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‘I just felt so alone’: Alberta mother fundraising for retreat for parents who lose young children

WATCH ABOVE: Losing a child at any age is the most devastating experience a parent can go through. For a Calgary couple, the loss happened just as their daughter's life was beginning. Now, the couple is fundraising to establish a retreat for parents who are grieving young children. Laurel Gregory reports.

In every way imaginable Hazel Rose was “a dream” for her parents.

She was Gillian and Gareth Hatto’s first-born; a happy, 6 lb. 14 oz. baby with sparking blue eyes and red hair. Hazel loved to be held and had a smile on her face from the time she learned how.

“She was absolutely beautiful,” Gillian said.

The Hattos’ first few months with their daughter were spent visiting with relatives, laughing and thinking about all of the happy memories to come: Hazel’s first day of school, wedding and her own transition to motherhood.

“We were just so happy all of the time. That summer was the best summer of my life,” Gillian said. “I instantly felt like there was a purpose in my life.”

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For a reason Gillian will never know or understand, Hazel took her last breath when she was three months old. Sometime while she was sleeping on Aug. 31, 2014 she died from an undetermined cause.

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Watch below: Gillian Hatto describes the day she found three-month-old Hazel dead

Alberta mother describes the moment she found her 3-month-old daughter
Alberta mother describes the moment she found her 3-month-old daughter

“It was a nightmare,” Gillian recalled. “I felt like I was living in a nightmare; that none of it could be true.”

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The weeks that followed were “torturous.” The Hattos gathered enough energy to hold a ceremony to honour their daughter but had little else to give. Gillian had a hard time just getting out of bed. She tried to sleep the days away, but even sleeping was difficult because she couldn’t get the images of Hazel out of her mind.

“Pretty well any time I closed my eyes I would relive the nightmare of that day, over and over and over.”

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She rarely left the house, burdened with debilitating anxiety. She was terrified she would spiral into a panic attack after encountering a trigger. And there were many triggers: a pregnant woman, a baby girl, a child with red hair. Gillian never felt safe, like she could step on an emotional landmine at any turn. A simple errand, in one instance going to the bank, was enough to send her into a spiral.

“I had to return the Universal Child Tax Benefit and I wasn’t able to do that online,” Gillian remembered. “The lady at the bank remembered me coming in when I was pregnant with Hazel. She said, ‘Where is your baby? Did you have a boy or girl?'”

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Gillian explained what happened and left, crushed.

“It really prevented me from going out and about again.”

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Hazel Hatto was born May 29, 2014. She died in her sleep three months later of an undetermined cause.
Hazel Hatto was born May 29, 2014. She died in her sleep three months later of an undetermined cause. Gillian Hatto
Gillian and Gareth Hatto with their daughter Hazel.
Gillian and Gareth Hatto with their daughter Hazel. Gillian Hatto

 

Family members and friends buoyed the grieving parents with love and support, but their well-meaning missteps sometimes made Gillian feel even more alone and isolated. All she wanted was for people to listen and talk about Hazel with her, but she often received unsolicited advice. People told her to go back to work, join yoga, take an art class. They said she was young and would have a baby again. She didn’t want to think about another baby. All she wanted was Hazel.

Gillian and her husband attended grief counselling within the first couple weeks following Hazel’s death. She sought out group support sessions but typically found they were open to parents who had lost varied ages of children due to varied circumstances. While she found the support helpful, she yearned for a meeting specifically for parents who had lost a very young child.

“All I really wanted was to just find someone who had gone through and survived what I was going through.”

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After meeting two mothers on the SIDS Calgary Society board, Gillian formed a SIDS support group, which meets once every two months. Sometimes only a few people show up, but there are 30 people on her mailing list. They talk about their kids, share memories and do activities to honour them.

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“I just felt so alone and so isolated in my grief and just so lost,” Gillians said. “Since I’ve met other moms, they’ve become my support network…Knowing that other parents are going through what I’m going through and surviving it, it makes me want to survive it as well.”

READ MORE: ‘Babies don’t just die’: Alberta parents say partial phase out of SIDS causing confusion and pain

Now, two years after Hazel’s death, Gillian wants to help parents connect in a meaningful space for a longer period of time. She has now assembled a team to create a grief retreat – a lighthouse for grieving parents. She envisions a retreat in the Kananaskis-area where parents who have lost a young child could stay for a weekend, away from “laundry” and other responsibilities. The agenda would include healing activities like talk therapy, art therapy, grief yoga, hikes and journal writing, along with free time to reflect and connect with nature.

“Nature is so healing in itself. For a lot of grieving families I met, they find their children in nature somehow,” Gillian said, adding she associates ladybugs with her daughter Hazel. “When I see them now I think of Hazel – with her bright red hair and her dainty little self – and that’s healing for me. I think, ‘Oh, she’s nearby.'”

The mantra of the retreat would be to heal, honour and help – three actions that have helped Gillian not only survive her own loss, but become a champion for grieving parents.

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While she is in the early stages of fundraising, Gillian already has a name: Hazel’s Heroes.

“Anyone can be a hero. I think anyone who knows someone who might be grieving the loss of anyone, you can be a hero just by reaching out to that person,” Gillian said. “It’s important to talk about grief and talk about the people that we’ve lost.”

After losing Hazel, Gillian knew she would never replace her baby girl, but she also knew how much she loved being a mother. About six months after their daughter passed away, Gillian and Gareth found out they were expecting again. The news, which gave the couple so much joy the first time around, gave Gillian great anxiety.

“That was a very, very long pregnancy,” Gillian laughed. “I’m now in the bereaved world…there’s so many ways a child can unfortunately lose their life and I’m now aware of them all.”

Elliott William Hatto was born on Nov. 23, 2015. The first few months leading up to his three month birthday, Gillian was “a wreck.”

“I was having triggers frequently. Holding Elliot, watching him sleep. I was always so scared I was going to lose him too.”

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Gillian Hatto kisses her 10-month-old son Elliott.
Gillian Hatto kisses her 10-month-old son Elliott. Brad Gowan/Global News
Gillian Hatto holds her 10-month-old son Elliott.
Gillian Hatto holds her 10-month-old son Elliott. Brad Gowan/Global News

 

Gillian used a crib she could wheel around and kept it in the living room and brought it into their room at night. One thing that has brought some peace is having two monitors: one that records video and another that measures their baby’s heart rate and oxygen.

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She said the best part about becoming a mother again has been feeling a joy she didn’t think was possible.

“I still have a hole in my heart that’s the same shape as Hazel and that will never get filled in. I will always have that hole in my heart,” Gillian said. ” It’s just that now I can also carry some joy.”

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A joy she wants to help other parents find.