Our Sunshine on a Cloudy Day: A Grandparent’s Grief

John, Joanne, Lily Jo and Juli.

Our granddaughter, Lily Jo Jurgens, was born on June 12, 2013. From the day she was born, she brought sunshine to everyone she met. She had the gift of gab and made everyone’s day with her happy and dynamic personality. Lily’s favorite times were spent with her big sisters, Jayda Rose and Ava Jean. She completely idolized and adored them. Her place in her wonderful family with her parents and twin sisters was nothing short of perfect. 

On the morning of June 15, 2015 Lily collapsed, going into cardiac arrest, and passed away. It was just three days after her second birthday. A full autopsy was conducted with no findings. Therefore, her death was labeled undetermined due to natural causes, or SUDC.

I recall the feeling of total isolation and loneliness during the first few weeks after Lily Jo passed. Obviously, the grief my husband John and I suffered was unbearable, but not having anyone in our lives who really understood our pain was almost as bad as the grief. Not only were we dealing the pain of losing our granddaughter, we were also faced with supporting our daughter, Juli, and her family as they faced their unimaginable loss. In the early days when Lily Jo passed, there were so many times we had to put aside our own grief so that we could be a strong support for Juli and her family. To say it was exhausting is an understatement. During the first few years, it was my greatest fear that Juli would fall too far down the path of serious depression and despair.

In our isolation, we found the SUDC Foundation. The SUDC Foundation was a lifesaver in the sense that we realized we were not alone in our pain and loss. The SUDC Foundation has brought together grandparents from all over the world who have lost a grandchild to SUDC. Since we all live far away from each other, we communicate mostly through email and more recently, we have been able to participate in virtual meetings. In the early days of our grief, we were so desperate to hear other grandparents tell us that it was going to be OK. Now, when I connect with other grandparents, I hope that maybe some of my words give hope to a grandparent who is new to the group. 

Being a part of the grandparent online support group, I noticed that one of the grandparents visited the area where we live often. I reached out to her and suggested we meet on her next visit. I can’t tell you how emotional our meeting was. It was something out of a movie script. Not knowing what the other looked like, we gave each other a description of what we were wearing. When we finally spotted each other, we just embraced and cried and cried – no words necessary. We were practically total strangers, but our loss made us forever bonded and very special friends. We sat for a four-hour lunch, just talking about our angel babies and how they passed with every detail of the day (something that is not easy to share with people who don’t understand – some can’t bear to hear it, some don’t want to hear it and others may just not be the kind of people that you can be that open with). We spoke about how our families were coping; about the trials we experienced in having to support our daughters through this nightmare. We spoke about how our loss was two-fold because we lost our grandchild as well as part of our daughters. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the same state, but we keep in touch and cherish our very special friendship. I feel so blessed to have her in my life so that we can support each other.

I also thank God that Juli discovered the SUDC Foundation. Juli lives close enough to attend the SUDC Foundation’s in-person support meeting. Those meetings are so helpful to Juli, and us as well knowing that she has other people to lean on, which in turn eased the load for us. So many times, I just did not have the words to tell Juli what she needed to hear, but her SUDC family did.
The SUDC Foundation Family Retreats that Juli and her family have attended have been wonderful. It’s amazing how her children have connected so naturally with the other siblings. They talk about the retreats often and I can see how much these retreats have helped them to cope with the loss of their sister. No child should ever have to wrap their minds around such loss, but these wonderful retreats have given them tools to help them work through their questions. My husband and I have not personally attended a family retreat, but we feel the positive effect it has on our family and are so grateful that they had have these opportunities. 

Being connected to the SUDC Foundation community has taught our family the importance of honoring our Lily Jo in concrete and positive ways that make us feel that she will always be a visible part of our family. We learn this every time we participate in an event, like a worldwide candle lighting memorial night that so many of our family and friends participate in along with the SUDC online group, grandparent virtual meetings, social media support groups for Juli and events for the siblings. Just last month my granddaughter, Ava, participated in a virtual event where she could do a science project with other siblings! 

We’ve learned through conversations with other SUDC families who have lived through this journey longer than we have that life can be happy again after child loss. Five and a half years later, we have come to experience a happy life again which I never thought would be possible. Not only are we happy again, but there is a new level of wisdom in how we live our lives that maybe only someone who has experienced this kind of loss can understand. 

Our family holds a quote from Buddha close to our hearts that says, “If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.” That single flower is our Lily, our sunshine on a cloudy day.

Lovingly told by Joanne Baranello

For more information on the support we provide to grandparents who lost grandchildren suddenly and unexpectedly, please visit: https://sudc.org/for-grandparents/