The Makings of a Mother
Through Aaliyah in Action, alumna Liz O’Donnell builds a legacy for her stillborn daughter.
By Caite Hamilton
Liz O’Donnell, B.A. ’12, M.Ed. ’14, had, by all accounts, a perfect pregnancy. The founder of nonprofit Aaliyah in Action never had any morning sickness, always felt healthy, and doctors confirmed her weight gain and energy levels were all on track. When it came time for a baby shower, she was ready to party. She and her mom went all out with the planning, holding a big, blow-out occasion at District Winery in honor of her daughter-to-be, Aaliyah.
“All of our friends and family kept asking if it was a wedding,” O’Donnell says. “I'm not really the marriage type, so my mom spent all her money on a baby shower.” In retrospect, she is happy it was so over the top. “That was Aaliyah’s only party,” she says.
At 31 weeks, after returning from her hometown in New Jersey where she’d been for Thanksgiving, and spending the day at home in D.C. decorating her house for Christmas, O’Donnell realized: “I hadn’t really felt her move all day.”
O’Donnell Googled, ate a piece of candy, drank a few sips of soda, but still she felt nothing. A quick call to her doula convinced her to go in to see her midwives. When she arrived, the nurse remained optimistic, suggesting that maybe the monitor wasn’t working properly.
“Stupid me. I was like, ‘Oh, OK!’ Now that I look back, I can see the exact facial expression she made.” The nurse couldn’t find a heartbeat. Aaliyah, which means “rising” in Hebrew, had died in the womb.
O’Donnell remembers remaining relatively calm. A resolute and practical person by nature, she thought to herself, “OK, well, this is what is happening. Now you have to just get out of this hospital.”
Forty-eight hours later, on Dec. 1, 2020, Aaliyah Denise was stillborn. She was 4 pounds. She had a full head of hair. O’Donnell and Aaliyah’s father spent two hours with her before O’Donnell went back into surgery for complications related to the placenta. “I was still determined to leave the hospital that day,” she says. “[Aaliyah’s dad] was helping me move around the room to work off the epidural. I just wanted to get out.”
But being home wasn’t easy either. Having set up all the gifts from the baby shower just a few weeks before, there were constant reminders everywhere of the life they’d prepared for but wouldn’t see come to fruition. To add insult to injury, O’Donnell was about to enter a second life-altering fight—over paid family leave.
“This should be the last thing on anybody’s mind, but I just kept saying, ‘Oh my God, I have to tell work,’” she says. A math and science teacher at Watkins Elementary School in D.C., O’Donnell quickly emailed her principal: She wouldn’t need to take the rest of the school year, as planned; she’d only need the eight weeks her doctor had prescribed for her physical recovery. The response from District of Columbia Public Schools HR? She was no longer eligible for any leave. Because she had not left the hospital with a baby, didn’t have a birth certificate for her daughter, and thus was only “caring for herself,” the school district determined she didn’t qualify. She was enraged.
“It made it sound like she wasn’t even a real person,” O’Donnell says. “I held her. She was 4 pounds. I went through treacherous labor. She was really here.” She took to Instagram to post a photo of her holding Aaliyah and detail the difficult labor, during which she lost nearly a liter and a half of blood and afterward endured constant pain following an epidural that aggravated scar tissue from a previous injury.
She returned to work after taking unpaid leave through the Family Medical Leave Act. But, by Christmas, a friend at GW Law, Paulina Vera, B.A. ’12, J.D. ’15, had connected her with an employment attorney, and she had attracted the attention of news outlets, D.C. Council members and Mayor Muriel Bowser, who introduced the expansion of a D.C. law to include paid leave for public employees who lose a child under the age of 21. The expansion went into effect in March 2021.
O’Donnell is pleased there has been some progress—particularly because the bill expansion covers families who lose their children to gun violence, which she notes is prevalent in D.C.—but says the bill misses the point she was trying to make. O’Donnell had read (and reread) the school district’s paid leave policy and noticed that, while it used the phrase “birth of a child,” it failed to specify whether that child had to be living. The ambiguity, to her mind, meant that her situation still counted. She should have been granted leave.
“There is no definition of ‘birth of a child,’” O’Donnell says. “Maybe it’s too hard to define it. Do you want to include the birth of a child to be a child that is not breathing? Or do you want to make the definition a child that is breathing and then cast [those who experience stillbirth] out? That’s fine, if that’s how we define the birth of a child. Just define it somehow.”
Beyond the grief, which she anticipated would continue on some level for the rest of her life, O’Donnell needed time to physically recover. She hadn’t taken a baby home from the hospital, but she had delivered her vaginally and suffered a hemorrhage following labor. Getting paid leave wasn’t only about emotional recovery. It was about recuperating physically.
In May 2021, she gave notice to her school’s principal that she wouldn’t be returning in the fall. She would continue to do private tutoring for her former students, but she had already come up with a new plan, a way to channel her grief into something positive, to honor her daughter and help other families experiencing the same kind of devastating loss she’d endured.
O’Donnell was on I-95, driving to Costco, when the phrase “Aaliyah in Action” popped into her head. She rolled with it, meditating on what “action” might mean in this context. She’d never been a fan of support groups, so she didn’t want to go that route. But she remembered her friends’ kindness after Aaliyah died. Knowing her fondness for beauty products, they had sent her boatloads of self-care items to try. And she did, one each day throughout those early days of grief.
It occurred to her that not everyone is privileged enough to have such an incredible support system, so she settled on creating a kind of self-care box that she could distribute to grieving families. Then she took the thought a step further: “Wouldn’t it be great if a family was able to leave the hospital with something like this so they could immediately have it?”
She revisited her Facebook grief groups and posed a question: What tangible object would have helped provide a little relief during the grieving process?
“Fuzzy socks was the number one answer,” O’Donnell says. “So that was the first thing to go in the package.” From there, she filled the box with a face mask, shower steamer, recovery tea, an aromatherapy candle, and what O’Donnell calls a “self-care choice board,” an idea from a woman who had messaged her on Facebook, which lists one thing to do each day—take a shower, drink some water. A step toward feeling accomplished.
In total, the Aaliyah in Action self-care package contains six items, 80 percent of which are from women- or Black-owned local businesses that O’Donnell has personally reached out to, plus a book tailored to the recipients’ specific situation, be it miscarriage, stillbirth or infant loss. There are books from the perspective of fathers and siblings and, for D.C. locals, a list of resources too.
O’Donnell is able to ship the packages nationwide free of charge (or for a small donation) thanks to a generous donor base, but her main focus is working with local hospitals to get the boxes into the hands of families in the immediate aftermath of their loss. The organization’s first partner was George Washington University Hospital, and it has since signed on nine more in and around D.C. O’Donnell’s ultimate goal is to be in every hospital nationwide.
“I know that sounds crazy—very ambitious—but I think I can do it,” she says. Though she has never run an organization like Aaliyah in Action, she volunteered and interned with nonprofits throughout her time at GW. “Also just being very blunt with people and saying, ‘Yes, I am making this huge transition. And no, I don’t have any business experience, but I am very capable. I went to GW! It’s a really good school!’ Being a student [there] molded me to, yes, be a teacher, but also to do 25 other things at the same time.”
She says she thinks her organization is successful for two main reasons: First, she provides tangible objects that focus on the mother.
“I don’t necessarily want to open something and be reminded with a little crocheted hat or a bear or blanket,” she says. “It’s OK to want it to be about yourself, because we’re the ones who have to still be on this planet thinking, ‘How do I survive every day?’” O’Donnell knows firsthand what it feels like to lose a child, which only amplifies how meaningful the boxes are to recipients. And that’s the organization’s second superpower.
“It's not about what is in the package,” she says. “It’s, ‘Oh my gosh. This person has this set up so that I get this package right after I experienced exactly what she did. And she lives right around here.’ It’s that closeness that has been encouraging.”
O’Donnell notes that having the boxes immediately available has been helpful even in unexpected ways: They take the pressure off of nursing staff who can’t personally relate. (“Instead of trying to do the talking and comforting themselves, they can say, ‘Here’s this package from someone that knows exactly what you are going through,’” she says.) And, in one instance, the contents helped calm a mother during an active stillbirth delivery.
In the United States, 23,000 babies are stillborn every year—that is 65 babies per day. O’Donnell replenishes the hospitals’ supply of boxes every two months, but she hopes that eventually the frequency of stillbirths will diminish so much she’ll have to rethink the mission of Aaliyah in Action. To help on that front, around the time her own nonprofit was coming to fruition, she became a founding member of PUSH for Empowered Pregnancy. The aim of PUSH is to “cut the U.S. stillbirth rate by 20 percent by the end of 2030, in half by 2050, and in time, eradicate all preventable stillbirths.”
At least 25 percent of stillbirths are preventable, including her own.
“Aaliyah was big, and my placenta was small,” O’Donnell says. “[The doctor] said she just ran out of gas.” In other words, Aaliyah wasn’t getting the nutrients she needed to grow. Had O’Donnell’s placenta been measured—currently not a standard practice in obstetric care—or monitored throughout her pregnancy, perhaps there would have been a different outcome. But her doctors didn’t suggest it, and she didn’t know to ask.
“I wear two hats: my PUSH Pregnancy hat, where we’re being proactive so that we are teaching expectant people and families how to advocate for themselves, what to look for and pushing doctors to try new things,” she says. “Then I have my reactive hat with Aaliyah in Action, where, when it’s too late to be able to save a family, I provide this tangible bereavement support for them.”
It sounds like a lot to keep up with for someone who is still grieving, and O’Donnell admits that her commitments have been a welcome distraction. But they’ve also been a way to honor her daughter and, as she sees it, to parent her.
“Big plans were laid out—these grandiose plans were laid out for her. And then this happened,” O’Donnell says. “I was like, well, now what do I do?” There were two choices: She could either stay in bed and never come out, or she could take all of the things she’d read about parenting and the ideas she had about the kind of mother she wanted to be, and morph them into something new.
“I would be running around, chasing a toddler, staying up all night, worrying about something ridiculous,” she says. “And I’m doing that now with Aaliyah in Action, with trying to help people advocate for paid leave, with PUSH Pregnancy. So it looks different, but I can promise that there is just as much love being poured into it. There is just as much worry, sleepless nights, anxiety over needing to change plans for certain things—all of which would also happen if she were actually here.”
Photography: William Atkins // Courtesy of Liz O'Donnell