Carrying My Baby In My Heart Instead of My Arms: Pregnancy And Infant Loss Remembrance Day
My friend and guest blogger, Stacy Everson Garber, lost her daughter in a still-birth this past August. She was willing to share her story with others so that we may help to remember her daughter and to inspire others to have difficult conversations with their friends and family members who may also have lost a child. This story is very raw, real, and truly emotional. Thank you for sharing with us Stacy. -Veronica Ryan
On the morning of August 4, 2018, at 39 weeks and 4 days pregnant, I went into labor with my third baby. As soon as I was sure that my contractions weren’t just Braxton Hicks and that I was actually in labor, my husband and I sprang into action, packing bags, calling relatives, and getting ourselves and our two children (ages 2 and 3.5) ready to meet the newest member of our family.
It was about 10 A.M. when we piled into the car and headed toward the hospital, and as soon as we were on the road my husband grabbed my hand and looked into my eyes.
“This is it,” he said with a smile. “Let’s go meet our baby.”
I grinned and squeezed his hand back. Today was the day – it was finally here! We would be meeting our baby in a matter of hours. Our family of four would soon be a family of five. I couldn’t wait.
When we arrived at the hospital, I headed inside while he waited in the parking lot for his mom to arrive to pick up our kids. She would be there in about ten minutes, and since I had done this twice before I had no qualms about going in by myself. The triage nurse quickly checked me in, I changed into a hospital gown, and I lay down on the examination table. After a cervical check, the nurse pressed a fetal Doppler against the left side of my belly to check the baby’s heartbeat. I listened for the soft, rhythmic thud I had heard several times before.
Nothing. Her brow furrowed.
“It’s usually on my right side,” I said, unconcerned. At nearly every prenatal visit, the heartbeat was detected on the right side of my belly. All of my check-ups had been totally normal; I had been blessed with three easy, uncomplicated pregnancies and had no reason to expect anything other than another healthy baby. Of course she would find the heartbeat on my right side.
She glanced at me and moved the Doppler to the right side of my belly. Still nothing. She took a step back.
“I’m not really hearing what I want to hear,” she said, avoiding my gaze. “I’m going to go get the doctor and I’ll be right back.”
After she left the room, I sat on the table, still mostly unconcerned. I had had checkups during each pregnancy where the nurse had struggled to find the baby’s heartbeat, sometimes needing to get another nurse to help or even having to do an ultrasound, but it was always there, strong and steady once our little game of hide-and-seek was over.
The doctor came in and turned on the monitor to the ultrasound machine, looking at it intently as she pressed the device to my belly. My baby’s form filled the screen and I smiled. There was my baby! I was going to meet him or her so soon! Would it be a boy or a girl? Would it have hair? Would it –
My thoughts were cut short by the doctor’s voice.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I can’t find a heartbeat.”
I stared at her blankly. What did she just say? What did she mean? Of course my baby had a heartbeat. What?
“I’m really sorry,” she said again, her voice quivering slightly. She pointed to a spot on the screen. “This is where we should be seeing movement in the heart. I just don’t see anything. Your doctor will be here in a few minutes, and he can check again if you want. Do you want him to check again?”
She left the room with the nurse and I sat there alone, looking absently at the blank screen where my baby had just been. I felt… nothing. I know now that I was in shock, still thinking that it had to be a mistake. My baby had been wiggling in my belly just hours earlier, before the contractions started. All of my check-ups had been normal. My due date was only three days away. How could my baby just be GONE?
In that moment I realized that my husband did not yet know. Sitting with that information before he arrived felt like an eternity. How was I supposed to tell him his child had died, that I had failed to keep our baby alive? Was this my fault? My thoughts whirled, but I still wasn’t crying. Why wasn’t I crying? Wasn’t I supposed to feel sad? Why wasn’t I feeling anything? I clenched my fists in my lap and stared at them until his face appeared in the doorway.
“Hey, how’s everything?” he asked excitedly.
I immediately fell to pieces, collapsing in on myself, sobbing and reaching for him.
His expression turned to utter confusion and the nurse appeared, grabbing his arm. I didn’t hear what she said to him over the sound of my own sobs, but then he was by my side, holding me as we cried together.
The next couple of hours were a blur. My doctor arrived shortly thereafter and confirmed the lack of a heartbeat with 100% certainty. He told us that the odds of stillbirth at 39+ weeks were roughly 1 in 1000 and that there is absolutely nothing I could have done to prevent this. I was moved to a delivery room and given an epidural, which only took to one side of my body. It was such a strange feeling to have my left side totally numb as I felt every excruciating contraction on my right. During one particularly intense contraction I remember looking at my husband and repeating through clenched teeth “I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do this.” Suddenly I felt the pain intensify and told the nurse it was getting worse.
She checked my cervix and notified the doctor that I was completely dilated. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly.
“It won’t be long now,” she said. I nodded, tears rolling down my cheeks.
A few minutes later, our baby girl, Maren Eve, was born sleeping at 1:32pm. She was 8lb, 7oz and 21 inches long. She was beautiful, with a head full of dark brown hair, her daddy’s toes, and a face that reminded us so much of her brother’s. Other than the umbilical cord wrapped tightly twice around her neck, she was perfect.
My doctor explained that at some point during the last few weeks of pregnancy, the umbilical cord had gotten wrapped around her neck, which is fairly common. It is not very common, however, for it to get wrapped around twice, and once labor started and she began lowering into the birth canal, the cord tightened and she asphyxiated. The cord was pulled so tightly the doctor had to cut it during labor in order to get her out.
Holding Maren, knowing that she would only be in my arms for a few hours before I’d never see her again, was devastating.
I desperately studied her face, trying to burn her image into my memory so I wouldn’t forget even the tiniest detail – her earlobes, her lips, her nail beds, her tiny eyelashes. Despite her limbs being limp, her hand somehow wrapped snugly around my index finger and I’ll never forget the feeling of holding her little hand in mine.
These are the things I want to remember. There are parts that weren’t perfect. Her cheeks were silky and soft, but so cold. Her lips were a deep shade of purple. I regret not unwrapping the blanket in which she was loosely swaddled; I only know she was a girl because I was told that she was. I held my child, but I never got to see the whites of her eyes or the pinks of her gums. I never got to hear her voice. She had teetered on the cusp of life, and it is so unfair that she had to go so soon.
My husband, members of our immediate families, and I held Maren for about six hours before we said our final goodbyes.
During that time we introduced our other two children to their baby sister and tried to explain as best as we could why we wouldn’t be bringing her home with us.
At some point she was changed into a white satin dress provided by the hospital since the cheesy unisex onesies I had packed in haste that morning seemed so woefully inadequate for the only outfit she’d ever get to wear. We consented to having her pictures taken, declined an autopsy, and held a naming ceremony and prayer service for her under a chaplain’s guidance. When she was tenderly lifted out of my arms for the last time, it felt like a crater opened up in my chest, and that hollow feeling still hasn’t gone away. I’m not sure it ever will.
Though my daughter’s birth seems like it happened ages ago, I know that I am still in the early stages of grief. At the time of this writing, it’s been less than seven weeks. I’m starting to have more good days than bad, but the grief often catches me off guard. I’ve gone from feeling completely fine to bursting into tears on countless occasions – like when I turned a corner in a store and found myself suddenly staring at a wall of baby clothes, when Maren’s name flashed across my dashboard when “The Middle” came on the car radio, when my breasts suddenly started leaking weeks after I thought my milk had finally subsided, and when I opened my son’s dresser drawer and saw a “Big Brother” t-shirt staring back at me. I don’t yet know how to answer when asked how many children I have, and I’m not sure how or if we should acknowledge her in the family pictures we’ll be taking at the end of October.
Who am I as a mother without my child?
I feel like a seamstress without a needle, a painter without a brush. I am lucky to have good mental health, an incredible support system, and reading and writing as an emotional outlet, but I don’t yet know how I will move forward or move on from this experience. I want to be able to hold my baby nephew, born just three days before Maren, without seeing her face in his and mourning everything that could have been. I want to be able to genuinely smile at a pregnant woman without secretly thinking that she shouldn’t be too excited about the baby, because you never know. I want to finish Maren’s scrapbook, despite the dismay I feel about it being the only one she’ll ever have. Part of me desperately wants another child; most of me desperately wants Maren.
What do you do when a piece of your heart is ripped away? Do you chase after it forever? Do you try to replace it with other things until you find another piece that fits? Do you ignore it and try to forget about it? Or will it eventually just start to feel normal – different, but normal?