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Mom Talk: Losing My Mom, Gaining a Daughter

Written by

Erin Joy Henry

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Photo Courtesy of Erin Joy Henry

There is no moment quite like of the birth of a child when death and old age seem world’s away. But for Erin Joy Henry, the birth of her third child, a girl named Rayen, will forever be linked to the death of her own mother. In today’s Mom Talk, Erin writes honestly about the untimely convergence of birth and death—an experience that nearly broke her in the moment, but also graced her daughter’s life with special meaning, and helped Erin eventually move forward through her grief. Read on for her touching story.

It would have been a completely rational decision to stop having children after two. My partner Alex and I adored our boys. Hank was almost two and Milo was four. We had been through a lot with Hank’s health and were just starting to feel like we had a handle on life again. I was 36 and Alex was 44. We hadn’t exactly started our parenting journey young, and had only been together a year before I became pregnant with Milo. We were looking forward to enjoying some time to nurture our relationship again. I longed for that DONE feeling so many of my friends had after their second babies, but when a surprise third pregnancy ended in miscarriage, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that there was another child out there that I was supposed to be a mother to.

When I found out I was pregnant again, Alex and I laughed, then I cried. My heart had led me to the pregnancy, but my head was saying no. Three kids under five is what we were in for. I wondered what we had been thinking. We weren’t in a position in our lives to handle the demands of three little people. We had no family around, and all of our friends seemed to be just as bogged down with work and young children as we were. What would this do to our boys? I didn’t think I had enough love to go around. I worried about my relationship with Alex and wanted to go back in time and act more responsibly.

This pregnancy began as twins, and when I started feeling a miscarriage coming on at around nine weeks I thought it must be both babies. When faced with the possibility of losing another pregnancy I realized how much I wanted this, no matter how irrational. But my baby’s spirit was strong and it really wanted to be here. One twin, a girl, held on, and I lost the other baby.

At around the 14 week mark I started having severe pain in my right leg and groin area. I had annoying varicose veins in my second pregnancy, but this time it was on another level. The snake like veins were popping out everywhere on my right leg and got so bad that even my doctor was horrified. The doctors ordered me to wear heavy compression tights and groin support underwear that looked like a jock strap. The pain of the varicose veins was so great that I couldn’t stand without my support garments, and even then my foot began to turn black and swell. As the pregnancy ached along my boys grew more and more desperate for me to get up and play with them. Their longing made my heart bleed and I grew depressed. I couldn’t even bring myself to think about decorating the new baby’s bedroom. I resented the pregnancy.

By 30 weeks I was barely able to walk. Around that time, my mom called for her regular check-in and she didn’t sound good. Normally very chipper and concerned for me, she sounded sad and tired, and I was stricken with worry. I had seen her just the previous month and she had looked fabulous as always. My mom was sixty nine and took incredible care of herself. We were close and spoke often, despite the distance between us. She had once told me that she had a premonition about my body not being able to handle a third pregnancy, and when I spoke to her that day, I too had a premonition that something was very wrong with her health. By the end of the week, her balance was wildly off, and the next thing we knew she was having brain surgery—a biopsy to check for cancer. I arrived at her home the morning after she got the results: She had Grade 4 glioblastoma multiforme. Brain cancer. The worst kind. I put my swollen belly next to her already frail frame, held her hand, and cried.

I stayed with my mom for two weeks. We got her into see the best oncologist around, but had little hope. Her decline was so rapid that I knew deep down she wasn’t coming back. This made nothing better, but I immediately knew I was getting a daughter because I was losing my mom.

Watching a different system of her body shut down each day was excruciating. It made me forget about my own pain completely. Her mind knew what was going on, but her brain played tricks on her and caused the weeks, days, and hours to scramble. Each day she asked if the baby was coming. It was one of the few things we both grasped on to for hope as she lost her ability to even drink out of a straw. My brother and my sister visited daily and I had never been more grateful for them. We stuck together. Through my grief, I started to see what a gift my baby would be for her brothers. I had been looking at it all wrong.

My mom used to tell me that my middle name was Joy because that’s the gift I brought to her during a difficult time; she had lost her father just before I was born. I knew the timing of my own daughter’s arrival was being orchestrated by a power greater than myself, as well. That whispering I had sensed deep in my soul, asking me to have another child was not imagined.

My mother died a few weeks later, and a few days after that my daughter Rayen was born. My grief was unbearable, and the hospital sent a social worker in to see me. All she asked was that I try to feel sadness and joy at the same time. I struggled. I wanted to be medicated. My depression was so debilitating I told Alex not to leave me alone. It took time, but eventually Ray’s sweetness began to penetrate my heart. I played silly tickle games with her as mascara tears ran down my face and dotted hers. I was sad, but she was a light. All of my children were a light.

Ray is now seven months old. She is very much her own person, but I know there was a doorway in which she stood with my mother—before she arrived, and as my mom departed. In that doorway, my mom gave a piece of herself. Ray carries that forward.

Early on, I was sure we would have another boy. I knew boys, and there wasn’t a part of me that felt like I had missed out by not having a girl as many people assumed. “You got your girl” they tell me, but that wasn’t what this was about. It was about a knowing in my core that I was to be a mother of three.

It’s been incredibly difficult taking care of three small children while grieving the biggest loss of my life, but I do not question whether or not adding Ray to our family was the right thing. My boys love their sister and argue over who gets to snuggle her. She loved them at first sight, too.

As I grow wiser in my womanhood, I have learned to trust the intuition that guides me, even if what it’s telling me may not be what I want to hear. My daughter has been the most unexpected gift, and each day I am grateful for the whisper that spoke to me and brought her into this life.

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  1. Ranja Villagrego says...

    I think so too. I have observed this since my father died in 2007, then three months after, my mom gave birth to a boy that really looks like my father. Then it happened also in me. When we are hoping for a baby boy and never get pregnant. But when my husband’s grandmother died, after a month, I found out I’m pregnant.

  2. I had a very similar experience as yours…. When I was 5 month pregnant with my daughter (my first & only baby….. I had twins at the beginning and found out one didn’t survive around 7 weeks), my mother passed away. It was a sudden and unexpected death. I went back to Japan, even though I didn’t really want to fly under the high risk pregnancy, attended her funeral, then came back to NY. I cried my entire pregnancy and was worried how my grief affected my baby’s health. I don’t remember if I told my mother while she was alive about my baby’s sex. Now, I think she knew I was having a baby girl. My daughter is so much like my mom…..she is so kind, energetic, bright, creative, and happy. I love what you wrote, “I know there was a doorway in which she stood with my mother—before she arrived, and as my mom departed. In that doorway, my mom gave a piece of herself.” I truly believe so.

    • Naoko, I can’t tell you how many women I have met that have had similar experiences. In a way it’s beautiful and reassuring and in another it’s just sad. Sending you love on this Mother’s Day. I’m so happy you have a daughter ?

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