One of three baby cribs will stay empty, and we are doing pretty good in avoiding talking about it.
To the other side
In my favorite podcast, “This American Life”, one episode’s narrative is structured along with the feeling of loss and grief. Loss is accepted and digested in different ways. What struck me were the final lines. After experiencing the loss of his two parents and his girlfriend, the narrator says: “ I was asking myself why do we all live here, what is it for? I don’t have any fight or doctrine, I am not even secure enough of my understanding of the cosmos to be atheist, but I did come up with an answer. It’s simple and makes more sense for me now. The reason we are all here is to get each other to the other side.”
In the hospital
But what happens when the life you have to pass away to Death gracefully hasn’t even started? Miscarriages and stillbirths are occurring with over a quarter of today’s pregnancies. One in six women experiences post-traumatic stress, anxiety, оr depression, and to some, it will be the most traumatic experience in their life. The numbers, however, don’t normalize pain. Or at least they shouldn’t.
The struggle of recovery is a process every couple goes through in their way. In the hospital, you will be given enough time to hold your baby, spend time together, or not – if the idea makes you feel uncomfortable. The psychiatrists and birth aid professionals would recommend a disclosure by properly facing death and honoring life as it was.
The Doula advise
When my friend Renata had a stillbirth couple of weeks ago, her doula advised her to surrender to the experience properly. To be present throughout all the stages – contractions, birth, holding her dead baby, cherishing its life cycle, giving it back to the earth, and grieving.
Vocalizing death is a crucial stage of healing – “You have to talk about it. Imagine if a woman was going through labor and no one around her was talking about it or preparing for it,” explains a death doula in The Guardian.
It’s not going to get better.
I have called Renata the week after the most traumatic experience in her life. A bit dizzy but very present, she needed a normal conversation with someone that’s not her husband. Because loss was recently in my family, I knew how to handle it – something many people lack understanding of it.
To keep repeating the mantra “It’s going to get better” is escapism and won’t do. I wish we can take it off our vocabulary and stop pushing grief away. Promoting this positive culture over our losses is only making the bereaved struggle even more with their condition. It may not get better – only more bearable.
Renata was experiencing the same struggle as I did a couple of months ago – friends and close ones don’t know how to communicate with a bereaved person. Luckily she didn’t have to push herself out of her grieving – her GP gave her a long enough sick leave note to recover. Bereavement leave is not uncommon – some big companies offer a few days of paid bereavement leave and counseling for employees once they return to work.
Life has to go on, and the transition to some sort of normality is pivotal to recovery. It was important to honor her baby’s life; she wanted us to call her baby by her name – Lala Katharina; we even did a sisterhood ritual – all her three best friends in different continents created their shrine in the name of Lala.
Light in the face of Death
What is it that we can all do to comfort our bereaved lady friends? Talk and listen to without fidgeting from discomfort. Ask questions about the birth process and don’t fear the answers; talk about pain and sorrow, go through the traumatic experience once again. Be ready to share the weight. Sometimes, for a short minute, the weight becomes lighter. If the person is emotionally intelligent and prepared to talk, you may hear a story charging you with electric goosebumps over and over again.
”I experienced light during labor. Our little girl Lala showed it to us. I surrendered on my knees to her during my strong contractions. I saw myself holding the sun in my hands, lifting it high up and letting it flow through my body. Light and sun were born with and for Lala”. Renata wrote this message a couple of days after her birth – we had a long detailed conversation about it.
She felt relieved that someone would hear the story of her beautiful stillbirth and won’t find it bizarre or crazy. I knew she was talking from her heart and her emotional intelligence swept me off my feet. I couldn’t tell her that it’s going to get better, even if they had a healthy child – miscarriage anxiety can continue for years after the dreadful event.
The five stages of grief manifest in multiple ways – experiencing grief and healing is a personal journey and if one day is denial and another day is anger, that’s ok too. You will get through this and be able to move on to brighter days ahead, holding your baby’s memory close always.
Sadness and tears may come as sudden as a strong cyclon – depression and PTSD are more common in mothers following stillbirth. The recovery process will include the coming home time, when it may be too hard to face all the baby things prepared. Some couples may need help to organize the space again, so if you are that trusted friend – don’t shy away from offering that help.
“Her soul is always with us, graceful gift of Life.” Sending this message to Renata on the 40th day of Lala’s birth hopefully made its way to balm her soul. The more we are ready to talk about it as women and friends, share our pain and sorrow, create sisterhood rituals or just help with the more pragmatic things, the more it seems we will be completing our purpose. “May you always be surrounded by scents of flowers Lala Katharina.”
After all, aren’t we here to complete more gracefully the journey to the other side and be present for those who stay on that side too?