Last year, the ladies at Simple Simon & Company began a series called Skirting the Issue which provided skirts to girls in foster care. For anyone not familiar with the series, here's a link to the 2013 Fact Sheet. This year they expanded Skirting the Issue to include a lot more than just skirts. Each week has a different theme ... and this week is bereavement gowns.
Before I begin telling my story, I just want to say that this is the hardest post I have ever written. When I first saw that one week of Skirting the Issue would focus on bereavement gowns, I felt the need to share my experience. Since then, I have opened myself up a bit to those around me and heard so many stories about infant loss that I knew this post was necessary. There are too many women suffering through this issue, and I want to do any little bit that I can to help them feel like they are not alone. I have written and rewritten this post in my head many, many times over the last few weeks, but I simply don't know exactly what I want to say. So I guess I will just start at the beginning.
I rather unexpectedly found out I was pregnant in June 2010. It really wasn't the best time for our family financially, but I really did want another baby, and I was convinced it would all work out in the end. I should add here that I am a Christian and generally very optimistic, both of which make me believe that everything will work out the way it is supposed to :) Little did I know how much those beliefs would be tested in the next few months.
I generally have very easy pregnancies, but with this one I had a lot of trouble sleeping at night. From the beginning of the pregnancy I had this overall feeling of dread and it would keep me up at night. Now, given what I wrote in the last paragraph about my eternal optimism, these were very unusual feelings. I tried to ignore them with limited success, and eventually I just resigned myself to having them. At about 7 weeks, I started spotting and immediately thought I was losing the pregnancy. I have no idea why I jumped to that conclusion, but, at that moment, it just seemed like the only possibility. I was out of state with my family at the time so I just waited to see what would happen. I continued to bleed lightly for a couple of weeks, but I knew that could be normal, so I chose to wait and see the doctor once we got home.
My first visit was at 9 weeks, and the first ultrasound at 13 weeks. Much to my surprise, everything was perfect with both me and the baby. My next appointment was uneventful as well, so we scheduled the date for the "big" ultrasound. At this point I was about 21 weeks give or take a few days. My first clue that something wasn't right should have been the baby's size. He (we did find out the sex at the ultrasound) was measuring about 1 1/2 weeks behind. One thing I can say with accuracy is that I have big babies. They average about nine pounds at birth, and every single one of them measured ahead at the mid-pregnancy ultrasound. The ultrasound tech said it was not significant enough to worry about and everything else looked great, but I could not shake the feeling of dread that was once again creeping into my thoughts.
I went in for my next appointment at 22 weeks 5 days, and the nurse could not find the heartbeat with the dopplar. I was told not to worry, and they would get me in for an ultrasound shortly, but I swear, at this point I already knew. I have seen a lot of ultrasounds during my pregnancies, so once the ultrasound began I knew immediately what I was seeing on the screen. The poor tech (who looked distraught btw) was not allowed to say anything other than the doctor will see you shortly. So for the first time, but certainly not the last, I found myself in the odd position of alleviating someone else's pain. I told her I knew what I was was seeing and that I would like to leave the ultrasound room and move to a normal room and wait for the doctor there.
From this point on, my story is sad but (unfortunately) fairly typical. I called my husband at work who met me in the doctor's parking lot. I then called my mom and my husband called his parents. We let them make the rest of the calls since I wasn't in a good place at that moment. I have a phenomenal support system and there was no shortage of love from those around me, but almost nothing made a difference at this point. I was just numb. The hardest thing was telling the kids since they were old enough to understand, but we made it though that too.
I delivered my stillborn baby boy on October 23, 2010. We chose not to have a funeral or memorial service although many people do. We did not officially name him or get a certificate of stillbirth from the state of Michigan. None of these things were necessary for us to remember him. I will never forget even without any official paperwork. However, I did name him in my heart and have chosen to keep that name to myself. For me, grief is very private, and that part of him will always be mine alone.
The delivery itself was uneventful though I did end up with a pretty bad infection a few days later and required strong antibiotics for a couple of weeks. Physically, the recovery was remarkably easy compared to a full term delivery, but mentally the recovery is never complete. It's like you permanently get stuck at 99% healed. Almost, but not quite. Enough that you can get through almost anything and enjoy just about all of it, but then one little thing brings it all flooding back. Over time, the pain fades and the tough moments are fewer and farther between, but they never seem to go away completely. I have talked to moms who lost babies decades ago, and they still say the sadness is there. It's not the same as it once was, but it still exists.
That's pretty much my story in a nutshell. Like I said, it's sad, but fairly typical. There are never more than a few weeks that go by before I hear another story about stillbirth or infant loss. Most of the time, these stories are being told by friends and they come with many questions. The most common question is what can I say or do to help my friend? I always give people the same advice. Don't avoid your friend. If you don't know what to say, then tell them that. I would rather have had a person come up to me and say "I have no idea what to say to you," than to avoid me like I was contagious with some deadly disease. A moment of silence and a hug can go a long way :) Also, ask them what you can do for them right now. Don't give the typical open ended comment like "I'm there for you whenever you need me." They need you right now, trust me!
The one thing I wish someone had said to me is that it is ok to stand up and leave a room without any warning. That it doesn't matter if the person you're talking to is in the middle of a sentence. If you need to leave, then go. Grief hits in waves and sometimes, even when you see it coming, you can't avoid it. So you just need the option to run. I remember being in church, which is normally a calming place for me, about 2 weeks after I delivered. Then it hit me out of nowhere. I was mad at the world. And I got up in the middle of the sermon and I left. I don't think anybody thought badly of me, but it would have been nice to be warned ahead of time that something like this might happen and for someone to say "it's all right, go whenever you need to go, and don't worry, we will still be here when you get back."
There was also one thing people insisted an saying that I wish I never had to hear. Everything happens for a reason. Both logically and from a Christian standpoint I know this to be true, but if you can't tell me what that reason is right this moment, then this brings me absolutely no comfort. The struggle to understand why after a stillbirth is overwhelming. You second guess every thing you did while pregnant. Every time someone said this to me I was back to over analyzing and second guessing, neither of which was healthy for me. I now believe I know what the reason was (my little Mae!), but not knowing at the time made it a very difficult statement to hear. Please don't misunderstand me and think that I was ungrateful to those around me. I always appreciated the sentiment and knew that people were trying to give me comfort through a difficult time in the only way they knew how.
Tomorrow, I will share a couple of local resources for miscarriage/stillbirth/ infant loss support for people here in Michigan. Also, I will provide names of a few local groups that would welcome help from the community as they support families that are going through this troubling time. And last, I will share a tutorial for a small quilt that I found great comfort in making the day before I delivered my son, but I am sure would be equally appreciated as a gift for a grieving mother.
After I posted this I discovered a link that summarizes what women feel you should or should not say and do after a loss. I agree with pretty much everything on this list and thought friends or families of grieving moms might find it useful.