The Pattons | A Family Story
It was a bright blue Wednesday morning. The birds were singing. The sun's rays penetrated the boughs of ancient trees, dappling grass and headstones below - a beautiful day for a family photoshoot.
Beth & Demarick were my mentors in college, and it was 11 years ago that they lost their firstborn, Ashlyn. They had three sweet months with their little girl before they laid her to rest in Lullaby Land, a special hill in Forest Lawn Cemetery. Since then, they have brought three more beautiful girls into the world and relocated to Orlando, FL. A family gathering brought them back to the region a few weeks ago which meant they were able to see Ashlyn for a morning, the closest reunion they will have on this side of eternity. Knowing they don't get to be a family of six very often, they reached out to see if I could come take family photos and it was the most heart-sore session I've had the privilege of documenting.
The girls danced and tickled and laughed and Demarick and Beth soaked up just being so close to Ashlyn again. The girls never got to meet their big sister, knowing her only from pictures and videos. They spent time laying next to her on the grass, gently touching Ashlyn's stone, telling her stories, Beth and Demarick reminiscing.
Beth has so graciously shared her story below and I hope that those of you who have lost a child or know someone who is grieving will find comfort, understanding, and hope today.
Could you share a bit about Ashlyn - her life and her death?
Ashlyn was born in March of 2005. She was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate, which is a very common birth defect throughout the world. Although her cleft was fairly severe, it was fixable and we were told that she would undergo 10-12 surgeries during her childhood to completely correct all of the defects.
Ashlyn died in June 2005 after her first surgery to begin correcting her lip. Her death was completely unexpected; even the surgeon who performed the operation left for a three-day vacation immediately after finishing up on her, not being worried in the least about her recovery. Ashlyn's death is still a bit unknown, but what we do know is that she aspirated some milk into her lungs which produced a very severe vaso-vagul reflex inside her body. Her heart stopped beating and she stopped breathing. She was still at the hospital when this occurred - in fact, Demarick and I had just arrived to pick her up and bring her home - but the staff were unable to revive her.
I know it was 11 years ago now and that you only had 3 months with her, but what do you remember most about her?
She loved to jump! She would bounce up and down on our laps forever. I remember the big smiles she would give us, and I remember holding her a lot and having the dog lick her face all over. I also remember long nights with her when she had her days and nights mixed up like all newborns do! :) :) :)
What do you imagine she would be like today?
A few months ago, the Lord gave me a dream about her. She was with her sisters in our home. They were all running around playing and sprinting up and down the stairs. She had thick, dark hair like her dad and she had a contagious giggle. I woke up from that dream crying. I can't wait for all four sisters to be reunited.
Ashlyn would now be 11 years old and would have started middle school this fall, which is so hard to believe! I often wonder what sports or activities she would take part in...would she play the piano? Draw or paint well? Play soccer?
What did you experience after she died?
There is a long story behind this answer, but we experienced peace that could only come from the Holy Spirit. We found the nurse who was taking care of her when she died and told her that we were not angry with her, nor did we blame her. We told her about Jesus's love and prayed for her. She wept; she had never had a child die in her care as a nurse up until that point. We gave Ashlyn to the Lord as she slipped from life to death; we knew that "hanging on" would do us no good. Again, there is a larger story behind the first minutes and hours, but to this day Demarick and I have never experienced Jesus as closely as we did in those first hours. We knew He wanted her Home.
How did God bring you through it? How is He still bringing you through it?
The months that followed could only be described as raw. The searing pain cannot be understood unless you have lost a child. I can remember that we left her diaper pail untouched for at least a week even though there were some stinky diapers contained in the pail...Demarick finally emptied it and bawling, he said to me, "This is the last evidence we have of her being alive." I still have vivid memories of him crying and crying as he took the trash liner full of diapers out to our trash can.
In the midst of the grief, we still felt peace. It's funny how peace and crying can coexist at the same time. We did some practical things, including taking a GriefShare class through our church. That class was so helpful. After the class was over, we also had counselor come over and meet with us for a few months. That, too, was very helpful. We continued to talk about Ashlyn and I made a scrapbook of her life. We were thankful to have a lot of people around us who continued to let us verbally process her life and death.
I would imagine losing a child hurts no matter the time that has passed. How are you processing her death, 11 years later?
This may be surprising to read, but I miss her more today than I did when she first died. I became pregnant with our daughter Caydence (now 10 years old) soon after Ashlyn's death, and Raquel and Sienna followed closely after. Those first years of crying, napping, and nursing babies and toddlers (in an endless cycle!) were difficult for me. When Caydence turned five or six years old, parenting started to become really fun because she could communicate and do so much more for herself. I just LOVE being a mom now! (It's not that I didn't ALWAYS love my girls, of course, even when they were tiny, but I am really really enjoying these elementary school years!) As I have experienced the joy of parenting more and more, I realize what I was/am missing out on with Ashlyn not being here. I am not watching her participate in school plays. She is not snuggling with me on the couch as we talk about friendships, recess, and Jesus (common topics with Caydence these days). I am not going to her swim meets or ballet recitals. I know much more of what I am missing now and so her death is very painful to me. How I would long to send her off to sixth grade this fall and watch her become a blossoming middle schooler!
At the same time, Heaven has become much more real. Heaven is not just a hopeful wish - it's reality! I will get to spend eternity with Ashlyn, and I believe the Lord will redeem the time that was lost here on earth. I read Heaven by Randy Alcorn a few years ago. He has a section on miscarriage/stillbirth/infant loss with regards to Heaven. It's profound. Each day here on this planet is a day closer to eternity with her. I will serve on this earth for as many days as God wants me to, and once I enter into Paradise you can bet that after I fall at Jesus's feet I will embrace Ashlyn as the great reunion commences. I can't wait to see what she looks like!
When you came back to see her yesterday, what did you feel and think?
It was a strange sensation to know that her physical body was just a couple of feet below me. We live in Florida now and we had not been back to Omaha or her grave in three years. I wanted to touch her again. I know it sounds morbid, but I wanted to dig up her grave and take her out and pretend she was alive again. I wanted it to never have happened. I let myself weep, not so much over her death, but in the fact that 11 years have passed and that I have missed on watching her grow up.
How do you carry her and your loss with you on a day to day basis?
I don't think about her daily anymore, but I do think about her weekly. We talk to our girls about their sister a lot. We include her in conversations. I have a little area in my bedroom devoted to her; it's a sacred space. We still have pictures up of her, and every year on her birthday and the anniversary of her death we watch about 20 minutes of video we have of her.
What truths would you encourage other parents with who have lost children?
Make sure you talk about your child. Don't bottle it up. Don't pretend like your child never existed. Talk about him/her with friends and family. Go to a grief class nearby. They are so helpful. Forgive if there needs to be forgiveness. Don't hold on to bitterness or anger.
When the grocery store clerk ask you how many kids you have, feel the freedom to answer how you please. Sometimes I say I have four kids. When you see a child out in public who is your child's age, cry if you want. Know that the pain isn't going to go away over time and that that's ok.
Most importantly, release your child to Jesus...there was no greater freedom than mentally laying Ashlyn in Jesus's arms and saying to Him, "You may have her."
What do you long for most?
For the Lord to return! Come quickly, Lord Jesus!
What do you wish everyone knew about losing a child?
If there was one thing I would say, it would be that if you have a loved one who has lost a child, do not say, "Let me know if there is anything I can do for you." That is the worst statement because it puts all the pressure on the grieving person! Instead, just do something for them without asking - clean their house, do the dishes, make them a meal, walk the dog, take other kids (if they have them) to the park for a while. I still remember the folks who simply came over and did things for us right after Ashlyn passed. I can still recall one woman who brought over a huge spread of food for dinner. She didn't ask; she just came. With a lot of food. Then she gave us a hug and she left. It was one of the most meaningful things anyone did.
Also, keep asking the grieving parents about their child, even years later. Remember the anniversary of their child's death each year. I have three people who text me on June 5th every year and let me know they are thinking about me. I cannot tell you how meaningful that is to me! A simple text goes a long way.
Beth, thank you so much for taking time to share your story, family, heart, and pain. It was such an honor to take your family photos and document the closest reunion you can have with Ashlyn right now. Your girls are beautiful - all four of them. Enjoy a few of my favorites from your special time here...
Much love, Heather
Thank you, God, for such a precious family!