Portraits of Child Loss

By Shayna Mace | Photography by Hillary Schave

When you become a parent, it’s an understatement to say your whole life changes. Thoughts shift from yourself to your child — keeping them fed, clothed, educated, entertained — and protected. Despite the fragility of babies and the constant “am I doing this parenting thing right?” question, we never quite stop worrying — even as our children get older.

Although it’s difficult to talk about, many of us have lost children, whether by miscarriage, stillbirth or the loss of an older child. This bring-us-to-our knees- grief of child loss is not written about a whole lot. We wanted to shed light on this tremendous loss, so if you’ve experienced this, you don’t feel so alone.

Four extraordinary women who have experienced their own child losses shared their stories with us to reveal what they’re going through — and the ripple effect grief has left in its wake.

But these women also share a commonality in their experiences: That hope can live alongside grief. And although life will never be the same for their families after their loss, the experience irrevocably altered the course of their lives in ways that they never could’ve expected.

Michelle Bauer is talking to me via video chat from her deck overlooking Lake Metonga in Crandon, where she and husband Jeff purchased a cabin in 2020.

She glances at a hummingbird in a nearby feeder and smiles. “It’s my little heaven up here,” she says.

It’s a welcome retreat for someone who has experienced what she has.

On Feb. 3, 2010, Michelle’s 13-year- old son Jesse died unexpectedly due to complications related to type 1 diabetes. Michelle, who was BRAVA’s marketing director at the time, was at a meeting an hour away when she received the call. She had spoken to Jesse that morning, and although he said he didn’t feel well, he assured her his blood sugar levels were normal. (Monitoring blood sugar levels several times a day is critical for those with diabetes, because diabetics can experience serious health complications if blood sugar levels are too low or high.)

Her middle child Jesse — who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 3 — was gone. He was her “chill kid, the one who was everybody’s friend.” He was goofy, an avid skater and snowboarder, and musically talented. Michelle’s face lights up as she proudly describes his wonderful qualities, more than 10 years later.

Jesse’s passing hit Michelle and her family like a ton of bricks. Although she and ex-husband Tom had joint custody of Jesse, his older sister Samantha, who was 16, and younger brother Joey, who was 9, they co-parented well. The strength of her and Tom’s relationship, even though they were divorced, was partially what buoyed Michelle during this difficult time.

“We decided we were going to be a united front. I think not everyone gets to say that through grief. I think a lot of marriages are destroyed when they lose a child, because one person grieves differently than the other; it’s very common. To find that unity was tough, but we found it … and we’re supportive of one another.”

After Jesse’s passing, even trivial moments were difficult for Michelle. A few weeks after his death, she ventured out for the first time to go grocery shopping, praying she wouldn’t see anyone she knew. While shopping, she walked past Crystal Light, and realized she didn’t need to buy the sugar-free powdered drink mix anymore, because no one in her home had type 1 diabetes besides Jesse. She burst into tears. Then she saw another shopper with a giggling two-year-old boy sitting in their cart. She looked around and thought: “How dare you not grieve for me? Don’t you know my son died? It was a horrible thought to look around and feel so much pain and be so alone.”

Having two other children also experiencing grief compounded the family’s sense of loss. “I didn’t have the capacity to probably be the best parent I could be [to my other kids] at the time, because I had my own grief. But, I did my best,” says Michelle.

Her daughter Samantha “was angry at the world. And I don’t blame her. [Jesse] was her best friend.”

Son Joey blamed himself. Michelle says he even had a dream the night before Jesse’s passing of him disappearing. She says Joey is quiet and doesn’t talk about the loss of Jesse. “Everybody grieves differently; it’s true. I talk about [Jesse] all of the time, so that’s my way of healing. But you know what? My kids have turned out amazing, considering what they went through those first couple of years.”

As the former executive director of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (from 2006 to 2008), another difficulty Michelle faced was that she had to share with her friends, colleagues and community she’d built around diabetes awareness that her son passed away from the very disease that she had worked tirelessly to raise money for research and advocacy.

“When he passed away, not only would the people [in this community] wig out that it was going to happen to their kids, but I thought I was going to lose my community. Who’s going to want to talk to the mom whose kid died from the disease that they’re all still battling [with their kids]? I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.”

Within weeks after Jesse died, Michelle started jotting down her thoughts about dealing with the death of her son with the intention of turning it into a book. As a diabetes advocate and someone who experienced such a crushing loss, maybe she could help others going through her same situation. As the years passed, she’d occasionally pull out her writings and add more thoughts and feelings. She shopped her book idea to a few small publishers, but nothing came of it. Ten years went by.

In February 2020, Michelle was chatting with a friend who owns a small publishing house, and she mentioned her book. He loved the idea and encouraged her to finish it. The book, titled “Jesse Was Here: (More Lasagna Please),” was released in April 2020 and is a memoir of a mother dealing with her son’s death, and includes helpful takeaways for other parents who are going through the same experience.

In the years after Jesse’s death, Michelle also started a website called jesse-was-here.org for grieving parents and family members to share their experiences, as well as resources. She’s spoken on TV and podcasts, runs a private Facebook group and has talked to to countless parents. Although it’s something she never wanted to experience, she has embraced the staggering weight of the death of her child and offers others a shoulder to cry on — because she’s been there too.

“You will see reminders of your loss everywhere. That is a harsh reality. During those first weeks without Jesse, I could barely get through Wednesdays, because Wednesdays were a stark reminder that my son had died a week ago, two weeks ago, three weeks ago. Now, Wednesday is just a Wednesday. The relief comes in small steps: one day, one week, one month at a time.”

Kristin Erickson has a big personality, and it’s easy to believe that without ever meeting her son, Sean, he probably did too. I know this because Erickson shows me video snippets on her phone of Sean exuberantly singing and joking around in class at McFarland High School, impersonating a teakettle and biting into a dill pickle with gusto before announcing, “it’s pickle time!”

“Sean loved nothing more than making people laugh,” says Erickson, laughing along today as she watches her son in his element. If an outsider walked into our conversation, they may think that after our lunch, she’d rush home to call Sean at his UW-Milwaukee dorm, where he was a freshman majoring in business. Except her call would go unanswered.

“Seanny,” as she affectionately calls him, “was loving life and getting incredible grades at college. He was thriving,” says Erickson. “Yet even kids at the top of their game make mistakes, and Sean did just that on the night of Feb. 13, 2020, when he decided to take LSD with a friend.”

That evening, his friend started feeling adverse effects from the drug, and Sean, worried, went to seek help. Then, knowing the trouble he would face at school, he left the dorm to wait until the drugs’ effects wore off and he could return and face the consequences. Erickson believes he went to a familiar place — across the street and under a bridge along the banks of the Milwaukee River where he and his friends often hung out. Thinking the ice covering the river was frozen solid, he stepped on it and fell through.

He sent a last, tragic text to Erickson and her husband, Mike Baek, moments earlier, which said: “I love you so f*cking much. I’m so f*cking sorry.” Though some may interpret his words as a suicide note, Erickson knows they were written to apologize for his poor decision and the trouble at college he knew he’d soon face.

Not immediately knowing where Sean was after writing that text was excruciating for Erickson, Baek, and Sean’s brother, Brady, then 15. Sean had simply disappeared. The police searched for weeks and on March 31, 2020, Sean’s body was found in the river and was positively identified.

When the family finally learned what had happened to Sean, Erickson says another wave of grief hit her. “I actually went back into shock again, even though I was sure of what happened and was absolutely certain it was a tragic accident. Sean would have never taken his life or gone missing voluntarily.”

Though painful, and told with unflinching honesty (she wanted the details of his passing shared in this feature), she agreed to do so to set the record straight. His disappearance was covered heavily on the news, and she wants to warn parents of how prevalent drug use is on campuses. Erickson says she’s always been very open with both of her sons.

“… I told them they could ask me anything, and promised to always tell them the truth. So, Sean and I had an open dialogue about drugs. He told me he was curious about acid and I begged him not to try it … But, Sean was always Sean. He listened and was respectful, but he made his own choices. And, this time, he paid the ultimate price.”

Looking back on the weeks after Sean went missing is still very painful. She doesn’t recall much in the weeks after Feb. 14, with the exception of an overwhelming outpouring of love from the McFarland community and others.

One friend who reached out immediately was Michelle Bauer, who worked for a number of years at the publishing company Erickson owned. (Erickson started BRAVA Magazine in 2003, and sold the company in 2009.) The women originally connected after Sean, like Bauer’s son, Jesse, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and Bauer reached out to offer support. It’s ironic they now share another connection with their sons’ passing.

“When I found out Jesse died in 2010, I was devastated. I remember thinking I could never survive a loss like that,” recalls Erickson. “Now, I’m in the same place. And one of the first people at my door to help was Michelle. Her strength and capacity to give is limitless.”

Erickson has experienced an unusual number of deaths in her life; many were untimely and unexpected. Yet one by one, she says, all of her loved ones contacted her to make sure she knew they were still there. After Sean’s passing, Erickson says psychic and medium Scotty Rorek increased her ability to communicate with her son tenfold, which brought her comfort. Yet she’s quick to say her goal in sharing this is not to make others believe.

This is not unusual. All of the women I talked to for this story said they regularly feel the presence of their child, either by speaking to them or seeing signs of them.

Keeping Sean’s memory alive isn’t difficult for Erickson. She feels as if he’s always with her. He also lives on in the countless iPhone snaps she shows me of him, and in the funny stories that his friends share with her when they visit.

On July 31, 2021, the family held a celebration of life for Sean at their home. (The agonizing delay of holding a celebration was, of course, because of COVID-19.) Erickson hosted food trucks and a combination of speakers and songs, including live remote performances by “Hamilton” lead Miguel Cervantes, Rosanne Cash and Raine Stern, a contestant on the most recent season of “The Voice.”

Erickson is also working on a book with Rorek about Sean’s afterlife experience, titled “Alive on Arrival.” The family is also establishing The Sean Baek Foundation which will donate money to various causes, including JDRF and hopefully, a scholarship at McFarland High School.

After sharing so much, Erickson has been composed the entire time we talk, which is surprising, especially given how recently Sean passed away. She says her ability to keep her emotions in check aren’t indicative of an absence of pain. Some days, she admits, are excruciating. But one moment cracks her composure. “I just wish I could hug him,” she says quietly, shrugging. Tears glisten in her eyes, and she pauses for several moments.

“Sean helped a lot of his friends because he listened. He was — I hate referring to him in the past tense — he is so compassionate and kind and caring. He made an important impact during his short life on earth.”

When Felica Turner-Walton’s son Zaire was born on Oct. 22, 2015, he was the perfect addition to her family of five. Son Jamarius (age 19 at the time), Markeria (age 16), Markavian (age 11) and Markayla (age 4), adored their baby brother. Somehow, having a baby just felt different this time around for Turner-Walton.

“He was one of those babies that [rarely] cried. He was … this ray of sunshine; the energy in the room,” explains Turner- Walton, a soft smile on her face, her deep brown eyes joyful.

Named after the African country of Zaire and the Zaire River that flows through it (now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Congo River, respectively) the idea of a flowing river, steady and consistent, appealed to her. His name brings comfort to Turner- Walton every time she speaks it.

In March 2016, Turner-Walton brought Zaire in for his four-month- old vaccinations. Within 12 hours, he experienced an adverse reaction to the shots, and was placed on life support. Despite lifesaving measures, Zaire passed away at the American Family Children’s Hospital three days later.

While at the hospital, Turner-Walton remembers thinking, “If you need anybody, then take me, I’m here, I’ve lived … a bit of life. But he’s just four months, you know?” She continues, “So, I was really trying to bargain … giving myself up. Then trying to find acceptance, but then immediately going back to denial, like, ‘Oh, hell no, this is not what it is; I’m not going to accept this — I should have a choice in making this decision.’”

Turner-Walton never left his side the entire time he was there — and walked him to surgery after her family made the decision to pull him off of life support and donate his heart and liver.

She shows me her pendant necklace with Zaire’s ashes in it and tells me that two babies received his organs. “It gives me chills knowing that his organs went to other babies, with his name meaning what it does — always flowing [and giving life].”

Afterward, Turner-Walton struggled, particularly because she says Black grief is more complicated. She started reading about the Five Stages of Black Grief, coined by Dr. Stacy Scott of the Baby 1st Network. They include despair, self-blame, move to action, endurance and survival. According to Scott, self-blame looms large for Black women, who are expected to take care of their families. Often, Black families’ move to action is tackling the expenses of a loss, and the time off of work (and lack of paid time off) it entails. Endurance comes into play to be able to forge ahead, after the funeral is over and support drops off. And for Black people, survival can be “considered the new acceptance stage,” notes baby1stnetwork.org. “As a result, sadness, anger, and regret are a few emotions that may never totally diminish.”

Turner-Walton also had four other children to care for who were grieving, too. “Being a single parent … it was like, ‘Wait — I had five children — now I’m down to four. How do I go back from that?’” she explains. “I was so afraid to love all of my children after losing him, because I was afraid that if I loved on them too much, that something would happen to them too.”

After she returned to work, she realized her employer didn’t quite know how to deal with her loss. Then, they demoted her to a customer service phone position two weeks after her return. She says employers may not think carefully about how a death in the family affects an employee — but they should.

In the aftermath of Zaire’s death, she started receiving uncanny calls from customers at work (Turner-Walton worked various positions in the utilities and insurance industries). One was from a mom who lost her child; another was from a wife who had lost her husband. Having such a recent loss, she was adept at talking to the women. But the anguish became too much for her to bear when she was still grieving herself.

During this time, after-work trips to Applebee’s were frequent so she could drink to forget her pain. Sometimes on her drive home she would hope she would get into a car accident or thought about drowning herself in a nearby lake.

Despite this, Turner-Walton knew she had a higher purpose, and couldn’t give in to her pain. She quit going to Applebee’s and threw herself into work. She applied to UW-Madison’s Odyssey Project (a program for low-income adults that gives them a jump-start at a college degree) and completed a six-credit course. After much soul searching, she figured out what her true calling and purpose was: to help other moms and herself. She founded Healing Our Hearts, a nonprofit for grieving parents, in 2019.

The nonprofit offers culturally-appropriate trainings for workplaces and medical providers, as well as individual and group support. The services Healing Our Hearts provides directly stem from her own experiences and those of other mothers. Turner-Walton says her medical provider offered little to no follow-up in terms of grief resources; the support groups she looked into didn’t address the Black experience; and one of her employers didn’t know what to do for her.

It’s been a long journey for Turner-Walton, but she can credit it all back to Zaire, who, despite living such a short life, will forever be commemorated in her work.

“I can honestly say I don’t do this for me. I do this with other mothers, and it’s all about holding space for them. They don’t even know they’re helping me more.”

Unlike the other women in this story, Michelle Vande Hey was not a stranger to familial child loss when she lost her own son, James, when he was three months old.

In 2016, Michelle’s sister and brother-in-law, Jennifer and Adam Schmidt, lost their seven-year-old son Rylan, who had significant special needs, when he died of pneumonia. For five years, Michelle was his primary daytime caretaker. Being so close to her nephew made Michelle feel the loss acutely.

In the years that followed, Michelle and her husband, Jarrod, looked to expand their family and adopt another baby (they already had daughter Abigail). In 2018, they received the exciting news that their son had just been born in Milwaukee. The couple went to meet their newborn in the NICU, who they decided to name James. But within a few days of his birth, doctors noticed James wasn’t progressing how he was supposed to.

The doctors did an MRI and discovered that James had brain damage — and that it was likely he might not be able to walk, see or hear well.

Although they had requested a child without special needs (because of her nephew, Michelle explains she knew how hard taking care of a special-needs child can be) the family felt in their heart that James was their son. After his discharge, she started down the road of making multiple appointments for James’s special needs: occupational therapy, neurology, physical therapy. “Your life really becomes about helping [your child] thrive,” she says.

But then on Oct. 14, 2018, James never woke up. He died from SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Although he had special needs, Michelle says there wasn’t a particular underlying condition that would have caused his death. After dealing with so much in his short, three-month life, the family was heartbroken.

Afterward, “I would lay on the couch for a few hours until I had to pick Abigail up from school. There was definitely depression and PTSD,” she says. “I always thought that PTSD was for people who had experienced multiple traumas, or had served in the armed forces. I never thought I would experience PTSD. It was just kind of shock and survival mode right after, and having a daughter who was four at the time — it was really confusing for her.”

It was also uncharted territory for Michelle. When she’d meet new people that asked about her family, she was unsure if she should mention she had a son too. She started checking to make sure Abigail was breathing at night — something she’d never done before. She realized the family needed to seek therapy.

About a year after James passed, Michelle, who is a health and nutrition coach, was attending a three-day holistic life coaching certification event when “all of a sudden, it came to me: I think I need to help grieving moms. It just felt [like] what I needed to do.”

Her business, Light of Love Coaching, specializes in helping grieving moms who feel stuck, lost or unmotivated. She offers one-on-one coaching as well as group sessions with moms. With so many conflicting emotions, Michelle finds that helping others navigate this difficult territory of child loss — and being thoughtful and honest about life as it unfolds after a child is gone — is her calling. She points to a picture behind her that says “Joy & Grief.”

“[After the death of a child,] know that you can feel both of these [feelings] simultaneously, and it’s OK. And that’s something I’ve really learned to embrace and try to help women learn … that after the death of your child, you’re pretty much living with that the rest of your life, and that’s OK. You don’t have to be sad all of the time … or happy all of the time. You can be both. Honoring that is a really important thing.”

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