3.06.2006

On stillbirth, and loss

This article appeared in the SF Chronicle today. R. sent it to me, and as I read it, memories came flooding back, as well as thoughts of the too-many families we know who have suffered the same sort of loss.

The experience of losing a baby in later pregnancy is almost unhinging in its sureality. First you're visibly pregnant and planning, and then there's nothing. There's the tremendous loss, and the awkwardness of social interactions, and the grappling with the actual experience of giving birth. In the days and weeks after the birth, visual, visceral memories would flood back at odd times, the way images of my one really bad car accident sometimes fly into my head while I'm driving.

I remember how good it felt to hear our babies' names, how I told the same story over and over again. My therapist told me that this was part of the process of integrating the experience back into my life. When I grappled with my anger, my unwillingness to believe that there could be any reason for such a loss, the senselessness of it, and later, tried to understand how anything good could come out of such heartbreak (it's confusing that some good things do, and this in itself can induce guilt), she helped me understand that loss makes us different from what we were before, and the key is to integrate new emotions, learnings, insights and beliefs into our life going forward. As a process-oriented person, this phraseology really helped me.

Suzanne Pullen's article made me realize that knowing what happened with our boys removed at least one area of suffering from our experience. My heart broke the day we saw Ximena on the ultrasound and had to accept that he would not -- could not -- be born alive. And it was unspeakable agony when their birth could not be held off, and it was too soon for Avi to survive. But there was no mystery, no "sometimes these things just happen" to try to accept in a society where we seem to understand the causation of every aspect of our lives, where we can look up almost anything on the internet.

This article is so important because this truly is uncharted territory. We made, are still making it up as we go along: how to say goodbye, how to mourn, how to remember. And on the occasion when someone posts to a list that their friend has suffered a preterm loss, and they want to know how to support them, I drag out my old email, make some changes and send it on, hoping that our experience will at least provide some comfort to someone else. That there was no reason for our loss, but that at least we can be useful.

What did we do right? We named our boys, and held them. We sought the comfort of community and the support of trained experts. We continue to honor their memory with the rituals that mean the most to us.

What would I do differently, besides the very obvious? Have a service for them, to make it very clear to ourselves and others that this is a grieving process, not something to be gotten over or forgotten. Our secular culture doesn't offer much support for grief, especially the quasi-private kind, and this loss is difficult because it's so rarely talked about. But it is something very much worth understanding, because in the last few years I've learned that it's not as rare as one might think.

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