‘This is not supposed to happen to us. We are the maestros of grief’: Nurse’s breathtaking account delivering fellow nurse’s stillborn son

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“This is not supposed to happen to us. We are the maestros of grief. The ones waving our arms with intentional, easy, masterful form in front of choirs of tears. We are not a member of the grief choir. Not a soloist. We’re the ones who keep the rhythm in your room when the unexpected throws you offbeat.

But here you are. A Nurse. One of us. I checked your Inpatient wristband. This bed of sorrow is yours: laboring your stillborn angel behind a closed door. A room down a hallway filled with bright canvases of living children. This is not the bed you deserve.

Dead babies are not supposed to happen to us.

Losing your baby is treading cold water with weights tightly bound to your ankles; you nearly lose your feet in the process. Navigating the bedside of a weighted drowning has little to do with removing the load. A dead baby’s gravity is not something inconsequential. It should not be minimized or discarded. I only loosen the grip of chains enough for circulation to return to those feet. It’s like undoing a knot from the fine, sterling silver of a necklace; a process of delicate, nearly unnoticeable strain. Pull your head up, so just the top of your quivering lip rises above water when a breath is needed. Cradle the entirety of the weight and swim alongside you when your eyes plead for just a few hours: to float above, instead of surrender to the constant, bottomless sink below.

Yesterday, we mastered the kind of inappropriate laughter you conceal behind backs of church pews. As a Nurse in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, you possess the same ability I do: stand in the mud of horrors and create pockets of oxygen to laugh a breath into. My fellow nurses often hear this irreverent chuckling coming from my patients’ too-thick-to-breathe in rooms. Shake their heads with a peculiar smile, ‘Only you could make laughter in a room full of tears.’ I know this. I do not force bereaved parents to gulp the wet dirt, that was once clear waters, every second of their journey. It is not a requirement of grieving, to never come up for air.

I came back today. A sister in your family of Nurses. Hand pressed against the cool metal of the door handle, preparing to tell you good morning again. Except… ‘Good Morning’ won’t work today. The Nurse, who spent the entirety of the night awake to direct your choir of tears, told me your son is coming soon. Updated me on the rundown of physical pain you had labored through while I was sleeping.

Pain. Epidural. Sleeping. Coming soon. All of these words, like swords drawn, make me yield. Tips of blades pointed at me, guarding this room from me slipping Hallmark crap out my mouth like ‘Good Morning.’

Shaunna Harrington

Who came up with these stupid phrases that have formed societies’ knee jerk greetings? Why are we conditioned to reference a one size fits all guide to ‘Hello, how are you?’ What is ‘Good Morning’ supposed to mean to you and your husband today; the day you’ll first lay eyes on your son outside of monomorphic ultrasound screens?

Your first touch.

Twisting gut.

Tender Hold.

Unspeakable grief.

Sweet Kiss.

Worst. Day. Of. Your. Life.

The silence of his once beating heart will soon dominate every sound in this room. Not even the steady tic of the clock’s second hand will be heard over the hush. The quiet, that follows the end of his journey to your arms, is coming.

It should be his own wet cries announcing his birth…

Not Ours.

I’m dripping tears outside of your room. Asking the 62… 63… 64 black holes in each ceiling tile above to give me words less offensive than ‘Good Morning.’ Waiting, until I am back in control of the breath robbed by heaving sobs. Rapids of despair and anger at the unjust world we live in. I couldn’t spare the sunshine, wood flooring of my Labor and Delivery unit, this salty baptism.

I am overwhelmed with impending doom. Knowing too well, how wrong this complicated delivery of your breech son could go. How unfair the situation already was. How fair I needed it to be. Pleading to the gap in the roof tiles above your door, where one had slipped out of place in the meticulous grid system that hides the dead space of vents, pipes, and wires. Hoping that gap was a tender mercy, leftover, from the miracle that failed to show up and make your son’s broken heart, unbroken.

If the miracle you prayed for could not manage to show up for heart mending, if it could not make his frozen, vital organ quiver into tiny beats again, surely, it could at least have created the gap above your doorway, to allow sorrow to vent more easily from your room.

“Please let their son come out in one piece.”

Occasionally, when I walk into a woman’s room in the morning, after carrying them through the day before, I elicit a specific, endearing, corners-of-the-mouth raise. Caring for patients in a Labor and Delivery unit is typically brief. Mothers can only labor so long. Babies never wait forever. Spending an entire shift with our Mommas is rare, let alone multi day stints. We are there for the heart of the crescendo. The brief hours of the come down. Then gone. It makes these tired smiles rare and holy.

Especially on days like today.

The space under your door is a dark contrast to the fluorescent lights of the hallway. I’m relieved it’s dark to conceal the inflamed tissue, now surrounding my cried-too-hard, candy cane striped eyes. I hope you are sleeping, as I apply downward pressure to the once cool, metal handle of your door, now hot from the long pause of my gripped hand.

My entrance back into your room. A brief flash of light. A quick open and close of the door like a whisper. My Chuck Taylors move as strokes of butter across soft bread; movement of undetectable sound waves towards your bed.

You feel me there. Fluttering your eyes open in a side-lying slumber. Shoulders constrict as your eyes adapt to this dark, awakened state. You realize it’s me, and sink back down into stiff sheets.

That rare gem of a holy, barely a smile, moves the lines of your mouth upward. All the words I thought I found disappear in the relief I watch sweep over you from my quiet presence. You didn’t need any words. I don’t either.

‘Go back to sleep, sweetie… I’m here.’ I move the slept on hair, covering one sleepy eye, behind your ear. Tuck the corners of your sheets under your feet. Rest one hand against your covered shoulder, a pause of reassurance, then knee-creak-tiptoe back to the abrasive, too bright hallway.

You call me when the seal breaks. The seal that forms after the noticeable contractions and unbearable pain is taken away by anesthesia. A reverie where laughs return. Sleep occurs. Babies make it closer to their debut without any effort or awareness; until it returns. The ‘seal’ breaks. They’re close to being pulled into your arms. The pressure of their bodies, so near the exit, it radiates a deep, bone pain that brings you back to awareness. To the task at hand: birthing your baby.

Your husband holds your white knuckled hand and drips tears with you through it. Looks to me in a way men don’t look outside of these delivery rooms. Eyes pleading under concerned, furrowed brow. Desperate for me to have a fix.

Eyes only look that way when somebody they love deeply, is actively suffering. I’m the frequent focal point for eyes in his condition. Still, they take my breath with a gulp, knowing I am the one responsible for providing the ease. Help them breathe. Give tools to alleviate her suffering.

Make this labor end.

Your Midwife and Nurse won’t leave you now. This is our dance. Our work. I roll you to one side only to roll you to the opposing three contractions later. Three contractions. Sit you up. Three contractions. Lay you down. Guide your husband where to rub your sob heaving back, during and after the waves of each one. Calmly massage the edema out of your legs and feet between each reposition. Praying over you as salt escapes in a fluid carriage from my eyes. My hands too busy to wipe my own spillovers of sadness away.

Coming into the knowing: hiding tears right now doesn’t matter.

You don’t know how deliberate I am in this movement. How methodical the rhythm of your moves are to me as I visualize your son’s lifeless body as a cork; barely making movement, out of the neck of your bones, with each rotation. You cannot see my tears through your own floodgates. Nor your midwife’s behind the curtain. Consumed in the suffering and apprehension of his birth, you are oblivious to all our tears now merging shamelessly into yours. Soaking through your hospital gown. Pillow cases. Blankets.

4 hours and 34 minutes from the forbidden salutation of ‘Good Morning,’ he is in your arms. All of him. There is no sound but the quick bursts of breath that fuel your cries. Sorrow and relief. Relief and sorrow. Bludgeoned by this storm of feelings in complete opposition of each other.

Nurses are accustomed to viewing the unseeable. Deformations. Brutalities. The decay of bodies the rest of the world squints out of view. You insist upon seeing every millimeter of him. Parts I masterfully disguise from other mothers. You’re not just any mother.

There is no torture visible on you as you absorb all the raw, delicate pieces of your chubby son. I watch your clinical Nurse’s eyes assess the visible manifestations his broken heart caused his swollen body. You kiss his head. Closed eyes. Cheeks. Every frozen in time part of him, clutched tightly in your arms, overlapped by the safe nest of your husband’s.

The 18 baby to break my heart landed me frozen in the shelter of my backyard. Rocked in my hanging wicker nest by a steady but soft wind, I gave my numb permission to leave. Every still frame and live reel of that beautiful baby’s story overwhelmed me. I blinked tears across my focal point, of eucalyptus leaves dancing in the sunset, and tried to breathe.

It was that moment, when I thought I couldn’t come to the exhale of the next breath, that the reverb of my wind chimes saturated my soul, and made the exhale for me. My body went limp with relief. I knew: every baby who breaks my heart needs a chime of their own. My own ceremony to celebrate their lives and release me as their Nurse.

Shaunna Harrington

I acquired and hung a 6-foot wind chime for that baby boy as my start. Collected mini wind chimes for every angel I’ve been the Delivery Nurse for prior. For over a year now, it has been my greatest honor to litter chimes among tree leaves where hummingbirds fly.

You and your husband know this about me. Shared from one of the private corridors of my heart. Spilled out of my trembling mouth during one of our many discussions of how Nurses behave at home. How we process bad outcomes. How we offload shifts like the very one I was in the middle of. The knowledge of this ritual, so poignant, your husband spoke of it as our last goodbye:

‘You promise me you’ll hang a wind chime for my son?’ I felt each syllable. Every shaky jaw movement as his chin dropped for each word against the top of my shoulder. In that hug, a question like a prayer. Words I still hear, every time the wind blows in my backyard.

Your son was my 21st wind chime.

Shaunna Harrington

This happens to us. It has to.

The maestros who have stood in their own flood waters of pain, are the ones who raise grief choirs from street corner-worthy to selling out Carnegie Hall. We are the ones who create humor and light laced with safety and reverence in the dark rooms of in-your-face-happy hallways. The ones who know the timing and importance of coming up for air during impossible, ankle weight drownings.

It had to be you, sweet girl.

You had to be Weston’s Mommy.

You got to be.

Nancy Forehand/Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

July 2018, a 20-year-old orca’s baby was born and passed on the same day. An event that wouldn’t have held the eyes and hearts of millions had it not been for the strength this mother exuded. She gave her baby one of the most beautiful funerals I’ve ever observed. For 1,000 miles, over 17 days, she held the 400-pound weight of her dead baby in active grief. A procession accompanied by her family of orcas, carried on longer than any other before her.

Humans around the globe watched the footage of her struggling heart intently. We stayed mesmerized by and shared in her sorrow. Scientists tracking and documenting this funeral, worried for this mother’s health. Wondered if she would make it. Let go. Live through the unthinkable loss of a child. Still, they did not move to interfere. She was uninterrupted by human hands, to physically carry the weight of her 400-pound baby, for as long as her heart needed to. Even if it meant her own death.

Following the coverage of this orca’s grief, as one who specializes in infant loss, left me awestruck. It made me hopeful that the millions of other hearts she captured would pay attention to the actions of her family; all the orcas who remained swimming beside her. Even as she unapologetically carried her dead baby’s body beyond what was ‘reasonable’ or ‘normal.’ They didn’t snatch her grief from her. They helped her carry it. Hundreds of pounds in her baby’s lifeless body, held, pushed, and raised above the water on her behalf every time she needed a brief, survival rest.

None of them told her enough. Took her baby away. ‘Saved’ her from seeing the lifeless remains of a daughter she carried in her womb, only to carry the dead weight of outside of her. They didn’t commit any of the tragic acts I see humans do in labor and delivery all too often; forcing grieving mothers into the quiet suffering that is infant loss.

There are grieving mothers all around us. 10-15% of babies die before their Mom’s reach the 12th week of pregnancy. 1-5% die at 13-19 weeks. Roughly 24,000 babies are born, after spending over 20 weeks in their Mother’s womb, without beating hearts, every year.

We could learn so much from these orcas. How to honor and support the thick grief of these mothers with empty wombs.

Most of you don’t have the live footage of a mother’s grieving process fed first hand into your being, the way I do. The way Nurses do. When they leave my hands, you still don’t see them, because we haven’t done a good enough job making this world an acceptable place for mothers, fathers, and grandparents of dead babies to be seen in.

Years ago, and still today, we tear angel babies away from clutched hands of mothers in an attempt to eliminate their suffering. Make us all more comfortable believing we live in a world where babies don’t die. Hearts go on beating.

It is not polite conversation to speak of them: these little ones. Formed in their mothers’ now vacant wombs. Babies, too unique to survive this world. As politely as I was raised to be, this is not a social norm I will submit to. I will not sit in the tidy safety of quiet that propagates grieving mothers’ isolation. I will hang these babies’ chimes. I will speak their names.

Sweet Momma, if we were orcas, and Weston was 397 pounds heavier… I would’ve helped you carry him through ocean waters too…

I will forever speak his name. In Memory of Weston Thomas. Shared with consent by his beautifully brave, Nurse Momma.”

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Shaunna Harrington, a labor and delivery nurse in Gilbert, Arizona. You can follow her work on her blog, deliveryninetynine.comSubmit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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