St. Michael couple surprised by joy in the midst of death

| April 13, 2016 | 0 Comments
From left, Laura, Joseph (on her lap), Sam, Franco and Thomas Fanucci pose for a photo at their home in St. Michael. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

From left, Laura, Joseph (on her lap), Sam, Franco and Thomas Fanucci pose for a photo at their home in St. Michael. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Some say there is nothing worse than losing your child.

Laura and Franco Fanucci of St. Joseph the Worker in Maple Grove would agree. Yet, they were shocked to experience joy amid deep grief as they held not one but two dying newborns in a span of 24 hours at the end of February.

The unexpected transformation began after they entered Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis Feb. 27. Twenty-four weeks pregnant with twin girls, Laura had surgery in the morning to repair a condition that afflicts identical twins. Their placenta had an imbalanced blood flow that could be fatal to the babies.

Doctors were not satisfied with the surgery results, so they told Laura and her husband, Franco, already parents of three boys, that they would deliver the twins by C-section later that day.

When the twins, Margaret and Abigail — nicknamed Maggie and Abby — were born at 6:23 p.m., there was hope they would survive, although they each weighed less than 2 pounds. However, there was still the risk that their condition in the womb could affect their health. Using a cup of water, Franco baptized the girls.

Maggie (foreground) and Abby lay side by side in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.

Maggie (foreground) and Abby lay side by side in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. Photo by Jennifer Liv Photography, volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

With her daughters in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit later that evening, Laura tried to fall asleep in her hospital bed. Soon, however, Abby took a turn for the worse. The following morning, doctors told Laura and Franco their newborn daughter had suffered a brain hemorrhage and would not survive.

The Fanuccis went to be with Abby. Their time with her was cut short, however, by news that Maggie’s heart and lungs were failing and she was also expected to die.

Maggie’s condition was worse, so they made a split-second decision to go down the hall to hold her. She died in Laura’s arms after about an hour. Grief tore through her parents’ hearts.

“We held her, we took pictures and cried,” said Laura, 35. “I sang a lullaby, and we talked to her.”

Then, they faced the piercing reality that they would have to do it all over again the next day, this time with Abby.

Franco and Laura Fanucci enjoy time with their daughter Maggie, who died in Laura’s arms Feb. 28.

Franco and Laura Fanucci enjoy time with their daughter Maggie, who died in Laura’s arms Feb. 28. Photo by Jennifer Liv Photography, volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

‘Like a nightmare’

Going to bed that night was awful, Laura said.

“It just felt like this nightmare,” she said. “It was just dread. We were so sad. I just didn’t know how we were going to get the strength to do it again. We were just overwhelmingly sad.”

The couple didn’t sleep that night, said Franco, also 35. Their agony kept them awake.

“There’s not a word that I know that adequately describes that feeling,” he said. “You feel like you’ve had the worst day in your life, and you have to do the exact same thing the next day.”

A thick cloud of sadness hung over them the next morning as they prepared to say goodbye to Abby. They met with a chaplain at the hospital and prayed.

Then, a nurse invited them to do something that soon triggered a startling change. She suggested that Laura hold her newborn skin to skin, with Abby resting on her bare chest.

Laura balked, then agreed. This intimate contact led to what she describes as the greatest joy she has ever experienced.

“It was amazing,” she said. “It was like the most night-and-day switch I had ever felt. They put her on my chest, and it was like I was not sad anymore. There was nothing in me that was sad. There was nothing in me that felt despair or anger or hurt or sadness.

“I just could not understand: How is this even happening? I just thought it was going to be so sad when I finally held her, and it was just going to make it even harder. And, it was like the happiest I had ever been in my life. It just was this pure joy. And, I thought, ‘This is just surreal. I can’t even believe this is happening.’”

Laura Fanucci holds her newborn twin daughter Abby at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis Feb. 29. Abby died later that day, about 24 hours after her twin sister Maggie died. Photo by Jennifer Liv Photography, volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

Laura Fanucci holds her newborn twin daughter Abby at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis Feb. 29. Abby died later that day, about 24 hours after her twin sister Maggie died. Photo by Jennifer Liv Photography, volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

‘What heaven feels like’

Her face lit up while she cradled Abby, and Franco noticed it.

“Her face changed, and the joy was palpable,” Franco said. “The nurse would come in and she’d take some more pictures and she would say, ‘You guys are just so happy.’”

It went on for several hours. They sang, they laughed, they celebrated this small infant who captivated their hearts. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Abby’s vital signs began to fade. Around 4 p.m., the end was near.

Amazingly, at a time when Laura and Franco should have been emotionally drained, the joy remained. It was a flame that would not be extinguished.

“I remember saying to him [Franco], ‘This is what heaven feels like. I have no doubt in my mind, this is what heaven is,’” Laura said. “We were not sad, we were not angry. We had no questions for God. It was not like, ‘Why did this happen? How are we going to get through this?’ It was like this complete joy. It was just the purest joy and love I have ever felt.

“We just kept thanking her [Abby], and [saying] how much we loved her and what an amazing gift she gave us. We knew it was God; we just knew it was such an amazing experience. I said it then: ‘I just feel like we’re inside the heart of God.’”

That feeling made it easier to let go of Abby. They knew they were releasing their child into the hands of God, who would take her to heaven where the feelings of joy they had felt while holding her would last forever.

They said a final goodbye, and Abby died around 5 p.m.

Just a few days later, they left the hospital and came back home to their three boys: Sam, 6, Thomas, 4, and Joseph, 1. They wondered what would happen once they re-entered the ordinary rhythm of life. Could this near-miraculous feeling they had in the NICU possibly last?

The answer, they knew deep down, was no.

“We walked away thinking it is unlikely that we’ll ever feel like that [on] this side of heaven again,” said Franco, a mechanical engineer. “We talked about it in the days shortly afterwards. We know our hearts are going to break a thousand times over for the rest of our lives because of this loss. But, we try to [bring] ourselves back to that moment and that time. That’s where our daughters are, and where we’ll be someday with them.”

‘The dark side of light’“I want to tell you that we know the anger of emptiness, too. We have been on the dark side of light,” Laura Fanucci wrote on her blog, Mothering Spirit, April 7.

“When Maggie died, we did not experience light and joy. We were shattered. I felt like my heart had been physically ripped out of my chest and left to bleed,” she wrote. “When we lost a baby to miscarriage three years ago, there was no peace. No heaven. It was pure hell. Desolation without consolation.

“So while some people have reached out to us and said that they have experienced something similar — a strange joy in a time of deep sorrow at a child’s death — I am still standing with the ones on the dark side, too.”

Follow the Fanuccis’ story at MotheringSpirit.com.

Raw grief, yet hope

Grief inevitably settles in as life returns to normal at their suburban home in St. Michael. Laura, an author and stay-at-home mom, feels it.

“It’s such a huge loss; it’s just so sad,” she said. “Every day is just so hard. We’re still in such a raw place of grief.”

And yet, alongside the grief is a deep, abiding presence of God that brings hope in their mourning.

“We’re totally changed because of this; our faith is deeper,” Laura said. “I’m not scared about what comes next for us or our family.”

And, what comes next is on their minds. Before they married in 2006, Laura and Franco had discussed having four or five children. Had the twins survived, they would have reached their ideal family size.

“About 12 seconds after both the girls were gone, I said, ‘I definitely want to have more kids,’” Laura said.

Franco agreed. “Literally, right after [Abby died], we said, ‘When we can, we want to [get pregnant] again.”

First, they need time to heal. But, they both share a deep conviction that their calling in life is to be a mom and dad to three young boys ­­— and perhaps more children yet to be born.

“This calling to be a parent is so huge,” Laura said. “To be a mom to these kids is just amazing.”

And, “these kids” includes her twin daughters now in heaven — and who will never be forgotten.

“The girls are always going to be a part of our family,” said Laura, who has memorial boxes for each of them, with plans to build a memorial garden for them in the yard. “We always want to keep their spirit and their love alive with us.”

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