Stillbirth – The devastation
Do you find yourself dealing with the pain of stillbirth? Have you heard the devastating words, “I'm so very sorry, but your baby is stillborn." As a parent, your anguish is indescribable; you know the significance is something more than that of a first trimester miscarriage, but something less than the right to grieve the death of a full-term baby. You’re not sure how you should feel.
Your heartache deepened when you were forced to go through the induced labor and delivery of your child -- a child you will never rock; never get to take home. Then there was the motions of dealing with a death certificate for your child who never lived and the decisions about how to care for the body of your unborn child. You gazed upon the miniature form of son or daughter and beheld the already-perfectly-formed little ears, eyes, hands, and feet. You felt the gut-wrenching pain that accompanies knowing that this little person will never hear, see, walk, or hold life in its hands.
Stillbirth – The facts
When fetal death occurs after the 20th week of pregnancy, it is referred to as a stillbirth. One out of every two hundred pregnancies in the United States ends in stillbirth each year.1 A majority of these occur without significant time to prepare. Parents often enter the doctor's office expecting to hear news of their baby’s development and instead, must face the heartbreaking pronouncement of stillbirth and the grief that follows.
Even the right to grieve is sometimes withheld by a society that implies a fetus is not yet a baby, that a mother's womb is not carrying a precious life. While mothers who miscarry are often not extended the grief support necessary, they are at least able to openly grieve the loss of the dream and the end of a pregnancy that would have culminated in the live birth of a long-awaited baby. Moms and dads who lose full-term infants have the grief support of a community that recognizes and legitimizes the loss of a child. But, when a fetus dies in-utero, even the medical community can minimize the immense grief that accompanies such a loss, by failing to define the loss, as that of a baby.
Stillbirth - Mark and Crystal's Story
Crystal and Mark had been married for six years when they decided they wanted to start their family. Five months later, the young couple was overjoyed to find that in within a few short months, they would share their hearts and home with their first child. In the fourth month of pregnancy, when they learned that Crystal was carrying a little girl, they celebrated in the baby department at a nearby children's shop.
They read all the books and soaked up as much information as they possibly could about their infant daughter's development. The first time Crystal felt her baby move, she could hardly contain her joy and hurriedly phoned Mark to share the wonder of the experience. That night, while talking to his unborn daughter, Mark felt the stirring of life as well. At five months, everything pointed to a healthy, beautiful little girl.
With a baby shower just days away, Crystal and Mark drove together to their sixth month appointment. Sadly, what began as another potentially exciting milestone in their baby's development, ended in indescribable sadness as they heard these words;
“I'm so sorry, Crystal and Mark, but I can't hear the baby's heart beat and I don't detect movement.”
Crystal was immediately sent to the hospital for an ultrasound that revealed something was tragically wrong. Crystal and Mark's little girl was lifeless in the womb. Crystal was admitted to Labor and Delivery and put in a room at the far end of the maternity ward. A discreet little sticker, bearing a little black bow, warned any visitors that the woman beyond the door was not celebrating the birth of a child but, instead, the grief of a stillbirth. The hospital sent a social worker to the young couple to speak to them privately. She encouraged them to talk about their loss and to allow themselves to cry. She also suggested that they name their little girl. Five hours after admission to the hospital, Crystal delivered Michelle Renee. The upheaval of emotional pain that accompanied this delivery made it an almost unbearable ordeal.
At first, the young couple did not want to see their little girl. Already exhausted from the physical and emotional toll of the day, they felt incapable of looking at the body of their lifeless baby daughter. Mark remembered the social worker's kind words of encouragement, coupled with that of close family members, who had encouraged them to say goodbye. So, later that evening, the couple went to say goodbye to Michelle. They knew that they needed to validate the reality of their loss and, for but a few moments, be parents.
Mark's mother and father, who lived in the same town, came to the hospital to keep a prayer vigil for their son and daughter-in-law and to offer love and support. In the family waiting room, Mr. and Mrs. Carter found themselves surrounded by other grandparents who were anxiously awaiting the birth of their grandchildren.
Later in the evening, Mark left his wife's side long enough to offer his parents the opportunity to say goodbye to their first grandchild. Little Michelle, weighing just over two pounds, lay upon a white satin pillow inside a private room, reserved for grieving loved ones. When Mrs. Carter entered the viewing room, she was overcome with emotion at the perfectly formed miniature that lay before her. She bent and touched her granddaughter's tiny little fingers and marveled at the beauty of her feet. Mrs. Carter was finally able to begin to grasp the reality of the death of this child and to grieve the loss of her first grandchild.
Late that night, Mark requested that he be allowed to see his daughter again. A very sympathetic nurse brought little Michelle to the couple's birthing room, swaddled in a little white blanket. Mark held his little girl and as he rocked her, his tears fell freely.
Because Crystal was into her sixth month, Mark and Crystal had to deal with the formalities of a Death Certificate and options for internment of their daughter's tiny body. They were given the option of arranging for the disposition of Michelle's body, or allowing the hospital to do so. They chose to have Michelle cremated and her ashes placed into a locket as a memorial and testament to her unlived life. In the months that followed, the young couple experienced an outpouring of love from their local church and found support to continue the grieving process from family and friends.
Two years later, Mark and Crystal now have a beautiful little six-month old son. They have come to know and understand the importance of grieving such a profound loss, as that of a child. Because of their experience, they are now able to offer empathy and guidance for other couples experiencing the pain of stillbirth. Mark's words to his mother on the morning of his infant son's discharge from the hospital, are etched in her memory as a reflection of both the depth of heartache that accompanies the loss of a child, and the immense joy of life, after loss.
“We're leaving the hospital now, mom. This time, I get to take my baby home.”
(Although this is an actual account, the names of each individual have been changed to protect the confidentiality of those involved.)
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