26 August 2019

This week, we were due to have our baby, our first child.

I don’t have proof that she was going to be a girl, or that she existed at all – they took all my files when we lost her, of course – but to me, she was very real and I had a feeling she was a she.

We’d been through the full spectrum of emotions that parents-to-be go through; from disbelief to fear to excitement to anxiety to joy to trepidation, and back again. We’d started to imagine this colossal disruption to our peaceful existence, and to look forward to it, to her.

I worried, first about not being ecstatic enough, then about not being worried enough, and then about the possibility that the unthinkable would happen and we would lose her. The unthinkable happened. The thing that we don’t know is our greatest human fear, losing a child, even one that is not yet living and breathing, until we are faced with the full force of that loss.
I went for an early scan, having bled over the weekend preceding the week of our actual 12 week scan. Medical professionals, faces already braced to sympathise, peering at a screen while probing inside me. I was uncomfortable and scared. Something wasn’t right. Everything started to unravel.

‘I’m sorry, the embryo hasn’t developed. It’s the size of a six week pregnancy.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘You’ve had a miscarriage.’

‘It’s gone.’

‘Yes. This kind of miscarriage is particularly cruel, I’m afraid. It’s called a missed miscarriage.’

How my world tilted then I cannot describe. Dissolving into tears, the abyss opening before me, calling A into the booth and explaining again to him, gabbling nonsense as I tried to make sense of it. ‘The baby’s gone. And I don’t know how it’s going to come out.’ Crying together, holding each other, inconsolable.

Ushered into a room to discuss our options for removing the unformed child. Three equally horrific possibilities. Told to go home and rest, not to make a snap decision but advised to get back to them later in the day. Not to drag out the decision. Leaflets handed over.

Kind faces. I will never forget the kindness. I will never forget the pain.

The horror of those days. The horror of sharing that grief with others, breaking the news to the prospective grandparents – they’ve lost a baby too. Walking around the park, trying to absorb it – steadying our breathing, taking comfort from the familiarity and simplicity of trees and grass. Waiting in waiting rooms. Sitting on the sofa. Tears that don’t stop, followed by a numb calmness. Accepting cups of tea. Accepting hugs. Holding on to A for dear life – so solid, so present. So grateful we still have each other. Deciding the least worst course of action. Telling work, not knowing how to tell, or who. Absorbing information from medical staff. Waiting again. A whole morning in a hospital gown, in a booth with A, strangely calm despite nerves, waiting for a slot, resigned to what will happen next. Kind updates from nurses. ‘We’re dealing with emergencies, then you’ll be next.’ The gentle anaesthetist, seeing my tears, ‘Are you in agreement with what will happen next?’. Yes. In agreement. But not my choice. There was no choice.

Waking up, emptied out. Empty. Greeted by a brusque nurse. How much blood? Yes, the blood is normal. Alone, on a ward with others.

More hugs from A.

Then hugs from Mum.

Trying to make decisions, trying to be kind to myself, give myself time to understand what has happened. Exhaustion. A mix of the after-effects of anaesthetic combined with hormones and grief, Everything is difficult. The strain of putting on a smile, of putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually, or not long after at all, still bleeding, back to work. Carrying on in a parallel existence that doesn’t feel like the life you’d just got your head around living.

Of course I’d heard about miscarriages. I was aware a few friends had been through them, I’d doled out words of sympathy, felt choked up when one friend told me about hers. But I hadn’t understood, not really, how it changes you. How you become a mother without a child, how you start to join in conversations about what it’s like being pregnant, but then stop because you realise how weird it sounds, how awkward it makes others feel to know your loss, how vulnerable you are to being asked hurtful questions. It isn’t possible to understand any of this – not fully – until it happens.

I have never been one of those women who needed a baby to feel complete. But it turns out that makes no difference, in the end, to how it feels when you lose one.

I cannot claim to know what it’s like to go through a miscarriage, only what it has been like to go through my miscarriage. It is different for everyone. My instinct was to talk about it, and the first thing that struck me was the silence, the lack of reference points or guidance, beyond the options of the physical removal being explained and being (if you’re lucky, like I was) directed to a counsellor.

The hospital was fantastic, the staff sensitive despite their daily exposure to this tragedy, and the shortage of resources. I am lucky to have a supportive partner who shared my disappointment and sorrow, even if it wasn’t easy for him to fully comprehend the particular hell that I was in; the cocktail of hormones and grief for me to flail around in. Lucky also to have family and friends who didn’t hesitate to rally around, not always knowing what to say (there is nothing to say) but their presence on the end of the phone and beside me more than enough to make me feel less alone.

The aftermath was the hardest, the return to normal life. I chose to be open – my sanity depended on it. I told my friends how I was feeling, explained to them what losing a baby felt like, even before it was a baby as such. Managing other people’s responses, every time I said the words ‘I’ve had a miscarriage’, risking the possibility that people would say something tactless or misguided, unwittingly diminishing my experience. Most didn’t. I found on one level a deeper connection with people. After all, we’d experienced the most human of experiences. I saw devastation on people’s faces – I don’t know if it was empathy or a mirror of my own stricken face looking back at me. Certainly, at this time, when I looked in the mirror, I saw my own haunted eyes, deep wells of raw pain, and even looking at myself, acknowledging that pain, would make me cry again.

But there were also times I had to explain patiently, educate people, or deal with comments from people who claimed to know how I felt because they’d experienced grief. ‘No, it wasn’t because I was stressed’, ‘No, there is nothing wrong with me, this happens in 1 in 4 cases, at least.’ To other young women, you feel like you’re breaking bad news: ‘This could happen to you too’. I felt a lot of the time like I was behind glass, present but not really present, observing my own life at a distance.

One common reaction, ‘It wasn’t meant to be’ – something I understood but found hurtful, as at that most fragile of times it felt as though they were saying we weren’t meant to be parents, or undermining my right to grieve. Of course they weren’t, but that was how it felt. The other common reaction is to start telling the person about other people they know who’ve been through a miscarriage, but gone on to have children. Later, I found this helpful. At the time, swallowed by the toxic mix of hormones and grief, the after-effects of anaesthetic, all I cared about was the one we’d lost. She would always be our first – the first time we shared that secret of what was growing inside of me, that first sense of wonder and fear of creating something together. Every few days, we had looked in the pregnancy book and seen the pictures of how she was developing. She could not be replaced, not by another baby, not by anything. We had lost something we could never get back.

I craved and needed empathy, but there was a fine line between that and people claiming to know how it felt – unless they’d been there, they didn’t – and belittling it. My default of wanting to be the cheerful one, reassuring everyone else I am fine, betrayed my true state. I went back to work quickly, perhaps too early, but at the same time, I wanted to remember how full my life was, and to lose my sense of self. The distraction helped, but any pressure – and I realised in that state of mind how high-pressure my work can be, simply because I care about it – was too much. The people are the challenge, not the work itself. People are exhausting. I tried to handle life. I binge-read books and waited to feel enthusiasm again for the things that could distract me from the nightmare. I travelled, to a work conference on women’s rights, believing it would help me to throw myself back in, and spoke well at an event, hoping that my voice carried its usual passion. Again, there was kindness from the colleagues I chose to talk to. But even in that environment, at a conference focused on furthering women’s rights, the right to talk without fear or stigma about this brutal and common experience is not yet claimed.

I am an awful liar, I can’t tell people I’m ok when I’m not ok, but I quickly realised that our habitual question ‘How are you?’ is loaded and can in itself be a trigger. I didn’t know how to respond, and so usually I chose honesty. There is still a stigma, and I was determined to tackle that head on, but I didn’t have the energy. I felt that I needed to give excuses for why I was not as present as usual, not as conscientious and responsive. In reality, I didn’t owe anyone any explanation. I felt all too keenly the taboo of talking about miscarriage – despite the kindness, people aren’t used to hearing about it in a work setting – and felt anxious that I’d over-shared. Our culture values cheerfulness, to the point that we expect people to say they’re ok whatever has happened to them. I chose to tell people I was not really alright, though I was coping. I needed time and space to grieve, and yet every time I expressed my feelings in public, I felt the weight, the nakedness and the responsibility of breaking boundaries. I question it now, telling some of the people I told; people who are not close to me. But I don’t regret it. If we all keep our silence, it will never end, and women who experience this will always be surprised when it happens, their shock compounding their devastation. I couldn’t understand, and still can’t, why an issue that affects so many women and their partners and families, something that is so tragic when it is experienced, can be so hidden, so under-discussed and under-researched.

I have had a rollercoaster of a year, the sadness and shock of the missed miscarriage, another bereavement and compounded grief after the sudden death of a family friend, then personal joy over my engagement, the sense of achievement and huge anxiety of finishing and sending my writing out again for judgement, all the triggers of pregnant friends and new babies and ‘Baby on board’ badges, the days of walks and friends and family which made me remember that life is good, followed, cruelly, by another very early miscarriage. For a while I walked around feeling vulnerable, knowing that the worst can happen, what can happen next, and other times I feel invincible because I can deal with absolutely anything now. I am sure that the experience has made me and A stronger – I know it has made us so as a couple – but there is sadness, too, that this can never be undone and we cannot unknow the level of pain that exists and that is ever-possible.

Now it is the time we’d have been getting to know our baby, grappling with the trials and sleeplessness and joy of new parenthood. I didn’t know it would hit me so hard. Every now and then, in rare moments of rest in my busy life I break down, and then realise why. My life is full but I feel tired and disoriented, again like I am living a weird parallel life. I swallow my pain when I see my friends with their babies, or sharing pictures of them. I don’t want to be excluded but I don’t want to be reminded. Sometimes, unable to sleep due to bigger picture concerns, of our democracy breaking down around us and us destroying our own planet, I became painfully aware of the absence, the gap next to the bed where the Moses basket should be, the coldness of my chest where the little bundle of warmth should be nestled, the knowledge that we will never see her first smile, hear her cry, witness her first laugh, her first steps. I become breathless, I am overcome. This is a particular kind of grief and a particular unreality, an editing of expectation. The more time goes by, the more I feel I am indulging this pain and stringing it out, like I am reflecting society’s attitude that women should just get over it and get on with it. I am not entitled to these episodes of grief because no-one ever saw my baby, including me, including the sonographer and the midwife who looked and said ‘no baby’.

What helps is the knowledge that we have got through the past six months and we can get through this. And all the things we have to look forward to, including our as-yet-not-organised wedding and the next book I have to write, and the rest of our lives. Our unborn children, perhaps, when we can think about that again. Or a full life without them. But still, the memory of this time and of our first baby will always be with us, and I wouldn’t want to forget her because she is a part of our story now. It is painful thinking about who she might have been, but to forget her or to deny her fleeting existence would be even more so. I will never know her name, or her sex or gender or what colour her eyes would have been, but I felt her, in my womb and in my daily decisions, and in my heart, and that is what makes her real to me. That is why we grieved, and why in unpredictable moments the grief resurfaces, and even though there are happy times, we grieve still.

It took me a while to write this blog, because it doesn’t fit the format which I have trained myself to use in narratives, where we tie things up nicely at the end and draw some hopeful conclusion. In many ways, there is no positive outcome of a miscarriage – it feels disrespectful to look for one, even for myself, and it hurts for others to suggest it’s for the best. But regardless, I have achieved more than I expected to these past six months, particularly in redrafting and resubmitting my novel to agents. I am lucky to have this passion for something outside of my personal life and I think in these situations, it helps me to lose myself in it. Sometimes I don’t know where I would be without my writing, or how I would process anything.

But I need to remind myself of those lessons I learnt in the early days afterwards – because life since our loss will always be ‘before and after’. I have learnt a lot from our missed miscarriage, not least about the value of my relationships, about the precariousness of life and the value of life itself. The amount of time, and energy, I stand to waste by not prioritising what’s important, by rushing, getting stuck on a treadmill of producing and consuming for its own sake. This is not to say any of this caused what happened, just that by facing life and loss in this way I have learnt something. And whatever happens next, I must always take this time to reflect, to love and be loved, to be with nature, to live, to do what is in my control to protect what is truly important, and to not to get too swept up in the things that shout louder for my attention but which are not, on reflection, worth my while. Perhaps this new self-knowledge is my nicely tied-up narrative, my hope, my something gained.

This year I will: Continue to nurture the flowers we planted in the garden, spend time with A and those in our lives who we love, make plans to enjoy all life has to offer and not fixate on those that are out of my control. And keep writing, always.

Blog link: 

On grief – words to share in the time of Coronavirus


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