Volume 13, Issue 8
September 15, 2011
Loss of a daughter leads woman to help others through suffering by Jason Lesher
On Sept. 13, nine months of anxiety came to a happy end when Stephanie Cole gave birth to a seven pound, four ounce healthy boy, Ethan William Cole. But Cole, who lost a stillborn daughter, Madeline, in January 2007, spent her pregnancy doing much more than simply surviving her natural worries. “This is my third child since having my daughter die, so this time it’s a little different. This time, I actually feel more like a human being having baby than a crazy neurotic mother. I’m actually able to function and still work on the project,” she said during an interview while she was counting down the days until her due date. The project is the Sweet Pea Project, an organization started by the East Lampeter Township mom to help families who often don’t know how to handle the emotions when a pregnancy ends the wrong way. The project has grown so quickly that Cole was just “mominated” by www.babble.com as one of the 100 moms who are changing the world, alongside nationally known figures such as Hillary Clinton, Melinda Gates, Tina Fey and Michelle Rhee.
The Sweet Pea Project got the most attention for its work changing Pennsylvania law so that families receive a certificate of birth resulting in stillbirth instead of the fetal death certificate issued for years. Cole said that thanks to the work of friend and fellow Sweet Pea board member Nicole Jackson, parents will no longer have to wonder how their child could have died if he or she was never alive. “I spent four and a half years wanting that recognition and wanting my daughter to be validated. No one else is going to have to have that,” she said. The certificate is just one part of the mourning process, but it’s a perfect example of how hospitals often don’t know how to best help a family that has just lost a child.
Cole traced the idea for the Project back to a day a few weeks after Madeline died. She and her husband held the little girl, wrapped in a blanket for hours, and she found herself wanting that blanket. “When Madeline died, I was not sent with the blanket she was wrapped in. I didn’t even realize it was something I wanted at the time,” she said. “You’re not thinking very clearly. You’re not thinking about what’s going to help you later. You’re just trying to get through that moment.”
On Madeline’s second birthday, Cole asked friends and family to donate a blanket on her behalf. She hoped for 40, but quickly collected over 100. In two and a half years, the Sweet Pea project has now sent 2,287 blankets to hospitals in 28 states and some outside the United States. “We get e-mails from people all the time saying they still sleep with the blankets,” she said.
Cole started going to hospitals and talking to staff about how to help families suffering through a loss. Out of those sessions came her book, “Still,” which was published last summer. Although it’s a little strange to have her most personal moments available for anyone to peruse, she said other parents have told her the book helped them by giving an honest portrayal of the process. Many parents have gone years not knowing how to deal with their pain. One woman contacted her whose husband just wanted to hide the loss away, so she had for decades. “Her son would have turned 40 the September beforehand, and they had never done anything to celebrate his life,” she said.The woman came to the project's 1st annual Remembrance Gathering last year and spoke her son’s name out loud for the first time.
The second gathering is scheduled for Oct. 15 at Long’s Park in Lancaster. The group also hosts a picnic in July aimed at the brothers and sisters who have lost a sibling. Cole’s year of growth will continue into January, when her art exhibit five, opens at Mulberry Art Studios in Lancaster, commemorating Madeline's fifth birthday.
No matter how much good she does, there’s still nothing that will stop the pain from coming back. “Every once in a while something will sneak up on you, and you’ll think, ‘Oh, I lost that, too. I didn’t even realize it until just now,” she said.
But as she prepared to give birth to her third son, Stephanie knows that Madeline hasn’t been replaced. She’s still a part of the Coles’ life. “I’m still taking Ben back and forth to pre-school. I’m still chasing Nathaniel around in the back yard, and I’m still working on the project for Madeline. I’m all of their mothers.”
The Cities of the Plane
by Jason Lesher
Over the past few months, I’ve turned cold. The first month or so after the stillbirth son Francis on Feb. 25, was certainly the saddest part of my life, but I could see life much more clearly. It wasn’t until after the sadness passed that I started to disappear. I’ve no doubt that, as we stumble through her mourning process, my wife’s right that I’m acting angrier, more distant and more self centered, but it feels more like I’m an animal predictably responding to stimuli in order to silence its most basic cravings. Death, which had opened my eyes to true life, slowly closed me off from any real existence. I mourned perfectly for a few weeks, then shutting down. Right now, I can see myself clearly, and I have no idea who I’ll be tomorrow or next week. But I don’t believe I’m the only one. That is America in the days after Sept. 11, 2011. The world mourned when terrorists attacked us. Soon, however, President Bush’s statement that the terrorists had committed an act of war became an all-consuming reality. I don’t question the man’s words or actions. History would have allowed no other. But those words shaped everything that’s missing in America today. Osama bin Laden was not Emperor Hirohito. He didn’t challenge the might of the American military. He attacked the heart and soul of every man, woman and child. There’s really no response to a mass murder by a miniscule number of men who destroyed the idea that civilized people can build a society great enough to stop the meaningless and seemingly preventable suffering of innocent civilians. Ten years later, there still is no answer to that attack. Of all the articles I’ve read over the past few weeks, the most intriguing was a little piece from Craig Smith of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that cut through the (for lack of a word stripped of connotation) sentimentality of the anniversar y. He wrote about Shanksville, Pa. Not the Shanksville that was visited by Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama on Sunday. Not the Shanksville that will be home to a $62 million memorial and visitor center to the crew and passengers of Flight 93 stopped the fourth plane from hitting Washington, D.C. He wrote about the Shanksville that, according to former borough council president John Fox, is getting to hard to live in. “This is going to be a ghost town,” he told Smith. Some of the residents have quit talking to the visitors flowing into town. The Rev. Robert Way just left St. Mark Evangelical Lutheran Church for a position in Clearfield, and he wonders if the declining congregation will be enough to keep St. Mark alive. He came to a church in October 2001 that desperately needed him to help them heal. A decade later, I’ve got to wonder how a town of 245 people can keep presenting itself as the site of one of the ugliest moments in American history and as a triumphant battleground in the war on terror. The ghosts are already running the city of the plane. In New York, the memorial issue of Newsweek tells the story of two women, one a 9-11 witness, the other a widow, who stayed in New York City. The cover of the magazine bears the title “9/11: Ten Years of Fear, Grief, Revenge, Resilience,” with the final word covering four times the space as the others combined. The two women are Newsweek’s definition of resilience because they had children in the city. Resilience is one good Samaritan who, after a stint as a civic-affairs officer in Iraq, returned to his job at Goldman Sachs and drives past the site every day. The firefighter who posed with Bush at Ground Zero is resilient because he exchanges Christmas cards with the president. They probably have learned more since then, but the magazine shows an America that is resilient simply because its suffering hasn’t led to a complete mental breakdown. I cried a good bit a few weeks ago when I realized there’s something beyond that kind of resilience that I achieved fairly quickly after Francis’ death. Thankfully, it came as I was reading up on Stephanie Cole, not while I was interviewing her for the story on the front page. After the loss of her stillborn daughter, Cole dedicated to herself to Madeline. Through the Sweet Pea Project, she helps as many families as possible to mourn. She’s not motivated by an illusion that she can stop suffering. She’s dealing with a random, terrible and usually unpreventable form of suffering much like the country still feels. Cole, who never even learned what caused Madeline’s death, simply chose to help people through the process. September 11, 2001 did create it’s own Stephanie Coles, such as the volunteers of New York Says Thank You who now help rebuild other parts of the country after natural disasters. They have responded fully to al Qaeda’s attack. But America has not. Some argue that Sept. 11 has helped turn us into a xenophobic or militaristic people, or that we’ve become too angry, too left, too right, too divided or too broken. It’s not an argument that Americans should have mourned more quickly or in a more productive fashion. I’d just say there’s still something missing. We haven’t finished mourning.