It was on a Sunday morning when the Blairs' son Henry Asher stopped breathing. Jordan Blair, 33, the pastor at Church of Christ in Ben Wheeler, was in the shower. Three-month-old Asher was down for a nap while Jordan's wife, Erin, 30, was getting their oldest son, Judah, ready for church. 

Jordan heard Erin scream.

"I thought, OK, there's something in the house, a spider, a snake, something spooked her," he said. "And then she screamed again."

He ran out of the shower to find Asher unresponsive.

Jordan called 911 and asked the dispatcher to walk him through the instructions for infant CPR. An ambulance arrived at their home in the country about 9 miles from Van. When the paramedics started to work on Asher, he flatlined.

"One of them stopped and gave us a hug, then the other one," Jordan said. "They just held us, and that was that."

Asher's death was listed as sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, which is defined as a sudden, unexplained death of a child before their first birthday. It often occurs while the child is sleeping. 

After the death of their son, the Blairs spent time researching SIDS trying to understand what happened to their son. But it wasn't until the couple began attending Glory Babies, a support group for early pregnancy loss and infant mortality, that they became comfortable being open about their grief. 

"Going to Glory Babies gave me a social-type environment where I wasn't only allowed to talk about my child's death, but I was encouraged to do so," Jordan said.

The Blairs are not alone. The infant mortality rate for the region that encompasses 35 Northeast Texas counties, including the areas of Tyler-Jacksonville and Longview-Marshall, was 7.2 deaths per 1,000 births in 2015.

The Tyler-Jacksonville area had the highest rate among all large communities in Texas at 9.7 deaths per 1,000, almost double the state rate of 5.6 per 1,000.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2017 there were 3,600 cases of sudden unexpected infant death, or SUID, in the United States. 

The three commonly reported types of SUID include the following: sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), unknown cause and accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed.

Texas Health and Human Services reports that in 2015 the top causes of infant mortality in Texas were congenital malformation, short gestation and low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome, maternal complications of pregnancy and unintentional injuries.

"SIDS is like being struck by lightning," Jordan said. "You can try to take many precautions. You can be the most safe parent ever. There's nothing you can do."

Grief Support

Since 2001, parents grieving the death of babies in utero and up to 1 year old have met with The Children's Park of Tyler founder and executive director Jennifer Carson for monthly support group meetings.

Carson knows firsthand the grief these parents experience. She delivered and buried her son Braden in 1999, stillborn at 36 weeks. Out of this tragedy, the idea for the park and grief support groups was born.

Glory Babies meets on the third Tuesday of each month. It's open to anyone dealing with grief from the loss of a child during pregnancy or infancy, including early miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths up to age 1. 

Carson aims to connect people to one another to prevent the isolation that comes with losing a child.

"I think what happens, especially when women have an early miscarriage, they're almost looking for cues from other people to know whether it's OK to talk about it or not," Carson said. "Because nobody else knew that baby, they're never going to get those cues."

At Glory Babies it's OK to talk about things like miscarriage and stillbirths, even if the topic remains taboo in general society. Carson encourages parents to give an early pregnancy loss child an identity and make them a part of the family.

"To hear your child's name spoken out loud, that's one of the greatest gifts you can give," she said. "A gift you can give to someone who's lost a child is to speak that child's name. Say it out loud so they know that child hasn't been forgotten. One of the biggest fears is that the child will be forgotten."

Hudson Ayers

In Rusk, Tiffany and Gregg Ayers know a similar grief. They face daily reminders of Hudson's death. He died at 4 1/2 months old on June 2, 2015. He was a twin, and his sister, Gracie, is now 4 years old.

Hudson and Gracie shared a room, and they still do. Next to the bed where Gracie sleeps is Hudson's crib filled with stuffed animals. His unused diapers are still in the closet.

Around Tiffany's neck is a necklace with a pendant bearing Hudson's footprints. A sticker on the back of her cars reads "Mommy to an Angel." On her wrist is a bracelet inscribed with Bible verse Psalm 139:16, which reads, "Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be," and the number 137.

"That's how many days he lived on this earth," Tiffany, 36, said. Hudson's brother Kason, 7, proudly displays a dog-tag military-style necklace with a photo of himself holding Hudson on it, and a shelf in the kitchen features photographs of the infant. 

Tiffany was at work when she received a call from her baby sitter telling her that when she went to wake the twins up from a nap Hudson wasn't breathing.

The baby sitter called 911 and Tiffany rushed to the hospital in nearby Jacksonville, beating the ambulance there.

"My mother-in-law came, my husband came, my mom came, my stepmom came. One of my best friends from work was on lunch at the time I got the call so she came, too. It felt like we waited forever."

Eventually the doctor came to speak to the Ayerses. 

"You don't ever think that they're going to tell you that he passed away," she said. "The whole time you're praying. You're thinking that he's going to be OK." 

But Hudson wasn't. He couldn't be revived. Because the family did not request an autopsy, Hudson's cause of death is listed as unknown. 

"SIDS is you're ruling everything else out that you can," Tiffany said. "That's what SIDS is. You don't know why a perfectly healthy baby quits breathing."

Before finding Glory Babies, Tiffany spent time joining online discussions and Facebook groups to find support for her loss. 

"It helped because it was an avenue to vent and to post about stuff," she said. "If you post on your personal Facebook page people might tell you it's time to move on. You don't want to hear that, so these are safe places where you can say what you need to say. Like Jennifer Carson says, you need to walk through your grief. You have to do grief work."

Jordan Blair said losing your child can make you doubt yourself as a parent.

"I've learned your mind can be the most cruel thing to yourself," he said.

When attending social events after Asher's death, Jordan said he felt like he had a secret that no one else knew.

"I go to a birthday party or something like that. Everyone's having a good time and I'm over there quiet and seeming so awkward to everyone because I'm thinking about the day, the burial, all the details of it," he said.

"I keep thinking of all that about my son, but I don't want to be that person who comes up and says, 'Hey, I know this is a happy occasion. Let me tell you about the worst pain in my life.' When you don't want to be that guy ... you tend to withdrawal."

Anger and Perseverance 

When Tiffany started attending Glory Babies a year after Hudson died, she was trying to be OK with her situation, but she felt anger deep inside.

"I had got to the point where the anger you feel is nothing you've ever felt before," she said. "It's so different because you have all this anger but no one to direct it at, nothing to do with it. You want to break stuff and throw stuff, so angry. I was so angry with God. It got to the point where I didn't want to talk about God, I didn't want to pray to God, I didn't want to hear people talk about how good God was, because he took my baby."

After attending a few sessions of Glory Babies, Tiffany built up the courage to ask the group to have a discussion on anger.

"I didn't want to be that mom who's mad and never smiles," she said.

She learned about grief and how it can affect the family, from her children to her relationship with her husband. She learned ways to cope with her anger and grief. 

"Grief is like music that plays in the background of your life," she said. "It's always playing. It's always there. Some days it can be so loud that it's all you can think about and focus on. But it's always there softly playing in the background. Even when you're in a room with people and you're talking about what you're making for dinner tonight, we're not talking about it, but it's there. We know everyone in that room is hurting. We have that soft music playing in the background."

Tiffany learned to stop thinking about the "what ifs" and the things she could have done differently. Instead, she learned to trust in God.

"You have to remember that that was his time," she said, "It didn't matter. God said I know the number of your days, so it doesn't matter what you coulda, woulda, shoulda done. It wouldn't have changed it, and that's hard to get sometimes."

In the three years that Hudson has been gone, she said the first year was the hardest because of all the milestones Hudson never had: his first Christmas, first Thanksgiving and first birthday without him. 

As a preacher, Jordan knows that being angry at God is OK. 

"He can handle your anger," he said. "It's OK for you to be angry at God. It doesn't mean you don't believe in him."

Jordan said one of the biggest things he learned in controlling his anger was to pray for strength and grace. He cautions other parents in the same situation to be careful of distractions, assumptions and bad advice from well-meaning people. 

"Some people mean well, but they say things like 'Just stay busy.' So if I just stay busy I won't feel the pain of tragically losing my son anymore?" he said.

The Blairs recently welcomed a new child into the world — Dinah Renae, who was born Feb. 3.

Jordan said it's important to remember that she is not a replacement child.

"No baby should ever be born with a job to do," he said. "Renae's job is not to complete our lives. It's not to heal the pain from losing Asher. She's gorgeous, she's wonderful, but I still hurt ... I had some hard adjustments I had to make because I felt like I'm not done with my son yet."

In Memory 

Both families have found their own ways to keep the memory of their sons alive.

The Blairs donated their frozen, unused breast milk to a family in Kaufman who had baby girl who was born the same week as Asher, but she was premature.

"She couldn't hold weight, 'failure to thrive' is what the doctors call it," Jordan said. "Her mom wasn't able to produce hardly any milk and the baby's system was so sensitive that none of the formulas were working. We donated all that milk to her, over 200 ounces."

Jordan finds comfort in imagining Asher as someone who would have been a generous and helpful man.

"In his memory he's sharing," he said. "He couldn't have the milk, so he's sharing it with someone who needed it."

Tiffany keeps Hudson's memory alive in her daily life.

"We talk about him with the kids, we keep his picture up," she said, "If the kids bring him up or mention him, we don't shy away from talking about him with them."

She knows that as her children grow, they will have to go through their own grief, and she wants them to know that it's OK to talk about their brother.

Hudson's twin sister, Gracie, is in preschool, and Tiffany said that ever since she started day care she's decided to buy a second set of supplies to give to the school.

"We would have been buying two sets of supplies anyways," she said. "I let the teacher have it for extra throughout the year. That's one thing that I do to honor and remember him."

Tiffany also continues to reach out to mothers on Facebook who have lost babies.

"It meant a lot when other moms did that for me, so I want to be that person for someone else," she said.

"People are scared to talk about it," she said. "They're scared they're going to make you sad, but what people don't get is that the greatest gift you can give to a grieving parent is to talk about their child. There may be some days where it is a bad day and it will make us sad and cry. We didn't forget, so by mentioning him, you're not reminding us because we didn't forget." 

TWITTER: @TMT_Sarah 

 

Twitter: @TMT_Sarah

Chief Photographer

I've worked as a photojournalist at the Tyler Morning Telegraph since 2011. I'm a graduate of Central Michigan University.

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