When I was younger I wanted to save the world and do amazing, wonderful things. One of my plans was to provide sanctuary for companion animals that no one wanted. After spending one day working in a veterinary clinic I surmised I didn't have the coping skills to be intimate with illness, physical and emotional challenges, and death on a daily basis.
That changed when my first Dane, my very best friend, was diagnosed with a disease that slowly destroyed his liver. He had chronic active hepatitis. Watching him move through his last months, weeks, days, and hours was both excruciating and beautiful.
I learned how to cope.
Many medically challenged Danes later, my husband and I learned I was pregnant. I was terrified of becoming a mother because I worried I wouldn't like my child. That he wouldn't like me. Or the worst case - he would be . . . different. I knew I couldn't cope.
At 23 weeks our son was diagnosed with an omphalocele. The perinatologist bluntly shared the news with us and in the same breath advised us that she would shuffle us down the hall to the genetic counselor, which would give us all the time we needed to consider termination. Right. She had a window of time in the afternoon that was just enough for termination and needed to know right away if we wanted to pursue that option.
We didn't. We learned how to cope together.
This diagnosis came after two threatened miscarriages, one of which required a blood transfusion. I had been released from bed rest five weeks prior to this appointment. Nine weeks later I was back on bed rest for unrelated complications.
I learned how to cope.
Our son arrived at 37 weeks and was in prepped for surgery three hours later. We were fortunate to have an amazing medical team and scores of people surrounding our family with prayers and healing energy. When he was 12 months old, his surgeon released him from further monitoring.
In some ways it's like nothing ever happened and he had a perfectly normal beginning. In other ways our lives are completely different. As much as I wonder what a normal pregnancy, delivery, and infancy are like, I wouldn't change our experience for anything.
I grieved during and after the first threatened miscarriage. And the second. I was completely unprepared for my feelings and the tidal wave of hormones did not help the situation. I grieved the diagnosis. I did everything I could to prepare myself for whatever might happen, including not coming home at all. I was terrified and strangely at peace simultaneously. I learned from my grief and am a much stronger and wiser person because of it.
Our son is two. When I return to a NICU, especially our NICU, to photograph a family I relive those early days. I continue to face my grief (and I think in some ways it never really goes away) so I can process it and be healthy.
I've always seen that the greatest opportunities come from our greatest challenges.
Grief can be absolutely crushing if we allow it to be. When a child is involved the feelings become even more overwhelming. We all move through things in different ways on different timelines. We surprise ourselves with our strength and resolve.
We learn how to cope. We ride the waves, because anything else means going under.
I see a lot of incredible moments of the human experience while being with families in love and grief. From each family I learn, and those lessons and points to ponder are what I wish to share with you here.