One Breath at a Time

It has been a just over a month since my world was forever changed. On November 9, I found out that my 28 year-old brother, Mark, had passed away suddenly and tragically.

About a month before that my friend Amanda died after 7 years of treatment for her metastatic breast cancer and a prolonged time on hospice care. When Amanda passed away, I was sad, and I missed her, and I was broken-hearted for her husband and her sons, but it was hardly a surprise. I had been visiting as often as I could through her last months and I saw her withering away. The last time that I went to see her, I held her hand, I got a brief moment of clarity from her drug-induced haze when she looked right at me and told me she loved me and I was able to say the same to her.

The last picture I have of Amanda and I together.

On the drive home I sobbed and I prayed that she would let go, that she would be released from her unimaginable suffering and finally be at peace. When I got the news of her death, I was in the middle of writing an angry rant that I will probably post eventually, but I stopped and cried for a while. I had been actively preparing for her death with my therapist (as much as you can prepare.) Every time I saw or spoke to her I knew that it might be the last time and I always ended our visits with that in mind.

I first met Amanda 3 years ago when we were both in the infusion room getting treatment. I was happy to have her as a friend, and to be able to provide free childcare for her through Mommies In Need. Three days after her death, a fantastic group called Resounding Harmony was doing a benefit concert for Mommies In Need and we decided to dedicate a song to her and to light candles in her honor. I was the one who was going to deliver her tribute. At the dress rehearsal I was a mess. I barely got out the words I had written for her memorial and then I sobbed through the whole song.

But the next day for the show, I called upon every bit of strength that I had and I was able to speak for her in a way that I will always be proud of. I had no idea that event was a sort of dress rehearsal of it’s own.

When Amanda died I thought I knew what sad was. It turns out I had no idea.

I now know that there is a level of grief that is so deep it physically hurts. I know what it is to be shocked with news that knocks the breath out of your lungs. I know what it is to fall to the ground crying because you cannot keep yourself upright. I know the panic that comes when you feel that if you allow yourself to start crying you will never be able to stop.

When my brother died, my parents were extremely smart about how they told me. They called my husband and had him come home to be with me as I heard the news. When he said he was getting out of work early, I didn’t think anything of it at first. But when he got home, he guided me to the couch and he said he had something to tell me.

At that point I got this strange tunnel vision- I knew what he was about to say would be bad and my mind was racing as to what it would be. My first thought was that one of my grandparents had passed, but I had talked to them earlier that day, so that didn’t make sense.

When he said, “Mark is dead,” I did not understand the words that were coming out of his mouth. I went into a sort of shock in which I laughed and said “No, that’s not true.” He had to tell me five or six times until I could put it together in my head.

It’s funny how some memories are so blurry and others so clear. I don’t think I will ever forget how that felt as I began to comprehend that my baby brother, the sweet little boy nine years younger than me, whose diapers I had changed, who I read all the Harry Potter books out loud to, who is a part of most of my best family memories, was no longer on this earth.

I don’t think I have fully accepted that I will never see him again in this life. That still feels too big to even start to process.

The details of the days that follow are more complicated and personal than I can even begin to share here. I will say that I am forever grateful that my other two siblings and I live in Dallas and that we are all married to exceptional people who helped us get through the worst of it. We were all able to be together at my parents’ house as we stumbled through that first day. Grieving with people doesn’t make it any less painful, but it does make it a little less heavy. My family and I helped carry each other through the moments when none of us would have been strong enough to get through it alone.

As funny as it sounds, I have a lot to be grateful for from that period. Grateful that my family could be together. That I have two amazing and hilarious 5 year-olds that I can snuggle all the time. That a friend of mine is married to a funeral director so I had someone to call in those first hours to help us stumble through the practical things you have to do when someone dies unexpectedly. That I have a pastor and a church community who were present when I needed them. That one of my dad’s best friends heard the news and put together a celebration of Mark’s life just three days after we found out he was gone. That a wonderful musician and family friend was in town and sang in Mark’s honor. And that I had that dress rehearsal.

As we talked about what we would do and say to honor Mark, I volunteered to speak for him. When my parents asked if I was sure that I could do it, I said yes. I had gotten through my tribute for Amanda and I knew that it would be a thousand times harder but that I could also do it for my brother.

Me and Mark
This picture is from a few years ago but is still one of my favorites of Mark and me.

And I did. I read a beautiful message from my father, a poem my mother selected, and wove stories that my parents and siblings contributed into a speech that I think was just right for him. We ended it with a toast and a shot of Jack Daniels because that felt like something he would have thought was pretty badass.

I held myself together through the whole thing and then had the blessing of that beautiful song in which I let it go. I cried and was held by my loving family as we continued to share that grief.

So how am I now? Well, it depends on when you talk to me.

For a few weeks after we lost Mark, I went into a hole and pretty much didn’t talk to anyone except my immediate family. My friends texted and called and emailed but I couldn’t face talking to anyone. I have slowly started to join the world again, so there’s progress.

Sometimes I am pretty good. I am back at work. I couldn’t get myself motivated to start up again for a long time. But then Mommies In Need got applications from two new families desperately in need of help. I couldn’t get it together to do admin work or fundraising, but being able to help someone else going through a terrible time in their life made me feel just a little bit better.

Sometimes I am a good wife and parent. I can pick up my kids from school and play with them and talk to my husband about all the stuff we have going on in life. My patience is pretty limited though. I get irritated easily, I snap more than I would like, and I haven’t cooked an actual meal that I can remember (not that I am normally much of a chef, but right now even boiling water is sometimes too daunting a task.)

But then there are the times that I am so sad. So deeply sad that I can’t function. Or when I feel like a zombie just going through the motions. When I walk around a store for an hour and then leave without even buying anything because I am not actually seeing the store, I am just keeping my body busy while my mind checks out.

I am going to the holiday parties, and I manage it pretty well when I am around people I know and can be honest with. But I just can’t with idle chit-chat. I found myself at one party just sneaking off to a corner with an XL glass of wine because I couldn’t face anyone.

I will tell you one thing I know for certain. I will get through this. I am a Survivor after all. I get into dangerous territory when I spend too much time thinking about how much I have been through in the last six years and wondering how any one human being can be expected to cope with the constant blows I have been dealt.

But then I stop (maybe take a Xanax) and breathe. Another thing I am grateful for is that all the shit I have been through has taught me how to manage the worst moments in life. I have learned that you have two choices- curl up in a ball and die or keep going. I will always choose to keep going.

And that looks different depending on where I am. Sometimes I take it one day at a time, or one step or a time, or one tiptoe at a time, or one prayer at a time. And when it is really bad, when the sadness threatens to envelop me or I feel myself coming to the cliff’s edge of an anxiety attack, I get through one breath at a time. Take one breath and then another and keep moving forward. If I can remember to do that, I know that even this I will survive.



I’ll Hold a Light for You

I have previously written about my experience with pregnancy loss, and I want to thank everyone for their love, support, and comments on that post.  I just found out that tomorrow, Wednesday, October 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.  The idea is that people all over the world will light a candle at 7pm their time and that it will create a Wave Of Light in support of those that are grieving the loss of a little one.  I think this is a lovely idea, especially since miscarriage can feel so very lonely. It is one day for all those who have lost a baby to know that they are not alone and that their little one is gone but not forgotten.  If you would like more details or have recently suffered a pregnancy loss, this site has some good resources:

I am planning on spending an hour or so in thought, meditation, and prayer around 7pm by lighting a candle and holding our Hufflepuff in my heart (it might be a little later since I will start whenever Curly and Flopsy go to bed.) I would like to pause here and say unequivocally that every single day I am grateful for Curly and Flopsy, they are amazing little people, the lights of my life, and I love them more than I ever dreamed possible.  Even as I remember the hufflepuff, I know that had he/she gone to term I would not have my twins.  So this is not a time of wishing that anything had gone differently, I believe that the Hufflepuff was never meant for this world.  It is just a chance to acknowledge the loss of a little one I never got to meet but loved from the moment I saw that heartbeat on the monitor.  If you would like to join me (and everyone else participating) that would be wonderful.  I would also like to go one step further and for that, I need your help.

I once had a therapist tell me that sometimes the best thing you can do for someone is to “hold a light for them.”  Meaning that you sit and quietly listen to and support them without interrupting, judging, or giving your opinion.  Just be a place they can talk and feel safe.  I think it can also mean just quietly be someone who understands and sends them positive energy.  I would like to hold a light for anyone that would like me to by including specific names of my friends, family, and internet friends into my thoughts while I actually physically hold my candle.  If you aren’t religious, don’t worry, my prayers in this case will consist of briefly speaking the name of the parent and/or baby (or nickname) and holding them in my heart and thoughts for a moment while sending love, healing, and light to the family.

If you have lost a little one of any age, or know someone who has, and would like me to send a little love your way, let me know by commenting with whatever info you want to share- your name (or pseudonym), the baby’s name (or nickname), how many weeks you were, part of your story, or a link to something you have written about this topic.  This is open to anyone who feels a pregnancy or infant loss: miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death, IVF babies that never grew, the miscarriage of a surrogate, or even if you terminated a pregnancy and want a little light shined your way, I am here for you.  My point is not to judge but to send a tiny bit of support in the best way I can think of.  You can comment here, on my Facebook page, on Twitter @natalieehowe, or if you prefer it to be private, at my email  And if you see these names and want to incorporate them into your own thoughts and prayers, or light a candle, or just send a little mental hug, I am sure that would be appreciated as well.  We who have lost a child in any form are a community who is here for each other, let’s remember that and give a little kindness to each other.

I'll hold a light for you

On October 15th, I’ll be holding a light for my Hufflepuff and I would be honored to hold one for you.

Being Brave Isn’t Pretending You’re Fine

“Gosh, it’s been so long!  How are you?”  I said to a friend I accidentally butt-dialed while trying to call someone else.

“Good…Well…OK… We were really excited because we were pregnant with twins, but then I had a miscarriage.”

And I paused.  Honestly, I was kind of shocked that she just led with that.  I mean, it had been over a year since we last spoke, and we aren’t even close friends.  That’s a pretty personal statement to just put out there.

Why though?  Why isn’t it OK to just tell the truth about how you’re feeling.  If you just lost a baby why should you have to pretend like everything is fine?  It’s not.  And what a brave thing to do.  We often hear the phrase “putting on a brave face” which means covering up your true feelings and going on with your life.  But in reality, what takes courage is to acknowledge those feelings, to let people in.  That is really scary.  Because when you let people in to how you are really feeling, to the struggles in your life, it makes you vulnerable.  It opens you up to people saying stupid, hurtful things, or getting super awkward, or just ignoring your comment and pretending like you didn’t say anything- which can be even more painful.

And miscarriage… well, we really don’t talk about that.  I remember years ago a friend of mine was pregnant and I hadn’t seen her in a while.  When I asked her how she was she said, “Well it’s been a rough summer… I was pregnant, then I wasn’t, and now I am pregnant again.”  I remember freezing, thinking, “Oh wow, she just told me she had a miscarriage.” But I was too scared to acknowledge it- ’cause what do you say?  So I just kind of pretended I didn’t really notice the comment and we skipped over it.  Yeah, I’m not very proud of that.

About 10-20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, that’s huge.  And yet, nobody talks about it, it is kind of a taboo subject in polite conversation.  If your mom or even your dog just died and someone asks how you are, it is perfectly acceptable to say you are feeling pretty lousy because of that loss and people will comfort you accordingly.  But announce that you just lost a baby and eerrk (my impression of a needle scratching across a record,) sometimes conversation just stops.  And if it is acknowledged, the platitudes come out.  “Oh, well at least you know you can get pregnant!”  “You’re young, you’ll have another one!” or my personal favorite, “Well, it probably meant that there was something wrong with the baby anyway.”  Right.  Because I would rather have my baby die than be born with a disability, is that what you are saying?

In case you haven’t guessed by now, I had a miscarriage myself.  I was only about 9 weeks along but I was devastated.  I have been through a lot (see A Brief Timeline of Crazy if you don’t believe me,) but losing the baby was one of the absolute worst things I have dealt with in my life.  Everyone’s experience is different, but I loved that baby fiercely from the moment I knew he/she exsisted.  My husband and I called it the Hufflepuff since we didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl and we talked about our plans for the baby all the time.  When I started spotting, I knew in my gut that the baby was gone, but I still made my husband leave on a business trip because some crazy part of me believed that if I asked him to stay home to go to the doctors appointment with me, my fears would prove to be true.  But sending him away didn’t help, I still got the horrible news at the ultrasound that the heartbeat was gone.  And then I had to make decisions about what to do, and suffer through a lot of pain and weeks of bleeding.  I won’t go into that now, but I remember how hard it was.  And most of all, how lonely I felt.

We have decided as a culture not to tell people we are pregnant until 12 weeks, since miscarriage is so common before that.  But that means that if you lose a baby, most people didn’t even know you were pregnant so how can they be invested in that little life?  My husband was wonderful to me at that time, but even he could not understand why it affected me so deeply and why I became so profoundly depressed afterwards.  We have funerals in part so that we do not have to mourn alone, because that is a huge weight to bear.  But most people don’t have funerals for miscarried babies, so that burden is not shared.

Friends and family turned out in droves to help me and send flowers or cards or lend a word of comfort after each of my surgeries, which was wonderful.  But my miscarriage was when I really needed the most support, and I have never felt more alone.  A huge part of that is because no one knew, and I “put on a brave face” for those who did.  I went back to work and just said I had been sick for a few days, but inside I wanted to scream, “How can you people not see that a part of me just died with the baby that was inside me?!”  I went around pretending I was fine, but I was far from it.  Eventually, Sebastian sat me down and said that he thought I needed to see someone and I found an amazing counselor to help me work through my depression.  A few months later, I got pregnant with the twins and was so happy and so very scared at the same time!

I have been talking a lot about #BraveOctober and being brave, whatever that means to you.  To me, today, it means finally speaking up about my loss.  Telling people that if you are hurting, the courageous thing to do is to let someone know.  Not to bottle it up inside and think that you are being “brave” by hiding yourself from the world.  Maybe being honest about your struggles might just let someone know that they are not quite as alone as they feel in whatever pain they are going through.

So I paused.  And then I said to her what I wish people would have said to me.  “I am so sorry for your loss.  Do you want to talk about it? I’m here for you.”