October 15 was National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. I’ve been asked to write about the grief experienced with the loss of a baby through miscarriage or stillbirth. I am not an expert in this kind of grief, I can only share what I have learned along life’s way.
In the late 1960’s I was five and a half months pregnant with twins when I was told quite bluntly, “You have twins. I know one is dead but I am not sure about the other. It is probably dead too. You will just have to wait and see how this plays out.” I was to stay pregnant until I went into natural labor. I carried those little girls for a month inside of my body knowing they were dead. Here is what I learned from that experience.
For that month I was numb. I cried and I talked about what the doctor had said, I was angry at how casually he told me (over the phone) but basically I was shut down. I went about my daily routine of being a stay at home mom of two children, three and five years old.
My husband and I didn’t talk about it after the first round of tears and dismay. My best friend was pregnant also and where we had shared our pregnancies now it was silent between us on that subject--sadness, but “how can you have a healthy pregnancy and I don’t” thoughts were also there. I knew that the rest of my family supported and cared for me but there was a silence there also. No one knew what to say to me, so they didn’t say anything. There was an elephant in the room and I was it, almost literally and definitely metaphorically.
I accidentally fell down which brought on labor. After the birth, which I slept through thanks to pharmaceuticals, I was placed in a double room at the end of the hall on the maternity floor of the hospital. My roommate had given birth to a stillborn baby. The curtain between the beds was drawn the entire time; we never talked. Rarely did the staff come into our room. We were isolated, we were alone but we could hear the laughter in the other rooms and, hardest of all, we could hear babies crying.
When I got home life returned to “normal”. There was no talk about what had happened, or about loss and grief. It was as if those little girls had never happened. To make it real I gave them names and placed those names in our family Bible. When my friend had her baby it was a challenge to walk to her house and hold her baby. We acknowledged how uncomfortable it was and then didn't talk about it ever again. Life moved on.
A little over a year later I had another child, a healthy, beautiful little girl. I worried throughout the entire pregnancy (now I knew things could go wrong, loss could occur beyond my control). Once Jackie was born I became an overprotective, nervous mom. I was afraid something would happen to her. But there was also value and appreciation in being a mom that I hadn’t had before. I knew in my core now how fragile motherhood could be.
I am sharing this story because I don’t think I am any different than other women in how I reacted to the loss of a child before it had even been born. The grief of my lost babies was never acknowledged. I lived as if nothing had happened. But feelings get expressed in other ways if we don’t deal with them straight on. My grief came out in my overprotectiveness and an intense search for meaning to life. In hindsight I can see that search has lead me to where I am today.
I was in a workshop with Elizabeth Kuebler Ross ten years later and when she talked about miscarriages and stillborn experiences I sobbed for the first time for those little girls, for the life they didn’t have, for my fear, my isolation. She gave me permission to recognize the experience as relevant, to see that loss as life changing, and to feel the pain of silence that I had carried all that time.
Today we are better at recognizing the legitimacy of the loss and the ensuing grief that comes with miscarriages and stillborn children. There are resources available, counseling sessions and support groups. We have some hospices that provide services that begin when the baby is recognized as being dead or will be dead upon birth. Babies are dressed, pictures taken, love, conversations and holding are encouraged. Families are supported and guided through this experience as well as the mother. Hopefully the isolation and silence has been broken.