Lori McDonald wears a necklace with a ring of diamonds. The design of the necklace is known as the Circle of Life and it symbolizes eternal love. So, it’s fitting that among the diamonds there’s also a sapphire, her daughter Joelle’s birthstone. Lori wears the necklace in her memory. And when people ask about the piece, she never hesitates to tell them about the baby daughter she lost.
“For me, in my grief journey, acknowledgement of Joelle is important,” she says. “We have her picture hung with our other two children’s baby pictures. Our kids know her name and they talk about her.”
Along with the necklace and photos, Lori has chosen another very special way to remember Joelle. She volunteers as a facilitator in Bereaved Families of Ontario – Midwestern Region’s (BFO-MR) infant loss support group.
“I would do it all again”
In 2009, Lori and her husband were looking forward to the culmination of a textbook pregnancy. But shortly after her birth, Joelle was rushed to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at McMaster Children’s Hospital. There, doctors gave Lori and her husband the devastating news that their baby had suffered profound brain damage during labor. The decision was made to take Joelle off life support. Two weeks later she died in her mother’s arms.
“I held her and saw her take her last breaths. Her death was so peaceful, almost angelic,” Lori says.
While Joelle’s death was peaceful, Lori’s grieving was not. She remembers “losing it” at work one day and having to explain to her supervisor that it was Joelle’s birthday. She and her husband participated in BFO-MR’s program for parents who have experienced the death of an infant and today, in spite of her grief, Lori doesn’t regret her experiences.
“I wouldn’t have the two girls I have now if that process hadn’t happened. My life would be different. Even knowing the outcome, I would do it all again.”
Finding a nugget
Feelings of gratitude for Joelle’s birth, and for all the people who helped during that terrible time, prompted Lori to train as a BFO-MR facilitator. While leading her third group, she had a specific objective for participants—to find their “nugget”, that one little thing that will help them in their grief journey.
“I’m just trying to give parents that nudge to get off whatever ledge they’re sitting on because that’s usually what’s happened by the time people get to group—they’re just going through the motions and not moving forward because they’re stuck. I want to help them get unstuck”
Lori says that her experience as a facilitator has been both humbling and grounding. “It reminds me of where I was and where I am now.”
And the support Lori provides to other grieving parents inspires some of them to ask about becoming facilitators themselves. What does she tell them?
“Facilitating isn’t for everyone. Even now, having done three groups, sometimes it can be a little scary, because you don’t want to say the wrong thing. But we need to remember that we’re peers, not counsellors. There is no right or wrong answer. It’s about sharing how you feel and being there for the participants. And that’s a very rewarding experience.”
Moving through grief
As a full-time accountant and a mom to seven- and five-year-old girls, Lori leads a busy life. What makes her take time out of a packed schedule to volunteer with BFO-MR?
“When people first come into group, they’re hesitant, anxious, nervous,” she says. “They don’t really want to be there. And then to see them start opening up, being compassionate for others and realizing they’re not alone. You watch them begin to move through their grief. They’re not done but they’re beginning to move through it and you helped them do that. That’s so rewarding for me. That’s how I know I’ve done my job.”