The Bizarre Reality After Your Baby Dies From SIDS
The news media likes to use the term "senseless" when referring to violent deaths, but you can actually make some sense of those -- this poor bastard got shot by some asshole. If you want to see a truly senseless death, you have to talk about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
That is the mysterious condition that causes otherwise healthy babies to just quietly die in their sleep. The parents are left with endless questions they'll never get answered ... and get to spend the grieving process being treated like murderers.
We talked to "Dorian," who lost his five-month-old son Chase to SIDS and has managed to put his life back together. He says...
The Parents Are Immediately Murder Suspects
Six years ago, Dorian had a wife and two young kids -- one a toddler, the other just five months old. He was at work when, in the middle of the day, "I received a call from my wife, frantic and screaming. At some point, the words 'he stopped breathing' came through and without a moment's notice, I raced home. By the time I arrived, my house was already brimming with emergency personnel. To me, this was the worst day of my life. To them, it was just another Monday."
Though it's hard to classify what those folks do as "just another" anything.
Dorian walked in to find his five-month-old son lying dead underneath a blanket on the couch. Then the police arrived, and the worst day of Dorian's life was somehow about to get even worse.
"As soon as a detective showed up, everything shut down. It stopped being a place of mourning, and started being a crime scene. I was forced to leave my own home while they performed an investigation. I was not allowed to touch or hold the corpse of my son. I was not allowed to console my wife. You see, the detective had to ask her questions in private."
Because apparently no experience is so bad that it can't get just a little worse.
While they were being questioned, the coroner unexpectedly took the baby's body away. "She had promised me that I could hold him one last time before she took him. The detective made her break that promise."
They were, of course, collecting evidence. The holy-shit-god-is-dead icing on the fuck-everything cake here is that any given SIDS death is going to be followed by an autopsy. They have to make sure that, for example, the infant wasn't poisoned. But this means those last moments at the house are the last time the parents can see their child whole.
" ...The next time I was able to see my baby he was cut open, with these huge gashes ... that's something that angered me. But I also understood. It's a complex emotion."
SIDS Can Strike Anywhere (But It's More Likely In Milwaukee)
We bet some of you are, in fact, just as suspicious as the cops. "Come on, do babies really just spontaneously die for no damned reason?" Yep. Dorian's son's death would be chalked up to SIDS, a scientific term that translates into layman's speak as, "This baby died and we have no goddamn idea why."
It's kind of hard for victims to describe serious symptoms when saying "Mama" is still months off.
Everyone deals with grief differently. But Dorian is a scientist, and he dealt with his horror by learning everything possible about a syndrome that seems to strike like a goddamned horror movie curse. "That leaves you asking ... What if? What if my wife hadn't put him to bed at that time? What if we had concentrated on him holding up his head more? Maybe it's the room? What if he had been in another room?"
For example, researchers believe SIDS is more likely to strike during the winter, for some reason. It's also known that certain cities like Milwaukee (where Dorian lives) have an unusually high rate of SIDS-related deaths. This isn't because the city was built over an ancient Indian burial ground -- it's mostly due to unsafe sleeping environments common among some groups. The baby gets covered by a pillow, or crushed by a sleeping parent. Certain ethnic groups, like African Americans (who are more likely to co-sleep with their children) make up the vast majority of SIDS deaths.
Because apparently that group didn't have enough to worry about already.
But not all cases involve co-sleeping, or a pillow. The wintertime spike in incidents made some think cold weather was a risk factor, but that doesn't seem to hold true anymore. A 2004 study suggests that air pollution might play a role. Another theory Dorian ran into is that when sleeping with their face against a pillow, some infants may build up fatal pockets of Carbon Dioxide they can't escape.
But, Dorian's baby died in a crib, without anything covering his mouth. His was one of the tragic, utterly maddening cases for which science simply has no answer. The best advice modern medicine can give you for avoiding SIDS is still just, "don't sleep with your baby in bed, put the baby to bed on its back, and pray you're not one of the unfortunate ones."
People Prey On Tragedy
"At some point, we'd like to think even the biggest scumbag would look at a parent who just lost their baby, and say, you know what, I'm going to leave you alone. You'd be wrong."
Yeah, it turns out that a deceased infant is a magnet for all sorts of fraud. "That month my child died, we were called by no less than three collection agencies claiming we owed bills that didn't exist. Perhaps they felt grieving people might just send a check without asking questions."
"Should I just mark it Pay to the Order of: 'Satan' or 'Vulture'?"
It's understandable that he felt that way, but "receiving bills that shouldn't exist" is actually a common early sign of identity theft. And that's exactly what happened next: some gutter-fucking scum-bastard stole Chase's social security number once it was released online. See, there's something called the Social Security Death Index which you can find hosted by several genealogy websites. It happens to be a popular tool of the sort of dick-blisters who steal the identities of dead children to set up fake accounts and/or save a few bucks on their taxes.
Dorian found out one person was trying to claim his departed son as a dependent on their return only after the IRS came calling. "Many grieving parents don't realize or don't want to claim their dead child on their taxes, so others try to take advantage of this." The whole mess took Dorian six months to sort out.
Death Can Alter Your Personality In Weird Ways
Losing a child is like the 9/11 of parenthood. Everyone talks about a "post-9/11 world" and that's what it's like -- your life is now made up of two distinct eras, the second one coming with a heavy dose of paranoia. "My wife says she has a panic attack every time she hears an ambulance. With our daughter, when we had her by our side we had the [breathing sensors] on 24/7. My wife couldn't sleep for a week straight after our daughter was born ... She was terrified that it might potentially happen again."
Meanwhile, discipline slid with their oldest child, because who wants to spend some of their precious time on earth yelling about homework? "I think with my son we tended to ease up on a lot of, we were not ... we let him get away with more stuff. You appreciate your child that's alive more because of the belief that you might lose him. And as a result he got away with more crap."
It knocks some perspective into whether or not failing cursive merits yelling.
As for Mom and Dad, there was a sudden obsession with risk-taking and abrupt change. Dorian's wife got lap-band surgery. He quit his job as a lab manager and went back to school to get his PhD. This meant a huge financial hit but, "just part of seeing the mortality of my child made me want to take that risk. You only live once and once you take that chance to do what you want to do ... We were willing to take bigger risks as a result."
Science has actually documented this effect: for some people, mortality salience (a fancy word for "thinking about death as a real thing") increases the odds of risky decision-making. And why not? All those dreams you intend to pursue "someday" take on new urgency when you get a stark reminder that there's no guarantee you'll be alive to see it.
The Grief And Guilt Get Complicated
Babies are a lot of work. Young parents have to do without sleep and free time for months while their kid spews helplessly from both ends and wakes up at odd hours of the night to scream for food. If you're a parent who loses an infant child to SIDS, you suddenly find yourself with all that time back and it seriously messes with your head. This really hit home for Dorian when his family left after dinner on the night of his son's death: "The house never felt so quiet or empty. The worst part was that everything became easier too. We went from dealing with two kids to dealing with one. We suddenly no longer needed diapers, formula, changings every two hours ... We had more money available, we had more freedom, and, for all intents and purposes, life was easier, which only served to add to the guilt."
Really try to imagine this. Already you're blaming yourself, wondering if this unthinkable tragedy was due to some random, fatal choice you made along the way (the wrong brand of crib?). You've dealt with the police investigating you as murder suspects. And now, life seems to be rewarding you for it -- every act of kindness just piles on. "Funeral homes will waive all the fees if a young child dies. Not all of them, but a lot of them will."
Suddenly it's tempting to give those leeches from a few entries back money just to alleviate some guilt.
How do you move on from that? From all of it? The answer seems to be that you really don't have a choice -- the world continues to spin on its axis and shit is going to "move on" whether you want it to or not.
"Every year, we'd sit with the urn [of his ashes] and light a candle and talk about it. And we did that for the first year, and the second year..." After Year 3, they gave it up. Soon Dorian had a new career, and a baby daughter.
"One of the worst things," he says, "is when people ask, 'How many kids do you have?' Part of you wants to say two, part of you wants to say three." Then he has to decide if he wants to tell the whole story, which Dorian hates both for the obvious reasons and because it feels like, in his words, "showboating" -- like he's dragging out his tragedy just to get attention. It's one of those things that doesn't make sense, unless it's happened to you.
It's a part of your life you don't necessarily want to share with every stranger making small talk in a line.
And it can happen to anyone -- death actually always reserves the right to be "sudden" and you probably won't get to decide what your final moments with the deceased are like. Dorian and his wife didn't get to say goodbye to little Chase until later, after his body bore the stitches from the autopsy. "We actually took pictures of each other holding our dead son. They're on a file, on my desktop, and I have never opened that file in six years."
Dorian currently works in a medical lab, doing some sort of science that we wouldn't understand if he explained it in the form of a cartoon. But here's something to look out for, years from now: "I've played with the idea that if I ever discover something, it'd be Chase's Theorem. It'd be one of those things where I'd just like to see him continue on, as a presence."
The American SIDS Institute works ever day to "find and eliminate" the causes of sudden infant death. You can donate to them here.
For more insider perspectives, check out We Can Let Babies Die: 6 Realities Of Neonatal Nursing and My Pregnancy Tried To Kill Me: 6 Insane Realities.
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Robert Evans has a book, A Brief History of Vice, which you can buy now.