When Annie and Nick Rivas found out they were expecting their first child in November 2017, they were beyond excited.
The couple, who had married that spring after more than a decade of friendship and dating, had always known they wanted to start a family, and after a few months they were doing just that. Soon afterward, Nick and Annie shared the exciting news with their parents and siblings first, followed by their friends in late December, shortly before their first ultrasound.
In early January 2018, the couple got the first look at their baby during a routine ultrasound.
"Everything looked great," Annie recalls. "We weren't sure if we wanted to find out the sex, but after that, we had to know."
Annie describes the beginning of her pregnancy as "picture perfect." There wasn't morning sickness, and she wasn't experiencing any food diversions. Despite an unexpected ultrasound at her 12 appointment, things were going great with the pregnancy.
At their 18-week appointment, when the couple was expecting to find out the gender of the baby, the ultrasound technician left the room and a doctor informed the couple that the baby was measuring about two weeks smaller than it should have been.
Annie was referred to the hospital for testing, including an amniocentesis.
"The doctor was going through what could be wrong, and there were all these horrible possibilities," she notes.
After a few days, the couple received a call that the first tests had come back normal. Two weeks later, they were told that everything was fine, their baby boy was just small.
Shortly after that, Annie came down with a sinus and upper respiratory infection. After staying home for a few days to recover, she woke up for work on March 24.
But she immediately knew something wasn't right. While she went to work, she left early and called Nick, sharing her concerns.
When she called her obstetrician, she was told to lie down, drink water, and if she felt something was wrong to go to the hospital. She googled her symptoms and read about prolapsed umbilical cords.
That's when the couple went to the emergency room and were quickly sent to the maternity ward.
"They tried the doppler and couldn't hear anything," Annie said. "Then they did an ultrasound but hid the screen. After an exam they told us I was right, that the umbilical cord had prolapsed."
When the doctors couldn't find a heartbeat, the couple was moved to a private labor and delivery area.
Annie was induced at 6:30 p.m., their son was stillborn at 7:36 p.m. due to an insufficient placenta.
"Our whole family was with us," Annie said. "Then we got to hold him and a priest came in to bless him."
Annie and Nick had a few names pick out for their son, but hadn't settled on one before they were unexpectedly admitted to the hospital.
"We pulled out our list and looked up the meanings," she said. "'Noah' means comfort, and we thought that was perfect. We didn't have a middle name, but March 24 is feast day of Saint Gabriel, and that means ‘God is my strength’."
Noah Gabriel. "That's a strong name," Annie remembers thinking.
For the next several hours Annie, Nick and their families held Noah and said their goodbyes.
"The hardest part was leaving without our baby," she said.
After returning home, Annie and Nick debated on whether or not to continue with plans for a trip to California. They went ahead with the trip, driving up the coast and visiting a few baseball stadiums, knocking two names off their baseball bucket list.
In the months that followed, Annie joined a Des Moines chapter of the nonprofit No Foot Too Small. The group draws awareness to pregnancy loss and infant mortality while honoring the lives lost.
While Annie was able to find support through No Foot Too Small, Nick struggled to find a similar group for dads.
Nearly a year after Noah's death, the couple received a flyer in the mail for EveryStep Grief & Loss Services' Amanda the Panda program.
In early April, they joined Amanda the Panda for the program's Little Footprints: Perinatal & Infant Loss support group for those impacted by miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss.
"We were uneasy about going at first, but we said 'let's go,'" Annie notes. "The biggest regret we have is that this group hadn't been a year before, that we didn't have this sooner."
The Rivas were joined by another couple who lost a baby more recently. The group met every Monday evening for eight weeks at the Amanda the Panda office in West Des Moines.
"We talked a lot about what we hoped to get out of the group, the feelings, challenges," Annie says.
Little Footprints was hosted in conjunction with Amanda the Panda's other spring support group, Grief Through the Expressive Arts. That meant, Nick and Annie were able to discuss their grief in ways that weren't just talking.
The groups took part in several activities that helped ease them into discussing their grief, Nick said.
"We were able to help the other couple a little bit," Nick said. "They were where we were a while back. When we went I felt like I was okay, I didn't necessarily think I needed anything, but then I went, and I'm glad I did."
Annie and Nick felt a sense of companionship with the other couple, too. It helped to talk to someone who had gone through a similar loss.
"No one gets it unless you go through it," Annie says. "I've said that I know this happened for a reason, but I didn't know that reason. If I can help one someone else, that helps me."