A Story from Studio Owner Brenda Oakes: Beauty for Ashes

Cottage Hill

When Tulsa studio owner Brenda Oakes lost her baby boy Maddox just days before her due date, the grief rocked her to her very core. Read this exclusive reprint from Cottage Hill magazine to find out how she found the grace and strength to heal by starting a barre3 practice and eventually opening a studio in her hometown.


When I was a kid growing up in Northern California, we used to spend time each summer in Santa Cruz. My favorite thing to do at the beach was to root my feet in the sand just at the water’s line where the shore washes in. I would stand with my eyes closed, feet firm in the sand, and arms stretched to the side and let the waves crash into my little legs. I loved to feel the power of the ocean waves push against my balance. It was a victorious feeling when I could still stand – the ocean was no match for my kid strength. On July 6th, 2005, ten years ago this summer, I met a wave that almost pulled me under forever.

I remember sitting alone in the small exam room at my obstetrician’s office listening to the peaceful white noise of the ultrasound device waiting for another digital meeting with our son, Maddox. It was two days before my due date and I was equally thrilled and nervous to be a mom for the first time. The doctor came in and rubbed the wand on my belly. Without warning, the atmosphere of the room shifted dramatically as the doctor left the room without saying a word. I remembered seeing Maddox moving and full of life at every other ultrasound, that is, until today. Today was different. He was completely still on the screen and, in my heart, I knew Maddox was gone.

The doctor came back and told me what I already knew. My baby had died. Hearing it spoken out loud was a sharp knife to my panicked heart. Before the doctor could finish her sentence, I felt this rush of fire burning through my chest and my airway started to close in like I was suffocating. The only escape from the fire of disbelief was to scream out.

The days and weeks that followed were the hardest for me. It was all a blur. I felt people around me, but I couldn’t see past my tears flooding me. I tried to fake live a life when all I wanted to do was die. The grief was defeating like violent surf crashing on me over and over. I was suffocating and couldn’t catch my breath; I couldn’t put my feet in the sand to anchor the thrashing of my soul.

The hours in the day felt like I was lifelessly drifting out to sea. Still not able to stand or fully breathe, each evening my husband would pull me back in to shore. When he would come home from work, I thought that being together would bring some sort of comfort but instead we had tension. I felt like he seemed to be over losing our baby. He just seemed to be past where I was at emotionally and I hated feeling like I was a mess he had to deal with. We were worlds apart and not connecting.

I would plead to God to take me each night before I fell asleep. Each morning, I would wake up mad because I had to face another day of this Hell I was trapped in. Another day of crashing waves, maddening waves.

Two months passed and I knew it was time to go back to work. I just wanted to leave the prison my house had become. Some days I couldn’t control the tears and other days, I felt numb, exhausted from feeling. I would take lunch in the cemetery next to Maddox’s grave. I sat in the grass and tried to imagine him there next to me. Staring at the engraved name on the headstone gave me a strange sense of comfort. This nightmare I was living in was real. Maddox was real.

One day after eating lunch in the cemetery, I got back in my car and caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. I was so broken. I barely recognized myself. Then, the questions that changed everything started shifting around in my mind. What am I doing? How did my life end up like this? How long am I going to stay knocked down? I knew I had a choice to live a life full of a tormenting reminder of death or get back up and live. I chose to live. That day in my car, I made my choice and I was determined to make this life a legacy for Maddox.

Choosing to live looks pretty on paper. It sounds good and triumphant. However, the real journey to heal from all that had happened was not easy or pretty. My faith in God gave me the strength to slowly pick up the pieces of my broken heart. As I began to piece myself back together, my desire to become a mother again grew stronger. Ten weeks after Maddox’s death, I found myself sitting on the same kind of paper-lined table where it had all begun, listening to the peaceful white sound of the ultrasound while my husband Kris stood by my side. As we waited with hands clenched and hopeful hearts, the “swosh-echo, swosh- echo” sound coming from the screen confirmed what we desperately prayed for: life, again.

On the one – year anniversary of Maddox’s birthday, I rocked our baby girl Emory in his chair in his nursery, which was now painted pink. Emory didn’t replace Maddox but her heart beating against mine was the most wonderful reminder that death did not win. The grief waves crashing against my chest were now subtle tides of pain outmatched with surges of love. I could feel her life beating on my heart and it was the most wonderful reminder that death did not defeat me.

We were living and growing as a family. A couple years later, the faint whisper again said, “If you want another baby, I will protect you.” With this promise, Kris and I decided to risk it all and have another baby. Sometimes a promise from God can be misunderstood as something that will be easy (at least to me). My third pregnancy was a battle in every sense of the word. The promise was delivered 11 weeks earlier than planned in the form of a 3-pound baby girl named Isla. Both of our girls are living, breathing reminders of just how far we have come. To this day, when I look into the eyes of Emory, I see healing and when I look into the eyes of Isla, I see joy! My heart was full and my soul was soaring but there was one area of my life that was still a wreck.

Like a severe cut to the flesh that scars the skin, grief scarred my physical body. My joints were stiff from holding on to stress and anxiety. I felt weak, brittle, insecure, and lacking in physical grace compared to the grace in my soul. With the big brown eyes of my little girls watching my every move, I knew it was time for me to put the same effort into healing my body that I had put into healing my heart. My heart was full and my soul was soaring but my body was still shipwrecked from all the loss.

I wanted a strong body that I could be proud of, one that moved with grace. I wanted my daughters to see me working hard to achieve a goal I set without a fear of failure. So I went online and started hunting for a game plan. I found an online workout called barre3 and decided to try it in the safety of my home. This blonde, bright light introduced herself on my television screen as Sadie Lincoln and, although she challenged every muscle I had and a few I didn’t know existed, I wanted to make a point to meet up with Sadie in the comfort of my own home each and every day.

Barre3 was just what my body needed. The exercises are a hybrid mix of yoga, Pilates, and ballet-inspired movements. Over time, I noticed the rigidity and tension in my joints started to release. I was getting stronger and I felt the best I had felt in a long time. All my fears, failures, shame, and regret had been transformed from the inside and now finally on the outside as well.

Months had passed and each day I was diligent to meet up with Sadie and her friends. Even though we had never met, the barre3 instructors on the screen seemed to be my friends now; they encouraged me, challenged me, and strengthened me. It was a digital community, but it was a community. I wanted more. I couldn’t shake this feeling that barre3 was about to become more than the online workout I did in the comfort of my own home.

What I didn’t expect to find when I set out to heal my body from grief was a new passion and calling to help other people do the same. In July of 2014, my incredible business partner, Andrea Mason, and I opened a barre3 studio of our own in Tulsa, OK. Today I am a barre3 instructor and am giving my community what barre3 gave me at home – physical healing.

Because barre3 provided my physically healing from the loss of Maddox, I was thrilled with our partnership with a beautiful organization called Every Mother Counts. Every Mother Counts is a non-profit organization founded by Christy Turlington Burns after she herself had a life-threatening complication after delivery of her daughter. She knew she needed to do something to make pregnancy and childbirth safe for all moms and all babies. Every Mother Counts helps provide education, transportation, and supplies all over the world to mothers in need. To think I would have any role in helping other moms safely bring their babies to this world still brings tears to my eyes.

How incredible this journey has been, and no matter the difficulty behind me or even ahead of me, it has created a hunger for more opportunities to help others. Today, I am humbled by what God has done in my life. Does the pain of losing Maddox still take my breath away? Of course it does! Was losing Maddox the worst thing that has happened to me? It was the hardest. But today I can say it was the best thing that happened to me because I now have a deeper capacity to love and serve others who also need healing. Beauty for ashes.

Writer, Brenda Oakes
Photograph of Brenda Oakes by Abby Rose Henry
Published in Cottage Hill
Learn more at www.cottagehillmag.com