I wrote this on October 15, 2015, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, in honor of my clients, their partners, their families and friends, and always—always—the memory of their babies. The presence of their absence is with us every day, but particularly on October 15.
“She would be five years old now,” said my client wistfully, looking out the window. “When I see a child of the same age, an imaginary movie plays in my head of what she would be doing. What would she be like? Would she be learning to ride a bicycle? Would she have a special blankie? Who would her friends be? Who would I be as her mother?”
After the birth of a baby born still, time stops. For a long time. Devastation results. It’s not just the death of a beloved, deeply wanted child but also the death of a dreamed of future.
And there are the unintended insults from others who forget about or gloss over a baby’s passing. And questions about the next child. Well, it might be a good thing to have another child. Sure.
At some point.
If you are not terrified.
And if you have hope.
And if you are healthy.
And if you and your partner agree.
And if you don’t have fertility problems.
Or you have not had one or more previous pregnancy losses.
But there’s a problem with other’s hurrying you along.
The baby you can’t forget is the baby others can’t remember.
“The English language lacks the words to mourn an absence. For the loss of a parent, grandparent, spouse, child or friend, we have all manner of words and phrases, some helpful some not. Still we are conditioned to say something, even if it is only “I’m sorry for your loss.” But for an absence, for someone who was never there at all, we are wordless to capture that particular emptiness. For those who deeply want children and are denied them, those missing babies hover like silent ephemeral shadows over their lives. Who can describe the feel of a tiny hand that is never held?”
— Laura Bush, Spoken from the Heart
We don’t replace children with new children. They are all beloved, whether they are in front of you or in the front of your “heartmind”.
This is the essence of what Pauline Boss, University of Minnesota Family Social Science professor emeritus and one of my doctoral professors, calls ambiguous loss. The baby is not physically here but psychologically present. We may not be able to reach out and hold the baby but she or he is very much here in mind and heart. Miscarriage and stillbirth are a type of disenfranchised grief. Too often, what people don’t see, they don’t acknowledge or attach to. “Unfortunately, in the United States, the size of the coffin, the size of the grief. If there is no coffin, there’s nothing to grieve,” said Sharon Covington, MSW, LCSW-C at Shady Grove Fertility Center.
It can be tricky to navigate the absence of their presence. Living here in the Midwest, the first question out of a new person’s mouth is “How many children do you have?” Some of my beautiful patients name all of the children, those who are living and those who are living in the heartmind, with the brief version of pregnancy loss and perhaps the long journey to pregnancy.
You are grieving the child you never knew.
Except you did know a lot about that child, in a way that no one else on this planet has done. You saw that child in your mind and you attached. The presence of their absence. You invested in your dreams for yourself and that child and your family. Loss is both now and future.
But you can heal. The experience of having a stillborn or a miscarried child is real and it stays with you. With time, therapy, prayer, compassion for yourself, and other experiences, including some experiences that I don’t have words for, things can change.
I heard a story from a beautiful bereaved mother who was taking a walk on a still warm fall day. She described a stunning back-lit tree with yellow leaves that was losing its leaves in that very moment. She said it was like a gentle shower of leaving. She had a voice in her mind that said, “You are going to be okay.” She felt a sense of almost instant peace. She knew in that moment that that was her deceased baby son. She had no doubt about that and I didn’t either. Her son was present for her in a way that is filled with love. She is a bereaved mother. She is a forever mother. And she will be okay. And you will be okay, too.