Full Term Baby Loss: A How-To Guide For Mothers (Guest Post)

Last year, I had the privilege of reviewing Interrogating Pregnancy Loss, a groundbreaking collection of scholarly and creative nonfiction essays that explores pregnancy and infant loss in all its complexity and heartbreak. While this book features a number of deeply affecting chapters, there is one in particular that captured me from the very first read—not only because it is a poignant and beautiful piece of writing, but also because the author’s disarmingly honest account of losing her firstborn child so closely reflects my own experience.

I can still vividly recall my first time perusing the book’s review manuscript on a sunny Saturday afternoon, all the while feeling a tiny baby boy kick against my pregnant belly. Initially, I had been reluctant to serve as a reviewer, knowing how triggering the subject matter would be as I continued to grieve for Leah, while also navigating my ongoing fears of losing another baby. But at the same time, immersing myself in other women’s stories of loss continued to be a cathartic form of therapy, not only because it helped me feel like less of an alien in a culture that prefers to ignore experiences of stillbirth and infant death, but also because, oftentimes, my peers are able to articulate aspects of my grief and trauma that I haven’t been able to put into words.

This is one such story. When I read Rachel’s chapter for the first time, I had to stop halfway through. Every candid thought and emotion she expressed was so eerily similar to what I had experienced with Leah, it felt like I was reading my autobiography. When I finally finished the chapter, I broke into sobs. And then I read it again. And again. And again—each time crying heartily and thinking: “If I could pick one piece of writing that would help people better understand what my experience with infant loss has been like, this would be it.”

As such, it is truly an honour to share the following guest post by Rachel O’Donnell, reprinted with permission from Demeter Press.

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Rachel O’Donnell is a writer and teacher who lives in Rochester, New York, with her husband and two living children, and the memory of her daughter, Corrina. She can be reached at racheltodonnell@gmail.com.

Full Term Baby Loss: A How-To Guide For Mothers

Beginnings

When you find out you are pregnant, call your best friend. Say: “I thought I was, but the first blood test came back negative!” Think: they really spring it on you, this whole pregnancy thing. Say to her, with a mild groan: “I am already eight weeks along.” She laughs, because she has had her baby for two years now.

“Don’t worry,” she says, “This is why babies take nine months to cook. You have plenty of time to get used to the idea.”

So you try. Walk up and down the street, a belly proudly displayed in front of you, a womanly being with thick hair and clear skin who responds to questions with motherly charm. The questions are easy: “When are you due?” and “Is this your first?” and “Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?” Answer each with a toothy smile. Become a lover of small clothing, doula cooperatives, and wooden baby toys. Walk confidently like a grown-up and a mother, someone who is responsible for someone else.

Order decaffeinated coffee, swear off soft cheese and heat all your food until the boiling point. Throw up in the mornings and sometimes in the afternoons. Make kale salads and take your daily tablets of DHA with acceptable herbal teas. Refuse to use the microwave. Pick out a house with multiple bedrooms and on moving day, do not lift any heavy boxes. Research front baby carriers, back baby carriers, jogging strollers and nursing bras. Interview pediatricians. Go to the baby store and register for important things: a set of cloth diapers and wipes, an organic changing pad cover. Ask questions and take notes: what is that thing that fits snuggly over the car seat and why do you need it? Do you go to La Leche meetings before or after the baby comes? You are given a car seat and a bassinet. These are the things you will need.

When a classmate pours you a beer to celebrate your successful qualifying exams, turn it down. Order sparkling water instead. Think: everyone noticed you did not drink it, and with your obvious weight gain and disappearing waist, everyone knows. Later, on the subway, say to them all: “I am pregnant.”

They turn to you and smile. “Good for you!” they say, but what they really mean is: how in the world will you have a baby and finish your dissertation? Start sweating. You yourself do not know the answer.

On Saturdays, go to yard sales and pick out gender-neutral clothes: a yellow footie pajama set printed with ducks, a white fuzzy zipper suit for the cold.

At the midwife’s office, drink a sugary substance and flip through parenting magazines as you wait for two hours to pass. Lie down and listen to the heartbeat through the fetoscope. Watch the spinning centrifuge determine your iron levels.

Take afternoon naps and learn to sleep on your side. Buy more pillows. Go to prenatal yoga classes and lean back gently on the bolster, interlacing your fingers and placing them on your belly with your eyes closed and the lights dimmed. When the instructor tells you to imagine the life growing inside of you, feel the life hiccup and kick your hand.

Endings

Your first maternity clothes are a borrowed pair of jeans with an elastic band, and you are wearing them again, at the end, when your water breaks in the mall and soaks you to your feet. That day, the midwife comes and listens again to the heartbeat. You rest again on your side, wait for contractions to get stronger, and wash the soaked jeans.

Soon, the midwife returns and cannot find the heartbeat. Where did it go? It was just there. Watch her listen again. And again. She takes the fetoscope out of her ears one side at a time. Watch her mouth moving. Something about going to the hospital, should be able to find it, going to double check. Say: “I want the baby.” The midwife looks at you with a sad face. “I know,” she says.

Get in the car and fasten your seat belt. Look over at your husband and say: “There is a dead baby inside me.” You don’t know how you manage to say this to your husband so matter-of-factly and later, you will remember this as a moment in which you did not yet understand. You somehow thought the baby would still appear.

You are cold in the car in your pajamas. Park on the roof of the hospital and walk from the snowy parking lot through a heavy door. This is all you will remember later. How long was the trip to the hospital? Did you talk to your husband and the midwife on the way? What would you have said?

Walk down some stairs and into a brightly lit corridor and through some special door with a buzzer. Everyone in blue oversized jackets stares as you lie down on the table. Watch as they put gel on your giant belly and start the ultrasound, the wand moving over and over and over.

Stare up at the lights and then turn your head to the left, where there is a large window. It is still snowing. A new doctor comes in and presses harder with the probe. You stare to the left without blinking until he says your name. He asked the midwife what it is and that is how he knows. Again he says your name. Again he says it. You cannot look at him because you know what he will say and then finally you turn your head and see his head covered in a paper cap and his blue scrubs and his kind face says it: “I cannot find a heartbeat.” He says your name again because you have looked away from his face and back up to the lights.

Say quietly and disgraced: “Why did the baby die?”

Hear the pity in his voice before he speaks. “I don’t know.”

After that, after the news has been revealed and you are assumed to understand it, there is a lot of quick movement and noise. Hear words like IVs and morphine drips. People move in and out of the room and there is discussion of the changing of shifts.

You wait and wait and wait for it to end. There is only that one kind doctor and every time someone appears that you have not seen before, ask what time the nice one will be back. Think: why did he leave without letting you know?

At night, you sleep on your side and your husband sleeps in the folding chair next to you and holds your hand. When you get up to use the bathroom, do not look in the mirror.

When the midwife comes back into the room and reports that she has called your parents like you asked her to, realize that this is the first time you cry. You have always been a disappointment to them. Here you go again, producing a dead baby instead of a living one.

Someone puts a long needle in your back and tells you it will help ease the pain, but it does not.

Finally, you tell them you have decided on the c-section because the baby has been dead for days and you cannot get her out. See that you have failed many times at this whole motherhood thing: you can neither produce a living child nor deliver her properly.

They wheel you down the hall. You ask them to give you a strong sedative for the surgery and they do, but still you can see the blank faces of the doctors, the bright lights and tubes tied to your arms, and feel the pulling when they get her out. They seem to hand her to a nurse, who quickly leaves with a large blanket. You don’t know where they have taken her.

When you are in a new room and the surgery is over, you are so happy the belly has gone that you breathe a sigh of relief. Think: “It is over!” For many years, regret this thought. You have wished for an ‘over,’ but there is no ‘over.’ Rather, there is a before and after. There is so much of a before and after that some days you can no longer stand the sight of your smiling wedding photographs, before you knew what was to be soon after. Or not be.

Your parents come to the hospital and talk briefly and seriously. They remember a friend whose baby died during her pregnancy forty years ago, who had to wait months to deliver. “Before Pitocin,” they say.

“Oh,” you say, “that is sad.”

They place a salmon-colored mug with an attached spoon and some white carnations on the windowsill of your room. Later, when they are gone, open the small envelope attached to it and read what they wrote: “Get well soon.”

Funny, you think. You did not know you were sick.

The midwife comes in and tells you they took pictures. You are surprised at this news: surely there was nothing to take pictures of. You cannot even imagine it. When she tells you that the baby had a beautiful face, whimper softly because when they told you she was dead, you had thought she was a monster. Try to picture the baby with a body and a face, but you cannot.

A nurse who seems flighty and overworked but not necessarily unkind reveals to you that the dead child you produced was a girl, even though you have asked not to be told the sex. A daughter. This is all you have ever wanted. You were waiting all this time for that girl, that beautifully gendered baby girl.

For two days, you do not want to see her. Finally, on the third day, you say it is okay when they ask and you wait. A different nurse opens the door and comes in with a small bundle wrapped in a white crocheted blanket. Later, they will give you this blanket to take home, when it is empty. She places the bundle in your arms and it has a tiny knit hat so all you can see is the face. The nurse tells you not to take her hat off because of the autopsy, it is resewn. Think: “Frankenstein’s monster.” Look carefully at her face. Think about touching the dark hair sticking out from under the hat, but you do not do it because you are afraid. Her face is perfect, with a tiny nose between some light bruises and above bright red lips. When you touch her forehead with your finger, you are surprised it is cold. She is tiny but heavy so you give her away quickly. See, in the corner of your eye, your husband crying and kissing her face again and again. You can only kiss it once before you hand her back because it is very, very cold.

Years later, your biggest regret is this: giving her back so quickly. Now, though, it seems like enough and you are frightened and just want to go home. List the things no one tells you about pregnancy: the swollen ankles, the difficulty breathing when you walk upstairs quickly, the questions from strangers, and that you only get to take your baby home if you have produced a living one.

Also, later, when she is gone, you wish you had thought to look at her feet.

Refrain

At home, at first, it is better. You can take the sleeping pills they prescribed for you and sleep in your own bed, even though you cannot lie on your side from the pain and you must wear a sports bra at all times. Once, when you take it off to shower, look carefully at your nipple and see the white liquid you produced for her leaking out.

When you wake in the morning, feel fine, refreshed, the sleeping pills must help! Then: remember it. Remember it all.

Look in the mirror at what you have: a bereaved body living in two times at once. Your pregnant body was two bodies, but now you are less than one.

Later, when you are out of sleeping pills and still in bed, you cannot sleep. And you are very, very alone: there is no person in your belly and no baby on the outside. Where did she go? Oh, right: you lost her. Look quickly behind you like a woman who is losing her mind.

At night, when you try to fall asleep again, hear a baby crying. Try to shut this off. Instead, get up and look around for the baby, even in the basement. Check the washing machine. Say: “Just in case.” Remember: when you were in the hospital trying to force your uterus to contract and deliver your dead baby, you heard living babies crying too.

You have a dream that you are giving birth in the hospital, pushing hard, and they place a tiny white kitten on your chest. They tell you the kitten will die. When you wake up, think: “Oh, thank god! It was only a kitten!”

Send your husband back to the hospital for the baby’s things. There is a tiny handmade box with her pictures and the white blanket inside it. In the photographs, she is long, stretched out. This bothers you. In them she is lifeless, with red lips, darkness around her eyes, and a bruised body. You can see how she should have been moving. Seven pounds, three ounces. Say: “Perfect.” Touch the picture of her face and put it away.

The next day, look through what you have left: a couple of photographs, some black footprints, a small teddy bear the nurse placed between her hands in the pictures, a pink hat, and a cast of your big belly you took on one of the last days.

The baby room door is closed. Behind the door, there is a lamp in the shape of a rabbit. There is a hand-me-down crib, a dresser, a sketch of a bunny and a dragonfly you bought and framed.

When the midwife comes later, beg her for specifics because you cannot remember. Do you remember the doctor putting a probe into you to find out if you were contracting during those days you spent trying to get her out? “No,” you say, you do not remember. You do remember the midwife rubbing your feet. You remember asking her if you would have to push. You remember that when she told you your milk would come in, you covered your chest with one arm and sobbed. When you were pregnant with a living baby, this was the only way you could imagine her: nursing at your breast, a tiny hand in your hand, a sweet smelling head on your chest.

Ask the midwife about that smell. The lock of hair they taped to her footprints smells like a baby. Say: “What is that? I always thought it was baby powder.”

“No,” she says and shakes her head, “babies smell sweet.” This makes the tears run down your face without stopping, thinking about the sweet smell of babies. Your baby.

Get up and check the mailbox. For ten days in a row, you get one sympathy card or more in the mail before they end and you don’t need to check the mail anymore. Your mother’s sister writes in her card that her cat Gizzy died. Crumble the card and throw it into the trash.

When spring comes, try to go for a walk. See the overabundance of mothers with living babies walking them in strollers. Then, getting on the school bus, there are little girls. They have pretty dresses and barrettes in their hair. Soon you cannot even go to the corner pharmacy. Try the supermarket instead. There, when you are in a long line behind a mother and a small baby, abandon a cart full of groceries and walk quickly to your car in the parking lot.

Tell yourself you will one day again cook dinner or play the piano, but today is not that day. You cannot read or listen to music: these are the things you and she used to do together.

Go to the baby store to buy a baby book during your one moment of hope that someday there will be a living baby in your house. On the shelf, you see a machine to listen to your baby’s heartbeat. Pick it up and read the outside of the box, the long paragraph that describes how it can be used to prevent stillbirth. It ends with an exclamation point! Place your chin to your chest. Why, why did you not get that machine?

On a good day, you feel like it will be okay, that someday you will be a mother. On a bad day it is not even close.

Imagine yourself dead. Imagine yourself pregnant. Decide you want both, or perhaps neither. Think hard about how you will answer the question, “How many children do you have?”

Keep a list of things people should and should not say to a mom like you. Under ‘OK,’ write: “We miss her too,” and “I’m so sorry.” Under ‘Not OK,’ write: “I can’t believe you missed my birthday, “ and “You are not the same person.” These are the most painful ones, written in the letters you get later on from the people who were supposed to be your friends. One of the worst ones ends with, “This is not the you I know.” Remember: you no longer know yourself.

Shut up, you say to the letter. Shut up, shut up. Soon phone calls from these people make you throw up violently and without warning, like you did when you were first pregnant. Unplug the phone.

Think about death. Wish for your own. Wish to go back to the moment of hers. You were there, after all, watching her slip quietly away.

List things that are difficult: peeing next to the baby changer attached to the wall in the department store bathroom. Ordering coffee next to the woman in line fussing over a baby picture. Walking by the baby clothes in the superstore. Tiny shoes of any color. “Mommy!” called by a small child.

Try not to wince when people show off their pregnant bellies.

Years later, still notice the gap: the family portraits, the number of grandchildren, the order of the cousins, the preschool class, the bus for school children that passes your house, the father-daughter party that no one has invited your husband to attend. This will continue for years to come, but you do not yet know this, and it is somehow better.

Keep your list of ‘OK’ and ‘Not OK’ in case you need to add to it later, which of course you do.

Sustained

There is a support group for people like you. When you go, you hear the term ‘babyloss mama’ for the first time. Think: you do not want to be here. You do not want to be one of them. Baby loss mama. The word mama is there but with some horrible identifier in front of it.

“I always feel like some kind of dead baby mama freak bag,” says one. Say: “Oh, you too?”

Another one says, “When I held her in the hospital, I cried and cried all over her because I wanted my tears to go with her when they took her away.”

“Oh,” you say, “that was a good idea.” Curse yourself for not thinking of that.

The one with the unwashed hair says, “When people ask me why she died, I don’t know what to say because I probably killed her.”

“How do you think you killed her?” you ask. She gulps and coughs and wipes the tears off her cheek. She says, “I drank a cup of coffee and that was probably it.” You try not to laugh. This is ridiculous. This is trying to get the maternal body to behave responsibly. Coffee is at fault for none of this.

After the meeting, think: you yourself almost certainly killed your baby by not paying enough attention. Or maybe it was that soft cheese. Another miscalculating mother at fault.

You start seeing a therapist. She starts many sentences with “other parents who have lost children tell me,” but often you cannot make out the rest because you sob loudly. You are glad for this phrasing, though, especially the “other parents” part. You don’t know them, but you imagine them in their big suburban houses with their other children running in the yard. Funny, they are dead baby freak bags too.

Your husband, who is both an atheist and a physicist, takes you to where they have put her ashes. It is behind a big gate and full of plants and trees. He insists that her molecules are with us. He can calculate this. “See,” he says, scratching some numbers on a wrinkled yellow page from a legal pad, “there she is.” He grins proudly and circles the dots on the page.

Later, when you are alone, throw some dirt in the air. Watch it fall down, get into your hair, and leave dust on your face. Whisper: “I miss you.” Say it out loud: “I miss you, baby girl.”

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Guest Post: Elijah’s Story

I am honoured to share the following guest post by fellow loss mama Lisa Addis.

It was a Wednesday. I was putting the finishing touches on the swing I had purchased for my second and much-loved baby boy, Elijah, who was due to arrive in just twelve days. After a tiring but otherwise healthy pregnancy, my boyfriend and I were beyond excited to finally meet the newest member of our family.

Like most expectant mothers, I had been keeping busy with preparations for my baby’s arrival. It was late in the day, nearly midnight, when I suddenly realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt him kick. I decided to warm up a bath and relax, hoping it would wake him up…but I still did not feel any movement. Slowly, the worry began to creep up on me. I changed my strategy and started walking around the house and talking to him, but still he did not move. Finally unable to suppress my fear, I messaged my family and asked for advice. They tried to console me with the words that are often said to women during their final weeks of pregnancy: “Babies always slow down at the end as they get bigger and run out of space. Don’t worry! Everything will be okay.

Wanting to believe they were right, I calmed myself down and went to bed. But then Thursday morning came, still with no movements from Elijah. Fearing the worst, I broke into sobs and called my mother-in-law to take me to the hospital. On the drive there she kept trying to reassure me: “Everything is okay! Nothing is wrong.” But little did we know that everything was wrong.

Upon arriving, I was admitted to the Labour and Delivery unit. Terrified, I lay still as the nurse strapped the fetal monitor to my body. I so badly wanted to hear Elijah’s heartbeat…but she couldn’t find it. She told me not to worry, and proceeded to ask me routine questions while I cried. 

Soon enough I was being wheeled out to have an ultrasound. I remember fighting back tears and thinking to myself, “These things don’t happen, not my baby,” as the technician scanned my belly and the nurse held my hand. They asked me more questions, trying to understand if there had been any complications during my pregnancy, but everything had been fine up to this point.

They wheeled me back to my room and told me the doctor would come soon to provide some answers. Words cannot express the excruciating feeling of waiting to find out whether my son was alive or dead. Some time passed before the doctor arrived. “I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “There is no heartbeat. He’s gone.”

It felt as though I had been stabbed in the chest, and my heart shattered into a million pieces. Unable to believe the words coming from his lips, all I could do was scream and cry out in agony. I felt like I had stepped into a dreamworld as he proceeded to tell me I could go home and gather my things before returning to give birth to my baby boy, who would be born still.

I felt completely numb as we left the hospital and returned home. I packed Elijah’s bag, all the while thinking how surreal it was that I wouldn’t be bringing my baby home. I sat on the couch and stared at my belly, unable to understand how Elijah could be dead. How was this possible? Why was this happening to me and my son? Was it all my fault somehow?

When we returned to the hospital, the doctors, nurses, and social workers all came in to talk to me. I was advised about making funeral arrangements, something I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. No mother should have to think about her child’s funeral right before she is about to give birth.

My induction began and my labour started slowly, gradually picking up speed as Thursday night bled into Friday morning. Elijah’s father, grandmother, and aunt all stood by me as I gave birth to my beautiful son. When he came out I prayed that he would cry…I was simply dying inside, desperate to hear him cry…but he entered the world silently. They took him away and cleaned him off. That’s when I was told that there was a knot in his umbilical cord. They explained that there is nothing I could have done to cause or prevent it, and it cannot be detected on ultrasounds.

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June 10, 2016

I was told that I could hold him for as long as I wanted. During those precious hours I talked to him, told him how much I love him, and kissed his beautiful face. I cherish every second that I got to spend with him, before they took him away from me forever. How do you say hello and goodbye to your child all at once? I cannot describe the pain of knowing I would never hold him again, see him smile, hear him laugh, or even know the colour of his eyes.

When I arrived back home, Elijah’s brother asked me where the baby was. I tried so hard to fight back my tears. I cleared my throat and said, “Elijah is in Heaven with God. He passed away.” I do not necessarily believe this, but my son does, and I wanted so badly to spare him the same unbearable pain I was feeling.

In the weeks and months that followed, my inconsolable grief for Elijah took me to very dark places. I felt suicidal, numb, angry, depressed, sad, and lonely—all at once. I felt like nothing in the world mattered and I could not go on in life without him. Eventually I went to counseling, and then a support group, where I connected with other loss parents who understood my pain. Gradually, I learned to live with the reality that is every parent’s worst nightmare.

Still, every day remains a struggle. Each morning I awake to a gaping hole in my heart and a silence in my home that should be filled with Elijah’s cries and laughter. I miss him every single day, and I will continue to miss him for the rest of my life. All I have is memories of my second son, when he should be here, safe in the arms of his family.

I love you, my sweet Elijah. You are everything to me.

Guest Post: Unsung Lullabies

I am honoured to share the following guest post by fellow loss mama Bethany Horst.

I am a musician. Not only has singing become my vocation, but it is an integral part of my identity. I sang as soon as I could talk, I am told. Music has long been my main vehicle for expression, for communication, and for sharing with others.

Separate and apart from my professional engagements crooned the soundtrack of my life.  Beyond my own singing, I taught singing to many. I began to procure, refine, and collect the songs I would teach my children. The music that would fill our household. The first melodies and lullabies my babies would hear. A catalogue of comfort. Stories told through music. Tunes destined for the family I had planned.

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As I prepared these lullabies, life happened. I travelled the world, sang, acquired degrees, waitressed, moved, married, was widowed, married the love of my life, and found myself pregnant with our son. Our long-awaited, always wanted, ever-planned-for boy. And so I sang to him. Songs to soothe, to bond, to celebrate, to teach, and to reflect.

We shared a beautiful pregnancy. We shared a mostly beautiful labour. But as the hours wore on, even the swift and skilled surgery that eventually brought him out of my body was not enough to save him.

Elliot Jamieson Pepper died during delivery on May 19, 2016. The body we had shared for 40 weeks, 4 days, had also exposed him to a common virus, and with no signs of distress, he died at the very moment of his birth.

And so did the lullabies. There was nothing left to sing.

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In the darkness of those early days of grief, I could never catch my breath. I felt like I was drowning. Cruelly, there was just enough air to sustain me. And no matter how insurmountable the pain, I also could not bring myself to stop kicking. Trapped somewhere between death and surviving.

But that same kicking, that same remnant of oxygen, kept the lullabies alive. Unsung, for now, but only dormant, not forgotten. To acknowledge he was here. To acknowledge hope.  To maintain a piece of the me I used to be.

So we sing one of Elliot’s songs, to remind us all that morning comes again, relentlessly.  Who knew the lullaby I prepared to shield little minds from nightmares and darkness would have no place to land but on my own grief. And so I reach for the light.

“Reach for the light although I may not see it now,

I know it’s always bright,

And the more your eyes adjust, the more perfect is your sight.

Don’t ask me what I see, but what I know.

Don’t seek me where I am, but where I go

And if you find yourselves in darkness friends,

Just hug each other tight

Join hands, sing your songs, and reach for the light.”

© Eileen Mcgann, 2000

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Guest Post: Jensen’s Story

I am honoured to share the following guest post by fellow loss mama Danielle Ridgway. You can read more about her journey on her blog, Jensen Grey.

I believe there are moments in all of our lives that define who we are and ultimately change our lives forever. For some, these moments involve getting married or landing a dream job. Thankfully, many of these events transform our lives for the better.

One such moment occurred when I discovered I was pregnant with my first child. My positive pregnancy test was the greatest birthday present I could have asked for, even if it was a big surprise. In the first moments after that smiley face flashed across the test screen, my mind began planning out the rest of my life. During the days and weeks that followed, I kept envisioning a future for the life that was growing inside me. I was never sick or tired throughout the first trimester; instead I was happily glowing from the inside out. We picked out possible names for a girl and a boy, even though I already felt that this baby would be my brave son.

At the twenty week anatomy scan, we discovered that my growing suspicion was correct. A little boy made himself known to the world, and we all yelled out his name through tears of joy: “Jensen!” In that moment I imagined years of football and catch games in the backyard. But this was not the only important piece of news we received that day. We learned that our precious boy, our Jensen, had a very thick neck, which could mean a number of different things, but most likely pointed to Down syndrome.

This defining moment threw a minor wrench in our future plans, but I could still see Jensen playing sports, reading, and letting his imagination grow to the highest of highs. I knew I would love him no matter what, and we were even going to be able to see him twice a week until he was born so that his growth could be closely monitored. What expectant mom doesn’t want to see her baby that often?

As Jensen and my belly both continued to grow, my love for him did too. I found out he loved chocolate milk and macaroni and cheese. He would dance whenever I played music, and he loved hearing me read to him. Each night I had to lay on my left side or he would kick me until I complied. Every spare moment I had was spent planning for his arrival. His dad and I attended all the prenatal classes and prepared the coolest navy and orange nursery I had ever seen. Our family threw a baby shower for the both of us and soon enough we were all ready for Jensen’s arrival. All we had to do now was wait for him to grow big and strong enough to take his first breath outside my belly.

On Thursday, March 31, 2016, I saw Jensen dance across the ultrasound screen for the last time. Just as he did at our previous appointments, he practiced his breathing and held his hand next to his face. Each time the ultrasound technician went to his face, he posed so they could get a good picture of him. As we walked out to the car afterward, I said to him, “The next time we’re here you’ll be making your arrival.”

I never could have anticipated the full magnitude of truth in those words.

My scan on April 4, 2016 started off as a regular appointment. However, this quickly changed when the technician called the doctor in. That’s when we heard the soul-crushing words: “There is no heartbeat.” My lively, brave boy had gone to sleep the night before and didn’t wake up. I was in shock. Surely this didn’t still happen to people in the twenty-first century. It especially didn’t happen to mothers who did everything by the book and had bi-weekly ultrasound scans. Maybe they made a mistake? This simply couldn’t be true.

We rushed to the hospital only to learn that his heart still wasn’t beating. I was induced at 11pm that night and went through a very quick labor. My Jensen Grey was born still on April 5, 2016 at 4:25am. With the exception of his curly blonde hair, he looked just like his mama. His pouty lips, button nose, and chubby cheeks could light up a smile on anyone’s face. He was absolutely perfect at 7 pounds 1 ounce and 19 3/4 inches long. His big hands and chubby fingers resembled his uncle’s, and his feet looked just like mine as well. I still cannot believe that I created something so beautiful.

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The days following his birth were the darkest I’ve ever experienced. It felt like all the light in my life died with him. Jensen was cremated and returned to me the day of his funeral. The service and urn were almost as beautiful as my precious baby boy. Suddenly the life I had been planning since seeing that positive pregnancy test was over. I was left to pick up the pieces of my broken heart and figure out how to put everything back together—a process I’m still working through and probably always will.

It was during these early days of grieving that I first stumbled into the loss community. I have since found incredible love and support from other bereaved mothers who understand and share in my pain. Even on the most difficult days I am reminded that I’m not alone in my struggles. Similarly, my sweet Jensen’s spirit continues to give me the strength I need to keep going and share our story of love and loss with the world.

It’s been just over six months since my brave boy left my womb to venture ahead into the unknown. My love for him has only continued to grow during this time, just like any mother’s love expands with each passing day. This love allows me to wake up each morning and dedicate my days to him, as well as to help other bereaved mamas in their own journeys.

While Jensen’s death is a defining moment in my life, it does not solely define who I am or who he is. The choice to always love him, as well as to speak up for him and all his friends in heaven, ignites my passion each day. I choose to live my life for him and do all the things that he will never get to do himself. The moment that truly defines me is the one in which I became Jensen’s mother. Nothing and no one can ever take that away from me.

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Guest Post: Zach’s Story

I am honoured to share the following guest post by fellow loss mama Anne-Marie.

All had gone well during my pregnancy with Zach, my much wanted second baby boy. At least that was the case until January 21, 2015, two days before his due date. Suddenly I found myself in the hospital after sensing that his movements had decreased, and I ended up delivering him by emergency caesarean section soon after. That day I discovered that he had suffered a very rare foetal-maternal haemorrhage, where the membrane in his umbilical cord ceased to separate his blood supply from my own. Why this happened remains unknown; our obstetrician had never seen it occur in his 25 years of practice.

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Over the next week our family spent as much time with Zach as we could. We were able to care for him by changing nappies, taking his temperature, and wiping his mouth. Every milestone was celebrated, like when he opened his eyes and appeared responsive to our voices, or when he stretched his limbs and gripped our fingers. During this time we also received amazing support from our families who brought food, did the washing, and helped care for Zach’s big brother each day.

The medical team stabilised Zach so he was able to have an MRI scan on January 29. At this point he was mainly breathing on his own but was still hooked up to the ventilator. The next day we met with the Paediatric Consultant who delivered the most devastating news we could have received: The extensive damage to nearly all parts of Zach’s brain, including his brain stem, made it very unlikely that he would survive.

That evening Zach was removed from his ventilator and made comfortable. For the next four nights he slept with us in the NICU family room. During this time he was like any other newborn requiring feedings, nappy changes, and lots of sleep. He was fed expressed breast milk through a tube and often woke up crying from hunger.

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On the evening of February 2 we had a family picnic outside while Zach slept in his pushchair, and later on we gave him his first bath. As the night progressed he started to feel very cold and his breathing became increasingly laboured as he slept between my husband and me. The next morning Zach died peacefully in our arms.

Leaving the hospital without our baby boy was the most surreal and devastating feeling imaginable. Our hearts ached and our dreams for his future were suddenly lost forever. So many questions were left unanswered: Why did this happen? Why us? What did we do to deserve this when we wanted him so much?

I never wrote about my grief journey following Zach’s death. Sometimes I wish I had. I would often “write” what was on my mind in my head, and at times I’d share these thoughts with friends (new and old) who have been there for me. I have learned many things over the past year, including how difficult it is to be a friend to a bereaved person. People fear they will upset the person in mourning if they say “the wrong thing” or mention the deceased’s name. I have experienced both sides of this. I wish I had always known what I know now, and I would have been a better friend in the past. I now know that saying nothing is far more hurtful than saying the wrong thing (except “everything happens for a reason”—never say that to a bereaved person).

Talking about Zach cannot make me sadder than I already am. It actually makes my heart smile even though you may see tears. And what seems like ancient history to a non-bereaved person remains all too real for the bereaved. We lost Zach over a year ago and my grief is still part of my daily life. It is not always as raw as it was, but it does not take much to trigger it. Some days a bereaved person may seek comfort with loved ones and other days they may seek solitude. I know I have stopped being social at times and I have not always had the energy to respond honestly to the question “How are you?” It’s a different life from my previous one, but this is what I have had to do to survive.

I want to wholeheartedly thank my friends who have not given up on me, who have checked in regularly just to let me know they are still thinking of me and Zach. For those who have not lost a child, it is hard to understand what a bereaved parent is going through. It’s easy to separate yourself from them and think, “Thank God that isn’t me.” But the truth is that we can all imagine what it would be like to be without a loved one, and if we allow ourselves to carry a piece of the bereaved parent’s grief, we can also imagine the unspeakable pain of losing a much loved child.

To honour Zach’s life, we have made some stickers to be inserted into books and given to children in need for Christmas. My Aunt recently told me that the two books she donated to her local Parish were given to a young mother whose son was also born in January 2015. While I’m happy these books were donated in Zach’s memory to a baby who needs them, I so wish our own little boy was here with his older brother reading to him.

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The sticker we inserted into the books that were donated in Zach’s memory

Zach will always be part of our family. We talk about him with his older brother all the time and we have filled our home with photographs of him. We have Zach’s ashes at home and have had a memorial bench seat installed in the Timaru Botanical Gardens. This is our special place where we go to remember him. He will be forever in our hearts.

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Guest Post: Gabriella’s Story

I am honoured to share the following guest post by fellow loss mama Shanecia Cadena. Any comments or questions for the author can be sent to Cadenashanecia@gmail.com.

You never truly know how precious life is until a horrible tragedy unfolds before your eyes.

June 30, 2016 began as a normal day. I was 22 weeks along in my pregnancy with my daughter, Gabriella. In the morning I felt my baby girl moving around and kicking as per usual. That afternoon I had a routine prenatal checkup, which I hoped would confirm that she was still growing healthy and strong. However, little did I know that this appointment would change my life forever.

My obstetrician started off by asking the usual questions. She discussed Gabriella’s measurements, and then we reached the part that I always anticipated yet also silently feared: Searching for her heartbeat. At my previous appointments finding her heartbeat with the Doppler had been quick and easy. But not this time. It took longer than expected and I immediately knew something was wrong when I saw the worried expression on the doctor’s face.

Soon she rolled in the ultrasound monitor to see if it could detect what the Doppler had been unable to find. When this didn’t work, she left to ask the head obstetrician for help. Shaking and scared, I began crying and praying that this was just a glitch, and perhaps my daughter was simply being stubborn. The new doctor came in shortly afterward and performed another ultrasound. After what seemed like a lifetime, he began explaining what he found on the screen. He said that Gabriella had a lot of fluid and swelling around her head. He then confirmed that she had passed.

In that moment my worst fears had come true. I was so heartbroken. I was in shock. I was numb. It was the worst feeling I could possibly imagine.

Crying uncontrollably, I called my husband to tell him the devastating news. The doctor had indicated that I could wait and let my body go into labour on its own, or I could be induced later that day. I couldn’t hold off any longer; I was admitted to labour and delivery soon after. As they wheeled me upstairs to my room, we passed by walls adorned with beautiful newborn baby pictures. It broke my heart to know that Gabriella’s photo would never be displayed and celebrated in this way. So many thoughts were running through my head: Why was this happening to us? What did we do to deserve this? What did I do wrong?

Hours passed before I was given medicine to start the long induction process. I kept asking myself, “Can I do this? Am I strong enough to handle this?” I could feel my stomach deflating like a beach ball. Time continued to creep by and at 7pm I finally started pushing. It was the worst physical pain I have ever experienced, although it did not compare to the heartbreak of losing my baby. She was born still on July 1 at 7:13pm. We were given a day to hold her and spend time with her before she was sent to the funeral home.

The doctor would later inform us that Gabriella was diagnosed with Turner Syndrome, which only occurs in female babies. She had fetal hydrops and cystic hygroma, all of which translated to a 1% chance of survival. However, it took about six weeks for us to receive the results of the biopsy that had been performed on her skin and umbilical cord, at which point we were told that the tests were inconclusive. It wasn’t protocol for the doctor’s office to make sure the cells were fresh, and the lab did not run the tests within 48 hours like it was supposed to. It kills me that we will never know her cause of death for certain. Even though the doctors are confident in their diagnosis, I will always wonder.

It has been just over a month since we lost our baby girl. We go about our daily activities and routines, but each day remains a struggle for me. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about her or picture her precious face here with our family. While we are not completely healed, it is comforting to know she’s at peace and watching over me, her daddy, and her big brother. As much as I want to forget about what happened, I can’t. Our family will always love, cherish, and miss our sweet Gabriella.

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