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I Didn't Cry When They Told Me My Son Would Die

NICU baby is calm inside his isolette.
Photograph by Getty Images

Death. I didn't have much experience with it growing up. My grandfather died when I was 18. Up to that point, death had been something that happened to other people. It shocked us when he died, suddenly and peacefully in his sleep. He was a lovely person, and I miss him to this day.

Life goes on, as they say, and it did.

I married and, in our Orthodox Jewish culture, it's expected to try for a baby soon after marriage. However, months went by and I showed no signs of pregnancy. My husband and I began to worry. Finally, after two years of trying, we met with a fertility specialist.

Infertility treatments dominated my life. Hopes soared and crashed as we rode that emotional roller-coaster. After three years, we received good news: Twins! Double good news.

The pregnancy progressed with a few bumps on the road until we reached 31 weeks. The babies judged themselves ready to come into the world. They spent the next two months in the NICU, where they gained weight and grew stronger every day.

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But just as everything seemed perfect, and the boys were scheduled to be released, my oldest son went from being a healthy baby to lying at death's door in a matter of hours. He'd developed necrotizing enterocolitis, and doctors said they had to operate immediately to save his life. My husband and I were still struggling with the news of his surgery and the chances for success—which would be low at first but got better if he made it 48 hours post-surgery—when they told us he was dying.

I would never know his temperament, his character or what kind of person he'd become.

I had my fair share of hardship until that point, but nothing compared to seeing that tiny human being, my son, breathe his last breath. My husband broke down and my heart turned to ice. The slowing beeps of his heartrate monitor stabbed like little knives to my heart. I couldn't comprehend what happened. Was my long-awaited child gone forever?

Nothing could begin to prepare me for the death of my newborn son. After all, can anything prepare a parent for such a terrible thing?

It's not in the natural order of things for parents to bury a child. Children should bury their parents when the time comes. It felt surreal holding his tiny fingers in my hand while he slipped away. How do you say goodbye to a tiny human being you didn't even get a chance to get to know?

I didn't have the privilege of caring for him. I would never know his temperament, his character or what kind of person he'd become. I always wished for twins. When my dream had come true, I could not have been happier. Now, I would never know if they would have been close or if they would have fought all the time. I could only hope they would have been best friends. It hurt, thinking my surviving son would never know his twin brother.

We tried getting on with life, burying the sorrow behind us.

Then it was over. I couldn't shed a single tear. I was numb. I felt a deep, vast emptiness in the pit in my stomach. Coming home that night was weird. My husband and I just looked at each other with sad eyes and broken hearts. I tossed and turned. Who could sleep after that?

The next day, we started observing the Jewish law of shiva (a period of seven days of formal mourning for the dead, beginning immediately after the funeral). It's a time to sit and talk about our dear baby son, properly mourning him.

I still hadn't cried.

I tried to stay strong for my husband, our friends and my surviving baby. It was an intense time. People comforted us, needing me to repeat the story over and over again, and, meanwhile, running to the hospital back and forth to tend to my surviving son. It exhausted me. After the week was over, we got the good news that our baby was ready to come home in a few days.

With gratitude to G-d, we picked up our dear surviving son from the NICU. Another emotional roller-coaster. Thankful for having a baby to cuddle on the one hand, but sorrowful for coming home with a single baby instead of twins.

We tried getting on with life, burying the sorrow behind us. Our newborn son kept us busy. Feeding, diapering, burping, feeding, diapering, burping—it seemed like an endless cycle. Some days I was glad for the monotony. I allowed the busyness of caring for a newborn to drown out my thoughts.

The grief manifested itself in different ways: I gained a shocking amount of weight in a short time. I ate my grief.

But it didn’t always work. Reminders showed up everywhere. The second set of unused clothes stared me in my face each time I dressed my son.

I tried to resume life. I never went to grief counseling, but maybe I should have. I pretended I was OK and maybe I was.

The grief manifested itself in different ways: I gained a shocking amount of weight in a short time. I ate my grief. But I felt I had to be strong for my family. Losing a child is a devastating experience I don't wish on my worst enemy. My heart stayed numb, and maybe that's not such a bad thing. It protected me from other events in my life, like finding out my surviving son had autism and ADHD. I just took it in stride and did what I had to do.

Some may call it strength—I think it's just a numb heart.

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For now, it's a good thing. I don't think I could handle all the feelings it would unleash. I am counting my blessings, especially my remaining son and my precious daughter, who was born a few years later, and my husband, who continues to be my rock. They are the lights of my life, which, no matter how much time goes by, will always have something missing.

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