Surviving Stillbirth: Life After Loss

IMG_6072My daughter Avery would have turned eight this past July. She’d be nine weeks into life as a third grader. I would no doubt be frantically running around, completely occupied with ballet lessons and shopping for frilly dresses and packing Queen Elsa lunchboxes and making pretty pink bows to clip in her long brown hair.

But Avery was stillborn three weeks before her due date. My daughter’s ashes sit in an urn in my bedroom, a little silver container from Hobby Lobby that gets a kiss every morning and every night. The pathologist’s report labeled the cause of death “asphyxia due to a tight nuchal cord,” which, to put it bluntly, means my daughter was strangled by her own umbilical cord.

Losing Avery was devastating. I had a healthy, active pregnancy. Everything was perfect. I couldn’t understand how my body had failed me – how my body had failed Avery. My world shattered into a million pieces, and the beautiful future I’d envisioned for our soon-to-be family of three became a bleak, desolate landscape of two. I’m generally a happy person, but for a very long time I was a lonely, depressed, guilt-ridden mess.

Stillbirth is horribly unfair. You are given the most incredible gift in the world only to have it taken away in a literal heartbeat. There are so many unanswered questions, so many what-ifs. It’s also something so archaic, so 18th Century, a thing that shouldn’t be possible in this age of medical miracles. Yet it still happens, and it happens a lot, nearly 30,000 times each year in the United States alone.

Stillbirth took my daughter, and it was a heartbreaking journey. I allowed myself time to grieve, but I didn’t let stillbirth take my future.

My oldest son just turned seven this past July. He’s nine weeks into life as a second grader. I’m frantically running around, completely occupied with baseball games and shopping for khaki shorts and packing Batman lunchboxes and convincing him to comb his thick brown hair.

My youngest son just turned five, and he keeps trying to convince me he’s ready to be a second grader, too.

People often say that time goes by in a blink of an eye, but I know exactly how I got here. Right after we lost Avery, I knew that if I didn’t try for another baby soon, I would never have the courage to try again. I was pregnant a month after my doctor gave me the green light, and 385 days after Avery’s birth/death, I delivered my son, Carter.

Carter didn’t magically cure my grief. He didn’t miraculously fill the hole that Avery left behind. There were concerns about me having Carter before I “got over” my daughter, and in truth there were moments where Avery dominated my thoughts. There were many nights when, overcome by hormones and exhaustion, I looked into my son’s newborn face and saw my daughter staring back at me. There were times that I sobbed hysterically because I had to dress my baby in a blue onesie instead of one of the pink ones tucked away in a storage closet. It wasn’t an easy time, but I don’t think it would have been any easier had I waited five years. Stillbirth isn’t something you just “get over.” It’s something you learn to live with, an invisible scar that represents both misery and strength.

Carter didn’t replace Avery, but he gave me hope. He renewed my faith in miracles and my faith in myself. His sticky fingers and chubby thighs made me smile, and, like the story of The Grinch, my scarred heart grew three sizes. By the time I had my second son two years later, I was finally able to breathe, to accept my story as it was written and be happy with both the laughter and the tears.

Today I can honestly say I’m at peace with losing my daughter. That doesn’t mean I don’t miss her or think about how my life would have been different had she lived. It doesn’t mean I don’t cry or feel that pang in my soul when oblivious people ask me if my husband and I are going to “try for a girl.” It simply means that I’ve grown to accept that life is often unfair, but there is beauty in the madness.

In her short life Avery gave me many things. She gave me clarity about myself that I didn’t have before, and she made me stronger than I ever knew I could be. She gave me the courage to quit my day job and follow my lifelong dream of being a writer. She gave me the gift of appreciating every sunrise, every snowstorm, every inexplicably beautiful thing that reveals how precious life really is. But most importantly, Avery gave me her brothers, two little boys that give me dandelion bouquets and tell me I’m pretty every morning, two little boys that are lucky to have Avery for a sister.

Eight years ago I didn’t know if I’d ever be happy again. I couldn’t fathom feeling normal or waking in the morning without an onslaught of sadness and guilt. It may seem impossible when you’re stranded in the vast sea of loss, but there is life after stillbirth – a wonderful life, even. It takes patience, courage, and love, but brighter days do come.

The Niceness Crisis

homeless-1213053_1280The second week of school, I found my khaki-short, polo-shirt-wearing second grader having a nervous breakdown getting dressed.

“I hate my clothes! They’re so stupid!” He stomped around the room like a scorned elephant before collapsing into a crumpled heap of tears on the floor.

It took me a few weeks and a shopping trip for new clothes before he finally opened up to me, but the truth eventually came out. My son was being teased by other kids because of his wardrobe. And I was pissed. The Mama Bear in me instinctively wanted to shake the names of those children from my son, don a ski mask, and sit outside these awful bullies’ homes with a Super Soaker and waterboard the little jerks until they were on their knees begging for mercy.

But I channeled my grown-up self. I gave him a pep talk about how sometimes people say mean things. I told him that the mean things people say aren’t necessarily true. I told him he was handsome and special and destined to do great things no matter what he wears, and that no one can change the awesomeness inside of him.

I don’t think he believed me. And when I look at the world we’re living in today, I don’t really blame him. We have presidential candidates engaging in a campaign of childish name calling reminiscent of a WWE wrestling match. We have mothers tearing down other mothers over bottle or breast. We have fathers getting in fistfights at soccer games. We have PTA presidents getting framed for drug possession by angry parents. Everywhere I look, I see a judgmental, narcissistic, hate-infused shitshow.

So why are we so mean to each other? Are we a society of mean parents raising mean children? Are human beings automatically wired to tear down the people around us? Are some people naturally good and some evil? From Freud to Milgram, psychologists have spent ample time trying to determine the motivations of meanness. There are a lot of different theories – jealousy, low self-esteem, projection – that totally make sense, but I refuse to believe that we can’t do better. I refuse to believe that if we all made a conscious effort to be just a little nicer, it wouldn’t turn into a snowball effect of greatness.

My heart breaks for my son, who suddenly hates second grade because of a handful of 7- year-old fashion critics. My heart breaks for all of the kids that have to go to school every day and withstand ridicule and snide remarks over petty nonsense. I wish I could honestly tell him it will get better when he becomes an adult, but these days, I’m not so sure. So for now, I’ll do my best to empower my children, to give them the skills to cope and prosper in what seems to be an increasingly cruel world. But I’m still scared as hell. Because I have a feeling it’s only going to get worse.