Last week at the writers' workshop I lead, one of our new writers shared a little bit about a painful experience she went through over 50 years ago. I emailed her later and asked if she'd be willing to write about it and share what happened with the GG community. She graciously agreed. So, here, in her own words, is Patty Gunnett's moving story.
A Personal Story About SIDS
It was 1958 and my husband and I were enjoying the Christmas season. Married for not quite two years, Bob and I lived in a second floor apartment in the small town of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania with our 6 month old daughter, Beth Ann.
Trimmed with brightly colored ornaments, the Christmas tree looked festive as we stacked our presents under it.
Our small family had plans to visit my husband’s parents in Norristown, Pennsylvania on Christmas day, along with a quick visit with his brother and family, who lived nearby. Our own family celebration with my parents would take place a few days later back in Ellwood City. We couldn’t wait to see Beth Ann’s reaction to what Santa Claus left for her there.
The trip to Norristown was cheerful, yet uneventful. Beth Ann’s car seat was fastened between us on the front seat. Every several miles, I reached over and beeped the horn on the little plastic steering wheel attached to the seat. She laughed with delight.
Grandma and Grandpa were anxious to spend Beth Ann’s first Christmas with us. We enjoyed a delicious chicken dinner at Bob’s brother’s house the day after we arrived, ending the evening with a family slide show which resulted in much laughter. It was December 22, 1958 and my whole world was about to come crashing down around me.
At the end of the evening, I headed upstairs to awaken my sleeping daughter. The hall light was shining dimly onto the crib as I bent down and whispered gently, “Beth Ann, wake up, it’s time to go back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.” She did not move so I turned her over to face me. Her body was rigid. Screaming hysterically, I ran down the steps. “Help me, help me! Something is wrong with Beth Ann!”
My sister-in-law immediately phoned a doctor who lived in the neighborhood. She then handed me a glass of liquid sedative and said, “Drink this.” I ran to the front door, opened it and watched for the doctor, trying desperately to believe he would save my little girl. I was struck by the thought of how incredulous it seemed that neighbors could be playing Christmas carols while my child was lying in her crib with a potentially serious illness.
Within minutes, the doctor came running down the street, holding his little black bag, his coat flying open in the wind. I stayed on the couch, hoping and praying for Beth Ann to be okay as the doctor hurried upstairs. I heard the doctor tell my husband, “Maybe it isn’t so bad.” Ah, a few seconds of hope! But then I heard the words, “She’s gone.” I looked at their faces as they came down the stairs and knew it was hopeless.
I slipped off to sleep after the doctor gave me a shot to relax me, experiencing a grace-filled respite from the horror unfolding before me. Somehow we made it back to my in-laws’ house where I slept again, only to waken and ask, “Where is Beth Ann?” Shock had set in!
My husband tearfully reminded me she had died. I yelled, “From what?”
“The doctor thinks it was crib death, but he advised an autopsy to be sure,” he explained.
Screaming, I insisted, “No one will touch my child to perform an autopsy!” Thank God, my husband’s cooler head prevailed and he granted permission to find out the cause of death, which was in fact Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
My brother-in-law drove us all the way back to Ellwood City. Once again, I slept, mercifully blocking out the horror. At the same time, Beth Ann was being sent by train to the funeral home. When we arrived back in town, we immediately stopped at our family doctor’s office to inform the doctor, who delivered Beth Ann, of her death. As I sat in a daze, Bob explained to the others in the waiting room what had happened, and asked if we could go in ahead of them. Our doctor was shocked and saddened, especially since he had examined her before we went away and knew she was fine. As we came back out into the waiting room to leave, some of the patients were crying.
Following our visit to the doctor, we went to my parents’ house to break the news to them. Unfortunately, before we got there, someone who knew the funeral director called my mother and asked, “What happened to Patty and Bob’s daughter? Why did she die?” It was the worst news for loving grandparents to hear, and in the worst way.
My brother-in-law stayed with me at our apartment during the funeral as I was too “out of it” to attend. Whether it was God’s way of protecting me from the excruciating pain or not, I have long regretted not being there to say goodbye to my beloved daughter.
* * *
It was quite awhile before I could smile again. People often would ask, “How did you ever get through such a tragedy?” It is not natural for parents to bury their children; it’s supposed to be the other way around. My response to people was to tell them the truth. First, I blamed myself. Next, I blamed my husband. Finally, I blamed God.
For quite a while I yelled to Him, “God, what is wrong with you? You are a terrible God! You call yourself a loving God but that is a lie!” God listened to my ranting and raving with great compassion for my grief. Eventually, my faith brought me to the point where I realized God was taking care of me, and my wounded heart and soul were healed.
But that didn’t mean Beth Ann’s death didn’t change me in some negative ways. I now have more anxiety, especially when I am traveling. A small part of me still feels to be ready for something bad to happen when I am far away from home. After all, I reason, I was not prepared for what happened before so I must be more vigilant now. For the most part, however, I have become stronger through adversity and know I can make it through anything, as long as I’m dependent on God instead of myself. Life is more precious to me now and I appreciate my family and friends in ways I never did before. My two sons have always been told they have a sister who is now with God.
After many years of struggling, I can now look back on Beth Ann’s short life without being overwhelmed with painful emotional memories. Instead, I treasure the sweet times with my little girl in the too brief of a time she was with me.
-- Patty Gunnett
Patty welcomes your comments and will be happy to correspond with you. Feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.