Carrying On After a Miscarriage
By Lisa Schrader
I was eleven weeks pregnant when I miscarried, just about the time when experts agree that your pregnancy is “safe” and you can spread the good news. I’d already done that. I don’t do well with delayed gratification. Besides, things like that didn’t happen to me.
After I “lost the baby” (a phrase that reminded me of the nightmares I’d had during my first pregnancy, about forgetting the baby in grocery carts or at the mall), I learned how common this experience is. One in every four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, although many experts say the rate is even higher. To my surprise, I found out that several close friends and my grandmother had had miscarriages, sometimes several. As they shared their stories, I wondered why I hadn’t known. Or had I known, but never understood? I wondered why, if so many women miscarry, we don’t talk about it. There are many reasons, I discovered as I went through the healing process, which eventually, and surprisingly, lead me to a place of gratitude.
The spotting began on a Monday, after a weekend when nothing seemed to go right. I could feel the fear entering my bloodstream, like shots of some corrosive drug. I brought in reinforcements of denial and affirmations. The pregnancy books I spent the morning reading confirmed that spotting was “not abnormal.” I told myself not to worry, reminding myself that this was my perfect baby, growing inside a body fit from exercise and fortified with whole grains and organic produce. What could possibly go wrong? I chased the negative thoughts away with positive ones and sat quietly, visualizing my peaceful, healthy baby awash in a sea of golden light.
The cramping began the next day. The fear got stronger, harder to silence. By late afternoon the cramps had become painful, then rhythmic. I got a stop watch. The pain came every two minutes, with its own Swiss timing. I’d felt this before, with my first child. These weren’t cramps, this was labor. Acknowledging this brought a flood of grief that finally broke down the thinning wall of my disbelief. The contractions continued to open me up, my body working hard to release a baby that my mind and heart were desperately holding onto. I realized that what I wanted mattered very little here. Operating on a wisdom greater than my own, my body, my baby, and the universe had clearly made plans without me.
As I fully surrendered to grief, to the will of this baby to leave, my water broke. With a rush, it felt like the inside of me emptied. Then my body quieted and the pain vanished. The baby was no bigger than the very end of my pinkie; and yet it had dark eyes, tiny arms, and signs of fingers. It was our child, probably about nine weeks old, our midwife said, when it stopped thriving. My husband, Rick, and I held each other as we gazed on this miracle of life, marveling at his unworldly beauty, feeling a rush of love, an instinctual claiming of him as our own: “You were loved. You were wanted. You will be remembered.”
For another day, my body continued to cramp and bleed, releasing the intricate support system created to nourish the baby. I felt so physically weak that my head spun when I walked across the room. I grew so tired of the blood–tired of its shocking brilliance on white, tired of its elemental smell. Grief saturated the air, and I found myself sobbing without warning, as if bumping into invisible pockets of it.
Friends came quietly, bringing flowers, books, and tapes. I felt grateful, though I was glad they didn’t stay too long, so I could go back to my grief, my communion. I didn’t want to talk, but it comforted me enormously to have them check in and tell me how much they cared. Someone brought me a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies, still warm. Cookies had never tasted so good.
I felt a kind of loneliness that only women who’ve had the companionship of life within can understand. With the baby inside, I felt a cozy and peaceful union, a little like pressing up against my husband’s warm back while sleeping. The baby had been my constant companion, part of my thoughts with every action; every decision about what to eat, drink, or do shifted through love and concern for him. The emptiness inside me seemed bottomless, the silence deafening.
Two days later, when I’d regained some strength, Rick and I buried the baby. On a drizzly fall day, we walked in silence on the soggy trial along the American River. The river seemed quiet and melancholy, as if longing for the swell of winter rains. We came to an old oak tree, a carpet of green mjoss covering a thick, strong trunk. It reached out a fat arm, low and to its side, as if to say, “Lay your little one here beside me; I will protect him for you.” As we laid our tiny one to rest, I felt part of me go with him into the dark earth. Rick sang a prayer, and the ancient Hebrew words that I did not understand comforted me immeasurably. We held each other under the loving embrace of the ancient oak, crying in the rain. These moments with Rick were now sewn forever into the quilt of our journey together.
Friends and family tried hard to say the right thing. I experienced first-hand how secretively we treat death in our society. We lack any vocabulary for talking about it, so it becomes taboo instead of part of the natural cycle. Miscarriage complicates the issue, because the death is so private. Because they wanted to take my pain away and alleviate their own, many people tried to “uncreate” my baby. They told me that it was “Nature’s way” and that “it wasn’t healthy.” Although perhaps true, this didn’t make the baby any less real or his death any less painful. Through the grief, I felt connected with my baby as a way of remembering and honoring him. I knew the sadness wouldn’t kill me or last forever. I wanted to remind everyone that it’s only sadness after all. It has its place in our tapestry.
Then came the anger. I knew that there were specific stages to grieving and, at the time, I wondered vaguely if I were on track. When Rick started to put the large plastic jug of prenatal vitamins into the back of the cupboard, I surprised both of us when I shouted, “Don’t touch those yet!” A friend from back East sent me a big box of maternity clothes that arrived the day after the miscarriage. It sat in the living room spilling its musty contents out onto the floor and aggravating me for days before I could figure out where to put it.
The kitchen calendar had prenatal appointments and our due date marked in ink. It was the end of the year and I’d have to find a new calendar, which I found overwhelmingly irritating. I counted the months and realized, after waiting for the recommended four menstrual cycles, it would be at least a year until a new baby came, if a new baby came. I was furious. A year was forever when, just a few days ago, I’d been thinking about baby names and buying Onesies. I thought about the nausea and fatigue of the first trimester, all the good glasses of Cabernet I’d passed on, all the plans I’d made. What an incredible waste. I’d been cheated, and there was no one to blame.
One day I opened a pomegranate. Its rubies exploded with garnet juice all over my white shirt and countertops . It reminded me, as so many things did. I’d probably never get the stain out. The jewels burst into tart sweetness in my mouth. I swallowed with difficulty.
I longed for some kind of telepathic voice mail to go out to everyone on the planet who knew about my pregnancy so that I didn’t have to respond when they cheerfully looked at my stomach and inquired about the baby. I asked friends to tell everyone they knew, to spare me the task; but for months afterward I still had to deal with the loathsome experience of comforting others through their embarrassment.
Yet despite the difficulty in telling people, I don’t think I’d do it differently next time. I found it powerfully healing to have so many people holding us in their hearts, sharing our grief, and keeping us in their prayers. I felt a palpable circle around my family that held us up and beamed tremendous waves of love our way. I realized anew the strength of family and friends. I felt the ripples of that knowledge moving out to embrace my community and then encompassing all the mothers and fathers who have lost children, and all the friends and families who loved those who have lost.
Having saturated myself in grief and anger, or maybe just because I have a low tolerance for self-pity, the day soon came when I could sit at the edge of grief and look for symbols. I knew that the experience had to bring some meaningful gifts. It had been a long time since I’d seen Rick cry. He told me several times, in the midst of his grieving, how healing it felt to open his heart and let the sadness flow through him. Although I think of us both as emotionally open people, I saw how closed our hearts can become when we’re not vigilant about honoring and allowing our feelings.
I saw how the barriers we build to protect us from pain also dilute the joys. I realized that we could rejoice in the opening of our hearts even as we despaired at the pain that caused them to break. It struck me that this is the very process of childbirth and perhaps of life itself. With the opening comes pain. We often contract, we fight against it, and at some point we release and surrender. We trust the process, because ultimately we have no choice but to trust it. Instead of pushing against the pain, I tried to embrace it, to see it as my teacher, and then wait for its transformation.
I believe that indulging in grief and anger ultimately allowed me to gain a broader perspective. Looking at the experience symbolically released me from the status of victim and allowed me to channel energy into what was becoming. It became clear to me that my baby and I had agreed, on some level, to serve one another. I agreed to have him inside of me, to nurture and nourish him, love and bless him, and then let him go. I cannot know why he needed to take this journey. I do know that in choosing me to be his mother, he blessed me. I am a better person for his short presence in my life, softer, more compassionate. I have traveled to a new layer in loving, a deeper layer that I didn’t realize existed.
The experience of the miscarriage also served to jolt me into realigning my life, giving me greater clarity about who I am and the gifts I have to offer. I realized it was time to leave a comfortable but unchallenging job to pursue writing and develop my own business. In times of great surrender and openness, it’s amazing how receptive we can be to messages we need to hear, and how fearlessly we can step into them.
For all these things, I am profoundly grateful.
Our friend Jan shared a story that has given me strength over the past months. Accompanying her husband to a renowned acupuncturist and healer, Jan noticed that the doctor kept glancing at her oddly. This continued on the next visit, when J0an told him that his strange glances were making her uncomfortable. Apologizing, he asked her if she’d ever had a miscarriage. She had, several years ago. He asked if the baby had been a boy and she nodded. He said that her son was still with her, actually right above her shoulder. He explained that the spirit of the baby often stays with its mother, going through the same childhood cycles of maturation until it decides, like a teenager, that it’s ready to leave home. Jan’s son was a playful little boy who kept distracting the doctor from his work by waving his arms and making faces at him.
I choose to believe that the spirit of my baby is alive and well and very close by. This may be delusional or visionary, I’m really not sure which, if either; but his presence nonetheless brings me joy. He is my reminder to keep my heart open, come home to it often, and always listen to its wisdom.
Lisa Schrader is a personal and professional coach, a writer, a speaker, and a mother to her 8-year-old daughter, Zoe. She lives in Grass Valley, California, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org