Helpful guidance for parents who are grieving the loss of their baby after miscarriage/pregnancy loss.
The wave of celebrities, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Beyonce and Mariah Carey, sharing their stories of miscarriage is profoundly influencing our culture. When celebrities speak out about their miscarriages, those of us who have also had miscarriages feel less alone. Since the conversation has already begun in the media, we feel safer talking about our own experience of losing a baby with friends and colleagues which is the first step to our grief recovery.
Often a miscarriage happens before we’ve announced that we are pregnant, making it less likely to share our loss. Secrets of any kind make it very difficult to heal. When we keep our loss a secret, it is extremely toxic to our well-being. We can’t recover from grief in a vacuum. We are social beings who need connection. That is why my mission and the mission of Graceful Grieving is to eliminate the silence and shame associated with infant and pregnancy loss. Grieving parents need non-judgmental, spiritual and communal support, as well as tools to guide them through healthy grieving. Tools that not only fully acknowledge their loss, but also honor the very real relationship they had with their baby.
Let me be clear: I am apolitical when it comes to the issue of infant or pregnancy loss. What I say in this article is not an endorsement of any kind. It is simply an observation of how our culture continues to silence parents who have experienced this kind of loss. I read this article today and was really frustrated by the lack of empathy that comes from both sides of the aisle.
Here are two paragraphs from The Associated Press:
LAURIE KELLMAN says,
“In the post-Oprah era of reality shows and TMI, Ann Romney communicates with a level of candor never seen from the spouse of a president or a man who might someday be one, experts say.
‘The reproductive aspect is unprecedented,’ said Catherine Allgor, a history professor at the University of California Riverside who specializes in the roles of first ladies. ‘The use of the miscarriages, especially, shows that her handlers quite correctly understand how far they have to go to make (sure) this man, this woman, this family, is relatable.’”
Regardless of his motivation, I applauded President Obama for stating he was for marriage equality, The President’s statement was profound because it offered hope to marginalized young men and women, who have been judged and abandoned by their families, because they are deemed worth of acceptance by the President of the United States.
Equally, I applaud Ann Romney for discussing the devastating experience of miscarriage, regardless of her motivation. Ann Romney’s admission that she experienced a miscarriage and the fact that it devastated her whole family opens the door for all women who have experienced infant and pregnancy loss to share, without shame, their grief. The silence around this very common experience must stop.
I get it. Death and grief are uncomfortable things to talk about. But talking about it is a necessary part of finding our way back to peace and harmony. Grief transcends all differences: race, nationality, religion, creed, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation and economic status. It is the one experience to which we can all relate, and that should therefore bring us together in empathy and compassion.
We need to have compassion and empathy for people even when we disagree philosophically or politically. I choose to see each person as someone who has shared the common experience of loss and to offer comfort. Even if others don’t see me in the same light, I choose to love them anyway.
Life Can Change in an Instant
A knock at the door woke me out of a deep sleep. I glanced at the clock, 4:30 AM. The shadow of a lady in the doorway said, “Your daughter is very sick, you should come right away.” The rest is a bit foggy but the next thing I remember is standing next to a mob of nurses and doctors as they tried to keep her breathing, praying for God to heal her. They switched ventilators and her lungs started to respond. As her oxygen levels started to rise I heard one of the nurses say “this is going to be another miracle baby.”
What Makes a Family?
I have always believed that a family is a family no matter what form it takes. My family is not a traditional family as my life-partner and I are both female. Normally I wouldn’t even mention it but the fact that we are a same-sex couple is a big part of my story.
Heartache is heartache no matter whose heart is broken and faith is faith no matter what you believe. If my family picture looks different from yours, I hope those differences won’t keep you from hearing the message of hope and healing in my story.
Cindy, my partner, and I had been in a stable relationship for eight years when we decided to start a family. Cindy often joked about my sperm count being low, so we obviously weren’t going to be able to do it the old fashioned way. We gave it a great deal of thought and did a lot of research. I will spare you the details but suffice to say we had a difficult time of it and had to turn to a fertility specialist, an intense and expensive endeavor. So when we finally got the call that Cindy was pregnant, we were beside ourselves.
The six-week ultrasound was an absolutely amazing experience had by so many other parents. All we could see was a little flashing light which was the heart. We could hardly wait to tell people.
When told the news, most of our family members celebrated with us, but there were a few that were less than enthusiastic. They loved us both but the idea of two women raising a child, well let’s just say, they didn’t approve.
Before I go any deeper into this story, I need to explain who’s who in my family. I have 2 brothers and a sister. My brother Stefan and I have the same mother but different fathers and my sister, my other brother and myself share a father but all have different mothers. People think our child will be confused having two moms, try having a mom, a dad, two step-dads and a step-mom! Talk about confusing.
For a number of reasons, religion being one of them, my sister, vehemently disapproved of us having a child and didn’t hesitate to verbalize it when we told her we were expecting. We tried not to let hurtful comments get to us. This was our dream and we were so happy nothing was going to bring us down.
When we went back for the second ultrasound, as the doctor moved the ultrasound wand around, I saw no flashing. I could tell by his face that he was concerned and then he said those dreaded words, “I’m sorry.” Our hearts sank.
Keeping Hope Alive After Loss
After months of grieving, we tried again. We had lost that giddy innocence so when we heard that Cindy was indeed pregnant again, we didn’t want to tell anyone and tried to hold off our own excitement until we passed the twelve-week mark. The first ultrasound showed twins. That’s two, two babies! We couldn’t help feeling a little psyched and scared.
My brother, Stefan, who had been in the hospital because of a long-term illness, was so sick when we lost our first baby. He could barely take care of himself let alone be there for us, but he picked up prescriptions and did everything he could for us. His health was going down hill and so were his spirits. I wanted to give him something to be excited about, something to look forward to, to live for, so I told him about the twins. At first he busted out laughing but then started to cry at the news. He was so happy and he told me that we would be great parents. It meant so much to me to be able to share it with him because he was so supportive.
At eight weeks, Cindy started spotting; we were terrified. The Doctor had us come in for another ultrasound. One of the twins didn’t make it, but the other one was growing and looked great. At first we were sad but we knew we would be perfectly happy with “at least one good kid,” as Cindy would say.
Because of the resolving twin, the pregnancy was complicated. Cindy continued spotting, but we made it through the first trimester and the doctor officially declared us “out of the woods.” We were free to tell the world.
Telling People You are Pregnant Again After Miscarriage
Although my sister knew that we were pregnant again, she never once asked how Cindy was doing or how the pregnancy was going. Nothing. Not one word.
Then my brother died. I was devastated. A few weeks later, my sister and I were at a family dinner when she asked how I was doing after losing Stefan. I told her I was having a hard time and that I really missed him. “Well, we are your family and we’re just going to have to make an effort to be closer,” she said. I told her I didn’t know how we could do that when she doesn’t accept the family I was creating with Cindy. “We’ll just have to work on that”, she declared.
To her credit, she really did work on it. She prayed about it and decided that I didn’t need her judgment I just needed her love and we left it at that. I don’t think she will ever know how much that meant to me.
Premature Rupture Of Membrane (PROM)
Nineteen weeks into this pregnancy, we decided to have an amniocentesis. We didn’t really know what we would do if something was wrong with our baby but we knew if there was something wrong, we wanted to be prepared. Plus we wanted to know if it was a boy or a girl. It was a girl and the name we chose for her was Hallie Kathryn. After the test, Cindy began to leak a lot of fluid.
To make a very long story longer, Cindy was put on strict bed rest until twenty-four weeks. Once the doctors considered the baby viable, they brought Cindy to the hospital where she would stay six and a half more weeks until delivery.
The Relationship With Our Baby Grows Closer
During that time Cindy and Hallie were monitored closely. We could hear Hallie’s heart beat twenty-four hours a day. We actually got to know her that way. She loved food because when Cindy ate, Hallie appeared to get very excited as her heart rate danced around. Her heartbeat told us when she was sleeping, hungry or excited.
We saw her on ultrasound several times a week. Doctors and nurses remarked on how well she was developing in utero while I remarked on how big her feet were. Cindy’s feet are size tens and I have always teased her about them. Like mother like daughter.
The Non-Carrying Parent
I had a very real relationship with my daughter while she was in my partner Cindy’s belly. A relationship that started the moment we discovered that Cindy was pregnant. I read to her, I sang to her, we even bought a Doppler to listen to her heartbeat every night. Yes, we had become a little neurotic. Later in the pregnancy, when Cindy was on bed rest, we had weekly sonograms through which I witnessed every stage of her growth. Later still, we lived in the hospital for the final six weeks of the pregnancy where Cindy was hooked up to every monitor you could imagine, twenty-four hours a day. During that time, we literally heard every beat of her heart, every movement – we could tell by the accelerations and decelerations of her heartbeat whether she was hungry, sleeping, uncomfortable or happy. Her kicking told us a lot, too! Mostly she would kick to either applaud my singing or to shut me up… I never quite figured out which kick was a good review and which kick indicated a thumb’s down. Everyone’s a critic.
Occasionally, during and ultrasound, we would catch Hallie grabbing and squeezing the umbilical cord, which would coincide with a rapid deceleration in the heart rate, so even when we weren’t watching her we knew when she was grabbing that cord.
At 30 1/2 weeks Cindy started having contractions. The doctors decided that they could do more for Hallie on the outside and now that she was more than thirty weeks, her viability was really good.
On December 22nd 2004 Hallie Kathryn Michel-Eaton was born, 3 lbs. 7ozs., 19 inches long. We were so relieved to hear her cry. I cut the umbilical cord and went with Hallie to the NICU. Like all parents, I snapped photos but was warned not to take too many because the flash could hurt her eyes. She was so beautiful and she clearly had Cindy’s chin. I had to laugh because she also had Cindy’s feet.
Complications of Premature Birth
After the doctor had examined Hallie, he came to give us the update. With a smile, he said everything looked good. Her lungs had developed enough and were only under inflated. She had had her first dose of Serfactin, a medication given to premature babies to help the lungs continue to develop, and was responding well. The doctor expected she would have some of the typical issues of a preemie, but he didn’t expect anything that they couldn’t handle.
Celebrating the Birth of Our Baby Girl
I called everyone with the news. Family and friends came and celebrated with us and at the end of the day, we were wiped out. What a rollercoaster ride the last few months had been and now she was here. It was the best day of my life. We slept.
Then came the knock on the door, racing to the NICU, the chaos around our baby girl and those words, “this is going to be another miracle baby.” We were sent back to our room. Within an hour her oxygen levels crashed again. At this point the doctor said that Hallie’s vitals had crashed too many times and that there was probably organ and brain damage. They would continue working to bring her back if we wanted them to, but we had to think about what we were bringing back. Cindy and I both said, “No more.”
I watched them unhook the machines and place her in Cindy’s arms. They put us in a private room so we could say goodbye to our beautiful baby girl. A darkness fell upon us like no other darkness I have ever felt before. How could this have happened? I lost all faith. What purpose could this possibly have?
Every Baby Brings a Gift – The Shorter the Visit, the Bigger the Gift
When my sister heard the news she called me. Watching how much we loved and cared for our baby before she was even born, proved to my sister that Cindy and I would indeed make wonderful parents. Later, at Hallie’s memorial she told me that Hallie had changed people’s hearts.
It took a lot of work and time on my part, but I now see that Hallie changed and opened many hearts and minds. The healing came out of a deep understanding that my connection with Hallie was real and it was deep. The story of her birth and death only covers nineteen and a half hours of our relationship. It is only when I look at the totality of our relationship I can see the gift she brought us. Because of Hallie, old beliefs about what makes a true family a family have been redefined in the hearts of many people in our families and in my church. I will always love Hallie and am so grateful that I not only got to meet her, but that our experience and her existence made unconventional families more acceptable.
The same people that opposed us having children then, have celebrated in the joy of our son, Wiley Jordan, born June 5th 2006, 7lbs, 9ozs, 21 inches long. He is so beautiful and even has Cindy’s chin and I have to laugh, he has Cindy’s feet too!
Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that my life’s work would be about grief, death and how death can teach us to live. But as I examine my life, this is where I have been headed from a very young age. When I was six years old, my stepfather died of a massive coronary. From that point forward, death and loss became a major theme, as my mother’s and my unresolved grief became the foundation of my most formative years.
Many losses and many years later, as a newly ordained minister, the very first official service I did was a memorial service of a friend who had committed suicide. The first words I spoke were, “I could never have imagined that when I met Robert six years ago, one day I would be a minister, and that his Memorial Service would be my first.” Not two years later, I was standing at the same pulpit for my brother’s memorial giving the eulogy, and three months after that I conducted the entire funeral service including singing “The Lord’s Prayer” for my oldest and dearest friend, Doris. Two months would pass and I was once more at the pulpit memorializing my infant daughter. I wasn’t just a mother in front of her family and friends; I was a staff minister in front of her congregants. I felt their eyes watching as they held their breath. They looked to me as a leader in their community, wondering how I would handle the weight of all of these losses.
The weight of my despair was crushing, and I chose to be very honest about my descent into doubt and hopelessness. I stopped giving sermons and I stopped seeing my spiritual counseling clients. I could no longer help a desperate person find hope with the same shallow teachings and platitudes that I had been taught because I now knew they were false.
I read over 50 books, tried individual psychotherapy, group therapy, mediums, spiritual counseling and I got a little bit from each. Eventually I became a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist at The Grief Recovery Institute, trained by Russell Friedman, one of the co-authors of “The Grief Recovery Handbook.” I found their method to be extremely helpful with working through the emotional aspects of grief and I highly recommend The Grief Recovery Method. Yet, after all that work, I still felt a void spiritually. I just couldn’t reconcile the loss of Hallie with my understanding of God, the power of prayer and the fact that either “there must be a reason” for her death or that she just “wasn’t meant to be.”
Later I went to Compassionate Friends, a wonderful bereavement group that provides peer support to families who’ve suffered the loss of a child. Most of the parents had lost older children, but the group offered a sub-group for infant loss. As I sat in these infant loss groups and heard story after story, the grim details of how this baby died and that woman miscarried, and how nobody understood, all I felt was traumatized. I knew grieving for the loss of an infant was different, probably due to a perceived lack of a relationship between the parents and an unborn child or a baby under the age of one year. Doctors have even been known to say, “You can always have another,” or “At least you lost it sooner rather than later,” as if to say there was no connection between the parents and their infant. People either focused on the death scenario or simply didn’t acknowledge or understand it at all.
This experience was the impetus of the research for my book, Graceful Grieving: A Radical Spiritual Approach to Healing After Infant & Pregnancy Loss and forming Graceful Grieving, Inc. a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization. I had hoped my research would uncover the missing piece to completing grief after such loss. At first, I wasn’t sure what the remedy could be. I hoped there was a simple “5 Easy Steps to..,” but what I learned was that each case is unique; grief is not the same experience for everyone. I discovered that the existing paradigms are helpful but incomplete; so many of the resources available to grievers are psychologically- or religiously based, one person’s experience or completely “woo-woo” psychic-type stuff. Again, these can be helpful, but I realized that there is a lack of spiritual, NOT religious or “woo-woo,” but real spiritual help for grievers who may have lost their faith. Further, much of the religious material currently available to grievers is filled with judgment and threats. Not helpful!
The most important gift I received from my studies, research and personal experience was the understanding that grief recovery must include the story of the relationship. I could walk into any funeral of an adult today and people would be crying and laughing but most importantly, they would be telling stories. Stories about their loved one’s life, not just the circumstances surrounding the loved one’s death. That is what I would call complete grieving.
But what happens if you have a baby that is stillborn? Or, if you lose your child within mere hours or days of his or her birth? If I walked into a funeral held for one of these babies, I am willing to bet there wouldn’t be laughter and stories about the baby’s life. That is one of the most important missing pieces to fully grieving the loss of a baby. I have found that true healing occurs when the grieving parents tell the complete story of the relationship they had with their infant, no matter how brief, to acknowledge not just the death, but the life of their child.
I had a very real relationship with my daughter while she was in my partner Cindy’s belly. I read to her, I sang to her, we even bought a Doppler to listen to her heartbeat every night. Later in the pregnancy, when Cindy was on bed rest, we had weekly sonograms through which I witnessed every stage of her growth. Later still, we lived in the hospital for the final six weeks of the pregnancy where Cindy was hooked up to every monitor you could imagine, twenty-four hours a day. During that time, we literally heard every beat of her heart, every movement – we could tell by the accelerations and decelerations of her heartbeat whether she was hungry, sleeping, uncomfortable or happy. Her kicking told us a lot, too! Mostly she would kick to either applaud my singing or to shut me up… I never quite figured out which kick was a good review and which kick indicated a thumb’s down. Everyone’s a critic. This was a seven and a half month relationship that started the moment we discovered that Cindy was pregnant. The story of her birth and death only covers nineteen and a half hours of that relationship.
I do believe one needs to acknowledge the devastating blow of the death of an infant, but the life must be acknowledged as well. As a result of the wisdom gained from my relationship with my daughter, I created a workshop for parents who have lost an infant called “Birth Write: The Write Way to Grieve,” which helps parents document the story of the life they had with their baby. “Finding Your Way Back to Faith,” came out of a workshop I developed for grievers who have lost their faith as a result of their loss.
I walked a dark, excruciatingly painful and lonely path after losing my infant daughter, my faith and what I knew as my purpose. By using the tools in this book, I found my way to a stronger faith, which has brought me to my deeper purpose: to be a light for you as you walk through your grief, guiding you to a stronger faith so you can know your deeper purpose. If you walk through your grief, you can feel more complete and joyful than you did before your beautiful baby made their miraculous, if all-to-brief appearance in your life.