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Empty Cradle, Broken Heart
Surviving the Death of Your Baby
By Deborah L. Davis
Fulcrum PublishingCopyright © 2016 Deborah L. Davis
All rights reserved.
Why Is This So Hard?
The "D" Word
If only more people would say, "I acknowledge your pain and I am here with you." I wish I had had this. I look back now and fail to understand the words and actions of people around me, people who are meant to love and "know" me, at a time where I was at my weakest and most fragile. We know that our pain cannot be fixed, but worse than that pain is feeling isolated and alone in it.
Society wants us to be invisible. No one wants to talk about dead babies or acknowledge the mum whose baby has died. Society just wants us to hide away like a dirty secret. You almost feel like a leper. We'd see people shy away, just so uncomfortable with our situation. If only we had that option, to shy away or choose to ignore it just because we are uncomfortable. But this is our reality. There is no "off switch" for us. We have to live with this for the rest of our lives. And as much as we would like to escape the unbearable pain, we can't.
As much support as there is today versus twenty years ago, there still needs to be more. If this happens to one in four pregnancies plus all the infant deaths, why is it still so "hidden" from the public? It's not the majority, but still a good number are forced into this "club."
In many societies, unfortunately, death is not talked about freely. Rather than being seen as an inevitable and natural part of the cycle of life, death has become something we consider distasteful — even disgusting — and best avoided. We want to prevent it from happening to us or to our loved ones. Indeed, we've made great strides in this endeavor. With modern sanitation and advances in medicine, we've come to expect to broaden children to survive into adulthood, and most of us expect to live until we are very, very old. With new developments in medical science and technology, many previously fatal conditions or injuries are now curable, and it is possible to prolong life, although sometimes without regard to quality.
We also avoid contact with the dying and the dead. This wasn't always the case. Before the mid-1900s, most people died at home. Family members bathed and dressed the body, and friends and relations gathered to view the body and grieve together. Now, most people die in hospitals or other facilities, and the body is quickly dispatched to the morgue and then shipped off to be cremated or buried according to community health standards. Additionally, families and friends are more far-flung, so being present at the death of a loved one, or even attending the funeral, is less likely. Children are particularly sheltered, as we don't want to scare them or tarnish their innocence. Unfortunately, these modern trends separate death and dying from the continuity of life and the living, which makes death more foreign to us. Having so little experience with dying or death, no wonder many of us feel uncomfortable or afraid.
I'd carried his body inside me for nine months; I'd felt it kicking for the last five or six of them. That body had forced its way out of me early in the morning ... and along the way it had turned from a living body to a dead body, but it was still Thor. Why should the body that was Thor transmogrify from a beloved member of the family, from a familiar part of my own body, into a repellent object just because it had died? This was my child.
We also avoid talking about death. We have all kinds of euphemisms for referring to death: the delicate "passed away," the vague "expired" or "is no more" or "has been taken," the spiritual "met her maker" or "transitioned" or "departed this life," the technical "demise" or "deceased," or the crude "croaked" or "kicked the bucket." Indeed, people may find it easier to use softer, more socially palatable terms like "baby loss." Unfortunately, such expressions make a baby's death sound inconsequential or akin to carelessness rather than the profound tragedy it is.
And finally, we avoid those who are mourning. This is understandable. Because of our discomfort and inexperience, we've lost some of our know-how and traditions for supporting the bereaved. After the funeral, it is considered almost impolite to talk about the death of a loved one or any struggles with grief. These attitudes leave mourners to grieve in isolation, which only adds to their suffering.
The death of a baby is even more hidden, more disturbing, and more taboo, as it's considered relatively uncommon and unexpected. But statistics tell a far different story. In the United States, the death rate for babies between twenty weeks gestation and one year of age is similar to that of people in their sixties, when death starts to be considered normal and sometimes expected. Furthermore, for every four confirmed pregnancies, one baby dies before birth at some point during the pregnancy. That's about twice the death rate of adults eighty-five and older. So where do we get the impression that babies never die?
Because nobody wants to talk about it. Unsure of what to say, friends, relatives, and coworkers often feel uncomfortable around bereaved parents. They aren't sure how to respond to emotional expression, often avoid asking parents about it, and may ultimately avoid the parents as well. Such attitudes merely compound the parents' grief and isolation. Suffering is further intensified by people not recognizing the parents' bond with this child, and therefore misunderstanding their grief and failing to notice their need for support.
A Maori friend told us that the way we were treated by our family was very "white," and over time we have come to realize that she is right. There is a very different attitude toward baby/infant loss in our culture that lends itself to the hierarchy of death, whereas in Maori custom, the closely bereaved are considered "tapu" or sacred, and the family comes in close to offer compassion and support no matter the age of the deceased.
It doesn't have to be anything big. Just say, "I'm thinking about you and your baby."
A Violation of Expectations
I was so excited. This was going to be the neatest thing in my whole life. I figured everything was going to go great because you always assume that with your first child. I had a beautiful pregnancy. You couldn't have asked for a nicer one. No morning sickness, I stayed active, it was great.
My partner was beside herself with joy, as she has always wanted to have biological children of her own. I was also excited, as I do love children, but also, it was so good to see her in such a joyful space. She was blossoming. The pregnancy was uncomplicated. Everything was normal and looked perfect.
For Blake, we were so happy. Over-the-moon happy! We had wanted this so badly and we both felt that all the heartache, doctor appointments, and financial commitment had finally paid off. We were going to have our baby!
During the past century, at least in wealthier, privileged societies, people have come to expect babies to be born healthy and ultimately outlive their parents. Modern medicine and living standards have greatly improved the prospects of having a healthy pregnancy, a thriving infant, and children who pass all their milestones with flying colors.
As such, expectant parents are not likely to seriously consider the possibility that their baby might die, particularly after the first trimester of pregnancy. They naturally assume that a healthy baby will be born, and if sick, the baby will nevertheless survive. This assumption accompanies the belief that by "doing all the right things" during pregnancy, even before conception and certainly after delivery, a healthy baby is guaranteed.
With Emily, it was like my pregnancies with Matthew and Ryan. Just "commonplace," almost taking our pregnancies for granted to a certain level. You just expected to get pregnant, and have a healthy baby, full-term. I never thought that our baby could die while in my womb.
Because parents assume they have control over what happens to them, they make plans and are increasingly likely to plot when and how many children to have. In addition to the assumption that they will have a healthy baby, they have an enormous emotional investment in conceiving within a few months, each pregnancy having a positive outcome, and each child surviving infancy.
We were excited to have a sibling for our older daughter, wondering if it would be a little sister or a little brother.
I went off the pill for a year and a half in anticipation because I knew that was something to think about. I did not drink any caffeine; I did not drink any alcohol; I did not smoke; I did not do anything. I led my life so perfectly as far as going by the rules. ... I really wasn't aware that babies could die. I remember feeling so serene the week before the baby's birth. I didn't have any worries. I thought when you made it past a certain point ...
This pregnancy was very much planned. It was our second pregnancy. It was going to be our last baby and we wanted a girl. I read many articles on the Internet on how to increase the chances of conceiving a girl. I liked to think that I could control the outcome of most things in life if I were well prepared and equipped myself with enough information. I wore the badge of a control freak proudly.
When a baby dies, the parents' expectations are cruelly violated, their dreams shattered, and emotional commitments dashed. Even when they "do all the right things," bad things can happen. This tragic turn of events upends their worldview, and nothing will ever be the same.
Things seemed to be right on schedule with the "plan," and like my first pregnancy, things were going very smoothly until the twenty-week ultrasound. Now I know how much the "plan" really means and that it doesn't always match the reality.
It's hard to fathom that we went from everything going along smoothly to Amy being induced into labor.
Tanya was induced at the hospital the day after Oren died, and he was born a day later. I don't remember much of the labor and birth; I felt like I was in a tunnel the whole time. There was no joy, only a crushing grief in the room. There was calm and love and uncertainty and a feeling of just making it be over. Nothing like what I had anticipated when we planned a homebirth.
Everybody thinks of pregnancy as a positive outcome ... and then to have two miscarriages on top of a stillbirth. After the second miscarriage, it was, like, this is just ridiculous, and what am I doing to deserve this? ... I remember meeting the mother of a test-tube baby and thinking, "They can do this but they can't take my seven-and-a-half-pound healthy girl and get her out safely" — now come on! There's something not right here.
Unfortunately, I was too trusting and put my faith in the hands of the professionals, so many professionals. I thought that is what you do.
Now, when I hear people talk about statistics with different situations I get a little upset because, you know, statistics are fine until you become one of them, and then they take on a different meaning!
One is so unprepared for this. You are thrilled to be expecting a child, you are in a total honeymoon of your first pregnancy, and you never think that such things could happen to you.
The Depth of Your Grief
Intuitively, I think that I recognized that something so grave and serious had happened in my life — I had lost a child — that I knew that it could break me.
Whenever and however it occurs, your baby's death is a profound sorrow because your emotional investment was already established. Even if the pregnancy is unplanned, a special bond materializes as you think about your baby and the reality of becoming a parent to this child. Throughout the pregnancy, you are primed to nurture and protect. You and your partner look after your baby's well-being and become deeply, intensely invested in this budding relationship. Other people may also count on the new baby joining your family.
It was so special. My partner was super-attentive and loving. Everything we did was for her from the moment we knew she existed. We played music for her, I read her stories in the evening, and Ben would talk to my tummy.
My partner Lavender and her son Derek were both supportive and excited. My mother loves young children. She was ecstatic.
Throughout this bonding process, you fantasize about the future. You eagerly await the chance to experience your potential as a parent to this child, who may be your first or your fourth. You may wonder about your baby's familial characteristics and envision summertimes, wintertimes, holidays, birthdays, graduations, weddings, and even grandchildren. You look forward to the special "firsts" of childhood, such as baby's first smile, first wobbly steps, first words, first day of kindergarten, and first school dance. You imagine sharing all kinds of special experiences with your child. In such heartfelt and intimate ways, you forge a bond with your baby long before the birth.
When your baby dies, you never get the chance to know him or her in the way that we normally think of knowing someone, yet your hopes and dreams for this child have already become a part of your life. You have not only lost a child, you have lost the chance to see your baby grow, become a vital part of the family, and realize his or her potential. Your baby's death represents a deeply felt loss of a wished-for child and all your related fantasies, hopes, and dreams. Death thwarts your best intentions and breaks your heart.
Given that I was older, naturally I was afraid to share the news until after the three months, and even then, I waited an extra month "just to be safe." In retrospect, the pain you feel when losing a baby is the same whether you have told family and friends or not.
The minute you get that positive pregnancy test, your life changes. Our hopes and dreams start then. So, when your baby dies, it's hard. So incredibly hard.
If you've experienced the death of one or more babies from a multiple birth, the depth of your loss is compounded. Not only must you bear the death of a baby, you may be bearing the death of more than one, as well as the crushing loss of the special chance to raise two or more babies together. (See also "Multiple Birth and Multiple Realities" in chapter 2.)
A Traumatic Bereavement
The doctors were on it right away. They rushed us into a room, completed some tests, and before we knew it, the doctor was telling us our son, who we got to know through his heartbeats, movements, and daily size changes, was gone. In that moment, it was hard to tell if it was a dream or reality.
I'll never forget my husband waiting outside for me to tell him our daughter's diagnosis. That moment changed the trajectory of our lives.
Trauma happens when you experience an emotionally painful event over which you have no control, and it leaves a lasting imprint on your brain — and your life. Most bereaved parents, looking at their shock, grief, and mourning, can attest that the death of a baby is traumatic. A large part of what makes an experience traumatic is that everything is okay — and then suddenly, it's not.
Pearl's diagnosis day ... before we even began the ultrasound, Josh said to the nurse, "Would you please tell Laura everything is going to be okay with the baby? She has been worried the whole time about something and just needs to hear everything is okay." Silence ...
We didn't seem to know what to think. All of the last five to six months had been positive and exciting and now a whirlwind two days crushed it all.
You may have had a number of traumatic experiences during your pregnancy, your baby's birth, the postpartum period, and/or during your baby's infancy. And even after your baby's death, the trauma can continue to reverberate. As Ben says, "It was a surreal moment that will be with us forever."
Every day is a struggle at the moment. I feel exhausted and as desperate as I am to find "my" new balance, it eludes me. What comes with it is that sense of failure and disappointment that I know all too well. I feel sad and when I look in the mirror, I know I look sad. It is so painful living with empty arms.
Excerpted from Empty Cradle, Broken Heart by Deborah L. Davis. Copyright © 2016 Deborah L. Davis. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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