Shanna Johnson: How Writing Letters Helped Heal my Grief
Wife and mother to 9 children, two of which have been adopted. Shanna has had 7 miscarriages and one stillborn baby. Today we are going to talk about miscarriages, having a full term stillborn baby and grief.
Shanna was 38 weeks along with her pregnancy, and each morning she would wake up and push on her tummy to wake the baby up. She’d say “good morning” and feel them start kicking and then she’d go on her way. This particular morning when she pushed on her tummy, she didn’t get any response. After she got her other children off to school she called the doctor’s office because she felt uneasy about the baby.
Looking for a Heartbeat
When she arrived at the doctor’s office, they took her back to listen to the heartbeat and they couldn’t find one. After that, they immediately took her in to do an ultrasound to double-check and make sure they weren’t missing anything. She heard them whispering out in the hall and the tech, who knew her really well asked, “Who is it?” They told her “It’s Shanna.” The tech then said, “Oh no. Not Shanna. Not Shanna.”
But this sweet tech put on a brave face and came in to do the ultrasound.
There still was no heartbeat.
Her doctor just wrapped her arms around her and they all started crying together. Then they put her in a quiet room and started calling family to come and be with her.
At this point Shanna was in shock. She kept thinking, “This can’t be real. How can this be? I just felt her moving last night. What happened?”
The night before Shanna had visited her sister in the hospital because she had just had a baby. As she was holding her sister’s baby and Shanna’s baby was pushing on her tummy. Shanna’s baby was kicking her new cousin.
Shanna’s husband and her parents came to pick her up at the doctor’s office and then went back to her parents house where she received a blessing (or a prayer for her). Although she was comforted by this prayer she was still very sad. The thought that just persisted in Shanna’s mind was, “I just want my baby back. I just want her back. I don’t want this to be real.”
Shanna described, “It’s like you’re in this dream, in this situation and you don’t want to be in it but and there is no way out of it. You just have to keep moving forward. You still have to go and have the baby.” She feels like she was in shock and denial.
Shanna worried about how she was going to tell her other children because they were all so excited because Cozette was supposed to be born any day. Shanna’s other kids would come up to her belly and talk to “baby Cozy” as they called her.
Shanna was scheduled for an induction a few days later. Shanna’s doctor’s office was so incredible. In fact, they called the hospital and requested a specific nurse to help Shanna who had also lost a baby. This helped Shanna tremendously because when her body started to contract and push on the baby’s body it felt like Cozette was kicking. This sweet nurse was able to explain what was really happening and that she had felt that too. Shanna also had another friend who had lost a baby bring her a CD to play in the room because it seems so quiet without the baby’s heart monitor going.
After Cozette was born, Shanna’s nurse immediately took her and cleaned her body, put a hat and diaper on her, wrapped her in a blanket and brought her to Shanna so she could spend some times with her. Since Cozette was full term she looked like a sleeping baby in her arms.
People were so sweet to Shanna at this time. One friend stayed up all night making a blanket with little angels on it and brought it to her at the hospital. That is the blanket they ended up burying Cozette in.
After the delivery Shanna was tired and took a nap. One of her friends who had also had a stillborn baby just held Cozette’s little body and rocked it and sang to her while Shanna slept. “What does a mother want to do? They want to hold and love on their baby. Just because there is a loss doesn’t mean you don’t have those maternal feelings.”
The hospital brought in a photographer who specialized in taking pictures of children right before or right after they pass. The program is called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. They provided Shanna and her family with a beautiful photograph of Cozette dressed in the teenie tiny baby clothes the hospital provided for her.
The social worker also advised them to bring their children in to say goodbye which was a beautiful experience. They got to hold her and touch her cheek and her hands and it helped give them a sense of closure.
Shanna’s last memory of Cozette is of sitting in the rocking chair holding her.
Shanna’s husband Joseph and her dad got to take Cozette and hand her over to the mortuary. Watching them walk out the door taking Cozette away was one of the lowest points for Shanna.
Her husband later told her it was one of the hardest things he ever did to lay his daughter in a tiny coffin, cover her in a blanket and then have to walk away. He told her he actually fell and sobbed over the coffin. He said as a dad he felt he had failed to protect this sweet baby girl and her mother. This was a low moment for him as well.
“Usually when you leave the hospital, it is this happy moment and you are leaving with a baby in your arms. It is not like that when you have a stillborn baby. You gather your stuff up and you leave empty, quiet, solemn.”
Once you need to get home you have a whole bunch of decisions which need to be made: What cemetery? Are you going to do a funeral or a graveside service? Who is going to speak? Who is going to pray? What flowers should you order?
Shanna felt like making all of these decisions and doing it right was the last act of service she could do for her daughter. She wanted it to be just right so she didn’t have any regrets.
Shanna sat on her bed after she got home just crying and holding the blanket which Cosette was wrapped in. As she sat there softest most tender words whispered into her mind the words to Psalm 46:10 came into her mind, “Be still and know that I am God.” Shanna felt a peace and a warmth come over her and she knew God was aware of her and her situation. Then Shanna had the words of a hymn start in her mind, “Be Still My Soul” and she knew this hymn is what she wanted to have sung at Cosette’s graveside service.
Shanna particularly loved the third verse, which says:
Be still my soul the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord
When disappointment grief and fear are gone
Sorrow forgot love’s purest joys restored
Be still my soul when change and tears are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.
Shanna felt like God brought that song to her mind so she could be comforted through these words. As she looked it up and read them, she was most impressed when she read “disappointment, grief, and fear are gone. Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.” To Shanna this meant this her purest joy (her baby) would be restored to her. She knew they would “meet at last” in heaven with God.
The words to this hymn gave her hope at a time when she felt so lost, confused, and broken. She felt God giving her this mercy so she would let His love in and have quietness and peace again.
The Grieving Process
For the first while after Cosette’s death, Shanna felt like God was holding her in His arms. Then gradually she felt she needed to move forward through the other stages of grief. She had to deal with the loss of expectations she would never get to plan her baby blessing, her first birthday party, her baptism, etc.
Shanna continued to move forward and she read a lot of books. She had to let some time go by to try to process everything that had happened. After the year anniversary of Cosette’s death Shanna enrolled in a 6-8 week grief course offered through the mortuary. She was placed in a small group of people who had all experienced loss. Each week they would read a chapter in the book, journal about it, and come back to learn more about grief next week. This process was so helpful to Shanna because she realized the thoughts and feelings she had in her heart and head were normal. She also realized some of the physical things she went through, like having a hard time sleeping, was also normal.
Shanna had also withdrawn into herself and had a hard time relating to normal people. This was especially difficult when people would complain about things like their children or husband because to Shanna those things seemed so trivial compared to her intense grief.
Shanna also learned it was normal for people to turn to addictions during time of grief. For some that might be alcohol, exercise or reading–things which help them escape the emotions. Shanna turned to chocolate, reading and watching comedies. She wanted to feel emotions that weren’t grief.
Shanna loved being able to relate to other people who were experiencing loss so she didn’t feel so alone anymore. It was nice to talk to these other people–and sometimes they would even find themselves laughing. It was nice to talk about their loved one too. Sometimes people don’t want to talk to you about your loved one because they think it will cause you pain. In reality Shanna wanted to talk about Cosette because she didn’t want to forget her.
The First Letter
The final assignment for her grief class was to write a letter to your loved one and go read it at their gravesite. This became such a sweet and spiritual experience for Shanna. She was able to express to Cosette all the things she was going to miss. For example, “I am sad that I won’t be able to do your hair for prom or go pick out wedding dresses with you.” Shanna also acknowledged in her letter that she needed to let go of Cosette because it was the selfless thing for her to do. Shanna explains, “She had a path and I had a path and they were supposed to be separate. But we would get to come together again someday.” As any good mother she wanted what was best for her daughter–and if that meant going to heaven, Shanna had to be okay with that.
Writing and reading this letter was extremely healing for Shanna.
After losing Cosette and going through the grieving process, Shanna found out she was pregnant again. The baby after one you have lost is called a rainbow baby because they are the rainbow after the storm. This was scary for Shanna because she had already had 6 miscarriages and then Cosette was stillborn. She knew getting pregnant was opening herself up to the possibility that it could happen again.
Unfortunately Shanna ended up having another miscarriage in the second trimester.
Losing her Rainbow Baby caused Shanna to drop right back into grief, only she felt like she moved straight to anger with God. “How can you do this to me? I was barely picking myself back up,” Shanna asked God.
After this loss, Shanna’s bishop came to visit her one night and asked what he could do to help her. He told her he could give her scriptures to read but he wasn’t qualified to help her through the grieving process. So he recommended getting her in touch with a counselor to help her with the grief.
At first Shanna didn’t want to go to a counselor because she felt she was a failure. She felt she didn’t have enough faith and she was failing at one of her big tests here on earth. After considering her options, she decided to go to the counselor because she felt stuck and broken and she knew she needed help.
Counseling & The Second Letter
Talking and writing and working with the counselor was very therapeutic. Then her counselor asked her to write a letter to God telling Him about all of her 7 miscarriages and her stillborn Cosette. Shanna went home and began writing. She could only write so much before she’d have to stop because it would bring up so much emotion and she’d have to take a break because she was sobbing. Shanna wrote about the anger and the sadness, and she was very raw and open in this letter to God. She wrote about the hard moments like seeing Cosette’s coffin for the first time and how that felt. Shanna wrote pages and pages.
At her next appointment, her counselor sat an empty chair in front of her and told her to envision God sitting in that chair. Then he asked her to read God the letter. Shanna resisted saying, “I’m going to get struck down. This is a book!” Then he told her, “Shanna, you are not that powerful. You could never do anything or say anything that would make God give up on you.”
Reading the Letter to God
So, Shanna trusted her counselor because she knew she needed to heal. So Shanna read the letter. She cried and read, and cried and read. And when she was done there was just quiet. And they just sat there in the stillness.
Finally her counselor asked her a question, “What do you feel right now?”
Shanna closed her eyes and thought about it. And as she reached out with her feelings she felt this warmth encircle her–kind of like a warm blanket. And this warmth penetrated into her heart and she felt loved. She told her counselor she felt loved. Then he told her he felt it too and reaffirmed, “You are not alone. You did not fail a test. You are not forgotten. You are not forsaken. Your Heavenly Father loves you.”
“That was the day everything changed for me. It was that feeling of love and knowing that no matter what I felt, no matter what I went through, no matter how broken I was, Heavenly Father still loved me. And he would never give up on me. And he would never let go of me, no matter if I pushed Him away because I was so mad.”
Shanna found it interesting that it was through writing a letter to Cosette that helped her begin to heal from her death. And it was writing a letter to God that helped her let go of all the pain from her many losses. God’s love helped her to heal.
“The most wonderful thing that came out of all that loss, pain and brokenness was that I truly gained a testimony of our Savior’s ability to heal those that are broken. It was through the brokenness that I found my relationship with my Savior. And I learned to trust Him.”
“There is a way back to love and joy, hope and faith, but it is through the Savior.”
Shanna explains once she knew she was loved, she was able to let the Savior heal her heart. From that point on she was able to really start moving forward. Shanna had to come to the point where she realized, “I didn’t have to hold onto pain to hold onto Cosette. I could give that pain to the Savior and still love Cosette.” Moving forward wasn’t forgetting anyone’s memory.
It probably took 3 years from the time Cosette died to the point where Shanna felt completely healed and happy. She was laughing for real again.
Shanna feels reading books on healing and going to the grief course were stepping stones for her in the healing process, but it wasn’t until she truly felt God’s love for her and worked with Him that she was finally able to heal.
Help Others Heal
Shanna counsels, once healing has taken place in your own soul, reach out to others who also might be struggling.
At one point in the healing process she asked her husband to give her a blessing (or pray over her) and make her better. But, she was told that wasn’t how this works. Shanna needed to go through these deep emotions so that someday she could help others. Going through these hard times helped Shanna empathize with others who have truly lost someone they love and gone through the grieving process.
When you have grieved, you are able to look someone directly in the eye and say, “I don’t know what you are going through, but I have felt some of these emotions also. I have been in this place.”
Shanna has has multiple experiences where people have called out of the blue because their sister or friend had a stillborn baby or a baby who is only going to live a little while and then pass on. Shanna has been able to teach them what to say and what not to say and how to comfort and love in this difficult situation.
- Be patient. Don’t put time frames on their grief. Shanna counsels, “Don’t ever put timeframes on someone who is going through a loss.” Everyone processes grief differently. “Sometimes when you are in it, it is hard to see that you will ever get to the place where you have more love and joy.”
- Respect their boundaries. Don’t push yourself on someone who is grieving. Reach out, and if they reach back, then be there. If they need space, then give them space. But keep reaching out.
- Don’t leave them alone. People often feel alone when they grieve, and some alone time to pray and connect with God is good. But isolation when they are in a dark place isn’t healthy. So, keep contact and keep inviting those you love to participate. Examples are, “I’m thinking of you. I’m praying for you. I love you!” Stop by. Give hugs.
- Don’t EVER say, “God needed your loved one more than you did.” That is not helpful when someone is grieving.
- Don’t say, “God gave you this because He knew you were strong enough to handle it.” That doesn’t help. Often people feel the most weak and vulnerable when they lose a loved one. They don’t feel strong, and they don’t feel like they can handle it.
- With a stillborn baby or miscarriage, don’t say “You can just get pregnant again.” Some people who haven’t lost a stillborn baby try to make you feel like your baby wasn’t real. They seem to discount the baby because they never took a breath. They consider it a miscarriage. But it is not a miscarriage. There is still a body and there was a spirit in that body but it is now gone. Shanna knew Cozette and her sweet spirit from carrying her in her womb.If you know someone who has had a stillborn baby or a miscarriage, it is still a loss to them. Don’t discount that. “This is a real human being who was part of my life who is now gone, Shanna explains.” Be particularly sensitive to the mother who has carried a baby and has a relationship with them.
- There are also books which give a lot of good advice for the loved ones of people who are grieving. If you have someone you love who is experiencing a loss, find and read one of these books.
- If you are comforting people in their loss, remind them these emotions and physical reactions like lack of motivation and insomnia are normal.
- You are going to go through the grief cycle. Learn about it. It is particularly good to know that anger is a part of the cycle so you don’t feel guilty about being angry with God (if you are a believer). Feel all the emotions and work through them so you don’t feel stuck and end up bitter.
- Find things to keep living for, and live vibrantly. You will get there eventually. Start by looking for little joyous moments.
- Treasure God’s tender mercies. God sends people, and He speaks through scriptures and music. Watch for those moments and treasure them. Each moment is a stepping stone which will move you forward toward healing.
- Write and journal about the things you feel–especially when you see God’s hand in your life.
- Pray you can feel God’s love. Feeling God’s love helps you heal.
“When you feel lost, broken and alone, do whatever you can do to find your way back to your Father in Heaven. Feeling His love for you will open the doors to the Savior’s love.”
Connect With Shanna
You can connect with Shanna on Facebook as Shanna Howard Johnson.
Shareable Thoughts and Memes
Shanna gave her grief workbook to a friend to help process grief and so she cannot remember the title, but there are several highly rated Grief Workbooks on Amazon.
These books are book Shanna read to help her process her grief: