It's the unthinkable nightmare that only happens to other people, a perfectly healthy newborn baby stops breathing for no apparent reason. Stories like these make parents wonder how anyone can make it through such a tragedy.
Sarah Rico is a quiet young woman with dark curly hair, beautiful eyes and a kind and gentle spirit. To those who just meet her, or who only know her casually, she is simply a nice person. But to those who have walked alongside her since the death of her 4-day-old son, she is an incredible inspiration.
Sarah and her husband Cristian both wanted children, long before they ever met and got married. Sarah was one of those women who knew since she was just a little girl that she was made to be a mother. But when they decided it was time to start their family, it took them over a year to get pregnant.
"It was difficult." Sarah says, "I became very discouraged and began to wonder if maybe I wouldn't be able to get pregnant at all, if maybe I would never get my dream of carrying a baby and becoming a mom."
That discouragement turned to faith one Sunday, when her pastor spoke on God's promises.
"I went home that day, and I knew. I felt like God had given me his promise that I would have a baby someday, that I just needed to trust and be patient. Low and behold, about a month later I found out I was pregnant! I knew that my baby was a precious gift, and that he would have an impact on many, many people."
On Oct. 27, five days after Sarah and Cristian's third anniversary, their precious promise was born.
Zedekiah had a full head of dark hair, perfectly chubby cheeks and long delicate fingers. He also had huge feet.
"His feet were so big that the newborn socks I had to bring him home from the hospital in were too small, and wouldn't stay on his feet. So he went home barefoot! With a blanket, but barefoot."
Zedekiah also loved to snuggle, a memory Sarah says she dearly treasures, because it was just four days later, their first morning home from the hospital, that he passed away in his sleep from unknown causes. The official ruling: Zedekiah died from SIDS.
The loss of a child may be the most devastating loss a person can experience, and one that people struggle to make sense of. Sarah has wrestled with these same struggles.
"I don't understand why this happened, why to us or why it had to be this way. I don't understand why this precious boy who was so wanted, so longed for, is gone. Especially when there are so many children who aren't wanted, who aren't loved and properly cared for. It just doesn't make sense."
But Sarah is also a woman of great faith, and her faith does not seem to have been shaken, even after such heartbreak.
"I don't believe that God did this to me. So many people say things like, 'Well, God needed him.' Some probably even think that maybe my husband or I did something at some point in our lives to deserve this or to have caused it. But I believe in a just, loving God. It just doesn't work that way. We live in a broken world and broken, horrible things happen. That's just reality. I know that God wept with me and for me the day my boy died, and I know that he continues to weep with me, as any father would do watching his daughter in pain."
Sarah has wept as well. At home, in church, in Starbucks, at friends' houses and at the gym. She has also been seeing a counselor and journaling, doing all she can to try to work through her feelings, process the pain and live each day. She's not moving on, but moving forward. The one thing she hasn't done is become bitter.
"I felt God tell me, Sarah, let me redeem this. I know that this is awful. I know that you are broken and hurting, but trust me, hold tight to me and let me make something beautiful out of your pain and out of your precious boy's life. Let me show you how your boy's life and your heartbreak can have a beautiful, lasting impact on you and on many, many people."
Although Zedekiah lived just four short days, his story has affected thousands of people and stretched around the world. The day of Zedekiah's memorial, the entire sanctuary was packed with people, many of whom did not really know Sarah or Cristian, all there to show their support.
"It was an emotional, broken and painful day. Yet, after everyone had gone home and Cristian and I had finished reading through the cards and notes from people, I was overcome with thankfulness and a sense of how incredibly blessed I was. I was just in awe, realizing how many people love us and care for us, and took the time to come celebrate our son with us."
But the support did not stop there. Sarah and Cristian received notes, cards and emails from friends and acquaintances all over the world. They received flowers for weeks. A meal train was set up to provide them with food, and people dropped off books, magazines, puzzles and other gifts to help occupy Sarah's mind.
"Precious new friends came to sit with me, to laugh, cry and remember with me. To drink copious amounts of coffee and tea with me and to tell me that my roller coaster of emotions was normal. That I was not a crazy person. I was normal. All of these were ways that God said, "Sarah, see that I am good. See how I care for you."
One of Sarah's greatest avenues for support has been the Mops (Mothers of Preschoolers) group she joined just a few weeks before Zedekiah's birth.
"The women at Mops have helped me to understand and accept that yes, I am a mother, even though my version of motherhood is a little different right now. It has been a place of great encouragement and healing for me. Everything from these women, from a hug, to the gift of magazines, to a meal, to coming to the memorial service or even just a simple text message to let me know they care, were some of the biggest ways that God showed me his goodness in those first couple months. These things may seem small or insignificant, but all of these little things are important and precious to someone who is walking through a tragedy."
Sarah also finds great strength and comfort in her husband.
"So many couples who experience a tragedy like this end up broken beyond repair. They end up in different places. People feel and process and grieve differently, but those first weeks and months were such a precious time for us of being broken and raw together. We weren't always feeling or thinking the same things, but we just experienced a whole new level of intimacy in our relationship as we held each other and began to walk forward together."
While it may seem to some that Sarah has held it all together and is doing just fine, the reality is that deep grief is still a constant part of her life. She has been struggling with depression and anxiety, has difficulty sleeping, and sometimes has days where the tears and overwhelming emotions keep her from being able to accomplish anything. She has also had to deal with the painful comments of people who mean well, but may not have thought through the impact their words would have, such as the person who, just two days after Zedekiah's death, said, "Well at least you know you can get pregnant." But some people have had a response that's been even more painful for her.
"I have some close friends who have said very little, or nothing — their silence hurts so much more than the people who say the 'wrong' things out of love."
Regardless, the people in Sarah's life have been impressed with how she has reacted to people, even when they aren't helping.
"I have really appreciated Sarah's willingness to extend grace to others through the process," says Sarah's friend Abigail Engle. "She makes a special effort to see the helpful intent of someone's words, even when those words end up being hurtful. Only Christ in her could offer that kind of love in the midst of pain."
But the thing that helps Sarah survive, and live out each day, is the power of choice, and several friends pointed out the strength she has shown in making decisions to face each day.
"Sarah has seemed very intentional as she has gone through this," shared Barb Olander, Sarah's mentor mom from Mops. "It has been very difficult, but she chooses to do things that she knows are right and good. Things she knows God wants and things that she knows will help with her healing, when just running away and hiding is what she really feels like doing."
Sarah's own words confirm these observations. "I choose life each day. I choose to get out of bed. I choose to do things that are healthy and life-giving — things that move me forward each and every day, even when they are hard and even when I sometimes don't want to. I choose to accept the new joy that I've experienced lately, even though it sometimes feels wrong to feel so joyful, to rejoice and be thankful for my beautiful son and for the precious time I had with him. I choose to see the beauty and the blessings in the many ways that he has touched people's lives. I would give anything to have Zedekiah in my arms today and to never have to walk this path. But I can't change it. What I can do is accept what is and choose to embrace what God is doing in this and receive the good gifts he has to give me. What I can do is accept that I will never be the same and take joy in knowing that God will use this and use me for big things in the future if I allow him to."
As Sarah pointed out, everyone handles grief differently. While Sarah's faith has given her strength through this terrible time, it wasn't religious platitudes that brought her comfort or support — it was the love and thoughtfulness of people taking time to show they cared. If someone you know has lost an infant, the articles below can provide some ideas for showing them you care.
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