A midwife I know once described delivering a healthy baby as a “perfectly ordinary miracle.” It happens so often, it's possible to forget that new life is the result of a billion little lotteries and a bafflingly complex high-wire dance that is largely independent of our intentions.
It’s undeniably important to look after yourself when you are pregnant. But one person can look after themselves like a penitent and be faced with sorrow, while another can live recklessly on the edge and deliver a strapping infant. The role of good care is balanced, or sometimes unbalanced, by the truth that sometimes the little dancer is going to twirl across the tightrope and win the jackpot, and sometimes not.
Sometimes, we have a perfectly ordinary miracle. Sometimes, we lose the baby.
Friends of ours were expecting twins and the babies died, one at a time, over the course of one agonizing week of gestation where the choreography could not right itself, or be righted. Years of effort preceded this harrowing outcome, and the parents wanted to grieve their loss with a quiet funeral. The grandmother and her peers were opposed to any such thing. Not happening. Best to move on.
The tut-tutters were not unsympathetic, as compassionate as they were, and also acquainted personally with this type of sadness themselves years before. Maybe they had not been allowed to grieve then, and maybe that contributed to their feeling that it was ill-advised to treat this like a death. Or two.
But it is not entirely a generational thing. When I miscarried at 11 weeks during one October weekend, I learned—through a series of appalling encounters with doctors in Halloween outfits—that I had experienced what is known as a “blighted ovum” pregnancy. It means that since conception, nothing but the luggage of pregnancy has been taking shape—a placenta and a good amount of hormones and water weight all over the damn place, but no baby. Or, as the doctor said during the ultrasound, “the lights are on, but no one’s home.” I explained this to a friend in the aftermath. I was very engaged with explanations and thought and reason, grappling to understand why all the logic couldn’t make me feel any better. “Oh,” she said. “So there was never a baby. So it’s not really a loss.” Wait, not a loss?
At the time, I had one fat, healthy baby at home, and when I found out I was pregnant again so soon after the first, I had initially been gripped by a tantrum of resistance. So if I hadn’t totally welcomed the pregnancy, and it wasn’t “really” a baby, was I allowed to be sad?
I certainly was sad. I realized, after a while, that even during the weeks that I was unhappy about the timing, I was expectant. Whatever was physically in my belly, there was a baby in my mind and ultimately, of course, my heart. In those places, what I lost did not depend on the pronouncement of someone in a white coat (or a jack-o’-lantern sweatshirt) to make it real. It seems so obvious now, but I had to think and think to reach that place–the starting place for the real work, which was to just be sad.
Accepting the feelings that came was a journey for me. Just recognizing the presence of an absence was the place to begin.
Theodore Roosevelt said that comparison is the thief of joy; it’s pretty criminal with compassion, too. I appreciate the perspective that helps us realize when things could be a lot worse, but I’m not a big fan of the person-to-person Sufferlympics. This goes for when things are bad in your own life (“I should not be this sad!”) or when you determine that someone else has not suffered as much as you have (“She thinks she has it bad!”). Sad as it was, I knew that my pretty straightforward miscarriage was not the worst thing even I had ever experienced, let alone other women I knew. That awareness was essential. Just as essential was the solace of being allowed to feel my sadness independent of any comparison.
Brevity is the soul of more than wit. It is the soul of condolence and even commiseration. While I’m hereironing out cliches, here’s another I’ve learned: Misery does not love company. If misery loves anything, it is simple acknowledgement. Maybe the wisest and best thing any human ever says to another is “I am sorry for your loss.” Your loss. If I learned anything from this miscarriage, it’s that however universal emotions may be, our experiences are shatteringly unique. We can’t presume to know how another person experiences a loss, even if the facts look familiar.
Recognizing the presence of absence is a good place to begin. I can see you have a hole there, that you are peering into. I recognize the posture. I am sorry you have to lean over that, however deep it is.