This story originally appeared in the Bergen (County, NJ) Record and on the Bergen Record’s web site, www.NorthJersey.com.
One survivor offers hope and memories to others
Tuesday, September 28, 2004
By LESLIE KOREN
The small, heart-shaped box in Lorraine Ash’s bedroom drawer contains a baptismal bib, pink knit hat, baby blue photo album, and the hospital tags—all the tangible remains of her child’s life, save for her ashes. Those are kept in a porcelain angel.
Every year in the United States, about 26,000 babies are stillborn. That’s about 70 a day, yet it never occurred to Ash that her daughter Victoria might be born dead. She was conceived on the first try, the pregnancy had been easy, and the prenatal care excellent. But by the time her labor pains started, an infection had caused the baby’s heart to stop and threatened Ash’s life as well.
Her journey back to physical and emotional health was long and at times isolating. Hoping to help others, she has published “Life Touches Life,” a memoir about the experience.
“I understand what it’s like to face this void,” she says, sitting at the dining room table in the Allendale home she shares with her husband, Bill.
Stillbirth lives in the dark corners of our fears. It is hard to discuss. Because doctors know little about the causes, many tend to ignore it as well, said Laura Reno, director of public affairs for the First Candle/SIDS Alliance.
Ash argues that bringing it into a spotlight will not only enable a softer recovery for those who’ve endured it, but also lessen the probability by encouraging more research.
There is neither a consistent guideline for autopsies of stillbirths nor a standardized protocol for research collection.
“It’s time to talk about it. You should see my e-mails. From Australia, Southampton, England. ... Long letters. This is what happened to me,” Ash says. “The big thing is that it happens. It happens a lot.”
Stillbirth is devastating to families. After nine months of preparation, the unexpected loss is shocking and not always properly acknowledged by friends and family.
Ash was at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, which had established protocols for stillbirths. She was given a choice of whether to stay on the maternity ward (she did). Both she and her husband were given the chance to hold Victoria. They took photographs with her and then they gave her the heart-shaped memory box, along with the pink hat that Victoria wore before her cremation.
But Ash, a journalist, was left with so many questions. To cope meant to search for answers. She had done everything she was supposed to, and still the outcome had been death. Why?
An autopsy explained the scientific reason for the stillbirth. Group B Streptococcus bacteria had seeped from the vagina through a microscopic tear in the uterus late in the pregnancy, and the baby’s head had then sealed it in. It took Ash weeks to conquer the infection after the birth.
But spiritually, she had no answer. Her Catholic faith was strong but challenged. Ash had long been a spiritual questioner. She looked to poetry, feminist literature, other books about stillbirth and loss. Eventually, she found answers for herself. God perhaps is not all powerful in the face of nature but still exists. So does eternity, a place where she believes her child lives.
“No, I didn’t want a heavenly listener, but that is what I was given,” she writes. “If Victoria and I could have a mystical bond, that is what I would take.”
Unexpected moments of warmth and kindness helped immensely. A food brigade arrived from co-workers. Friends sent warm e-mails. A work acquaintance wrote to say that Ash was in her thoughts. Friends wrote to her husband as well. So much attention is placed on the mother that the feelings of the father are often forgotten.
But others handled the situation poorly. Strangers, when confronted with the news, often quickly ended the conversation or changed the topic. Those who followed up with questions used the pronoun “it” to discuss the baby. People blamed Victoria’s death on Ash’s bad karma from a past life, her male gynecologist, and for failing to be tested for the bacteria that infected the baby (but she had been tested).
“Every single word that is uttered to you at that time is branded into your consciousness. It’s such a tender state,” she said.
She felt most ostracized when with other mothers. One friend accused Ash of being jealous of her healthy children. One woman whom she had befriended when both were pregnant never called. New mothers offered advice for her next pregnancy.
She offers simple ways to avoid these pitfalls: Say I’m sorry. Use the baby’s name. Do not presume to enter the mind of God (i.e. God needed an angel; it’s all for the best).
“How do you know? Here’s a person who did not get to live,” she says.
Five years later, the memories are less raw, but her devotion is as strong. The couple have become advocates for stillbirth research, and she is a peer counselor to other stillbirth mothers. The issue of stillbirth remains a central part of their lives.
“Some people think it is morbid to hang onto it for so long,” she said. “What they mean is gloss over, next, go adopt a baby. ... But that has nothing to do with this one. This is my way of loving my daughter.”