By Rebecca Tillmann
My husband and I were living the dream. He was a successful pharmacist, and I loved being a paramedic and had worked my way up to shift lieutenant. We purchased our dream home with extra bedrooms for the kids we hoped to have.
Five years into our marriage, I gave birth to Ethan. I loved being a mother, but the transition to motherhood didn’t come easy. Ethan would vomit after every feeding, and I would spend my days nursing and changing both our outfits. He screamed constantly and would only sleep in the stroller, car seat, or when held.
The pediatrician eventually diagnosed him with reflux, and he was put on medication. I began to find my groove of motherhood. I got pregnant with our second child just before Ethan turned two years old. He was a typical healthy, active boy with the most beautiful blue eyes.
One Friday afternoon, after a morning playing at an indoor gymnastics program, Ethan began running a fever. During the night he began vomiting and first thing in the morning we rushed him to the pediatrician’s office. He was diagnosed with a virus, and we were sent home. Hours later he became lethargic and coded when we were on the way to the emergency room. He was pronounced dead upon our arrival. The final autopsy report concluded that he had a volvulus of the caecum, a birth defect we were not aware of.
I gave birth to a healthy little boy just 20 days after his big brother died. There wasn’t a dry eye in the delivery room when we heard Grant cry. I had never been more grateful. I had never been more terrified.
At that point my grief was so intense that I could barely take care of myself, I had no idea how I was going to care for a newborn. My midwife was so encouraging, patient and tough when she needed to be with me. She taught me not to worry about what lay ahead, but to focus on the next thing in front of me. My tribe of friends surrounded our family. For months, they cared for us; bringing food and baby clothes, helping with Grant, sending cards, spending time with me, etc.
Fourteen months to the day Ethan died, my husband and I sat in an ultrasound room and heard the words “there is no heartbeat.” I was 17.5 weeks pregnant with Mason. This couldn’t be happening.
Although the candle of hope dimmed with Ethan, it never went out. This time the candle threatened to flicker out. I wasn’t just mad, I was angry. “What did I do to deserve this?” “What was wrong with my body?” “Why were there unwanted pregnancies when others like me were so desperate to have a baby?”
Prayers ceased because I began to doubt God’s goodness and faithfulness.
One day I was driving home with Grant after having lunch with a friend. I turned on the music hoping Grant would fall asleep. As I pulled into our driveway, “Amazing Grace” played and the words “The Lord has promised good to me…His words my hope secures.” I threw the car in park, switched off the music and began screaming, “If You promised good, why is this happening? Where are you?”
As I wiped tears from my eyes, I saw the most beautiful butterfly I had ever seen in the butterfly garden we planted in Ethan’s memory. Peace washed over me, peace that passed all earthly understanding. In that moment, I finally let go and allowed God into my heart. I realized I had no control over what had happened and I couldn’t control what lay ahead, but I had control over how I responded. I could choose kindness and joy. I could choose to see God’s hand in the perfectly timed card or message from a friend. I could choose to give thanks everyday, especially the days that were hard.
I chose that day to do the hard work of rising from the ashes. I started counseling. I began training for a fundraiser walk, walking 6+ miles several days a week. The many hours of solitude pounding the pavement resulted in endless sweat and tears. I wrote not only the ugly parts of grief in my journal, but also all that I was grateful for. I spent time with people that poured love and encouragement into me. I accepted help that my friends offered (well most of the time). I sat and not only poured out my heart to God, but listened for His voice.
And I did what I never thought I would: I got a tattoo. I chose a cherry blossom tree as the focal point, a constant reminder that although the flowers wither and die, beauty comes again.
A year later, God laughed at my statement “I don’t want any more children” and blessed us with a healthy ten-pound baby boy named Gavin. I mistakenly thought in the beginning that nothing about motherhood would ever be hard. The truth is plenty of things are hard, but I’m filled with overwhelming gratitude and an on-my-knees dependence on God to get me through each day.
Parenting after loss looks much different. Our house is messier. We occasionally eat ice cream for a meal. We love to run off and hang at the beach, aquarium, museum, or an amusement park. Why not? Life is too short not to be celebrated.
Seven years ago my world turned upside down. This side of heaven my grief will not be healed. But I no longer fear or resent it. Woven into every fiber of my being are these experiences. Today, because of ALL of my boys, my life is richer and deeper than I could have ever imagined.
Rebecca Tillmann lives in Gainesville, Florida. She is the wife to Jacob, and mother to Grant (6), Gavin (4), Ethan and Mason in heaven. She is passionate about loving and connecting with other mothers through MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) International. And makes it through each day with a lot of help from Jesus, family, friends, and coffee.