By Jenn Hinkle
The moment I learned my son would die, I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me so hard that I would never catch my breath again. My heart was so broken that I ached from head to toe. My grief so heavy that I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t talk. That night, we left the hospital for the last time, and Ollie wasn’t coming with us. My son had come down with the flu, and because he was born with a heart defect, he was hospitalized. After a series of very unfortunate mishaps, he was over-sedated and suffered complete and irreparable brain and brain stem damage. He was just 13 months old. On our walk out of the hospital that night, my world was empty, dark, and hopeless… I didn’t even have the energy to think because it was impossible to wrap my head around what had just happened. I was numb. I could have been hit by a semi-truck and I would not have felt a thing. I laid down to sleep that night, three years ago, my darkest night, wishing I would never wake up.
But the sun rose, as it always does. It shone big and bright. It came in the form of my sunshine girl, Maddie, who was 3 at the time, tapping me on my shoulder and saying, “Mommy, will you make my breakfast?” I was hit with a bittersweet reality… life goes on. It had to go on for Maddie, for my husband, Mark, and for all the people I love and who love me back.
I didn’t know how I would make it; I just knew that I would. I began to put one foot in front of the other. I embraced my grief and my new normal, and I took life one day, one hour, one moment at a time. It was hard. So hard. Just when I think I’ve got it all figured out, and I’ve conquered my pain, in walks grief. There are some days when I just can’t see the light, and I’m reminded that grief is my constant companion. My pain is a weight equal to my love, and I will carry it until the day I die. Ollie’s death is irreversible. I can’t change it. So, I place this in God’s hands, and I keep moving forward. I can’t run away from my grief, but I can run with it. Along the way, I’ve learned that you can keep going long after you think you can’t.
As time passed, I began to carry my grief differently.
The pain of losing Ollie is a pain that I’ll carry forever. I reached a turning point the day I came across this quote by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross:
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.”
I often tell grieving mothers to think of their pain as a way to “feel” their child who has died, to embrace this pain, and to even cherish it. My pain represents my love for Ollie. This pain will never go away, just as my love for him will never go away. My pain is part of me and so, Ollie is part of me, always. The pain no longer represented the emptiness of Ollie’s absence, but instead the love I have for him, and I will carry that love until the day I die. Love is greater than death, and love wins, always. From then on, I began to see my pain as something very precious and beautiful, and so began my road on coming alive again.
In the process of navigating through my grief and coming alive, I have grown and, in passing, I’ve transformed into the best version of myself. Despite having lived my entire life “pre-Ollie” believing that I was weak, I began to realize how strong I am. Look at all that I’ve overcome! With that strength came wisdom, clarity, purpose, and a recognition of my priorities.
The day I chose to keep going, I was also choosing to face life head-on. I was no longer floating through life, aimlessly. I had realities to accept, hardships to face, challenges to overcome, goals to achieve, and people to love. In order to accept, face, overcome, achieve, and love, I had to be present and intentional. I had to live everyday with gratitude, and I had to open my heart.
I began to see so clearly. I needed people, and people needed me. I had to learn to lean on the support and love of my family and friends to make it through the hard days. I had to ask for help, accept help, and be thankful for that help. I had to cultivate new relationships, sustain those already established, and let go of those which no longer upheld positivity and light. I had to make sure the people I loved knew how much I love them because I now knew how fragile and precious life (really, really) is. I had to soak up the ones I love, ask them questions, listen to their answers, build them up, help them, and love them.
I began to embrace life in all of its glory, embracing the smiles and laughter, as well as the tears. And my faith! I’ve learned that no matter how strong I am or how much I think I’ve figured out, sometimes life’s challenges are too big to face on my own, so I place them in God’s hands. This “God” in whom my faith believes offers darkness in light, hope for the hopeless, strength for the weary, unconditional love, and a promise that my son is not ‘dead.’ Instead, Ollie lives on in Heaven, and when I die, I’ll see him again, and we’ll be together forever. Um, yes, please! I need all those things. Yes, I believe!
I’ve learned that if you’re willing, you can be an amazing tool for a cause that’s close to your heart. You wouldn’t believe how many people are willing to stand behind you and champion your cause. That willingness, paired with all that generosity, you, little you, can make a very big difference in this world, and maybe not in the whole wide world, but maybe in the world of another hurting or hopeless human being.
Ollie’s life was, and continues to be, a lesson in love. His broken heart has mended mine, and it is full and beating and bursting with love. So it should be, and it will continue to be… He is in my heart. My heart beats for the both of us. And Ollie is love.
Jenn Hinkle is a champion for the fight against congenital heart defects, Mom and fundraiser by day, restaurant owner by night, a lover of all things “love” and “hearts”, and a grieving mother who believes in hope. As Co-founder of the Ollie Hinkle Heart Foundation, Jenn has raised over $300K for pediatric heart research and to provide financial and emotional assistance to the children and families impacted by CHDs. Follow her story on Facebook or for more info on her cause visit The Ollie Hinkle Heart Foundation.