it comes out. She asked for the first time why people die. Then she said, "But WE won't die." I couldn't lie to her. The experts say you can't lie to a child about death. You have to tell them the truth but let them know it won't happen for a very, very long time. You should have seen the look on her sweet, little face when she realized what I was telling her. That yes, she and I, would in fact, die one day. I told her she was very brave for asking grown-up questions.
When Rylan plays with her "buddies" (AKA stuffed animals) and pretends they are her brothers or she feeds her dolls and pretends they are babies, that is a definite trigger. At first, seeing people with their babies were triggers, but that has been OK lately. Time heals. Thinking about Rylan not growing up with her brothers, though, I think will always trigger my grief.
Day 14 - Express Your Heart. A lot of loss parents find it hard to answer the question "How many children do you have?" I myself struggled a bit and decided I would always answer honestly. I would rather do that and give a short explanation than deny McKay, Asher and Kenji existed. Although I found myself recently telling a child who asked if Rylan had any brothers or sisters, "No" because I didn't want to explain to a child that her brothers had died if she had any follow-up questions. Steve was there too and said "Yes" at the same time. Tricky and sticky. I corrected myself and the child said, "Oh, how many?" We said three and thankfully she just said, "Oh wow!" and left it at that. I know this can get complicated, but I hope parents who have experienced such a loss consider being honest when asked the question, "How many children do you have?"
Day 15 - Wave of Light. On October 15, we participated in the Wave of Light, and lit candles for McKay Maxwell, Asher Thomas and Kenji Stephen. I was so touched when someone in Arizona, a stranger, sent me a photo as she had also lit candles for our boys. (I posted that picture to my Facebook page.) Many friends did, but this was someone we did not know. She took the time out of her evening to honor and remember our sons and I was just so touched by her kindness.
Day 16 - Creative Grief. This is something I'm still working on. I have a few ideas of either events, organizations or charities to honor McKay, Asher and Kenji while raising funds/helping others who have been through similar losses. I just haven't honed in on exactly what I want to do yet and what we have a need for. In the last few weeks though, I think I may have figured out the idea. More to come soon. Oh, and I also plan to get my children's names tattooed on my belly. How's that for creative? :)
Day 17 - Secondary Losses. Today we're asked to think of secondary losses after our children, like relationships, jobs, etc. Thankfully, I can't think of any, so instead of dwelling and trying to come up with something, I think I'll count my blessings and move on for today!
Day 18 - Seasons + Symbols. I associate my sons with spring because they were born in April. I usually really look forward to spring because I'm not much of a winter girl, but this year I'm not for obvious reasons. It'll be the first since their birth/death. I wonder if the melting of the snow will bring good feelings or bad. I wonder if I'll feel close to my boys or just miss them immensely. We planted three trees and a butterfly garden for the boys, but we don't necessarily use either as "symbols" for them. I tend to live my life by numbers and so when things happen in "threes" or there's three of something, I take it as a sign.
Day 19 - Music. Since the boys' deaths, I found myself listening to Sia's "Elastic Heart" a lot again. I always liked the song, but it took on new meaning after they died. If you listen to the words you'll know what I mean. Rylan sang "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" for her brothers at their funeral. It was an impromptu "concert." At the end of the funeral, she said she wanted to sing for them, and she sang as loud as she could. It was the sweetest thing. Whenever she sings it now, or whenever I hear it, I think of them. We used music at their funeral that makes me think of them too: Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
Day 20 - Forgiveness + Humanity. Today we are asked about our thoughts on forgiveness. I would say I forgive easily if someone wants and asks for forgiveness. It's much harder for me to forgive someone who resists and continues a fight, but if I've learned anything in life it's that.... it's just not worth the fight. I think I'm pretty good about understanding humanity and letting people be who they are. I won't try to change people and won't tell people what to do or how to live. If I've ever wronged someone, I usually want to be forgiven right away and will ask. I hope people would ask me too, because most likely, they would be forgiven. Life is too short to be mad all the time. Why would anyone want to live like that?
Day 21 - Sacred Space. Steve, my husband is working on a "sacred space" for our sons. He's building a cabinet/shelf to store all their mementos and show their photos. For now, we head to their gravesite to feel near them. Or look at their pictures we have in frames. We haven't put away any of their things yet. They are still stored in the third bedroom that was supposed to be theirs when they arrived.
Day 22 - Dreams + Rituals. I don't dream about my boys. I wish I did. I wonder why I don't. I don't dream about my father, who passed away last year, either. Something my psychologist and I should work out, I guess. I'm not sure what we'll do on their first birthday when it comes around, but I know we'll do something and every year after. We won't ever forget them.
Day 23 - Love Letter.
I know you have been watching and waiting. Watching over your girls and waiting for your grandsons. It has been 25 years since we lost you and Kimmy and at the time, I thought it was the most devastating thing I would ever go through. At the time, for a 12 year old, it probably was.
It may be cliche, but it did make me a strong woman. I always thought of you as the strongest woman I knew. I still do.
I know you are loving and watching over my boys until I can see them again. Thank you. I love you so much and miss you more than words.
Day 24 - Choose Your Breath. As I write today, I do feel hopeful for the future. When I started this, I really wasn't. I'll be honest. I was very grief-stricken and lost. But I gave myself some time to feel bad, and then one day said out loud, "Well if I'm going to get through this I'm going to need your help." And I realized I was talking to McKay, Asher and Kenji. In that moment, I felt a connection to them for the very first time. Those moments are fleeting. They don't happen every day. They are brief. But just the fact that they happen, give me hope.
Day 25 - Earth Remembrance. We spent a lot of time picking out which type of trees we would plant in remembrance of our boys. So many family, friends, co-workers, even strangers contributed to our "fund" to plant trees for them. This summer, Steve did all the work and planted two Redbuds and one Service Berry tree. He also created a beautiful butterfly garden. We actually had 2-3 Monarch butterflies this year too!
Day 26 - Gratitude. I'm grateful for my husband today and every day. Steve does so much for our family and is always there for us. When I have been really down, he has taken care of Rylan and the house and not complained once. I love him, I love him, I love him.
Day 27 - Self Portrait. I took this, first of all, because I can't draw worth a damn. So I had to take a photo. Sorry. I wanted to show that part of me is missing, but I also feel that the light of my sons (sun) is shining on me too.
Day 28 - Reach Out. To reach out this year and do something compassionate, I really just returned a favor that was long overdue. Mikayla's Grace is a Madison-based organization that helped my family when we were in great need. They provided the boxes filled with clothing, blankets and keepsakes for McKay, Asher and Kenji. I didn't know it until much later, but they also had donated the CuddleCot at Meriter Hospital we were fortunate enough to use for a time. I made a donation to Mikayla's Grace which covered the costs of three boxes (one for each boy). I hope to do much more in the future, but that will have to do for now, as we are a one-income family at the moment. :)
Day 29 - What Heals You? My family heals me. Without them I wouldn't be able to do anything right now. Starting with Rylan. She gives me purpose. She makes me laugh. That's important to do when you're grieving. I will say it again: Steve helps and heals me so much, you have no idea. He knows he will always be my rock. So cliche, but so true. My sisters, Jill, Shelley and Carly, have always been there for me and always know how to make me feel better. Usually with a laugh. When I went into labor with the boys, all three of them (and their partners) dropped everything and rushed up to Madison to be by our sides. They all stayed for an entire week. Took off work and helped out. For an entire week. They have been there for me in the best and worst of times, and believe me, there have been many bad times. I don't know what I would do without them. Whenever we get together, it's a constant flow of giggles and inside jokes. We know each other inside and out. We are sisters.
Day 30 - Reflection. I think I have changed a bit over this past month, and that's a good thing. I feel better, and I will get better yet. I have realized all the people who are there to help me, even strangers. My grief is a process and I need to live through it.
Day 31 - Sunset. Steve and Rylan were with me when I took this picture from our backyard. Steve was picking vegetables from our garden and Rylan was hugging on my leg (smile!). This is one of the trees we planted for our boys. It doesn't matter who. We didn't pick and choose which was for who. But it's one of the Redbuds and the sunset was beautiful.