My name is Jennifer Alexander; it was an honor to be invited to share my WakeMed testimonial. Although a tragedy occurred, our story isn’t a tragedy but a love story… the story of the greatest gift our hearts have known: the life of our son, Griffin.
My testimonial also highlights our decision to donate a Cuddle Cot to labor and delivery and the outstanding, quality bereavement care we received while at WakeMed.
My husband and I were both born and raised in Raleigh, and we both attended UNC. We first met each other the summer after graduation at my grandfather’s funeral at Oakwood Cemetery. We were married in 2007 and welcomed our daughter Marguerite in 2010.
Pregnancy wasn’t what I had expected; I was sick the entire 9 months and continuously thought, never again!
Our daughter, Marguerite, was born at 37 weeks, weighing 7lbs. 11oz. She was delivered by Dr. McKenzie, and my nurse was Samantha Dixon.
As soon as I met our daughter, every hard aspect of the past year had been completely forgotten. I still remember giving Samantha the biggest hug before leaving the hospital…you never forget the people that share the happiest day of your life with you.
Trying for a Second Baby
When Marguerite turned one year old, we decided to start trying for another baby. We had both grown up as only children, so this was an especially exciting step for us. I had an early miscarriage in August of 2012, and this was our first realization that a positive pregnancy test doesn’t always result in bringing home a baby.
We also learned that love for that baby begins even before the positive test.
One month later I was pregnant again, and we were overjoyed. My pregnancy was normal and seemed to go by much faster since I was busy chasing a toddler.
In January of 2013 we learned that we were having a boy. My father-in-law died six weeks after our daughter was born, so we were especially ecstatic to have a little boy carry our family name. He was named Haywood Griffin Alexander, Jr., after my husband. Tears rolled down our cheeks as we joyfully shared the news with my parents. I can still hear my mom’s giddy proclamation, “We’re going to have a little Haywood!”
I started dreaming of tousled hair, knee high socks, and tripping over dinosaurs and LEGO collections.
I imagined the basketball goal at the end of the driveway, the possible frog collection, and the superhero bedsheets.
I envisioned a son who would tower over me with the strength of a man but the heart of a boy.
I even remember thinking it was a good thing we had our Costco membership- I had heard that growing boys can empty your fridge in a day!
Preparing for Griffin’s Arrival
I already knew what to expect with childbirth, so I spent most of the nine months in nesting mode. Griffin’s nursery was a nautical theme; I never realized how much joy could be found in discovering the perfect sailboat accessory. I filled his closet with monogrammed Jon Jons, bibs and burp cloths. I found so much joy in even purchasing the necessities: tiny socks, tubes of Desitin, and light blue sleep sacks.
I took Marguerite on many of these shopping excursions and included her in preparations. She picked out a blue bunny lovie to give Griffin when she first met him. I bought her a big sister dress, and I bought myself a light blue housecoat for hospital pictures. I was probably the most prepared mother in Raleigh!
During this time I often imagined what would be the happiest moment of my life- Marguerite walking into the room to meet her brother and holding both of my children in my arms…My dreams would be complete one month before my 30th birthday.
Haywood and I installed the car seat in the car, we went out on our last date before Griffin’s impending arrival, and we packed a suitcase. I even made a list of all of the little babies that would be in Griffin’s play group.
I was past 37 weeks. Griffin was safe. I was on top of the world. Every night before I’d go to bed I’d wonder and pray if it would be THE night.
Knowing Something Was Wrong
At 38 weeks and 3 days, Haywood and I were in bed watching TV when I felt a sudden and sharp pain in my back. I jolted upright and thought ‘This is it- contractions will start soon and we’ll be having our baby.’ However, I went to the bathroom shortly afterwards and saw bright red blood in the toilet. I immediately knew something was wrong and I screamed to Haywood to call 911.
My parents came over to stay with Marguerite, and my mom held me as I shook by the door with a beach towel around my waist. As soon as the paramedics arrived the sky opened up, and in hindsight it was as if God was crying for us.
The paramedic in the back of the ambulance asked me if I needed to push, and I said no. He responded, “I know you want a Doppler right now, but we don’t have one.”
For some reason I hadn’t thought about Griffin’s heartbeat yet; I was preparing for what I thought would be an emergency c-section.
Panic set in as I focused on my stomach, trying to jiggle Griffin into movement. My placenta was positioned across my stomach, so I never felt big movements like I did with our daughter. The drive was excruciating, because they only go lights and siren if your water has broken. Part of me wanted to scream to cut me open right then and there to save him, and part of me said to stay calm..nothing bad happens at term.
I was taken straight to WakeMed triage, and a familiar face brought me calm. My triage nurse was Samantha Dixon, the same nurse who had coached me through Marguerite’s birth. She checked my cervix and commented on the amount of blood but said that sometimes it could be a normal part of labor.
I held my breath as she placed the Doppler on my stomach. I can still see her concerned expression as she pulled up the first placement and tried for the second. “Honey,” she asked me, “When was the last time you felt him move?” I cried, “I don’t know!” as she placed the Doppler again and again only to be met with silence.
I started screaming her name as the realization sunk in that our son had died.
Waking Up from a Nightmare
I don’t know the exact sequence of events that came next. I remember looking at the clock on the wall and praying that I was still asleep and it was a horrible nightmare.
Dr. Smith came in with the ultrasound machine and showed us Griffin’s beautiful but perfectly still silhouette. He pointed to his chest and said, “This is his heart, and there’s no heartbeat.”
I’m sure he said I’m sorry. I’m sure he had tears in his eyes, but all I remember is the world falling out from beneath me.
Haywood collapsed against the bed. I couldn’t remember how to breathe, and it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest as my blood pressure rose to levels twice my normal numbers.
I thought that if I closed my eyes I would die too. If my child had died inside of me something must be terribly wrong with my body. I wondered if my organs were shutting down. It didn’t make sense for Griffin’s heart to stop beating while mine kept going.
Coming to Grips with Stillbirth
What is stillbirth?
I thought it was something that only happened in developing countries. The chances of it happening to your child are so small. I thought it was something I’d never have to worry about because it wasn’t going to happen to me. However, someone has to be the 1%.
I asked if we could donate Griffin’s heart valves, and I was devastated to learn that we couldn’t since we didn’t know the exact time of death. I used to work for Carolina Donor Services on their tissue recovery team, so this news was especially crushing.
I wanted so badly for something good to come from tragedy. I didn’t want another couple to feel the pain we were experiencing.
I can still see Samantha’s face as she held my hands in hers. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she said, “I’ll never forget you.”
These words were simple, yet they have resonated with me years later. Her compassion moved me.
Sometimes the greatest love comes from simply bearing witness to someone’s experience.
She was telling me, “I see you and what you’re going through. You are not alone. What’s happening to you matters to me.” Her focus was not to make the pain go away – she knew that was impossible – but rather to show that she was standing beside me in support. She surrounded me with love.
I was scared to hear that a vaginal delivery would be my safest and recommended option.
How would I labor and give birth to my deceased baby? The labor and delivery hall is supposed to be the happiest place on earth.
Everyone smiled at me as I was pushed by and I heard women in labor and babies crying as I was wheeled to a room at the end of the hallway.
I was in labor for 8 hours.
I was numb and in shock; it’s almost as if God had picked me up from my body and placed me on a floating cloud. Faith is the only thing I know of that is stronger than fear. Our nurse asked if she could pray for us before she left for shift change. I honestly don’t remember anything she said, but I remember her care in that moment. I can still feel the grip of her hand on mine.
At 7:30 in the morning I was ready to push.
Dr. Bass walked in and sat on the edge of my bed and said, “Let’s try this.”
There were no lights, minimal drapes, and not a sound in the room. I pushed three times, and our son was born at 8:18 in the morning on June 3, 2013.
It was the most anticipated moment of my life, and it will forever be the most painful. Having the best and worst moment of your life share the same space within your heart is indescribable.
Dr. Bass asked if I wanted him placed on my chest, and I asked if I could have a minute to collect myself. I questioned, “Does he look ok?” The nurse responded, “Yes, he’s beautiful.”
I turned to my left where she was standing by the scale, and I took the first look at our son. He was even more beautiful than I’d imagined. I was overwhelmed with pain and sadness but also great love and pride like any mother after giving birth. He was 9lbs. 2oz. 22.5 inches long.
The nurse placed him in my arms, and my first words to him were, “I love you, Griffin.” He had a head of fuzzy, dark hair and full cheeks that I gently kissed over and over again. He was perfect and so still.
My heart was aching for his eyes to open…for his mouth to open and make the sweet cries of a newborn.
I held his feet in the palm of my hand as I memorized their length. I wrapped his fingers around mine as I studied every part of God’s fingerprints. My husband leaned over and cradled us both in his arms.
Wrestling with the Unknown After Griffin’s Birth
We felt uncomfortable after Griffin’s birth with the unknown of what would come next. We wondered how much time we’d have with him. I quickly decided that as long as I was in the hospital I wanted him with me; my mother’s instinct was still to hold him close.
I had been primed to nurture and to protect him. We were taken to a postpartum room where we were introduced to our postpartum nurse, Christina Williams. As she wrote her name on the white board in our room, she also wrote, “Griffin is beautiful.” This is another example of bearing witness to our journey.
In one simple sentence she told us that she saw us. She saw him. Our son was not the elephant in the room; he was the gift.
Christina helped us feel more comfortable by exuding quiet confidence. She was 25 years-old at the time and one would think she had had years of experience. She held Griffin and cared for him with a sacred tenderness. She treated him like a living baby, asking if she could put a knit hat on him, helping us keep him swaddled, etc… She arranged for pictures with the hospital photographer, she had foot molds made for us, and she gave us a memory basket and explained its thoughtful contents.
The keepsakes mean the world to me. It’s all I’ll ever have as a physical proof of his existence to go along with my memories – that he was here- that it’s not all a dream. Christina was wonderful about telling us to take our time. We never felt pressured to leave Griffin. She encouraged us to spend the night with him, and from that moment on we just cherished every second.
My only regret is that I don’t have pictures of myself holding Griffin. I was scared to see myself on the worst day of my life- I didn’t even look in the mirror.
We also didn’t bathe Griffin because we were nervous about his fragile skin. However, I do feel that we were able to make the most of our time with him. We mostly spent that day holding him and whispering our love for him. Our minister also came to our room to do an honorary baptism and begin our funeral preparations. I was appreciative that he kissed Griffin’s forehead and looked at him with sincere and tender care.
Saying Our Goodbyes
The 24 hours we had with Griffin were a painful hourglass. Morning came and we knew that we’d have to say goodbye. I sat in the rocker and sang a lullaby to Griffin as I held him for the last time.
The longing to hold Griffin again is one of the most distinct emotions and memories from my grief journey.
Even now, I often think about how I wish so badly that I could hold him again- even just as he was.
I’ll never forget that Christina traded shifts with someone else so that she could be there for our discharge. I don’t think I could have handed Griffin over to anyone else. I placed him in her arms, and she walked out of the room with my heart. A few moments later, she returned and pushed me through the hospital in the wheelchair. I clutched the memory basket she had picked out for me, and I prayed that I wouldn’t see another mother with a baby on her lap.
I asked Christina questions about her dogs and going to the lake – anything to block my mind from the hysterics of leaving. When I stood up to get in the car, she embraced me and we both cried. I felt that our hearts would always be connected by the 24 hours we shared. Later, when I opened my discharge folder I found a note that she had written that said, “Your family will always be in my heart. God bless you.”
We were able to reconnect a year later; it was emotional to be able to thank her in person and talk again to one of the few people who met our son.
Quality bereavement care really can make a difference to a parent’s mourning, adjusting, and healing. I will forever remember this support, and I have continued to derive comfort from it over the years.
No words can describe the pain of going home without your baby and taking the empty car seat into the house. Our daughter looked at my smaller belly and empty arms and asked, “Mommy, where’s Griffin?” And later, “Will Jesus bring him back to our house?”
For months we had prepared her for the arrival of her brother, and she had already become the best big sister, talking to him, hugging my belly and feeding my belly button her favorite snacks. As I shared the news that shattered her heart, I vowed to be strong for her; she had lost her brother, and she couldn’t lose her mother, too.
A few days passed, and we had the opportunity to see Griffin again at the funeral home. I was very nervous but longed to feel the comfort of being near him. Knowing this would be the only time I’d get to choose his outfit was devastating. The sweet baby clothes hanging in his closet mocked my pain; we decided to bury him in his coming home outfit.
We had a private graveside burial for Griffin at Oakwood Cemetery- a beautiful location on a small hill and the exact spot where Haywood and I met each other. His marker is a beautiful sculpture of an angel holding a baby, and the inscription reads, ” The spirit of God has made me’ the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” This spot is truly a symbol of our life’s circle.
The Grief Journey
The grief journey is not linear, so it is difficult to describe.
It’s awkward to navigate life when yours has been turned upside down, and you have to rediscover who you are in the midst of it all.
After Griffin’s death, I joined two area support groups for women who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss. These groups were invaluable to me as I learned to navigate my new world. These women were the ones who made me feel understood. They are the ones who got it- my pain, my hurt, my loss, my suffering. They received me, they loved me, and they carried me through. I found people whose scars matched my own, but I also developed a deeper level of compassion and understanding.
Sometimes we create a scale of which pains are greater or lesser, but the truth is that pain is pain, and no person can define or rate another’s pain. Another truth is this: no matter what we face, we all need a hand to hold on to. I am so thankful for the facilitators and fellow parents of Parentcare and Covered in Love. They have helped me find the confidence in not only sharing our story but also being able to talk about Griffin easily and naturally. This has been essential in going forward- knowing that I haven’t fully lost him, because he is within me- in my voice and my heart.
Pregnancy After Infant Loss
Six months after Griffin died we started trying for another baby. Over the course of a year and a half we experienced 4 more losses in the first and second trimesters, including a daughter with trisomy 13. Those years were incredibly hard, but we clung to love and hope, which was greater than any fear, pain or disappointment.
On July 22nd, 2016, we welcomed our rainbow baby, a little boy named Branch. I was induced at 37 weeks, and once again, Samantha was there to help deliver Branch. My epidural didn’t go as planned, but perhaps God knew I needed sound. It felt good to scream and cry and release every piece of fear and pain I’d hung onto.
Pregnancy after loss was extremely hard, because I felt very vulnerable until the day I was induced. I walked through the entire pregnancy trying not to be overwhelmed with fear. There was no doubt of my love for Branch, but I was so afraid of loving him too much, because I had a fear of losing him, too.
Even in the delivery room with the nurses reassuring me of his safety, I still wasn’t convinced I’d get to hear him cry. Having health care providers who understand these emotions is vital. I have a wonderful relationship with Dr. Bernstien; he was so gracious with his time, and towards the end when I wanted to come in weekly, he didn’t even blink an eye.
I was terrified and grateful, and dancing between those two emotions was a daily battle. Hearing Branch cry for the first time is the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard. I was so thankful to share that moment with Dr. Bernstien and Samantha.
Branch showed me how to love through fear, and in spite of fear. Loving him has been worth every risk my heart had to make.
Not a day goes by where I don’t think of Griffin. It’s not necessarily an active thinking, but he has become ingrained in my day-to-day. He made us both better, braver and kinder.
For a long time we’ve thought about ways we could honor Griffin. When Haywood and I first heard of Cuddle Cots, we immediately knew how much they would help grieving families.
What are Cuddle Cots?
Cuddle Cots are devices that keep the baby cool in a bassinet at the mother’s bedside. They help relieve some fear, anxiety, and panic for families who have lost a child by providing them more time to create precious memories.
Cuddle cots are a relatively new technology. They first came to the United States in 2014. I pray their use will one day become a standard of care in every hospital. We did see fast changes to Griffin’s body, and there were some things we were unable to do like bathe him and brush his hair because of the delicacy of his skin.
WakeMed has my sincere gratitude for acknowledging that proper goodbyes are especially important in readying families for life after loss. WakeMed also recognized the important role that they play(ed) in assisting families during the early stages of grief.
One in 160 pregnancies will end in stillbirth each year in the United States; that’s 26,000 families that need vital support for their mourning, adjusting, and healing.
Marked by Love
Because of Griffin our family is marked by love – the love we’ve received from God, the love shown forth by our team of health care providers, and the love that we want to wrap the future families of baby loss with.
The sorrow we have from losing Griffin does not overshadow the joy of being able to love him as his family. We may have tears in our eyes as we share our story, but the truth is that every chance we have to talk about Griffin is one of our happiest days.
We give thanks to God for the honor of being Griffin’s parents, and we give thanks to WakeMed for being with us through our journey.
About Jennifer & Haywood Alexander
Jennifer and Haywood Alexander are Raleigh, NC natives and graduates of UNC-Chapel Hill. Haywood is a sergeant with the Raleigh Police Department, and Jennifer is a stay at home mom to Marguerite (age 7) and Branch (15 months).
In addition to spending time with family, they enjoy playing golf and visiting Bald Head Island.
Supporting Families in Need
**Thank you to the Alexander family for donating this Cuddle Cot to our labor and delivery unit. Their generous gift was made through the WakeMed Foundation to provide additional bereavement training for our staff.
If you would like more information on how to donate to important programs that support families in times of need, please send us an email.