I was the first in our circle of friends to become pregnant. Soon after my husband and I discovered that we were expecting our first child, three of our friends discovered the same in quick succession. I rejoiced at the idea that our daughter, Eve, would grow up with the children of our friends.
And then she died.
Truly, I am the one in four. Four of us were pregnant together, but only three babies survived.
We found out late at night on November 18, 2011 – our baby girl had died inside my womb, 31 weeks along. The next day, after preparing (as much as one can) to have labor induced that evening, I voiced to my husband the question that was pressing on both of our shocked minds: “How will we stay friends with our friends who are pregnant?”
It seemed impossible. Impossible to survive giving birth to Eve’s body, and impossible to live afterward. I wondered if our friends’ pregnancies and the resulting children would be an ongoing source of pain, a continuous reminder of what had been lost.
After giving birth, after saying hello and good-bye to Eve all at the same horrible, wonderful, excruciating time, the hospital’s social worker visited us. We asked for advice on how to best interact with our friends, if it was possible to save the relationships. The social worker advised that we tackle the issue head on – to talk with our friends about it, instead of avoiding the painful subject.
The day we came home from the hospital, one of my pregnant friends visited along with some other friends. I can’t remember what we talked about, but felt anxious to follow the social worker’s suggestion and searched for the right opening, but it never seemed to come. As my friends were leaving, I thanked them for coming, then took a deep breath and turned to my pregnant friend.
“I just want you to know,” I said all in a rush, feeling so awkward but needing to get it out, “that we are still so happy for you, for your baby.”
I don’t remember how my friend responded, but it didn’t matter. I had said what needed to be said, what was still true in the face of our loss, and I am glad that I did. I did the same with the two other pregnant friends – the other local friend face to face, and one online. I spoke the truth – that I felt utterly devastated by the death of my daughter, but still glad for what we all hoped would be the uneventful arrivals of my friends’ babies.
But it didn’t make the coming weeks any easier.
As glad as I was that I was the only one of us experiencing the trauma of babyloss, it continued to be difficult to think about my three friends’ pregnancies and coming babies. It was, at times, torturous. I dreaded their babies’ births while at the same time hoping for three safe arrivals. I wondered if I would fall apart even more completely than I already felt like I had once their babies were born.
So I decided to take action. In an attempt to prepare for the arrival of these three babies that had been conceived and grown around the same time as my own, I drew near to my friends. I visited, emailed, forced myself to look at their growing bellies, and talked about labor and birth and babies and how they were doing. And they lovingly invited me to talk about my experience of pregnancy and death and birth and leaving your baby in the hospital.
It was hard – and it was healing.
Each time I scheduled a visit with one of my pregnancy friends, anxiety set it. I wondered if what I was doing was healthy, or helpful, for any of us. But every single time, the visit turned out to be a blessing. Nourishing, even. To have my loss acknowledged and validated while I was acknowledging that their babies’ lives were not diminished by my baby’s death – that was and continues to be incredibly powerful. And, in the end, it did help prepare me for those babies’ births.
But again, even though I had prepared, navigating those births was not easy.
When I learned that the first of the babies had been born, I fell into the deepest depression and panic that I had yet experienced since Eve’s death. I hated my body, I hated God, and I hated the unfairness that had taken my baby from me before she breathed. The last thing in the world that I wanted to do was to go and visit that new baby in the hospital, this baby that terrified me with how much he might embody all that we had lost.
But I did. I went, my husband by my side. I wondered, as we stepped into the peaceful gloom of my friend’s postpartum room, if I might die from grief when I looked at her baby.
I looked anyway.
I looked down at this little bundle of pink-faced, swaddled-up, newborn sweetness – and somehow, I was okay. My eyes filled with tears, because in everything I miss my daughter, but I was still okay.
And my friend, in her graciousness, supported me, as did my husband. They stood by my side and rubbed my back as I took this in, the first baby that I’d seen since the body of my own was wheeled out of my sight, and they gave me the precious gift of understanding.
In return, I could give my friend the gift of celebration. After I took in her sweet son and touched the back his soft hand just like I had done with Eve, we talked about how she was doing, about her experience of labor and birth, and about how her husband (who had stepped out) was overcome with love for their boy.
I left the hospital room that day exhausted but also victorious. I had been okay. I was going to be okay. I could celebrate these new babies while mourning my own, and that was okay.
A couple of weeks later, when I learned that my second friend’s baby was about to be born, I did not feel depressed. Instead, I felt elated. I literally danced around our kitchen when I got the news. And, buoyed by the love of that first friend and the knowledge that I could do this, my husband and I zipped to the hospital to meet this new little one as soon as we were allowed.
And this time, I held that baby. I hadn’t expected to, and hadn’t expected to want to, but my second friend, she offered and I found myself saying, “Oh, yes.” I held him – and it was okay. More than okay, even – it was wonderful. After that, I felt brave enough to hold my first friend’s baby, and that was pretty wonderful, too.
Drawing near to my friends and their pregnant bellies that turned into squirming babies, it was really, really hard. Truly terrifying, at times. But it set the stage for the rest of our lives together, however long this season of friendship might be. If I hadn’t mindfully approached my friends and talked and shared and hoped with them, I don’t think I would still be able to call them friends. Instead, I would be hiding in our home, full of bitterness and envy and fear.
I am so grateful that that is not how our story went.
When your baby has died and your friends are pregnant or are holding their newborn in their arms, it is hard – for everyone. And of course it is hardest for you, the one who is grieving and asking the hard questions and wondering if you will lose these friends, too, since it feels like your life has turned to the business of losing.
But you don’t have to. You don’t have to lose your friends on top of your child. If these friends are loving and supportive*, I encourage you to draw near. Draw near to them, even if you are scared. Draw near, even if you are angry. Draw near, even if it hurts.
It will not be easy – but I believe that it is worth it. I know that it has proven so for me.
Because there will always be babies who live, and babies who die, and shutting out the parents with the living babies will not bring our dead children back to life. Instead, it will rob us of the opportunity to share our lives with the people who remember a time when our babies were alive, and it will rob us of the chance to celebrate the fact that pregnancy does not always end in death.
I don’t know about you, but I need some things to celebrate.
*Please note – I am not advocating that you draw near to people (pregnant or not) who say hurtful things or who wound, attack, or blame you. These people are neither loving nor supportive. We all make mistakes, but if someone says something that is hurtful and will not acknowledge that hurt when you gently point it out, he/she probably is not a safe person to hang out with at this vulnerable time.