To Lose a Child

My teenage years were ideal, filled with wonderful memories and all the usual “firsts”:  first love, first kiss, first car, first job… The little girl who fought horrifying battles in her sleep each night (more on that later) had transformed into a young lady voted “First with a Smile” by her classmates.

In 1984, I graduated from college with an AAS in Secretarial Science, landed the perfect job at one of the best places to work in my community, and married my high school sweetheart, all within the same year. We had three beautiful daughters right off the bat, our family and friends were all healthy, and we settled happily into middle-class American life.

It was November 1992 when I found out I was expecting Baby Number Four. I struggled through the holiday season with the same debilitating morning sickness that had plagued me for each of my previous pregnancies, but I knew it would only last a few months, and it was always worth it in the end.  I had just recently completed a comprehensive course to become a Certified Childbirth Educator—something I had hoped to do on the side, given my growing experience with the subject matter. I thought it would be perfect, being pregnant while teaching about pregnancy and childbirth. I could share my knowledge and my own personal expertise. By that time, I’d had three miscarriages and three healthy babies.

In mid-March 1993, as I was experiencing my fourth baby’s first fleeting movements, there was an epidemic of Fifth Disease (also known as Parvovirus B19) going around in our local community. Fifth Disease is a common, generally mild childhood virus. My children were exposed to it in grade school at the time and experienced the tell-tale “slapped cheeks” appearance, along with some of its other mild symptoms. I, too, was exposed to it, and the faint rash spread ominously to my chest and extremities.  I thought it was just a harmless virus with mild symptoms. I thought wrong.

At around 21 weeks of pregnancy, I noticed my baby’s movements had slowed down significantly. I brought it up at my next appointment, but my ob-gyn did not seem concerned, because he could still hear her heart beating with the Doppler device. But she continued to move less and less, until around 24 weeks, when fetal movement seemed to have ceased altogether. For some time, I had been having recurring nightmares that my baby bump was completely gone and that I had lost the baby. Notes I jotted down from one of those nightmares follows:

Walking alone through busy store trying to push cart, but ridiculously-pregnant stomach in way. Arms too short to reach handle. Nobody noticed or offered to help as I struggled to push cart with belly. Someone announced over the PA “pregnant lady coming through.” At the checkout monochrome strangers were staring at me. Something didn’t feel right…everything was too gray, too slow-motion, too gloomy. By time I reached register, stomach had shrunk. Had really sick feeling. Next, I was in hospital, lying on gurney, belly completely back to pre-pregnant size, even though I was supposed to give birth that day. Kept patting it and patting it, hoping to make it big again. Doctor walked in to check on my labor status.  

Each time I had such a dream, I woke in a panic and had a sick sense of foreboding. Convinced that there had to be something wrong, I began calling and stopping at the doctor’s office after work almost daily to see if they could still pick up a heartbeat. Each time someone in the doctor’s office laid the Doppler on my stomach and pointed out two heartbeats, mine and the baby’s. But at 24 weeks, I began swelling from head to toe and my blood pressure soared (signs of preeclampsia), so my doctor sent me to the hospital for an ultrasound to see what was going on.

My husband was at work, so I hobbled over to the nearby radiology department in an adjacent building alone, bloated, uncomfortable, and nervous; and I climbed up onto the cold examining table so the ultrasound tech could begin her exam. We exchanged pleasantries, and then she went silent and still, as she guided the Doppler over my distended abdomen. Her reassuring smile vanished. There was no more idle chit-chat about her son and my husband, who were childhood friends. You could hear a pin drop. My heart sank, and I knew without her even saying it. I knew. She grimly told me to wait there and returned a few minutes later with my doctor. It was his job to tell me, not hers. With genuine regret written all over his face, he stood at the foot of the exam table, took my swollen feet in his hands in a comforting manner and, with tears in his pale blue eyes, said he was so sorry, but the baby had died.

The next thing I knew, I was walking toward the exit; walking straight into my own recurring nightmare. Do you know how it feels to walk through a busy waiting area by yourself, sobbing, clearly pregnant, face and ankles grossly swollen, with strangers’ eyes upon you, as you try to process that, not only has your baby died, but now you must return the next day to labor and give birth to your dead child? And nobody else could do it for me; nor would I wish it upon anyone else. The responsibility to endure such a morbid and gut-wrenching affair is an expectant mother’s alone, at least in the physical sense. So, I shored up my inner strength and prepared to put one foot in front of the other in the days ahead, as grim as I knew they would be.

The rest of that day is a blur, which was probably a blessing, because my heart could not handle the cold reality of what I was experiencing. I remember going home and collapsing in bed, sobbing. I must have called my husband. I must have swung by my parents’ house to tell them, since I had to go right past there to get home. And when my three young daughters (two, four, and six years old) arrived home that day, I must have explained the situation as best as I could. But I truly don’t recall much of that day or the next. It was all so unreal, like knowing you’re in a bad dream you can’t wake from. It felt so wrong, and I felt so guilty to be alive with my heart beating strongly, while our baby—whose waning heartbeat had been of such concern to me for weeks—was now dead inside of me. I mourned in bed, until it was time for us to head back to the hospital so that labor could be induced.

Once induction had begun and the doctor left to go home for a bit, a fresh-faced nurse peaked in on us occasionally. Finally, after several hours of labor, on April 30, 1993, “Baby Julie” was born, deceased, landing in the capable, loving hands of her father. No doctors or nurses got to the room in time to assist. The young nurse to whom I was assigned returned to my bedside, silent and stunned, like an innocent deer in the headlights. She didn’t say anything for a moment or two, and the frozen expression on her face is etched into my memory. Maybe it was her first experience with a stillborn. But she quickly regained her composure and, from that point on, did all she could to help ease our pain.

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Baby Julie was handed gently to me, and I remember looking from my husband to the nurse, asking over and over and over again—even though her skin was unnaturally darkened and beginning to slough off—“Are you sure she’s dead?” “Are you sure?” Nobody needed to respond. I knew the answer. The nurse sympathetically offered a Polaroid snapshot of Julie and pressed her tiny footprints carefully onto the certificate of birth—mementos that would go into a scrapbook I later created for her. Even at 24 weeks, and even with her skin clearly undergoing the unsightly process of desquamation, she was perfect. All two pounds and fourteen inches of her were otherwise perfect. She would have been a dark-haired beauty whose delicate features were obvious. I held her for the longest time, and then I was discharged, so that we could arrange for, and attend, her simple graveside service. Exhausted and with a heavy heart, we returned home, and I asked my girls to help me find a special blanket and cross.

We went to the funeral home, where Baby Julie had been taken, and we selected a little white casket, which seemed appropriate for a pure, angelic soul. It reminded me of a medium-size picnic cooler. Then the mortician took the blanket and cross we brought with us and went into another room to prepare Baby Julie for our own private viewing. When he returned, he told us to take as long as we needed to say our prayers and goodbyes and to view her one last time. She was wrapped snuggly in a small, colorful homemade quilt made by her great-grandma, and resting across her belly was a Precious Moments ceramic cross with a baby girl on it.

From the funeral home, a small contingent of vehicles (immediate family and the funeral director) proceeded to the cemetery, where Baby Julie was buried next to her uncle.  I remember holding my youngest daughter’s hand especially tight, as we stood at the grave site. At only two years old, it looked like she would remain the baby of the family for a while. With all the maternal hormones still rushing through my veins, I needed a baby to rock and cuddle, and she still fit the bill. I had three precious, healthy little girls who needed me, regardless of what else was happening. And I needed them, now more than ever. A week or so later, we selected a marble slab with an angel etched into it to mark Baby Julie’s grave.

Naturally, I spent a lot of time in the following days, wondering if there was something I had done to cause it. But ultimately, I learned that Baby Julie had died because of Fifth Disease, not because of anything I had done wrong. Fifth Disease is not harmful to the general population, but those who become infected during the first or second trimester can miscarry or have a stillborn child, depending on how far along they are in their pregnancy. When my diagnosis was confirmed, I wrote a long and carefully-worded letter to a local doctor who hosted the weekly “Ask the Doctor” radio show. I asked him to give a heads-up to other pregnant women in our community, especially the teachers, so they would understand the risk of exposure. I was grateful when he read it on the air, handling the topic with the appropriate amount of concern.

Less than two months after losing Baby Julie. My smile belied a fragile state of mind: the excruciating sense of loss; the embarrassment and guilt I still carried; and a heart so heavy that it threatened to hold me under.

Losing an infant, changed me in profound ways, good and bad. It took the heart out of any desire to teach childbirth classes. At the time, all I could think was, “If I can’t even get it right, how can I expect to teach others how to give birth?” I lost any desire to teach a class of pregnant women. I didn’t want to be the old me anymore—the me that couldn’t carry a baby to term; the me that couldn’t rescue my own child, when I knew in my gut that she was dying. I wanted that ‘me’ gone and replaced with somebody totally different. So, I cut my hair off into a choppy, poofy eighties style, lost all the baby weight and then some, and tried to pretend that this new me was perfectly fine.

I was mistaken to think that I could run away from myself as easily as that. There would be no sweeping this under the rug. I had to face it and work my way through it. Twice, while I was out and about with my daughters after the loss, I saw people who knew I had been pregnant and, because I no longer looked pregnant, they asked when I’d had the baby. I tried to hold back tears as I told them I had lost her, but I could see how awkward and sorry it made them feel, which made me feel even worse for causing their discomfort. It was also difficult when I first returned to work, because everyone felt bad but didn’t know what to say. They couldn’t say the usual things like, “Well, she lived a full life,” or, “She was such a beautiful person, well loved by everyone,” or “She’s not suffering anymore.” None of that would have been appropriate. Only those three words we all say during times of loss—I’m so sorry—were appropriate. Those three simple words and a hug were enough. 

I got through the difficult days following the loss by listening to music that seemed to express how I was feeling, like Michael Bolton’s “When I’m Back on My Feet Again” and “Lean on Me.” I played them over and over again. Besides my Michael Bolton music therapy, as I like to call it, I started taking my girls on day trips to fun places, trying to squeeze a different adventure in almost every weekend. I’d load them and sometimes their friends into the car, and off we’d go on a whim, to the mountains, to the beach, to random playgrounds and “magical places” we’d discovered on our travels, and to zoos, etc.  A child’s energy and happiness are contagious—and that is exactly what I needed that summer. They probably thought I was the coolest mom doing all of that for them, but it was as much for me as it was for them.

I also did a lot of reading. A lot. Because of Baby Julie, I became interested in all things spiritual and metaphysical—substantially more so than I had at any other time in my life. I’d always been interested in these things, ever since reading Erich von Däniken’s books, like Chariots of the Gods, and several Ruth Montgomery books from the Seventies that were lying around the house when I was in grade school.  But Baby Julie’s passing led to a much deeper, more driven search about the mysteries of life and death. I was determined to understand what happens after we die? What happens to the soul of a stillborn? What did it teach me? Was it a lesson I needed to experience, or was it for someone else’s soul growth? What is the point of it all? I devoured book after book about near-death experiences, Heaven, life between lives, universal and divine energies, the Hall of Records, reincarnation, old souls, the Masters, you name it—Conversations with God, Seth Speaks, the Book of Prophecies, the Celestine Prophecy, Emmanuel’s Book; other books by Lee Carroll, Jane Roberts, Dolores Cannon, Michael Newtown, Brian Weiss, Gregg Braden, Echo Bodine, George Anderson, Edgar Cayce, and Raymond Moodie, and on and on and exhaustedly on. Seeking my own truth, I began to believe that, in losing Baby Julie, we had forged a different kind of connection—not a physical mother/daughter relationship this time around—but an inseparable spiritual link. A bridge between here in the physical and there on the Other Side had been created, and it was mine to navigate, if I chose to do so. Most importantly, the loss of my baby girl was the key to my awakening.

Dad, my protector, keeping me safe from the reindeer.

There was something else I learned during this difficult time. There is a tenderness to the male gender that I had scarcely witnessed until I lost baby Julie. I saw sincere tears in my doctor’s eyes, my husband’s eyes, my father’s eyes, and my father-in-law’s eyes—all of the men that a girl looks to, to keep her safe from harm. But this was something they were powerless against; and seeing how it hurt them made my heart ache for all of them. I was used to men being strong and silent and holding their emotions in check. I had never seen this vulnerable, softer, more empathetic side to the extent that I saw it then. And I needed to see it so badly; to know that they grasped the gravity of the situation—that they cared enough to not hold back and hide it, even if just that one time. For everything, there is a reason… Sometimes we figure it out before the end of our time here; sometimes we won’t find the answers until our time here is over. Like Dan Fogelberg advises in “Part of the Plan,”  Await your arrival, with simple survival. And one day we’ll all understand.

Many couples have suffered the devastation of miscarriage and stillbirth. No matter what point a pregnancy ends prematurely at, there will be grief and sorrow for a child you never had a chance to know. From the moment you first learn of the desired conception, you have hopes and dreams and plans for your child’s future and your own future with them. You have visions of what your child will look like and what he or she will be like and who they may become. They are the last thing you think about as you fall asleep and the first thing you think about upon waking. But all of that is stolen from you when your child is stillborn or miscarried. You may feel like you let that little soul down. You may feel like you let your spouse and your loved ones down. For me, it wasn’t until some time later, after an intense period of soul searching, that I was able and ready to pull myself out of that mindset.

My mother had a dream a week before I lost Baby Julie which has brought me great comfort over the years, as I believe it was a true visitation from my grandfather, who passed away just a month before I lost Baby Julie.  In his later years, we could always find Grandpa sitting in his rocking chair in their cozy, little living room, contentedly watching his grandchildren and great grandchildren buzz around him. We (the many grandchildren) were always eager to present him with a new great-grandchild, and he’d always quietly chuckle and say, “Well, I’ll be,” as we set the latest swaddled, pink or blue bundle into his frail, thinning arms. He was a gentle man of few words, but the pride and love he had for his ever-expanding family was obvious in those kind, ancient eyes that took it all in. He always had such a tender spot for the littlest ones—a trait he passed on to my father; and my father to my brother.

Grandpa in his younger days, proudly holding a couple of “his girls” (my two older sisters), as he called us. He was always happy to meet the new grandchildren and great grand-children.

In Mom’s dream, which was brief but compelling, Grandpa stood out radiantly against an entirely black backdrop, looking younger and healthier than ever, as he smiled and cradled a newborn in his arms. That’s all; that was it. Short and sweet. Mom didn’t tell me about this dream until after I lost Baby Julie. I’m sure she didn’t want to frighten me. But when she finally did tell me, we both agreed that it was a visit from Grandpa showing us that he would be with Baby Julie—that he was aware she would be joining him soon, and he just wanted us to know she wouldn’t be alone.