Stillbirth: Unexpected Heartbreak

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.