After Losing Their Own Babies, These Women Now Help Others Get Through 'Literally, Your Worst Nightmare'
Noelle Moore was going through some of the worst pain imaginable in 2013: First, her father passed away while she was five months pregnant. Then a medical accident during the birth led to the death of her daughter, Finley, two weeks later. And two weeks after that, Moore's husband filed for divorce and never returned to their house.
During this period of intense grief, Moore realized that there were very few holistic resources aimed at helping mothers get through the most catastrophic stages of loss, and decided to start an organization of her own, which became The Finley Project.
"When she died, I tried looking for help, and I could not find anything in our major metropolitan area that could help me," she says. "And I just was like, that's not okay. The loss of a child is unlike any other loss ... the grief looks way different. There was a desperate need for people to get help."
One person the Finley Project helped in its early stages was Chelsea Johnson, a Florida mom of three who also had been going through a difficult year (she'd lost her mom and been in a serious car accident) before she welcomed boy/girl twins on Christmas morning 2014. Her daughter was born with Down syndrome and spent time in the NICU, but her son had no health issues they were aware of — so it was a complete shock when he went down for a nap in April 2015 and didn't wake up.
"There's no way you can really prepare for losing a child, but ... this was just one of those hits that you don't see coming," she says. "He was 3½ months [when he passed] away, and now I still have my daughter, who's now six, who every day, every birthday, every thing, I'm reminded that her brother's not there."
A sorority sister introduced her to the Finley Project, which provided its multi-step approach to caring for grieving moms and their families: assistance with funeral planning, gift cards to help get groceries, a house cleaning service, massage and counseling services. All are offered in an effort to take those big decisions and mundane tasks off the parent's plate, to help her work through her grief without additional burdens. For Johnson, the timing was a blessing.
"It was during this time my husband was laid off from work, and we're in the middle of having a child who just died," Johnson says. "So you're talking about expenses with funeral, food, all of the things that were like, 'Okay, we were barely trying to get by. And then now we're hit with that huge blow.' The Finley Project was able to provide gift cards to Publix, exactly when we needed it, at a time when you can't think straight. You're trying to just get through the day, just get up and wake up."
Moore says her hope is, through providing those services to get families through the crisis phase, to develop trust and a bond in order to guide them to the counseling they need.
"What I learned early on was, Counseling is foreign to a lot of people. It's embarrassing, or it's just not something people are comfortable with," she says. "I took a step back, and I said, 'Well, what are people needing right after the loss?' And then how do we earn their trust to say, 'Hey, listen, this will actually help you. Please go.' "
Johnson says she appreciated the support at a time when she wasn't sure where to turn.
"Particularly in a Black community, that's just not what you do. You don't talk about your feelings, you just have to suck it up," she says. "It's just one of those very difficult scenarios where you find people who are well put together, they're strong ... Those are the ones who are drowning in plain sight, and you don't really know that is the case. So I think it's very important to be able to have something like this, particularly for minorities and women of color. Because you don't have that communal support system when it comes to grief in particular."
Compounding the unique challenges of comforting a grieving mom is that often, her community isn't quite sure how to help, and may stay away for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. The Finley Project hopes to connect moms who have lost children under the age of 2 with other moms who have gone through the same thing, so they have a space space to talk.
"As a parent, thinking of your child not being on this earth is literally your worst nightmare ... people feel like they're going to catch it if they're too close to you," Moore explains. "People don't know what to do. They don't know how to handle you. They set you to the side because they're afraid of you. And that's why this program is so important. Because you have people that can relate to that and speak to that."
As one of the earliest beneficiaries of The Finley Project's services, Johnson saw firsthand the value in connecting with others, and now is a volunteer herself. The organization tries to pair moms who have gone through similar scenarios with the newly-initiated members of the "sisterhood that nobody wants to be a part of," as Johnson puts it.
"For someone to lose a child, that just was not something that anyone really knew how to manage through ... There wasn't that tangible, What do you do in this scenario?," she explains. "Because I had a whole lot of other things going on at the same time: I'm nursing another newborn, I've got four children ages six and under, having no family around and trying to navigate through all of that."
Now, she might be paired with another mom who has lost a child but has older children to care for, to help the mom feel better able to relate.
The Finley Project does outreach to hospitals and social services, to make sure moms who need them are able to find their services, and to help get families and medical professionals the right language and information to help parents in this unimaginable position.
"One of the most beautiful things a nurse said was, 'We want to give you a chance to mother your child — give her a bath and brush her hair and change her diaper,' " Moore recalls. "That's the only time I've ever changed a diaper on my child as a mom, was that opportunity. And it was because of [the nurse] that I got to do that."
For parents experiencing child loss, she also advises documenting your time together.
"I see the power in pictures: That's the main thing I would recommend, whether you think it's strange or not," Moore says. "If your child is in the hospital and either has passed away, or is still living and soon to pass away, get pictures. You will cherish them. I have maybe 20 of Finley, and I look at them all the time."
On the other hand, for those hoping to support grieving parents but at a loss for how to begin, Moore says the simplest, and often best, approach is to admit, "I don't know what to say."
"That's better than nothing," she says, adding that people should resist the urge to give positive or uplifting feedback. "Just say, 'Listen, I can't even imagine. I am so afraid of this, what you're going through, but I'm here with you. I don't have all the answers, and I don't get it.' I think we have to do better at meeting people where they are instead of trying to solve it."
In the months and years after the immediate loss of a child, both Moore and Johnson encourage friends and family to continue to talk about the baby, remember important milestones (Moore has a friend who texts a pink bow on the 25th of every month) and to show that the baby is on your mind (Johnson texts photos of street signs with Finley's name to Moore).
"It's just those simple things to know that your child is not forgotten, and that you're not forgotten. That's so important," Johnson says. "Unless you know our story, you are not aware. Or [if you do know it], so much time has passed and then you just think, 'Oh, well, they're okay now. They seem to be fine.' But it never goes away."
Both women really hope to give people the language to make it easier to talk about the loss, to be able to tell people how many children you have ("two on earth, one in heaven," for instance) without it becoming uncomfortable, and to generally make it easier for women to find the help they need during an unimaginable time.
"There are so many older moms, even, who have lost children and never talked about it ever. It was just something that happened," Johnson says. "And then they just don't say anything. I think it's so important to be able to speak to that so that people feel comfortable to say, 'I have another child that I get to mother differently now.' "
In losing Finley, Moore says, "I found a strength I never knew I had. I'm not afraid of a whole lot. Because if you can go through that, you can go through anything," she says. "And there's times when I feel her presence with me ... She's the reason that I do this stuff, so that other people aren't alone. So really she's become my inspiration for helping women."
For more on the Finley Project's resources, or to support their organization, visit FinleyProject.org.
If you or someone you know need mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.