Monday, February 25, 2013

Empty Womb, Empty Arms, Shattered Dreams

The first—and last—day...

            Ironically, the same giddy euphoria persisted, as if I’d given birth to a living baby, making me eager to announce the news that I’d delivered a beautiful girl. Phoning my friend Tammy, I said a quick hello then blurted out, “I had a baby girl, but she didn’t survive.” So blunt; so matter-of-fact, almost as though someone else besides me spoke.
            Silence greeted my harsh announcement as she tried to disseminate the information and search for something to say, some appropriate response. Finally, she simply, gently asked how I was doing. “Fine,” I offered. “I’m doing very well.” (How could she believe that?)
            Tammy offered quick condolences, and I sensed her discomfort. She didn’t know what to say. The remainder of the conversation was polite, friendly and short; we both went through the phone-etiquette motions. I felt talkative, in need of company; Tammy remained reserved. Her almost palpable discomfort leaked through the phone line. I’d abruptly invaded her secure family sphere and invited a watershed of undesirable emotions.
            After hanging up, I decided against calling anyone else. Who’s going to be willing, or even able to appreciate my pain and desperate need to share this bittersweet joy? My pastor did call and listen patiently to my endless, rattling diatribe, and offered kind words, emotional support and sincere gratification that I’d survived the ordeal. He promised to visit before my release. My mother also phoned to inquire about my condition, both physically and emotionally. Similarly, I sensed her discomfort and doubts concerning how to respond to me or my loss.
            True, I lacked the opportunity to live with Victoria and know her as a unique person, to enjoy that mother-daughter relationship. Nevertheless, her life was real. Her sudden death was real. Her brief life gave me joyful, life-alerting baby kicks, uterine contortions, and in-utero hiccups; Chris and I had dared to conjure up hopes and dreams for her.
            Her death wrenched all that from us. It was more than a terrible loss. It was a gross shattering of dreams that abruptly left me with an empty womb and both of us with empty arms. I desperately needed to share that with someone; and none of my friends either sensed my need or seemed willing to listen.
            At least I had a compassionate nurse who was experienced in the area of neonatal loss and grief counseling—such as it was in 1993—and she requested to spend the entire day with me. Yet sometime after she brought Victoria to me, I was jolted when she asked if I had a preference in mortuaries in town: would I prefer she call them, or would I make the contact?
            My eyes widened as I struggled to comprehend her question. “No. I…I…I didn’t know that…that was my responsibility,” I stammered, trying to control my shock and maintain composure. I suddenly felt sick. “I just…assumed…the hospital would take care of that sort of thing,” I mumbled. Victoria was so premature, so little. Do they really expect me to make the arrangements with an undertaker? Doesn’t the hospital morgue take care of that?
            “Twenty weeks is considered to be the gestational age of viability. Victoria was twenty-one-and-a-half weeks; she just made the cutoff,” she explained, observing me apologetically. “The hospital prefers that it be taken care of as soon as possible. Should I make the call for you?”
            My brain wouldn’t engage. Dumb and mute, I couldn’t speak. I only sat and blankly stared at her.
            “I’ll go ahead and call the mortician in town,” she offered. They are very good at handling these things. He’ll call you sometime today then come in and discuss the arrangements with you—cremation or burial, or other desires you might have.”  
            “Okay,” I murmured. “Thank you. I would appreciate it if you did make the call.”
            With the unpleasant tasks taken care of, she set about providing me with emotional support and infant death booklets to read, and patiently abided with me as I talked, questioned—groped—for comfort and answers. She tenderly washed my exhausted, wasted body and nursed my soul. When her shift ended that evening, I felt as much loss of her emotional presence as her physical closeness.
            Before she left I savored one last opportunity to plant more kisses on Victoria’s forehead, and to utter a final goodbye to my precious little girl. It was time. Without her own breath of life, her brand new, delicate appearance was beginning to wane outside the nourishing confines of my womb. In death, her tiny body was already beginning to wither.
            Victoria’s dead. She’s not going to miraculously awaken in my arms, no matter how firmly or hopefully I hold her. The hourglass had emptied and the time had finally arrived to give up her physical body; her spiritual body had already ascended to loving arms in heaven. He held and caressed her now; I’d have to wait to embrace her again. Someday I would go to her, but she would not return to me.
            Ring the bell for the nurse and get it over with!
            “Are you ready?” she asked upon entering my room.
            I wanted to scream: Ready!? How can I ever be ready!? Instead, I gave the nurse a slow, affirmative nod. Then almost as quickly as she had come, she was gone. With my baby. Forever.
            Empty, limp arms flopped onto my lap. My heart felt as vacant as the baby blanket folded neatly on my bedside table. That blanket, two blurry Polaroid pictures of me holding her, tiny footprints pressed onto a pink card, and the ultrasound pictures taken two months before were all that was left to remind me of her—to prove she existed.
            “Oh, most merciful God…where do I go from here?

            Although later in this story I will get to a detailed discussion and reminiscing of appropriate, not-so-appropriate, and downright thoughtless, careless words that were spoken to me about my loss, I want to ask you: How would you respond to someone who has suffered the loss of a baby, either to miscarriage, neonatal death, prenatal death, or in infancy?
            If someone has never suffered this kind of loss, they have absolutely no idea what you’re going, have gone through, or may continue to go through in the future. And that includes the well-meaning medical staff trying to help you through it, or, as you will learn later in my story, trying to rush you through it. They may show compassion, they might know all the right words to say, but they will not be able to feel the depth of your anguish – the loneliness, the disorientation, the despair.  
            Think carefully about the question. What would you want someone to say to you?
Well-meaning Christians are often guilty of trying to attach problem-solving, pain-vanquishing Scripture to every problem. Be careful. These words can sound pious and disingenuous, and have a negative effect on the receiver. Remember, weep with someone who weeps, be s-l-o-w to speak. And be a most excellent listener! 

            On a side note—happy, I might add—today, February 25, I’m celebrating my birthday! In two days, my youngest—and he and his birth are the miraculous, happy ending second part to this story—will celebrate his 18th birthday. At 18, I think he’s far more jubilant than I to be celebrating a birthday!
            But April 13 of this year will be the 20th anniversary of Victoria’s birth and death. And I am finally doing something I should have done many years ago but probably couldn’t, for a variety of reasons: I’m taking all of the sympathy cards, the Polaroids, the card bearing her footprints, the ultrasound pictures and the baby blanket, and securing them in a photo album dedicated to her. And that album will be going on my shelf next to the other albums celebrating important events in my and my family’s life. She’s as much a part of that as are my other two children.  

Victoria Lee Owan; February 18, 1993
20 years and 1 week ago today

             And one more note: If any of you are experiencing the pain of loss, or have personal questions, or prayer requests you do not feel comfortable posting for all the world to read, please feel free to email me at I’d be happy to communicate with you that way. And if you’re struggling in a high-risk pregnancy—and are bed-ridden, scared, or feel like you’re at the end-of-your-rope mentally, I’ve walked that path too. When I lived in California, I was involved with a group offering support to pregnant women confined to bed. Having spent 3 months of my last pregnancy in this position, I’m all too aware of how difficult it can be—physically AND emotionally.

NEXT WEEK: Chris returns, realization of a prayer miraculously answered, and missing a chance to say goodbye, together…

Thanks for joining me.

Until next week!