If you don’t want to tear up, or feel the intense emotional pain of another human being, turn back now.
These are the stories no parents ever want to hear. But the Mulder and Ouwinga families not only heard them, they lived them. On the same day.
In October 2013, Amalia Mulder and her husband were expecting their first baby. They went into their 18-week ultrasound—10 weeks since the last ultrasound—full of hope.
“We were so excited to see our baby again,” Amalia said.
But what they saw, and what doctors explained, torpedoed their hearts and pierced their souls.
Limb body wall complex. Foreign words to the Mulders. But the reality hit home.
Baby Caroline had a short umbilical cord. Her body was attached to the placenta, which didn’t allow enough space for proper growth. Her lungs didn’t have room to grow because of her smaller-than-normal chest cavity.
“When they gave us the diagnosis they said she wouldn’t be able to survive outside of me,” Amalia said. “Her body wouldn’t be able to breathe in the outside world. Very few babies survive past the first trimester that have this condition.”
Hollow. Empty. The news sent them hurtling through a space where grief drags the deepest believers into despair, where sadness settles like heavy dust on the human heart.
Nothing can ever prepare you for that. Not that news. Not ever.
A tearful goodbye
Amalia delivered Caroline at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital at 5:16 a.m. June 17, 2014. Caroline died 19 minutes later, swaddled in a blanket that had been gifted to the family by members of their church.
The little girl with dark, curly locks never opened her eyes as Amalia held her for those precious moments after birth. She didn’t have to. Amalia believes she felt the love.
“I remember whispering ‘I love you’ to her,” Amalia said. “I’m thankful she was able to hear our voice. In that moment, I didn’t know how much time we would have with her. In that moment, I knew that I would love her forever. In that moment, we were very thankful for her life and how beautiful she was.”
On the same day, Melissa Ouwinga tearfully said goodbye to her daughter, Mira.
“We were at the hospital for a routine ultrasound and there was no heartbeat,” Melissa said. “Then, they induced me. We were able to hold her and spend time with her, for which we are so very thankful.”
Mind numbing. Heart ripping. Soul shattering. But in the midst of gut-gripping grief, friendship formed.
Amalia and Melissa met because of the deaths of their daughters.
Mira had been diagnosed with a severe case of Turner syndrome, a rare chromosome disorder that affects growth, at 20 weeks gestation.
On June 17, 2014, at 24 weeks gestation, Melissa had received a package in the mail from Sufficient Grace, an organization that provides keepsakes for moms who are carrying a child who might not survive.
Inside was a teddy bear.
“It was delivered that morning that I had my doctor’s appointment when we found out she didn’t have a heartbeat anymore,” Melissa said. “I had that package with me. That was a really cool God moment.”
Melissa said it’s difficult to describe the feeling of having just delivered a baby, and leaving without a baby in your arms.
“You shouldn’t be wheeled out of the hospital without a baby in your arms when you just gave birth,” Melissa said. “It was a comfort to have that bear in my arms. A few months later, God laid it on my heart to start collecting bears.”
Keeping their spirit alive
As Melissa started collecting bears to help comfort other moms in the same soul-shattering situation, Amalia began collecting blankets, because hers had been such a comfort as the only earthly possession Caroline ever knew.
Their bears and blankets bear many tears, but they are also a source of strength.
“Incompatible with life.” Those were the words Amalia and her husband, Josh, heard from the specialist before baby Caroline was born. Amalia and Melissa somehow turned those words around, into compassionate with life, in helping other parents deal with their worst fear.
The two women forged a friendship that continues to this day.
Born of their grief: Mira Bears and Blankets of Love.
“In my heart I felt very called to do something to help others who were going through what we went through,” Amalia said. “I know how difficult it was to go to the hospital with a kicking baby inside of you and leave the hospital with nothing left. I wanted to do something to honor Caroline’s life and help others.”
While lying in bed one night, she thought of the beautiful, hand-knit blanket made by the knitting group at her church.
“When she was born I was able to wrap her in that blanket,” Amalia said. “I realized what a blessing that blanket had been to me. I wanted to provide that for other families.”
So far, Blankets of Love has distributed more than 700 blankets all over Michigan.
“I have Caroline’s name on a tag inside each of the blankets,” Amalia said. “When we bring the blankets to hospitals, I like to tell them about Caroline and the reason I’m doing this ministry. It’s very healing to me to share her story and to know I’m honoring her life by serving other families.”
Similarly, Melissa has collected more than 700 bears.
“I didn’t really know how involved it would be but I started collecting bears to allow other people to have that level of comfort,” Melissa said. “It’s not going to bring your child back, but it brings comfort. It’s been a huge blessing to see the donations that have come in, and the support.”
Melissa has donated the bears to about 20 hospitals in Michigan.
“We’re blessed to come back to Spectrum as often as they need us,” she said. “Spectrum has a special place in my heart because Mira was born there.”
Amalia and Melissa do most deliveries together. They also spend a lot of time together as friends outside of bear and blanket drop-offs.
They are soul sisters, knowing about one another what few others can truly understand.
“Having someone who completely knows is a huge blessing,” Melissa said. “I want to be able to offer that to someone who doesn’t have a listening ear.”
The pain is still fresh for Melissa and Amalia. They both have since given birth to other babies, but they fondly remember Mira and Caroline.
Melissa and her husband, Mark, held Mira for several hours after the stillbirth.
“It was such a blessing to hold her,” Melissa said. “It was like time stood still and this was our only precious moment with her. But when we got home, reality hit, and it was just a whirlwind of grieving, what-ifs, I wishes, I love her, what’s next.”
Like Amalia, Melissa said the bear project has kept Mira’s memory and spirit alive.
“When you have a child, you have so much love,” Melissa said. “If I can’t have my child physically here on earth, then I need an outlet for that love. I want it to flow to others. My heart is just broken for other families grieving their children. It’s a blessing to be able to bless others in a small way.”