Trying to make sense of stillbirth is exhausting. During our prenatal care, which I do believe was excellent, no one even mentioned the word. Moments after our midwife confirmed that Poppy had no heartbeat, my brain searched for understanding and I thought to myself, “What are the chances? 1 in 500,000?” Was I trapped inside a Little House on the Prairie episode? Then I asked, “How often does this happen?” Uncomfortably, but with a ready answer, she said, “At full term, Katie, 1 in 500.”
Poppy’s death remains unexplained. We had an autopsy of her sweet little body, but they found nothing conclusive. I was tested for a rare blood clotting disorder and everything came back normal. The chances that a baby will die in utero lessen the further along in the pregnancy you are. It’s even less likely that the mother will go into labor naturally before discovering that the baby is gone. Still, it happens. It happened to me. And no one really talks about it.
Should they? Should doctors and midwives bring up the risk of fetal death after you’ve passed the first trimester? They talk about the risk of miscarriage (or at least allude to it) during the first few months. I know it’s a touchy subject. I brought it up to a few women in my life after Poppy died. My mind still reeling, I declared that there should be some discussion about the risk of fetal death, even well into the third trimester. After all, I was led to believe that we were in the clear. I’d passed all the tests. I didn’t have preeclampsia. I didn’t have gestational diabetes. I didn’t gain too much or too little weight. All the ultrasounds were normal. I was shocked when the women I talked with disagreed with me. They suggested, “Doesn’t the mother have enough stress already? Why should doctors give them one more thing to worry about?” I get angry just thinking about it.
About a week after Poppy was born, Eli and I joined a local support group for parents who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss. I was so nervous riding in the car to the meeting. I was wearing a pair of maternity pants because none of my clothes fit and I hated that stupid band around my stomach. It was a cruel reminder of what had been a blissful pregnancy. We parked the car and started walking towards the building. Grabbing Eli’s hand, I stopped walking. “I don’t want to do this Eli. I can’t believe we have to do this.” He gently squeezed me and agreed that it was all unbelievable but that we needed to give it a try.
The room was packed that night. We had no idea what to expect. We found seats and waited quietly until the facilitator began the meeting. One by one around the room we told our stories of love and loss. They were heartbreaking and each so unique. I was disheartened to hear from a young mother, still grieving, after 5 years. Her son’s would-be 5th birthday was around the corner and she needed support to get through another anniversary of his death. How long was this going to hurt? Forever it seems. We met the loveliest people that evening, all swimming in their own oceans of grief. We realized that night that we were not alone, not by a long stretch.
We have returned to our support group many times since. We relate to those mothers and fathers on a level no one else can — the cost of membership is a price no one should have to pay. We lean in and listen. There are parents who have suffered silently because they experience miscarriage before announcing the pregnancy. We shudder for parents who made the excruciating decision to terminate a pregnancy due to severe genetic mutations. We ache for the parents who lost a pregnancy, their last embryo, and can no longer conceive.
In this age of modern medicine, we are led to believe that advanced technology and doctors will protect us from harm. But none of us are immune. The Laws of Nature are fierce and do not distinguish. Our support group has helped me realize that. Each loss is significant, no matter how many days or months a pregnancy lasts. Those dreams were real. Those lives were precious. As Poppy’s mommy, I continue to carry that love for her and for all of our babies.