Kelly Steffee and the TEARS Foundation are out to break the silence about infant death, whether still in the womb or after their first breath.
When Kelly Steffee left the hospital after giving birth, she didn’t go home with her baby; all she carried out was a memory box.
Sutton Ruby was born sleeping, as Steffee refers to her daughter’s birth, on Aug. 6, 2014.
The day before, at Steffee’s obstetric appointment, Sutton had a healthy heartbeat. The next day, during Steffee’s anatomy scan, it was gone.
“Nothing is worse than your kids knowing you're going to an ultrasound to find out if (they're) going to have a brother or sister,” Steffee said. “Nothing is worse than going home and seeing them excited to find out if it's a boy or a girl, and then telling them there is no baby.”
Steffee has lived through every mother's biggest fear — that of losing a child.
“People literally shut down when you talk about it,” she said. “We’re breaking the silence. No one wants to talk about it, ever. … It’s so taboo to say I lost my daughter.”
In 2014, she was pregnant with a baby girl; her husband and older three boys were ecstatic. Stefee also had a 4-month-old son, as well as her husband’s daughter, at home.
Steffee was almost 19 weeks pregnant when the unthinkable happened. Despite her grief, she had to deliver Sutton by natural childbirth. One of the nurses asked her what she could do, and Steffee asked her not to leave her side. The nurse stayed there the entire time.
When Ruby was born, she weighed 2.6 ounces.
“She fit in our hand,” Steffee said. “But she was a fully formed baby.”
When she was back at home, she went to bed and didn’t get out for about a month. Worried family and friends offered to help, but it wasn’t until she got a text from a friend that something in her changed. The friend suggested she contact The TEARS Foundation. She did, and it has given her purpose.
The nonprofit TEARS Foundation was started in 2002 by Sarah Slack following her infant son’s death. The organization compassionately assists bereaved families who have lost a child from 20 weeks gestation to 1 year by paying funeral, burial and cremation expenses and through peer companionship.
Steffee started slow, first by joining the group’s Facebook page but not ready to share her own story. When she shared it a week later, she heard back from Slack and was put in touch with a person in Central Florida.
The foundation’s annual signature event is the Rock and Walk remembrance celebration; Steffee attended her first walk and immediately decided this was something she wanted to be involved with.
She chaired the Orlando walk last year and is now one of the co-leaders for the state of Florida. When she posted information about the 2016 walk, Cheryl Dallaire-Bellhouse saw it and wanted to be part of the group.
Steffee said this is how most of the volunteers are found. To help with the foundation, call Steffee at (407) 902-6788 or email her at [email protected]. A volunteer meeting is scheduled for June for the purpose of building committees for the May 5, 2018, walk.
This year’s walk was May 6, and Steffee was involved in the event. She created personalized butterflies for families who participated. Once they located their child’s butterfly along the walk, they were encouraged to pick them up and walk with them. The event raised $13,000, and money is still being collected.
Because of The TEARS Foundation, Steffee has a place to go to visit her daughter. Anyone who raises $500 for the walk can get their child’s name engraved on an Angel of Hope monument. Sutton is on the ones in Ormond Beach and Alaska and will be added to the new one in Washington and Georgia.
“Eventually she will be on every state’s monument, so I can visit my baby girl anywhere,” Steffee said.
During each visit, she reads all the names listed “to keep their name out there.”
TEARS collaborates with other Central Florida organizations through The Pregnancy and Infant Loss Resource Network whose mission is to assist grieving parents. The box in which she took home Sutton’s belongings — hospital photographs, the blanket she was wrapped in, a teddy bear and a journal — was given to her by Viviana’s Memory Boxes. Other partners are the Heal Group and Sunshine State Angel Gowns.
“We all support each other,” Steffee said. “We are all in it for the same mission.”
Two months after Sutton’s birth, Steffee was pregnant with her rainbow baby, a baby that is conceived following another’s death. It was a boy.
I look at him and think, ‘I love him so much,’ but then I think how much I miss her,” Steffee said. “But it’s bittersweet, because then he wouldn’t be here.”
The week her youngest was born, Steffee and her husband received a Molly Bear. It is clad in pink bows and weighs 2.6 ounces. These bears are special order and are filled to match the baby’s weight.
The family is open about their daughter, and their house has a cabinet dedicated to her memory. One thing they won’t do is share photos of Sutton; they wanted to keep at least one thing private that connects the couple to their baby girl.
Through her volunteer work with The TEARS Foundation, she has learned that everyone grieves differently. For Steffee, immersing herself in the organization has been beneficial to her wellness.
“This is all volunteer,” she said. “I don’t get paid for it. My payment is to talk about her and to say her name: Sutton Ruby.”
Contact Amy Quesinberry at [email protected].