My heart is severely pained within me,
And the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fearfulness and trembling have come upon me,
And horror has overwhelmed me.
So I said, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
You and your husband were thrilled with the news of your pregnancy, and you shared that happy news with family, friends and even acquaintances. You visited all of your local stores and shopped on line for just the perfect new baby items. You decided you needed a bigger place, so you moved from your tiny apartment to a house and lovingly prepared the room you selected for a nursery. You learned your baby’s sex and poured through and agonized over baby names. You bought What to Expect When You’re Expecting and What to Expect the First Year so you were prepared. You relished every doctor’s visit, to hear your baby’s heartbeat and see your miracle wriggling on the ultrasound monitor. It’s your first baby, and you are thrilled and expectant.
Then one day you prepare for another doctor’s visit. You’re within three weeks of the due date, and you’re tired, stretched and sore. But something’s nagging you: you haven’t felt the baby move in the last twenty-four hours. You’ve made it so far. What could possibly go wrong now?
But something has gone wrong. Terribly wrong. The heart monitor remains silent as the nurse presses it onto your swollen belly. She moves it to another location, then moves it again, and again. She can’t make eye contact with you and pats your shoulder and leaves the room to get the doctor. He returns to the room with a serious look on his face and wheels in his ultrasound machine; (or, if your doctor no longer maintains one in his office, you have to listen in shock to his diatribe about having to schedule you for an ultrasound and see what the results show). After smearing contact gel on your tummy, he flicks on the machine and begins to rub the head over your baby’s location in your womb. You and your nervous husband are terrified of looking at the ultrasound monitor, but your husband stares at it, eyebrows knit together, concern inflaming his eyes. You stare at him, looking for any kind of hopeful sign. But that hopeful sign doesn’t come.
The doctor turns to look at you, sighs, and says, “I’m sorry, but your baby has died. The umbilical cord is wrapped around his neck. There’s nothing we can do. I’m so sorry.” A scream chokes your throat. Your heart pounds, tears flood your eyes as you listen, vaguely, to his instructions and explanation about what will happen in the next thirty-six to forty-eight hours: medicine to induce labor, scheduling the hospital delivery, what to expect during the delivery. On and on it goes, and you feel yourself growing numb. Your brain screams that this can’t be happening, that’s it’s all a nightmare from which you’ll soon awaken. You want to go back forty-eight hours to relieve the time when things were perfect—when you could feel the baby kick and wriggle—and somehow change this hideous outcome. The doctor pats your shoulder again as he leaves the room. You and your husband make wordless eye contact. He doesn’t know what to do; after all, he’s supposed to take care of his family, his unborn baby. And he’s failed. What went wrong? You hold each other, cry and pray.
Then you quietly dress, go home to your new house, walk into the empty nursery, collapse into the rocking chair your husband recently surprised you with, and you cry like you’ve never cried before.
Whether the above scenario sounds like yours, or your baby died soon after birth, or in delivery you miscarried your child early in the pregnancy, or the pregnancy was planned or unplanned, you probably feel as though your world. Instead of receiving new life, you encountered cold, heartless death. Your hopes and plans have collapsed on you, and you feel buried—suffocating—in the rubble.
You feel failure, lost, hopeless, out-of-control. Nothing seems normal; you drag—like a pre-programmed robot—through your day in a fog, unable to get your mind completely wrapped around what’s happened. Reminders of your agony confront you every place you go. The baby gifts from the last shower line the nursery. Instead of happy announcement cards, you need to send out death announcements and maybe plan a funeral or memorial service. You might need to purchase a cemetery plot. Every new baby you see in the grocery store, bank, shopping mall, or church reminds you of your loss, and jealousy may infiltrate every fiber of your being. You feel physically ill and emotionally crushed when you return to your obstetrician’s office for a checkup: the waiting room is packed with women whose swollen abdomens signal healthy pregnancies and impending birth, and arms tenderly hold newborn infants who would be your daughter’s age. Your thoughts race ridiculously with uncontrollable or shocking thoughts: Why did this happen to me? Why do these women get to be happy while I grieve? Why did their babies survive and mine didn’t? I’m angry at them for their joy! Oh, why did I take this baby and pregnancy for granted, assuming everything would turn out perfectly? Just as oddly, you may then be swamped with overwhelming compassion and love for them, hoping they don’t have to suffer the grief you’re bearing. Or if your pregnancy was unplanned, you might experience overwhelming guilt and berate yourself for having cared so little or for having regarded your pregnancy, and this baby, as a inconvenient nuisance or untimely problem.
You’re completely unprepared for the agony you now feel, and most family members and friends will be unprepared to understand or appreciate it, unless they have walked in your shoes.
As Ingrid Kohn and Perry-Lynn Moffitt write in A Silent Sorrow: Pregnancy Loss, “No matter what your career orientation may be, your womanhood or manhood can be powerfully affirmed by bearing or fathering a child. Pregnancy and parenthood are passages into adulthood that bestow a special status on you, within both your family and your community. Pregnancy even represents a chance to overcome mortality, as you contemplate the continuation of your family line.”
In the 1970s, pediatricians John Kennell and Marshall Klause performed research that indicated parents’ emotional attachment and bonding to their baby begins early in the pregnancy. This is important for people to understand: the baby that you or your friend or family member lost was probably deeply loved, surrounded by expectations, hopes and dreams.
Indeed, the pain of loss can be overwhelming, frightening and earthshaking. Some parents actually develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Syndrome following the death of their baby. “They respond to their tragedy with the same intense traumas such as fires, plane crashes, or rapes. Parents suffering from this disorder may display such disparate symptoms as reliving the events in great detail, or forming a kind of amnesia about the loss of their child.”
Mothers and fathers may experience pregnancy loss grief in varying ways from one another, and it’s important for the couple to recognize and appreciate these differences. This is something Chris and I had great difficulty understanding. Each of us thought the other would, and should, grieve in the same way. Consequently, our relationship suffered immeasurably the first year following Victoria’s death, and our ability to really come to a sense of understanding, resolution and healing as a couple didn’t occur until April 13 of this year, twenty years later.
But before I delve into the mother’s and father’s unique grieving experiences, I’ll talk next week about shock and denial, acute grief and anticipatory grief, specific stages or reactions I haven’t yet addressed.
So, thanks again for joining me.
Until next week!
Reference: A Silent Sorrow: Pregnancy Loss, by Ingrid Kohn, MSW and Perry-Lynn Moffitt, with Isabelle A. Wilkins, MD; 1992.