This is the first time Jamie is sharing Jackson’s SIDS story publicly. Jackson’s story is one Jamie normally only tells to one person at a time. In her words, it’s for special moments, “huddled over a couple of drinks in some dimly lit bar, sharing [sic] this history that is so essential to know if you want to know me. Like, really know me.”
I’ve never been more humbled than I am right now, being given the opportunity to share Jackson’s SIDS story on this space.
His sudden, unexpected death remains unexplained and will forever be a tragedy we mourn and honor. It has also led his mother to new heights of strength, as she grows from her love for her lost son.
Thank you, Jamie, for allowing Undefining Motherhoood such an honor.
Jamie’s Unexpected Pregnancy
I was very young when I got pregnant, just 23 years old. I had spontaneously married my bad-boy boyfriend a few months earlier, and we were living hand-to-mouth in the small town in Oklahoma where I grew up.
My husband wasn’t around much. He spent about half of my pregnancy in jail and most of the rest of the time galavanting around with his friends.
At that time, I was working at a call center and doing the best I could to prepare for the arrival of my child.
I got on the low-income insurance that covered most of my medical costs.
My family recommended a doctor they knew through their church.
I was too young and unprepared to be anxious or fully grasp the magnitude of the thing I was about to do.
When Jackson was born, my husband didn’t show up.
I drove myself to the hospital at 2 am one night, just to be on the safe side, sure that the small bit of fluid I noticed wasn’t my water breaking. But the doctors told me it was time and I had to stay at the hospital.
I was in labor for 18 hours (12 of them natural).
My husband never came.
My parents and my brother were there, along with some friends, but I was still very much alone in this.
It was a long time ago, but I can still picture every detail. I remember there was a mirror on the ceiling in the delivery room.
I watched him emerge, freshly minted, covered in the slick of birth, as if some underwater creature surfacing for just a few short breaths.
My mom cut the umbilical cord.
Building Bonds After Birth
Jackson was not premature, but he was very small when he was born – just under five pounds.
I have since learned that this was largely due to the fact that I have a unicornuate uterus (and only one Fallopian tube), which could only expand so much to accommodate my baby’s growing body.
But he was a healthy baby and didn’t have to stay in the hospital any extra time. After three days, we went home.
My husband eventually came and spent some of that time with us. I’m happy that he did.
Those days are some of the most precious memories of my life.
But, mostly, it was just me and my tiny baby. I was learning how to care for this small helpless bundle that needed me so much. When friends or family would come to visit, he would cry if anyone else held him.
He wanted me and I wanted him. He was mine.
That Fateful Day: Jackson’s SIDS Story
On the day that changed everything, I woke up on the couch in the living room with Jackson in my arms. He had been fussy that night, and we fell asleep together in the early hours of the morning, with him swaddled in my arms.
It took me a moment to realize that something was not right. He was so tiny, it was hard to tell if he was breathing or not.
Terrified, I ripped open the buttons on his onesie and yelled for my husband to wake up.
I had never taken a CPR class before, but instinctually, I knew what to do.
Immediately, I started tiny pumps on his chest with the fingers of one hand as I called 911 with the other.
My husband was just screaming.
It took the paramedics more than 15 minutes to arrive because my phone call had originally been routed to the emergency operator in another small town, about 45 minutes away.
When the medics finally arrived, they took my baby and left me with the police.
At first, the officers wanted to question me and wouldn’t let me leave.
I finally convinced them to keep my driver’s license and let me follow the ambulance to the hospital.
They treated me like a criminal.
They searched my house while I was gone and there was crime scene tape across my porch when I finally returned home.
Saying Goodbye: Realizing I Had Lost Jackson to SIDS
At the hospital, we were ushered into a small room and they called my parents for me.
All I remember is putting my head in my mom’s lap and crying when the doctors came to tell us he was gone.
Then they let me see his body and I held him one last time.
It was like a thing happening to someone else.
I sat on the patio at my parents’ house feeling numb as people came over to offer their support.
I heard stories about how people were reacting around town – a fireman who ran to his child’s daycare and held his baby after being told about what had happened to Jackson.
People hugged me. Others brought food.
This is the nice thing about living in a small town – the community really bands together in times of crisis.
Burying My Baby After SIDS
We had a funeral. Many people came. I still have the guestbook and all of the cards I received during those first weeks. I spent hours curating the video of pictures we showed at the service.
I remember my brother (still in high school at the time) and some of his closest friends surrounding me before the ceremony.
They were like my own emotional bodyguards.
I’ve always loved them for that.
We put my baby in the ground in a part of the cemetery reserved for children.
It was called “Babyland,” which seemed really creepy to me.
But there was a nice pond always full of geese and a small tree with heart-shaped leaves. And, of course, the scattered graves of other angels.
I used to go there all the time. I felt like that was the only thing left I could do in my role as mother, to visit his grave.
Sometimes, I even went in the middle of the night – sitting on the bench in front of his grave for hours at 2am.
Learning to Cope with Jackson’s Death
I joined a group in my town for the parents of deceased children. They had a nice service at Christmastime where you could bring an ornament in honor of your child.
I got a big ass arm tattoo with his actual footprints and forget-me-nots and a banner with his name.
It was my first big tattoo and my parents weren’t happy about it.
But after that, I didn’t feel the desperate need to go to his grave every day. I was carrying him with my always on my body. That was a huge relief.
These were just a few ways in which I was able to cope.
Memorializing loss helps us in many ways. Learn more about common memorials, including tattoos, here.
A couple years later, I got a cat.
I never went to therapy.
Maybe I should have, but I didn’t like the idea of talking to some stranger who never knew Jackson.
I was very lucky to have an amazing support system, and I never found myself wanting for someone to talk to about him, his life, or his SIDS story.
Of course, it was mostly a dark time for me. I started drinking a lot. My marriage did not make it, though that was definitely for the best.
Learning to Live with Grief After SIDS
I experienced countless of those tiny encounters that break your heart every day, people saying the wrong thing.
A few weeks after Jackson died, my brother graduated from high school and a lot of our family members came to see his graduation. One afternoon, a relative told me that my clothes didn’t fit very well and I wanted to scream:
“I’M SORRY THERE’S NOT A CRYING BABY HERE TO REMIND YOU THAT I’M IN BETWEEN REGULAR CLOTHES AND MATERNITY CLOTHES AT THE MOMENT!”
When I finally went back to work, people would just ask me about it casually, like, “I heard your baby died.”
“Um, yeah bro. Thanks for reminding me.”
One of the hardest things during this time was the autopsy report.
The medical examiner initially told me that I should have the results in 2-3 weeks. But, since criminal charges weren’t pending, Jackson was low on their priority list.
I called them every single week to check the status and each week they would extend the estimated deadline.
4-6 weeks, then 8-9 weeks, then 2-3 months, and so on.
After 3 months or so, I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t move on with my life until I knew what had happened to my baby.
I ended up calling my governor, senator, and representative’s offices and telling them my story.
Within a week, I had the report. On his death certificate, the official cause of death was listed as “unknown.”
Resisting Guilt About SIDS
The medical examiner told me that, because we were co-sleeping, they couldn’t officially list Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) as the cause of death.
They couldn’t rule out the possibility that I had smothered my baby.
I feel very lucky that I know this isn’t true.
There’s no way he could have smothered in the position he was in.
But sometimes I think about how different my life would be if I had even the smallest doubt about that.
If I had to live with the guilt of killing my own child.
I now know that there are tests they can do to rule out smothering, and, for a long time, I held onto a lot of anger about that–that the medical examiners were fine with giving me the weight of that guilt.
Choosing Not to Be Angry
There are a lot of things I could be angry about.
The medical examiner.
The emergency system that routed my 911 call to the wrong city.
My doctor who never told me about my unicornuate uterus (when I underwent fertility testing 8 years later, my fertility specialist was shocked that I had had a baby and never been informed about my condition).
For years, I thought that Jackson was so small because of something I had done wrong during my pregnancy.
But I couldn’t live like that.
Over time, I began to understand this experience for what it was: The most precious gift I have ever been given.
I learned what selfless love is all about.
I became a person who could minister to others in their darkest moments of grief.
When you go through something like this, it’s a horror that can only really be understood by another who has experienced something similar.
It’s difficult to describe what a powerful thing this is, to be able to comfort someone in their darkest hours.
Reframing my Mindset to Honor Jackson
I’m not a religious person.
But I like to think that Jackson knew what would happen and he chose to come here anyway, even for just a short period of time, to give me these gifts.
After he died, I enrolled in community college, and now I have a completely different life.
I’m about to finish my PhD, while currently living Paris.
I have built a life that he would be proud of.
And it was loving him that gave me the strength to do those things.
Searching for Gratitude After SIDS
I’ve never had any more children, and I’m not sure that I ever will.
I used to think that only another child could fill this baby-sized hole that Jackson had left in my heart.
But the further I get from that experience, the more I realize that life is a gift, no matter what shape it takes.
Of course, I would trade everything to have him back, even for a moment.
But I am thankful for the life he gave me.
Jackson’s father has since passed away, and it is a very unsettling feeling to be the only survivor of this little family.
But I try to live my best life every single day, for the both of them.
When you lose a child, it is the worst thing that can possibly happen. But, over many years, it has made me feel INVINCIBLE.
Jackson Gave Me Strength
I survived this; I can survive ANYTHING.
If I could live through this, I knew I had the courage to move to a new country and to work toward my dream.
Maybe this sounds a bit flippant, but it is my truth at this stage in my grief. It helps me to focus on the silver lining.
I celebrate Jackson’s life every year on his birthday.
And I set aside the whole day on the anniversary of his death (I call it “The Bad Day:) to do whatever I need to do to grieve.
Look at his pictures, drink way too much alcohol with people who love me, or just sit at home and reflect on where I am and what got me here.
These twelve years have taught me that I am strong, I am lucky in so many ways, and that motherhood comes in many forms.
The darkness never fully lifts, but, for me, it receded enough to let the sunlight back in.
Find resources for coping with infant loss and stillbirth here.
You can also read other infant loss stories:
- “When the System Fails: Baby Addie’s Infant Loss Story” (Peritonitis)
- Connor’s SIDS Story, a video by his mom, Alison Jacobson, Executive Director of the infant loss nonprofit First Candle. First Candle promotes safe sleep practices for babies, which have been found by the Centers for Disease Control to decrease the SIDS rate. They also provide bereavement services to families of children who died of SIDS, or who died suddenly in other ways.
Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, mom, recurrent miscarriage survivor, & owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband (affectionately known on the internet as “Husband,”) son (Jack), and dog (Charlotte). She believes our society puts too many expectations on women that make womanhood and motherhood restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Romper, Scary Mommy, Demeter Press’s Motherhood and Social Exclusion, & more.