I wish I had known how my life would change after losing a baby I never met. My wife was only 16 weeks pregnant, and we had just seen the doctor for a check-up two weeks earlier. Besides taking a bit longer than normal in finding the heartbeat, the appointment went well. My wife was over 35 in 2011, so we had done an early ultrasound, which showed no markers for any chromosomal abnormalities. In fact, her risk factors were characteristic of someone who was 20 years old, so we were confident.
It was a Monday in May, and I was at work, enduring a typical meeting; lots of talking, but not much being said. Afterward, I checked my phone, expecting the usual insane emails. Instead, I saw four text messages from my wife, including a “baby 911” message. That can’t be good. I called her to get the story as I walked back to my desk. When she told me she was bleeding and may be losing the baby, a host of emotions took hold: confusion, disbelief, horror, and worry for both her and the baby. I made my way home, fearing the worst, but not yet believing it.
A dear friend happens to be our next door neighbor who works at home, so emergency babysitting was easy enough to get. Once our daughters were taken care of, it was off to the hospital for an emergency ultrasound. Despite knowing it could be bad, I was unprepared for the lifeless form on the screen. After having seen a strong heartbeat just a few weeks earlier, we were both crushed. Next up was a visit to the clinic next door, where my wife’s OB practices. He wasn’t available, but the on-call doctor saw us and helped to talk through our options. There really wasn’t much of a choice to make. Either we go right back to the hospital and induce labor, or we go home and wait. The baby was already gone, and we didn’t want to prolong the agony, so our decision was a quick one.
Back at the hospital, we checked into Labor and Delivery, which seemed cruel. It’s hard enough to know you’re losing a baby, but to do it in the same place where other parents are experiencing such joy (and where we had done just that twice before) made it especially hard.
One thing I learned from this nightmare was that a nurse who can support parents through loss can be the most valuable resource in a time of need. We were in the hospital overnight, so we cycled through a couple of shifts, and the differences were amazing. Our first nurse was incredible. She helped make my wife comfortable while I went home to pack an overnight bag and make arrangements for the girls to spend the night with their grandparents. During that time, I made some of the most difficult phone calls I’ve ever made in my life. Announcing a pregnancy is one of the most uplifting things I’ve ever done. “Un-telling” about the same pregnancy was the polar opposite. There were tears, uncomfortable silences, and just pain. Nobody knows what to say, so they say anything to fill the silence.
“At least you already have two kids that you can go home to.”
“You can try again when you’re ready.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
While all of these things may be true, there is a time to say them, and this was not it.
When I got back, they had started the induction process, so the waiting had begun. We sat and cried, then waited and cried some more. The doctor came in and described the process to us and we braced ourselves for what was going to happen.
The next nurse was not nearly so good with grieving parents. She seemed out of her element and acted very uncomfortable around us. Fortunately, the OB was helpful, and picked up some of the slack. Another nurse came in and asked my wife if she would like an epidural. She made the decision easy when she told us that the emotional pain is bad enough. My wife didn’t need to hurt physically, too.
After the epidural was on board, it didn’t take long for that permanent dark line to be drawn through our lives. Everything will now be either “before” or “after.”
I’m ashamed to say this, but when I saw her, I felt the need to vomit. She was so little, so fragile, and so lifeless. I couldn’t get past the idea that she was the most frightening thing I had ever seen. I eventually settled down and was able to hold her in a blanket for a couple of hours before we had to say goodbye. I sat in that hospital chair rocking her as though she were just as alive as my other two girls, memorizing her little features. Those perfect “C” ears, the open mouth, the little button nose.
She was so tiny that the only memento we were able to get was a single footprint, which we gave to our neighbor (the same friend who babysat the girls), who is also a graphic designer, to see if she could design a keepsake for us. She turned that footprint into a butterfly, which a jeweler made into a gold pendant. My wife wears it next to her heart nearly every day now.
I gained some perspective in the months since, and three things that have stuck with me and have changed me for life:
- If you want to test the strength of your marriage, lose a child.
- Once you’ve proven that strength, team up with your spouse to build a community around yourselves
- That community will help redefine the word family.