Leonardo's smile

Turning pain into kindness

[This essay was first published in Vietnamese in the Vietnamese translation of the book “Surviving my first year of child loss”]

“We had tried our best, but after 45 minutes, we still couldn’t get his pulse back. We are very sorry…”

The world collapsed under our feet when my husband and I heard these words from the doctor in the emergency room. Everything happened so fast. Just last night, I was still holding my son Leonardo in my arms, nursing him, and gently placing him in his crib. This morning, Leonardo woke up at 7:00 am like any other day, but he did not greet us with his usual smile and exciting hand waves. Instead, he scream aloud as if he was in severe pain. His face turned purple, and his eyes were dull as if he was about to faint.

My husband and I were terrified. We tried everything we learned from the prenatal course to help our son but to no avail. My husband rushed to call an ambulance, and I kept screaming: “Leonardo, don’t close your eyes. Open your eyes and look at me.” Each time, he would open his eyes a little and then screamed as if someone had hit him very hard.

About 15 minutes later, the ambulance arrived. Two paramedics quickly took an electrocardiogram, and when finding that the baby’s heart was beating abnormally, they immediately performed CPR and carried the baby to the ambulance.

Upon our arrival at the National University Hospital of Singapore, while Leonardo was pushed into the children’s emergency room, my husband and I were taken into a separate room to wait. My gut feeling told me this was bad because other patients’ family members were waiting outside, and only the two of us were taken to a private room. The doctors and emergency team seemed to have very bad prognosis for the baby’s condition.

But I didn’t give up hope. We were at one of the best hospitals in Singapore, the country with one of the best healthcare systems in the world. Leonardo was born healthy and had been healthy until last night when I woke up to breastfeed him at 1:00 am. Over the past 7 months, he had never fallen sick or had even a mild fever. He wasn’t very interested in taking solid food in the past two weeks, so I took him to see his paediatrician the previous afternoon. After checking his heart, lungs, ears, nose, and throat, the doctor firmly assured me: “The baby is very healthy. Mommy, you do not need to worry too much because babies sometimes eat less for no reason. It will be over after a while.”

But the emergency doctor’s announcement in a pitiful voice took away my last hope. My world suddenly shattered into hundreds of thousand pieces.

In the emergency room, our smiling Leonardo lay motionless in a hospital gown. I still couldn’t and didn’t want to believe this painful truth. I hugged him, tried to keep him warm, and kept calling his name, but his body was getting colder, colder, colder… Only then did I lose all hope.

And so, my husband and I entered the greatest nightmare in the life of a parent. Unlike a regular nightmare that you can get out of when waking up, this terrifying nightmare follows us both in sleep and when awake.

The result of our son’s autopsy came out a few months down the road, stating he died because of acute myocarditis, or an inflammation of the heart - most likely due to a viral infection.
Leonardo was born amid the COVID-19 pandemic when Singapore imposed strict measures to contain the virus. Therefore, he rarely met anyone outside of my household or interacted with kids of his same age. He was not only our first child, but also the first grandchild of both grandparents. Borders were closed, so his grandparents in both Vietnam and Italy had never seen their only grandchild nor held him in their arms.

Our friends and colleagues in Singapore were our rock, supporting us to organize a warm memorial for Leonardo. Despite our intense pain, we did not want his funeral to be filled only with sorrow, because he was such an adorable and smiling boy. My friends helped decorate the memorial room with many white flowers and Leonardo’s pictures. In every photo, he smiled radiantly, and his eyes were as bright as stars, which many say were inherited from me. My husband and I made a video clip using his photos and videos and the song “Somewhere over the rainbow” as background music to play at the memorial. The whole room was filled with Leonardo’s smiles.

On our last night with Leonardo before sending him off for cremation the next day, my husband and I talked at length about doing something meaningful in memory of him. We wanted to spread love and kindness in his honour. We wanted to help disadvantaged children so that they could grow up in better conditions. In the past years, I had sponsored a family in the SOS Children’s Villages Vietnam to provide alternative care for orphaned children. So we decided to use all the bereavement money received at the memorial to set up a small fund called Leonardo’s Smile to donate to the SOS Children’s Villages Vietnam. In addition to the bereavement money, my husband and I as well as our friends near and far have contributed more to the fund, helping us raise about 450,000 million VND in the first year. Currently, the foundation is sponsoring 11 families in Phu Tho, Thanh Hoa, and Hanoi villages. We believe that Leonardo now has many more siblings that he can watch over from above.

In the first months after Leonardo’s death, I broke down both physically and mentally. I did not eat or sleep for many days. I was no longer the energetic and optimistic woman that everyone knew. My heart always felt like someone was strangling it, and my mind always relived the moments of that fateful morning. There were many times when I thought I could not live on. I want to end all suffering; I want to reunite with Leonardo as soon as possible. The biggest thing that could keep me stay in this life was the love and care from family, friends, and even strangers.

I struggled to keep myself afloat in the ocean of sadness and despair. I looked for every possible source of help. I invited my mom to Singapore to have someone to lean on. Fortunately, at that time, the COVID-19 was well maintained in Vietnam, so after explaining my family’s situation to the Singapore immigration agency, my mother’s air travel pass was approved within a few days.

I saw a psychologist once a week, and every time I only walked out of her room after crying until no tears were left. During my four years in Singapore, I could not form the habit of carrying tissues in my pocket, even though it was necessary because small food stalls here do not provide tissues. But since losing Leonardo, I have never gone anywhere without a pack of tissue. My husband and I also started to meditate and learn to paint to express our feelings.

I read a lot about grief and coping mechanisms. I also joined a “club” that no parent wants to join – the club for those who have lost a child. I found comfort and courage from parents in the same situation. Some people invited us to come to their house and pray for my family. Some people invited me to dinner and lent me a listening ear. Some others texted us from time to time to check in on us. And some mothers sent us books about grieving.

One of the books I was given is “Surviving my first year of child loss,” which is the book you are holding in your hand right now. The book is a collection of many stories that are heartbreaking yet beautiful and hopeful written by bereaved parents about their experiences in the first year of losing a child. I broke down in tears as I turned each page, but I also slowly ignited a hope that I could “turn pain into kindness” and keep the legacy of Leonardo alive.

I had frantically searched for resources to help me cope with this pain, but I could barely find anything in Vietnamese. I think this topic is still taboo in Vietnam. No one seems to dare to talk about it. Before encountering this tragedy, I wouldn’t know what to say to my friends who suffered from a miscarriage or the loss of a baby. Indeed, this pain is so immense that no one else can understand what parents like me are going through. Surely many bereaved parents in Vietnam are going through this grief in silence and loneliness, lacking emotional support.

With the desire of bringing this book to other grieving parents in Vietnam, I contacted the author and collaborated with a publisher in Vietnam to publish the book in Vietnamese. My sister and I worked together to translate the content, and I also contributed this article about my own experience to the book.

I hope this book can reach as many needy parents as possible, so I will distribute some free copies to a number of hospitals across Vietnam to help parents who are suffering the tragic loss of their children. As soon as I shared about this project on my Facebook page, many friends signed up to buy and donate hundreds of books to the hospitals.

In fact, about 15% to 20% of pregnancies globally ended up in losses. We rarely hear these stories, because most parents do not speak up, but bear the pain in silence.

Nothing can reverse the situation; nothing can bring our beloved children back into our arms. What grieving parents need is not encouragement like “Be strong!” or unsolicited advice like “You are young, you still can try!” We just need someone to understand and hold our hands when we are most desperate. So I hope this book will become a companion for grieving parents on their healing journey after the loss of a child.

My biggest motivation right now is to be a mother that Leonardo could be proud of. I look forward to helping people and making a positive impact on society as a way to remember my beloved son Leonardo.

Vu Lan Huong is a communications professional who has lived and worked in Vietnam, Singapore, and the US. After the passing of her first son, Leonardo Vu Massa, she and her husband founded the Leonardo’s Smile Fund to help orphans in the SOS Children’s Villages Vietnam. She and her sister translated the book “Surviving my first year of child loss” into Vietnamese with the desire to help bereaved parents in Vietnam have access to this helpful resource.