What I Learned When My Son Was Stillborn

They always say that losing a child is the worst possible thing that can happen to someone. But no one ever elaborates on what that really means.
Publish date:
October 7, 2014
death, babies, grief

I was watching the Karate Kid run down a hill, still dressed like a shower, when the pain advanced to “festival of machetes” stage, and I decided that might warrant a trip to the ER. It was 2:30 in the morning.

Since I was only 21 weeks along, there was nothing that could be done. After my son was born, I held him as his tiny face contorted, and he took two or three snuffly little breaths, and then breathed no more. And the abstraction that had been in my belly was now a perfect, tiny little boy, limp in my arms. And for the first time I realized how much I loved him.

They always say that losing a child is the worst possible thing that can happen to someone. But no one ever elaborates on what that really means. Like, you cry a lot? You’re just sad forever? What if you don’t like kids that much? What if on the spectrum of sad and pissed off, you tend toward the pissed off side? What if, just maybe once, you yelled ‘Go Away!’ at your poochy belly when you figured out just how much a year of daycare was going to cost? And then the universe listened, and he really went away? What then?

Grief is weird -- It’s horrible, awful, sad…and also weird. Life immediately after my son was stillborn was slow, awkward, imprecise—like trying to dance in water. When I wasn’t sitting around replaying my son’s birth and subsequent death over and over and over and over in my head, I was crying. For days, I lay in bed and flexed my hands, wanting to hold my son. It seemed as though someone had come in the middle of the night, and had drained out whatever it is that lets me read, count change, and carry on a conversation There was a lot of guilt, a lot of anger and bargaining, and because we don’t enter into such grief alone, a lot of people struggling to do and say something—anything—to make me feel better.

Dealing with grief is a learned skill. You can’t really prepare for grief. In the abstract, knowing that bad things can happen, and they’ll make you way sad in no way prepares you for the reality of it. It’s a minute-by-minute, visceral experience.

Also, because we don’t live in a vacuum, we have to experience the grief in relation to other people—and they, in turn, have to relate to us. A term that gets kicked around a lot is, "the new normal." You’re kidding yourself if you think you can just get over it, so instead you incorporate the experience and all of the fallout into your life—and by association, into everyone’s life who deals with you. It strikes me now as a lot like learning how to have a good romantic relationship. The feelings have a life of their own. They are overwhelming and new and constantly changing. Making it work requires patience, respect, and a fairly decent sense of self. That can be really difficult, because…

Grief makes us wildly uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because we don’t like seeing others sad or in pain. Maybe it’s because we like stories with happy endings.In any case, we have a hard time expressing how the grief affects us, and we also have trouble being open to hearing that information from someone else. We are terrified of saying the wrong thing, but I think most of us are so used to stories that wrap up neatly in the end, that we’re convinced that there is that magical thing to say, that pearl of wisdom that will make the music swell, the tears disappear, and the bereaved exclaim, “You, sir, are brilliant!” I’m thinking it probably never happens.

A few things NOT to say:

•It’s all part of God’s plan/God needed another angel/God must have wanted this.

I know that your faith brings you comfort, especially the notion that there is a grand plan out there, but not everyone has it/wants it/believes in it. And even if they do, it’s cold comfort thinking that your kid was chosen for God’s Great Baby Die-off.

•Now you can understand why I’m not pro-choice.

Keep your anti-choice propaganda away, please. If you’re against abortion, don’t have one. The whole experience made me even more pro-choice than I already was. In a very real sense, I can imagine what it’s like (and how infuriating and wrong it would be) to have someone else making decisions about your body and your life.

•He must have been deformed/had something horribly wrong with him.

If you’re not a doctor, and you don’t know what happened, please don’t speculate.

•You should have been on bed rest.

It might work for some, but bed rest is no panacea.

•You can always try again/You’re going to try again, right?/Don’t worry, it’ll happen.

Yes, OK, maybe I can try this whole deal again. But this is not like dropping out of a 5K

•Better luck next time.

Better luck next time? It was so bad it was funny, and I laughed for a good 10 minutes. It felt good not to be sobbing for a bit.

To be fair, most of us aren’t working with enough information to offer up truly helpful advice, because we don’t seem to know a ton about how babies get made, or how often miscarriage and stillbirth happens, or why. When I told people my baby died, many people related stories of miscarriage or stillbirth—either they’d experienced it, or knew someone who had. Our bodies are complicated, and a lot can go wrong. But nobody talks about it openly.

People really want to be helpful. Our friends and family lifted us up, in every way possible. They were there for us. They listened to us. They made sure that we had food to eat, and that our son had a funeral. They were steadfast and understanding, all while I was angry, and sad, and generally awful to be around. That meant the world.

This is not meant to be just about babies dying. The Big Grief can sneak up on any one of us, for a whole host of reasons. This just happens to be mine.

I can only hope in the future I can be there for others like they were there for me.