Mary Michael Kelley is no stranger to sorrow. After losing her newborn child, Kathryn, in 2011 to fetal hydrops — a rare condition marked by abnormal accumulation of fluid in two or more fetal compartments — she lost her son Micah to the same condition a few years later. Yet even as she felt the severe pain of her losses, Mary Michael chose to turn her grief into giving.
As the founder of Mother’s Milk of Alabama and a frequent blogger on child loss, Mary Michael is positively impacting how we, as a community, help mothers who have walked this difficult path. Though her loss will forever be an important part of her life story, she is determined to use her experiences to positively affect others.
It was a joy to talk with this courageous mother. Meet today’s FACE of Birmingham, Mary Michael Kelley!
What inspired you to write for “Her View From Home”?
I started writing for “Her View From Home” just this year. In fact, the piece I wrote about my experiences as a bereaved mother was the first piece I wrote for them. I honestly didn’t expect for it to get the attention that it received, but it was incredibly moving to hear how people were so touched by my experiences. I’ve always considered myself a writer; however, I’ve also been terrified to put myself out there with more professional publications.
In the past, I’ve limited myself to my own personal blogs, my son’s health journey and things like that. But this past Thanksgiving, I was having a little pity party about how I was so irritated with myself for not doing what I wanted to do, writing what I wanted to write and, honestly, being who I wanted to be. So I wrote out a piece about my experiences losing two of my children, and my post was scheduled with them the next day.
You founded Mother’s Milk of Alabama. What was that process like?
Oh my goodness; it was incredible. I refer to it as my fourth baby because it was a labor of love on my part. I started discussing the need for a donor milk bank with community partners way back in 2011, and from then to the day we had our official grand opening it was a whirlwind. It also restored my faith in all that is good in this world.
I still think back to many of those first moms who donated and tear up. I think of the moms who lost their babies and still chose to pump their milk and donate, even after their babies’ deaths. And honestly, it makes you realize what’s really important in this world. The process of establishing the milk bank itself was intense. It was long; it was arduous; it took time and resources and community partners. But in the end, I’d do it all again if it meant being able to help just one family.
How have the past few years shaped you as a person?
What’s funny is that, last night, I was watching the series finale of “Veep” (all-time favorite show plug), and I realized it’s been on for eight seasons. Those eight seasons have been the most trying of my life, emotionally. They’ve taxed me in every way I could have ever imagined — physically, due to my two high-risk pregnancies; emotionally, due to my two children’s deaths; and even mentally, as I worked during all of it to found the milk bank and move on in my professional career. I said a little thank you to the heavens for Julia Louis Dreyfus because Lord knows I needed the laughs.
Overall, the past few years have taught me that life is so incredibly precious, that family (and friends who are family) is everything, that people are inherently good, that this world is sometimes so, so unfair. But in the end, all we honestly have is our individual selves, our ability to be a part of making change for good, our treatment of others and our accountability to our inner selves to be who we truly are.
What’s something most people don’t know about the process and emotions of losing a child?
One thing I didn’t realize before I lost my daughter Kathryn in 2011, and then again when I lost Micah in 2016, is that it’s an everyday battle. Not a single day goes by that you don’t think about it; it’s never not in the back of your mind. My sister told me once about how she heard grief described as a giant box. Picture that giant box with a spikey ball inside. That spikey ball bounces all around. When you’re in the early stages of grief, your box is smaller, so the spikes hit the side all the time, and you live in constant pain. Over time, your box grows, and the ball hits the sides less. But when it does hit, it still hurts just as bad as the day it happened.
To me, that’s one of the truest representations of what it’s been like [to lose two children]. But I’d also say, I don’t think I realized how much my relationships would change. I don’t think I’ve lost friends, per se, but I would say that I’ve lost the quality of many of those friendships. People just don’t know how to talk to moms who have lost children. It’s not entirely on them, though. It’s very easy to isolate yourself when you’re going through something and you know people have no clue how to talk about it.
What’s your best piece of advice on how to care for someone going through this process?
Call. Text. Visit. Ask questions. Say their children’s names. Elizabeth Edwards once said, “If you know someone who has lost a child, and you’re afraid to mention the child because you think you might make that person sad by reminding them that their child died, you’re not reminding them of that. They didn’t forget that their child died — you’re reminding them that you remember that their child lived, and that is a great gift.”
I love that quote so much. It really hits the nail on the head. Not talking about [Kathryn and Micah] is like living with ghosts. They’re everywhere to me, all over, all around. Nothing means more to me than to hear others say their names and talk about them.
What else do you think the community, or the state, can and should do for mothers who have walked this journey?
We have to get to a place where we address not only infant mortality, but also maternal childbirth mortality — ultimately, a comprehensive plan addressing maternal child health. But support-wise, there’s just not much for moms who have walked this path. I’ve thought a lot about that as the next project of mine. Until we support these mothers through their losses, we’re going to fall short.
What does the future look like for you now?
I recently started a new position at the UAB School of Medicine, working in and managing HIV and Hepatitis C programs aimed at expanding testing among at-risk populations. It’s been incredible so far. I have no plans to leave Birmingham. I love this place — it’s home.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My dad has always said, “Don’t put socks on God. Sometimes there’s just no figuring things out, and that’s gotta be okay.” I accept that I’ll never be able to control everything. That acceptance is honestly what I think has gotten me through the pain of the past, and it’s what keeps me looking forward, at least as best as I can.
What are three things you can’t live without, with the exception of faith, family and friends?
The “person being interviewed” wants to sound really deep, but the real me might as well fess up: TV binge-watching, Arnold Palmers and my MeUndies subscription!
Thank you, Mary Michael, for taking the time to share with us. And a big thank you to Eric & Jamie Photography for the photographs.
Read more conversations with our inspiring FACES of Birmingham in our archives HERE!