Pain for the Shannehan family is now gratitude. Gratitude for the moments we had with our son, who died soon after he was born. Gratitude for how we were treated in the hospital, gratitude for all the thought that went into the little things we didn’t even know to ask for. Time in the hospital with our son is the only memory we have to hold onto.
Almost 17 years ago our first son was born. William arrived early, but we were prepared. Tim had just finished putting the crib together, the room was decorated, the car seat was in the car, and the hospital bag was packed. As new parents we were thrilled for this day to come. What should have been a wonderful day soon became our worst nightmare.
William was breach and my water broke at 38 weeks pregnant. We didn’t know at the time, but that wasn’t good. His umbilical cord came through the birth canal and we were rushed by ambulance to the hospital. William was delivered quickly. Because he was breach, his cord came through first and had become pinched along the way, effectively cutting off his oxygen supply. After many tests, we learned his condition would never improve. The next day we were forced to make the ungodly decision no parent should ever have to make. What had just happened? Who were all these doctors? What was going on? William was a beautiful baby boy: 7 pounds, 9 ounces, 20 inches long. He was the biggest baby in the NICU. Thirty-six hours ago we were so happy and excited. Now, our world was turned completely upside down. Everything was moving so quickly and yet time stood still. Our lives would be forever changed.
Words of devastation cannot describe the unbelievable feelings that came over us. Only those who have experienced this can understand. We said goodbye to William -- never wanting to let go.
The hospital was only the beginning of our long road ahead. The hardest thing was coming home to an empty, quiet house and realizing that our hopes and dreams were gone. This is an excerpt of what Tim and I wrote for William’s funeral that captures our feelings at that time:
“We suffered greatly over this past week. Powerful emotions have run wild…. anger, self-doubt, disbelief, hopelessness, great sadness and raw pain. All filling our minds at the same time. It is difficult to understand why William was taken from us without the chance to truly enjoy him, hug him, kiss him, giggle with him and love him as his mom and dad. All we wanted was to give him every ounce of love we had. William, we will miss watching all the little things that come as you grow, staring over you as you sleep, changing your diaper, kissing the back of your neck, blowing bubbles in your bath, learning to walk, throwing a ball, watching you grow up… we will miss life with you!”
Well, here we are today. William would be getting ready for his junior year in high school, playing lacrosse and being a big brother to his sister, Quinlyn and two brothers, Timothy and Luke. We have 4 beautiful children.
While our greatest gift was taken from us, we were also given an incredible gift of love, compassion and care from the Yale NICU hospital – all of which we didn’t quite understand at the time but was significant in our healing process. The doctors, nurses and support staff coordinated every touch, whether in our presence or behind the scenes. They encouraged us to take photos, videos and often took the camera from us without asking so they could capture moments we never would have known to take. Some of these photos are framed around our house and in his special keepsake book. We celebrate William’s birthday every year by looking through his book, eating cupcakes and releasing balloons.
The nurses put together a beautiful memory box that included a clipping of his hair, his hand and footprints, a blanket, the clothes he wore, his knitted cap, and notes from the nurses who took care of him. We treasure these items now, but 17 years ago I was longing for the baby I missed, not the things that reminded me of him.
Annie, our nurse, placed a white lamb plush doll in his bed. We buried William with his lamb and his blanket, too. For William’s funeral, we asked our friends and family to bring beanie plush dolls like the one William received. We delivered them to the Yale NICU for other babies to have during their stay.
When Quinlyn was born, a nurse named Nicole came to us and said, “Your big brother William has this lamb, so we thought she should have one.” Years later, after Timothy and Luke were born, they each received a lamb, too.
Another life-changing gift from the Yale family, was our introduction to Dr. Michael Berman. After William died, I stayed in the hospital for 5 more days. Our wish was that William wouldn’t leave the hospital until I did. Our wish was granted. While I was recovering in the hospital, we found a flyer taped to the hallway about a support group called Hope After Loss and the doctor that started the organization was from the hospital we were in. It was our mission to find him. I will never forget Dr. Berman’s words when we first met. As he looked into my eyes he said, “I will take care of you.” Those were the words I lived for.
Dr. Berman was a member of the OB-GYN Yale New Haven Hospital faculty for 35 years. He founded the Hygeia Foundation, which is now called Hope After Loss. He started this organization 23 years ago which has helped families who have suffered the loss of an infant. Not only did Dr. Berman help me through my grief, he delivered our 3 other children, Quinlyn, Timothy and Luke. Because of Dr. Berman’s impact in our lives, we were thrilled to become involved in the Hope After Loss organization. Over the years, Dr. Berman has written many poems for his patients and their babies and has published a book called Parenthood Lost. This is the poem he wrote for William:
I know where songs are made and where simple words are born.
It is in the hearts of dreamers, and in souls of those who mourn.
With lyric, love and tearful sorrow, music comes alive,
Giving death a reason, assuring we’ll survive.
When the music dissipates and only words remain,
It’s the words that last forever, soothing sorrow, healing pain.
Words inscribed indelible in our books for young and old,
Words that pen minds as flowers whose petals in the spring, unfold.
William has bequeathed to us like these words of which I write,
Enduring love and gilded wisdom, every minute, hour, day and night.
So read the books and see their words enlighten your children’s’ minds,
For there is no greater beauty than the beauty words define.
Our family has kept William’s memory present in our everyday lives. For 10 years around his birthday we had a pajama party at the Fairfield Children’s Library and have built a wonderful collection of children’s books in his memory. Quinlyn has held book drives and has collected over 1,500 children’s books for the Yale NICU with William’s bookplate and bookmark telling our story. We will continue to donate William’s books to other NICUs for parents to read to their babies. Books will forever connect us to William.
We miss William every day, and by doing things in his memory, we have found it so valuable in our healing process. At the same time, it has allowed us to give back to those who have helped us throughout our journey. We will always be grateful for all the things (big and small) that the Yale Hospital family did for us to provide lifelong memories of our son.
To the doctors and the nurses that touch the lives of parents that have lost an infant, I hope you understand the importance to strive for compassion and humanism in your practice. You will witness pain, but with compassion, that pain will turn into gratitude.