Blooming through grief: How one family’s journey through loss is helping to build a community of healing
Posted on September 8, 2022 by Holly Allen
Article provided by Valley Falls Vindicator
From a young age, there were two things Holly Abel knew for sure — she wanted to be a teacher and she wanted to be a mom.
A planner from the start, Holly worked to get all of her ducks in a row. She graduated Valley Falls High School in 2013, and headed to Emporia State University, the same college her high school sweetheart, 2012 Jefferson County North grad Justin Abel, was attending, toward earning a degree in education. Justin was studying earth science and geospatial analysis. In just four years, Holly found herself exactly where she’d planned to be — as a first-grade teacher at Riverside Elementary, teaching the same students she had student-taught the year before as kindergartners.
She taught at Riverside two years, and in 2018, she and Justin were wed. When he got a job as a hydrologic technician (a “water scientist,” as Holly lovingly describes it) for United States Geological Survey in Lawrence, the couple were happy to move closer to their Jefferson County roots, and Holly was pleased to find a job at a rival school to her alma mater, teaching first grade at Perry-Lecompton. Things were working out just as she’d carefully planned.
Just one day prior to their second anniversary, Holly discovered she was pregnant — yet another thing falling into place in the life they were building for themselves. And what an anniversary gift for her husband, who had been dreaming of being a father as long as they’d been together.
The couple spent the next few months preparing their home for their first child — a girl, they’d found out early due to genetic testing, all of which thankfully, had come back normal. They teased each other over names, disagreeing on each until finally one just clicked. She would be Magnolia Eloise.
“It was the first name that we both liked,” said Holly. “We knew as soon as we heard it, she was Magnolia from the start.”
A typical pregnancy, Holly experienced nausea and nothing unusual. Every scan the couple had came back normal. Magnolia was growing and moving, just as expected. Justin was enjoying being able to see her movements from the outside of Holly’s growing belly. One day, nearly 32 weeks in, Magnolia had a particularly mobile day.
“I remember calling Justin over, because she was like an acrobat,” recalled Holly. “It was shortly after that she completely stopped moving.”
As a first-time mom, Holly wasn’t entirely sure what this could mean. Magnolia was nearly full-term at this point. After a night of worry, on Sunday morning she called an after-hours doctor, afraid her baby girl might need to make her appearance early, as her sister-in-law’s recent baby had.
“Looking back, I was in such denial,” said Holly. “I really thought everything was going to be okay.”
Once at the hospital, Holly put on a gown and prepared for the Doppler. She recalls the nurses were friendly — almost too friendly. Looking back, she realizes they must have suspected what she didn’t.
“Once the Doppler went on, pretty quickly the mood of the room changed,” she said. “The heartbeat just wasn’t there. I asked, ‘is this normal?’ thinking about early pregnancy, when a heartbeat is sometimes hard to find. Or maybe there was sometimes an issue with the Doppler. But the nurse looked at me and said, ‘no.’”
Technically, the doctor was the only one allowed to call it. But he was still 20 minutes away. Finally, one of the nurses showed Holly and Justin mercy. She told them their daughter’s heart was no longer beating.
“The nurse announced our fate through tears of her own as she wrapped her arms around my husband,” Holly recalled. “I watched the two of them, strangers before this moment, sob in each other’s arms over the life, over the future, over the baby that we lost seemingly in a matter of seconds.”
Disbelief and grief had to be pushed aside as the couple were asked to make two decisions which should never have to be made in tandem — a birth plan and a funeral plan.
Due to COVID, there were no visitors allowed in the hospital on the somber day of Magnolia’s birth Jan. 8, 2021.
“I remember thinking ‘my family is never going to meet my daughter,’” Holly recalls. “But they let all of those rules be broken and allowed as many visitors as we wanted.”
After making the worst series of phone calls of her life, Holly and Justin were soon surrounded by their immediate family.
“I will be forever grateful that our people, her people, got to hold her in their arms,” said Holly. “Sometimes I think the people who didn’t meet her or physically hold her, it’s very hard for them to grasp or understand that she was real. And it’s hard for society to accept grief for something that they cannot wrap their minds around. They didn’t hold her and feel the weight of it all.”
Holly and Justin were able to spend nearly 24 hours with their firstborn daughter. Their parents were able to admire her features — she was born with her mom’s nose and her dad’s long legs — and to touch her hands. To say hello and goodbye all at once.
“I know it’s unusual to say, but it was such a precious time,” says Holly, thankfully. “The nursing staff really treated us like normal parents. Later, back in the real world, people would treat us so differently, but in that moment, the nurses just treated us like any other new parents.”
One of those nurses even taught Justin how to swaddle little Magnolia.
“It was so special and a memory I’ll never forget,” Holly said. Justin plays guitar and Holly sings. Together, they had been working on the song “Isn’t She Lovely” to play for Magnolia once she came home from the hospital. Instead, they spent their final moments as a family of three huddled together on a hospital bed, singing the song as they let her go.
A series of tests completed after Magnolia’s passing showed no abnormalities whatsoever. There was no indication of anything at all to have caused a stillbirth. Holly’s placenta was was healthy and baby Magnolia was perfectly and fully formed and intact. The umbilical cord which connected mother to baby was healthy, with blood still flowing between them.
“It’s very jarring, to put it bluntly, when your baby dies with no explanation and you’re sent home,” said Holly. “You want to be in control, ‘What can I do to prevent this from happening again?’”
But speaking to a midwife later, Holly was surprised to find that the answer to the question, “How often is there no cause of death found in stillborn babies?” was “Almost every time.”
Facing immense grief, Holly stabilized herself with the decision that her daughter was not going to be forgotten, that she had to ensure that her short life would mean something. But she didn’t yet have the mental clarity to know what that might entail.
At home, the couple settled into their grief, processing the tragic loss in their own ways. Unable to verbalize what she was feeling, Holly turned to social media, using a private Instagram account as a sort of diary to work through her most raw emotions. She started following other, similar accounts, of people all over the world facing this sort of unfathomable loss.
“I didn’t know anyone personally who had experienced this and I just knew I had to reach out,” said Holly. “I wasn’t happy to discover so many others had been through this, but in a way, it’s comforting to know you’re not as alone as you feel.”
Finally, one day, she shared her online diary with a close friend, who convinced her to share it with the world.
“She said, ‘I think it’s important other people read this.’ What started as comfort and a search for community, then became me advocating for Magnolia, bringing awareness, and creating the community I was seeking,” stated Holly. “What I realized through the process, is that I was writing about what other people all over the world were experiencing.
“I started the Bloom Like Magnolia Project to share my story and connect with other loss moms. What I found was a community of women who are continually saying ‘thank you so much for saying what we’re feeling.’ It’s such a taboo topic, I didn’t know — are people going to accept it, are they going to look away, are they going to say something awful? Grief is a difficult thing to articulate, but there is something very cathartic in trying, for me.”
Holly has dedicated a great deal of her time since Magnolia’s passing in providing a safe space for other “loss moms” to explore their feelings, and setting up a system of support in a space which in the past has been overlooked.
Bloom Like Magnolia has brought together parents suffering from loss from all over the world. As much time as they spend in support, the group also spends in honoring their children, gone too early, but never forgotten. Holly has also begun a support group, Blooming Through Grief, for other mothers struggling with loss locally to meet in person.
And she has even written a book aimed at honoring those babies gone too soon.
“Some Babies” is written by Holly and illustrated by her cousin, Ally Chundak, a Jefferson West graduate.
The idea from the book came once again, as Holly worked to fill a void in honoring babies like Magnolia.
“It wasn’t until I returned to teaching first grade after losing Magnolia that I realized the depth of my responsibility in explaining to these children that the baby they eagerly watched grow inside me had unexpectedly left earth,” said Holly. “There were no resources, no books, no guidance on this topic. The library was filled with books on friendship, bullying, rainbows, and flowers, but when it came to losing a child, there was nothing.
“One thing I really loved to do was sit in Magnolia’s nursery. I felt her presence there. We had lovingly prepared it for her. Loss is physical, emotional, and spiritual and there, I truly felt her around me,” said Holly.
As she sat in the nursery, reading books to her daughter she hoped to reach in some way on a spiritual plane, she came across a book about all the different kinds of babies. But nowhere in that book was Magnolia represented. Really, nowhere in any book.
“I thought, ‘some babies don’t get to do any of these things.’ And I wondered if other moms feel that way too.”
She wrote “Some Babies” with the hope that everyone who has experienced loss could feel themselves in the story.
And the book, published around the time Holly and Justin’s second daughter, Marigold Lucille, was born, Feb. 24 of this year, has become a sort of catharsis, as well.
“Some Babies,” which can be purchased or donated at bloomlikemagnolia.com, creates a way for families to broach a difficult subject, and to give meaning to the lives of the children they’ve lost.
Though she returned to Perry-Lecompton initially following the loss of Magnolia, Holly opted to put her teaching career on hold the following school year. Still, she credits her students for helping her work through her grief.
“At the time, as I tried to find the balance between grieving my own child and caring for others’ children, I found a beautiful mix of so many learning moments that could only be taught by youth. My students focused so heavily on Magnolia’s life, reminiscing on when she was the size of a cantaloupe (according to my growth app), and they kept her memory alive by thinking of her during simple joys such as blowing bubbles to heaven at recess, waving at a shooting star that she surely sent to them, and looking for red birds or butterflies on the playground,” Holly recalled.
These days, Holly is focused on spending her time with her earthside daughter, who they call Goldie. She also captures memories for other families through her photography business, renamed Bloom Like Magnolia Photography. She isn’t quite sure yet about returning to teaching, her calling since such a young age, but expects she will get back there one day.
“Goldie is the best gift that Magnolia could have given us. She doesn’t sleep much, but we love all of these moments with her, even in the middle of the night,” Holly laughs. “When you’ve had a baby you never heard cry, those cries become precious. We didn’t get to experience or make any of these memories with Magnolia — and so, with Marigold, we cherish every moment. Right now, I’m just soaking it all up.”
Justin and Holly Abel welcomed their second child, a healthy baby girl named Marigold Lucille, February 24.