A Mother's Journey Through Grief: Losing Two Daughters, Gaining Five Godchildren

Written by Dawn Sterling, Donor Mom and Godmother

A_Mothers_Journey_Losing_Two_Daughters_Gaining_Five_GodchildrenEditors Note: Dawn is a "Godmother" to a very special Taylor's Gift Volunteer Coordinator, Lisa Barker. We are so grateful for Dawn's willingness to share her story, and for the gift of knowing and working with Lisa. We are truly touched by the glimpse into both sides of their story. 

It’s crazy how life as you know it can change so drastically, in the very blink of an eye. Whatever it may be, it seems to be something that we each experience along our journey; for me, that was losing my two beautiful daughters in February of 2014.

Photo: (top) Dawn's Family - Connely, Dawn, Michael, and Courtney; (bottom) Dawn's Godchildren - Elizabeth, James, Dawn, Brea, and Lisa

My new life of being a Godmother to five would-be strangers started off as what seemed like any other “normal” day. I helped my two girls, Connely and Courtney, wake up and get ready for their day before I left for work. It was a special day for my husband Michael and I because we were looking forward to helping Connely, our oldest daughter who was seven months pregnant, move into her new apartment. We were eager to help her prepare her new home for her husband, who was working out of state at the time, and the much anticipated arrival of our first grandson.

In a Moment's Notice

Michael went home to get dinner started while Connely and I worked on getting the nursery set up. We unpacked boxes while we waited for Courtney to get out of color guard practice - she was going to help set up a section of the nursery that she would be sleeping in. After a wonderful family dinner, the four of us relaxed in our living room and, after visiting for a bit, Connely asked if she and Courtney and I could go get ice cream. We had something special to celebrate and getting ice cream, just the three of us, was always something that I had done with the girls from a very young age - it was one of those simple pleasures that we enjoyed together.

Tired from a long day of moving, I didn’t want to drive. Courtney, who was eager to help, said she needed more drive time and offered to drive us. The last thing I remember after the three of us left the house, was seeing myself hanging in a large hand asking, “What is going on?” I heard someone telling me they were “not finished with me yet,” and three days after leaving for ice cream I woke up with my family standing around me telling me there had been a very bad wreck.  

Somehow I knew immediately upon coming to that both my precious girls were gone. Michael told me that our grandson didn’t make it, either. For the next three weeks I was on life support, coming in and out of consciousness, while Michael was left to arrange the funeral and pick out the girls’ caskets, not to mention making the decision for Courtney to be an organ donor… all without me.

Courtney_organ-donorCourtney was our social butterfly who genuinely loved people and she was always there for anyone that needed a helping hand. Just months prior to the accident, in November of 2013, I had taken Courtney to get her learner’s permit where she was asked if she wanted to be an organ donor.  As she filled out her paperwork she asked me if I was an organ donor. I told her yes but that the decision was her own, and with a look on her face of, “are you kidding me,” she replied, “Of course I want to be an organ donor. I am going to have that added to my driver’s license for my 16th birthday.” We never even had a chance to tell Michael that she was going to sign up as an organ donor.

Courtney ended up being an organ donor whose organs saved the lives of five people, but It was a full month and a half before my sister told me the news. As we sat in the rehab section of the hospital, I was overwhelmed by grief. With tears running down my face I looked up at my sister and said to her, “My girls are gone.” My sister looked at me with a gentle compassion in her eyes and asked, “What if I told you that Courtney lives on and we would have the opportunity to meet the recipients?” Immediately, I shut down. I told her that I didn’t want to meet anyone and to never mention what she had just said to me, ever again.

New Life, New Purpose

About two months after I got out to the hospital my first Mother’s Day without my girls came like a heavy storm in my already dark cloud of grief. All day I stayed curled up on the couch, crying and wanting the nightmare to end. I felt helpless and hopeless. Who was I supposed to be now? The very gifts that gave me life and purpose for the last 20 years were gone, and I felt empty.

Photo: Dawn and Lisa meet for the first time

Donor_Mom_Dawn_and_Liver_Recipient_Lisa_MeetA few months later, in early August, we received a letter from Lisa, keeper of Courtney’s liver. Her letter is what changed my entire outlook on what had been the most difficult thing to live through in my life. I was home alone when I opened the letter and I fell to the ground crying. Reading it, I could feel a glimmer of hope breaking through the dark clouds that surrounded me, and all I wanted to talk to her right that minute. I was so eager to meet her I could hardly wait to write her back that evening. In late October of 2014 we received a call from Lisa and I immediately made arrangements to fly to see her two weeks later. I am so grateful that she reached out - if she had not sent us the letter, we would never have met such a wonderful family. We are so blessed that she is well and in our lives.

Photo: Dawn's Godchildren - Elizabeth, James, Brea, and Lisa

transplant-recipientsSince meeting Lisa, we have also met three other recipients and their families - we are even more blessed! Elizabeth, keeper of Courtney’s kidney and pancreas; James, keeper of Courtney’s kidney; and Brea, keeper of Courtney’s heart. (We are hoping that one day we will get to meet the young man that is the keeper of Courtney’s lungs.) Each person that received Courtney’s gift has been so thankful, but I just can’t help but think that we are the ones that are thankful to them. They have allowed us into their lives and treat us as a long time family member. The relationship that is forming with each recipient is so special and comforting.

A Very Thankful Godmother

This Mother’s Day, after we take flowers to our girls, I will be calling each of our Godchildren to let them know just how happy I am to have them in my life. I know this will not bring my girls back, but the fact that there are five people and their families who are able to live a better life because of Courtney’s gift of life is an incredible blessing that I can’t explain. Any given day one of them gives me a reason to keep aiming for the new normal life is to bring me.

I couldn’t imagine having to live the rest of my life without meeting each recipient that is better known as our Godchildren. I know what it is to live through a tragedy and how hard it is to pick up the pieces, but I thank God every day for the decision Michael made for Courtney to be an organ donor. It has made such a difference in so many lives, including our own.

In memory of our girls - and to each of our new Godchildren - with all my love,
Dawn Sterling

Michael_donor_dad_Lisa_liver_recipient_Reid_Lisas_husband_and_Dawn_donor_mom-315959-editedMichael, Lisa and husband Reid, and Dawn


Read Related Stories

Read "Taylor is a Beautiful Candidate for Organ Donation, Would You Consider  it?"

Read Lisa's Story "Living Hope - Living with a Liver Transplant"

Dawn Loves Jesus, and is an angel mom of two beautiful girls, a maw-maw of a wonderful angel grandson, wife of 27 years to Michael Sterling, and most recently a proud Godmother of five angels on earth who helps advocate for organ donation. 


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