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While Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, one mom was weathering her own devastating loss: a miscarriage. Thinking everything would be OK as the storm clouds cleared, she encouraged her husband to go out in their kayak to help others while she stayed home with her 2- and 4-year-old. Then a second wave of contractions hit, she saw blood streaming down her legs, and everything started to go black. AJ Rodrigue shares with TODAY Parents her story of loss, survival — and the remarkable sign that gave her hope.
On August 25th, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas, with more than 20 trillion gallons of rain, affecting approximately 13 million people. At least 70 people died and close to 135,000 homes were lost or damaged. As my family and I watched the storm devastate so many parts of our community, I struggled to overcome a storm of my own: the loss of my pregnancy.
We met JJ
We met our sweet “JJ” with our 4-year-old son, Jace, at the ultrasound because we thought this would be the most literal way to teach our toddler that mommy had a baby in her belly. My family members all have the letter “J” in their names, so we decided we would continue the tradition for our last baby. Jace said, “How did THAT get in your belly? Did you EAT it?” It was hilarious.
Having experienced a miscarriage before, the early part of pregnancy causes both excitement and anxiety. It’s like you can’t truly get excited until after you’re well into the pregnancy and even then, there are so many “What ifs?”
We lost JJ
Two days before the storm, we had a routine ultrasound. The technician pulled up the image and immediately we knew — JJ was curled up and lifeless. We had so nearly made it to the end of the first trimester. Again. Our first miscarriage occurred 4 years earlier. Having two kids sandwiched in between seasons of heartache doesn’t make the pain any easier. It was a different kind of hurt this time – mostly because I knew we would have to tell the kids.
The hurt isn’t worse or better whether losing the first baby versus losing a baby after having kids. The hurt is just different.
“But at least you have kids,” they say. “At least it happened early,” they say. These things don’t help because you still lost a child. That’s like losing a parent and being told, “At least you still have your other parent.” When you don’t know what to say, say these things. I was incredibly nervous about how this was going to affect the kids.
Telling the kids about JJ
When we got home our son (as if JJ had already sent him a message) immediately ran up to us and said, “I missed you mom. I missed you dad. And JJ said he missed me too.” Perhaps I was overthinking it, but it was like he knew. My daughter Jordan, only 2 years old, kissed my belly and said “I love you JJ!”
There is nothing I’ve experienced that was more painful than explaining the death of a child to a child. I was doing OK up until that point. Then I lost it. Tears poured down my face. My kids’ faces scrunched up into balls of confusion. How could they understand?
We explained that JJ went to Heaven and is watching over us, protecting us. In true toddler fashion, Jace proudly flexed his muscles and said, “I don’t need a protector – I can protect myself!” I chuckled. All seemed fine for a brief moment. They still didn’t seem to completely understand.
Hurricane Harvey and JJ
I had surgery scheduled for a few days after we found out about the loss. Then Hurricane Harvey arrived. The worst of the flooding began Saturday evening, creating havoc across the city. My “non-emergency” surgery was cancelled. The kids slept while my husband ran from the front of the house to the back making sure water stayed out.
In the midst of the flooding and storms outside our home, I was having my own storm in the bathroom. Natural miscarriage had begun. Laboring in between lightning strikes, I was torn between gratitude for being her mother for as long as I could and self-pity for the loss of my child. “I can’t believe this is happening again,” I thought.
Two days later, I thought the worst was over – for Houston and for our family. Flooding was everywhere but the sun was out, and I thought my miscarriage was over.
I encouraged my husband, BJ, to take our kayak and go help rescue some of the many people stranded by floodwaters. We needed to do something. BJ left with our kayak and I started figuring out what to cook for homeless families. Then I felt the lightning bolt contractions again and saw blood pouring down my legs. It was just me and the kids at home.
So I did what any mother would do: I handled it. I forced myself to go to the bathroom and ride it out. I’m on the toilet, reading books to my kids and pretending that everything’s OK and telling them “Mommy’s belly just really hurts.” Jace saw the blood I was so desperately trying to hide and said, “Did JJ do that? Is this JJ’s fault?” Exhausted from pretending, I whispered, “Yes.”
Suddenly everything went black and I started to sweat and faint. I came to and quickly texted my closest neighbor. Within 20 minutes, I was in their truck on the way to the ER and the kids were at that neighbor’s house. BJ, by way of a miracle, swam out of chest-deep water to check his phone. He had 68 texts.
I couldn’t stop thanking every single nurse and asking about their houses and families. Blood pooled around my legs and didn’t stop. I blacked out again and woke up to a voice saying, “AJ! I need you to stay awake! I need you to open your eyes!”
Unbeknownst to me, BJ was able to contact our friend who works at the hospital and asked her to check on me. At the moment I was started to pass out in my wheelchair, she caught me. She was the voice telling me to wake up.
I woke up after emergency surgery grateful but upset. I wondered how we would get through this again? This isn’t just my loss – it’s my husband’s and children’s too.
My sweet girl, JJ
During the storm, my parents evacuated to Dallas and stayed with my grandmother. She didn’t know about the baby. The day after I went to the hospital, my grandmother asked my mom if something happened to me. Protecting my privacy, my mother said she couldn’t tell her exactly what happened, but yes. My grandmother then said she had a dream about my grandfather, who had passed away last year: Grandpa was holding a baby and told her that I had a miscarriage, that it’s a girl and that he’s going to take care of her.
I didn’t let myself believe it. One day, I looked up at the sky and said “Grandpa, please send me a sign that you have my girl. That she’s OK.” I felt stupid and moved on with my day. Thirty minutes later, I pulled my computer out my work bag and tucked inside was a picture of my grandfather holding my daughter Jordan.
My mom had given me the picture about a month earlier; I’d stuck it in my bag and forgot about it. I take my computer out of that bag and put it back almost daily. The day I asked for the sign, the photo just happened to get wedged in my laptop and pop out at that very moment.
I laughed. I cried. I had hope again.
I don’t have all the answers, but here are some ideas and advice that have been helpful to me through my two miscarriages:
- Be truthful with your kids about the facts of miscarriage. They don’t need to know details, but explaining loss is important for them too.
- Be honest about miscarriage with yourself and others. It’s not taboo. It’s not shameful. Talk about it because you’re not alone.
- Be a partner to your partner. Your spouse is experiencing loss too. Don’t discount it just because they don’t physically experience it.
- Be good to yourself. Cry, hit something, write down your feelings. It’s OK to fall down. Then pick yourself up when you’re ready.
- Be hopeful. Life is too short to focus on what you can’t control and there are so many amazing things out there if you choose to look for them.
AJ Rodrigue is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) with two energetic kiddos and two angels above. She founded The Behavior Momma, a platform that helps parents connect with their kids using simple, behavioral-science strategies. AJ believes that behavior analysis is a life-changing methodology that can help anyone with anything.