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Turning grieving into giving

In August 2017, Emily Oelz, academic facilitator at Beverly Woods Elementary, was faced with two options: wallow in a traumatic experience or make it into something better. And she chose the latter.

Oelz went into labor that month with her second child, Lillian, and she and her husband, Mike, rushed to the hospital. What Oelz thought would be a normal delivery turned to tragedy when the doctors couldn’t find her daughter’s heartbeat. On Aug. 12, Lillian was delivered as a stillborn. She would have been 5 years old this year.

“It was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced,” said Oelz. “You feel like you’re so alone when you’re in that place.”

Oelz appreciates the support she and her family received from family and friends. She also keeps in touch with families she met through KinderMourn, an organization that provides hope for bereaved parents, grieving children and teens by offering support and counseling programs. 

“Our school, we are a family,” she said. “When one person is hurting, everyone rallies around that person. The outpouring from staff members and families was just incredible.

“That’s when I came up with my new motto in life,” she said. “You can’t always control what happens to you in life, but you can control how you respond to it.”

Every year, in honor of Lillian, Oelz and her family find ways to give back on Lillian’s birthday. 

They’ve collected books for “Lillian’s Library,” which they started on her first birthday, and they’ve raised awareness for “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” a photography company that offers professional photos to families who have lost a child. 

“It’s a way to show that Lillian is remembered,” she said. “She’ll always be remembered because we’re going to make her life mean something. So whatever we can do to raise awareness for things or bring happiness to other people, we try to do.”

This year, for her fifth birthday, Oelz said she wanted to give back to a school. Her oldest, Elizabeth Anne, is in the second grade, and Lillian would’ve been in kindergarten. Oelz reached out to Berryhill School and asked the counselor what they needed so they could put it on an Amazon wishlist.

“We just had an outpouring of Amazon packages at our door from friends and family,” she said.

Melanie Bell, middle school counselor at Berryhill, said she was speechless when Emily reached out to her with the idea and said it was an act of “kindness, love and selflessness.”

“To think about using such a tragedy and significant loss in their lives and turn it for good to bless those who are less fortunate is a true example of generosity and keeping Lillian’s spirit alive,” said Bell. “Berryhill has been blessed by the Oelz family and all those who donated in loving memory of their sweet daughter. Lillian’s life and spirit will live on through supporting our Berryhill students and helping them reach their full academic potential by having the basic school necessities needed to achieve greatness.”

Oelz isn’t sure what’s in store for Lillian’s next birthday, but she will always continue to find ways to keep Lillian’s spirit alive. Each Christmas, they put up a stocking with her name on it, give a present from Lillian to her siblings, and they find a little girl around Lillian’s age on Angel Trees so Elizabeth Anne can buy gifts for her.

“I tell Elizabeth Anne that it’s her job to make sure Harrison knows he has a big sister,” said Oelz. Harrison, now 20 months old, was born via surrogate. 

“I hope she’s proud,” Oelz said of Lillian. “I hope she’s proud that we continue to say her name and that we didn’t give up on the family we wanted. Our family will never be complete. There will always be a hole that doesn’t go away. But it gets smaller because it’s filled with happy times.”​