Life After Loss
By Kristen Thompson. March 14, 2015
My miscarriage came to me in a dream. I was at a friend’s house and was in her washroom when suddenly piles of blood came gushing from me. I screamed for my husband, who threw open the door and gasped at the site of so much blood. I cried and cried, frantically trying to sop it up with a towel, thinking, “No no no, this can’t be happening!” and “I’m going to have to buy them a new towel!” Then I woke up.
Shot up in bed, in fact. As it slowly dawned on me that it was all just a terrible dream I lay back in bed, shaken but relieved. So, SO relieved.
Later that day, I would begin to bleed.
I was nearly three months along when I started to lose the baby that I would later learn had stopped growing several weeks earlier.
It started in the bathroom at work. Not much. Not like on TV, when it all seems to come out in one horror show. But still, when I saw that little bit of blood, adrenaline coursed through me. I Googled “light spotting, late first trimester” and read post after post of women spotting in otherwise fruitful pregnancies, how they went on to have healthy babies, how this was normal.
In a daze, I went straight home, and from home straight to the hospital. My husband stayed home with our 14-month-old daughter. It was bedtime. Plus, chances were everything was fine.
The smallest signs
It was such funny timing, really. I remember telling my husband that I didn’t feel bonded with the baby in the way I had with our first. I just hadn’t had time to think about it, I was so busy with work, with Isla. That very day, I had finally started the pregnancy journal I’d bought weeks earlier. I didn’t want my second child to feel that Isla’s pregnancy had meant more to me. I wanted to chronicle and muse the same way I had done with her. As I cracked the spine on the book I thought, “Am I jinxing it? Should I wait until my first ultrasound?” But I brushed that paranoia aside (besides, isn’t everyone paranoid when they are pregnant?) and began to write.
But still, I kind of had a weird feeling. I didn’t feel pregnant anymore. Everyone kept reassuring me that was normal, that every pregnancy is different. But without knowing it, I knew.
The longest wait
I was in the hospital for two hours that night, flipping nervously through ratty-paged Cosmos in an ice-cold waiting room, only to be told that the ultrasound and blood tests were inconclusive and I had to come back the next morning.
As I walked back to my car in the torrential rain, exhausted and panicky, I prayed to the few people I knew in heaven to watch over our baby. I don’t pray. I only vaguely believe in an obscure concept of heaven. But I prayed anyway, just in case. I told the baby it was strong, that it should fight for life. And I cried. It was a long and sleepless night.
We spent hours the next morning in the hospital, my husband in his work clothes (we thought he’d only be a few hours late), Isla watching cartoons on TVs affixed to walls, being ushered from one waiting room to the next. So much waiting. It was agony lying on that ultrasound bed knowing the tech knew whether or not my baby was alive, but wans’t allowed to tell me. “Just tell me if there’s a heartbeat,” I begged her silently. The sick knot in my stomach grew and grew.
As we waited, we debated, back and forth like a ping-pong: The baby’s fine, we’re worrying for nothing. Then: Let’s not get our hopes up, we’ll get through this.
When we were finally (hours and hours and hours later) called by a doctor with our test results, she brought us into a little cubicle in the ER. She pulled the curtain closed and sat on the bed beside me. “Well, I have some not so good news,” she said, gravely. She didn’t need to go on. My heart sank.
We were told two doctors from gynecology would to come talk to us about the next steps. We were not offered to stay in the cubicle with the curtains drawn to digest the news in private, but were ushered back to the packed waiting room. THIS was where I was sent to absorb the blow, to sit in shock, to turn my head from strangers and try very hard not to cry.
My husband sat beside me and put his hand on my leg and I felt very, very alone.
The bitter pill to swallow
We waited for hours for those two women to come talk to us. They were kind, I suppose. They told me this wasn’t my fault. They told me this was very common, that it was likely a chromosomal issue, that somewhere between 20% and 50% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. They asked me how I wanted to proceed: with a procedure the next day to remove the fetus; with a pill I could take that day to start the process right away; or to let my body do its thing. I was told very little about the pros and cons of the various options. I went for the middle one. I went with “let’s get this over with today.”
I was told to expect a heavy period for about two days, and given a prescription for TWO painkillers. I don’t mean two prescriptions. I mean two pills. I was given no pamphlets on what to expect, no discussions about grief and coping with loss. I was simply dispatched home as if I had an earache.
Taking it in stride
We dropped the baby off at daycare, went for ice cream, filled the prescriptions and hung out in the backyard waiting for it – whatever it was – to happen.
Within hours I started cramping. It started out mild and quickly – shockingly fast – got out of hand. The pain was borderline unbearable. It was like being in labour. Pads were useless and I turned to my daughter’s diapers as my husband ran to the pharmacy for something heavy duty. There was a debate about the merit of Depends. THIS was not part of the pep talk I got at the hospital.
I was losing so much blood and was in so much pain that I had my husband on Google to see if what was happening was actually normal. I’m pretty level-headed, but I was convinced I was hemorrhaging to death, that I would pass out from blood loss and pain, that the neighbours’ noses would be pressed to their windows as an ambulance whisked me to hospital.
Those doctors, I kept thinking. Those liars. Why couldn’t they come out and say, “Listen, shit’s gonna be intense. Don’t be scared. You’ll get through it. Your husband should stay home with you today. Find someone to look after your daughter so you can get through this without distraction, so your husband can bring you water, stroke the hair out of your face, kiss you and tell you that you’ll be okay.”
I can’t believe they send women home to go through this horrible, devastating experience so ill-prepared. So ill-prepared to deal with the pain, with the blood, with the grief. That this isn’t something they admit you for. Give you oxygen, a fucking epidural.
The only thing that got me through it was mouthing over and over “This too shall pass. This too shall pass.” Remember the scene in Trainspotting when Renton’s parents lock him in his room to go through withdrawal cold turkey, and he fucking freaks out? That was me. Like a lunatic I writhed alone in my bed and whispered reassurances to myself.
And then it was over. I knew it was over. I knew when it had passed. Him or her. Too small to really see, but there all the same. I didn’t look. I flushed
What a thing, eh?
Now you dust yourself off and readjust for this new reality: the baby is suddenly gone.
At first I was okay. Relieved, even, because I suffered so much that Thursday.
We didn’t talk about it much. I don’t deal well with brevity. Instead of melting down I turned on a brave face, trying to spin humour into the situation. It helped me to not feel. It also gave my husband the impression that I was okay. I wasn’t.
A future we had been planning excitedly for was suddenly stamped out. A dream dashed with no warning, and I had to quickly get used to the reality that there would be no baby in January after all. No more late-nights debating baby names. Isla’s “I’m going to be a Big Sister!” T-shirt stuffed in the bottom of her dresser drawer, the only real, tangible indication that the baby that would never be had ever been anything at all.
Then there were the pregnancy alerts I couldn’t seem to unsubscribe from. Prenatal vitamins haunting me in the tea cupboard. Maternity clothes still with tags hanging in the closet. I stumbled upon my ultrasound paperwork months later and remembered – as I headed to the throw them away – how my voice shook when I called to cancel the appointment.
Then it happened all over again
My second miscarriage happened three months later, and it would hit me even harder than the first. It dragged out out over five weeks and four ultrasounds that showed a living fetus not growing, slowly fading. My second miscarriage was weeks of waiting for my little baby to die. Again, I was 11 weeks along when it happened.
My care was about the same as the first one. I walked in to the hospital on Sunday – when the bleeding I had been told to expect had finally begun – at 7 a.m. I left six hours later, and it would have been longer if I hadn’t gone to the triage desk to shout at the staff. It shouldn’t take six hours, I explained, to read the results of an ultrasound. Either there was a heartbeat or there wasn’t. Six hours to wait for that news was ridiculous.
This time I wasn’t offered the pill or a D&C. I was given an appointment to discuss my options with the Early Pregnancy Centre five days later. FIVE DAYS. I was terrified of going through the miscarriage at home again. Or god forbid, at work.
Again, there were no pamphlets, no talk of grief counseling, no indication of what to expect, how it might be different than last time (because it was), how to cope, what to do.
It started at Boston Pizza that night, at a dinner that was cut short when I realized we needed to get quickly home. It was over by bedtime.
More of the same
My appointment five days later at the Early Pregnancy Center was just more insane waiting. More tests. More blood work. More ultrasounds. But it was also the first time I felt someone in the medical community was offering me compassion, listening to my fears, reassuring me, validating me. The doctor who ran the clinic actually looked me in the eyes as she spoke to me, and I realized no one had done that yet. In two miscarriages, every other doctor or nurse had spoken to me by looking away.
For the second time in only a few months, I went home and tried to start picking up the pieces of my life.
“I know it’s over and it never really began, but in my heart it was so real”
You don’t know how you’re going to deal with a situation until it happens to you. I took my second miscarriage so much harder than the first. I think because I had pushed aside my feelings with the first – gone right back to work, tried to brush myself off and move on – that this time around I cracked. My depression had been hibernating and now I had two babies to grieve for.
It snuck up on me: the sorrow and anger I thought I had dodged the first time. It manifested itself in all sorts of ways: in how I snapped at my family. How I choked back tears at work. How I went to bed early, how I walked around as if in a fog.
Women who miscarry grieve as if they’ve lost a baby. Because as soon as you see that positive pregnancy test, you adjust your dreams for your future. You don’t picture the little being growing in your body as it is at that moment: a curled up bean, unaware of the impact it already has on you. In your head it’s already a baby – your baby. It’s the second occupant of your double stroller, a second little person in a high chair at your table, a second set of vocal chords filling the back seat of your car.
You are mourning for what that child was supposed to become. Whether it was your first or your fifth, you had a dream for that baby. And it’s a hard, hard adjustment back to the life you knew before.
Part of my breakdown, I think, was also a release of weeks – months – of anxiety. I had spent a long time being scared without admitting to being scared.
Women feel a huge amount of pressure and responsibility when it comes to procreation. It’s scary and stressful being the one who has to track her cycle and plan around ovulation dates. To take pregnancy tests, go to doctor’s offices, get blood taken, lie there getting ultrasounds, harass medical professionals for answers and results, schedule follow-up appointments, bite your nails in various waiting rooms waiting to hear news. That’s all on us.
I tried to protect myself from my hurt and fears by being realistic. That meant being negative, I guess. But I prayed so much for those two babies, I eventually ran out of energy and hope. Hope is scary. Because the further you boost yourself up, the further you could fall.
The second loss was harder because I couldn’t believe it was happening again. Because I was sure it was one of those really shitty life experiences you cross off the list and hope to never have to face again. And it felt like such a set back. I felt like I’d been pregnant forever and yet had only sadness to show for it.
It’s the shame of failure. Of having to walk back into work afterwards and people – those who knew – watching you with pity and sadness. Who wants to be that person? Who wants to be on display like that?
What I’ve learned about sadness
My grief wasn’t static. It didn’t stay level and constant with a slow and eventual slope toward normalcy and, eventually, happiness. My grief would be a 2 one day and an 8 the other. It was chaotic and unpredictable and angry.
I’d forget about my loss, then I’d remember, and the grief would wash over me like a wave. On a good day I would think I was healing, and then a bad day would blind side me and the tears would fall, hot and a desperate. And I would feel like crumbling. I would feel lost. I would feel alone and empty and broken. Like a million sharp edges.
Logging into Facebook was a game of masochism. If it wasn’t pregnant belly update photos from friends, it was new pregnancy announcements. They were always at the top of my newsfeed and each one would feel like a punch in the stomach, undoing weeks of healing. I felt like I had lost the capacity to be happy for people. Even my brother’s excited phone call announcing that my sister-in-law was pregnant made me wince. I stopped going on Facebook altogether. Being a hermit was an act of self-preservation. My grief was starting to feel like a chronic disease, one that you had to grit your teeth and bear until the flare-up subsided again.
Grief can feel like drowning. And it can leave you feeling very, very lonely.
What the $%@#&’s wrong with my body?
All I wanted, almost to obsession, was to be pregnant again. Because every month of crazy periods or non-pregnancy felt like a continuation of my miscarriage. One long, months-long miscarriage.
I wanted to deck everyone who told me to be patient and trust my body. That I would get pregnant when it was time, that everything happens for a reason. I was certain I wouldn’t get past it until there was another baby to look forward to. Until then, I would grieve and mourn.
When you’re used to working hard to get what you want (and that’s a strategy that’s always worked for me), accepting that something is beyond your control is very, very hard. And the miscarriages were beyond my control. There was no reason for them. Nothing I could have done to prevent them, and nothing I could knowingly do to make sure they didn’t happen again. And it made me crazy.
Shame, secrecy and loneliness
Consider this crazy fact: With sensitive urine tests that now detect pregnancy very early, we now know the somewhere in the neighbourhood of 50 per cent of all conceptions miscarry, many before the woman even knows she’s pregnant. It’s estimated that about one in three women will have a miscarriage at least once in their life.
Miscarriages are so, so common. And yet they are something that happen in secret. I don’t know when or why this has happened, but it’s created a culture of shame that’s made coping with a miscarriage so much harder.
I’ve since learned that one in five women who experience miscarriage have anxiety levels similar to people attending psychiatric outpatient services. And up to a third of women attending specialist clinics as a result of miscarriage are clinically depressed.
If this is the case, then why do we perpetuate a habit of keeping pregnancies and miscarriages quiet, instead of opening up dialogue and promoting outpatient support?
I longed for a support network to reach out to. I had so many questions in those first few weeks and months, and not ones I was inclined to bother a doctor about. I searched for forums mediated by a nurse that connected women for support and resources. I came up empty. There is this huge community of women who feel fear and sadness and loneliness, and we don’t know who to reach out to or how to find support. (I’ve since learned that BabyCentre.ca has forums devoted to pregnancy loss).
And I longed for support. Many bereaved moms add family to the list of either being very supportive or disappointing. The silence of friends and family felt like one more thing through which I had to suffer. I wanted kind words, cards, flowers, offers of home-cooked meals or just company. I wanted to feel swaddled in love. But their silence made me feel like I was alone in grieving for these two little people. I was their mother the minute their life began inside me. I was their mother the minute their little hearts stopped beating. And it felt like I was the only one crying for them.
So I confided in friends about my loss – ones who hadn’t known I was pregnant in the first place. And that’s where I learned how many other people had gone through this. That’s where I found some measure of support that allowed me to finally begin to heal.
I don’t expect every woman to share a painful experience with her social network. Sometimes people need to go through loss and grief privately. But we’ve so stigmatized miscarriage that those of us who are open about it feel we need to hide it.
We hide it because it’s painful. But … maybe it would be a little less painful if we were more open about it. If we knew we weren’t as alone as it seemed.
We hide it because it makes other people feel uncomfortable. Even the ones who love us the most often don’t know how to react. Because we’ve never made miscarriage part of common discourse.
Miscarriage is different for everyone, but what I’m learning through talking about it and reading about it is that it’s universally isolating. And since we don’t talk about it, we don’t realize how common it is. I find a measure of comfort in hearing other people’s stories of loss, simply because it makes me feel less alone and reminds me that we all heal, we all move on, and we all – with luck – are eventually blessed with the family we dream of having.
I’m still surprised at how gripped with grief I became, especially after the second loss, and I’m only just starting to feel a bit like myself again. But I think this experience, while painful now, will end up making me more grateful and more understanding. Grateful for what I do have, and what I will have if (when) I have another child. I took my pregnancy with Isla for granted. I took my ability to conceive for granted. Because it was easy the first time.
It will also make me more understanding of women who have issues having babies.
I know that infertility is an entirely other source of pain and loneliness. And I don’t assume for an instant that I know what it’s like. In some ways I think it’s much, much worse than what I’ve been through. But any woman who has dreamed of children and subsequently struggles to have those children is, in a way, in the same boat. It’s alienating. It’s stressful. It makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you. It makes it hard to find joy for your pregnant friends. It makes you feel shame.
So we keep our pain to ourselves.
To women who have gone through this, or who are going through it now. To women who feel alone, who feel like they can’t grieve because they need to put on a brave face, or who don’t have time to break down because they have jobs, children, lives to keep living: I know.
I know how you plan for and dream of this baby, how you love it (or the idea of it) the moment you see the little lines on the pee stick. How excited you are to finally break the news to everyone, how devastating it is to have to un-break that news.
Miscarriage is messy because it comes with grief and anger and fear. But as long as it’s taboo, miscarriage will also be about shame. Let’s get past this. Let’s talk about it.
This is now part of my family’s history. And as we move on and grow, I hope to find a way to honour the little people who started to grow inside me, and then had to leave us before we could know them. Because even though they were small, I loved them and had dreams for them. And they will always be in my heart.
We will soldier on, as has every woman (and her spouse) who has lost a pregnancy.
And we will find joy in what we do have.
And so, life goes on…
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