Almostness | A Reflection on Pregnancy Loss
“When we introduced the Female Health category it was partly meant to expand on the stories we tell into ones of birth, motherhood, and children. But as fate, and our daughter would have it, that is not the place in which I find myself currently…So, perhaps, this is what the category was meant to be all along. A place where we can talk about this kind of loss that faces so many women and has silenced them in their shame. This is not the story that I wanted, but it’s the story that I’ve come to tell.”
On Monday, August 13th, my husband Justin and I went in for our regular 7-month check-up, and through a panicked ultrasound quickly learned that our beautiful baby girl had lost her heartbeat. I will never forget my doctor stumbling around clumsily on my belly as she searched for the thing we were never going to hear again. The pressure of my husband’s hand, pulling tighter and tighter on my shoulder with every passing silent second.
“Okay. That’s the sound of your heartbeat. But I’m having a hard time finding her heartbeat. Just give me a second here. I’m so sorry.”
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t cry. I just stared at the ultrasound screen at my daughter, who I know I had felt move, whose heartbeat I’d listened to many times over these past seven months, just willing her to wiggle her little body like she used to during these appointments. This couldn’t be possible. We’d made it past all of the scary hurdles, and we were cruising into month seven. The homestretch.
It’s the machine. It must be broken. Can you get a second opinion for something like this?
I heard the doctor say from some planet far away, “When this sort of thing happens there are generally two options for how to pass your child. One is laboring, and we can schedule an appointment for you first thing tomorrow morning at the hospital to induce if that is what you want. The second is a D & E, and since you’re so far along in your pregnancy I only know of one specialist in Beverly Hills who could even perform such a procedure, but I think it’s about $8,000 out-of-pocket.”
And as quickly as she’d come into the room, the angel of death disappeared. There were no packets of information for grief or support groups for parents trying to process this kind of loss, or alternatives to laboring for days or spending $8,000 that we didn’t have only to not have our daughter at the end of the day. Just, here’s the worst news you’re ever going to receive in your life and goodbye. (My OB’s lack of bedside manner is another story for another day altogether).
My husband and I felt like we’d been dropped into the middle of the darkest ocean, the nearest shore no where to be seen.
I’d heard of these things happening before to women, but they were hushed in corners or spoken behind closed doors. I immediately began to run through all of the things that I could have done to cause this, that this loss most certainly was caused by me. I was broken. I could have stopped it if I’d just ____________ or _____________. If I hadn’t taken that really long walk when I was in NYC for work maybe she’d still be here. Or maybe the studies were wrong and that small cup of coffee in the morning wasn’t safe.
I don’t even know how we got home that day, only that a bottle of whiskey somehow ended up in my hands shortly after.
There really aren’t words for this kind of loss, when your life and plans go completely sideways. The healthcare system for women in the U.S. is atrocious. In a time of bottomless grief and pain, most healthcare institutions wouldn’t even have the conversation with us about how to safely pass our child beyond, “Have you considered just laboring?” It is only thanks to my husband and our incredible tribe around us who made calls to seemingly every doctor in Los Angeles, that two days later I underwent a procedure that took our daughter safely out of me. It was the only way I could have imagined getting through the unimaginable. I wanted all the drugs, and I didn’t want to remember a moment of it. Electing to pass my daughter the way that we did meant that we will never know what she looked like, we never got to hold her or look at her little fingers and toes. It also means that on paper, she was and will always be declared as a “termination.”
I remember coming to after the surgery, and grabbing my stomach right as my husband peeked his head around the curtain. “She’s gone,” I said through tears as I held onto the only home she would ever know. So quickly erased. Five days later my empty body became full and ripe again with milk that she would never drink. It’s the most cruel joke that nature plays – as if I couldn’t cry any more, now my boobs were leaking through the bandages and sports bras and ice packs that didn’t take away any of the pain.
These past months have taken us to new levels of grief within ourselves that we didn’t even know existed. When we lost our beloved dog in May, we were heartbroken, carried forward by the promise of our daughter. 2018 has leveled and devastated us beyond belief, but through it all we have been so held so wonderfully by the tribe around us, who within two seconds of receiving the call were barreling up our stairs and ushering us out of our home. Our friends cooked and broke their backs cleaning our entire house. They managed the heartbreaking work of disassembling our nursery and resetting our space. We were cocooned in tears and silence and somehow laughter. For every way that we have felt unlucky in this experience, we can count two ways that we feel even luckier.
When everything happened and we felt our promised future shatter, my initial instinct was to hide. Take down the photos and the pregnancy announcement. Erase the memories. Try to pretend that what was happening wasn’t happening. But then we had our first “Oh you had the baby!” run in. It felt like walking face first at top speed into a glass door. I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be able to hide from this. That erasing her wasn’t the solution. Her life, though far too short, mattered.
On November 4th, our daughter was due to make her grand entrance earth-side. The two months following our loss and approaching that day felt like we were living in the slowest moving molasses where time seemed encapsulated and unmoving. We were sitting in the shadow of this unshakable mountain that was headed directly for us, coming ever closer, ever closer. I knew that I was going to have to climb up and over to the other side, in a world where she isn’t, in a land I didn’t think that I would have to know.
It’s hard to feel like you’re the only one whose journey got cut short, who somehow got left behind. During this sluggish time, my best friend had her beautiful baby girl. I didn’t know how I was going to feel about any of this. And yet strangely, jealousy stepped aside and has allowed me to love her deeper than I thought possible. All of the mommies that I was going through pregnancy with have met their little ones and are onto the process of getting to know their every mark. These are the ones that are easy to love. I know intimately of their pregnancy woes, or how difficult it was for them to conceive. I find the tears come so much faster when I walk past a pregnant stranger at Trader Joe’s. It’s convenient to write the stories of people whose journeys you know nothing about.
My husband and I decided that staying in our home for her due date was not an option. We had to get away from the room that was to be hers, away from the idea that at any moment she may be coming into the world. For a week we went on a Hawaiian adventure together, a trip we lovingly called our Due Date Escape. We built a shrine in the sand in honor of our girl and her impossibly short life. 1 part earth, 1 part sea, 1 part salt of our tears. We filled up the ocean three times over with our salty tears, and then allowed it to wash us clean. But that’s not all, we infused canyons with our belly laughter and sat in silent reverence at the base of a cascading waterfall. We laid on the grass and counted shooting stars. We watched a sunrise and waved good morning to the sea turtles popping their heads out to say hello. We kayaked out to the clearest water and put our faces on the bottom of the sea. We were visited by dragonflies, which I’ve come to recognize as her way of saying hello. We felt her everywhere and in everything, as if she’d been here with us for lifetimes.
There is a quiet reprieve in the knowledge that we are not alone in this kind of grief. Even in nature, mothers mourn the loss of their young. I feel like I fully understand the orca whale mother who, her calf having passed away, pushed it around in the ocean for weeks, handing her off to members of her pod when the grief became too much for her to carry alone. I have become like that whale, carrying her through the ocean and calling on our tribe around us to help move her memory forward when the weight becomes too much to bear.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve dreamed this whole thing. The morning sickness, the belly wiggles, outgrowing my clothes. Grieving the loss of an almost-child is a strange abstracted kind of grief. When one mourns the loss of parents or relatives or a friend, they are mourning for the person they knew, the moments of their lives spent with them that they will no longer get to carry forward. When one grieves the loss of an almost-child, they are grieving for the loss of a life they’d begun to see, the promise of a person they’d yet to meet but knew in their heart. The almost-ness of it all is sometimes unbearable.
Grief is teaching me her wild and non-linear ways. She comes in the night when I least expect her, after a day full of laughter. She levels me after being okay for a week when my phone unexpectedly autocorrects a word to her name. She laps at the shore just when I’ve found my footing. She’s a city that you drive through and think you have left in your rearview mirror, and yet somehow she appears again on the road ahead. At my first Burning Man in 2010, I ventured out to the edge of the playa with a group of friends to watch the sunrise. It felt like it took forever, that somehow our little corner of earth had been forgotten and the sun was never going to come. Here I was, little old me, trying to will the sun to rise. And it did. In its own sweet time, at its own sweet pace, peeking the first rays out from the mountain tops like an exhalation. I was reminded of this particular sunrise again recently, as I was explaining to my dear friend that I just wanted to find the fast forward button through this time of loss, that moves like molasses, and get to our future child. He gently reminded me of the Playa sunrise and willing the earth to bend to “Lulu Time.” There are lessons to be learned in the darkness that I cannot stave off with the sun. And it will always rise again when it’s good and ready.
Through this time, I’ve sat in loss circles and have been connected to so many incredibly resilient women, all who have found themselves on this side of the river here, like me. In the wake of this loss, I feel like an archeologist on a dig, discovering an old bone in the sand. But as I brush away at its surface, it comes to reveal itself as not one solitary bone, but rather a pile of them buried just beneath the surface. An abandoned city of them forgotten and swallowed up by shame in the sand. They say that 1 in 4 women will have a miscarriage at some point in their life; 1% of pregnancies will result in a stillbirth. If this is the case, then the entire population of women who have experienced this loss have been reaching out to me. These numbers simply cannot be accurate.
When we introduced the Female + Family category it was meant to expand on the stories we tell into ones of birth, motherhood, and children. But as fate, and our daughter would have it, that is not the place in which I find myself currently. In sharing our loss so publicly, I quickly learned I was far from alone. I have been carried forward by the many mothers who have so graciously shared their own stories and broken hearts with me. Telling our stories is healing, and is allowing me to move through this grief in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to alone. The power of “me too.” So, perhaps, this is what the category was meant to be all along. A place where we can talk about this kind of loss that faces so many women and has silenced them in their shame. This is not the story that I wanted, but it’s the story that I’ve come to tell.