Since I lost our daughter Abby, many well intentioned people have asked me how I am or how I feel, they have also said: “I can’t begin to understand your pain”, or “I didn’t know what to say”. Why do people not know what to say? Because luckily they can’t relate to the pain of losing a child. Yes, a child. Abby is my daughter, my first child, even when no one could meet her and even when she only got to live inside of me for just short 26 weeks. Even when people would keep seeing us only as a couple without children. In this world, only I knew her, and what a blessing to be the only one that has known her. My husband was not that lucky, since she was not developing inside him.
How am I? or How do I feel now? Honest answer: Eight months in, and I am living my worst fucking nightmare, thanks for asking!
Losing a child makes you feel like your life has no meaning and no purpose anymore. It makes you feel like you are a failure as a woman and couldn’t bring a living baby to this world. Instead of life, you birthed dead and failed at the most fundamental feature of all known life: reproduction. And no, I am not clinically depressed or suicidal, at least not anymore. I am now a bereaved mother, and this is what it feels like. I bet that suicide rate is very high among bereaved parents, because an incredible strength to get up of our knees is needed every day to be able to move forward. You see, I say “move forward” and not “move on”, because there is no moving on from this as much as there is not coming back to my previous life.
People can’t begin to understand the pain, because it is a pain that shouldn’t exist. There shouldn’t be babies dying before being born, there shouldn’t be children dying before their parents. There shouldn’t be children dying at all. The pain of losing a child is constant. It is not something that goes away, it is always there, sometimes even in your dreams. When you wake up, reality hits you and you realize that instead of having a baby to feed, bathe, dress, or cuddle; you have nothing. Your body is gross and your mind is a mess. Every time you look at the mirror you see the baby weight that you could not lose during postpartum, the stretch marks on your belly, and your empty womb but nothing to show for it. For women that had a cesarean section, their scar will be a constant reminder of their loss as they look in the mirror or get in the shower every day. Your head and your body now play games with you constantly, because there are phantom kicks that you will feel for a long time after your baby is gone that would trick you into thinking that you are still pregnant, but you are not.
A stillbirth fucks you up entirely and completely ruins the joy of future pregnancies due to PTSD. Having a baby is supposed to be a happy moment for an entire family and a happy place to be. To give birth is a painful process physically, yes, but it is not a pain a mother could not tolerate, because after all the physical effort to push the baby out, there is a well deserved happy baby reward. You get to meet your baby and say hello. You get to hear your baby cry and breathe. You get to see them opening their big eyes. People congratulate you and tell you how beautiful your baby is. You get to hold, bath and feed our baby. You get to take your baby home. You get to see your husband looking down at his baby with eyes full of pride and love.
In a stillbirth all you can feel is pain and all you are left with is the body of your baby to be buried or cremated. The physical pain of giving birth to a stillborn baby is nothing compared to the emotional pain you feel during the process. In my case, I did not ask for an epidural, because I felt that nothing was going to help me feel better. I was also sure that I needed to punish myself for what had happened, like it was my fault my baby died. And nothing could be worse than the pain of my daughter passing, so I thought I really did not need it. I literally wanted to die that day, and I prayed for it too, because it felt that dying was the only way to feel a little bit better and the only way to be with her.
In the end, after all the physical effort, all you have left is emptiness in your heart, a lot of guilt and pain. You hold the body of your baby, yes, but not for long. Bodies start to decompose really fast, especially small bodies. At the beginning the baby would be warm, but it would start cooling really fast. At the beginning, the baby would look like a perfect little doll with their beautiful mouth open, but they do not move, they do not breathe, they do not open their eyes, they do not cry. Instead, all you can hear is the people in the room crying softly to the sight of a very broken family, and the happiness of other very lucky people next door to you. Soon your baby won’t look like your baby anymore. I remember that my first words to my daughter were: “I am sorry, I am really sorry”. Why? Because, I felt guilty for the diagnosis and for the death of my daughter, even when doctors, genetic counselors and cardiology specialists have explained over and over again that this was not my fault. It is more easy said than accepted…
The thing is, when you lose your child, guilt will never leave you. You start to think about everything you could have done differently during your pregnancy, your mind keeps finding reasons for you to blame yourself, like the time you were working in the field during summer, the time you wear a little bit of makeup for the graduation of your friend, the multivitamins you were taking all along, or the time you told your friend that this pregnancy was credited to science and not thanking God properly for it. There is always going to be something to feel guilty about… always. And the guilt has nothing to do with what other people might be thinking or saying about you. That is a different story, because some will blame you and some will not.
Most of the time I feel really really angry. Angry at a world that kept spinning after the worst tragedy hit me. Angry at pregnant women that smoke or drink alcohol, assuming that they will take home a healthy baby. Angry at God for not hearing my prayers and not saving my baby. Angry at the doctors for not being able to help my baby on time. Angry at my family for not being able to meet her. Angry at my so called “friends” for not knowing what to say or ignoring the fact that I had a baby at all and not asking about her. Angry at my previous boss, for telling me that “You look like you are over it” or asking “When are you guys trying again?”, as if I was not broken enough or as if the supported heritable nature of HLHS (Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome) and high recurrence rate observed in siblings were not big enough to scare the hell out of me from trying again. Angry at people that tell me to “Move on”, as if there is a way to do it. Angry at strangers carrying healthy beutiful babies at the park. Angry at people that use phrases starting with: “At least”, like “At least you know you can get pregnant now”. Angry at people that tell me that “My daughter is now an Angel”. I did not want her to be an Angel for God sake, all I wanted for her was to live a healthy life! Angry at people that tell me that “You are young and you will have other children”, like if Abby is somehow replaceable now… or like my fertility issues don’t exist anymore… or like this could not repeat itself again. Angry at people that tell me that “Everthing happens for a reason”, like if I deserved my daughter’s death, or if it was a kind of punishment sent by God or like his plans for me were not to be able to become a mother. Angry at people that tell me that “She is is a better place” because there is no better place for a child than with her mother and father. Angry at people that compares the loss of a love one with the loss of a child, since it is definitely not the same. Someone once told me that the smallest coffins are the ones that weight the most, and that person is completely right. Angry at people that tell you to call them in case you need anything, but there is nothing they can do because all you might need is the power of bringing your child back. Angry at the funeral home that did not want to touch my daughter’s body or change her dress before cremation and for not putting her ashes in a bag before putting them inside the urn and instead having my husband doing this months after her passing to be able to take my baby back to Costa Rica. Angry at people that can clearly see me in the street or at the supermarket or at work and do not even want to say hello.
Angry at myself for not being able to be the mom that I wanted to be. Angry at life, because there is no more joy in it. Angry at people that tell me to throw away her pictures, like if she never existed. Angry at people that told me to “Enjoy my suffering”, because they only learned about my pregnancy after the diagnosis. I kept my pregnancy a secret since it was considered high risk already, even before the diagnosis. Angry at the hospital nurse who only read in my chart that I had had a baby and congratulated me on my new child without being aware that it was indeed a stillbirth. Angry at everyone just because they are happy with their life. There is a lot of anger and I do not know how to smile anymore. And the list keeps growing…
Other times I feel like nothing else in this world is important, including work. When people complain about certain problems at work, I would think that these problems are insignificant or very stupid and there should not be a reason to worry about that problem at all. Why is this person drowning in this problem? It clearly has a solution. Everything has a solution, except being death. There is no coming back from it. Which I believe makes me more “mature” and aware of all the stupid stuff that is around us as a society. There are more important things, at least more important to me. Society has all its priorities wrong, and many people do not see it.
I used to be a person that would make a gift to every new baby in my family or circle of friends before being born. I will go to baby showers to celebrate a new life to be born in this world. I used to feel really really happy for all new parents and wish them the best. Now, I try to get as far away as possible from them. Why? Because it is not healthy for me now and it just feels unfair. It feels unfair that they could get to bring their babies home and I couldn’t. What is so special about them or their babies that they will get to live? I know this sounds awful, and it makes me sound crazy and very selfish, and I was not a selfish person… but right now it is just not healthy for me to be around people having babies. And acknowledging that is important for me. I might never be able to conceive another biological child, or a heart healthy child, and for all I know Abby could be the only one. Besides, I know that I represent now the worst nightmare for these new first time parents. Some would think it is contagious and no one in their right mind would want to be around someone like me now. I wouldn’t want to either. I hear them talking about planning a baby shower or baby gender revealing parties, decorating a nursery or looking for a kindergarten spot for their unborn baby at just six months gestation and all I can think about is the million reasons why babies would die during their second/third trimester and just before being born and not being able to come home. Don’t get me wrong. I am still happy for them, I do pray for these new parents and babies and wish them the best, but now I feel very worried and anxious and paranoid about the fate of that specific baby. And I will refrain myself from giving anything before that baby is born, in case the worst happens. Because it is hard to deal with all the baby stuff once your baby doesn’t get to come home, and now I understand how much damage those gifts can do to a bereaved mother.
So, next time you ask a person that lost a child how are they doing and how are they feeling, you might know that there is no: “I am fine. Thanks” or “I feel good. Thanks". That is not real! You now might know how they might be feeling, maybe just a little, and therefore, you can try to offer other kinds of words like: “It is good to see you today” or “Nice to see you around”, instead of asking: How are you?. You can try to forget about mentioning platitudes that would only make yourself feel good. I now know that this can happen to anyone, and if you are one of those lucky ones that get to take a baby home, do not ever complain about your new life as a new parent, because many of us would gladly change places with you.