May 07, 2014 - Roger and Cathy Hurst know the pain of losing a baby.
Oxford residents Roger and Cathy Hurst with their children (from left) Garrett, Isabella, Angela and Emily. (click for larger version)
But they also know what it's like to have a support system in place to help them move on with their lives.
That's why the Oxford couple is so devoted to raising funds and awareness for Tomorrow's Child, a nonprofit group that supports parents and families coping with a pregnancy loss or infant death, and works to prevent future infant deaths.
Over the last five years, the Hursts have raised approximately $20,000 for the East Lansing-based organization and they've provided valuable input to help evaluate and improve the group's grief support programs.
Roger, who works as the sponsorship manager for the Detroit Zoo, serves on the Tomorrow's Child Board of Directors.
"It's so taboo for people to talk about the loss of a child whether it be through stillborn birth or miscarriage or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome," he said. "Nobody wants to talk about it. People need to know about this."
"If anybody ever has the unfortunate need to use the resources of Tomorrow's Child, know that they're there and they're amazing," said Cathy, who works as a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Henry Ford Hospital in downtown Detroit. "People lose infant children a lot more than I think people realize."
Last year, more than 800 babies in Michigan did not survive to their first birthday and 500 were stillborn, according to the Tomorrow's Child's website www.tomorrowschildmi.org
In recognition of the Hursts' efforts, Tomorrow's Child will present them with the Family Champion Award at a May 8 gala in Dearborn.
"We admire their strength and graciously thank them for their commitment to making Tomorrow's Child more effective in our mission to support grieving families and preserve infant lives," said Tomorrow's Child CEO Sarah Scranton.
To the Hursts, this award isn't about patting them on the back. It's about giving meaning to their son Jacob's brief life and promoting the worthwhile organization that once helped them deal with his tragic death.
"In a way, it makes our son's life, however short it may have been, have some kind of a purpose," Cathy said. "To me, it's more of an honor for him than it is for us."
"We really strive to keep our son's memory alive in what we do," Roger said. "It's not really about us. I just think it's a good chance for us to help promote the organization. It doesn't get the exposure that it should in the Michigan area."
The Hursts lost Jacob in November 2009 when he was stillborn at 39 weeks. His death came as a complete shock.
When Cathy saw her doctor for a routine checkup on Nov. 24, everything was fine.
Two days later, on Thanksgiving night, she started having contractions, so it was off to the hospital.
"Once we got to the hospital, they couldn't find the heartbeat," Cathy said.
Jacob was delivered via a caesarean section at 1:04 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 27.
"There was a knot in his umbilical cord and the cord was also wrapped around his neck twice," Cathy said. "My understanding is these things usually happen early on in the pregnancy when they're smaller and moving around a lot. That's when they get the knots. As they get bigger and as they move more, that's when the knot tightens."
As the knot tightened, it cut off Jacob's only source of life support. "He pretty much strangled himself," Cathy said.
Instead of going home with a brand new baby boy, the Hursts were given a memory box to store clothing, photos and other tangible reminders of their stillborn son.
"It was devastating, especially not having any inkling beforehand (that something was wrong)," Cathy said. "It's almost an unreal situation. You hear about it every now and then, and you think it's one of those things that would never happen me."
"It was completely heartbreaking," she continued. "Nobody expects to outlive their children, especially when their children are infants."
"Nothing will ever fill that void," Roger said. "Nothing will ever bring back our son."
"It really made me question a lot of the goings on in life and why things happen," he said. "It was really tough for me to understand why and there is no real answer to the question why?"
"The old adage of everything happens for a reason didn't really apply here," Roger continued. "It's one of those things (that) there's no explanation for."
Fortunately, the hospital gave their names to Tomorrow's Child, which in turn, sent them some information.
With the group's help, the Hursts found a grief counselor who worked with them for eight to nine months.
"That made a world of difference over time," Cathy said. "I honestly don't know if we hadn't had the support that we had and found our grief counselor and found Tomorrow's Child . . . I don't know how that would have changed our grief process. I'm sure it would have been much more drawn out."
"Losing a child is one of the toughest things you're going to go through," she noted. "I've seen, from work, it tear families apart. I think our relationship and where we are today, a lot of that we owe to having Tomorrow's Child help us make it though."
"Without the organization and them finding us the help that we needed, I think it would have been a lot tougher row for us to hoe to stay together as a couple," Roger said. "It was a Godsend for us."
Communicating openly about the situation and expressing their feelings enabled the Hursts to heal and move on with their lives.
"I think one of the biggest things is just not hiding it and not hiding from it," Cathy said. "Being comfortable with it and able to talk about it, I think is what really made the difference."
The Hursts talked about it with each other, with their grief counselor and with family and friends.
"It's a tough subject to talk about," Roger said. "No one knows what to say. No one knows the right words. No one has the right things to say, so no one really talks about it."
But Roger wants people to know "it's okay to talk about it" and "it's okay to tell people."
He believes "sticking together" and talking about it helped he and Cathy "grow stronger as a couple."
Ultimately, Cathy said it's important to allow the tragedy become "part of who you are" and go on from there.
"You just have to accept it," she said.
Both Roger and Cathy each had their own advice to offer parents dealing with the loss of a child.
"Talk about your child and never let their memory go away," Cathy said. "Keep it in your heart and in your everyday life. Just because he's not here doesn't mean that he's not here in a sense. Even though I don't have my child here that I can give a hug to everyday, he's still in my mind, in my heart, and I'll talk about him on a regular basis."
Cathy is more than willing to talk to grieving parents on a one-on-one basis and do what she can to help them.
"It's easier to talk to somebody who's been through it, so I would always be willing (to do it) if anybody ever wanted to reach out," she said. "I would be available for them."
She also advised grieving parents to "just take it one day and one step at a time."
"You have good days and you have bad days. They come and go," Cathy said. "Lean on the people that you love and are close to you. It's a long, slow process, but eventually, you can wake up with a smile on your face again."
Roger's advice was to "keep moving forward and don't give up on each other."
"Know that life will go on," he said. "Things will get better."
And things did get better as the Hursts, who will celebrate their ninth wedding anniversary in October, went on to have three more children in addition to the one they already had at home.
Today, they're the proud parents of Isabella, who will turn 7 this summer, Emily, 3, Angela, 2, and 6-month-old Garrett.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.