Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Surviving the Death of Our Baby

It's been eight weeks since our baby died...I'm not really sure of a more eloquent way to start writing, so there it is. With every fiber of my being I wish I didn't have to write those words and I so desperately wish that this was not a part of our story. It was only a few months ago that I sat at this very computer to write a blog post sharing that I was joyfully and excitedly pregnant and expecting our first baby this coming June. At 39 years old, I SO surprised and grateful that I got pregnant right away and that I was having a healthy and complication-free pregnancy. Like most couples, we 'played it safe' and waited until I was in my second trimester to make our happy news public. No one really talks about second and third trimester pregnancy loss and everything we were told and have read about lead us to believe that our chances of losing our baby were very small once I made it out of my first trimester and past those first 12 weeks. So, when that milestone came, I started to relax a bit and let myself make all sorts of plans because I started to feel like we were 'safe' and our dream of becoming parents was really going to happen.

With every check up I had, our baby measured perfectly on schedule and had a very strong heartbeat, and all of the tests (blood tests, blood pressure, genetic tests, etc.) came back perfectly normal throughout my entire pregnancy. Even my first trimester was pretty easy, with mild symptoms, so I felt incredibly thankful with each passing day. Losing our baby was not even on our radar, certainly not at 20 weeks after having a seemingly perfect, healthy pregnancy for myself and our baby, which is why what came next was, and still is, so difficult to understand and accept.

The last picture taken of me, in Maui, while pregnant with our darling baby boy

The day we lost our baby started out as any other day. We had come back from our belated honeymoon trip to Maui a few days earlier, so I was spending the day cleaning and doing chores around the house. I had spent that morning putting together an invitee list to give to my mom as she was making plans for my baby shower.  Physically, I felt good throughout our trip and I also felt good that particular day. Around dinner time my lower back started to hurt, which wasn't unusual if I was relatively active during the day. Everything I had read in my various baby books and apps said back pain was a normal symptom of pregnancy, particularly in the second trimester. I laid down on the couch with a heating pad as I had done many times before when my back hurt. But this time the pain started to feel different, pulsing in and out in increments, accompanied by lower abdominal cramping. I took some Tylenol and drank a lot of water, hoping I would start to feel better. After a couple hours I started to feel some pelvic pressure and decided to call my doctor. He didn't sound too concerned but suggested I go to the hospital to be checked out just to be safe. As my husband drove me to the hospital, I started to feel what I thought were contractions in my back, coming about every 3-4 minutes. I started to become concerned while also just trying to stay calm and manage the pain as best I could. Even as we arrived at the hospital and checked into the maternity ward, it didn't even cross either of our minds that I was going to deliver our baby...everything in our pregnancy had been going so well.

After I was in our hospital room, I was started on an IV with fluids, hooked up to a contraction monitor, and the baby's heartbeat was checked. He still had a very strong heartbeat, which was a relief. As my contractions continued to get stronger, the nurse didn't seem concerned and the doctor still hadn't arrived, even after a couple hours, so my husband and I still didn't think this was it- that this was when our baby was coming. No one seemed to think he was coming or at least there still didn't seem to be a sense of urgency on the part of the medical staff that night. The nurse checked my cervix and I was one centimeter dilated. I started to get very scared and she said the doctor would check again when he arrived. At this point, I was in full on labor and the pain was unbearable and yet they weren't doing anything for my pain so I started to cry from distress. We hadn't yet gotten to the labor and delivery chapters of our respective baby books so both my husband and I were very unprepared to deal with any of this. I really thought at that point that they would be able to give me fluids and medication to stop labor and everything would be fine.

When the doctor finally arrived, he checked my cervix and he could feel my water bag (it hadn't broken but was protruding which is a bad sign). I started to cry even more and asked him if that meant the baby was coming. He said it didn't look good but they would try to give me some medication to stop labor from progressing. I asked if our baby would survive if he did come out at 20 weeks and the doctor said he would not survive outside the womb very long at this stage of development. Everyone left the room (I assume to get medication but honestly I still don't understand why we were left completely alone) and I told my husband that I really needed to use the bathroom. I got up and hobbled to the bathroom while my husband wheeled the IV behind me. While I was alone in the bathroom our baby came out so fast and unexpectedly. I screamed uncontrollably and my husband ran out into the hallway to get help.

Everything after was such a blur...the doctor and nurses came rushing into the bathroom to help me and our son and it quickly turned into what I can only describe as an out of body experience. They moved me to the bed to deliver the placenta while the nurses tended to the baby. I thought because he was so early that he wasn't alive but he was...he had a heartbeat and lived for the next 5 hours. The doctor and nurses said he looked absolutely perfect for his stage of development and had no signs that anything was wrong with him. As far as they could tell, he was perfectly healthy. My doctor was also stunned that I delivered so quickly because he said most preterm labor and deliveries happen over the course of several hours. I suppose this explains why it seemed like there was no sense of urgency leading up to my delivery. I still have a lot of confusion and anger surrounding how our delivery was handled but I'm learning to make peace with these feelings and to accept that the outcome would probably be the same no matter what.

I cannot accurately describe the pain that comes with sitting in a hospital bed with your baby in a bassinet across the room while you wait for his heart to stop beating. Because he was so early, there was nothing medically to be done to save him so we just had to wait. Had he been born even 3 or 4 weeks later, perhaps he could have lived, but the 'could haves' and 'should haves' and 'might haves' after an experience like this are too many to count and too painful to keep asking.

The hours that followed after his birth were all a blur- truly an out of body experience that I have not ever experienced before. It didn't feel like any of this was real...it didn't feel like our son was really here....it didn't feel like we were really there experiencing this, particularly because it all happened so incredibly fast, with no warning at all, so our brains just could not process what was happening.

In one of the books I've been reading about grief, it says that when you are experiencing something incredibly painful and traumatic, a part of your brain shuts down and either fights, flees, or freezes- and this is exactly how I felt at that time- my brain could not process the excruciating pain that I was experiencing and therefore it just completely shut down as a form of protection. I was asked to hold our baby, to take pictures with our baby, to name our baby for his birth and death certificates, we even had to contact a funeral home, all within a few hours of his birth. My brain was just not equipped to deal with any of this at the time, not to mentioned what my body had just gone through, and looking back, I harbor a lot of guilt as there are some actions and decisions made that I wish we had done differently. I try to give myself some grace now because I know that we did the best we could at the time and we were just not capable of doing anything other than what was done.  I was in an absolute fog, I wasn't mentally in my body, and it took well over a week after being home for my brain to even truly accept what had happened as real. I audibly said multiple times in the week that followed "Did I really give birth? Is our baby really dead?" and yet the answer was always the same.

We were told that they wanted me to stay in the hospital for at least 12 hours after my delivery to monitor me before letting us go home. We sat in that room and sobbed through our numbness...we just wanted to go home and wakeup from this nightmare. Once we got home, I went to our room and rarely left our bed. I got up and went to the bathroom when needed, but I dreaded showering or looking in the mirror because it meant I had to look at my postpartum body, a painful reminder that I had given birth but my baby was not here with me. I had looked in that mirror every single day of my pregnancy, excitedly watching my body change and my belly grow, and now it was just too painful to see my belly slowing shrinking. My breasts became swollen and painful as they filled with milk, with no baby to nourish. My body thought my baby was here and did what is was naturally supposed to do, but it didn't know that our sweet baby boy had died. Dealing with the physical aftermath of giving birth was just another cruel daily reminder of what had happened.

I sat in our bedroom for several weeks, day in and day out, letting the waves of grief wash over me as they pleased. I felt completely and utterly broken, a shell of my former self. One moment I'd accept what had happened as our new reality, and the next I would collapse onto the floor or into the arms of my husband, the grief so intense it was physically painful, my heart literally felt as though it was broken.  I know that the grief any mother goes through when losing their baby in any way and at any point is painful, but sometimes I think it would be easier to accept the loss of our son if he had been sick or had died in the womb or I had miscarried during my first trimester when I was 'on guard' for that type of loss. Other times I think about scenarios in which losing him could have been even 'worse' than what we experienced and I'm thankful, as odd as that may sound. Either way, loss is loss...I know this and it does no good to make comparisons, but my mind still thinks about 'what could have been'.

I have never experienced pain and grief so intensely, it felt, and still feels like a part of me is missing. I suppose that is in fact true...our son is a physical part of us who is gone and I don't know if I will every feel completely whole again. It's so bizarre because he was a stranger to us and yet so much a part of us. The time we had to get to know him was taken from us. We grieve the life we wish he could have had, the boy and man he would have grown up to be, the life we had already pictured for him and for our family. We envisioned holidays, his birthdays, running around on our farm, interacting with our friends and his grandparents. We not only grieve the death of our son but of the life we were going to have...the trajectory of our life and his life changed in an instant and that fact is really difficult to process and accept. Here we were, experiencing two of life's most significant events, the birth of our child and the death of our loved one, all within the course of a few hours...it's incredibly overwhelming.

When we are ready, we would like to try for another baby. This decision is incredibly scary because I'm older and worried about my ability to get pregnant again. To further complicate things, we were given no answers as to why this happened. At first we had speculated that perhaps it was an 'incompetent cervix' but were told by my delivering doctor that he did not think that was the case (if/when I do get pregnant, I will be considered high risk and monitored much more closely by a maternal and fetal specialist). Doctors have studied my charts, administered more tests, had the placenta analyzed, and have gone over my medical history and there is nothing to indicate why this happened. I am in seemingly perfect health, with no risk factors for preterm labor, and so was our baby. Apparently 2/3 of preterm births have no known biological cause and if you've had a preterm delivery, you are then more likely for it to happen again. I want to choose to believe that a healthy, full term pregnancy is in our future but there's also so much uncertainty and that is tough for me to accept and very scary.

The passing of time has helped to soften the sharp edges of grief, but there are still many questions I often struggle with...why did we get pregnant so easily only to have it taken away so suddenly? Why did our son die when he was perfectly healthy? Why do other people who don't even want children have babies so easily? Will this happen to us again? What is the point of remaining hopeful, positive, and grateful everyday, as I did throughout my entire pregnancy, if it's still going to end in devastation? What did I do to deserve this? What did I do to cause this? Why didn't my body keep my healthy baby inside longer SO HE COULD LIVE???? There are no answers to these questions, I know this, but still my mind wanders there sometimes.

So what now? What do you do when your whole world has changed and you have changed in ways you could never imagine? I'm often asked 'how are you doing?' by those who care, knowing that the answer will never be a simple one. So, how am I? I am as well as I can be considering all that has happened. There is no 'getting back to normal' but there is 'creating a new normal' as best as I can.

I'm proud of myself for trying to take active steps in helping process my grief while also coming to terms with what happened and trying to look forward toward a bright future for our family. I've read books, talked to a therapist, talked to friends, sought medical advice, heard from people who've gone through something similar, journaled, worked on my physical health, cried when I've needed to, and allowed myself to feel joy when I've needed to.

Getting out of my bed and making my way to the couch was a victory. Leaving the house for the first time (even if it ended in tears in the middle of Home Depot) was a victory. Going back to the doctors office for a check up after my delivery was a victory. Laughing for the first time, even when it evoked feelings of guilt, was a victory. Going out on a date night with my husband and being surrounded by happy families and babies, then actively reframing my inner narrative to say "I don't know their stories, they could have struggled too" was a victory. Facing my grief and emotions head on to write this narrative is a victory. Even the first time I went back to the grocery store felt like a victory because the last time I was there, I was happily pregnant, chatting with a friend I ran into about my upcoming ultrasound.

I've dreaded a million different situations that I knew would be triggering for me but yet over time, with small steps, I've faced these situations and consider them all small victories in my fight against an otherwise crippling grief. It's definitely not always easy and there are still certain situations that I avoid because they are just too painful, but it has all been a practice in patience and faith like no other I've ever experienced.

Throughout this experience of loss, there has been one constant, and that has been the incredibly steadfast love and support from so many. My husband and I have only been married for 9 months, and in that time have been faced with one of the most difficult situations any couple could go through- losing a child. This could easily push us apart, but instead, it has shown just how devoted we are to one another and strengthened us like nothing else could. In the last few months he has proven himself to be everything I could have asked for in a partner, even literally feeding me when I was paralyzed by grief.

Our families have experienced their own grief as their dreams of a first grandchild were crushed in an instant, and yet they put us first, checking in while also giving us the space we needed.

I consider myself so incredibly fortunate to have curated a group of quality people I'm blessed to call my friends. These are the type of friends who become your family, who feel your joy and grief as if it were their own, rooting for your successes and holding you close to their hearts during times of pain and uncertainty, forgiving your emotional distance or lack of social graces during your darkest times.

The kindness shown to us over the passed few months has proven that even in the darkest depths of grief, in the worst situation imaginable, there is so much love in the world. Messages from social media 'strangers', cards and letters from people I haven't spoken to in quite some time, meals delivered, a garden of flowers sent to our doorstep, incredibly touching gifts arriving out of the blue, and thoughtful words of encouragement from all over...it's been so humbling and has made me cry from love, a welcome reprieve from the tears of grief. Even writing that last sentence, I find myself pausing because in the end, deep grief cannot exist where there isn't also great, deep love.

So THANK YOU... thank you for loving us, for praying for us (however and to whomever that may be), for caring enough to read this, for offering words of solace and encouragement (even when there aren't the right words), for checking in on us, for being brave in your own journeys of grief, and for continuing to have hope that this isn't the end of our family's story.

And to our darling sweet baby John, you are LOVED by so many, you were wanted and wished for so badly, and you will be part of our hearts for as long as they are beating. 

Your mommy and daddy love you so very much.

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