If I had known that there was an article on stillbirths in this week’s Newsweek, I probably wouldn’t have skipped this week’s magazine. But I didn’t know, and coming across unexpected and well-written stories is why I still subscribe to a hard copy news magazine.
I wept and wept as I read the article, first to myself and then out loud to Stephen. It’s the sort of story that would make most people cry most days, but with a newborn sleeping in my bed, it took on an entirely new perspective for me.
“A Vast and Sudden Sadness” is a beautiful and heart-rending piece about stillborn babies and babies who die shortly after birth and Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a volunteer organization of professional photographers who help parents remember and honor their babies through beautiful and gentle photographs.
The article talks about how we’ve progressed in how we treat stillbirths, from denial, drugs, and detachment to embraces. I actually didn’t find out until after my great-grandmother died at 105 that she had lost a baby after my grandfather was born. She never talked about it, and even my grandpa didn’t know about this family loss for years. She was just told to get pregnant again right away. She must have always missed that baby though. I bet she always grieved the date he died in some small, inner way, wondering what that baby would have grown up to be. Parents and siblings are now encouraged to hold, kiss, and cradle these silent, still babies. And these pictures help them ritualize and remember, which ultimately helps with healing.
One of the families profiled lost their little boy Conner just a few hours after he was born on Dec. 22, the same day that Lily was born. This morning I was holding a smiling seven-week old baby girl, and they were grieving their seven-week fresh loss. I can’t even imagine their pain.
The second night that we were in the hospital after Lily was born, I was up feeding her at around 2 in the morning when I heard a Code Blue called for a room just a few doors down. I heard feet running past our door. In my weary state, I remember thinking that someone was having a much worse time than I was. I was just really, really tired and recovering from a c-section, but I had a healthy baby to hold.
The next day when I was walking around the unit trying to stretch a little, I saw a note on a room door: “Please respect family privacy. Ask a nurse before entering.” I had a feeling this was the room where the feet had been running to. I later asked my nurse if a baby had died. She not only affirmed my suspicion but added that she was also that woman’s nurse. Their baby had only lived a few hours, and even though that had been expected, it was still incredibly sad. She said it was hard to switch between attending to healthy babies and happy new moms to a grieving mom who was still recovering from birth but didn’t have a baby to hold.
I’ve always thought that labor and delivery and postpartum would be the best places to work in a hospital—all the new life, happy parents, and the promise of the future. I guess that probably makes it all the more difficult toface death. Parents aren’t supposed to see their children die. Tombstones shouldn't just have one date. It’s just not the natural cycle.
Stephen and I said a prayer for that family just a few doors down that night. And we said a prayer of gratitude for our healthy baby with a new sense of truly profound thanks. And yet, even our "luck" bothered me. This is one of those things that bother me at my core--the randomness of loss and pain is difficult for me to process personally, and I still don't know how I'll talk to Lily about this one day when she starts to understand death and suffering.
I still think of that family. I have no idea who they were, if it was their first baby, what happened. But on many occasions, especially in the middle of the night when I’m so exhausted that I’m having those out-of-body semi-dream experiences when I think that I’ve picked her up and then I realize I’m still laying there comatose, I think of that mother. I think how much she must wish she had a hungry, crying baby latching greedily onto her breast. I hope she has a picture to remember her baby by.
Having a baby has opened me up to a new type of pain. It’s an aching, empathetic pain that I feel deep inside, its roots newly planted. I hadn’t known that I wasn’t feeling pain on this level before. Probably because I wasn’t loving on this level before. Two of my friends have experienced this loss. Both lost their first babies. I wasn’t able to enter into their grief except at the most shallow level.
Rachel Naomi Remen in My Grandfather’s Blessings tells a story about her childhood when a little girl fell down an abandoned well. She remembers the whole country being absolutely riveted by the rescue attempt—everywhere she went the radio was on with news of the rescue. This went on for a week. In her words:
As the rescue effort went on, no one asked if that was child the child of a professor down there, the child of a cleaning woman, the child of a wealthy family. Was that child black, white, or yellow? Was that child good or naughty, smart or slow? In that week everyone knew that these things did not matter at all. That the importance of a child’s life had nothing to do with those things. A person lost touched us all, diminished us all.
Somehow the rescue effort allowed everyone to remember anew that not only was every life precious, but their own life was precious. The country would have prayed for any man, woman, or child because each life is unique. Each life touches us in important ways that we can’t even fathom. And yet, as Dr. Remen points out, once the rescue is over, we easily forget that truth. She writes: “It is really surprising how easy it is to forget that every life matters, that we are each one of a kind and worthy of unconditional love.”
I think this story and these photographs helped me remember that this morning. These little lives touched me. They touch me still. I don’t know what kept drawing me to look at this site over and over again today. Maybe I just wanted to feel grateful. Or maybe it was a good excuse to cry, and it felt better to cry over these babies than over my fears of mothering. I'm not sure.
I'm not the only new mom who has been compelled for some reason to read about loss and death. I've been reading Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions, her memoir of her son's first year. When he's just a few months old, she does a "really dumb horrible thing" and reads Raymond Carver's short story, "A Small, Good Thing" about a couple who lose their little boy. She is so terrified of losing her son, Sam, that she almost wishes she had never had a baby. As she says, "If I could have one wish, just one crummy little wish, it would be that Sam outlive me."
Earlier in the same journal entry she writes about another story about a hospice for children. I've read this several times now, and every time I still choke up.
I read a line once in a book by Jonathan Nasaw about a place where children who where dying could stay with their parents. A hospice for children. I can hardly write these words. But there was a banner, tie-dyed, I think, over one of the rooms, or maybe over the entrance to the huge house, that said, "Turn off the light, the dawn is coming."
Turn off the light, the dawn is coming.