By Sarah Bain
Tonight, my seven-year-old son, Carver, asked me to tell him the story of his birth while I was putting him to bed. It used to be a story I told him often when he was two, three, and four-years-old, but I realized when he asked me that I hadn't told any birth stories in a couple of years. Birthing stories had become too frightening for me, causing a lump in my throat and too many tears to surface. Carver had heard the story of his birth many times when he was little as well as the story of his sister's, Sophia's birth. It was his favorite going to bed story. His sister was born in a birthing tub in our dining room while he was asleep upstairs. He likes to pretend, however, that he heard the whole thing while he was lying in bed because he feels like he missed out on something otherwise. That's how I feel sometimes about Grace's birth: our third child, Carver's second sister. No one asks me much about her birth. No one wants to talk about it, and yet her birth and my subsequent grief should be discussed and offered as a way of understanding one another, as a way of learning from one another, as a way of growing. It is not something we should be ashamed of. It is not something we should hide.
I began my third pregnancy with the renewed hope and apprehension that every mother feels, yet this third pregnancy ended not with the birth of a live baby like my other two did, but with the birth of a stillborn child. It was the end of our parenting lives as we knew it at the time, and the start of a whole other kind of parenting that neither my husband nor I thought we were capable of. Certainly it wasn't the kind of parenting choice that we would have ever made.
Grace's life ended too soon. No parent would ever deny that fact. And still her life is a life worth sharing. Because of Grace, because of the thirty-three weeks I got to hold her inside of me, I am all the more richer, as a wife, as a mother, as a person.
We do not spend enough time talking about death in this country. It is still a subject filled with fear. We have certainly made some strides over the past few decades when it comes to dealing with our grief, but more needs to be done. Thirty-two years ago, when my own father died, when I was five years old, talking about death was so taboo that I have very few stories about him. His death sealed his life in a capsule that remains closed because speaking of the fond memories would unleash the painful ones. My family saw the pain of these emotions as worrisome, and our fear of speaking of them took precedence over our need to share and process our feelings.
And though we know so much more today about how children should grieve, we still know less about how parents and children should grieve for stillborn babies. It is something we need to explore and grieve publicly because I'm certain that all of us knows someone whose baby has died, whose baby didn't make it full-term, whose baby wasn't born living. If you would have asked me two years ago if I knew anyone who had a stillborn baby, I might have said, "no." Yet, when Grace was born, I was amazed and relieved at the stories that I was told. I was not the only one. I was not alone in my grief.
Certainly hospitals have made some strides in maternity care by adding women and children's wards. In fact, there are entire hospital buildings dedicated to women. The fathers have been invited back into the rooms along with parents and grandparents. After all, the raising of a child as we know it does not take place behind the walls of our separate homes, but in communities among family and friends.
But when it comes to infant death, especially stillbirth, we are often taught to keep the grief within ourselves. The doctors and nurses huddle in corners not knowing how to help.
In our case, when the ultrasound showed all of us that Grace's heart was no longer beating, I wasn't given the choice of going home even though there was no medical reason to keep me in the hospital. Already outside my room in the maternity ward, someone was hanging a bouquet of silk flowers that would be the mark, I would later discover, to tell the hospital staff that the baby was dead. The staff entered quietly, took my blood, poked and prodded and urged me to accept the Cervadil as quickly as possible so labor could begin.
It was unfortunate that my own doctor was out of town because she has assured me that she would have offered me some options that the others didn't. Fear was the main emotion that hung in the room. Had they offered, I might have chosen to return home in the early morning to curl up in bed with my other two children and let them say goodbye to their sister, let them rub and kiss my belly one last time. I might have gone home and asked my husband to take a series of pictures of me, of my pregnant self. I might have called my girlfriends, woken them up and asked them to please come over and make a plaster cast of my belly, and maybe I would have curled up on my bed and waited for labor to begin naturally.
And maybe, if I'm really being honest with myself, my doctor might have offered these ideas up as options and I might have turned her down, asking for the morphine, asking to be induced, asking to get this baby out of my body as soon as possible.
Both my husband and I were in a state of shock and disbelief and were unable to think clearly for ourselves. Although we had our midwife to back us up and offer some alternatives, even she said that the fear in the room, the fear among the nurses and the doctor present was clearly affecting all of our choices so that none of us really felt informed, really understood that we had choices. We mostly did as we were told while the reality of the situation slowly made it's way through my body. Looking back, Grace's birth happened exactly as it was meant to be, offering me a full twenty-four hours of labor, a day of grief before she arrived, a day of planning, a day to cry with my husband and children, a day for my mother to fly 1,200 miles to be present for her twelfth grandchild's birth, the only birth she's witnessed. A day for my best friend to drive across the state to offer us her help, a day for our pastor to remain with us, to offer us guidance and counseling when we didn't know what we should do. One last day for Grace to be inside of me, to lie still and float in the only place she ever lived.
I couldn't choose the kind of birth I wanted. I couldn't give Grace the kind of welcoming her sister had in our own dining room, into the warmth of a birthing tub and into our arms. Instead, Grace gave me the kind of birth she needed, a birth surrounded by a host of women, her brother and sister, her mother and father. This is after all a birthing story, a story of a baby who was born into the world the same way other babies are born, only this baby was not breathing, this baby had her eyes closed, this baby arrived silently into a room of weeping members of her family.
I want people to know that my baby, my daughter, Grace Susie, was stillborn on June 1, 2003, that Grace was a living, breathing human being inside of me for 33 weeks. That I have three children, two are living and one sweet girl is not. I have a desire to validate Grace's life, to make sure that people know she existed and to us she still matters. Grace is one of our children.
Stillbirth is a subject that does not come up very often, and when it does, there is discomfort and silence. But stillbirth is real and it happens and we need to find the language to talk about it—a safe place to share our feelings and emotions among each other, despite the fact that some of us might be pregnant, because of the fact that many of us have healthy, thriving children. We can't be afraid of one another. I miss Grace deeply and forever. Yes, it is still difficult for me to be around pregnant women, around nursing moms, around girls that are the age Grace would be today. Yes, it is difficult, but it is not impossible.
It is because of Grace and because of all the stillborn infants in the world that birth truly is a miracle. That the babies we hold and love and nurture truly are miraculous.
Tonight while I lay in bed with Carver, I begin to tell him his birth story. I've haven't repeated it since Grace's birth and death—as if speaking of the joy of his birth would somehow diminish our experience with Grace. I have found that it enhances it. Speaking and writing about grief is healing and natural.
Carver's eyes are beginning to close and his yawns are growing larger and more frequent. He smiles as I tell him how the doctor held him high in the air, how his father whispered, "It's a boy." And how the tears of joy fell from all of our faces as I held him close, brought him to my breast, and began the amazing journey of becoming his mother. I remain next to him on his bed as he yawns one last time and falls asleep. I trace his features and notice that his nose is the same shape as Grace's nose was. They are inextricably linked to one another. Grace's death does not mean she has disappeared. She is with us. She is here among her brother and sister, part of our family. Grace is present in our lives, and we are all the richer because of Grace. She continues to help shape who we are and how we live. Grace is and will always be, and I will forever be grateful for how she has changed our lives.
Sarah Bain is a writer, wife and mother who lives in the Pacific Northwest. In between home schooling and writing, she volunteers her time with the MISS Foundation and facilitates a support group for families who have experienced the death of a child.