When I was eight months pregnant with my son, Richard, I was teaching high school English. I spent my days waddling in between student desks, reminding them that I could no longer see my own feet, let alone their bookbags, so they needed to keep the walkway clear. I would stand in front of my classroom, discussing the motifs in Shakespeare’s Hamlet when suddenly I would hear a gasp and see horrified looks on my students’ faces. Realizing that my son had shifted in such a way that my belly was extremely lopsided, I would laugh and nudge him back to the middle.
I answered a constant barrage of questions from my students: What are you craving? Is your husband excited? What does the nursery look like? Are you scared to give birth? What are you naming the baby? It was a happy time for me. I was pregnant with my son, just six weeks away from welcoming him into the world.
But on May 16th, 2016, Richard was delivered via emergency C-section at just 33 weeks and five days. He succumbed to heart failure after experiencing a fetal maternal hemorrhage. He lived one hour while the NICU team fought to save him.
I held him for the first time and was told I must say goodbye.
I stayed in the hospital for five days. Those five days were a blur of blood draws, doctors’ visits, and tears. So many tears. I was recovering from surgery, but my husband and I still had to deal with the clinical side of our son’s death: Did we want an autopsy? Did we want him cremated? Which funeral home did we choose?
Everything felt so incredibly surreal. I was in shock, and I could not process what was happening during those five days. So what did I do? I turned to my work. I answered emails. I answered text messages. I even attempted to grade some student work, but I think I just gave everyone 100% on the assignment. My work was the one constant in my life. I knew how to do it, and I knew how to do it well.
But no one told me what it would be like to return to work after losing Richard.
When I returned the following September, I could feel the tension as soon as I entered any room. Many coworkers avoided eye contact and some even abruptly walked in the opposite direction once they saw me. Others would quickly say hi, gather their papers from the copier, and rush out. I went from being the pregnant English teacher that everyone greeted on a daily basis with “How are you feeling?” to making everyone uncomfortable with my presence.
My students, on the other hand, were incredible. Some had been in my classroom the previous school year, and they offered their condolences directly. Others had heard the news secondhand and told me that their mothers had experienced loss as well. I even had some students ask me if I was feeling okay because they could tell I was having a rough day with my grief. They welcomed me back into my classroom with open arms.
When I remember this time of returning to work after my loss, I wish I had done many things differently.
Here are some things that I learned that other loss parents may find helpful:
1. Find at least one support person.
This person should be someone who is comfortable with your grief and willing to listen. Your support person can help in a myriad of ways – call or text you once a day to check in, answer questions from nosy coworkers, coach coworkers in the right language to use around you, or remind you to take care of yourself before your workload.
2. Advocate for yourself.
You may not know what you need until weeks, months, or even years later. Whenever that time may be, do not be afraid to speak up. If you have curious coworkers, tell your support person what to say. This can be as simple as, “She just lost her baby, and she does not want to share her story yet.” If your coworkers’ silence bothers you, you can tell your support person to advocate on your behalf. If you feel comfortable doing it yourself, you can send an email to your coworkers stating what you need most. If you want them to say your baby’s name, then say that. If you want them to go back to their usual banter and treat you like yourself again, then say that.
3. Know your limits.
There is incredible stress when returning to work after any time off. You may feel like you need to catch up on everything that you missed. You may also feel like you cannot focus on any task at all. See if you can receive a lighter workload or an amended schedule for a certain time period. It is most helpful if you have a compassionate boss who is willing to meet you where you are.
4. Be aware of potential triggers.
Your coworkers will become pregnant. They will throw baby showers. They will complain about their children. They will make insensitive jokes about parenthood. Regarding pregnancy announcements, baby showers, and birth announcements, information is usually sent via email. You can tell the person relaying that information to leave you off of the message chain. Your support person can also tell you ahead of time so that you can prepare yourself for the news. Regardless, have an exit plan in place. Excuse yourself to use the restroom, fake a phone call – anything to get out of the room and away from the painful situation.
5. Practice your responses to painful questions and comments.
Although many people are well-meaning in their questions and comments, the conversation can still be very hurtful. Prepare yourself for this scenario because it will occur at some point. Practice your responses in front of the mirror. Keep your answers short and to the point. Do not be afraid to tell the person that although they may find the comment comforting, you find it painful. It can serve as a learning experience for that person.
When I returned to work, I suffered in silence. I often closed my door and cried in my classroom during my lunch break. But it did not have to be this way for me.
I founded Start Healing Together, an organization dedicated to supporting educators experiencing pregnancy loss and infertility. We aim to support the staff member immediately after their loss as well as in their return to work. We work to include pregnancy loss and failed fertility treatments in the contractual language concerning bereavement leave. We educate union officials, school administrators, and staff on how to talk to someone going through these experiences. We explain what to say, what not to say, and how to provide support. Most importantly, we advocate for member rights. We work with the staff member to learn what they need and ensure that they receive it. Our goal is to create a community that destigmatizes conversations around pregnancy loss and infertility. I do this in honor of my son, Richard, because this is exactly what I wished I had.