Rising country star Walker Hayes and his wife Laney rejoiced last fall when they discovered that they were expecting their seventh child. Their lives already revolved around their six kids, ages 3 to 12, and the whole family was excited for the new arrival in late spring.
But in the early morning of June 6, soon after Laney’s labor began, it gave way to alarming symptoms. Within the hour, she was in emergency surgery, and a nurse was breaking the news to Hayes: His wife had delivered a girl, and the baby had died.
As he let the unbearable words sink in, all he could think about was Laney.
” ‘What do I do?’ ” Hayes, 38, recalls of his thoughts in a candid interview with PEOPLE for this week’s issue. ” ‘When Laney wakes up, how do I tell her? How am I the one to explain, it’s a girl, but you know, she died?’ I knew that was just going to crush Laney.”
Yet the nurse kept talking, and the dreadful news kept coming. Hayes struggled to grasp what he was hearing now: that his wife’s own life was hanging in the balance.
“I just waited,” he tells PEOPLE, recalling those desperate moments when he didn’t know whether he would lose Laney, along with their newborn daughter. “I really just hoped that this wasn’t going to be the worst day of my life, even though it kind of already was.”
The surgical team’s heroic efforts saved Laney, and today, she has recovered from the physical trauma. But the couple is still in the early stages of grief for the daughter they named Oakleigh Klover. They are sharing their story to express their gratitude for the family, friends and even strangers who have been accompanying them on their journey, as well as to help other grieving parents like them to feel less alone.
“Laney and I have cried a lot,” Hayes says, his voice breaking, “but one thing that makes me the happiest is how much love there has been around us. We’ve had the most remarkable questions answered and advice given from people around our neighborhood and in meet-and-greet lines. People walk up to me and tell me their life, and it’s like, geez, thank you for sharing. I don’t even know these people.”
One Life Lost, One Life Saved
What claimed Oakleigh’s life and almost took Laney’s was a rupture of the uterus, a rare and catastrophic event caused by a weakness in the organ’s wall. The attending obstetrician described it as looking like “just an explosion,” says Laney, 39. Deprived of blood flow, the baby quickly suffocated.
The couple had originally intended a first-time home birth, because “we’ve had several almost in the car,” says Laney, and they wanted to avoid that scary experience.
But as a midwife monitored the labor in the couple’s Nashville, Tennessee-area home, the baby’s heartbeat suddenly faded and Laney began to feel a nonstop contraction. “Oakleigh was in my abdominal cavity, and that’s what all the pressure was,” she recalls. “But we didn’t know that then, obviously.”
The midwife immediately called 9-1-1, and once the couple arrived at the hospital by ambulance, an obstetrician ordered an emergency cesarean section. Still, Laney showed no obvious signs that she was hemorrhaging internally.
“I remember going to sleep hoping the baby was okay,” she tells PEOPLE. “I had no idea I was in danger … I remember feeling like I didn’t think it was all going to be okay, but still hoping.”
Hayes went to a waiting area, and the surgical nurse soon brought the grim news that life-saving efforts on the baby had failed. His mind closed around those words even as he tried to absorb updates on Laney.
“Surgery just seemed to never end, and someone would continue to come to me and say things that I didn’t really understand like, ‘We may have to use this much to replace this blood,’ ” he recalls. “That is when I began to worry for my wife’s life, and of course I’m freaking out.”
After an almost-two-hour surgery and massive transfusions, Laney was finally stabilized, and Hayes waited for her to awaken in intensive care. As she drifted in and out of consciousness, he was forced to tell her, again and again, that their baby had died.
Once fully awake, she and Hayes made the decision to spend the rest of the day with their daughter’s body, at the encouragement of a stranger who’d lost a newborn four years before. The midwife had summoned the woman, an acquaintance, to the hospital to offer guidance.
“I didn’t know what was morbid, I didn’t know what was normal,” Hayes says. “But she began just walking me through the process. … It is a miracle she was there.”
“Please, Just Let Her Start Breathing”
Once in a hospital room, the couple were joined by their 12-year-old daughter Lela, close friend Craig Cooper (the subject of Hayes’ current single, “Craig”) and the latter’s wife Laura. Together, they spent precious hours cuddling Oakleigh through their tears.
“Watching Walker hold her,” Laney recalls, “you felt like she’s just going to wake up. You think, oh, please, just let her start breathing. … She was swaddled and she just looked like a newborn baby.”
That night, Hayes broke the news to the couple’s other five children. “They all just handled it differently,” he says. “Some were really sad. Some were like, ‘Can I go back outside and play?’ It was tough to tell them.”
The graveside service and burial, a few days after Laney was released from the hospital, was “the worst,” says Hayes. “You just never expect that you’re going to be burying your child.”
Laney’s father, a woodworker, built the tiny casket and decorated it with an oak cross. Hayes and his three sons Beckett, 7, Baylor, 9, and Chapel, 11, served as the pallbearers; Cooper was the officiant.
Afterward, Hayes and his sons took turns shoveling dirt into the small grave. The hardest part for Hayes was simply leaving the cemetery. “It’s not easy to just say goodbye,” he says, “even though she’s not there.”
RELATED VIDEO: Walker Hayes and Wife Laney Mourning Loss of Seventh Child: Baby Is “Now Safely in Heaven”
Anguish Over the “What Ifs”
In the nearly three months since, Hayes and Laney have gone over and over what happened that day, anguishing over the “what ifs.” One comfort was the obstetrician’s assurance that Oakleigh wouldn’t have survived if the rupture had occurred at the hospital. “It is that catastrophic, no matter how you look at it,” Laney says.
Hayes, who had his first top 10 hit this year with “You Broke Up with Me,” went back out on tour at the end of June. Performing, he’s found, has become part of his grief therapy. “Being on stage is a different experience now,” he says. “It’s almost spiritual.”
Laney, a stay-at-home mom who home-schools her children, is finding her healing just “being with the kids and Walker.”
While they have leaned on each other in their shared grief, the circumstances of the loss have also put them on separate paths. Hayes is still traumatized by how close he came to losing his wife of 14 years — something Laney doesn’t dwell on.
“On the most random moment and on the most random days,” Hayes says, “I will think of how fragile she is, and I didn’t know that before, and that freaks me out.”
For her part, Laney is still coming to terms with doctors’ warning that she can no longer carry a pregnancy. “I lost my last baby and now I’m done?” Laney says, reacting to the medical judgment. “That’s hard.”
Still, she is finding plenty of solace in a home full of life. Her six children “are more than enough to me,” she is quick to say. “I do want them to know they’re wonderful and enough.”
“But,” she says, “I can also be sad about missing Oakleigh, just like they are. It’s a process, and it will be forever.”
For more about Walker and Laney Hayes’ heartbreaking story, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.