Dealing with a Miscarriage

On Angel Babies, Rainbow Babies and Taboos

Two and a half years ago I had a miscarriage. What appeared to be a completely healthy pregnancy ended, for no apparent reason, at 9 weeks. I had a delayed miscarriage though, which meant that as far as I knew, the pregnancy was progressing normally. I didn’t know until a scheduled check-up at week 11 showed that not only were there two embryos, but neither of them had a heartbeat. I had not felt any different, had had no bleeding or pain, and had not undertaken any dangerous activities. Until that ultrasound, there had been every reason to believe that roughly 7 months hence we would be welcoming a tiny human. The next ten days until I officially ceased to be pregnant at nearly 13 weeks were excruciating both emotionally and physically.

My two Angel Babies, in the only picture we have of them, taken the day the world stopped turning

My experience of this period, the following months, and then getting pregnant again six months later and successfully carrying to term, was significantly impacted by my miscarriage, as well as by wider societal and cultural norms. One in five pregnancies, if not more, ends in miscarriage, so my case is unfortunately not an isolated one.

Everyone knows that you don’t share the news of a pregnancy too soon. What does this actually mean though, for someone who does miscarry? In this article, I will consider the effects of this social taboo in the context of my own experience. I have long wanted to write this, in order to help those living through this feel less alone, and to share something of what it was like with those trying to understand. It is only now, though, with a healthy Rainbow Baby –a baby born after a miscarriage– running around my home, wreaking havoc, that I feel able to do so. And even now, two and a half years later, my two Angel Babies, the two I miscarried, weigh heavy on my heart, and writing this is difficult and upsetting.

The taboo surrounding miscarriage –which suggests that good news not be shared when it is good because it may become bad– hides not only miscarriages in the shadows of our society, but also healthy pregnancies. I am not suggesting that everyone should have to disclose pregnancies early, but that we be more open to people doing so. As a society, we might then be emotionally a little healthier, and a little more supportive –especially in dealing with the news of a miscarriage, should it come to that. The earliest effect of the taboo surrounding miscarriages, before bad news even hits, is that, culturally, women have no support or allowances at work during the first trimester, when many women tend to be exhausted. When I found out I was pregnant, I was more tired than I had ever been in my life, and still working 12 hour shifts on my feet –ironically, this itself can increase the risks of a miscarriage.

Only a few family members knew, and the cultural dictate to not tell anyone else yet meant that I kept the pregnancy mostly to myself –much as I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Later, when I did go back to work after the miscarriage, not having told anyone about my pregnancy effectively made me feel I couldn’t tell anyone about my heartbreak either. This made many days more difficult than they might otherwise have been had colleagues known of it, and left me shutting down emotionally at work — not a good situation for a nurse.

“I never though I would have to plan for [a miscarriage]. I didn’t think I had to leave myself an out in case they were still. I wanted to be cautious in telling people, just in case, but I didn’t think I had to plan for it. It never occurred to me. How arrogant!” — from my journal, reflecting on the changes to work and travel and life I had set in motion because of the pregnancy and couldn’t undo after the miscarriage

As a nurse I was aware of the miscarriage statistics, and like everyone else, waited to share news because of them, but I didn’t really take them to heart. It simply didn’t occur to me that I might be part of those statistics. After all, statistics are rather dry; the reality was more vivid and more fragmented as my world crashed down around my ears. I found myself staring at a screen with two visible, clear embryos but no heartbeat. I could see my blood in bright colours pulsing by in my arteries, I could hear the whoosh of my blood, but nothing at the much higher pulse rate of an embryo. In a single instant I went from carrying one baby to two, and in that same instant all the joy turned to ash as I realised that they were still. In that instant I became a mother, and knew there was nothing I could do to bring them back.

“It had been so magical at the first ultrasound to watch the little heart beating on the screen, and so soul destroying yesterday to watch them so still.” — from my journal the day after the scan showing my Angel Babies were still.

After finding out on the ultrasound scan that there were two babies but that both were still, my husband and I took a drive to try to process the news. Only a few family and friends knew, but even telling those few –most of the people we were closest to in the world– seemed impossible. My grandmother was waiting at home to find out how everything was going, excited to see the latest image of her newest great-grandchild. Telling her, and then everyone else who knew, loomed ahead of us, a seemingly impossible task. To anyone not present in person, I sent a message: “two embryos, no heartbeats.” I didn’t know what else to say and had no heart or energy for verbosity. We couldn’t let them go in anonymity, so we chose names for them both, Edmond and Guy, before facing anyone with the news. And then I closed in on myself.

“I have been randomly bursting into tears, and find it hard to talk much, or loud enough to be intelligible. I am just at such a loss. Part of me wants to crawl to the bottom of a deep dark hole and stay there. […] Part of me wants to bury myself in all-consuming work, at Moria (in Greece) or elsewhere. I don’t want to see or talk to anyone except [my husband]. I can’t bear to talk to anyone who knew, but then how to talk to anyone who didn’t? I am lost and can only pray for the souls of my dead twins I still carry” — from my journal in the intervening 10 days between the diagnosis and the surgery.

Incidentally, after the D&C I did go back to Moria refugee camp, and became entirely immersed. Returning home afterwards, I was hit even harder by new waves of grief, but for a time, the needs and pain of others stilled my own.

***

One of the multiple effects of our taboo is that until you ground the statistics by connecting them with women you know, statistics are of no comfort (neither really is learning that someone else has experienced the same pain, but it is less lonely). I learned afterwards of a number of other women –family members, friends, mothers of friends, colleagues– who had had miscarriages. Until I had mine though, I didn’t know. They and their Angel Babies were hidden in the shadows. I was in a very isolated world, just my husband, my babies and me. I was unable to hide from the pain in meaningless television and couldn’t focus on a book, so I spent my days living it, plain and simple. Over the next ten days I tried to will them back to life, I prayed with all my might, but on successive ultrasounds, discussing what came next, they stayed resolutely still on the screen — and inside of me.

“I am still pregnant, but I don’t carry any life…” — from my journal in the intervening 10 days between the diagnosis and the surgery

Hiding miscarriages in the shadows leads me to the next effect of keeping pregnancies secret until women are out of the woods: no one knows how to react. Deaths, loss and bad news generally are always hard to deal with; everyone copes differently and has different needs. However, I felt that the fact that miscarriages are so little spoken of meant that a lot of people seemed even more at a loss than normal. When I did eventually reach out and tell people, everyone was at least initially sympathetic, if not supportive. Everyone reacted in different ways though, some of which were unintentionally unhelpful or even hurtful. Some carried on as though nothing had happened, which was maybe easier for them than finding the words to help, but it was incredibly hurtful. Others were initially helpful, but then disappeared until months later, when it seemed as though, to them, I had never been pregnant at all. Others still, I only heard from weeks after telling them the news. These approaches made asking these people for help and support nearly impossible, both at the time and when I got pregnant again, when they found out only after the standard twelve-week mark.

Others however –and these were the ones I valued most and whom we told early the second time around– made it clear that they were present for whatever I needed, whether this was talking or merely being there. I greatly appreciate all those let me know they would be there whenever I was eventually ready to talk, and sent me messages in the meantime. Knowing they were available, even if I wasn’t yet, helped enormously. This support was invaluable, but I felt alone in spite of it. The only person I managed to talk to initially was my husband. Anyone else –especially anyone I would have to call to speak to– I just couldn’t. There were no words for the emptiness, pain, and shame within me.

“ Everyone keeps saying they’re there when I want to talk, when I am ready, but what to say? How do you unpack any of this? Especially over the phone or skype? I am glad that physically I am not feeling well as it gives me something to say when asked how I am doing. I know they care and I know they are there for me, but I don’t know how to talk about any of this right now, and I can’t think or really chat about anything else. Distance is part of it. If [my sister] for example were here, she could be here with me, but over skype, I just don’t know how to let her or anyone else in.” — from my journal in the intervening 10 days between the diagnosis and the surgery

Some friends I only gave the opportunity to offer their support later. While living through the actual miscarriage for nearly two weeks, I felt too numb and ashamed to be able to reach out to those who hadn’t known about my pregnancy to share only bad news. The further it got from the actual miscarriage, the harder it was to reach out to people. Months after the miscarriage, would they consider it still relevant? When I did eventually tell them, many were supportive for months, helping me to cope with my grief and the emotional aftermath. Many friends know now, and I am glad they do. Some found out when I told them about the second pregnancy, others when waves of sadness and grief would strike — either leading up to or during my next pregnancy, or even now, after the birth of my Rainbow Baby.

“Reaching out to friends has been difficult and I only worked out yesterday why. I feel ashamed. I don’t know whence that feeling came, but I felt shame at having failed. I don’t know why I felt that way or where this idea came from. The three I had told, when I told them this news were nothing but sympathetic and supportive. I know this idea of failure is false., I know there is nothing I could have done and that often nature takes its course, but I still feel like I’ve failed as a woman and a mother.”

“ I wonder how pervasive this sense of shame is among those who have miscarried because a couple of comments from [someone I know who has miscarried] make me think I am not alone in this”— from my journal in the intervening 10 days between the diagnosis and the surgery

Most close friends were helpful and patient and supportive, but the wider world seemed impatient whenever it encountered my miscarriage. Get over it already! This perceived attitude was perhaps not helped by the fact that, at that age they died, my babies were not yet legally people. I could have decided to terminate at any point, and plenty of women do. So your pregnancy failed? Get over it already; move on. You’ll have others. Being told I could still have others –by my doctor or the wider public– didn’t help: I had lost those babies. Later on, in the early months of the next pregnancy, this information would become vital, but not when my grief was still raw. Some people even compared the emotional pain of their abortions to that of my miscarriage — which stung, as I had in no way chosen my situation. My babies were loved and wanted.

***

The medical options for dealing with my delayed miscarriage were either surgical or pharmacological. I opted for the latter, and so took a pill daily for a week to trigger my babies’ expulsion from my body out into the world — months before they were ready. For the next ten days, my abdomen was wrung out from the inside, which was excruciating and nauseating, and I had barely any appetite. The physical pain was matched by emotional pain. They were already dead, so why should it have mattered? It did though, enormously. I felt like the world had shifted on its axis — nothing was the same. I felt as though I were seeing in black and white and doubted my ability to ever see in colour again. I felt conflicted: I took the medication as prescribed, regularly, trying to get my body to expel my babies, while at the same time half believing that I could will them back to life. I alternately hoped to get pregnant again right away, and banished the thought of ever being pregnant again in the next breath — as though it would be a betrayal of these babies.

“I am struck by a desire to get pregnant again right away but then by guilt. I wanted these two. I don’t want to replace them, I want them back. But then I wonder at the degree of my sadness. We hadn’t met them yet…”

“I am so torn about this medication, about hoping for it to work. Hoping for it to work means hoping for my babies to be expelled from inside me, from the only place they were supposed to be safe. Hoping for that is wrong and twisted. But I can’t not hope for it either. For one thing, I am in limbo, and there is nothing I can do to save them now. […] For another thing, I am now reduced to two options: having my babies slide untimely from my womb, or having them scraped untimely while I sleep. Of these options I would much rather option 1, but that means wishing to expel them which is unnatural. I feel like a terrible human to be wishing for that, but now I do not know what to wish for.” — from my journal in the intervening 10 days between the diagnosis and the surgery

I was terrified that at some point they would come out in the toilet and be flushed away ignominiously and anonymously. Perhaps the one hardest thing during this time was the fact that I was still pregnant — there was no closure possible as we were still waiting. For ten days after finding out that they were still, I carried my babies. Eventually it hit the point where the medication was clearly not working. The longer my babies –dead foreign matter at this point– stayed inside me, the higher the risk of infection and sepsis to myself. When it was clear that the pharmacological option had failed, on my doctor’s advice, we scheduled the surgery.

The surgical solution to a delayed miscarriage is a dilatation and curettage, a D&C, which is fancy language to say that my doctor was going to scrape my babies out of me. It is, surgically speaking, a minor procedure, and was done as an outpatient procedure. Therefore, nearly four weeks after my babies had died inside of me, my husband and I drove to the hospital early in the morning for the procedure. When I was wheeled up to the operating theatre, I found myself lying naked under a sheet, staring at the ceiling while people bustled around me. I was hit by the fact that when I woke up, I would no longer be pregnant. There would be no going back. My babies would have been removed from me. Of course, there was already no going back –they had been dead for almost a month now– but emotionally, that fact made little difference. The truth was that I still carried them, and therefore still had some glimmer of hope. Fool’s gold, as it was impossible to bring them back, but hope none the less. Once they were out though, they would truly be gone.

“I keep trying to will my little twins back to life, which is of course ridiculous.[…] My womb was the safest place for them, indeed the only place for them, and yet there was no heartbeat on the ultrasound. Not the faintest trace.” — from my journal in the intervening 10 days between the diagnosis and the surgery

And so, in the cold room, surrounded by strangers and bright lights and monitors, I wept. I wept silently for the babies I would never hold, never meet, never see. I wept for myself and my emptiness. I wept for my loss. I wept for the lives they would never lead, cut short so early. I wept for every other woman facing this same loss, lonely in a world which doesn’t care about the unborn. And I wept for those not as fortunate as me, who are unable to take the time to grieve or heal, who don’t have the support or the health care I do, who don’t have the opportunity to see their babies even on a screen before losing them. A person in scrubs came to comfort me and told me that there was nothing to be afraid of, mistaking my grief for fear.

When I awoke, I felt more profoundly alone than ever in my life, and so empty. Since before even finding out for certain that I was pregnant I had had a feeling of plurality, of my body and my life not being solely my own any more. Since before taking a pregnancy test, these little beings within me had been tiny people present to me every waking minute. That knowledge had not always sat easy, and the changes I was going to have to make had sometimes been hard to come to terms with, but now, finding that I was alone, that it was just me again, was devastating. I wept again. Later, I found out that I had actually been hysterical coming out of the anaesthesia and had had to have a sedative. The nurse looking after me in post-op was tremendously kind and comforting and present. She helped me enormously by talking to me of her own miscarriages, and telling me that I was allowed to be sad and hurt, and that I could to take the time necessary to grieve — whatever society may deem appropriate.

Normally, the “products” of a D&C are tossed in medical waste. I had asked to have my babies returned to me, so when I left the hospital later that evening, I clutched a small sterile sample pot wrapped in a black plastic baggy (with my name and date of birth on it, as they were nameless products). This was the closest I would ever get to holding my babies. The next day, my husband and I each put something of ours into a little wicker box alongside the pot containing all that remained of our babies and we buried them in the garden at my parents’ house. We planted a birch tree to mark the spot and read prayers for them.

“I have nought but prayers and tears to give them. […] I know I must release them but I don’t know how. ” — from my journal on the day we buried my Angel Babies

It wasn’t until about six days later that my body registered that I was no longer pregnant. It then finally evacuated the rich uterine lining that had been laid down over the last three months for my babies to bed down in, and I bled what I estimated to be at least half a litre over the course of an hour and a half. I hadn’t been expecting it, and by now was back in Greece, volunteering in a refugee camp. This unexpected episode, alone in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, scared me and brought everything back.

Physically, my miscarriage was officially over, but emotionally, the pain and emotional upheaval continued. I received the news of other friends’ pregnancies, and realized we would have been due at about the same time. I was happy for them — but hearing about someone else’s baby, would cause a pang and I would feel my own grief twist inside of me. Little things would trigger the loneliness and the pain: the mere sight of a shawl was devastating because it would call to mind a conversation from before the miscarriage about the utility of shawls for baby-wearing. I would briefly wonder if you could fit two babies into a carry-scarf, and then remember that my babies had each been only about 1 cm long when they died. They could have fit snugly in my pocket to stay warm — and then the crushing fact that I no longer need worry about keeping them warm would hit again. The same went for other minor things; even the sight of my swim suit caused me pain, triggered by previous discussions about swimming with a baby. Discussing work plans with my boss –as these had changed and then changed again with the pregnancy and then miscarriage– I felt a pang. During the second pregnancy I refused to discuss anything –living arrangements, names, work accommodations, baby stuff we would need– until well into month five, just in case. It was months before I was even able to use the D-word — dead — when talking about my two Angel Babies.

“I don’t know where to go from here. How do you rejigger your entire life, change work and travel plans and not picture what you were going to have instead? You can’t just picture a void. And now, without the wonderful part of my life that led to my changes, I am haunted by those images. Images of going for a walk in the snow with a baby in a sling, of splashing with baby in the warm pool, of reading poetry to baby since I can’t sing. Of holding baby, of nursing. Those images, those hopes, now haunt me. I can’t un-see them or un-feel the expectant hope. But neither do I want to. I don’t in any way want to erase them or their memory, and all I had of them yet was the expectant joy, the hope and love” — from my journal

Over the next six months, I lived parallel lives: the reality in which I had miscarried was haunted by an alternate in which I was still pregnant. Every milestone that my babies and I would have hit triggered fresh pain, but I couldn’t banish that timeline. The end of the first trimester, the second, the point at which they would have been viable had they come early, the third trimester… People told me that I needed to move on, that they had been too little to truly be human yet, but I couldn’t –and can’t– see that. They were present, they were people, and they were my babies. I loved them from before I even taken a test and re-orientated my life to welcome them.

“I grieve for them. And I guess for me too in a way. For what could have been, for the joy and the excitement. I liked the prospect of soon going from being a couple to a family while at the moment it still being just us. […] I hope they felt my love, my joy and anticipation. I hope they knew in whatever limited way embryos may have of knowing that they were wanted, that we couldn’t wait to meet them, that they were at the heart of all our plans. And that had we known we couldn’t have been happier that there were two of them.” — from my journal in the intervening 10 days between the diagnosis and the surgery

The week that I would have been due to deliver them, had things gone well, I travelled to meet family. I struggled enormously that week — my two Angel Babies were ever-present, and that parallel life where they would have come into the world that week would not leave me alone. In this life though, it felt like no one else remembered the significance of that week, or even, at times, that I had even been pregnant. Everyone else had moved on, leaving me in limbo between these two lives. Away from home, away from their tree, away from my husband, I felt emptier than ever. That week was exceptionally hard, but it turned out that hitting the due date marked the final element of emotional closure for me. That is when my alternate timeline ended, and so after it, to a certain extent, I was released. The only comfort –then and now– is that they probably never suffered, as they might have done had I had a stillbirth a few months later. Whatever made them non-viable that early may have saved them much suffering.

A few short weeks later I suspected I was pregnant again. I delayed taking a pregnancy test until about eight weeks along for fear that it would be negative — or that it would be positive and I would live the pain all over again. When I did finally take the test, my husband and I were overjoyed, but couldn’t hold onto that joy. Despite assurances from my doctor that there was no reason I couldn’t carry to term, we were both convinced that we wouldn’t make it to the end of each week, let alone all the way to the second trimester. At this point, we almost didn’t tell anyone about the pregnancy, to avoid the eventual pain of telling people we’d lost another one, and the shame. I felt convinced that something was wrong with me, that I would be physically incapable of carrying to term — a delayed barrenness as it were. We decided though that it was important to have people we could lean on if it did happen again. We carefully selected who to tell from among the friends and family who had been supportive after the miscarriage, and it was on these people that we relied for joy and hope, as we found it nearly impossible to dredge these emotions up from under the fear and anxiety.

This leads me to another effect of having had a miscarriage — some people didn’t want to rejoice too soon now I had miscarried once. What if it happened again? I don’t know whether they were protecting us or themselves, but that response made me feel tainted. Last time, these same people had reacted with unmitigated joy even very early in the pregnancy, but now that I truly needed their joy to feed my own, it was lacking. Having miscarried once, I might do so again. I felt diseased, like people couldn’t react normally because of my previous experience. I can’t help but wonder, if society were more used to dealing with miscarriages, would I have encountered that same reaction?

Throughout this second pregnancy, I struggled to believe that I would carry to term. Even once I could feel my Rainbow Baby doing flips inside of me, I feared I was mistaking indigestion for foetal movements. Others attribute their pregnancy symptoms to indigestion, so why couldn’t I be doing the opposite? Or maybe I was fabricating that feeling of movements to reassure myself… Every month before my check up, my anxiety levels rose to a nearly unbearable pitch. I had to consciously force myself to “breath in — breathe out” at a steady pace for the last few days before each appointment, nausea rising at the thought of what I might be told…

And then the reassuring sound of a heartbeat twice the speed of my own. This anxiety lasted well into the third trimester. Even then, I feared something suddenly going wrong and being robbed of another baby. Holding our newborn in my arms after giving birth to him, I struggled to reconcile this very-much-alive little person with the baby we had feared would never make it. He was the Boy Who Lived. I had proved, to myself and anyone else, that I could carry to term. And while I have nothing against planting trees in my parents’ garden, I was overwhelmingly relieved that the next tree might be planted for another reason, and not over another sterile pot for another dead baby.

My Rainbow Baby and I, the evening of his birth. He was the most perfect baby, my boy who lived.

Anniversaries –of their death, of the ultrasound that showed them to be still, of the D&C, of my hoped-for delivery– are still hard, but things are getting easier with time and acceptance. I recognise that all of this is very personal, and that others may, and probably do, live their miscarriages differently. However, I have heard others speak using some of the same language –some of the same exact words I used in my journal to describe how I felt– has made me think that there must be an element of common experience to suffering a miscarriage. This leads me to hope that sharing my experience may be of value to others. You are not alone in this. Take the time you need for yourself and your baby — the time to grieve and to heal. Be thankful for those who do support you and remember that those who don’t do so you adequately are not acting out of malice but out of a lack of understanding. Finally, I sincerely hope that a broadening awareness in society of miscarriages may lead to more understanding, acceptance, and support for women through all pregnancy experiences, whether ending in miscarriage or birth. Tell people as early as you want, to grieve with you or celebrate with you, as the case may be.

Nurse errant

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