October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. At Local Care Midwifery, this October has been one long month…
Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month started in 1988 with a proclamation by President Reagan. This time of remembrance was started by a small group dedicated to give support and visibility to perinatal bereavement.
Perinatal bereavement means grieving the loss of a child sometime during pregnancy or the first year. There are so many ways for this to happen. In some cases, the loss is of a physical fetus/baby/infant. This is the case in miscarriage, termination, stillbirth, SIDs, fatal illness, and when there are congenital or chromosomal anomalies that are incompatible with life. In all cases of perinatal bereavement, there is also the grieving of the imagined child, the child that we dream of but never get to hold.
- In cases of infertility, the desire for a child that is never conceived can be combined with intense grief and loss, yet there is nothing physical to hold. The imagined child is a dream.
- In miscarriage, there is a positive pregnancy test, maybe morning sickness and sore breasts, perhaps a fuzzy image on an ultrasound screen. Yet, there is never the dreamed of birth day, there is no baby to cuddle.
- Prenatal diagnosis can initiate perinatal bereavement. Tests like ultrasounds and amniocentesis are a mixed bag: they can bring clarity, even good news and they can also bring very upsetting news. From a missing twin, to an extra chromosome, from a holey heart, to a missing skull bone, there are so many ways our babies can develop that we can not imagine, never want to imagine.
- With stillbirth, there is a birth, holding, maybe even bathing, dressing and photos, but the loss and the accompanying pain is unimaginable. Completely unimaginable.
Parents-to-be don’t imagine holding a cold and stiff infant, or an abnormal amino result. They don’t imagine deciding whether or not to terminate a dreamed of pregnancy or planning an infant’s funeral. They imagine having much, much more. They imagine snuggling a newborn, pushing a toddler in a stroller and a five year old on a swing. They imagine walking a beautiful young woman down the aisle, and helping a son change diapers on the new grand baby. In perinatal bereavement, there is physical loss of a pregnancy or infant, and then there is also the loss of all we imagined and dreamed.
Sad as all of that is, it is not the whole story. What I have learned from mothers, fathers and babies (imagined or otherwise), is that while our ability to imagine is huge, our capacity to love is even bigger.
- This month, I heard a mother grieve over her recent miscarriage, tears streaming down her face while she smiled and cuddled her nursing toddler. She said she was so grateful to have been pregnant for that short time. As she stroked her toddler’s silky hair, she said that she was especially thankful for the physical comfort that nursing gave her during this time.
- This month, I relayed a dire sounding ultrasound report to a mother who was at the same moment watching her firstborn sleep in his car seat, rosy cheeked and sweaty from play. As the week and the prenatal diagnosis unfolded, she said innumerable times how thankful she was that she had this very loved baby inside her, poking and prodding and this boy in front of her needing a snack, a toy, a book. There is nothing like a two year old to give you the gift of presence.
- This month, I listened to a mother recall her miscarriage after six healthy pregnancies. Years later, she is still surprised by the pain. And she smiled, smiled wide while talking about this sweet imagined baby and how her family celebrates that short life every year, a bitter-sweet unbirthday.
How can we love a child never conceived, never held, never grown? I don’t know how. And I know that we do. We love these babies with all our hearts. They stretch our hearts to the breaking point and then pull those broken edges inward. To be human is to suffer. And to imagine. And to love. This October, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, I am so lucky to to have suffered, imagined, loved.
Thanks to all the women, families, babies (both imagined and realized) that have let me tag along on your journey. Thank you from the bottom of my broken, healing and overflowing heart.
May all babies be born into loving hands