Monday, July 8, 2013

How a Mother Grieves (Part 2)

(This post is the second part of How Mothers Grieve. We’ll continue with the obstacles you might face when returning to work or social activities.)

Returning to “Life”~
Finally, returning to work or other activities presents challenges. What do you say to your friends, your co-workers? What will they say to you? If your loss was early in your pregnancy, you may not even have shared your news with them. (I have a friend who flat out refused to share her pregnancy news with anyone—outside of her mother—until she’d successfully passed the third month, just in case something happened.) You’ll be scared, disoriented, groping for stability in your “new normal.” You may even separate yourself from your house of worship and all of the people there who should be a source of strength, mercy and healing. One woman told her priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, she couldn’t come to church because she started crying the moment she sat down in a pew.1 Another congregant told Barbara that he stayed away because he was too frightened to answer questions and too angry to sing hymns.2 

In this situation, it is important that you at least tell some of your closest friends or understanding colleagues so they can be a source of support for you as you attempt to return to “normal.” And you might be surprised just how many of your co-workers know just exactly what you’re going through.

A Silent Sorrow: Pregnancy Loss recounts this woman’s experience:
            “I’d be sitting at my desk and want to stand up and scream, ‘I had a baby and was
            pregnant and now it’s gone!’” she recalled. “I wish I had told people earlier along.
            I needed that extra support.”

If you were showing, your co-workers will undoubtedly ask about your baby, and you will need to find some way to share your news, even if it’s the last thing you want to discuss. Some people will offer heartfelt words and ask meaningful questions; others will simply be driven to know the “gory details” only for the sake of curiosity and having the latest scoop to share. Some will truly want to listen; others really won’t care. Sometimes you’ll get so sick of the questions and well-meaning comments that you’ll respond with mean, clipped responses like, “My baby died.” 

Be prepared to confront other pregnant women and new, healthy babies. Your head will probably spin and you might feel disoriented, angry and even physically ill. Panic attacks might ensue. Be aware that as much as you try to protect yourself from outside pain infliction, it cannot be avoided. One mother arranged to have her work location changed after her baby died shortly after birth.
            “They changed my location, but they put me in an office where many young
            mothers and babies came in. One mother came up to my desk with her newborn
            and asked if I wanted to hold the baby. I said, ‘No,’ and ran crying to the
            bathroom. I spent a lot of time crying in that bathroom over the next six

I personally encountered such a multitude of stupid, thoughtless comments—from family, friends and strangers—that I was often left breathless and shaking, grasping for words from my brain that could only greet me with a vacuous void. I’d stand gaping at the giver. Other times I shut them up with nasty retorts inviting no responses.

Remind yourself—often—that most people have no idea what you’re experiencing. Then forgive yourself. Do not feel guilty about placing your sorrow above the feelings and expectations of others. Do not feel obligated to explain yourself either.

Now I’ll tread into dangerous water to discuss the unique grief that can be experienced when an abortion is selected in response to a diagnosis of congenital abnormality or condition incompatible with life.

If you underwent prenatal testing—and received word of a grave problem—you may have elected to abort your baby. If you’ve done this, guilt has the potential to disable you emotionally, even if you feel you made the absolute right decision. Being “forced to choose” feels like an additional burden. Consider Elaine’s story:

            “Our family was ready to go out for dinner when the genetic counselor called.
            I could hear in her voice that she had bad news. I felt like I was in a tunnel;
            it was like a bad dream. I started screaming, right there in front of my
            husband and the kids. I had to wait two weeks before I had the abortion. The
            baby was kicking. I thought I would lose my mind.”

Learning that your baby has a genetic problem may put you in “crisis mode.” You may feel as though you have medical information that doesn’t provide all of your answers, like the test for Down’s Syndrome that doesn’t tell you the severity of the problem.

That became somewhat of an issue for us when I became pregnant after Victoria’s death. Being a thirty-six-year-old mother almost “required” genetic testing, even though Chris and I remained adamant that we would not abort even if a genetic anomaly had been diagnosed.

When my first blood test indicated a higher-than-normal possibility for Down’s Syndrome, my doctor asked me to become involved in a pilot study being conducted through the University of California—San Diego. UCSD was in the forefront of developing a blood test to more accurately determine whether a mother is carrying a Down’s Syndrome baby. Because of my situation, I was accepted as part of the test. My doctor was “confident” everything would be okay, but it still didn’t stop me from breaking into cold sweats and holding my breath when he called one Friday evening to give me the results.

Fortunately, the news was good, but receiving “bad” news certainly would have drastically altered how Chris and I handled the pregnancy. We would have probably spent the next several months grieving the fact that our child wouldn’t be completely normal or healthy, while making the rounds with specialists who could provide us with information to better prepare us for the road ahead.

Choosing to have an abortion under these circumstances always has the potential to haunt you: Did we do the right thing? Did we not have enough faith—that God could, or would, have provided us with a miraculous, in-womb healing? Should we have fought harder for our child and not given up hope so easily? Could the baby have survived and been successfully operated on after birth to correct the problem. Was the diagnosis valid? Be prepared for all of these “what ifs” (and guilt) to assail you. For years. (And be forewarned: guilt for abortion survivors often manifests itself in lingering, or late-onset depression or psychological issues. It isn’t over once the abortion has been performed.)

“Producing” an impaired, disabled child can also add to your grief, making you feel inadequate. As one father said,
            “It’s a double taboo….First, people think something is wrong with you
            because your baby was defective. Then they look down on you for having
            an abortion.”

Deciding to have any risky genetic testing can be burdensome. The doctor who had cared for me during most of my pregnancy with Victoria kept nudging us to have an amniocentesis, simply due to my age (34 at the time of conception). But I wouldn’t do it. Not with my history of irritable uterus. To us the risk wasn’t worth it. Dr. Gordon*—who cared for me when I lost Victoria—understood and appreciated my genetic testing qualms and misgivings and relayed to me a heartbreaking story.    

Dear friends of his, professionals who waited until the wife was in her late thirties or early forties to become pregnant, elected to have an amniocentesis to determine if the twins she was carrying had genetic issues. Even after learning the risks, as well as the facts that the older a woman is, and the more advanced the pregnancy, the harder it is for her to handle the amniocentesis, they went ahead with the procedure. Within days following the test, she went into premature labor and lost both babies. The procedure had caused a spontaneous abortion. And what stacked more pain and heartache onto their loss? Absolutely nothing was wrong with her twins.

Experiencing the loss of a baby will forever change you; you will never look at yourself or the world the same way again. You’ll view your other children in a different light, probably protecting them more and loving them harder. You’ll cry more and be more sympathetic to others. You’ll see, absorb and analyze the world around you through a different lens. And you’ll always carry a scar in your heart for the child you’ve lost.

I’ll end this post with some recent thoughts by our Honolulu pastor, Alex McAngus:

“Suffering ultimately destroys our illusions of self-sufficiency. Have we not all noticed how difficult it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well? Life is good, plenty of food on the table, everyone is healthy. We are good, moral people who live conventional lives. God becomes something like the airbag in the car - we're glad it's there, but we hope we never have to use it. We are satisfied with ourselves.”

May your heart be turned toward God as you navigate your way through your grief. And may all of us never look at the world and the creatures and people in it as commonplace, or less than miraculous!


NEXT WEEK: How a Father Grieves

Thanks for joining me.

Until next week!



1 Leaving Church: a memoir of faith, Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 148.
2 Ibid, page 148

General reference: A Silent Sorrow: Pregnancy Loss, Kohn, Moffitt and Wilkins (Dell Publishing, 1992)