Creating Change

SHARED BY KATIE STERN

Twelve weeks and five days. That is how long Toby was in our arms. I would give anything—anything—to hold our baby boy again. 

Summer Fun

Days before I gave birth to Toby, I was struggling with emotions. I was so worried about how I was going to love both of my boys as much as they needed and give them everything they deserved. I asked my mom, "How am I going to love both of them equally? How will I support and protect both of them without one feeling left out?"

Her answer is one that will stick with me forever. "You will give them all the love they could ever need. Your fears will never go away, no matter how old they are, and you will always worry if you are doing the right thing for them. But it will all be okay, because you will love them unconditionally." 

Tobias Graham Stern was born at 8:25 on Thursday, May 27. A bit smaller than his older brother, Lucas, he weighed 8 pounds 12 ounces but had the same cute face and beautiful head of hair.

When Toby was seven days old, we moved into our first home and settled in as a family of four. I was on maternity leave until early August. My husband, Dan, who is a teacher,  was off work during that time, too. We spent time outside with the boys, playing in the yard, going for walks at the park. We tried out our new neighborhood’s pool; the boys loved it. Luke loved the water, and Toby loved lying on the towel by the pool. He would laugh and kick his feet. He loved the sound of the water. It seemed to calm him. We loved being able to do all these things together.

We even got to visit the zoo in July, and Dan’s family, with our nieces and nephews, spent a day at Idlewild Park at the end of the month. All the best summer activities, we got to do with our boys.

A Family of Four

I went back to work on August 10. Dan was back in his classroom getting ready for another school year to start. On Sunday, August 14, Toby was baptized into the Catholic Church. It was a beautiful day. Our entire family was there, which is very rare for us. Toby wore the baptism suit Luke had worn. He looked so beautiful, all dressed in white. The priest said, “This guy is probably one of the youngest children I’ve baptized. Most parents wait until they are a little older.”

Katie and Dan Stern with their sons, Luke and Toby

Katie and Dan Stern with their sons, Luke and Toby

A few weeks later, I was dropping the boys off at daycare before going to work. It was the first day of school for many in our area, so I was talking to Luke about the school buses, what the kids had in their backpacks, where they were going. He was chatty and excited to see all the buses. We were sitting at a stoplight and I was looking in my rearview mirror, listening to Luke. Toby was so intently watching him talk, smiling at him. I remember thinking, “I’m so lucky to be their mom.”

I got them out of the car at daycare, carrying Toby’s car seat, still talking to Luke as we walked in. I kissed them both on the cheek. “I love you guys. Have a good day. Daddy will pick you up.” I got back in the car and went to work.

Toby went to sleep for his afternoon nap that day and never woke up. It was August 24.

Memories of Grief

I remember little bits and pieces of the next week or so. A lot of it I don’t remember at all. I went from being completely numb to lying on the floor in Toby’s room, crying. But there are some moments, situations, that are so vivid in my mind.

Toby was buried in his white christening outfit. A tiny white casket held our beautiful son. When we went to the cemetery for arrangements, they showed us the infant section, and I felt so empty standing in it. I said to Dan, “I don’t want him here. He needs a better place. A place where we can be with him.” That day, we picked three plots—one for Toby, Dan, and me. I never in my life thought I would even be standing in a cemetery with my husband at thirty-three years old, let alone picking a place to bury our son.

The morning of the funeral, I was upstairs getting dressed. I remember feeling like I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t stand, walk, cry. I was just so tired, and looking at Dan I could tell he felt the same. I just wanted to hold Toby. I wanted to kiss his forehead. Sing him another song. Let Luke read him a book. Why were we being robbed of all these memories? Why would God do this to us?

We rode to the funeral mass with my parents. It was a beautiful late summer day. The sun was shining. As we turned to pull into church, we started up the hill and I looked up. At the top, in front of the church doors, was a shiny white hearse. The overwhelming realization of what was happening hit me. That was for Toby.

I remember sitting at the funeral mass, staring at the little white casket, just wanting to put my arms around it and cry. We left mass and got back in the car. I sat in the backseat, staring through the windshield as they placed his tiny casket into the hearse. When the funeral procession started to move, I looked toward the road that we were pulling out onto. Two Monroeville police cars, with their lights on, were driving slowly, leading us. On our right, another police car sat in the middle of the road, blocking traffic. I kept breathing in, but couldn’t let my breath out. Our son was being escorted to his final resting place by a community we hardly even knew. We had to drive about fifteen minutes to the cemetery, on main roads, where traffic normally just stops to let a funeral precession through. At each light we passed were police cars with their lights on, police officers standing in the intersections. They led us all the way to Toby’s grave site.

I remember thinking, I bet this is how he was welcomed into Heaven. Everyone lining the streets, rows of angels, everyone stopping to watch and welcome Toby home. To hug and kiss him and show him he is loved, just like we had done every day in our home.

Pain, Hope, and Joy

On one of my first days back to work from maternity leave, when asking about how Luke and Toby were, someone said, "You did so much this summer." In response, knowing that Dan and I may never be off again when our boys were this small, I said, "We may never have another summer like this." How in the world could I have ever imagined that statement would be how we would describe this time for the rest of our lives? I couldn’t. I just can’t.

Toby brought so much joy to our lives. He made us a family of four. He made Lucas a big brother—and what a loving, accepting, and playful one he was with Toby. He continues to love Toby with as much love as he did when he was here with us. Toby’s smile, his laugh, his beautiful blue eyes. He was the spitting image of Dan, and I am so proud that he is our son. I am so proud to be his mom.

Grief, especially grief over the loss of a child, is the most awful thing. Writing, particularly about Toby and our time together as a family of four, has given me an outlet for this overwhelming sadness. It doesn’t take away the heartache, sorrow, emptiness, anger, questions, guilt, sadness, and exhaustion. It merely provides a place for me to talk about it. A place to talk about Toby. To tell the world how special he was, and how when we thought our hearts could not be filled with any more love, because of the immense joy that Lucas brought when he was born, there was more.

My husband and I made a promise to Toby after he died: we were going to work to do something good in his name. Something that would give hope, bringing smiles and joy to families in our region. It is through that promise that The Little Fox | Toby’s Foundation is being formed. While we ourselves are still searching, daily, for continued courage and comfort for our broken hearts, we have seen a number of things that give us hope that our angel, Toby, is with our family.

There are days that are so hard, too hard, to focus on anything but our empty arms and broken hearts. But, when you have other children who want to laugh, play, sing, read—enjoy life with their parents—you must find ways to continue to smile. Luke has been our rock through this tragedy. As a mother, I honestly cannot tell you where I’d be without him. It scares me to think of the dark place I may be in.

A Journey through Grief

I feel like society forces bereaved parents through the loss of their child. It is not kind or comforting to those of us on a journey through grief. There is very little understanding about what happens during grief. How parents continue with their lives when their own worlds have stopped. How we may look like we are doing okay, but the minute we find a safe place—our homes, our cars, our child’s grave—the tears and anger are released. How our lives are completely changed, not according to our plan, and we are thrown onto a path that can be very lonely, no matter how many people are around.  

One thing that has really proven to be true is that everyone grieves differently. Dan and I are on the same journey from the death of our son, Toby. But we don’t feel the same. We don't have the same sadness or anger on the same day. We don't find joy or happiness in the same things. It is so very different. It is so very hard. We are each trying to manage our own pain while supporting one another in the best way we can and continuing to be the best parents for Lucas. Some days we want to talk; others, we don’t. Some days we want to cry; others, we just say, “I’m having a bad day,” and leave it at that.

Katie with Toby

Katie with Toby

At times, it feels virtually impossible to think about moving forward. How can the world go on without Toby? How can our family go another day without his sweet face? I am so thankful for the pictures we have of him. They are what I hold on to when I am drowning in sorrow. With his picture on my nightstand, his face is the first I see when I wake up in the morning and the last I see before I close my eyes at night.

I believe, as a parent living through grief, that we must choose what will help us to survive. It may not be what someone else would choose for us, and that’s okay. It may not be the right timing for others, or coincide with when others think grief should lessen, and that’s okay. You are the protector of your heart, a heart that has been broken and that may never fully mend. A heart, mind, and soul that has experienced a loss so great, there aren’t even words for it.

Sharing Our Stories

We have had the opportunity to meet a few parents who are also on this journey. Parents who, like us, wished they'd never met us. But their words and experiences are what I carry with me. They have helped me realize that we’re not alone. They were once at the place where we are now—a place so dark, you’ve started to give up on finding the light. But they somehow found it. And they are here, with open hearts, to listen to the newly bereaved. They have held our hands. They have listened to Toby’s story, and by doing that, have held our hearts.

This new journey that we are on is not the path I ever imagined, but I know I must figure out what direction to go, that will lead me to a place where I can live for Toby. The steps I have taken since August 24 are continually backward and forward. They have been so hard, but they are for him. He is our light from Heaven. Just as he was our joy on earth. 

I am finding that many people don’t want to talk about the death of our son. They don’t want to talk about grief because it makes them uncomfortable. Many people say “I’m so sorry” or “I didn’t mean to bring it up or make you sad.” I want people to understand, I want society to understand: you don’t have to apologize to me. To us. Mothers. Fathers. Bereaved families. I think about Toby every single minute of the day, just like I think about his brother, Luke. What is he doing in Heaven? What would he like to do? What would he like to eat? Would he like bath time, or running with me in the stroller, like he did right before he died?

When you ask about my son or say Toby’s name? Yes, my heart hurts because I am speaking about him in a past tense. But the conversations when I get to talk about him, speak his name, tell people that his short, beautiful life mattered and that he was loved as much as he possibly could be. It makes me happy. It makes me proud.

Uncomfortable conversations create change. There need to be conversations about the life of a grieving parent. There’s not a word for it, like there is for a widow or orphan. Isn’t that sad? To me, that gives further weight to the concept of educating people about grief and the thousands of layers that come with grief. There needs to be more support for those grieving, for those parents mourning their child, no matter what stage of this journey they are in. In my opinion, there is nothing, nothing you could say to me or ask me that would make me any sadder than I am every single day. Nothing.

There will forever be a hole in my heart. My prayers are that Toby and the angels can fill that hole with direction, with a way that will guide our steps. Lead us to people and places where we can spread Toby’s joy and talk about his life, and in turn talk about where our lives are now. Talk about grief so that other grieving parents don’t feel alone. Talk about grief so that families, friends, colleagues, those around the bereaved daily, have a better understanding of how to support us. The loss of a child is an endless journey. It is one where I will always be searching for answers—at least until the day I am called home and can hold Toby again in my arms.

 
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