When you’re visibly pregnant, everyone wants to talk about it. You can’t go out without being asked questions by strangers. The woman working the checkout line at the grocery store would like to know if it’s a boy or a girl. A server who serves at the restaurant’s end makes several recommendations for a doula.
But when your baby dies, these same people who eagerly asked personal questions ― Was it planned? Are you sure it’s not twins? ― are now painfully silent.
Paul, my son died just a few days before his due date. The pregnancy that had been boring and textbook turned to a life of planning. At first, I was shocked and stunned by the fact that my perfectly healthy child had died. Nine months later, after devoting my prenatal care to the baby for nine months, I was finally allowed to see this child as the only patient.
Giving birth to a baby in the maternity unit with no heartbeat is an unpleasant experience. They insist that you get out of the maternity ward in a wheelchair. There’s no monitor for your baby, and nothing to help.
It’s also difficult to see what comes next. The rest of your life is a struggle to preserve a childhood memory in an age that has forgotten it. Sometimes that looks like family or friends who aren’t interested in seeing photos of him. Other times it means that people pretend the whole pregnancy and loss didn’t happen at all. The already difficult experience of grieving an infant is made more painful by the difficulty in processing those who try to avoid it.
Shortly after our baby died, I was at a child’s birthday party with my young daughter. A mother asked me how many children I had. His loss was still so recent that I didn’t know how to omit his presence. In these early days of grief, it didn’t seem optional to leave him out. We had just lost our baby and I explained to her this.
I’ll never forget the next scene. A clear plastic glass of white wine was found in one of her fingers, with lipstick markings on the other half. She raised her other hand like a stop sign to my face and said, “STOP. Or I’m going to start crying.” Before I could react, she added, “But someday we’ll have to get together, drink a bottle of wine and you can tell me all about it.” She laughed.
It is not something anyone wants to discuss about deceased babies.
Each year, one in 160 American babies are stillborn. That’s 24,000 families per year that are often invisible in their grief. In our culture, there is very little rituals and language to grieve and remember those who have died shortly before, or within the first 24 hours of birth.
In many ways, silencing and refusing to see the lives of those who almost were is a constant process. It’s the salt of an already huge wound. The responses can be so rapid and unthoughtful, yet it is the catalyst for a flood of emotions within those who remain behind.
I was messaging a friend, who had just lost her infant daughter. After the shock passes, we were discussing the feelings of anger and guilt that can set in. Anger at all the injustice of the situation, anger at our family members and friends for not discussing it and all the other emotions that follow. The existing pain is magnified when people around you are silent about the loss or discuss everything except the baby. Everything burned rapidly in the first days following his death.
Death is so fearful for us, particularly when it intersects into youth, it’s considered an optional question. It is even at the expense of those most directly affected.
For me, my friend, and many others it is essential. It isn’t a picture or story that we can tell. Often we’re just asking you to hold it for, at most, a few minutes.
I am further along than my friend ― our stillborn son would be 9 this year. What is there to say about what it’s like nine years out? It’s easier and harder. It’s easier to carry him around than it is to speak about him in public.
As much as I try to unlearn all the tropes about grief and linear time, I’m still a product of this cultureThis is a. When I mention him now, I can imagine what everyone’s thinking: but it’s been so long; time heals all wounds; everything happens for a reason My favorite cliché is a lie: I can’t imagine. You CanImagine. Imagine if you refused to accept any empathy, comfort or support that you would receive for almost nothing.
I pick and choose now whether I mention him and I (mostly) don’t feel guilty when I don’t. We’ve worked out a deal, he and I. I know he knows that it’s not about him. It’s about making a snap decision regarding my audience.
But what a gift it would be if grieving parents didn’t have to make these social calculations. It would be normal to ask questions about deceased babies. When you feel the need to think about your friend and their child, text or call them. You can send them photos if you notice their name on an advertisement. Notifying them of their death anniversary and birthdays.
There is no way to bring them back. We’re just asking that you remember them.