Yesterday was SANDS Lights of Love – which entails Church carol services across the country taking place in honour of babies who died too soon, either during pregnancy or very soon after birth…
I was going to go to a local event near me, but decided in the end my head isn’t in the right place for it. I went to a similar event just a couple of weeks ago and it was a beautiful and moving service, and having my lost ones recognised felt so wonderful and tragic all at once. But it was very draining. And by last night, I had no energy left to be drained. So I decided to grieve in a different way. I caught buses to different areas of my town, with my camera, and just took photos. Not many because by then the light wasn’t great, but a few. And the main thing was I looked at the world differently. I looked at what may seem bland, and how it could become beautiful. How to turn the mundane into something profound. Taking photos puts me so completely in the ‘present’, and so absolutely focused on making something worthwhile. I’ve found it to be a healthy and beautiful way to grieve, all the while imagining my babies seeing the world like this. And being able to do it in solitude, where I can cry my eyes out but also be productive, means I can grieve in my own space but without drowning. So there you go, the powers of photography.
I have written a lot of blogs about losing my babies after birth or in the late stages, but I haven’t often talked about early miscarriage. Which is actually a bit odd because they do affect me massively. When I explored and self-analysed why I don’t talk about miscarriage so much, it came down to there being a sense of stigma. This is something a lot of women and teenage girls have opened up to me about. That not only do we have to miscarry and grieve, but we have to do so almost in secret, because there’s such a stigma around it.
It’s bizarre and tragic that there is such a sense of stigma and so many women, and their partners, suffer mostly in silence. It is absolutely something I can empathise with.
Mostly my pregnancies were secret anyway, but even so…when friends have known I’ve miscarried, it almost feels more awkward for us all than when I talk about losing a full-term baby. Because suddenly I’ve lost some *one* not some *thing.* And for people who haven’t suffered a miscarriage themselves, that’s how it looks. I’ve had too many well meaning friends try to helpfully say to me in the early stages of grief, “it was just a bunch of cells at this point.”
NB: This is not even remotely helpful to hear. I am not in fact a complete idiot, I did do biology GCSE, I am very aware that ‘it’ was ‘only’ a bunch of cells. I realise that me therefore grieving doesn’t make a vast amount of sense to you.
Mostly when people said this to me, or do say this to me when I’m talking about miscarriage, I just nod and go with it. I’m often too tired to point out that this is, in fact, irrelevant. That what I need is comfort and support, what I don’t need is for them to dismiss it because in their head’s its “not as bad” as losing a full-term baby and therefore my grief is unnecessary. Of course it isn’t as “bad” as losing a full-term baby. Why does this mean I shouldn’t grieve? Why does this mean I am supposed to move on immediately and we’ll turn my miscarriage into the elephant in the room?
There really isn’t anything more helpful than simple compassion and comfort, and a validation of my grief. I sometimes wanted to say “stop trying to find something helpful to say. Just stop it.” Because nine times out of ten, that effort resulted in something hurtful or dismissive, even if with the best intentions. “It’s just a bunch of cells” being an example. Sometimes I even started telling myself that, to see if it helped with the grief. Guess what, it never did.
It is hard to explain the grief of a miscarriage to people who’ve never had one, who either have their children or in actual fact have never even been pregnant and so have even less of a clue. It may have been just a bunch of cells to you but to me is was the beginning of my child. It was inherently a part of me. Fact. It had the potential to form into a baby, for my body to do its amazing job of carrying him/her and delivering them, and for the baby to be my child. For that bunch of cells to become a person with a life, with dreams, with flaws, with emotions and identity and life. You were just once a bunch of cells too. Imagine you never got further than 5 or 10 weeks. How many places and people’s lives have you touched? Look at the impact of your life. My miscarriage was the start of someone else’s life who could have had an impact, and because of that…had an impact on me.
But nobody sees it like that. How can you grieve for someone you never met, who wasn’t even a person yet, was literally ‘just a bunch of cells’? I realise it sounds absurd for every single person who hasn’t been there. It’s grieving for the potential of who that person could have been. Your baby’s heart starts to beat at about 6 weeks pregnant. That’s it. 6 weeks. So that’s just a bunch of cells huh? Just a bunch of cells that already has a heartbeat? To me, that’s incredible. Knowing at 6 weeks there’s another heartbeat within me. Incredible. To then lose that? Devastating.
Effectively we’re all just a ‘bunch of cells’, even as adults, so that line of argument is completely wrong and irrelevant.
Pregnant women are advised not to tell people they are pregnant until after 12 weeks, after the most fragile stage of the pregnancy. Why? In case they miscarry. This completely blows my mind. I realise you may not want to tell the whole world, for fear of having to later tell the whole world you lost the baby. But that it should be a secret? So much a secret that if you do miscarry, who can you speak to? Other than your partner, if you have one? Who will probably also be grieving? How do you then reach out to a friend and go “I was pregnant, but I’ve miscarried.” How can you manage that? I find this advice nothing short of absurd. I’ve spoken to some women who felt such pressure not to tell, so much so that they felt if they did go against the medical advice and tell people, then they were ‘tempting fate.’ I cannot tell you how bizarre I find this. Managing a miscarriage by myself remains one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
Miscarriage also can damage the relationship a woman has with her body. I know I always felt I had done something wrong. That there was something wrong with my body, that I couldn’t even be a ‘normal woman’ and carry a baby. It didn’t matter to me that, for most of them, I was too young…my body too small…my body in fact damaged…the abuse kept going when I was pregnant…I was insanely stressed…none of this mattered. My body hadn’t managed to keep my baby safe and I couldn’t emotionally find anything else to blame except myself and my body. I loathed my body after each miscarriage. And people didn’t understand this either. They tried telling me how I should feel about the body, not recognising that this period of resentment was in fact part of the grief. Again, people who hadn’t experienced this trauma, trying (with the best intentions) to find the right ‘advice’ and getting it painfully wrong. There is no right advice. Just hold me and shut up.
With every miscarriage I wondered, and still do – they still cross my mind – what kind of person would you have been, if my body had managed to carry you? What gender? What would they have looked like? What would the birth have been like?
After a few days, it seems everyone around me forgets I have miscarried. It happened, it’s not an ‘actual child’, now move on. I don’t move on, I just sense the fact I should be. Something else I’ve heard from too many women. I can’t move my grief along at a pace that will suit every non-parent around me. Grief doesn’t work like that. My body is full of hormones, I ache, I may still be bleeding – a constant reminder every time I go to the toilet that I have lost the baby. I will probably lose my appetite. I will want to cry a lot. I will probably curl up in bed and not move for a while. Fast forward a few weeks and people ask “what is wrong?” It’s like my miscarriage never even happened. Like it wasn’t real. They can’t understand the grief, and because they can’t understand, it’s swept away.
Except it never is. Not really. Aside from anything else a woman’s maternal instinct can be, and often is, activated at the point of realising you’re pregnant. Whenever I was pregnant I was more aware of what I did, tried harder not to be clumsy, whether I was too cold or too hot…I worried and loved and cared for the baby even if they were only a bunch of cells. That’s just how it is. So when I lost that, when a woman loses that, does their maternal instinct just magically switch off? Of course not. It just has nowhere to go. That mixed with hormones released from a miscarriage can be overwhelming. A woman may and can love their baby even at a few weeks. So if they lose that baby, don’t speak for their love and expect them to be unaffected. She loves the baby she lost and needs support and kindness…not dismissal.
Fast forward a few months, around when the due date would have been, and the grief comes back with a tremendous force. Sometimes I didn’t even consciously realise the month. I’d know the month, of course, but wouldn’t understand the significance. My body would though. And fairly soon I’d work it out. And be transported back. Sometimes I’d hold my very flat abdomen and wonder, again, what the birth would have been like. They would be a fully formed baby, kicking me inside and waiting to be born, and together the two of us would achieve something incredible, my body working to deliver the baby. Childbirth never ceases to amaze me, it really doesn’t. Every single time I think ‘this is impossible, I can’t.’ But the body really is remarkable at that point. I hold my newborn and wonder in awe….how the hell did you fit inside me, and how the hell did you get out?!
But I’d never have that moment with the miscarried ones. I’d never be able to hold them after a long and agonising labour, and have that elation, have that pure incredible feeling of love, just holding them against my chest and looking into their eyes. I’d never have that. I never will. I’ll never know how the birth would have gone, I’ll never know if they’d be a boy or a girl. I’ll never know what it felt like to hold my child. I’ll never know.
Miscarriage is a tremendously lonely place to be, and whilst physically may only last a few days, emotionally it can affect women for far longer. We need to remove the ridiculous stigma and the pressure on women to ‘move on’. We need to be able to comfort a friend who’s had a miscarriage without feeling uncomfortable. We wouldn’t hesitate to comfort a friend who had a stillbirth and yet women who miscarry are often left alone. Maybe friends around for the first day or two, but after that…you’re on your own. ‘It was only a bunch of cells.’ ‘You should be over it.’ ‘You can always try again.’ ‘At least it didn’t feel anything.’
Just because my miscarriage makes little difference to your life…
Does not mean I am not grieving and hurting. Don’t undermine my right to grieve and my need for support just because you can’t understand why it’s so difficult.
Wake up, society.
Thinking of all parents who have lost babies and children right now. I am too aware how painful this time of year is for a grieving parent. Keep them close to your heart, light a candle for them…write their names on stars and add them to your Christmas tree…they can still be a part of your Christmas, though I realise not in the way you’d like…
Sleep well my babies, and know I loved each of you.