We are not on this earth to accumulate victories, or trophies, or experiences, or even to avoid failures, but to be whittled and sandpapered down until what’s left is who we truly are. This is the only way we can find purpose in pain and loss, the only way to begin to mend a broken dream, and the only way to keep returning to gratitude and grace.
This insight from Arianna Huffington, whose son was stillborn, brought me strength and solace after losing my baby girl at 15 weeks of pregnancy last year.
At the time of writing, I have sought and celebrated nine pregnancies, felt nauseated during six, formed a tiny but recognizable human in five, and brought a baby to birth in three. I have taken on board myriad suggestions for improving my childbearing fitness, and found that with pregnancy, trying harder bears little relationship to success. I have come to rely much more on the wisdom and information from within my own body, mind and heart, than on the ultrasound screen’s cold staring black eye, or the well-intentioned advice of people who don’t really know, because there is no answer to be known. I am deeply grateful to everyone who was willing to see my suffering and offered me kindness, whether expressed in words or otherwise.
It may feel an intensely private grief – the loss of this child who was known only to us. For many families this is a lonely and isolating experience, something that is difficult to share or talk about, perhaps even more so for fathers and partners as Mark Zuckerberg has pointed out. But pregnancy loss is incredibly commonplace. While stillbirth (the loss of a baby after 24 weeks’ gestation) is much rarer, miscarriage is estimated to occur in at least 1 in 6 pregnancies. Some parents find comfort in connecting with others who have had similar experiences, via the Miscarriage Association or SANDS for example.
The term ‘babyloss’ includes pregnancy loss as well as neonatal and infant death. ‘Pregnancy loss’ refers to both miscarriage and stillbirth because while the physical experiences differ, research in this area suggests that there is no linear relationship between length of gestation and depth of grief (Moulder, 2001) and it is important not to make assumptions about how parents may feel after the loss of a pregnancy at any stage. People deal with these events in different ways, and the same parents may have different feelings about different pregnancy losses. I hope that these words may be a source of comfort to some who are going through the pain of losing a baby. I know they are also likely to strike some wrong notes with others. In the end we can only speak our own truth, and listen carefully to others speaking theirs.
To begin with, mothering seems to be all about holding close. ‘I can’t believe my baby needs me so much!’ ‘When will she sleep through the night?’ ‘How can I get time to have a shower?’ ‘Can he really be hungry again?’ Mothers often find it difficult to imagine how and when their babies might begin to develop some independence, and may feel pressure to push them towards faster progress with sleep consolidation, developmental milestones, and moving on from the sources of emotional comfort enjoyed in babyhood.
Eventually there is a subtle shifting of gears and we begin to realize that our job as parents is gradually to let our children go. It can be startling to feel the strength of our child’s will to follow their own destiny, of them pulling away from us towards the future. How to continue loving while allowing and encouraging growth out of the family?
Our job, as Goethe said, is to give our children ‘roots and wings’. Scientific explanation of how this works can be found in Why Love Matters and The Psychology of Babies. It seems clear that the more children’s needs are responded to in infancy (thereby giving them firm emotional roots) the more confident they are to spread their wings and fly out into the world when the time comes.
The paradox of parenting is that in order to let go, we must first hold close. The shock of pregnancy loss is that this letting go happens just at the very earliest time when we are starting to learn to hold on. In fact we may not realize how much we have begun to hold this baby close in our hearts until we are suddenly forced to switch gears and find a way to let go.
The physical letting-go of pregnancy loss may feel brutal, and something our bodies are struggling to do. The emotional letting-go may feel almost impossible as we acknowledge the depth of our inner connection to this person we know both on the most intimate level and also not at all. The yearning to meet this baby face-to-face may be unbearably strong, and the deepest sense of loss may result from the knowledge that this can never happen.
However intense the pain of the loss, the tender shoots of love for our babies endure. Throughout our lives we feel the imprint of this baby on our hearts, and a lasting connection with this person known so briefly. Fascinating research indicates that there is a physical element to this felt connection: pregnancies of any length give the mother a lasting gift of healing cells https://lauragraceweldon.com/2012/06/12/mother-child-are-linked-at-the-cellular-level/
Both my grandmothers suffered stillbirths and miscarriage at a time when the emotional pain of this was often unacknowledged, but it was clear that they carried this with them throughout their lives. In her eighties my father’s mother was able to travel to Wales (where she had been evacuated during the Second World War) to find her stillborn son’s grave, which at the time she had been discouraged from visiting. My mother’s mother died aged 95, and as she was dying spoke of her joy at preparing to be reunited with her late husband and their lost babies.
Times have changed and although the pain and grief of pregnancy loss remains just as powerful, we now have greater resources and support to enable us to grieve and say goodbye. Many parents find it helpful to have a way to acknowledge the emotional upheaval they have been through in letting go of a pregnancy, even when their feelings about the pregnancy were more hesitant or ambivalent.
In an increasingly secular society it isn’t always obvious how we might acknowledge the passing of babies lost in pregnancy with some degree of ceremony or ritual. If we have a religious or spiritual faith we can draw on its support and customs. Otherwise, we may wish to create our own ceremony, however simple, perhaps on our own or maybe with the support of a celebrant. Many families find comfort in simple rituals such as lighting candles, reading a poem or text, singing or music, creating artwork, or planting a tree, and naming the baby. Jackie Singer’s book Birthrites is one of the few to address this subject and contains some rich ideas for simple but beautiful ceremonies for marking pregnancy loss.
My physical terrain has been changed forever by my children’s passage into the world, bearing the scars of their birth journeys. Some of these changes weren’t ones I wished for, but since having children I appreciate what my body can do – how it works – in ways I couldn’t before.
In the same way, my emotional landscape also bears the wounds of my babies’ losses – scars of pain, anger and sorrow that are slow to heal, and will never completely fade. There will always be empty spaces around our kitchen table, tears in the fabric of our family that gape wider every time someone comments on the age gaps between our children or asks whether we thought about having a fourth. Perhaps these numb areas, ridges of hurt and bitterness, will be part of me forever. But I can also accept the possibility that these scars might change my capacity to love – for the better. In stretching against this scar tissue, my heart may open wider.
While I realize with deep gratitude how fortunate I am to have three children, I’ve learned the hard way that one child does not replace another. Each one is uniquely his or her own self. So I really know how amazing it is when a baby forms, grows, journeys through birth and arrives into the world. What a miracle each child is. And how lucky I am in the work that I do to witness each day this miracle in its countless forms.
Moulder, C. (2001) Miscarriage: Women’s experiences and needs. London: Routledge.
Special thanks to Becca Bevis for her thoughtful comments on a working draft.
Picture credit: Blickpixel (Creative Commons)