October 15, I bet you didn’t know, was Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. I won’t say miscarriage is something that doesn’t get talked about — because it does — but it’s not like the day is publicly observed by masses of men and women across the country. I know I won’t mark it with any special ritual.
While I admire and respect those families who do, I’ll likely just go to work and maybe give my husband an extra long hug in the evening. We probably won’t talk about it. We’ll pass through October 15 as we pass through most days: doing our jobs, talking to friends and colleagues, eating, watching TV. And, in a way, that’s the most appropriate way for us to remember our miscarriage, because a relentless pursuit of the usual is how we got by.
I’m certain there’s no universal miscarriage experience and no set of standards to compare others against. I’m certain that every woman who loses a pregnancy will deal with it differently, and every man who has grieved an unborn child will know a very unique pain.
Being certain of this, however, I’d like to tell you how it looked and felt for me. How, in the process of losing my first baby, sorrow collided daily with the reality of managing a body in revolt. How the pragmatic concerns of regular life intermingled in bleakly ridiculous ways with the pain of loss. How I coped, day-to-day, by watching too much TV, sneaking off to cry in public washrooms, drinking to excess, swallowing Advil by the handful, listening to sad songs, and just plain burying sadness, anxiety, shame, and fear beneath a thick layer of getting on with life.
Ostensibly, my pregnancy ended on a Wednesday night in late September 2012. My husband and I walked into a Vancouver ultrasound clinic with a baby and left with a non-viable fetal pole. There was no discernible heartbeat, the radiologist told us, which was not uncommon. One in five pregnancies ended during the first trimester, he said. We had heard this statistic. We had heeded this information, because we are realistic, sensible people. But the thing is, we never imagined it would be us. I suspect very few couples do. We knew in our heads that miscarriage ends 20% of all pregnancies, but we believed in our hearts that our baby wouldn’t be one of the many to turn into a loss. The odds were on our side. We just assumed our little one would be one of the four out of five who made it. We were wrong in that assumption, and we were ill-prepared.
I remember my mom driving us home. I remember someone praying for us. I remember staring at our bedroom wall and wondering what we were supposed to do next. I couldn’t sleep that night, so I sat up in our living room watching reruns of Absolutely Fabulous. All through the night and into the next day I swung wildly from desperate hope to catatonia to ugly, face-contorting sadness. I kept thinking, One in five — how can that be? How come I didn’t hear more women crying through the paper-thin walls of my apartment? Why didn’t I see more women breaking down on public transportation or in the food court at the mall? Of course, we knew couples who had dealt with the loss of a pregnancy, but it quickly became apparent that the kind of grief you live with during and after a miscarriage is a lonely one. How can you expect people to mourn someone they’ve never known? No one knew her but us, and even we knew her only as plans and aspirations. How were we to mourn?
* * *
I know women, personally and peripherally, who have started bleeding without warning. I don’t know whether I would have preferred that to having a professional tell me that the baby wasn’t alive beforehand, but I imagine both experiences are traumatic in their own way. In our case, we had time to plan, hopes to nurture, and medical appointments to attend during the week between the ultrasound and the first spots of blood. We went to work, sneaking off to cry in private, telling lies about why our eyes were watering — it’s just allergies, I’m not sure why they’re so bad lately. We made some attempts at being social. We visited various doctors and technicians whose job it was to tell us what was going on in my body. She — for some reason she was a girl; I don’t know why — was still in there. But she dead. She couldn’t stay. Something had to give, either naturally or surgically, and I had to be monitored and advised and consulted with about it.
Medical professionals change the way they talk about a pregnancy when it turns into a miscarriage. Doctors who had previously used the word baby began using spontaneous abortion. We had blood work done to confirm that our situation wasn’t viable. We were informed that, unless something went wrong, we could expect to pass the products of conception within a couple of weeks. We called her “Marie” after a Randy Newman song. Medical staff called her POC.
Right up until the miscarriage physically began, I held onto a tiny belief that she had somehow survived and would stun us all by being born perfect, healthy, and beautiful. We were brought up on Hollywood movies, so we hoped for a last-minute reprieve. We’re Christian people, so we prayed for a miracle. In the end, we didn’t get either.
A week after the ultrasound, I began to bleed. I spent the following Saturday in bed watching Xena: Warrior Princess and forcing myself to be chipper. Early Sunday morning I woke up feeling dizzy, disoriented, and out of breath. I’ve always had a bad gauge for emergencies, and I was fairly certain that, despite the obvious signs of bodily distress, everything was fine — that maybe I was having a panic attack and just needed a cup of hot tea to calm me down.
Just to be sure, we called my parents to see what they thought. Then we called my in-laws. Then my sister. Finally, we called our local nurse hotline, and I tried to sound rational and competent while confessing that, yes, I had been losing an awful lot of blood and, no, I couldn’t exactly stand up without seeing spots and, really, I was doing okay. Seriously, for the most part, I was fine. I had access to jumbo pads, painkillers, alcohol, and indoor plumbing. I was fairly certain I wouldn’t need a doctor.
We were told, in no uncertain terms by a kind yet incredibly firm nurse, to rush to the local ER. Six hours later, the physical part of the miscarriage was over.
* * *
After that, we became official members of the secret miscarriage club. Whisper the password we lost a baby, and if someone whispers back so did we, you’re in. But us members never speak those words too loudly. Maybe because, like any grief, it’s a deeply personal matter — inimical to anyone who’s been there and unknowable to anyone who hasn’t. Maybe because we’re determined to move on and try again. Maybe because, like most aspects of women’s reproductive health, it’s just not something people talk about often. Unless it’s a healthy baby, people don’t want to know what comes out of vaginas.
Weeks passed in a haze of keeping busy. Then months. I rediscovered Nick Cave, watched six seasons of Murder, She Wrote, drank red wine by the bottle, and spent time with friends perched on bar stools at downtown restaurants talking about how badly life sucks and how horrible it is to have to deal with happy people when you’re three steps away from giving up entirely and remaining in bed for the rest of your life. I carried a bottle of Advil with me. Determined to be done with pain, I swallowed the pills for every conceivable irritation, from residual nausea to stomach cramping.
For the most part, however, my husband and I just got on with our lives as best we could. We resisted the temptation to wallow and desperately tried not to snap at people who were just doing what they could to care for us. There were so many things I wanted to say in response to the question, How are you? The worst of these was, Fuck right off! How do you think I feel? The kindest was, There is never a moment that I don’t feel heartbroken, ashamed, hopeless. Mostly, what I said was, I’ll be okay, or, I’ll survive. And I am okay. I have survived.
But the disappointing truth I’ve gleaned from a combination of experience, conversation, and internet research is that recovery often feels like a losing battle. For me, it was a hardscrabble fight to stay on my feet and keep going. In the wake of the miscarriage, giant pieces of a long-held faith sloughed off me like snow off a roof. At rest, I couldn’t get out from under the huge philosophical and religious implications of pain and death, so I just kept moving. The loss of our first child was a loss of hope and trust and confidence. It was a loss of a future. Mourning her felt futile, useless, endlessly frustrating. No matter how hard we fought to re-establish peace and equilibrium in our lives, there was always something — a song, a rain cloud, a jerk — to throw us back into the pit. My husband said it felt like trying to dry off while being sprayed with a fire hose.
As mentioned earlier, I’m certain that everyone who goes through a miscarriage experiences the loss differently. If I had to guess though, I’d say most women (and men) find it really, really fucking difficult. I’d guess it’s hard not to feel resentful about other people’s happiness. It’s hard not to pull away from someone having a good time. It’s hard not to think that there’s only a certain amount of joy in the world, and that other people’s joy might be cutting into your share. With the one-in-five statistic in mind, it’s hard not to look around at pregnant ladies and think, Alright — you, you, you, and you are pregnant because I miscarried. You’re welcome. It’s hard not to blame yourself or your doctor or that glass of wine you drank before you knew you were pregnant or that long run you went on or the brand of hair spray you use or whatever else. It’s hard that there’s no one to blame. If you’re a religious person, it’s hard not to limit your prayers to “Forgive me, but I hate you right now. Forgive me for being childish, but you started it. Forgive me, but until you say something I want to hear, I’m not listening.” It’s hard not to be angry at your body. It’s hard not to be jealous of women who proudly display their round bellies on Facebook and Instagram. It’s hard to be optimistic about future pregnancies. It’s hard not to think that if you can’t do it — do what evolution developed women’s bodies to do — you may somehow be less female than those who can. In this bright-sidey world of ours, it’s hard not to feel guilty about grieving for too long. It’s hard to zip up your jacket, pay your bus fare, and put one foot in front of the other all the way to the grocery store so you can buy eight frozen pizzas to help get you through the week. It’s just hard. It’s all hard.
* * *
One day, as I cried in my parents’ living room, my dad said to me, “You’ve got to be like a stake in the sand: all you can do is stand there and let the waves break over you.” That’s the best way I can describe what it feels like in the weeks and months following a miscarriage. The pain won’t go away. Not for a long while. The waves will break as you cry at night and swallow it all down in the morning. You’ll get through each day however you can — wine, TV, work — and the waves will break. Memories will surface, some people will say insensitive things that they don’t really mean, others will be endlessly supportive, and the waves will break and break and break until you grow accustomed to them.
Maybe you’ll get pregnant again, but maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have all the time and space you need for your recovery, but maybe the waves will only grow larger in size. And when they break, like a stake in the sand, you’ll be weather-beaten, but you’ll be standing.