This story originally appeared in The Item newspaper Oct. 18, 2011. Read it at theitem.com.
As he lay lifeless in her arms, Beckie Grubbs made baby Benjamin a promise.
“I made a promise to that baby,” she said. “I promised to give his life meaning.”
Benjamin, not even a day away from being delivered at a hospital in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., was stillborn June 20. Grubbs rocked her grandson for the first and only time that day in the somber maternity ward room while doctors and social workers tended to his mother, Ashley Grubbs.
They’d both been through this before – Beckie had two miscarriages when she was young; Ashley, only 26, had already had four – but this was much more painful. Benjamin was so close to making it.
That’s why, Beckie said, she made her promise. And Saturday at Bethesda Church of God on Broad Street, she started fulfilling her vow by arranging a memorial service for all lost infants and pregnancies.
“No mother should walk away from a birth with only a death certificate,” Beckie said.
“THE WORST THING”
Ashley and her fiance, Chris Davis, had been planning for this pregnancy. She had been trying to have a baby for some time, but because of a genetic disorder that sent microscopic clots through her blood stream and into developing placentas, she had already had four miscarriages. The clots would keep developing fetuses from getting necessary nutrients, she said, so the pregnancies would be lost.
“I would find out I was pregnant one day and miscarry the next,” she said.
But with Benjamin, the Florida couple had a plan. They met with their OB/GYN and got treatments that would take the pregnancy past the first trimester, and were confident that Benjamin would make it – he kicked so much each morning that he would wake Ashley up. An appointment was made at the hospital to have the baby delivered June 21.
But on June 20, Benjamin didn’t wake his mother up. Ashley, a little concerned, called the doctor. She said she figured she was getting ready for labor, so she went to the hospital. When they got there, doctors told Ashley and Chris the news. Benjamin’s heart had stopped beating.
“It was awful,” she said. “It was literally the worst thing that you could ever have happen to you.”
6 POUNDS, 2 OUNCES
Beckie was in Sumter when she heard her grandson had died. Her husband, an airman at Shaw Air Force Base, was deployed, and she was looking after two of her grandchildren, so she couldn’t leave immediately. She got her mother-in-law to look after the children and made the nine-hour drive to Fort Walton.
“I left as soon as I could the next morning,” Beckie said.
After he was delivered via Caesarean section, doctors let the family spend about 10 hours with Benjamin’s body. For a baby of 37 weeks and 5 days, he was just about average weight at 6 pounds, 2 ounces. His hair was wispy and brown, with just a little bit of curl. His full cheeks and nose were Ashley’s, and the dimple on his chin came from Chris. Looking at photos of Beckie and Ashley holding him, you’d think Benjamin was asleep. But his eyelids never opened.
“We never even got to see his eyes,” Ashley said.
Beckie washed him, just as if he were breathing, and they passed him around, each taking turns holding him while hospital staffers prepared a death certificate. Beckie made her promise, and Ashley, Chris and Benjamin got to be a family, if only for a little while.
“It was the best and worst moment of my life,” Ashley said. “It was the best because we got be got to be a family, but it was worst because it was the only time.”
Doctors and social workers were quick to comfort Ashley. Hospital staff handled Benjamin’s stillbirth delicately, she said. A chaplain offered words, they gave her information on coping with the loss of her son and helped her think about funeral plans. They put all of the things from the day – every diaper and piece of clothing, even the soap Beckie washed him with – into a memory box and gave it to her. In the weeks after, friends reached out to her and she built a support network.
“I’ve had friends that had similar experiences that I didn’t even know about talk to me,” she said.
But for Beckie, it was different. She was expecting this baby, too, she said, and when it didn’t come it hurt just as much. But, as hospital staff and workers tended to Ashley and her fiance, she was left alone.
“I had just one person come up to me,” she said. “She said ‘I’m a grandma, too, and I know you’re feeling pain.'”
It didn’t change much after she left the hospital, she said. She looked for support groups and information, but there wasn’t a lot out there for grandparents. So, she said, she leaned on her church family at Bethesda Church of God.
“There needs to be more support for the grandparents and other family members,” she said.
A SMALL CEREMONY
The memorial service at Bethesda on Saturday was a quiet, short affair. Ashley couldn’t make the trip up for the event, but Beckie made sure there were plenty of people there to remember Benjamin. When she asked the church pastor for permission to hold the ceremony in the parking lot, she didn’t expect him to announce it during a televised service. But, she said, it helped grow the scope of the event. A few mothers from the church congregation who had miscarried showed up, and people from all over sent the names of children. Beckie read the names of the children, and they released about two hundred balloons into the clear morning sky. Each, was scrawled with the name of a baby: Beckie wrote “I love you, Nana” underneath Benjamin’s name.
“I believe it helped,” Beckie said of the ceremony. “I really do.”
So did some of the other mothers there.
Jennifer Mitscher goes to Bethesda and came when the pastor announced the event. She’s had two miscarriages and had never been to an event quite like the one Saturday. She said she was glad that attention was being brought to the pain mothers and families go through when a pregnancy is lost.
“This is recognition that life doesn’t begin at birth,” she said. “Just because they don’t make it through pregnancy doesn’t mean that a baby hasn’t changed your life.”
Robin Murphy was also at the event. Like Beckie, she has been dealing with the loss of her grandson Aiden since he died of sudden infant death syndrome April 29 at 12 weeks. Dealing with his loss has been difficult for her and her daughter Rachel, but she said she was happy that someone was honoring infant and pregnancy loss.
“Finally, someone is finally acknowledging it,” she said. “Everywhere there is breast cancer awareness, but not for this.”
Beckie Grubbs said she doesn’t want her promise to her late grandson to end with Saturday’s ceremony for families that have suffered the death of a baby or loss of a pregnancy.
She and her daughter Ashley are both working to set up a nonprofit organization they’ll call “Benjamin’s Legacy” so they can reach out to families grieving from pregnancy and infant loss. Ashley said she envisions donating memory boxes like the one she received to hospitals. Beckie said she hopes that they can use funds raised through the charity to help cover final expenses.
“It was $100 to have (Benjamin) cremated,” Beckie said. “You’re buying cribs and diapers and strollers and everything else a baby will need. You might not have $100 then.”
They’re still early in the organizing process, but Beckie said she thinks they could help a lot of families in South Carolina.
In 2008, the most recent year in which data from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control was available, 504 infants died before they were a year old – about 8 per 1,000. That same year, 542 died while still in the fetal stages, and 852 died in childbirth. Those numbers have fallen almost every year since 1983, but Beckie said such an event still leaves a lot of families wondering what to do next.
“It helps immensely to know you’re not alone,” she said.
Ashley continues to want to have a child and plans to try to get pregnant again. She said she hopes the charity, once founded, can help guide families through the grieving process. She said that the charity might give out books on coping with loss or help with personal support.
“Nobody tells you how to deal with this or how to move on,” she said. “We can be that support.”
Beckie hopes her plans will fulfill her promise to Benjamin. She said by the time she comes back to Bethesda Church of God next Oct. 15, she wants her charity set up and in full swing. But, for the time being, this year’s balloons will do.
“It’s a start,” she said.