Trigger warning: child loss
Forty-three years ago, when my mother-in-law had a stillbirth at 40 weeks into pregnancy, she didn’t see her daughter. She lived in a culture and during a time when she wasn’t encouraged to name her. She wasn’t told where she is buried.
She told me about this loss only because we were at the hospital visiting my father-in-law, and death was on our minds. It has come up in conversation only rarely since then. I never asked; she never offered. Why talk about what she had lost when she had two living children in subsequent years?
But after she told me that story, I had a bit more reverence for her. She had given birth three times but had just two children. She had labored and delivered a dead baby. What could be more painful for a woman—both physically and emotionally—than going through that unthinkable process? Of course, it was best that she didn’t see her baby. Of course, she didn’t talk about her experience. How much pain can one heart take?
In 2014, four years after our conversation, I got pregnant. And who was I to worry about anything? Her stillbirth had happened in the ’70s, and times have changed.
Sort of. There are still 24,000 stillbirths in the US each year, which is 10 times more than the number of SIDS cases. But the odds were on our side—our son wasn’t one of them.
Then, last year, I got pregnant with baby number two. A girl this time. A relatively easy pregnancy. A doctor’s appointment at 37 weeks where I was assured all was good. Just wait.
And then, at 38 weeks, my daughter stopped moving. We dropped our toddler with a neighbor. Told them we’d be back soon. Thought about grabbing a phone charger but decided we wouldn’t need it. Caught a car to the hospital.
The doctors didn’t have to say those four dreaded words—”There is no heartbeat”—because we could immediately see that for ourselves on the sonogram screen. It wasn’t until 14 hours later, after delivery, that we could see the rare tight knot that had formed in her umbilical cord.
I gave birth (that phrase still doesn’t sound right, but it’s better than “delivered death”) in a culture and during a time when it’s generally thought that seeing the baby helps with grieving. We named our baby and took photos and had the option of spending hours with her after delivery. Some hospitals even have special cooling cots so parents can spend days with their babies.
My mother-in-law’s actions after her own stillbirth had more resembled how she might have responded to an early miscarriage: no photos, no footprints, no funeral.
Neither way of processing this heartbreaking grief is right—we both grieved—but the difference highlights the unfamiliarity of stillbirth. It’s not a miscarriage, which, unfortunately, happens in at least a quarter of all pregnancies. It’s not the death of a live person. It’s the death of a baby who never took a breath, yet could have. It’s the death of someone whom only one person in the entire world actually knew.
Stillbirth is the middle ground between carrying a baby and having a baby. It’s a gap that we fell through. It’s jumping from a toadstool to the flag but falling into the bottomless pit: we made it to the end of the game, but we lost anyway.
With a stillbirth, there is often no birth certificate. There is no death certificate. Yet most states make it the family’s responsibility to dispose of the body if a baby is delivered after 20 weeks. That means there is a burial or a cremation, the costs associated with such (but no tax credit, which is available only for babies who take at least one breath), and often a service with poems read and tears shed.
And such is the dilemma of a stillbirth parent. We fall between miscarriage and the death of a live person. We have photos, but we don’t show them. We gave birth, but a birthday is not a celebration. We produced milk, but there was no baby to drink it. We paid the hospital bills, but we left empty-handed. We cremated a baby who was never officially alive. When people ask how many kids we have, we hesitate.
I was recently asked if my toddler has any siblings. If I answer that our daughter died, there’s an implication that she also lived. Yet saying we had a prenatal loss (or not mentioning it at all) minimizes the weight of the tragedy.
After our loss, we received a sympathy card from a friend’s mom whose own grown daughter had died in an accident last year. She welcomed me into the club of loss moms. She honored my daughter by writing her name and acknowledging her existence.
At the same time, my husband and I were trying to make sense of our experience, wondering aloud how our loss was different from a miscarriage. Was our loss as tragic as my friend’s mom’s, when we hadn’t made memories? Was it more tragic since our daughter had her whole life ahead of her? What was the right amount of mourning? Were we supposed to take time off work as if we had lost a child, or should we hurry back and get on with life?
That inability to classify stillbirth, to explain the inexplicable, contributes to our lack of understanding about it. A friend told me that when her daughter was born dead at full term four years ago, a friend of hers who had just finished med school asked, “So, are we calling this a stillbirth?”
Um, yes. We’re calling it a stillbirth.
And we’re saying loudly that it happens—it still happens. Stillbirth wasn’t left in the ’70s, as I had thought. Stillbirth rates in the US haven’t decreased in two decades. There are, sadly, tens of thousands of new stillbirth parents created every year in this country, simultaneously full of love yet feeling empty.
Some of us held our babies. Some of us held funerals. When you ask how many children we have, some of us are unsure what to say or how to say it. But months or years or decades later, we all grieve our babies and the children they would have become.