I chewed at the corner of my lip and waited for her response. There was a faint tingling sensation in my chest as my body prepared to sustain the new life it had birthed only three days before.
Except there would be no sustaining the precious life that was already gone. My body did not know what my heart and mind so miserably did.
My friend stared back at me, arms cradling a sweet pink bundle with curly black hair and big brown eyes light with love. This friend, these arms, had cradled my own sweet baby girl only a handful of days before. She had seen and knew all the pain, tears, and despair. She had felt it too, for me. Her eyes were laced with tears as she considered my question.
“I would love to have some of your breast milk. That would mean the world to me!” She whispered it slowly, tenderly, as if delivering the words in a small box marked “fragile.” She knew every painful implication of my offer. And I felt the deep, immeasurable well of gratitude from her acceptance.
My offer came with disclaimers – I didn’t know how long I wanted to pump, or how much milk I would produce or for how long – but she accepted it all willingly, thankfully. And for just about one month I delivered frozen baggies of breast milk to my friend’s doorstep for her darling baby girl.
What was born out of necessity to give purpose to something I had no purpose for grew into a sweet privilege of serving another.
Three years later I sat on the cool tile floor right next to my bathtub, knees pulled up to my chin, a torrent of emotion streaming down my face. On the floor next to me laid the scattered pieces of a like-new breast pump. The knot in my stomach twisted so hard I could hardly catch my breath. The scream, desperate to be set free, bulged in my throat. In my complex bottle of shaken emotions, the one that surfaced to the top most readily was that of disgust.
Like oil mixed with water I just couldn’t blend with the reality that I lost, yet again, the privilege of raising another one of my babies.
I remembered three years before how I had pumped milk for baby Joy. How the agony in my heart had prevented sleep and so I would sit on the couch, the pulsing sound of the pump my only company. I would think of her and pray for her – for her future, her life, her happiness – and for her family as well. It had been such a sweet time; delicate flower petals sprinkled on a murky puddle. I wanted to feel that sense of purpose and sweetness again. But just the process of setting up the now loathsome machine had laced my stomach with toxins. And in a fit of rage and incomprehensible frustration, I had forcefully ousted the stupid little pieces from my line of vision. I just couldn’t. There was no way.
When people hear the story of what I did with my breast milk after my first loss they praise me as a hero, a saint, a selfless friend. Their words are kind and encouraging.
But I wonder what those same people would say if they knew how I truly could not carry out the act of pumping my milk after my second loss. Would they be empathetic and understanding? Or would I be judged as selfish and wasteful, my deep emotional angst and resulting decision completely misunderstood?
If you are a loss mother facing the issue of what to do with your breast milk, first of all, I am so sorry. It is a cruel reality of nature that seems to taunt our grief. It is the playground bully laughing maniacally as we try and regain our footing after being thrown to the ground. Please know how deeply sorry I am that this is your reality.
But what I also hope to communicate is that, no matter what I have done or your friends have recommend or your mother-in-law suggests or you heard about one time on tv, what you choose to do with your breast milk after your loss is your choice. The choice belongs to you, and you alone.
If using a breast pump and giving your milk to your friend’s adopted baby feels like it will bring a little bit of healing to your mama heart, do it. If letting your milk dry up under cool cabbage leaf cups feels like the right decision, do that. If pumping out your “liquid gold” and then pouring it all down the drain would feel like a very liberating and cathartic act then by all means, please feel free to do that. There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to deciding what to do with your breast milk. Postpartum loss grief is a strange, untameable animal, and only you know how to best dance around it so it does not consume you in one gigantic bite.
I’ve experienced infant loss twice. I have handled my breast milk differently – very much so – both times. Be encouraged today that whatever you decide to do with yours is the very best decision for you.
Sarah Rieke is a wife and mother who has walked the impossible road of infant loss twice. The existence of her two sweet babies, Evie and Charlie, are the heartbeat behind Sarah’s desire to extend genuine compassion, empathy, and emotional support to mothers who have experienced loss.