We need to make the most of this week to instigate conversations, listen to the stories and experiences of those affected, and make sure that every person who has experienced miscarriage or baby loss knows that they are both seen and heard.
Wednesday, October 9th marked the start of Baby Loss Awareness Week in the UK.
For most of us, it’s fair to say that baby loss and miscarriage are not easy topics to raise in conversation, so it’s no surprise that personal experiences of baby loss and miscarriage aren’t widely spoken about.
If you think you don’t know anyone who’s experienced this kind of loss, the high prevalence rates might make you think again. According to statistics from the charity Tommy’s, one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, with loss in early pregnancy being particularly common. One in one hundred women will experience the heartbreak of recurrent miscarriages. Yet despite the fact that a significant number of women are affected – or who have a partner, friend or family member who’s been through this – baby loss is still not something we tend to speak about openly.
Grief for the loss of a child you’ve never met is no less real or gut-wrenchingly difficult to understand or come to terms with than any other loss. Whether they are with you for six weeks or six months, a baby leaves a genetic footprint in our biology; it’s an amazing and mind-blowing fact that even early pregnancy alters some of our genes. Having been through early pregnancy loss after two rounds of IVF, I find this thought incredibly comforting.
When a scan revealed that my pregnancy had ended at nearly eight weeks my husband and I didn’t know what to do, but we wanted to get away from everyone and everything. We packed a bag and drove as far as we could bear to a little Bed and Breakfast by the coast. We spent that evening sat in our hotel room feeling lost and alone.
The following day the weather was wonderful and everyone was enjoying time on the beach, but despite this, I remember feeling nauseous, empty, and deeply sad. The weather, the joyful families playing on the beach, the whole place felt completely incongruous with what we had been through just a day before.
Eventually, we decided to get away from the busy beach area and took a walk along a secluded stretch of coast, all the while trying to process our feelings and hurt. It was while we had stopped to skim stones across the waves of the gentle sea that I chanced across a stone with a hole through the middle.
I felt for a brief moment that I understood something about what I was going through more clearly – not only the physical absence which had been left in me, but that another emptiness existed in the hollowed-out space where so many hopes had been, and where so many ideas about what the future might hold for our family had briefly been nurtured. In a single moment, I had found a perfect, physical representation of my feelings and the true extent of what we had lost.
I carried the stone with me for the rest of our stay by the coast; I took it home and kept it with me over the next few weeks while I continued to process the vast range of emotions that accompany the grieving process. I gripped it tight when I was sad or angry, and I wore some of the edges smooth from handling it in my pocket.
The weeks passed, and as they did I started to feel better by very small degrees. Eventually, I chose a place to keep the stone where I could always see it. When people visit and comment or ask about it, I explain that it’s the only physical thing I have to remind me of the much-longed-for life we created but were never fortunate enough to meet.
An entire community of people touched by the sad and surprisingly common reality of baby loss silently internalise their stories, experiences, and grief. The absence of social discourse and the sharing of personal experience of baby loss perpetuates the unspoken notion that these subjects are too personal and challenging to discuss.
On the face of it, there are a host of understandable reasons that many of us don’t feel able to talk about baby loss and miscarriage. For a start, it’s a deeply personal issue, relating to one of the most private and intimate facets of our lives: our ability to reproduce. So may societal, familial, and personal expectations weigh on women to procreate; will we be judged as faulty, or lacking in some way? It’s also fair to say it’s not a cheery topic, so when is a good time to bring it up? Over coffee with a friend? Over lunch at work? Having dinner with your family? Somehow none of these times feel appropriate. And then, what if we become emotional while speaking about our loss? What if we make others uncomfortable by sharing, or somehow upset or offend someone? What if we bring the mood down? What if, having been through it ourselves and knowing how common miscarriage and baby loss are, we inadvertently conjure someone else’s buried sadness to the surface?
But then, what if starting a conversation actually makes others feel able to share their own stories and know they are heard? What if hearing someone else speak openly and honestly about their miscarriage gives other people a chance to talk about and normalise their experience and feelings? What if, by breaking the silence, we could start to chip away at the stigma which seems to surround baby loss?
In silence, stigma flourishes and topics become taboo, significantly affecting how we understand and process our own personal experiences. How can we feel empowered to speak about such a deeply personal loss in the face of an overwhelming collective silence? How can we ever expect to escape the feelings of shame, inadequacy, grief, emptiness we might feel? How can we normalise the infinite range of responses, reactions, emotions, and triggers we’re faced with on the other side of loss? Given the commonality of miscarriage and pregnancy loss, it’s definitely worth a collective effort to break down the stigma, whether we’ve been personally affected or not.
This week, various charities including The Miscarriage Association are working tirelessly to raise awareness of the variety of issues that affect people who have lost a baby, to put a spotlight on the need for tangible improvements in bereavement care, and to emphasise the need for more research into causes and prevention. Running parallel to this, people across the country will take to social media using #BLAW2019 (Baby Loss Awareness Week 2019) to identify themselves as one in four people affected and to share their own accounts and stories. On Tuesday 15th October at 7 pm, many of us took part in the Wave of Light, described by the charity Sands as an opportunity for individuals and couples within our community around the globe to light a candle to commemorate all babies who left us too soon.
Women’s stories and testimony are incredibly important, and providing space to talk about miscarriage and baby loss as both a personal and shared experience is incredibly empowering. Every person’s experience will be unique; no two accounts will be the same. Let’s make the most of this week as an ideal opportunity to instigate conversations and listen so we can make sure that anyone who has experienced miscarriage or loss knows that they are both seen and heard and that even if they are not ready to speak out themselves, their feelings, reactions, and responses are both real and valid.
I’ll never forget our own loss and some days are more difficult than others, but the emptiness I felt before is filled now with the knowledge that although they were only a part of me for a few weeks, our short time together was real and that they stay with me – in my memory, and at a molecular level – always.