This article originally appeared in the February 2005 issue of Journeys, the monthly newsletter of the Hospice Foundation of America.

Living With Stillbirth

Of all life’s sorrows, the grief of stillbirth may be the least acknowledged and understood. This is the “invisible death” that happens 71 times a day in the United States, and in half the cases doctors cannot determine a cause. There are a lot of mothers going through one of the most profound griefs that can assault the human spirit. Consider, too, all the fathers, siblings, extended family members, and friends who are grief-stricken by these perinatal losses.

After our daughter, Victoria Helen, was stillborn in 1999, my husband Bill and I were in shock. Our family and friends were also in shock because they had anticipated the joyous arrival of our first child. Instead, we all faced unexpected grief, emptiness, and confusion.

For a time after the stillbirth our world stopped. Quickly re-entering the rush of life was impossible because it took time to accept the death. In the first five weeks after Victoria was stillborn, I literally was at a loss for words to even talk about what had happened. I also felt a mix of guilt and panic, questioning if there was anything I had done to cause her death. I had done everything humanly possible to assure Victoria’s safe arrival and yet she died. I had to face that there is no escape from the sudden finality of stillbirth.

Amid our anguish and confusion, we wondered how an innocent child could perish in a just world. I now know that no platitude, however well-intentioned, can answer that question. Statements such as “It’s all for the best” or “God needed an angel” rang hollow in our hearts. People’s rationalizations about the death and their advice for the assumed next pregnancy were painful and unhelpful. Perhaps the most hurtful were those who simply could not acknowledge Victoria’s death and faded from our lives.

It was the simple things people said and did that brought us the most comfort. A brief stop by the house with a homemade meal, a dessert or fresh flowers reminded us that people cared. The most helpful expressions of sympathy were simple phrases such as “I am sorry” or “This is horrible, and you and your baby didn’t deserve it.” It also brought me great joy to hear people say the name of my beloved baby. This acknowledged Victoria’s life and her place in our family as our daughter. Saying her name also acknowledged her death.

It took me a while to accept that some aspects of life are beyond my control. Reaching this realization takes honest self-examination, an open-minded view of God and justice, and plenty of pain. Usually a stillborn child dies quickly, but this deeper understanding of the order of things takes a long time-maybe years. If life brings you face to face with stillbirth, remember this above all: Tread gently and patiently. You stand on tender emotional territory.

Now five years down the road from our daughter’s stillbirth Bill and I still think of her daily and our life is permeated by a profound loss that does not go away or diminish. Yet, I also can see that this death and our subsequent search for understanding and peace has lead us to a richer way of seeing, being, and loving in the world.