Before my friend’s miscarriage at age 25, I had no idea people lost children. That may have been a good thing, because had I known the intense feelings involved with bringing a child into the world, raising it, and contemplating their death, few of us (including myself) might be brave enough to go through with becoming parents.
In the last three years, two women in our school community lost their children too soon after birth. Before the news of her baby’s struggle was made public, one of the women stood tall after school, her smile less bright than usual, her body less erect. She looked as if a heavy weight was on her shoulders, and it turned out it was. Soon after, she shared the news with a few of us: she had just found out that the baby inside her – her second child – would most likely not live another month. The cruel logic of nature had made it so that her baby girl, whose heart still beat strong inside her, wouldn’t survive.
Her news brought up many feelings in me. Right away, anger. Why do these things always happen to the kindest people? Then fear, because loss of a child is something no parent should ever experience, no matter at what stage, yet it can always happen. Lastly, deep sadness, because no matter how much I wished I could help her, no matter how many meals I could offer to cook for her, the reality was she would come to know unbearable pain in the stillbirth and burial of her child.
I found myself weeping for this beautiful woman and her loss. As I meditated, I found myself talking to her baby girl, who I imagined floating in the silent darkness of her mother’s belly. “I know you can’t stay, little girl. I am asking you to be kind to your mother. Be gentle when you’re ready to leave. You are going to change her life forever and she will always wonder what you would have become had you stayed with your family longer. Please be gentle with her when you leave.” I am not sure whether my prayer made any sense. But I had a feeling this unborn soul would be just fine wherever she was headed, whereas I could not be sure her mother would be. I so desperately wanted for the doctors to be wrong, and for this little girl to beat the odds and come home to her parents. But this time I knew this would most likely not be the case.
Ten years ago, a close friend of mine was pregnant at the same time I was expecting my girls. She and I had a very hard time getting pregnant, so I had been delighted when she first shared her good news. When she was six months along, she called and said: “the baby probably won’t make it.” I was speechless as she repeated what doctors had told her about her unborn child. I spent the next few weeks mourning for her and offering God trade-offs for her baby’s life, as if God bargained. “If you save her baby, I will go to church every Sunday. If you save that baby I will…” How arrogant of me. Time passed, and in spite of my prayers and bargains, she delivered a stillborn. I heard very little of it, and I didn’t ask. I told her very little about my daughters’ birth, thinking that it might make her sad. The one time I asked her how she was doing, she started to cry – the first and only time I have ever seen this amazing woman do so in the 15 years I’ve known her. I didn’t know what to say or do. I wanted to fix it for her, but instead I was 100% useless to her. I went home and planted a rosebush for her baby, and it grew big and beautiful and blood red. I thought about her all the time and asked her to be my girls’ godmother. But I did nothing to help her heal. I never had the courage to ask her what she named her baby, or whether it was a son or daughter. I never offered to listen to her. I did the safe thing and stayed out of her sorrow. And I regret it to this day.
Two years after my friend lost her baby, I befriended a woman who had lost her daughter at three years of age. When we first met, which was shortly after her loss, K spoke of her daughter Ella often and openly, telling me stories and bringing her to life. She showed me her room, her favorite toys and her pictures. While I never met little Ella, thanks to her Mom, she became my teacher in the uncomfortable realm of children lost too soon. My friend’s willingness to acknowledge her child, to speak freely of her and to unabashedly tell people about her taught me that the single worst thing one can do for a woman who loses a child is pretend that it never happened.
As someone who has lost children before they were born, I now know that the pain one feels can be isolating and overwhelming. But far worse is the silence of those around you. When the loss happens, few know what to say. People get uncomfortable.
Sometimes people who have not been through a pregnancy loss wonder why you would be so attached to a “baby” you never met, or consider one loss worse than another (I was guilty of this, too –for a long time, I considered my friend’s stillbirth far worse than my own losses). But the truth is, loss of a child can come in many ways, including choosing to terminate an unplanned pregnancy, and one is not worse than the other. All losses deserve our compassionate response. Nothing is gained by needing to rank how terrible the loss of a child is – they are all terrible.
I believe the reason most of us are lousy at comforting those who have experienced the loss of a child is not that we lack compassion, but that the reality of seeing someone we care about lose a child strikes a deep fear within us. Speaking of the loss reminds us that we, too, could experience that loss. We are afraid to talk about something so terrible because to even think about it makes us vulnerable.
Sometimes we believe that if we ask parents who have lost a child how they are doing after their loss, or ask them to tell us about their child, we will be re-opening the wounds they are trying to ignore, when nothing could be further from the truth. Those wounds don’t ever go away—the pain just dulls. Saying, “if you ever want to talk about your child, I’d love to hear about her. I am sorry she was with you so briefly,” may very well be one of the bravest—and best—things you ever do for a parent facing what has to be the most terrible loss of all.
Last summer, a young yoga teacher whose Instagram photos chronicling her pregnancy I’d delighted in, unexpectedly lost her son, Landon, four days after birth. Instead of shutting down in the face of this tragedy, Amelia courageously opened her heart by sharing beautiful photos of her child, and candidly continues to share her difficult journey through her writings. One image at a time, she is healing her family, encouraging dialogue about child loss, and teaching so many of us how to come together to conquer our fear of death.
Let us honor parents like Amelia by offering those who have lost children our friendship and compassion, and most of all, a willing ear. Let’s be brave and ask about their children who are not with us today, so that they may take on the role of proud mother or father, even if briefly.
In gratitude for the lessons taught by Baby G M, Ella, Susanna, Rebecca Anne, Landon and their parents.