When I was in primary school, a friend gave me an autograph book. I thought it was great fun to get all my friends and family to sign it and write a little message. Most of them were silly rhymes or jokes, but there was one message I still remember. It was from my Dad. He wrote, “To my second red-headed daughter and nicest Christmas present I’ve ever had. Love Dad.” He was referring to the fact that I came home from hospital on Christmas Day.
Something about those words from my father spoke very powerfully into my young heart.
I still find it hard to understand exactly why that message was so precious to me.
Maybe it was simply because they were words of affirmation that were written down for me to keep.
Written words endure. They carry the weight of intention. We know that the person wrote them deliberately, so they somehow mean more. We have evidence of being loved, special, cherished.
Perhaps it was the idea of being somebody’s gift that resonated with me. And not just any gift, but a Christmas gift! To a child, Christmas presents are really exciting. And not just any old Christmas gift, but the nicest one ever? Really? Could that be true?
My Dad is very much a present person. He would always buy extravagant gifts for all of us, but especially for my Mum. Each birthday and Christmas she was showered with expensive lingerie and nice perfume or dresses that cost a week’s wages, even when we couldn’t afford it. Then she would model the new clothes and we would all join in with admiring comments, while Dad said something appreciative like, “Whackydoo!” From his actions, it was clear Dad thought that presents were important. Gift giving is definitely one of his ‘love languages’. So being called a present by my Dad was a poignant expression of love.
The idea that children are a gift is not a new one.
It dates back to ancient times. The Hebrew Scriptures say, “Children are a gift from the Lord. They are a reward from him.” Harsh words for anyone going through recurrent miscarriage or infertility, but the part about children being a gift, that bit I can relate to.
Last year on my birthday I unexpectedly discovered I was pregnant.
My one-year-old had just weaned herself and we had plans to go out with friends for karaoke, so for the first time in almost two years I was looking forward to having a few drinks and letting my hair down. I also knew it was technically possible, but extremely unlikely, that I could have fallen pregnant recently. Just to rule it out, I did a pregnancy test. I almost passed out when I saw a feint line appear in the positive window.
For so many women, seeing that line would have been a source of joy – a gift, even. But for me, pregnancy is scary. I’ve been pregnant nine times and have two children. I’ve had far more sad endings than happy ones and some of my experiences have been unusually traumatic. So when I found out I was pregnant, the overwhelming emotion was one of fear and anxiety, of feeling incredibly vulnerable, while still wanting to be hopeful.
At the time, I didn’t tell my family – I didn’t want them to be anxious for the next twelve weeks. So I kept my feelings to myself and went about my day as if nothing had happened. I had lunch with my parents, I went out as planned but drank mineral water – (not what you need for karaoke!) – and I made a passable show of trying to be relaxed, while on the inside I was stressing about how I would get my hands on the specialist medications I needed before the looming Christmas break.
In spite of my worries, the pregnancy went smoothly. At thirteen weeks, we had a very thorough scan in which we were told that the pregnancy could now be considered low risk. I started to believe we were having another baby. I started to change my plans for the New Year and make new ones around the baby. I started picturing my family with three kids and wondering how on earth I would get dinner cooked every evening with my husband on night shift and a toddler and a newborn hanging off me. I started telling my friends we were expecting again. Then at a routine check-up, just before sixteen weeks, there was no heartbeat. Later that night, I was giving birth. And for a few minutes, there was a tiny, purple, perfect little boy, wrapped up in a blanket on my bed. And then he was gone.
“I lost a baby.”
So here’s the thing. I don’t want Alexander’s life just to be an accident. A mistake. A regret.
When I think or speak of Alexander, I think or speak of loss. But when I think or speak of my other, living, children, I think of them as a gift. When really the only difference is the amount of time I got to keep them for. If Caillie or Molly died tomorrow, I hope that I would still consider their lives to have been a gift to me. So I hope that one day I can see Alexander like that too; as a precious gift, not just as a loss, because every baby deserves to loved, special, cherished.
Right now, it still hurts too much, but one day I hope I can write:
“To Alexander, my second son and the best birthday present I ever had…”
We’ve had a very sad week. Our beautiful dog, Henri the Husky, died on Monday. He was fourteen, which is old for a Husky, but he’s been with my husband and I ever since we met, so it’s unthinkable that we won’t have him around any more.
On Monday morning, we were woken by the phone ringing. It was a neighbour saying they could hear Henri crying near their back fence. When we got outside we found him lying in a corner, unable to move, having great difficulty breathing and very swollen around the stomach. As soon as I saw him, I burst into tears because I knew that this was probably the end. It was quite stressful, seeing him in so much pain, waiting for the vet to open and trying to figure out how to move him, because my husband is on crutches. Thankfully, I was able to get a friend who lives nearby to help me stretcher Henri onto a blanket and carry him to the car. By the time we finally got to the vet, Henri had gone into shock, lost consciousness and he died a couple of hours later.
Naturally Birdy was pretty upset because Henri was a huge part of her life. We let her say goodbye to him after he died, but she just kept asking, “Why are we leaving Henri there, Mum?” She also kept saying, “I really love my old dog.” It was like she just wanted us all to acknowledge that he was special to her. All that day, she kept trying to find ways to express her emotions and her confusion. She asked me if Henri would get better after they put him in the hole in the ground. And she asked my husband whether Henri would be walking ‘where I’m dreaming’. Later that night, when I was out at a function, she just cried and cried and cried. But every time she cried, she’d make my husband cry more and vice versa. At least they were able to grieve together.
I think because we didn’t have a burial or receive any ashes, she’s really struggling to work out where Henri physically is now. And we’re finding it very difficult to answer her questions in a way that’s honest, but not distressing for her. We didn’t want to tell her he’s in doggy heaven, because… well… there’s probably no such thing. One tactic that worked quite well was when she said she wanted to see Henri again and I explained to her that she could still see him in her mind. Then I described to her some of the things they used to do together and asked her if she could see him in her mind. “Yes I can,” she replied. It seemed to give her some comfort to realize she could summon him on command in her minds-eye.
Several people have asked me if we’ll get another dog. I don’t think so. At least not for a while. When you’ve had the best dog in the world, well… you just can’t replace them.
Has your family ever lost a much-loved pet? What happened? How did you explain it to your children? How did they react? Did you get a replacement pet?
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OK so I don’t want to just become known as the ‘miscarriage chick’, but I have had five of them so I think I’m qualified to write on the subject. It’s only natural that since I’ve blogged on this topic once or twice before that people I meet tend to share their own journeys with me. And the issue that comes up most often when people open up on this topic is how much their pain has been magnified by the insensitive treatment of family or friends.
Naturally I can’t give you a definitive list of DO’s and DON’Ts because everybody reacts differently. I’m also not out here to point the finger at anybody. But I think a good starting point would be to tackle some of the common assumptions that people make.
Firstly, don’t assume that you know what’s going on. Infertility doesn’t only affect that couple who’ve been married for 13 years and don’t have kids yet. Infertility can strike anyone at any time. That family you know with two school-aged girls? They could have been trying for another baby for the last six years. That young couple who always joke that they’d rather have a dog – she might have had cancer treatment when she was young and not be able to have children. And then there’s the loss and grief of those people whose circumstances have robbed them of the chance to have children. That friend who recently divorced – she might be overwhelmed by the sudden realization that she won’t have another child. Your single friend, who just turned forty, might be grieving the baby she terminated at seventeen. Your grandmother might hold your newborn and weep over a stillborn baby you never knew about. These are just some of the situations that people deal with in their lives, but here’s my point, people – YOU JUST DON’T KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON!
What I’m trying to say is this: you may not have all the information, even if you’ve discussed the situation at length. So why does it matter? Because if pregnant women and mums of newborns and people who just popped out four healthy kids without blinking would keep this in the back of their minds, life would be a lot easier for everyone. How so, you ask?
Well it means you don’t pass your newborn baby into someone’s arms without first asking them and giving them the chance to pass if they don’t want to have a cuddle.
It means you don’t assume that everybody wants to meet your new baby. Let them come to you if they want to and don’t take it personally if they don’t. It’s probably got nothing to do with you. You’re in your bubble of joy, they’re in their bubble of grief. Those who are grieving may also feel they don’t want to dampen your happy occasion with their sadness.
It also means you think about who you send your pregnancy, birth announcements and baby shower invitations to and how you word them, knowing that for some people it will be a source of deep pain. If you know your friend is struggling with infertility, you might want to think about telling them in private, giving them space to grieve, rather than putting it up on Facebook or announcing it in front of all your friends at a BBQ.
Recognise that if you are heavily pregnant or have a new baby, your non-pregnant friend might need some space from you. Be patient. Show your friend you’re still there for them by a phone call, a card, a gift, an email, whatever, but understand that they may not want to hang out with you, shop for baby clothes, look at your ultra-sound video or give you big squashy pregger-belly hugs.
Remember also that being pregnant is not a happy state for everyone. For those who have experienced recurrent miscarriage, stillbirth, a non-survivable feotal abnormality or early infant death, pregnancy can be a highly anxious, even terrifying time. For me, whenever a friend happily announces their pregnancy at six weeks I have to steady myself. How can people still believe that what happened to me won’t happen to them?
Don’t quiz your friend about their miscarriage or infertility. For most people, being asked about it is just a trigger for the grief. Give your friend the space to talk about it if they want to, but there’s nothing worse than being asked ’20 Questions’ and feeling like all the other person wants is information. Even though these questions may be well-intentioned, they are often the cause of additional pain.
Talking about these issues is never fun, but it’s at least bearable with other people who have some experience of it too. If you’ve never been through it, recognize that you may not be the best person to talk about it with. It’s always helpful to temper any questions with the prefix, “I understand if you don’t want to talk about it, but how are you going with…” I’ve also been asked if I’m ‘feeling better now’. Frankly, I’m never going to ‘get better’. Holding your tiny thirteen-week son in your hands is not something you just ‘get over’. Just because your friend isn’t weeping into her tea every time you see her doesn’t mean the pain or grief has gone away.
For me, one of the most common triggers for grief is the question, “How many kids do you have?” or “Are you planning to have more children?” Even just asking this question in a way that acknowledges that having kids isn’t necessarily something that just happens easily for everyone would make it less painful. For example, “Would you like to have more kids if you were able to?” includes an acknowledgement that these things don’t always go to plan.
Keep in mind that almost everybody who experiences recurrent miscarriage, infertility or a major fetal abnormality will be carrying around a deep sense of failure over their losses, imperfections or their inability to fall pregnant. Yes, even the most confident person who looks like they’ve got it all together. Nobody wants to be defined by their failings, so remember to celebrate, support and encourage the good things in your friend’s life.
Having said all that, the absolute worst thing that drives me nuts is being told how I should feel about my miscarriages or what I should do. That I should count my blessings. Or that a certain pregnancy wasn’t meant to be. Or that I need to trust God more. Or that maybe I wouldn’t have coped with another baby. Or that they can’t understand what I’m so upset about. Everybody will feel differently about what they’ve been through, even from one day to the next. Telling another person how they should feel about their experiences is almost never helpful. Listening is far more meaningful.
Remember too, that if you’re the person walking this difficult road right now, there is some onus on you to let your friends and family know how they can support you. You can’t expect people to just know what you need and then feel disappointed when they let you down. But having shared your feelings, it is also inevitable that some of those you share with just won’t understand and you will have to find your own ways to cope with that. Gradually you will start to work out who is ‘safe’ to be with.
So these are just some of my ideas about how you can support your friends who might be grieving the baby they never knew or the baby they never had, always keeping in mind that you may not even know your friends are going through this difficult time. I really hope that others will share their thoughts and comments, whether they agree or disagree. And to all my dear friends who have loved and supported me during the past year and a half, please don’t worry that you might have said or done the ‘wrong thing’. After all, just being there is the most important thing. We’re all figuring out how to cope with this in our different ways.
Have you experienced recurrent miscarriage, a stillbirth, fetal abnormality or infertility? What pressures has this put on your friendships with others? Do your friends know about your situation and if so, do they understand? Do you feel you’ve been supported by your loved ones, or has there been hurt on both sides? If you’re single, or recently divorced, how do you cope when all your friends are having babies?
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The thing about having just one child is that nearly every day somebody says something like, ‘Are you planning on having more children? You don’t want to leave it too late.’ People I barely know make these kinds of comments to me all the time. And yet, every time it still surprises me. Does the general population not understand that for many, many people, having babies is not an exercise that works to a schedule?
For me, falling pregnant has not been the issue, at least not recently. Last year, after Birdy turned one, we decided it was time to think about another baby. We fell pregnant straight away. The baby’s due date was December 4. Unfortunately, at eight weeks, we discovered that I had miscarried the baby some time earlier. We were heartbroken. I had been so excited about the idea of a new baby at Christmas. I found it hard to accept that this would no longer be the case. I just hoped I would be pregnant again before Christmas rolled around so I would not feel the loss so keenly.
Our doctor told us there was no medical reason to wait before trying again. And that there was no reason to believe things would go wrong again. I fell pregnant straight away. I told my family the happy news as soon as I got the positive pregnancy test. I wanted everyone to feel better. Two days later, I was no longer pregnant. The embryo had failed to implant properly. Feeling foolish, I called my family to say I wasn’t pregnant after all.
Two months later, I was pregnant again. This time I was more cautious and told nobody. I didn’t even go to my GP. I just waited to see what would happen. At about five weeks, I started to feel dreadfully ill with abdominal pain. A few neighbours had mentioned they’d been really sick with a gastro, so I thought I’d caught it too. Later the bleeding started. Eventually I went to hospital and was told I’d experienced an ectopic pregnancy that had naturally aborted (An ectopic pregnancy is a pregnancy that is not located in the uterus). Once again, there wasn’t going to be a baby. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. We took a break from babies for a few months to get our heads together. Suddenly everything seemed uncertain, everything was stressful. I started to feel anxious about the idea of another pregnancy, but I knew I wanted to give Birdy a brother or sister if I could.
In November, I discovered I was pregnant for the fourth time that year. My husband and I did not want to get our hopes up. We went cautiously to an ultrasound at five and a half weeks. The embryo was where it should be. An early heartbeat was visible. It all looked promising.
At seven and a half weeks my obstetrician could not find a heartbeat. He sent me over to the hospital for a more powerful scan. I’ve never felt so tense in my life. I felt sick. I couldn’t believe it was happening again. The internal ultrasound showed that the baby’s heart was still beating, but it was not as strong as it should be and the fetus had not grown as much as it should have. After I pressed him, my doctor admitted that he expected the baby to miscarry. I hoped and prayed he was wrong. Most of my friends and family told me things would be OK. The doctors were just being cautious. You can have too many ultrasounds these days, they said. Too much information will just make you worry unnecessarily. It will all work out, they said.
On December 3, a week later, we were told the worst – the baby’s heart had definitely stopped beating. So on December 4, the day I should have been giving birth to my second baby, I was admitted to hospital for another D & C. Meanwhile, a close friend of mine was having her baby at another hospital down the road. In the exact time that my friend had carried one healthy baby, I had lost four pregnancies. While she was welcoming her child into the world, I was having mine suctioned out of me. I know that sounds crass, but its not a pleasant procedure. The sadness was suffocating. As I lay in my bed, the grief overwhelming me, I had an image of myself being dashed against the rocks in a raging ocean, completely powerless. If I did not have Birdy to cherish, I don’t know how I would have got out of bed.
As I’m writing this, I know there will be people who are going through the same thing, who don’t yet have their precious child. It must be even more devastating for them. But I have found it helpful to read and hear about the experiences of other women and that’s why I wanted to share my story. In fact, a number of friends have asked me to write about miscarriage on my blog. I recently finished reading a book called My Seventh Monsoon, by Naomi Reed. In the book, Naomi shares about the five painful miscarriages she experienced. I found it helpful to read her story, although she was clearly writing with the benefit of hindsight, from a time when her three boys were safely in her arms. Naomi felt that God carried her through that difficult time. I’m afraid I haven’t felt that. And I haven’t even felt that something good will eventually come from all this pain. I have another close friend who has had several miscarriages; she now has two beautiful children. Their stories give me hope that one day I will also be on the other side of this journey. But I wanted to be brave enough to share this experience with others while I’m still on the journey, when I don’t know what the ending will be, when the raw emotion of loss has not been dulled by the safe arrival of another baby.
I don’t know what the future will hold. I feel sad for what I’ve lost. And I feel sad that pregnancy is no longer a state of joy for me, but a time of fear and anxiety. I dearly hope and pray that I will not have to go through the pain of another miscarriage, but only time will tell. I don’t think I will ever make sense of what has happened to me, but I hope that one day I will be at peace with it… If that’s possible.
Have you been through the pain of a miscarriage or infertility? How do you cope when everyone around you seems to be having a baby? Have friends and family been helpful or do you feel that nobody understands your situation? If you’ve come out the other side, how has your point of view changed over time? Please also feel free to share anything that helped you deal with your loss and grief (and those things that were definitely NOT helpful.)
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