A few years ago, while scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I came across photos of a mother holding her newborn baby. With tears in her eyes, she gazed lovingly at the tiny babe that had just been brought into the world. Bundled gently in a white hospital blanket, he was small and beautiful. And although he appeared to be asleep, this little fellow would never wake up.
He was stillborn.
To be completely honest, this picture confused me. I was genuinely grieved over the loss of this mother’s baby but more than anything else, I was weirded out. I found it strange that they’d posted a photo of their deceased infant and odder still that the mother’s arms were wrapped so tightly around him. I couldn’t imagine wanting to hold someone who was dead, even if they were your child.
“Would I hold my stillborn baby?”
You never anticipate having to actually answer this question. As the picture disappeared into my ever updating newsfeed, so did my train of thought. I never asked it again.
Even years later, during pregnancy, the word “stillbirth” never crossed my mind. No one ever mentioned it. These are not the questions that we like to think about.
Because as your womb tingles with the growth of new life, your attention is naturally focused elsewhere. Nine months are spent busily researching and weighing every possible option regarding genetic testing, home births, circumcision, and vaccinations. Pregnancy books are purchased, apps are downloaded and birthing plans completed.
But when your child is stillborn, you suddenly realize that you don’t have answers to the questions being asked.
Yes, you’ve spent the past three trimesters listening to a never ending parade of gory labour stories. Women in the mall spot your ballooning belly and stop to tell you about three day labours, engorged breasts, and colicky babies. You’ve begun to mentally prepare yourself for the forewarned pain and discomfort, third degree tears, husbands who need laughing gas, and epidurals that don’t work.
But suddenly you’re facing an entirely different sort of pain. Your child is stillborn and you’re walking blindly. You’re confronted with a multitude of questions and details that no one told you about.
No one tells you that your first night will be spent lying on an uncomfortable hospital bed, silently screaming for your baby. No one warns you that every detail of the birth will loop endlessly around your brain – you cannot shut it off long enough to fall asleep.
No one mentions the little teardrop that hangs on your hospital door – the first sign that something is amiss.
There was no warning about thin, hospital walls that echo the midnight cries of newborn babies in the ward around you. There is a hungry baby who will wake you up every hour but that baby is not yours.
No one tells you that despite emotional, mental and physical exhaustion, you will still require sleeping pills.
There is no preparation for the wave of jealousy that erupts as you watch a father pace the maternity ward with a small infant snuggled against his shoulder.
You’ve been warned about recovery time from c-sections, but no one said that you would barely feel the stitches in your abdomen because the pain in your heart cuts a thousand times deeper.
No one warns you that you will have to make choices about autopsies and funeral homes, cremation, burials, or memorials. That the money you were saving for extra baby onesies and diapers will be spent on purchasing a plot of earth and a grave marker.
Everyone prepares you for the post-pregnancy weight loss struggle, but no one tells you what to do when you’re so numb you forget to eat.
No one mentions that the saleswoman will cry alongside you as you’re forced to return a double stroller and matching carseats. No one whispers that you’ll have to find somewhere to store the crib that your husband so faithfully set up just a week prior.
No one ever tells you that you may leave the hospital empty handed.
But truthfully, even if someone had warned you about this side of childbirth – it wouldn’t have mattered. There will never be adequate preparation for moments like this. And so you take each day one step at a time, decision by decision.
And I think back to the picture of a mother holding her stillborn son. I am now that woman. Lying in a hospital bed, I am desperate to see my son. I wish for nothing more than to hold him and never let go; it is not strange, it’s love.
Because no one tells you that your baby will be beautiful. No one says that despite his stillness, despite the trauma he’s been through – he will be beyond precious. No one tells you just how deeply you will love him; that although his body is but a shell, you will hold his hand and whisper a lullaby in his ear. No one says that a mother’s heart can be both broken and bursting with pride at the same time.
And as I struggle to shake off the heavy fog of anesthesia, a nurse quietly asks if I’d like to hold my son. Walking an unmarked road, this is my first decision. Eagerly, without hesitation, I whisper a simple word, “Yes.”
Let’s start talking about the difficult topics too: sharing our hearts and our loves gone-too-soon. What do you wish you’d known about stillbirth?