It was at our recent pop-up shop that I saw this mama named Tuesday, and her chubby cheeked perfection: 1 month and 26 day old Kaikoa Steven Akina, who was nicknamed "Sweet Cheeks." One could hardly miss this pair. This woman looked way too good for nearly 2 months post-partum and cute babies, hello. No one could have known that just 3 days later Kaikoa would fall asleep to the smell of his mommy after a midnight feeding and not wake up.
Tuesday bravely shared with me about her son and the night that changed her life, "we rushed to the ER and they 'worked' on him the whole way-I was screaming bring my baby back and I started to lose hope... I told the driver, 'I don't want this to be my reality' and she grabbed my hand and said 'I'm so sorry sweetheart but I think it is.' At that moment I tried to open up the door from the ambulance and throw myself out of the car into traffic, I thought I was going to die. She grabbed me, locked the doors and held me while driving until we arrived to the ER. They had about 30 - 40 people in the room/watching. Breathing tubes, nothing... and then I looked at him and realized he was gone. His soul was not with his body... with a heavy heart I told them to stop trying."
Word of this sweet boy's passing spread throughout our community. In the aftermath, after we all attempted to swallow the impossible knots in our throats, many people did what they could to rally around this family and offered support in both financial and non-tangible ways. Community is so important through these things. Knowing that these losses are collectively felt, can help ease some of the burden. Acknowledging the presence of one's pain can mean the difference between feeling supported and feeling alone.
Tuesday reflects, “I was aware of SIDS I just never thought it was 'possible' or would happen to any of my kids. My worst fear/nightmare... but he was just too perfect for this world, angel baby. I feel as though the community really came together and truly lifted my spirit, through fundraisers, love, support, bringing food to my house, sending flowers... I’m forever so thankful and blessed. Little Kaikoa had an impact on so many people with his short time here with us. He will forever be celebrated.”
This event hit close to home for my dear friend and part-owner of The Lucky Honey, Theresa. Theresa is a mother of three sons, one of whom was also lost to SIDS, 14 years ago at two months and six days old on June 23, 2003. “It was not something I even knew had existed. I had never even heard of it until it happened to me. I still remember a counselor from the State coming to my house to talk to me and they let me know that they had gotten the coroner’s report back and there was nothing wrong with him. She told me SIDS is just a fancy term they use for 'they don't know why it happened, but it just did.'"
There is something I have recognized in Theresa, something I have seen in other women as well, and you probably wouldn't see it unless you already knew it was there. That despite the passing of time, in her every moment and movement, there is a part of her that remains with him and around every corner are possible triggers of trauma. "I never thought I would ever know anyone that would have to go through the same situation as me, seeing Kristy Copperfield's post on Instagram [about Kaikoa] stopped my heart. It shattered and broke in a million pieces. I knew the pain she was going through and there was nothing I could do for her except tell her my story and tell her she is not alone. To this day I struggle with death, and especially when it comes to children. Its something no parent should ever have to go through. I will never forget giving Shauna Dukes the biggest and longest hug at Trucker's Paddle Out Memorial. To lose a child is like losing a piece of yourself that can never be replaced."
ONE IN FOUR women will experience pregnancy loss, stillbirth or the loss of an infant in their lifetime. As with all statistics, this only represents the number of losses reported and do not reflect the countless women who likely suffered miscarriages without medical support.
But the frequency of these kinds of things do nothing to soften the very personal and deep sense of grief experienced by the families who have to say goodbye too soon. And despite these numbers, our society has a really hard time talking about loss, especially with those who are directly impacted. But this is understandable. These kinds of loss are an immense and scary mystery. Even as a person who has experienced loss and spent a lot of time in support groups, reading books and educating myself on the nature of these tragedies, the only clear understanding I've really come away with is that mourning is a very individual process. There is no specific or appropriate way to respond to these things, because loss itself, though natural, is totally amiss in the experience of a parent.
Awareness is an important thing. Not to simply be aware that something exists, but to take the time to understand how to support those directly impacted. October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month, amongst other things.
So, how can you support a loved one or person in your community? Here are a few things to consider doing.
Ask them how they are doing. Never fear expressing shared sorrow, don't be afraid to bring things up. Give your loved ones a safe space to talk about their child in small ways and in big ways. Say their child’s name, outloud, in their presence; talk about them. Let their child live on through your voice and memory. Remind them that their child will not be forgotten. Be prepared for a variety of responses. You are there to support them, not the other way around. "I cry. I let it out. But I also smile because I know he's next to me. It's a roller coaster of emotion."
Remember that kids experience grief as well, and even the smallest of siblings can feel what’s going on. Tuesday shares about the experience of Kaikoa’s brother, Keanu,who is just one year old, "Keanu is a strong soul, he is aware little brother is not around-kisses every picture of Koa in the house DAILY! He keeps me busy! It's crazy how life works... but I feel there's a reason for everything-and now my family was blessed with our own personal angel... I'm just thankful I was able to meet him and love him for as long as I did. Keanu reminds me daily that everything is going to be okay."
Cook them meals. Maintaining normalcy in times of chaos is crazy hard. Offering a meal that’s nourishing and filled with love for a family going through something can make a bigger difference than you will ever know. It is one less thing that they have to worry about and can be a huge relief.
Theresa recalls that her large family and friends came together to help her with everything she needed, "food, cleaning my house, just being there and laying with me and brushing my hair or listening to music. I couldn't work after he passed and thankfully there were so many friends of friends and coworkers I hadn't even known that gave monetary donations to help in any way they could. I received cards from strangers that heard about the death of my son and told me about their children they had lost to sids as well."
Plan a community effort. For the Akina’s, a fundraising effort was put together to assist with the financial burden of having to miss work so the family could focus on their grieving. The Lucky Honey donated special hats in Kaikoa's honor which were sold for the full profit to go to his family.
In Theresa’s community at the time, a very special landmark was set up in Dominic's honor, "My mom worked with the City of San Diego to have a living tree memorial planted in Balboa Park in Dominic's name. I couldn't have asked for anything better than that. Balboa park is one of my favorite places in the whole world. There is a kind of magic there in all the beautiful plants and architecture that surrounds it. Every year that I fly to San Diego I get to visit him there and see the different stages the tree is in. We carved his name in it and my friends and family visit his tree and send me photos or save me flowers when it’s in bloom."
There are many ways to rally the community and support a family.
Lastly, never put limitations on grief. Above all, the only thing people really need is time and space to mourn appropriately and without judgement. Everyone adjusts to loss differently. Even if there is a time where they feel they’ve full processed things and are at peace, grief can find its way around again, sometimes years down the road. Never expect anyone to get over it, because they likely never will.
Says Theresa: "I always wonder what would [Dominic] look like, what would he be like? Why did he go so soon? Why Me? I'm not sure I'll ever know but the one thing I do know is that going through something so traumatic and heart breaking has changed my outlook on life. I try not to take things for granted. Don't sweat the small stuff. Enjoy this life because tomorrow is not promised."
This month and always we remember Dominic and Kaikoa and all the little ones, seen and unseen, who have gone too soon. In many ways these little lives have become the building blocks that color and fortify our communities. I want to thank Tuesday and Theresa for sharing so deeply about their little angels. In the words of Helen Keller: “What we have once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”
(Kaikoa & Mama pictures via Kristy Copperfield Photography)