This review originally appeared in the June 27, 2004 Health Quarterly, a publication of New England Newspapers, and on the Berkshire Eagle web site.


Love and faith heal the grief of stillbirth

Life Touches Life: A Mother’s Story of Stillbirth and Healing
By Lorraine Ash
NewSage Press, 174 pages, $13.95

In 1999, Lorraine Ash was 40 years old and about to have her first child. Ash and her husband, Bill, knew it was a girl — they named her Victoria Helen.

They talked to their daughter, gave her nicknames and fell in love with their baby during the nine months of Ash’s pregnancy — a problem-free, healthy pregnancy.

The very day that intermittent labor pains began, an infection killed Victoria. Ash and her husband, stunned and devastated, had to face labor, and ultimately, Caesarian delivery of their long-awaited baby, knowing she would be stillborn.

Ash and her husband got to hold their daughter for a short time, she was baptized in the hospital, and then they had to release her body, never to see her face again.

The same infection that killed the baby kept Ash in the hospital for weeks, nearly taking her life as well.

This story is absolutely heart-wrenching to read — I wept through most of this book — but it is, at the same time, such a beautifully intense story, more about love than tragedy.

A journalist, playwright and novelist, Ash has chosen to share her family’s heartbreak in this well-written book. She had a simple reason for writing it — when she looked for a book to help her through her grief, there was little to choose from. She says, “I figured that so few women go through such tragedy that there was little demand for such a story.”

Once she began writing and her journalistic instincts kicked in, Ash found the statistics astonishing. “There were one million fetal losses in the United States in 1999, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Twenty-six thousand of those losses — the equivalent of 71 babies a day — were stillbirths, meaning the babies died after the twentieth week in utero. Nearly one in two hundred unaborted pregnancies in the United States will end in stillbirth annually, according to statistics from The National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.”

As Ash recovered and returned to work, she continued to be surprised by the number of people she encountered who had been touched by stillbirth in their own lives.

“As I shared my story of stillbirth,” Ash says, “I went from feeling alone to feeling I could fill 10 baseball stadiums with mothers like me. So why is nothing written? I feel I know. No one knows what to say: Not the mothers who have gone through stillbirth and not the people who know those mothers.”

But somehow, Ash has figured out what to say.

She describes how she searched her Catholic faith for a way to turn to God for comfort, without blame or anger, relying, in part, on a book by Rabbi Harold Kushner, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Ash says that her earlier doubts about eternal life have been resolved: “If love from one dimension can permeate the next, there is a continuity of lives between here and beyond. My every instinct tells me my love reaches Victoria in the world in which she now exists. I believe in eternity now.”

Ash describes some of the incredibly insensitive comments and behavior they were exposed to, as well as instances of exceptional compassion. At the funeral home that handled the cremation, they were not charged a penny. “You’ve been through enough,” the funeral director told them.

And she makes a point of talking about how her husband handled his grief, in his own way and in his own time.

As for closure, Ash says it is something she does not seek. Why would I want closure, she says, which would end my relationship with my daughter? Indeed, Ash says she feels that Victoria is with her every day. “I chose to accept her presence without further questioning,” she says. “There was more joy in that decision and more warmth, too. That decision continues to bring me peace and allows me to deepen my relationship with my blessed daughter.”

This book is important for the lessons Ash offers us. That it is essential for mothers like her to insist on their status as mothers. That not knowing what to say to someone who has experienced a tragic loss is no excuse for not reaching out in sympathy. That it is not helpful for a mother who has been through a miscarriage or stillbirth to be told they can soon try again. That everyone has to find their own timetable for grieving.

This is a short book — I read it in one long night — but it is filled with wisdom for all of us who are searching for meaning in the face of life’s inevitable challenges. Ash’s loss changed her forever. Her generosity in sharing her story may change, may even save, others.