Like so many of us, when Ashley Thompson discovered in June 2019 that she and her husband Chad were pregnant, she was elated. The couple had been married since the previous fall after dating for several years. Because of autoimmune disorders Ashley has, the couple had been told conceiving could be difficult so they wasted no time and enlisted the help of fertility specialists.
Her positive pregnancy test only months after beginning treatment was surprising yet exciting. As they prepared for the birth of their baby, Ashley and Chad were also preparing for business growth, as her therapy practice Birchwood Therapeutic Services, would be opening a clinic in Breckenridge. Ashley continued to feel good until January 2020, when she noticed some slight changes. She worked closely with her medical team, but was eventually diagnosed with preeclampsia and scheduled to be induced on Feb. 6 at 37 weeks.
She never made it to that appointment.
On Feb. 3, Ashley and Chad’s daughter Adelyn “Addie” Rose died due to complications she suffered during the birthing process. The pain and bleeding Ashley began experiencing the night before were thought to be early labor symptoms, but was actually a placental abruption that deprived Addie of oxygen. Even though NICU nurses were able to restart her heart, Addie had no brain activity. Ashley and Chad were able to spend precious hours with their daughter before removing life support, even calling family and close friends to meet and say goodbye to their baby just 11 hours after she was born.
“We took that as a blessing because we got a little time with her at least,” Ashley remembered. They were able to take photos of Addie in her going home outfit, and those mementos are something they will cherish forever.
Facing loss, moving forward
As a therapist and police officer, respectively, Ashley and Chad have dealt with grief, but the pain of losing their child wasn’t something they could ever be prepared for. “It is a process,” Ashley said quietly. Chad agreed, silently and with tears in his eyes. Both took time away from work to process their feelings, but they also started having serious conversations about how they could remember their baby girl.
“Chad came up with the name ‘Addie’s Angels” in the hospital while we were grieving,” Ashley said. They weren’t sure what to do with that name yet, but ideas started flowing. Chad said they bought a star and named it for Addie, and then bought a second they called “Addie’s Angels” in honor of the doctors and nurses who cared for her.
As Ashley searched for counseling options dealing specifically with perinatal loss, she found very little. “I was shocked to find there wasn’t a nonprofit to provide resources for parents dealing with loss,” she said. “It’s the most unbearable pain a person could face.”
After receiving a memory bear gift as well as a box of self-care items from another local nonprofit, Ashley said they realized that Addie’s Angels could fill the gap for mental health counseling in the face of devastating loss, and they set about finding individuals with the knowledge, expertise and devotion to help found the organization. As she and a fellow therapist began training to serve the specific needs of parents who’d lost a child, Ashley discovered she was pregnant again.
“On the same day I found out I was pregnant with Addie,” Ashley recalled. “It was just wonderful and beautiful. It was just meant to be.”
But amid their excitement about the prospect of another child, Ashley and Chad also had to deal with their fear and anxiety from their first experience. “It was a whirlwind of emotions,” she said. “We had to work through some trust and forgiveness.”
Just before she was 36 weeks along, Ashley was diagnosed with hypertension and told she could try to make it to 37 or 38 weeks, but she and Chad realized they didn’t want to take any risks. On Feb. 1, 2021, their son Cooper was born and they celebrated Addie’s first birthday in the hospital with him. “That was special too, because there were nurses still there that we just adore who came and ate cake and sang happy birthday to Addie,” Ashley said.
A nonprofit takes shape
Once Ashley was in her third trimester, she had to take a step back from the early development of Addie’s Angels as a nonprofit organization. The group they’d assembled early had decided in the fall of 2020 (before Cooper was born) to hold a virtual run as an inaugural event. “We were really blown away by the support we were getting not just from friends and family but from so many other people,” she said.
On Sept. 20, 2020, Addie’s Angels was officially born.
As additional paperwork was filed, Ashley and another therapist continued training and discussing the specific services the organization would provide. They began reaching out to area hospitals like Sanford, Essentia and Altru so they could let patients know Addie’s Angels was a resource for them.
“It turned out Addie’s Angels was going to be more than we first thought,” Ashley explained, noting they started including counseling services for those facing infertility, NICU families as well as funeral support through an emotional support advocate. “We’re a death-denying culture...and families have said other family members think it’s weird to have a memorial service for a baby that died,” she said. “But our stance is, that was your baby. You loved your baby.”
Patient referrals are flowing to Addie’s Angels, but the referrals outweigh the number of people who actually seek counseling with the organization. “Mental health itself is so stigmatized,” she said. “And baby and pregnancy loss is treated as something that is best ignored and you have to move forward.”
The organization will also soon bring on another therapist who specializes in chronic and terminal illnesses in children. Another hope for the future is having therapists on the Addie’s Angels team who can work with doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers and others who deal with loss in different situations than a parent does. “Loss affects them, too,” Chad said.
At the end of August, Addie’s Angels held its second annual Addie’s Angels Remembrance Run (the event was both in person and virtual this year), and nearly 7-month-old Cooper was able to join his parents in a walk to remember his big sister Addie.
Ashley and Chad recognize that while the second pregnancy was certainly filled with anxiety, Cooper’s arrival and presence in their lives is helping them heal.
“I truly felt like Addie brought him. This was God’s work. Addie must have gone right up to heaven and said, ‘this is the plan,’” Ashley said.
For the couple, turning Addie’s room into Cooper’s room was the hardest part of the transition, Chad said. That had been their safe spot to go and be with Addie and read books to her and remember her. The finality of changing it to someone else’s space, even their son’s space, felt heavy, sad. Chad didn’t say much about the process, but he said again how hard it was.
Though Addie’s room now belongs to her baby brother, she is very much present in their home. Pictures of her fill walls and bookshelves, and portraits of her stars are in the hallway. In addition to a memory bear that represents Addie in all their family photos, they have a lovely memory box with molds of her hands, feet, and face as well as the clothes she wore in the hospital and the blanket wrapped around her.
And now they have Cooper, who looks just like his father and is keeping them on their toes with his sassy attitude and spunk. “He’s incredible,” Ashley said.
As the Thompsons dream about who Cooper will be, they are also contemplating what Addie’s Angels will become as well. The organization is really in its infancy, and Ashley hopes that eventually she can practice full time with the nonprofit and take on a more administrative role with her Birchwood practice. She wants to give back and be there for other parents going through such a devastating event, to help them start healing.
“We lost Addie, and that was the worst day of our lives and we are going to miss her every day until we take our last breath, and if I could trade everything I’ve learned to have one more minute with her, absolutely, there would be no hesitation,” Ashley said. “Having her and having to let her go has given me so much more of a different viewpoint about what kind of parent I’m going to be to my son and to even love those icky moments. Addie taught me lessons I don’t think I would have ever learned if I hadn’t had her and then had to let her go.”