This Christmas many are struggling to come to terms with miscarriage and infant loss. In this personal essay, Lucy Kelly, a student midwife, shares her own story of the heartache of pregnancy loss.
I remember as a child threading beads onto a piece of yarn in patterns. Blue yellow green. Blue yellow green. Square diamond rectangle. Square, diamond, rectangle. I found great solace in the simplicity of colours and shapes repeating. I adored learning about opposites and phonetics. Up down. Big small. Tall short. Hard easy. New old. Dead alive. Happy sad.
I have loved and I have lost. I have done my fair share of grieving, and have navigated my soul through both simple and complex grief. Perhaps the grief that remains the most complex to my mind is the loss of an unborn baby. It scares me; I deal in life, not death. The hand I’ve chosen to play in life unequivocally deals me with more joy, new life, and happiness than any other medical profession. But I notice, in stark contrast to all this joy, the dark shadow that hangs over the air when an unborn or newborn baby dies. From what I’ve seen, it’s the worst grief in the world. It’s the grief for not only a child, but of something never had.
There also seems to be a dark taboo around infant loss in the world. Many people seem to believe that the death of a body you never had the chance to hold is somehow less significant and easier to bury. That if you never felt the fluttering of that heart like butterfly wings against your chest then you shouldn’t be sad when that fluttering ceased. I have friends who’ve been unable to take bereavement leave from work after a miscarriage or stillbirth. Insurance policies often do not cover the cost of a tiny infant sized coffin. When I’ve spoken to social workers who deal in this area specifically, they seem defeated by the challenge of getting people to grasp the true difficulty of their work. It’s a phenomenon of human life and mortality in limbo that very few people want to fully understand.
I never wanted to fully understand it either. I could deal with it in an abstract and intellectual sense, but nothing more. Until I sat staring at a positive pregnancy test in my hands, with no idea what to do about it. I buried it in the depths of a trash can and ignored it. I willed it to go away. I was on birth control, I was responsible, I was in my last year of my degree, I worked alongside studying, I didn’t have space for a partner in my life and I sure as hell didn’t have time to be pregnant. But I couldn’t bring myself to make any decision about what to do with this newfound situation.
I didn’t need to research my options for termination, I knew my rights and I knew the risks, I knew I would have to deem myself mentally incompetent in order to have an abortion. As somebody whose mental health has not always been a given, it felt like a kick in the guts to have to falsely make this claim. I willed it to go away. I woke one morning in cold sweat having dreamt that I had been summoned to a court hearing with Mother Nature herself. In court I had to lay out my case for why I wanted her to take responsibility for my pregnancy.
I never thought I’d get attached. I’m so good at separating death and life into little boxes. I told myself firmly that I could not do this: not here, not now, not knowing how little of a shit the man who was the father would give, not to mention we lived in different countries now. I thought that I could face this situation intellectually and get on with my life. I could, to a point.
But what nobody tells you before you get pregnant is how quickly another human soul becomes tethered to your being. How rapidly maternal guilt sets in. How vividly you’ll imagine little pieces of cartilage and a beating heart forming. My study would be interrupted with thoughts about how the little embryo within me was the size of a peanut this week, that the rivets of a minute spine were growing within the cavern of my womb. Here I was, the same woman that defiantly told the entire world that until a fetus is 24 weeks and can survive outside its mother’s womb that it does not count as a separate human life, feeling torn to pieces over the decision of whether to cut loose this piece of my being, my body.
I sat in the bathroom one day and looked into the toilet water dyed a deep dark red. I heard my own voice echoing in my ears like a ghost “If you see fresh red blood running down your legs you need to call your midwife urgently.” This advice only matters if the fetus inside of you is viable, if like me you are merely weeks pregnant, there’s nothing you can do. So I did nothing, I continued my life as normal, I had booked in for an ultrasound the following week, torn between hoping there would still be a growing life inside of me, and relief that there may be nothing but empty space. I continued to prepare for an adventure race that weekend, I told my team mates that it was taken care of.
But as I stood in the depths of the Taupo bush and felt the compound impact of exhaustion and blood loss take hold of my body, all of my intellectual acceptance of what was happening crashed in on my soul and I could no longer breathe, or see, or move. I wanted to stop the world turning on its axis for a moment. I wanted to heave my own heart up through my throat and bury myself in the piney forest floor.
I thought I might tear in two with the agony of it. The guilt of it.
My heart and gut wrenched in opposite directions and I wanted them to just hurry up and give way, to let the tension snap into a nothingness.
For so long afterward I felt like there was a glass wall between me and the rest of the world. That the secret of what I’d done and been and felt and lived was separating me and any other human.
Like I could scream and all anybody would hear was a foreign language.
Because I deserved this. I deserved to hurt this much because I was the heartless woman who not only wished for, but gave thanks for the miscarriage of her child. I was deserving of every stab of pain. I was deserving of all of this guilt. To this day it continues to amaze me how quickly maternal guilt fastens a death grip around you and doesn’t let go.
For days and weeks afterward I’d have dreams where it had never happened. Where a full term baby was stretching my swollen belly and I could feel our heart beats overlap. I would sit in my antenatal clinics and listen to the galloping sound of a fetal heart rate and smile at women while I said “that’s your baby, they’re happy, they’re good,” and I would wonder if my baby was happy, if my baby was good. I would wonder about the exact moment when its tiny little butterfly heart stopped beating its wings. But at least I was not being ripped in two any more. At least I could breathe without wanting to suffocate. At least my thudding heart didn’t feel like it was shattering over and over and over again.
I’d never tell anybody about it, I’d never tell people that I miscarried, or that I was pregnant at all. I’d never tell them that it still haunts me in the middle of the night more so than any other unjust loss in my life. Because few people can understand and nobody really wants to understand. If you haven’t lived it, you cannot possibly know.
Yes, I never knew that piece of me as anything more than a tiny peanut sized collection of dividing cells and and a constant dull sense of nausea. And no, I was not in a position to grow and raise a child, which is why I was on birth control. But it was mine, and as fast as it hurtled into my life it was taken away again. The impact of grief is relative – always. I can never hold my loss to the same scale as a stillbirth or the death of a newborn.
That’s not my space to take and those losses are worlds different.
As gut wrenching and heart shattering as my miscarriage was, it doesn’t for a moment compare to losing a full term baby who a whole family and world are already in love with. The complexity of grief is also relative. To lose a life you never had crosses so many paths of life and death, up and down, black and white, happy and sad, and new and old. It is not simple or straightforward, and there is nothing you can do.
There is no funeral, no burial site, no eulogy.
You are left with a profound emptiness, and a deep chasm between you and the rest of the world that’s still turning.