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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Pregnancy loss and grief: keep it under wraps?

Every once in a while, the dark, sick nature of the human race hits me: lately, it's been in comments both about the Duggars announcing their latest pregnancy, and then in the sad news that they had lost their precious child. The talons come out, of course, and people basically find a nice way of saying, "They deserved it!" Barf. 
Judging from some of the comments I've read, I'd say hate is the only word to describe some of them. Thinly-veiled at times, yes; but still hate, all the same. Then when I read an article about how they openly shared very touching, heartfelt photos taken after their baby had died, I saw even more hate and disdain.

"Disturbing" and "grotesque" were some of the words used. But as someone bluntly put it, "It's not like they posted pics of a bloody mess." Some comments are so utterly inappropriate - and made in all seriousness, I think - that I don't dare post them. And yet, on the TMZ site where the photo ran, this (see left) was in another set of photos on the sidebar. What kind of world do we live in where the above photo is "disturbing" and the other one is a-okay? I do not get this.

I've had two people on Facebook tell me that acquaintances actually unfriended them and stopped reading blog posts when they chose to open up about their experiences. Seriously?! I felt chills when I read this and couldn't imagine responding so coldly and callously about something like that.

A few years ago I caught up with my friend Em on Facebook and was delighted to hear from her after so many years. I was equally bummed, and felt sad and guilty, that I had no idea what she had experienced, that I wasn't there for her. I couldn't imagine the pain and grief she went through, in addition to the problems she already manages to deal with in her day-to-day struggles with bipolar disorder. Em also told me that another "friend" told her the same thing two months after her own pregnancy loss - that she was a "dweller" and criticized her for being so open about it. So when that "friend" ended up miscarrying twins, Em thought it would be a good chance to help her be more open with her feelings and emotions. Wrong.

Years ago, before I ever had kids, I was friends with a coworker who ended up giving birth prematurely to a baby that had a severe heart defect. Open heart surgery ensued, and an overbearing mother-in-law who accused her of doing something to cause this didn't help. I was appalled that this woman could be so heartless at a time when her daughter-in-law needed support, love and encouragement the most. In a crazy twist of fate, my coworker's brother and his wife lost their baby when she was six months pregnant to a heart defect as well.

Her hospital decided they weren't sure how staff would handle the birth of this stillborn baby, so they sent her an hour away to another hospital. At the time, and still, really - I can't understand why they did that. It wasn't like she had aborted her child, or done anything wrong to cause this to happen. Once they delivered the child, photos were reluctantly taken, which would appear gruesome to some, but were all she had at the time. I wasn't a mother yet, had no real idea what she was dealing with, when I saw her going about her business one day while the photo of her daughter lay on the table, out in the open. I only caught a glimpse of it, but rather than say something or react, I figured that was her way of dealing with it and just said hello and moved on. What else can you say?

I knew someone else, who, when she gave birth in the 1970s, was not even able to hold or see - or even know the sex of - her baby that was stillborn at around six months. I thought how horrible that was, to not even know, and couldn't imagine what kind of grief process she was still grappling with, several decades later. Who are they to decide how this mother grieves her child?

Several readers shared that they had been unfriended, had people stop reading their blog, even send hate mail - because they had shared their experience and grief so publicly. It's like saying, "I don't want to hear what you have to say about your hurting and loss. Get over it," and giving a big cyber middle finger to someone who is in pain and wants to grieve differently than someone else does. When you want to talk about it, they shut you out, shut you off, and effectively tell you, "You know what? I don't care, I can't care, because it makes me too uncomfortable to deal with this." 

Although I've never personally miscarried, I know the words most women who have least like to hear is "It was for the best," or "it just wasn't meant to be." It may be that these people mean well and don't know what else to say, or it just comes out wrong. But at least they're saying something - instead of tuning you out and getting mad when you want to share your feelings. Saying those things could be a lot worse - like simply severing contact with someone who is reaching out. By being shut down like that, it's like you're  not allowed to grieve. Like somehow in our minds, it's not really a baby unless it's full term and comes into the world screaming, pink and "healthy."

Jaime miscarried her first child two years ago, and she still finds it difficult to talk about. She says that saying nothing at all is better than "It was for the best," which she thinks kind of trivializes it and makes it sound like "no big deal." She writes, "I totally agree that most people are trying to be supportive and just aren't sure how. My best friend sat with me (over the phone cause she is 1,000 miles away) and let me vent and cry and prayed with and for me without saying 'It will be alright' or anything. That was and is, in my opinion, the best thing you can do for a person."

It certainly turns that "At least you have a healthy baby!" argument on its ear, doesn't it? As if to say, Well, it's supposed to turn out that way, but if it doesn't we don't want to hear about it. People don't seem to be able to handle it if that baby isn't healthy - then what? Well, we can't talk about that. Maybe it's a deeply-seated idea that there must have been something the mom did wrong for it to happen; or that if the pregnancy wasn't far enough along, surely she has nothing to grieve, perhaps.

I honestly wonder sometimes if our culture's in-your-face attitude about abortion is another reason people are often reluctant to talk about pregnancy loss - it puts a face to that ultrasound of a baby that is, often times, fully formed even though they are nowhere near ready to be born. It presents a confusing, dual reality for some, I think, that it definitely is more than a "ball of cells," or the suspension of disbelief that this is, was, a living little person. The idea that for some, if you don't come home with a baby in your hands that somehow, it never happened, isn't worth dwelling on because it is a life prematurely halted and therefore somehow not worthy of celebrating.

While the Duggars are in the spotlight, I think we can all learn from their experiences and trials, and I hope these wonderful photos will be a vehicle for women to open up, should they choose to, about their pregnancy loss. Many women who had suffered losses also attended the funeral - no doubt as a show of support, but perhaps also in a way to acknowledge and memorialize their own lost babies.

The Duggars' choice to memorialize their child this way is nothing new - not more than a century ago that's what people did: took pictures of dead relatives (even propped up in a casket) to remember them and celebrate their lives. What people find most grotesque about these pictures is that it puts into perspective the potential for a human life, even one so small, that I think most people would just rather not think about and pretend doesn't exist, doesn't happen.

I think there are many, many silently grieving mothers who would beg to differ.

More reading:
Duggar pictures of dead baby at memorial raise ridiculous reactions 
Becoming Sarah blog - a mother writes about her home, family and healing from loss


Quantmlife said...

Thank you for sharing. I, too, have never experienced this kind of loss... but I did take pictures at the graveside service of my "Gramma." It was such a beautiful day and she is buried in upstate NY and I live in FL, I knew it would be a long time if ever that I would get back there to see even her grave. Also, my brother and sister were not able to come to the funeral since it was so far away (not to mention the expense)... I thought some might think it was strange but I also felt compelled to do it. I only took a very few photos but it was enough to show my sister the flowers she'd sent to honor our Gramma, and for anyone who wanted to, to remember.

No matter how brief, Jubilee, and the other babies who don't get to celebrate life in this world deserve to be honored as their parents desire... it's a way for the family to recover... one friend of mine who experienced a loss in her fifth or sixth month found out that she had a rare clotting disorder... she didn't understand why it had happened especially since she'd already had two healthy pregnancies... several years later she became pregnant again and she was lamenting the loss... I was just listening and praying with her... and out of nowhere (I didn't even remember telling her until she thanked me later) I said he (the baby she lost) so that this baby (her first girl) could live... because she was experiencing the same difficulties with the clotting disorder but was able to treat it (it's very hard to diagnose apparently... miscarriage is the primary way)... she later told me that hearing that his life had meant something really helped her come to terms with his death... her little girl was here because of her brother's life.

Kate Rowan said...

I had a horrible experience too. I had a miscarriage, and it was extremely hard on me. I also got pregnant again before I really finished mourning, and so I kept the news of my pregnancy to immediate family only. When I went to announce my pregnancy, my grandmother sent me a cruel note saying that I was going to be a terrible mother to my child and that she wanted nothing to do with my baby because I hadn't told her sooner. I wrote back simply saying, "Your wish is my command." I haven't spoken to her since. It was the best choice I could have made. My son is beautiful, and helped me heal in so many ways.

springolife said...

Oh, Kate, I am so very sorry to read that. What a terrible thing to go through. I also got pregnant soon after a fact my son was stillborn at 40 weeks and six months later I was pregnant, and my husband had cancer. It was the worst possible time (to others) for me to be pregnant and I knew they would be very upset. However, I wanted them to know that a life is one to be rejoiced over, no matter what the circumstances are. We lost that pregnancy as well, they were twins and one was ectopic. I have not been able to get pregnant since then (it's been nearly three years) and people really just don't know what to say, but I'd rather hear NOTHING then cruelty. BTW, I do hear "At least you had a healthy baby" in regards to my cesareans. And no, I didn't, and I'm ok with saying "Actually, he died." I feel like the slap in the face of the idiot people who say things without really considering their words deserve the shocking truth. The loss of my children did not make me angry and bitter, the people around me, my family and strangers, did.

Natalie StJohn said...

I was under the impression that the photos were leaked, rather than openly shared. Regardless though, I'm disgusted by some of the reactions. People are so cruel. My heart goes out to this family.

K said...

If I don't know what to say I either...just give the person a hug or their arm a squeeze (depending on the relationship) or say, "I'm so sorry, is there anything I can do to help you."
and then I shut up and listen.

Why is that so hard?

The Deranged Housewife said...

Natalie - I'm not sure. I thought they were Twittered by a family member, but could be wrong.

Erin Whitney said...

My sister lost a baby when she was 20 weeks pregnant. It was her third and they were excited for it. She said so many people at her work told it that it was "for the best" and that she should just suck it up and be happy she already had two other healthy kids. Some people are just @$$holes.