Feeling better, one gift bag at a time


How to heal from the anguish of a pregnancy loss or infant death? One mother’s creative approach reaching out to other women also helped mend her heart. © Thinkstock


It was early April, and after a dreary winter, sunshine and spring had arrived. I was happily married and three-months pregnant with twins. Yet there I sat, crying in the mall parking lot when I should have been doing errands.

One year earlier, twenty weeks into my first pregnancy, I’d been confined to the hospital on bed rest for 18 days. It was a dark time, full of loneliness, anxiety, and above all, a paralyzing fear that my baby wasn’t going to make it. On day 19, that fear was realized. Luke McKay was born. He lived only an hour.

Happiness returned over time—especially with the news that I was expecting twins. Still, as Luke’s birthday approached I felt heavy. I hated remembering those weeks in the hospital. Like a black hole, they had sucked my power, my peace, even my faith. And while I’d done a lot of emotional work since then around the loss of my son, it didn’t seem that anything could heal the memories of that hospital stay.

So I sat in my car, sobbing. When I was done, I blew my nose and racked my brain. What could I do to feel better? That’s when I thought of the care package.

In the hospital, one bright spot in the gloom had been a box sent by a college friend. It was full of little gifts—some useful, some silly—accompanied by a list of funny descriptions. About a jeweled hair clip, “A fashion must for every hospital patient.” About a book of crossword puzzles, “For intellectual stimulation during TV commercials.” And for a package of my favorite cookies, “To remind you of the days when we ate only the ‘healthiest’ of foods!”

Remembering how the box had raised my spirits, I decided to make my own care package for an expectant mother on bed rest. On the back of a napkin, I listed items to include. There had to be a hair clip and some silly slippers, too. A package of the softest toilet tissue and sweet-smelling hand soap; I’d always hated the medicinal odor of hospital soap.

After shopping my blues away, I went home, attached labels to each item, and packed it all in a gift bag. I also wrote a letter to the unknown recipient, sharing part of my story (minus the sad ending) and offering my prayers for a healthy baby.

On April 19, the anniversary of Luke’s birth, my husband, Jory, and I returned to the hospital. We walked through the lobby where I had checked in the year before. We visited the cafeteria where Jory had eaten supper the night Luke died. And we rode the elevator to the fourth floor, where I’d spent three of the hardest weeks of my life.
At the nurses’ station, I hesitantly set the bag on the counter.

While I’d done a lot of emotional work since then around the loss of my son, it didn’t seem that anything could heal the memories of that hospital stay.

“I brought this for one of your patients on bed rest,” I said. “To cheer her up.”

The nurse looked inside and exclaimed over the contents. “I have just the patient in mind for this,” she told me. “She’s been here for 31 days.”

Thirty-one days! That’s when I knew for certain the care package had been a good idea.

Five months later, my beautiful baby girls were born, and the following April, I was too busy (and sleep deprived) to think of care packages or hospital visits. But as my daughters grew, they learned about their big brother Luke, and it seemed natural to pair a visit to his grave with a stop at the hospital. I started assembling a care package every spring. Over time, I increased the number I delivered each year to three, then six. When the girls became old enough, they helped me pack them.

It’s now been 12 years since Luke died, and at least 50 mothers-to-be have received one of my bed rest bags. I’ve received grateful notes from a few of them, but that’s not why I do it. Packing those gift bags is a way of celebrating not being in the hospital. It’s a way of celebrating my two living children. Most of all, it’s a way of celebrating a reassuring truth, which I learned through the loss of my little boy: out of something bad can emerge something good. Doing something to encourage women who felt helpless—as I once did—restored my sense of power and helped me to heal.

SARA MATSON is a freelance writer from Minnesota.

Check with your local hospital before taking any gift for a stranger, or for programs whereby you can contribute or offer a package or gift of cheer.

In Harrisonburg/Rockingham County, The Sadie Rose Foundation offers support groups and an organized way to reach out to those dealing with the death of an infant and pregnancy loss and miscarriage. Online: sadierosefoundation.org or call 540-810-0307.


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