This article originally appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of We Need Not Walk Alone, the national magazine of The Compassionate Friends.
Stillbirth, the Loneliest Grief
I thought June 1, 1999 would be the happiest day of my life. My daughter Victoria Helen, or “Sweetlet” as my husband and I called her, had been in my womb nine months. She had passed every pre-birth test and seemed ready to enter the world.
But she did not. My life changed that day but not in the way I expected. When my ob/gyn held his Doppler to my stomach, the words that fell from his lips stunned me: “I’m not getting a heartbeat.” My daughter had slipped away, died inside me, the victim of a Group B Strep infection which threatened my life, too.
What a joy it would have been to love her here in the fleshto rub noses, to take walks, to feel her hand in mine, to watch her grow into a lovely woman. It has been six years since the dream shattered and still I wish I could have seen her eyes open, seen the light of her spirit flash through him. I held her and kissed her but I wish we could have looked at each other.
Stillbirth happens 71 times a day in the United States and it is a misunderstood grief because it deals with the passing of a person hardly anyone knew, except Mom. And so it is only a rare few who allow the mother the sacredyes, sacredspace she needs to feel her very real loss.
Yet mostly we are denied this space and we are misunderstood for lack of listening. Instead we are silenced by well-meaning advice: Try again. Move on. Forget about it. Our experience is negated in more elaborate ways, too.
I vividly recall being told by people with good intentions that a stillbirth is “half an experience” that could only be completed by adopting a newborn. When I began writing my memoir Life Touches Life: A Mother’s Story of Stillbirth and Healing, another author told me to stop writing about something that didn’t happen. “Births happen,” she said. “Stillbirths don’t.”
These are the kinds of reactions that felt, to me, as if my pain and that of 26,000 other American mothers each year, were being erased. And it was a small step indeed from erasing the pain to erasing Victoria herself. I have come a long way from those early days and now know that pain can be used for the goodto connect with others who know great loss.
But before pain can be used, it must be acknowledged.
Many people fear even approaching stillbirth because it reminds them that all our lives, even theirs, are fragile, and because they believe stillbirth parents are inconsolable. Not so. The smallest gestures and shortest sentences that stick to the here and now are balm to our war-torn souls: “I am so sorry.” “You didn’t deserve this.” “I’ll listen if you want to talk.” Precious are those who call or visit and really listen without interrupting. Even more precious are those who keep calling for years-long after most imagine the experience should be over.
My job as a peer contact for other stillbirth moms consists, mainly, in doing just that: Calling, listening, witnessing.
Perhaps the most healing thing anyone can do is to somehow make the deceased baby manifest in the world. I know one mother whose daughter, Isabella Rose, was stillborn. She got great joy from giving away yellow roses. For a year after Victoria died, I wore one of two necklaces dailya gold locket that contained a tiny picture of her face, and a gold pendant with two interlocking hearts, one large, one small. In business meetings, on supermarket checkout lines or when eating dinner, I’d finger whichever I was wearing. How wonderful to have something to touch.
Another way to acknowledge takes but a second: Simply utter the name of the stillborn child. The sound of it, you see, is sensory. It carries on the air and the air is here in this physical world. Victoria Helen, Victoria Helen. To my ears there will never be a symphony as majestic or a poem as sweet as the sound of her name.