It has been just over nine years since my doctor could not find my son’s heartbeat in my womb. Nine years since I discovered the before and after divider of my personal history, while lying utterly exposed on an examination table and staring at a frozen sonogram willing its still subject to move. Nine years since I became a baby-loss mom, one of those names I learned quickly in that most bewildering of times.
I have been blindsided by many truths in the intervening years. Chief among these is the central fact that, although a staggering one in four pregnancies do not come to term and an additional 50,000 infants are stillborn or die in the first thirty days of life, we as a society, find it difficult to talk effectively about baby loss.
How does this difficulty manifest? The very topic of pregnancy or baby loss remains taboo in circles beyond those of the therapy room, which means that bereaved parents must find a way to cope on a difficult and unnecessarily lonely road. “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places,” Ernest Hemingway famously wrote. For many, this particular break is too big, making it hard to find enough steadiness to heal, the kind of steadiness which community offers.
Why don’t we talk about baby loss? The reasons are complex. Efforts on the part of the bereaved to reach out are sometimes inadvertently shut down by well-intended friends and family. It may be part of human nature to extend out to the bereaved a happy ending, often reminding those who have lost, for instance, of the possibility of future children, thereby accidentally nullifying the particular loss then mourned. Or people try to explain what is unexplainable. On his loss, writer Michael Ravitch writes: “[W]hat was striking about the response of our friends and family was that people needed to justify it. As if the most important thing at the moment was not to express sympathy but to assert that the world was a rational place. Statements like “clearly it wasn’t meant to be … Better that it happened now than later …”
The first thing I learned after my loss was not to talk about it. I constructed defense mechanisms to avoid talking about my son such as withdrawing, maladaptive in the long-term but making perfect sense in the short-term. Withdrawal seemed useful not because I did not want to talk about him – I did. Desperately. But I did not want to be misunderstood and I did not want him to be misunderstood. How much safer it seemed to squirrel his precious memory away in a fortress only I could access. The consequences to these coping mechanisms – such as losing friends -- cut both ways. These mechanisms permitted me to store my own truth but it made me remote from people: I often felt as if I were vanishing or becoming mute. Like the poles of magnets turned this way and that, I was alternately drawn to people and then repelled.
Therapists and bereavement professionals such as Dr. Julie Bindeman often point out that the loss of a pregnancy or an infant presents a particular challenge to bereaved parents because the loss is uniquely theirs – the grief they feel is a prospective grief rather than a retrospective grief - a missing of what could have and should have been, rather than for what was. There are no shared memories of the baby or very few at best.
I have come to believe that the best thing that friends and family can do is to help create a space for narratives to emerge. How best to do this? One gift is to permit the bereaved to process loss by asking questions, while also helping to create private time for grief by assisting in daily chores such as shopping and childcare. In the near-decade since my loss exactly one person has asked me one specific question about the loss of my son: The night before his funeral my dear friend B asked if I could ever believe in anything again.
Of course, facing others’ suffering is also hard for family and friends. A sense of powerlessness sometimes forces a close community to withdraw in an effort to protect the bereaved, one of our most unfortunate social constructions. This rises from a fear that reminding the bereaved parent may cause pain. The reality for the mourner is that reminding is no risk, since in the months and even years after a loss, so much of life’s daily experience remains a reminder of the lost, the what-if, the could-have-been.
As those who have worked or been near post-traumatic stress disorder patients know, there is a real help one can offer simply by bearing witness. Much benefit comes from giving space to the bereaved to express his or her grief rather than enabling them to shut down or to minimize it. And finally, never underestimate the therapeutic benefit in helping another to create a spoken or a written record of what was lost.
Such space opened for me when a writer friend of mine called and asked me to write my story, also offering to read it. So I did: I sat down and I wrote my story. In the months and years since, the details have faded but the loss remains a great part of who I am, now as a parent to three living children. I like to think that I can teach them to integrate tragedies into their lives, treating great sadness as an accent or companion to what I hope for them, an abundant happiness, just as I hope for all the families who have been touched in this way, all the richer because such joy is premised on an affirmation of life, not its negation.
Says award-winning novelist Edie Meidav, author of Lola, California: “After trauma, many people start to feel they live a story unscripted by them. And since we walk around always carrying great secret possibility -- the ability to name elements of what we would otherwise call, merely, pain, shelving it away in the pain drawer -- we all have a great power. Tell what you know (and also what you don't know) about what you have suffered, and both a writer and reader find a sense of choice in what otherwise would seem to strip a person of that most basic dignity, that of telling one’s own story.”
Because I saw firsthand the effect of society’s tendency to isolate those who are mourning, I started Reconceiving Loss (www.reconceivingloss.com), an online resource center for both pregnancy and infant loss and healing. Among our resources are videos on yoga, meditation and writing, music-sharing, medical information and more. Most recently, we have created a public project/digital archive to record stories of baby loss, doing so in partnership with the film Return To Zero starring Minnie Driver.
We invite submissions from people who would like to share their stories of loss from miscarriage through to neonatal death. In introducing the Return To Zero Project/Reconceiving Loss, New Yorker contributor Daniel Raeburn writes: “[L]ike therapy, writing is narrative. It’s taking the raw, senseless material of this world and shaping it into something that’s not so senseless, into something we can live with. A story. And after the death of a child, that’s what we need: a story we can live with.”
If you have a story of loss you wish to share, please visit Reconceiving Loss (www.reconceivingloss.com) for guidelines on submitting.