Stillbirth: Unexpected Heartbreak

Ann Douglas's picture

by Ann Douglas

On October 9, 1996, at 7:30 a.m., I gave birth to a 1 pound 1 ounce baby girl, Laura Ann Douglas. We spent the better part of an hour holding her before it was time to say goodbye. She was perfectly formed from head to toe. The cause of her death was cruelly obvious. There was a knot in her umbilical cord...

It was supposed to be a routine prenatal checkup in the midst of a completely ordinary pregnancy. Why, then, was the midwife having such a hard time finding my baby's heartbeat?

As I lay on the examining bed, I began to feel frightened. I was 26 weeks into my fourth pregnancy, and nothing like this had ever happened to me before.

"Try not to worry," said Jaylene Mory, my primary care midwife. "The baby is probably just in an awkward position. Just to be sure, we'll send you for an ultrasound."

A few hours later, I was once again lying on an examining bed. I tried to joke with the ultrasound technician, but she was unnaturally silent as she did the examination. After a few minutes, she put down the transducer and went to find the radiologist. When he returned, he told me the unthinkable: my baby was dead.

The radiologist called Jaylene and told her the bad news. She asked me to come to the clinic right away so we could talk. I knew I was in no state to drive, but I didn't care about my safety or well-being at that point. When I arrived at the clinic, the receptionist ushered me into a waiting room. She handed me a box of tissues. A few minutes later, Jaylene came in to see me, and we began talking about what would happen next. She told me that I had to deliver the baby. Because my pregnancy was so far advanced, a D & C was not possible. I asked if I could have a caesarean and be put under a general anaesthetic, but this wasn't an option either. "I can't do this," I sobbed. "I can't cope with the grief and the pain." Jaylene was crying, too. "There's only one way to get through this, she told me. "You have to walk into the fire."

When I arrived home from the clinic, my husband Neil was waiting for me in the kitchen. I hadn't been able to reach him by phone earlier in the day, but he knew something was wrong because it was 6:00 p.m. and no one was home. Our three children - ages 8, 6, and 5 - were being cared for by a friend.

Neil had just gotten off the phone with Jaylene, so he already knew the worst. He held me while I cried: "I'm so sorry you have to go through this," he said.

I explained to Neil that I had to deliver the baby. My choices were to either be induced (my preference) or to wait until my body went into labour naturally. Then, we had to arrange to bury or cremate the baby. By the time we left to pick up our three children, his head was swimming, too.

We waited until we got back home before we told the children about the baby. They knew something was up because I had been crying in the van, but they weren't ready for the bombshell we were about to drop on them. Five year old Erik did his best to try to cheer me up: "It's okay, Mom," he said, kissing me. "The baby will still come at Christmas. Don't worry."

Seven year old Scott wanted to know everything we could tell him about dead babies. While he initially seemed to be more fascinated than distressed by our news, over time his grief came out. He drew a sad face in green crayon on the ceiling above his bunkbed.

Eight year old Julie was the one who had us the most concerned. She had initially been hostile to the idea of the pregnancy - "This family doesn't need another baby," she had said - and we were worried that she somehow felt responsible for the baby's death. It wasn't until after the funeral that she was able to let her emotions out.

The following evening, I was admitted to Peterborough Civic Hospital for an induction. Although my previous three births had been drug-free, this time I was after any drug they would give me. I didn't just want to be pain-free: I wanted to be numb.

On October 9, 1996, at 7:30 a.m., I gave birth to a 1 lb. 1 oz baby girl, Laura Ann Douglas. We spent the better part of an hour holding her before it was time to say goodbye. She was perfectly formed from head to toe. The cause of her death was cruelly obvious. There was a knot in her umbilical cord.

I couldn't wait to leave the hospital, to get off the postpartum floor which seemed to echo with the sounds of newborn cries. The emptiness I felt was unbearable. For the fourth time in my life, I left the floor. This time there was no baby.

When I got home, I headed for bed and cried myself to sleep. When I woke up, I was still crying. Then insomnia set in. I began reading everything I could about stillbirth, trying to make sense of this awful event. Babies weren't supposed to die - especially not babies who were much loved and wanted. This was the era of neonatal intensive care, of miracle babies. How could this tragedy have happened to us?

The more I learned about stillbirth, the angrier I became. If roughly one in one hundred babies were stillborn, why did no one talk about it? I had always believed that I was "out of the woods" as soon as I completed the first trimester of pregnancy. Now I felt like I had been conned by one of the biggest lies imaginable. Babies could - and did - die, and for more reasons that I would have ever thought possible. In some cases it was a severe fetal defect, a problem with the placenta or the cord, rhesus incompatibility, or uncontrolled maternal diabetes, but in far too many cases - approximately one in three - the cause of death was unknown.

Neil and I spent our tenth wedding anniversary planning Laura's memorial service and committal, and shopping for an urn for her ashes.

While I found the entire process to be utterly heartbreaking, it was something I had to do. Rather than letting Neil or anyone else handle these details for me, I signed the papers that released our baby's body to the funeral home and the crematorium. I also selected a special baby blanket -- one that had been used by all three of our children - for Laura to be wrapped in while she was cremated.

We had a private service on the weekend so that the members of our extended family would have a chance to say goodbye. Julie, Scott, and Erik wrote stories and drew pictures for Laura, and left them on her coffin at the funeral home. The minister read a letter that I wrote a letter to Laura during a bout of insomnia the night before the service. By the time we got home from the funeral home, my breasts were leaking milk. It was just one more painful reminder of what I had lost.

A few days later, we invited friends to gather with us at the cemetery for the committal of Laura's ashes. It was a beautiful fall day, and yellow leaves cascaded across the grass and into the open grave, landing on the tiny little urn below. Julie, Scott, and Erik stood at the graveside and released pink and purple helium balloons heavenward. We cried with friends and family as we said goodbye to Laura, and then I reached down and put the first handful of dirt on her grave.

Life goes on, whether you want it to or not. The kids still had to go to school, Neil still had to go to work, and I had a business to run. Still, everything I accomplished during those first few months was done on auto-pilot.

I was tremendously preoccupied and constantly on the verge of tears. Some people didn't understand why my grief was lasting so long, but then again they hadn't spent six months carrying Laura as I had done. One woman asked why we had cremated Laura. I began to explain to her how we had debated the merits of cremation versus burial, but then she interrupted me: "No, I meant why did you bother doing anything with her body at all?"

I became obsessed with the idea of becoming pregnant again. While Neil and I had never had trouble conceiving in the past, I was convinced that my body was going to fail me as it had failed me during Laura's pregnancy. I charted my basal body temperature, purchased $150 worth of ovulation predictor kits, and bought every book about fertility and conception that I could find. When a group of women friends came over for coffee and dessert on what should have been Laura's due date - January 11, 1997 - I was able to tell them the good news. Neil and I were expecting another baby.

While pregnancy has always been a time of great joy for me, this time around things have been different. I'm now two weeks away from delivering my fifth child, and yet I'm still at best guardedly optimistic about my chances of taking home a baby.

The pregnancy has also been difficult for Neil (who has had to put up with my tears and fears for the past 38 weeks) and the children. Julie has repeatedly asked Jaylene if "this baby is going to make it," and wants someone to guarantee her that if she dares to get excited again, there will be a baby this time. Scott constantly asks if we've passed the point in the pregnancy at which we lost Laura. And Erik wants to know if we'll have another baby "if this baby dies."

We're also within a few weeks of marking the first anniversary of Laura's death, and I know for a fact that I'm not the same person I was a year ago. While I have cried a million tears for Laura, I have also found many ways to commemorate and honour her life: by founding a local pregnancy loss support network (something that is widely available in larger centres, but wasn't available in our community), by making donations in her name to various charities, and by reaching out to others who have experienced the heartbreak of stillbirth.

I've also gained a new sense of what is - and is not - important in life. If everything goes according to plan and I do get to take a new baby home from the hospital later this month, I will celebrate the miracle of that child's safe arrival with my entire body and soul. That is Laura's legacy to me. Ian McLean Douglas arrived safely on September 25, 1997.

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting including the bestselling "The Mother of All Pregnancy Books." She regularly contributes to a number of print and online publications, is frequently quoted in the media on a range of parenting-related topics, and has appeared as a guest on a number of television and radio shows. Ann and her husband Neil live in Peterborough, Ontario. with the youngest of their four children. Learn more at her site, having-a-baby.com.

Copyright © Ann Douglas. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org.