A year ago today, my baby died. I felt her final spasms in the birth canal.
In the first weeks after, the world became very small. Our days were packed with minimal events of enormous emotional significance. Time passed at its usual pace for everyone around us: one minute came after the other, always so orderly, always so predictable. On the inside, time would surge one moment and get stuck the next. Everything outside our tragedy seemed surreal.
But the early shock and anguish are understandable, and though people say they can’t imagine, I tend to think that they can. What is harder to communicate are the aftereffects, the prolonged, shaky process of reintegration into normality.
Loss is not an illness that one recovers from by taking some time off, something that is best managed in privacy until we are ready to get out there and interact as if it never happened.
Like mental illness or abuse, loss is this thing in your life that weighs you down, and keeping it at bay absorbs a lot of energy.
Loss is not a wound that shouldn’t be tampered with lest it gets infected. On the contrary, loss is a burden that lightens when it’s shared.
There is substantial stigma surrounding stillbirth. People do not know whether to say something or what to expect in response. They often have little experience with death and few cultural guidelines to follow. I will ignore the stigma for a moment, and share some of the more notable features of this first year after losing my daughter.
Relentless fear. I saw death in everything. My body kept going (and going, and going) through cycles of anxiety. It was a visceral sense of distress with a rhythm of its own, and it could somehow survive even when completely decoupled from dark thoughts.
This seems to be an almost universal response in mothers. We fear our partners will die, our children will die, other people’s babies will die, everyone we care about will die, die, die.
Perhaps this anxiety is a consequence of the normal process of maternal attachment. A new mother is often intensely concerned, constantly occupied with her infant. Now imagine this hypervigilant, slightly panicky, overly protective impulse, continuously colliding with the reality that the baby who is yours to protect is dead. This process goes on and on, it plays itself out for some number of months after giving birth, and there is no escape from it.
The funeral was just the beginning of a long string of events that would knock me down. The confrontations are more spread out nowadays, but there seems to be an endless supply of them.
Seeing anybody for the first time After is a challenge. Waiting for their reaction, for my reaction, for how the situation will evolve.
Going back for follow-up tests over the next eight months. Same tense anticipation, same hospital, faces, paint on the walls, same stuffy corridors, same quiet little room reserved for the privacy of tragedies.
Seeing small babies, and without exception noting how they are – breathing.
Returning the moses basket we borrowed.
Hearing the birthday song at children’s parties. A celebration of life. I well up every time.
Resolving maternity exemption at the dentist’s. “How old is your baby now?” Fumbling for an answer.
Occasionally being stricken by the realization that a few important people continue to be silent.
Learning to hear myself say that she died.
While the perturbation brought by her death was something else entirely, I keep marvelling at the things that stayed in place.
My values didn’t budge. I don’t feel betrayed by some idea of universal fairness or meritocracy – I continue to see those as modern, Western daydreams. I’m not asking why me, why her. I’m not in the least inclined to grasp for the idea of an afterlife. I previously made an abstract decision to offer my children’s organs for donation – when it became a reality, I never hesitated about offering hers.
When I think about the past year, it seems like my thoughts were a mess (because my emotions were raging), but in fact I was consistently coherent. Even my dreams retained that special quality of being able to bore a psychoanalyst to tears: as straightforward and down to earth as can be. And mildly pleasant. There is something eerie about this lack of structural disintegration in spite of all the chaos riding on top of it.
I am extremely grateful to those who agreed to help me by spreading the bad news. But being in a place where people barely knew me was very hard. I needed to have people around me who could weave this new event into what they already knew of me. And those people, who knew me before my tragedy, were far away.
Being on the academic treadmill, we will have to move again. The idea of suddenly being surrounded by people who Don’t Know is very heavy. My daughter’s death is a theme that rips me open, and it makes people shut down. I have an ongoing dilemma between keeping this critical part of my identity out of sight and offering up my most vulnerable spot to relative strangers. I don’t look forward to moving.
Being culturally out of sync with local holidays helped with not feeling too down when everybody was festive, but my birthday was a mess. All day I kept recoiling from the onslaught of celebratory messages full of exclamation marks and little hearts, generalized best wishes for a future that had nothing to do with my reality. All these people, so obviously happy (for me?!). The contrast was grotesque.
In one of those internet-only twists, I asked members of a little forum I spend time on to send me only nihilist greetings. They instantly responded with a creative outpouring of gallows humour, and made the world feel right again.
I come from a poor country with a broken infrastructure, and even things like not being asked to bring gauze, gloves or medication to the hospital (and perhaps an envelope to grease the doctor’s goodwill) means I am a bit in awe of how things work here. This made the cracks in the system all the more surprising.
I am surprised at the overwhelmingly fatalistic attitude towards stillbirth. I am surprised at the discrepancy between the energy invested in prolonging the life of a terminally ill person by a few months, and giving a new little person the chance to live a full life.
I went to an emergency room in The Netherlands with a late second-trimester bleed. The doctor sent me away quoting the statistic that 10-20% of women have such bleeds. He could have mentioned that only a quarter to a half of these are in healthy pregnancies. He could have contrasted that with pregnancies that end in stillbirth – about 1 in 200, but more at my age – where late bleeds happen in about 30% of the cases. He could have weighed this information and booked me a scan, and my daughter’s problem would have been caught early on. He could have, but his decision was to not intervene. If you bleed, you bleed. Women bleed.
Later on in the UK, I have been warned by medical professionals that I will be fully irrational if I were to become pregnant again, that I will lose it due to baseless fear. My husband was told his job will be to take me by the hand and calmly give me the numbers. When he meekly protested that I don’t tend to flip – not to mention that I interpret such numbers for a living – the doctor replied to wait till I’m pregnant. Then she leaned in and conspiratorially whispered in his ear: It’s the hormones!
And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that I am not the one who is being irrational here. The numbers say that many lives could be saved with existing technology and reasonable investments. It’s the necessary change in attitude towards late pregnancy that is lagging far behind.
And if I were to come apart at the seams? It would mean that I am re-living my life’s worst nightmare. That fear deserves respect, not ridicule.
What can you do?
This time last year, we had known for two weeks that she was going to die around the time of her birth. On this day, we were going into the delivery room, hoping that we’ll get to meet her, if only for a short while. Instead of having her turn one today, she will be turning zero on this date for all the years to come.
Some people imagine that the descent down the birth canal is what marks the beginning of life, and that it is possible to abstract a stillborn baby away as a creature who ceased to be before it existed. I wish that were true, but grieving for her is not a choice.
One of the things I am intensely grateful for in this last year was the occasional message of: I still think of you. How are you these days? An acknowledgment of my pain, an expression of concern, and an offer to listen if I feel like sharing. Nothing more. It is simple, but rare. It truly makes the difference between being shattered and staying whole.