Today is the birthday of a very special little boy. One year ago, Kellen Lucas Sharpe entered this world weighing only 2 pounds, .5 ounces. The precious little angel was 12 weeks premature, but he was a tough little fighter. His family endured ten daunting weeks filled with worry and emotional ups and downs, as Kellen fought to survive in the NICU. Friends and relatives from all over joined the family in prayer for Kellen as we followed his progress through daily Facebook updates. Prayers were answered and after 71 days in the NICU, Kellen was healthy and strong enough to join his mother, father and two sisters at home. His family was finally complete and their hearts were filled with joy.
And then one Saturday morning eight and one-half months later, their hearts were shattered and their lives were forever changed in an instant. Their happy and healthy baby boy had passed away from SIDS in his sleep.
I can only begin to imagine the pain, the sorrow, and heartbreak that his parents feel. Every time I try to imagine what it would be like to lose a child, I feel as if I’m being crushed under the weight of my own sadness. But I know that it is nothing compared to what Kellen’s parents feel. My heart aches for his family knowing that their pain is much worse than anything I can imagine. It’s sad to hear about a parent losing a child. It’s quite a bit different when that parent is someone you care about.
Kellen’s mom is my friend Kristen. She is part of my military family. Just like most family members, I didn’t choose her. She was chosen for me. We were destined to become a part of each other’s lives. Our daughters met at the beginning of 4th grade when both of our families had moved to California. Megan and Alexis instantly bonded and became best friends. Sisters. We all adored Alexis too and she quickly became part of our family. So it was only natural that Alexis’s parents would become family to us as well. The girls chose each other and in turn chose Kristen for me. Our families spent only 18 months together in California, but by then we were connected as family forever.
So when we heard of Kellen’s passing, we were devastated. We wanted to attend the funeral to support them. Obstacles kept arising that made me question whether or not we would be able to make the 15 hour drive to be there. But the universe has a way of making things happen. Not only did we want to go, we were destined to go. It was an experience I will never forget.
Attending Kellen’s funeral was the most gut-wrenching and heart-breaking thing I have every experienced. I felt helpless as I witnessed a mother, my friend, grieve over the loss of her baby. I was helpless watching on as she experienced unbearable pain. Pain that no parent should ever have to experience. Her tears brought out my own tears. My heart broke into pieces as I stood back and watched while she bent over Kellen’s tiny casket to tell him goodbye. I imagined what she must have felt at the time and knew that it couldn’t even compare to her reality. I prayed to be able to take a little of that pain away for her, but knew I could not. All I could do was hug her, hold her hand, and be there for her. All I could do was stand next to her and join those surrounding her with love and support during the worst time of her life. Being there was the only gift I had to offer.
As sad as it was, I feel so blessed that I was able to be there for Kellen’s funeral. I am thankful that I was able to give her a hug and hold her hand even if for only a short time. I am also thankful that Megan was able to be there to support her friend. I hoped that our being their could somehow help comfort the family, but I had no idea that it would be a blessing for me personally as well. I had never even had the opportunity to meet Kellen. I never held him in my arms or heard his sweet little giggle in person. But Kellen’s passing broke my heart. Being connected to Kellen has changed my life. He has made me a better person. And so has his mom.
Until Kellen’s funeral, I really could not fathom what it meant to be a grieving parent. Kristen has changed that. She has shown tremendous strength by sharing her journey with her friends and family. She has opened herself up and given us insight into her darkest times. By doing so, she has allowed us the opportunity to support her. I still don’t really know what it is like to lose a child, but I have a much better understanding. I have learned that the pain never goes away, you merely learn to cope with it. I learned how important it is to make the effort to reach out to someone and support them in a time of need. A grieving parent will need love and support for days, months and even years after losing their child. They also need to know that the baby they miss so terribly will not be forgotten. While my life continues on as normal, every day that Kristen isn’t able to hold Kellen is a day of mourning. Every day is a day to remember. And I will remember with her.
Kristen’s strength and and faith through this time of her life is an inspiration. Her faith in God has kept her breathing and given her the strength to move forward. She is not angry or bitter. As much as her heart aches, she trusts in God’s plan for Kellen and for her. She misses him every moment of every day, but she is grateful for the short time she had with him. There are still tears and sadness, but there is also hope. She looks ahead to when she will be reunited with Kellen for eternity. Her trust and faith in God in her darkest time is unwavering and awe inspiring. It’s compelling. I had never seen anything like it before. And I am truly blessed that I was able to bear witness to it.
Kellen’s short time with his family is a reminder that life is unpredictable. It can be sad, painful, and unfair. Bad things happen to good people and for reasons we can’t understand. But life is also miraculous, beautiful, and inspiring and it should not be taken for granted. There is no way to know what lies ahead for each of us. There is no guarantee how long we have on this earth together or that the goodnight kiss I give tonight won’t be my last. So I think of Kellen and I am reminded to appreciate every moment, even the ones that are hard to appreciate. Even in my toughest, most frustrating times, I know it could be so much worse.
Kellen has also shown me how much I am connected to those around me. I am connected to people I have never met because of a shared love. Hundreds of people “adopted” Kellen as we followed his progress and prayed for him in the NICU. We mourned his passing together as we rallied around his family to support them. Our love of them brought us together and we are forever connected because of it.
And I realize now that there are people all around me ever day that are hurting in some way. They need love and support and kind words and smiles to help them through their day. They don’t wear a name tag that says “Hi, I am sad” so it isn’t always easy to see. We need to open our eyes to look for it and open our hearts when we find it. But we should also err on the side of kindness for everyone in case we miss it. Compassion isn’t only feeling empathy for someone. It’s putting the feelings and needs of someone else ahead of your own. Compassion requires action. It compels you to do something for someone else. Even if only to send a quick text to let someone know that you are thinking about them.
My heart is in Hawaii today with Kellen’s family as they celebrate and remember him on his first birthday. It’s not the birthday party they had hoped for, but it is just as special. They are celebrating his life, his smile, his love, and the joy he brought to their lives. They are celebrating and appreciating the short time they had together and thinking ahead to the time when their faith will reunite them as a family. Kellen has touched my life in ways I never could have thought possible. He has made me a better person. And for that I will always be grateful. Happy birthday in Heaven Kellen!
For more information on SIDS or how to help, please visit the American SIDS Institute at www.sids.org.