Disclaimer: This story contains details of child loss and grief that may be upsetting to some.
“‘I’m sorry. I’m not seeing any cardiac activity.’ As soon as the words slipped out of the doctor’s mouth, my world started to fade. I felt my body grow heavy as if it would fall right through the exam table I was laying on. The room around me grew dark and the voices faded away from me. I could hear someone far away wailing. But all I could think about was how to get out of there as soon as possible. I needed to get home. I needed to talk to my husband. I needed to tell him our baby was dead and I couldn’t do that over the phone.
Because of Covid, my husband had not been allowed to come to my appointment. My worst fear was coming true. I then realized that I was the one wailing. I kept repeating, ‘I knew this would happen.’ The concerned doctor leaned in close with a hand on my shoulder, ‘How did you know? Tell me what happened.’ He was looking for a reason, one I did not have. ‘I just knew we wouldn’t get to keep this baby,’ was all I could sob.
A week prior, I was glowing from the inside out. Absolutely in love with my life and excited for our new baby to arrive in the fall. After a year of secondary infertility, I was finally 18 weeks pregnant, already feeling movement, and hearing the strong heartbeat on an at-home fetal doppler. Because my husband and our three-year-old son weren’t allowed at my prenatal appointments, I bought the doppler so they could experience a part of this baby with me. Big brother was beyond excited to finally get a baby. He asked so many questions about the baby’s size and how we made the baby and what he eats inside my belly. This time was even more beautiful than my first pregnancy because I knew what was coming…a perfect addition to our small family, one that would most likely complete it.
Despite all the glow and the joy and the excitement, however, I also was experiencing anxiety like never before. My mind and my emotions felt shattered and frayed and I wasn’t sure why. I had this dark feeling that what I was experiencing wasn’t real. I kept telling my friend, ‘I can’t actually imagine my life with this baby. It feels like this won’t happen,’ and she would remind me, ‘It is happening! You’re having a baby!’ We both assumed my feelings of disbelief were from the twelves months of trying and hoping and longing for this baby that now felt too good to be true.
I was also…seeing things, people-like figures that weren’t really there, dark shadows that would catch my attention, things moving in my peripheral vision. I mentioned them to my sisters, all three being mothers themselves, and they mentioned it might be the hormones making me experience strange things, like when a new mom hears phantom cries. I let that be enough. The things I was seeing didn’t feel ominous or scary, they were just there.
On Saturday I found myself sitting alone on my back porch, anxiety washing over me, crashing into my heart with a feeling of dread. I held my round belly and cried. I wasn’t sure why I was crying, I just felt I needed to. An old familiar hymn came into my head, ‘When peace like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll, Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.’ I sang and cried and held my belly, promising myself that it would all be well. I felt beyond lucky to be where I was at that moment. I cried out for peace from these seemingly misplaced feelings of dread.
On Tuesday a very dark thought came to me. If my baby dies, would I even know? It shocked me and shook me to my core. I started googling that phrase. I was met with stories of miscarriage and tales of blood, cramping, and pain. I wasn’t having any of that, I only had a feeling, a feeling I was sure was wrong. I was doing everything I could to convince myself that it was wrong. There was no proof to the contrary. My older sister encouraged me to ask my doctor for some help with the dark thoughts but I was embarrassed enough to admit them to my sisters. I couldn’t imagine bringing them up to a stranger who would laugh and tell me I was crazy.
On Wednesday I dressed to show off my perfectly rounded belly. A blue shirt that hugged me just right. A coworker beamed at me and said, ‘Just look at that belly!’ I smiled in return and said, ‘Growing every day!’ But then a voice in my mind said, ‘You just lied to her. Your belly stopped growing a week ago.’ I felt the blood drain from my face. My breath caught in my throat. Why had I just had that thought? It was dark and intrusive and scary! I excused myself, went back to my desk, and cried. I then decided at that moment I needed help managing these thoughts. I didn’t just need assurance that everything was fine, it was not fine, these thoughts were not fine. I needed them to go away.
At home that night, I tried to listen to the heartbeat. I couldn’t find it. Everyone cautions against using a home doppler because if you aren’t trained, you might not find the heartbeat and cause unnecessary worry. But I had been finding it. Every time I tried, I found it. It was fast like a galloping horse. I’d even been hearing the swooshing of his kicks. But this time, there was nothing but my own racing pulse. It’s fine. He’s fine. I’m fine. I tried so hard to convince myself.
On Friday, these feelings had not left me. I had not felt the soft bumping movements from the previous week. I still couldn’t find the heartbeat. I decided not to go through the weekend feeling this way, so I mustered up the courage to call my doctor. It took courage because I felt like calling was the first step to giving in to these dark feelings. It was like admitting that I really did think something might be wrong.
I was prepared for the nurse who answered my call to reassure me that anxiety is normal in pregnancy but oh so hard and offer me an appointment that afternoon. Shockingly, she didn’t. She asked why I wanted to get checked and what made me think something was wrong. If I hadn’t had a fall, accident, or other trauma, why was I so concerned? She told me I was far too early to be counting kicks even though I insisted I had been feeling movement. She told me I should absolutely not be using a doppler because I was not a professional even though I told her I was finding the heartbeat every day.
It was like she was scolding me for bothering to call. I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore as I begged to be seen, if for nothing else than for someone to help me manage my anxiety. She assured me once again that she was sure everything was fine and that I needed to just calm down. That did nothing to calm me. She couldn’t possibly know that. I insisted I wanted to be seen.
She tried again to dissuade me by telling me they would have to charge this visit to my insurance and that I might have to wait to be fit into the schedule. That was the last thing I cared about. I quickly agreed to a 1 p.m. appointment. It felt like a step towards feeling better. Soon, I texted my husband, sisters, and friend to let them all know I decided to get checked to calm my nerves. My husband asked if I would like him to come to sit in the parking lot and wait for me. I told him no, as I was sure we’d be laughing about this later.
We never did laugh about this. We cried instead. We cried a lot. We still cry almost two years later.
When I first walked into the exam room, half of my worry-stricken face obscured by my cloth mask, the nurse yammered on about how this happens all the time, and had I ever tried meditation? Her daughter also had a lot of anxiety in pregnancy, all the while pushing around my belly with a doppler, searching for the absent heartbeat. I wanted her to stop talking. It felt flippant.
Couldn’t she see I was already dying inside? I knew she wasn’t going to find anything even when she brought in the small ultrasound machine. ‘Well, I can see the baby, but he’s not moving.’ She was so casual as she tried to jostle my belly to wake the baby. The baby I knew wasn’t sleeping. She asked a passing sonographer if she could make room for me. The sonographer sighed and said something about a full schedule. I wasn’t sure If I was breathing but I felt tears free-flowing from my eye, grateful my mask was there to catch them.
Laying on that cold table, gel on my belly, the room was silent, devoid of that familiar galloping horse rhythm. I could see my baby on the screen. Laying still at the bottom, curled in around himself. Just two weeks ago I had seen him jumping and kicking on this same screen. ‘Is it dead?’ My voice shocked me. It was thick and steady. It must have shocked them too because the sonographer and the doctor both turned to look at me. It was the doctor who said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m not seeing any cardiac activity.’ Through my sobs, my feeble attempt to leave the office, and my inability to make my fingers call my husband, that phrase gave me hope. He wasn’t seeing any but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there…right? What if he just missed it? My heart knew but my mind, just like it had the whole week prior, refused to believe it. Someone must have made a horrible mistake.
Even the next morning, when we were sent to Labor and Delivery to give birth to our dead baby, I asked the attending doctor to verify that he was really gone. Sitting in a hospital bed, IV in my arm, I still couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I was going to give birth to our baby at 19 weeks. We didn’t have a name. We didn’t know the gender. We weren’t ready. And yet here we were.
No one prepares you for the things you have to decide and do when you’re delivering a baby who isn’t alive. Through all the weeks spent researching nursery colors and cribs and breast pumps, never once did it come up that you have to decide what to do with your baby’s remains if they die. No one mentioned the possibility of walking out of labor and delivery with a white box instead of a baby. And why would they? This doesn’t happen often.
Except it does. It happens to one of every four pregnancies. Not 1 in 4 women, but 1 in 4 pregnancies. That means that my sisters and I, between our 12 pregnancies, three of them ended in a loss.
After you have a loss, you start noticing just how many women close to you carry the same burden. Your mother-in-law, coworker, best friend, all now come to you in solidarity telling you of their own losses. Friends online, your dental hygienist, the cashier at the grocery store, they all open up about their pain when you tell them you lost a baby.
You realize it’s a whole club of warriors who are living through this same lifelong pain and it doesn’t matter if it is two weeks, two years, or two decades passed, the pain is still there for all of them. Some might say, you get over it or time will heal but that’s not my experience. Time doesn’t close the wound, you just grow around it. It doesn’t get easier, you get accustomed to it. You don’t get over it, you learn to move forward with this weight in tow.
Rather than looking for something to relieve the pain or for something to fix me, I found a way to process and grow with my pain. For me, that looked like sharing my story online and building a community of women who are part of this heartbreaking club. So many loss-moms, virtual strangers, were there for me, encouraging me, and sitting in the darkness with me when I needed them. They asked about our baby, whom we named Miles Bubbles. They offered tips for processing grief. Now, I continue to share so that I can be here for those coming behind me. How I wish I was the final member of this club but I’m not. We can’t always stop our babies from dying but we can be there to hold the mother in her time of grief. I think the dark figures I was seeing were those coming to hold me.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Rebekah Clayton. You can follow her journey on Instagram and website. Submit your story here, and be sure to subscribeto our free email newsletter for our best stories.
Read more stories about loss here:
‘We begged her to let go. She kept fighting to stay with us. ‘We’ll be together soon. You need to go home,’ we said.’: Mom says daughter suffering from CHD ‘passed peacefully in my arms,’ is ‘finally at peace’
‘I stood hand poised over the silver handle saying my silent goodbye, wondering if I should wake my husband. The first time I flushed was in the bathroom of my old apartment.’: Woman recounts traumatic miscarriage
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