Madison family grows stronger in the face of infant loss
PHOTOS BY JOSHUA BERRY AND CONTRIBUTED
The morning of June 11, 2017, Clay and Kelley Whitworth’s lives were forever changed. With the loss of their full-term, unborn son, the couple along with their son Miller, their friends and their family were faced with their worst nightmare.
Wells had been perfectly healthy just days before. Kelley was 39 weeks pregnant with the couple’s second child when an ultrasound showed a 7.5-pound, chubby-cheeked baby with good vitals and a strong heartbeat. Before her scheduled cesarean section on what was supposed to be a happy birthday, Clay and Kelley were devastated to learn Wells had inexplicably passed away. More than a year later, and after genetic and chromosomal testing, they still have no answers. “That’s probably the toughest part of it,” Clay said. “I don’t know if having an answer would make it any easier, though.”
“Everything was perfect. If something had been genetically wrong that pointed us to an answer, that wouldn’t make it any better,” Kelley added, her eyes brimming with tears. “The loss would still be terrible.”
From the very worst scenario the pair could have imagined, and through family support and a lot of prayer, Kelley and Chad have turned their tragedy into a story of triumph that has helped them in their healing process as well as been blessing to other families in Madison County.
Kelley said Wells’ funeral service and burial were paid for out of pocket by their supportive families so the couple could grieve without having to worry about finances. It was that support that made them wonder what people who don’t have support systems do in times of infant loss. Shortly after enduring the loss of Wells, Kelley and Chad set out to help people who have been through similar situations by starting a memorial fund through the Huntsville Hospital Foundation. The Wells Clayton Memorial Fund helps families pay for funeral expenses and grief counseling.
The soon-to-be-501(c)3 organization hosted a memorial pheasant shoot in Madison earlier this year and raised more than $20,000 to benefit families who suffer infant loss.
There’s no stopping the Whitworths now. The couple has big plans for the future of their organization: They want to expand and offer services to people in similar situations all over north Alabama.
In 1988 President Ronald Regan proclaimed the month of October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, and it’s a month that is now near and dear to Chad and Kelley.
Approximately a million pregnancies yearly in the United States end in early pregnancy loss, stillbirth or the death of the newborn child. Kelley said on average, there are 75-80 infant deaths at Huntsville Hospital alone – 55 of those being still-born babies.
The most difficult and painful scenario Kelley or Chad have endured, they said their loss has taught them how to be strong for each other and strong for others. “We’re strong because we have to be, and what helped us more than anything is having Miller,” Kelley said. “Our family is really great, and the support was incredible. For the first three or four weeks, someone was there at 5:30 in the morning to help me with Miller; I was hardly alone those first couple of months. I didn’t want to be by myself, and they were a huge help to us during that time.”
Chad and Kelley said they decided early that they were determined to become stronger as a family through their loss. Kelley told Chad they had to find the strength to make it through together. “I told him ‘I can’t lose y’all. A lot of people are torn apart, and I can’t do that,’” she said. “We have to make sure we stick together and are made stronger through this.”
A family tradition for the Whitworths, starting with Chad’s grandfather, each grandson receives a shotgun – so Chad bought the Ducks Unlimited Gun of the Year for both of his boys. After Wells passed, Chad said he considered selling the 2018 gun but decided to keep it to remember his son. “It turned out that when we decided to hold the pheasant shoot, Chad was able to use Wells’ gun. That was a really emotional but very special thing,” Kelley said. “We hope when Miller gets older, he will be able to shoot his brother’s gun.”
One thing Kelley said this experience has taught her is that there’s no such thing as too much support during tragedy. “If I found out someone was grieving a loss, I always thought ‘Oh, well, I’ll let them have their space’ but now it’s totally different,” Kelley said. “I think it takes going through something like this to realize how important that support can be for people.”
Kelley and Chad have plenty to look forward to in the wake of their personal tragedy. Not only is the money raised by their foundation helping others daily, they have another son on the way – and they look forward to telling Sawyer Tuck about his older brother who is in Heaven and how his life and death have positively affected so many people.