It was football season, and a decaf pumpkin spice, oversized hoodie, and ripped blue jeans were perfect complements to my newfound pregnancy glow. A familiar, yet welcomed, queasiness turned my stomach. I loved being pregnant! And, with seven healthy pregnancies and seven healthy babies, not shockingly, I had made it through my first trimester of this pregnancy with relative ease, a few extra naps, and a baggie of crackers in my purse. This strategically planned errand day was proving only moderately successful in keeping my excitement at bay. It was gender reveal day; I couldn’t wait to hear the news and clumsily fumbled through my purse when my phone frantically buzzed and jingled. But when I answered, my doctor, not his nurse, was on the other end. My heart sank in anticipation of news too heavy for anyone but him to deliver. The testing revealed our baby, our sixth daughter, had Down Syndrome. A wave of nausea washed over his apology, and my head fell into my hands.
In the days that followed, my husband and I began to process the news, grieve for the challenges we knew our daughter would face, mourn for the opportunities that would inevitably be robbed from her. Already fiercely protective, I guarded our daughter’s privacy, and I threw myself into self-education. So, by the time I sat in a quiet exam room for my next doctor’s visit, the initial ache had subsided, and I was even more in love with our girl’s God-given perfection. My OB arrived and retrieved his doppler from a scrub pocket. I was giddy to hear our baby swishing inside my womb again… but … I didn’t. Shift. Listen. Reposition. Listen… still nothing. Practiced in the fine art of showing urgency without alarm, my doctor whisked me across the hall for an ultrasound. And there, when the screen showed my lifeless daughter in fuzzy 3-D black and white, he uttered a soft, “I’m sorry.”
Panic rose into my throat – a bitter, knotting, squeezing, wrenching panic. It stung my eyes, weighed in my chest, and clouded my brain with too many thoughts to grapple. The sterile, medical instructions that followed were delivered in hushed tones as if it would somehow make the news more bearable. A nurse bagged supplies while avoiding catching my eyes, but it didn’t matter anyway. Paralyzed, I could only watch my feet dangle off the edge of the exam table. Grief would come later. This. This was nameless, guttural pain. In an effort to save me from a waiting room filled with cheerful, expectant mothers, I was ushered out a back door – one reserved for women who left without a strip of fuzzy black and white pictures in their purses. From my hand, dangled the nurse’s white bag, packed with instructions … and a large, plastic, wide-mouthed container. A few minutes ago, sometime after the silence and before walking out the door, I was told what to do with that plastic jug. It was to collect the body of our daughter… in case she was born at home. And then, the jug and I got in the car. We had calls to make and kids to pick up from school.
For a week, I looked at that jug, an ominous empty coffin, sitting on my bathroom counter. For a week, I carried our lifeless daughter in my womb. I waited. I waited for the unimaginable. I waited for my husband as he hurried home from an out-of-town trip to rescue me from this hell. I waited for my doctor to schedule a surgery. Every twinge, every cramp sent me speeding to the bathroom in fear. I sought refuge in the protection of sleep and prayer, and I fell asleep each night reassuring our baby girl of just how much I loved her and missed her.
I made it through the week. I made it through the painful surgery to remove our daughter. I made it through the messy recovery that followed. But, I haven’t entirely made it through that dark place. Grief is a wicked thing. It hides in quiet car rides and disrupts peaceful walks. It’s a silent companion – invisible, but heavy. There I days I don’t remember to remember, and then I feel the shame of forgetfulness. Other days, I just allow myself to remember; and I’m getting better at doing that in healthy ways. Out of pain comes growth, and I can now better support other women as they cope with loss. But we don’t all need to suffer a loss to come alongside those who are grieving or hurting. October is NationaI Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, a time to intentionally educate ourselves in the art of supporting mothers (and families) who have suffered the loss of a pregnancy or an infant. All who grieve do so differently; but whether you are coming from a place of sympathy or one of empathy, I have found two universally appreciated acts of kindness that prove immeasurably meaningful:
Do not minimize a grieving mother’s (or family’s) emotions. Do not avoid her pain or grief simply because you are uncomfortable watching the struggle. “It was for the best,” is not always as helpful as a set of listening, compassionate ears. Simply be present – with a hug, a smile, a written card, a meal. Carpool the family’s other children. Take over a chore. Mow their yard. Pick up her groceries. Allow her body and mind to rest without the worry of other day-to-day stressors.
But, as solemn as National Pregnancy and Infant Awareness Month is, it is also a time for hope. With increased education, comes increased awareness. And awareness incites progress. As I chronicle this experience, our rainbow baby is snuggled against my side. And I know, without the loss of our daughter, we would never have this little grand finale. Most know her as our eighth, but she will always truly be our ninth. Eighth is reserved for our other precious daughter, the one whose birthday should be June 9th.