It was January 11, 2011 and my husband and I woke up the same way we did every day. Our son, Ray, was 4 months and 10 days old. He was laying on the ground, playing with our dog. He was happy and he was healthy. He had recently had his first battle with the stomach flu, but had recovered completely. Adam, my husband, walked over and started talking to him. Ray looked up at his daddy, stared at him for a few seconds, and gave him the biggest smile.
I picked Ray up to feed him his bottle as Adam walked out the door for work, yelling goodbye to both of us over his shoulder. Ray took his bottle out of his mouth and babbled after him. Adam and I giggled. Life was just what we thought it would be. Sure, it was hard at times. Ray had colic and reflux, but he was starting to be so much fun. Adam and I had been married for just over a year and a half and we didn’t have too much to complain about.
I packed Ray into his carseat, turned on “Stuck Like Glue” by Sugarland (it was our morning jam), and drove him to daycare. I remember telling our daycare provider, Stacy, that I was sorry he was having a bad hair day. I gave Ray a kiss, told both he and Stacy I would see them after work, and left.
Around 9:30 in the morning I was sitting at work, refilling some medications, answering phones, helping with chemotherapy, when a sheriff and chaplain came into my office. They asked to talk to me. I took them to a conference room.
They told me Ray was found at daycare and he wasn’t breathing.
I said “He’s ok now, right?” They told me it didn’t look good. I don’t remember screaming, but I know my boss came in. She held me. I told them I need to see my baby, now. It was the only time I have ever been in the back of a police car. I yelled at my boss to call Adam. He worked 45 minutes away. That’s also when I realized I had my phone in my pocket so I called my dad and told him to call my mom. The job she had at the time made it hard to always reach her. I remember, there was so much snow. I wasn’t sure how everyone was going to get to the hospital.
I also wasn’t sure what state Ray would be in when I got there. I raced down the hall and I remember the chaplain opening the door, closing it, and gently saying, “He’s gone.” Laying on a cot, with a tube in his mouth, needles in his knees, and wrapped in a blanket that wasn’t his, was my Ray. He had died around 9:43am from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
There are so many memories of that day that flood my mind in a jumble: racing into the room and picking up Ray, telling my pediatrician through tears that I had done everything he told me to do so why was my baby dead? I remember my mom calling me. We lived in Bemidji at the time and they lived in Maple Grove. I remember telling her, “He’s gone, Mom. Ray’s gone.”
I thought that Adam was going to be so mad at me. I was supposed to give him a healthy son and now he’s dead. I remember calling our daycare, talking to Stacy, and telling her it wasn’t her fault, that she did everything right. And she did. I remember the sound of the officer sobbing along with me as I cried. Most of all I remember meeting my three siblings in the hall outside the hospital chapel. We hugged. We cried. They held me up. They still do–my whole family does.
Here is the thing about child loss that no one tells you: It lasts for the rest of your life. Every breath you take you exhale for them.
Every day you open your eyes is a day they never got to see. The weight that sits on your chest never really goes away. The waves of grief, oh, the waves. The get further apart as time goes on but when they crash down around you they crash so hard that you think you will never stand up again.
Yet somehow, even when you don’t want to, you keep going. What other choice do you have? You keep living your life. You find ways to move forward even when all you want to do is hold so tightly to the past. You find joy, and happiness, and life again. You will never ever be who you were before your loss–how could you?–but you evolve into something… better, maybe?
Better, yes. You learn that some things just aren’t worth the fight because, at the end of the day, are they things that really matter? You learn to appreciate what you have in such a different way. You value people and deep friendships and family over material things (even if you still have a deep love for nice things).
That January morning I sat in the chapel in the hospital just holding my baby with Adam by my side. Our pediatrician came in and said “Child loss is something that can really tear a marriage apart. You need to take care of each other. You need to work with each other because the only other person who truly knows how it feels to lose Ray is your spouse.”
I was appalled. I was holding my child who had just died and now you’re telling me I am going to divorce my husband?! How dare you?!
I later came to find out that our pediatrician had been a pastor prior to going to medical school and, looking back, I’m so glad he gave us such honest counsel. We went to the bed that night and decided, as a couple, that no matter how hard life got we were in it together. We would figure it out.
Ten years later and Adam is still my person. He knows when I’m struggling before I do and vice versa. He’s my partner and my best friend and the reason I survived burying our child. He is the reason I was strong enough to have more children. He assured me it would be okay. He’s why Jonathan Ray and August Ray joined our family. Because of his strength and support I decided we needed one more child. Eloise Ray joined us four years ago.
Our family has grown. It would have grown whether Ray had lived or died, but because he died, we got the three most amazing, challenging, beautiful, and loving souls we have now. Our family motto is “Moving Forward, Never Forgetting.” That is what we have done.
Moving forward doesn’t come without its own set of challenges. Each birthday for our living kids–each holiday, each new milestone they meet, every time I see them grow–I think “Man… we should have one more here with us.” The best part of our situation is that there are a few special kids that are what my Ray should be in my family. My sister and I were pregnant at the same time with Ray and my nephew, Sam. They were 1 month apart in age. I have gotten to see what having almost 10-year-old boy looks like when I look at Sam.
I have watched Sam meet all the milestones that Ray should have met along beside him. I look forward to the day that he graduates from high school or gets married. We talk about how Ray should be there with him. My sister has shared so much of her son with me over the years and that generosity has meant the world to me. One of my absolute best friends has a son, Finn, who is 6 weeks older than Ray. Finn plans a birthday party for Ray each year. Watching him with my living kids makes me sad-happy. I could listen to him talk all day about 10 year old boy things.
I also have the most wonderful group of moms that I met on an online moms group way back when I was pregnant with Ray. We all had babies in 2010. I get to watch them grow into big kids. In my mind they are babies, but the reality is that they are living, breathing, real life, not-so-little-anymore humans. Watching Sam, Finn, and my friends’ children grow into beautiful people has helped to fill the longing in my heart. It catches me off guard sometimes, and takes my breath away, but it also brings me joy.
The grief of losing a child is so very hard to explain. The first year I was numb. I went to therapy. I talked to my family and friends. I spent too much money because the instant gratification of buying things made the pain go away for a hot minute.
Years 2-5 there were more times in which I felt okay. I thought of Ray every day–I still do–but I could laugh again. I found joy. Waves of grief still overtook me frequently and unexpectedly.
Years 6-9 have been better. I can almost plan when the grief will start to take over. It usually happens in mid-August until his birthday (September 1st) and then it ebbs and flows, but it’s more frequent through the holidays until the anniversary of his death (January 11th).
This year we are closing in on his 10th birthday and the 10th anniversary of his passing. I’m finding myself remembering Ray so much more often and wondering who he would be or what kinds of things he would like. I wonder how he would be as a big brother and a friend, or as a son.
You see, when you lose a child, you also lose the future tied to that child. You lose all the birthdays, and holidays, and celebrations. You also lose the day-to-day battles, their presence in your home, and mostly their presence in your life. I have a child to celebrate in September, but at the same time I don’t have a child to celebrate. I have a memory to celebrate.
Ray is part of our lives every day. His siblings know that they have a big brother in Heaven. Eloise currently talks about her big brother who is dead and every time she says it my breath catches a little and then I think “Well, it’s true.” My living children understand that mommy is sad sometimes because she misses Ray. He was the first baby that made us parents and he is still a part of our home and our family.
When Ray died it defined who I was as a person, a woman, a spouse, and a mother. Ray has made me a better person. The life-long challenge of living without him has made me resilient.
I’m a survivor of a very traumatic loss. I am a fighter for those that I love and care for. I was given a life I would not have chosen, but I did choose to live in spite of it. As hard as it has been, we have chosen to move forward and never forget our very first baby.
Ray Gregory Labat 9/1/10-1/11/11