by Annabel Bower
Why is it that someone you held for such a short time inside you or in your arms carves out a hole in your heart so deep that it is unlikely to ever be refilled?
I’ve often wondered this: what is it about losing a baby during pregnancy or shortly after that’s so harrowing, so hauntingly sad?
Is it the disbelief that it has happened at all and the lifetime of wondering what would have been that you must now face?
Or is it simply the devastating reality that there is nothing you could have done to alter your baby’s path?
All of these things add to the heartache but for me, the thing which then compounded my sorrow was the silence which followed and the sense of isolation which this brought.
My fourth son Miles was born still in December 2018.
Some days I still can’t believe that this actually happened. That our dear little boy, whose eyes we will never see open, won’t come home with us.
Walking out of the hospital less than 24 hours after giving birth and leaving your baby behind is harrowing and confronting – it goes against the natural order of life.
At the very least I’d say it’s confusing, inexplicable, and it just doesn’t make sense.
Pregnancy and birth are supposed to be times of joy and celebration. People flock to a pregnant belly and a newborn baby like bees to honey.
The pure joy of new life is intoxicating, a miracle which brings people together, united in the sheer wonder of new life.
Conversely, when a pregnancy ends in death it’s often met with an awkward silence.
People turn away, completely unsure of what to say and do.
This sudden and sometimes brutal shift in response from those around us must surely add to the sense of disbelief and utter despair about what has happened, compounding feelings of anguish and loneliness.
In the blink of an eye you go from people excitedly asking about your due date, your baby’s gender to nothing – no congratulations, just condolences.
There are questions to be asked, a little life to be honoured and stories to be told but on the whole, people seem terrified of instigating these conversations, unable to turn their minds to your agony.
I feel that this creates a sense of isolation which adds a painful layer to a loss which is already deeply traumatic.
Perhaps this is why losing a baby is so hard.
The loss itself is undeniably dreadful but perhaps it’s all of the secondary losses which you endure after that make it even worse.
The breakdown of intimacy in friendships, the litany of “at least’s” we are forced to hear, the loss of dreams for the future, a loss of direction, confidence, and sense of self.
It’s a lot to cope with in addition to a broken heart.
The loss of a baby at any stage of pregnancy or in infancy is a truly harrowing ordeal.
Even in isolation, it can have ongoing physiological repercussions, so if on top of this you are faced with secondary losses, it’s no wonder that in the year after a miscarriage or stillbirth women are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicidal thoughts.
Silence from those around you, from whom you were expecting support could easily be interpreted as indifference.
When people don’t acknowledge your baby’s death you could assume that they don’t understand the significance of it, the depth of your grief, or the lifelong journey of healing upon which you‘re about to begin.
There are of course those who respond with genuine heartfelt sympathy and support but sadly for each of these, there is often another who in some way, consciously or not, adds to your pain by belittling, comparing or dismissing your grief.
This can make you question your own reaction and wonder if perhaps it’s you who’s not responding appropriately.
You may think: am I overreacting, dramatizing, wallowing, or not coping?
The answer to that is no, absolutely not.
It is a very real pain – an experience in which grief and trauma collide head-on.
There is no way of avoiding or rushing past the sorrow. It has to be felt.
To suppress it altogether because some people around you haven’t given you much-needed opportunities to express your feelings will simply delay the process. All of the thoughts, the love, the wistfulness and the ‘if onlys’ have to be expressed somewhere as they’re always there.
It’s sometimes deeply hurtful when the people you assume will be your greatest source of comfort fail to offer any meaningful support.
Instead, seek out those who get it or try their absolute hardest to understand what it is you need. Such solidarity may come from unexpected places – an acquaintance who’s experienced a similar loss, a support group, or a baby loss forum on the internet.
There is no benefit in bottling up your grief as if ignored it’s likely to erupt and dangerously overflow at some point in the future.
The reactions of others can also highlight the sad reality that in some situations you will be forced to campaign for your baby’s place on this earth and to feel as though your grief is valid.
Any comment which begins with ‘at least’ crushes the soul and pushes you back into a dark lonely place in which you feel that others don’t value the life of your baby or understand the extent of your suffering.
At least it was early.
At least you have other children.
At least you know you can get pregnant.
None of these statements help. In fact, they usually have the opposite effect.
They make you feel as though you need to justify your grief. That what you’ve endured is not a big deal. That it could be far worse.
Similarly, when people say it’s really common, or point out a silver lining, it’s only natural to feel like your baby’s life and meaning is being belittled.
Harder still are the words that are never spoken – the hurtful silence of those whose own discomfort prevents them from offering even the simplest of words.
Perhaps it’s this often-lonely path that makes losing a baby hurt so much more than it already does.
In a time of absolute need, people seem to fade into the background, their awkwardness overriding any good intentions.
As you try to come to grips with a world which had been abruptly turned upside down, you are told that healing is a simple as trying again or looking on the bright side.
That something was probably medically wrong with your baby anyway.
Once the shock subsides, your body slowly heals and others move on, the devastating reality that your baby is gone remains with you always.
People may ask if you’re feeling better or assume that you are because by some small miracle you’ve made it back into the wider world again and appear to be functioning reasonably well.
What people underestimate are the ongoing changes that have occurred within you.
Baby loss makes you question so much about life and the uncertainty of it. It knocks your confidence and faith in your fundamental identity as a woman and as a mother.
It’s not just the reactions of those you know which may shock and hurt you after baby loss. Many medical terms that refer to infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth and the death of a neonate are devoid of emotion and dehumanize your personal experience.
It is likely that many health care professionals who care for women in these situations find it incredibly upsetting and are deeply saddened by each mother’s loss.
However, unfortunately, many of the standard medical terms used to describe and diagnose each case can feel cold and clinical.
We need these uniform terms so that midwives and doctors can give patients the best possible physical care. Unfortunately, in doing so, they often fail to acknowledge the life that is being lost or the emotional impact of losing a baby.
A baby may be referred to as the fetus, the products of conception, or the remnants of an unsuccessful pregnancy.
Many terms, even miscarriage itself infer some kind of failure, a blighted ovum, a missed miscarriage, failure to thrive, or in regard to a neonate; not viable.
In no other medical scenario is a patient referred to in such an impersonal way.
A mother undergoing cancer treatment is not referred to as the ‘middle-aged cancer patient’ but as your mother, sister, wife, friend or by name.
Very quickly in the realm of baby loss one of the patients, the baby, is very quickly referenced in terms which ignore the simple fact that to their parents they are a child, a future family member, not just a medical incident.
It is a death that is handed very differently to the majority of others in our society.
Announcing the passing of a relative is commonplace, expected even, conversely telling people that you have lost a baby is not always understood or routine.
We are encouraged to keep pregnancies quiet until we reach a safe point, but this can mean that women are faced with the heartbreaking task of telling people about pregnancy and the loss of their baby in one fell swoop.
To deliver what should be happy joyful news alongside devastation and grief is overwhelming, to say the least.
This expectation of secrecy in early pregnancy adds to the silence which already surrounds baby loss.
Quite naturally many parents may choose to keep the whole scenario to themselves as to deliver both sets of news simultaneously feels too hard, too sad, which could potentially rob them of vital support.
When a baby is lost to stillbirth most often the pregnancy has been announced and, in many countries, parents are legally required to organize a burial or cremation for their baby.
They are then faced with the decision of whether or not to also hold a funeral or memorial as well.
Even this is difficult as others didn’t know your baby or hold the same hopes and dreams for this life that you as the parent did.
There are no anecdotes to tell, nor are there many pictures to share, but this does not alter or minimize the significance of the lives lost or the depth of the grief felt.
There are many rituals surrounding death. However, when it comes to baby loss, it would seem that the ‘guidebook’ is missing a chapter.
We didn’t hold a funeral for Miles after he was cremated and, in many ways, I now wish we did as it probably would have made me feel as though people recognized the significance of our loss.
In so many ways baby loss is silenced by the reactions of others and by the way it is dealt with by society as a whole.
When asked how many children you have it is often difficult to answer truthfully, as to mention ones who have died can be confronting, upsetting, or met with awkward silence.
I have four children but depending on the scenario, I often say I have three, as I don’t always have the strength or energy to tell someone about Miles.
I always want to as he is forever my fourth baby but it often shuts down a conversation.
People don’t know how to respond or seem confused by my answer and why I would include him in the headcount since he never actually drew breath.
It feels horrible to have to justify your child’s existence but sadly it is often easier to skim over the facts. It’s not something I ever feel good about doing.
I feel as though I am disrespecting his memory, but it’s usually only done to protect my own heart from the reactions of others.
The silence is pervasive.
When asked how I’m going, like many loss mothers I have lied and said ‘fine thanks’ when in reality I’ve been far from it.
Eventually, many people stop asking how you are, and as time rolls on I’m sure many assume you’re ‘over it’.
What is so hard to express is that it’s a grief which is life long – there is no closure, no way of replacing the piece of your heart which has been taken.
A rainbow baby cannot fill this void, nor can time. It is something you live with and become accustomed to. To someone who hasn’t experienced baby loss first-hand this may seem depressing, debilitating. They may think: why not move on?
For me to do so would be unnatural, forced and only done so to appease the expectations of others. Moving on is not a goal I have nor do I feel any innate desire to do so.
I know many may see this as macabre. They may worry that I am lingering in my grief when really, I’m just living in a new normal.
Explaining this is not always easy, so instead, I remember Miles privately, silently.
The walls of taboo surrounding baby loss have been built up over many years of silence, erasing rituals and social etiquette as to how women who’ve encountered it can best be supported.
Many are left feeling utterly bewildered and unsupported. It is natural to want to talk about your baby and your experience.
Just like a mother of a living child, your heart has been filled with love for someone precious and irreplaceable so to want to talk about them is purely instinctive and understandable.
Perhaps this is why losing a baby is so hard – you are full of love but sometimes have nowhere to channel it.
We need to talk.
We need to share.
Whether it be publicly or privately, we need to share soon after our loss or years later. Just like grief itself, there is no set timeline and no rulebook.
It’s important to find the people who will sit with you and allow you to express your pain without trying to fix you. Losing a baby is so, so hard and it can be made even harder when met with silence and awkwardness.
It may take time and come from unexpected places but hopefully, all loss mothers find someone somewhere who can give them the empathy and care they so desperately need and deserve.