When friends lose their babies

On this side of the fence, the grass is crinkly, brown and dead. It’s spread out over a vast space in irregular,  ugly little patches. The flowers are wilted if there were any in the first place. It’s raining, and tall, gloomy trees cast ominous shadows over everything. Surrounding you are deep, dark caves. It’s not pretty, but it’s safe. Nothing can hurt us here because we’ve already experienced the worst scares and the worst pain life can dish out.

(The chorus of this song doesn’t fit well here: “What kind of paradise am I looking for? I’ve got everything I want, but still I want more.” Fuck that. We want our babies. But the rest of the song is very fitting.)

We don’t climb over the fence from happy expectation to the field of bereavement by choice. We’re catapulted and find ourselves in an unknown land, disoriented, with sparks of well-meaning encouragement flung at us from people standing in a sunny field who have a very detached, vague concept, but can’t see where we’re standing and what’s surrounding us. (I try to dodge these sparks, because they mean nothing, unless they’re gently handed to me from people not in a rush to make me feel better, and are there to actually understand and comfort.)

There’s thousands upon thousands of us standing in places like this. And when our friends join us, it’s not a happy occasion. It makes us tear up the dead grass, fling it at the sky, and fill the air with cries of “WHY? WHY THEM? WHY NOW? WHY THIS WAY?”

It’s ridiculous, impossible, and unfathomable how many pregnancies fail. Twenty-five per cent of them, actually. I guaran-frigging-tee you know a good handful of people who have lost a baby, an infant, or can’t conceive. They may not let you know about it, but the next time you’re with a group of people, look around you, and just assume (without saying anything, of course), that 25% of those  present have had life, dreams, desires and hope ripped from them, tragically.

When a friend joins this side of the fence because they had to say goodbye to their precious, perfect and enormously loved child, no matter what stage of development they were in, it takes everything in me not to fling myself to them and smother them with the things that helped me inch forward in the days following my own loss. But that would be really a really dumb thing to do. Grief is a slow drip, and it’s not my job to gather the evidence of pain to show I understand. I’d be a fool to do that. Only they understand what they’re going through. I went through my own loss, and only I know what that was like. Now is a time to listen and listen and listen and love. That’s all.

Image courtesy of wallpaperstock.net

Image courtesy of wallpaperstock.net

The due date

It’s coming. In six days. When Henry was supposed to be born.

I’m observing myself.

How do I feel? Am I okay? How should I feel?

And there aren’t any roadmaps here. It’s desolate, and hard to see three feet in front of my face. I don’t know what’s there. I don’t know how to prepare myself.

There could be smooth road, or there could be a giant pothole, like a swimming pool, and if I’m not careful, I could drown in it, or at least wallow for a while.

My non-pregnant self is desperately scaling the walls. She wants to have a baby in her, this womb of mine. It was supposed to have a baby in it, but genetics had a say about that and took away motherhood after we thought we were in the clear.

And now the due date approaches. It’s going to come quickly. Fiercely. Ruthlessly. For this son of mine who was already born. A due date for a dead baby who already has a birthday.

There’s no logic for this. Babies aren’t supposed to be dead. They’re supposed to pass milestones and make friends and learn and grow and laugh and cry and change and be hugged and loved and taught. They’re not supposed to be dead. But mine is. The Grim Reaper was beside me the whole time. Waiting to collect what was his. And now he has Henry, and I’ll never get to hold him again. Aside from his ashes, worn around my neck, close to my heart.

Miss you

My body misses you today and everyday, but especially today.
The sky is grey and it’s cold outside. You would have been about six months and growing today. And when you were ready to be born, it would be a lot colder, but spring would be right around the corner. I would have taken you outside to exercise your legs and introduce you to bugs. And inside, I would have shown you how soft the bunnies are, and the cat probably would have regarded you skeptically. The house would be a disaster, and we’d be tired, but we would have been very, very happy.

Instead, there’s a constant numb pain tugging at my heart, because I’ll never know what you would have looked like, how your voice would have sounded, or what you would have felt like in my arms.

Let’s talk taboo

You’re not supposed to talk about dead babies or how they died – it’s a taboo subject. It makes everyone uncomfortable, as it should. It plucks very delicate strings. It touches our moral fibre and puts impossibly difficult choices in our faces. But we should talk about it for all of the parents who suffer with guilt, pain, and self-doubt, and still don’t have their babies with them in the physical world.

I lost my child – my hopes for the future, and now I am terrified at the idea of trying to make more babies in case they all end up with a fatal disease like Henry’s. We’ll find out soon if that’s the case, and it’s normal for parents in our situation to be fearful until our future babies are actually born.

In the past few weeks, I’ve read about and had so many stories of loss shared with me – from miscarriages to stillbirths, and it makes me very hesitant to make any future announcements until baby is in our arms, smiling and kicking. But trying again is definitely at the forefront of our minds.

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog so far, you may have read the tears between the lines. Each post has been both very difficult and therapeutic to write. I know some of it is personal, and in my prior-to-Henry life, I would have been too shy and reserved to share so openly. But when you lose someone so precious as a life that you helped create, some of your old skin is shed, and you start becoming a new person. I have been avoiding spelling out clearly the decisions we made for Henry, and why we made them, and that is what I will do with this post.

On the day that we found out that Henry’s diagnosis was fatal, we howled in pain and agony. We wanted this baby so much. We were smitten and in love with our 21-week old son, and his room was already starting to take shape, and his brother was so excited to meet him.

After Henry’s first ultrasound where the doctor saw that his bones were shorter than they should have been at his stage, we knew we would be getting some news about Henry with the specialist, and we were hoping for something like skeletal dysplasia or anachronism – something complicated relating to bone growth.  We had managed to keep ourselves thinking positively the days prior to the diagnostic scan.

We knew there was a possibility that we could lose Henry, but we really had no idea until the specialist who did our ultrasound told us that he had osteogenesis imperfecta (OI) type 2, and life hasn’t been the same since.

I’ve been a mess of self-doubt; mourning the loss of my first child, trying to fathom the idea that I actually gave birth to him and left the hospital without him, and that I’ll never see him again.

As I write this post, I’m afraid you will judge me, especially if you are not pro-choice. I’m afraid you will think I made the wrong decision. We didn’t want to make the decision that we made. If you disagree, we respect that, and we thank you for respecting our decision in return. Henry is gone. Nothing you or I will say or do will change that, and how I wish it weren’t so.

We were given the choice in the hospital to carry Henry to term. Henry was going to die anyway – there is absolutely no way he was going to survive life outside the womb. If you look at the tab I’ve provided explaining OI type 2, the rarest cases see infants with the disease living up to a year with intense life support. They either die because their lungs inevitably stop working, or from insufficient caloric intake because the demands on their little bodies are too much. And these are the medical considerations without looking at his very, very fragile bones that had already suffered multiple fractures in my womb, and a few more as the nurses handled his frail, minuscule body after birth. Life would be nothing but pain for Henry until he passed away as every Type 2 case does, because it’s the only lethal form of OI.

At the same time that we were given the choice to carry to term, we were also told that we could terminate the pregnancy, and whatever choice we make is the right one. The English language doesn’t have sufficient vocabulary to express the depths of our grief, sadness and shock at our options – both which ended in never seeing our son grow up and thrive.

Choosing to stop a life isn’t something we took lightly. We were praying and hoping for anything but a death sentence. We would have absolutely loved and cherished any form that our baby came out. We would have been bursting with pride if we were going to have a disabled baby, a baby with Down Syndrome, a baby with dwarfism, a baby that would have needed to be in a wheelchair for its entire life, a deaf, mute baby with a deformed head – ANYTHING! But that’s not the hand we were dealt.

We were stunned, sitting in that dark ultrasound room, choking between heavy sobs at the reality of our situation, wishing and praying with everything we had for this not to be true, but we had a decision to make.

I was lying on the ultrasound table with my shirt and pants still tucked up and down, with a towel draped over the ultrasound goo still covering my belly with the image of our dear sweet boy still on the screen when we were gently told what our options were. The support staff said that we could stay at the hospital to gather ourselves (it was morning, and we still had to see a genetic specialist later that afternoon), and we could even have a private room to ourselves, or we could go home.

I didn’t then, and I still don’t have the capacity now to make even the simplest decisions, but somehow, we decided to go home during the break. That car ride was the longest of my life, and I cried, sobbed and howled  the entire way. Looking back now (and this was only a little over a week ago), all I remember feeling is a numb buzzing. I didn’t feel completely in my body due to the trauma and shock of the reality that, no matter what we decided, our baby was going to die.

Through the fog, we made the decision to terminate our pregnancy. We were given a choice of days to come in for the procedure. They originally suggested the Wednesday of that week (so far, everything I’ve written happened on the Monday), but I asked for Thursday because Wednesday was our sixth anniversary. We had two last days with Henry, and I savoured every kick, blip and wiggle he made.

Every day was a river of tears, leaving nearly every pillow in the house soaked through and having been screamed and yelled in repeatedly. We played Henry music, we read to him, we told him how sorry we were, how beautiful he is, how much we love him, and how much we’re going to miss him – over and over and over. I still do.

On our last night with Henry, I felt like I was going mad. I DID NOT want to go through with the procedure. I didn’t want to say goodbye to my son, who was still very much alive and kicking inside me.

It was torture, madness, against every fibre of my body, against my instinct as a mother – to love and protect and cherish my little one. It was against my belief in giving everything I had – of not giving up, of finding solutions, of getting support and help, of helping those in need. I was diving in to a situation where, to let myself go through with it, I had to turn myself off.

The only thing that helped me through these horrible few days was that we learned that doctors suspect that a fetus doesn’t feel pain until the 22nd-24th weeks of pregnancy. It’s what the doctors at Sainte-Justine Hospital told us, and is also what this Discover article discusses.

We tired to see it as our only gift to Henry – that we were stopping his life before the neural connections that let you feel pain are fully developed. And at 21 weeks, we were right at the cutoff point. Of course there is no way to know for sure, but this knowledge, even if it’s just suspected, gave me a great deal of comfort. As Henry’s mom, this was the only way I could protect him. But I still have to work very, very hard to convince myself that it was the right thing to do.

The morning of our scheduled termination came, and I have no idea how I walked out the door of my house. My mom came to get my partner and I to drive us to the hospital. We sat in a suspended silence, waiting, waiting, waiting.

When I was finally called in by the doctor, I first had an amniocentesis so that they could study and replicate some of Henry’s cells (we had agreed to let them use Henry to do an autopsy and to study OI type 2, and our amniotic fluid was going to help them get a better picture). I had my eyes closed during this procedure because apparently, the needle is really, really long, but it didn’t hurt. Then, they showed us to our room.

We had a roster of interesting nurses. Some were a bit quirky and got on my nerves, and others were very sweet and gentle. I had my vital signs recorded every half hour for the entire time we were there (around noon Thursday to 5:00 p.m. Friday). I asked for painkillers only twice – I wanted to savour every last moment I had with Henry with my senses intact.

I suspected that he died sometime in the night, because the induced contractions would have deprived him of blood and oxygen, and, at 21 weeks, a fetus is not viable due to immature lung development. I was very bloated, and I couldn’t feel him anymore.

I was hooked up to an IV to have a constant flow of antibiotics in my body, and, every four hours, had a pill inserted vaginally that induced my contractions.

My partner loyally stayed by my side and in shock the entire time. He felt bad going to the cafeteria to get some food, and he said that he felt nauseous, too.

My water broke after the fifth pill insertion at around 8:00 a.m. Friday morning. I had one last pill strategically placed inside my cervix, then, at 11:00 a.m., I felt Henry descending. I called the nurse, and Henry was delivered at 11:13 a.m. Our beautiful son was born, but he was already gone.

Because he was a very immature preemie, his tiny body was entirely red, and light as a feather. And because of his condition, he didn’t really have a skull. His head was very mushy, and even though he was already gone, I barely touched him while I held him because I didn’t want to hurt him. His left leg was already badly broken, and his delicate skin already had some tears. It then took me  nearly two hours to deliver the placenta, then, as soon as we could, we left the hospital, though we were encouraged to stay.

I didn’t cry during the procedure. I wanted to be strong for Henry, and deliver him so that he could be free. Thanks to our state of shock, my partner and I even cracked jokes, watched TV, and just existed during our stay at the hospital.

We were visited by a psychologist and were given pamphlets and coping strategies and contact information for support groups, and a precious white folder containing a card with Henry’s footprints, and the blanket they swaddled him in while we held him for a few brief moments before we said our final goodbye.

This, my friends, is what hell feels like. And as the days go by, I feel very strange doing regular things since ending my pregnancy with Henry. I look at my belly in the mirror every day to snap myself into the reality that I’m no longer eating, walking, and breathing for two. It’s just me now. I feel guilty reading a book because I travel to the story, leaving thoughts of Henry behind. I’ll watch a movie, and then reality sets back in when the credits are rolling. I’ll shower and eat, but, why?

I’ve been listening to relaxing classical music every day to soothe and change my state of mind. We are even testing doing ‘regular’ things, like going for nighttime walks so as to not run in to anybody, and we even went to see a movie last night, but it felt very, very strange, especially since there were children there. I am living in a Henry-less void – seeing parents spend time with their sons and daughters in a way that I will never be able to do with my child.

This was a difficult post to write, and I’m publishing it with a lot of apprehension. I welcome any discussion that comes from it. It isn’t a cry for pity. I’m not sure what it is, but here you go.

With love,

Mel