When my second child was stillborn in 2005, I felt many things out of the ordinary. The experience of giving birth to a child who was born dead was of course central. As we all know, part of the cost of dwelling outside the normative experience of living and dying is precisely that comparisons do not hold together. They are inexact.
I am reminded of the grammar school science lab tables where I experimented with mercury in the late 1970’s. I remember trying to hold a single silver bead together and instead having it splinter and roll away in tiny pieces. That image often springs to my mind as I try to explain to people how memories are made and interpreted when a stillborn baby emerges silently into this world. No birth stories fit. Nor do stories of death. Nor do stories of survival. These are the little mercurial beads one cannot thread together into a linear story.
The story I wish to explore here is that which occurs in the labor and delivery room. Researchers who study coma patients and also survivors of accidents report that there are many common elements to reported near-death experiences. And here is my first badly off-the-mark comparison – because what I experienced was not, in fact, a near-death experience. It was a death. And I survived. Both of these things are true. The death and the life were not de-linked. Still, I can’t help but note certain similarities between my son’s stillbirth and a near-death experience, at least as I experienced it.
Dr. Bruce Greyson, Professor of Psychology and Neurobiological Science at the University of Virginia, explains the responses of many survivors to near-death experiences. “[Those who] report out of body experiences, or sensations of floating, or religious transformation, often are preoccupied with the experience afterwards.” I believe that the experiences that occur within a delivery room where a loss has occurred, or will imminently occur, are not easily explained and are even less easily discussed.
I am not attempting to take a stand on what this means – depending on an individual point of view, these experiences can be seen as religious, or neurological/biological or some combination. One can attribute this miraculous coping mechanism to God as one understands him/her, or to science – I am not convinced that such attribution matters in cases such as stillbirth or infant death. Either feels crushing and miraculous in exact and wholly tragic measure.
On the night of my son’s stillbirth, I experienced a range of emotions I could live several lifetimes and never really begin to describe. I felt absolutely separate from my body. I felt intermittently like a witness to events. Simultaneously, I was wracked by a grief and anxiety beyond my wildest imagination. It was a violent push and pull between crucial presence and necessary disassociation. At the point of near submersion into what felt like permanent madness, I was suddenly delivered to a place of near ecstatic calm. I felt as though I was perched, gently even, on the circle of existence straddling death and life and life and death in some weird and secret Ferris wheel.
In my room all TV channels were saturated with recollections of the death of John Lennon as it was the 25th anniversary of his shooting and I happened to be in the hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. No matter what I do, the soundtrack to my loss will always be a head-phoned Lennon singing “Imagine” over and over again. I had never loved that song, and now I kind of do. Still, I must always prepare myself to hear it.
I watched a wet and heavy snowfall as I lay there. The snowflakes were the size of platters and I kept thinking about what existence really meant and even started to understand it as some sort of time continuum. It was as though I was given temporary pass to explore all these planes and only a little time, and I set off to do that. I understood at that moment higher things. I grasped religious things. I appreciated spiritual things. I was obsessed over beauty in every aspect of nature – even the streetlight-tinged orange of the city skyline in a snowstorm at dusk.
When my baby emerged into the world, I did feel a tip toward my own death; toward the once again inexact comparison of the oft-described white light I metaphorically saw and from which I retreated. But in a sense it was as though the labor and delivery room was bathed in that white light. It was ethereally quiet. However, whenever I try to recall every detail of that night my brain itself becomes like mercury beads and cleaves and the memories will not stay together. Not unless I focus on each small individual one. For example, how my friends washed the blood from my legs. Or, how my husband baptized our baby with tap water in a stunning act of love.
Some weeks later, while having lunch with some friends (although I would do almost anything to avoid eating), I tried to tell them about my experiences in the hospital. I could hear myself say words and I sounded unhinged. No matter. I plunged on. I could see that they were both concerned and utterly uncomprehending. And I noted and gratefully accepted the love reflected in their eyes and I also made a mental note never to speak of it again.
But I have stored it up. There is this seed of me within me that I do not fully know how to express. Says Dr. Greyson: “The empirical evidence shows that the more positive near-death experiences tend to leave people with a sense of meaning and purpose in the traumatic experience and in life in general that buffers long-term emotional distress.”
While we can never buffer the long-term term emotional distress of baby loss (nor really would we want to), we can understand that the experiences in the labor and delivery room are profound. Nor does my experience necessarily reflect that of others. All I mean to say is that we should give one another permission to talk about these particular deliveries. They are as real and defining as any other. After all, women tell birth stories all the time. We can make gentle room for these other ones too.