By RENEE LANNAN for SmartWhat kind of strength and resiliency does it take for a woman to come out on the other side of miscarriage, stillbirth or early-infant loss?
It is terrifying in the moment, and afterward it can be a largely isolating grief.
“First-person accounts indicate … women feel supremely unprepared for pregnancy loss,” said Dr. Linda Layne, a Harvard anthropology professor and contributing author to “Reproductive Disruptions: Gender,
Technology and Biopolitics in the New Millennium.”
Grief might begin with spots of blood, seeing no heartbeat during an ultrasound, or watching a newborn’s last breath. It might continue with laboring for a dead baby, recovering in the maternity ward, or caring for a post-birth body with empty arms. For some, the future can be a barren landscape.
The arm of grief can be surprisingly long. Those who later have another child report clinically recognized phenomena including post-traumatic stress episodes during labor and delivery and a higher incidence of postpartum depression.
The road to healing varies, depending greatly on the care received and the responses and support of the people closest to the mother. Mothers desperately desire recognition for the life, not just the death,
of their baby.
“There is nothing more beautiful to a woman who has lost a child than to have someone call that child by name and validate that they existed,” said Rachel Bidelspacher of Dillsburg.
Coming through such tragedies changes a woman, and sometimes the results are courage, resiliency and a greater appreciation for life. Here are some of their stories.
Early infant loss
When doctors inverted Rachel Bidelspacher’s bed to stall labor, she didn’t realize she was beginning 31 hours of labor that would end in tragedy.
When staff asked if she wanted them to try to save the baby’s life, she wondered, “Why would they not want to try to save my baby’s life?”
A doctor’s reply, she said, was that a 23-week baby “has about zero chance of living anyway.”
Braxton Troy, weighing 1 lb., 3 oz. was stabilized after birth with a breathing tube, but after 11 days, Bidelspacher and her husband Kirk watched his life slip away.
For Braxton’s funeral, Bidelspacher’s office shut down; friends and family came from far away.
”It was amazing … a huge gift to me to have his life be recognized by so many,” she said. But then just talking about it makes me feel so guilty for so many who lose babies at all stages of pregnancy who don’t have the support and acknowledgment of that baby’s life like we received.”
Bidelspacher’s loss opened unexpected relationships with other women who had lost babies.
“It helped me to not feel so alone in what I was going through,” Bidelspacher said. She participated on a BabyCenter forum for Infant Loss and joined a local support group called SHARE.
Her loss and her sister’s losses — one at nine weeks, twins at 19 weeks — illuminated the diagnosis of Non-Classical Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, misdiagnosed as Polycystic Ovaries Syndrome in both sisters.
The condition can cause infertility and severely impact maternal and fetal health during pregnancy.
Her sister started a website (notpcos.com) to champion the cause.
“The word needs to get out about N-CCAH … very few doctors even know about it. It could absolutely save a lot of women the frustration of infertility,” said Bidelspacher.
Hope and change
While on maternity leave, a remarkably beautiful Monarch butterfly fluttered in front of Bidelspacher’s face, granting her a sense of peace and Braxton’s comfort. The fact that Monarchs were scarce due to a frost in Mexico in 2004, tinged the appearance with the miraculous.
She designed herself a tattoo, a Monarch representing Braxton.
“Braxton was given to us for a short time to teach us about how precious life is. I was always looking ahead to tomorrow and missing today. I live in the moment now,” Bidelspacher said.
“I have the two most amazing children now,” she said.
Seven months after losing Braxton, she and her husband adopted Mason, “hand-chosen by God to be my son,” she said. Two years later, she gave birth to their daughter, Kira.
Michele FakeAge: 42
Three miscarriages removed by dilation and curettage (D&C) surgery
While working in the ER, Michele Fake, 13 weeks pregnant, passed out after bleeding and severe abdominal pain. Waking up, she learned her baby had died and required surgical removal. A difficult recovery followed, with the sounds of newborns surrounding her in the maternity ward.
In her next pregnancy, she miscarried at 15 weeks. When the doctor couldn’t find the heartbeat of her third baby at 14 weeks, Fake felt empty.
“I have heard, ‘Maybe there would have been something wrong with the baby and God was being merciful by taking them away,’” Fake said, disagreeing. “It’s not better that they’re gone.”
For many years, Fake questioned and blamed God as she carried grief so heavy she could not speak the names of her children: Colin, Hannah and Julia.
Working through pain
Her road to healing since that first loss 20 years ago has been long, but it was her mother and her second husband, Stacey, who initiated remembrances for her children. She credits Stacey, who “knows when tell-tale signs of grief start to appear and steps right in to keep me on the healing track,” Fake said. “He’s my rock on this earth.”
She recently found a Bible study for women dealing with miscarriage and fertility, and she wishes she’d had that years ago.
“I was so shut off from outside support of women that had my experiences. It took me so long to grieve and work through my pain … until I finally realized my life lesson,” said Fake. “I needed to stop focusing on what I didn’t have and to find the joy in the things I have been given.”
A changed woman
Fake didn’t want her babies’ legacy to be the weight she put on after their losses, and she and Stacey wanted to get pregnant.
“My weight had switched my fertility off,” she explains.
Taking her babies, past and future, as inspiration, she overhauled her lifestyle. She traded processed junk food for whole foods, portion control and working out three to four days a week. Fake has lost 193 pounds so far.
“Going through such indescribable loss and being able to come out with peace and joy on the other side is a gift to me that my beautiful children gave to me,” Fake said. “The sun shines brighter, flowers smell sweeter, love is more abundant because for 42 weeks I carried three amazing babies who gave me hope and who look down from heaven and call me mom.”
Selina Sigafoose-JacksonAge: 46
Miscarriage with labor
The day after Christmas 2006, Selina Sigafoose-Jackson, 11 weeks pregnant, began nine hours of labor “as painful as my first labor and delivery,” she says. Although surprised, she was well-versed in labor; she’d delivered both her daughters unmedicated.
She went to an obstetrician practice for a recommended ultrasound to rule out an ectopic pregnancy, where she learned the fetus had not developed past six weeks.
“Once I realized that the baby was no longer alive, I could actually relax and let my body do what it needed to do,” Sigafoose-Jackson said. “I think I was trying so hard to hang on and not let the contractions work so I could keep the baby.”
Returning home, she let the process complete.
“I was not at all prepared … I was stunned, sad and confused. … It felt like I went through the work of labor,” she said, but lacked the reward of birth.
But during the process she learned something new about her husband, Kevin, of 18 years.
“He protected, helped and loved me in a way that I had never really seen,” she said. “Afterward, he allowed me to wonder and question, seek and find answers to the whys.”
Honoring her child
Before the miscarriage, her husband bought a stainless steel bracelet engraved with “Keegan.” Because they were both in their 40s, her husband was “proud … that we were brave enough to have another child,”
Sigafoose-Jackson said. “He planned on wearing that bracelet to claim our gift from God.”
As a memorial, they keep that bracelet, the positive pregnancy test, a verse a pastor had written for their baby and a teddy bear on a shelf in their den.
Her loss sent her on a five-month-long spiritual journey. She learned how to really pray, to pray for her two daughters and to forgive herself.
“So what, I didn’t have four children (a goal at one point in life)?” she said. “So what I’m not a perfect wife or mother? I am my best with Christ at the helm. So many instances God revealed to me He is always there. Keegan came and went to save mine and my family’s spiritual lives.”
Sigafoose-Jackson said she wishes others could understand what she and her family have been through.
“I feel society has lost sight of life. You cannot have a physical life without the spirit attached. When a miscarriage occurs, we forget that there was a life that had hope, love and potential,” she said.
Kristie RineerAge: 37
Two miscarriages, one stillbirth
Kristie Rineer’s six-week pregnancy left her body like a menstrual period, but emotionally, it was much more painful.
“Dreams of birthdays and first steps were ripped away … I wondered how I could be so sad about something that ‘never existed,’” she said.
Pregnant again, at 23 weeks the baby went still in her womb. Induced to deliver, given an epidural and confined to bed for the next 30 hours, she cried and waited.
“I caught myself staring at the wall, erasing the lifetime I had created.”
When her son was stillborn, Rineer noticed, “he looked like my husband.”
She and Jeff named him their initials, as “a way to give him part of us,” she said. KJ was baptized and buried. “I had never felt such raw and painful emotions.”
While the nurses “treated me like a mother who just lost a child,” a doctor was unsympathetic, Rineer said. “He may have seen this before, but this was my life, my child, my loss, my suffering.”
Courage in healing
“I was pregnant alongside a family member and a good friend. The arrival of their children was pure torture,” Rineer said. “I remember sitting in church at one of their baptisms, crying my eyes out.”
Her best support came from women online who shared her experience.
“From all over the world, they were there day or night,” Rineer said.
Anxiety and panic attacks began. They followed her third pregnancy, twins, of which one miscarried early on. When in labor with her daughter, Josslyn, “my mind flooded with those horrible memories (of KJ’s delivery). I felt like I was reliving every moment.”
Those feelings followed her into the postpartum phase as well.
“Becoming a mother to a living child is filled with new fears. I was so afraid of SIDS that I kept her in my room for six months.”
Rineer battles anxiety still, but now, she said, “I’m able to talk myself through.”
She offered advice for other grieving mothers: “Take things second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day and eventually year by year.”
“Six weeks or six months … a loss is a loss. Society should not put a time frame on how long a woman should grieve,” she said.
But Rineer said that her losses changed her and shaped her into the mother she is today. “My daughter’s milestones are sweeter, and birthdays more special,” Rineer said.
Steps to handle baby-loss grief
Janel Atlas gave a reading at Messiah College last spring from “They Were Still Born: Personal Stories about Stillbirth.” From her book and experience as mother of Beatrice, stillborn at full term, Atlas shares some tips:
- Realize grief comes with no timetable. “Give yourself permission to grieve in whatever way feels right to you. Your baby died. It is a profound loss, and one that you will never get over. Instead, it’s something you will learn to live with.”
- “Reach out to others in the baby-loss community.” Reading others’ blogs, sharing your own story, and allowing yourself to be supported by those who have been through similar losses is healing.
- Create a memorial box full of items reminding you of this baby and the pregnancy.
- Make or buy items signifying this child, anything from designing tattoos to jewelry.
- Establish a tradition to honor the anniversary of the child’s death.
- Atlas also shares tips for helping friends with baby-loss grief:
- Allow the bereaved parents to indicate what they need.
- Don’t give up. “There were days when I did not feel up to talking…, but (k)nowing that I could pick up the phone and listen to voicemail from people remembering Beatrice with us …was such a gift,” she said.
- Make specific offers. “The fog of grief is overwhelming, and it can be hard to know what would be most helpful. If you don’t know what to offer or if you’re not especially close to the family, ask someone who is closer what is most needed.”
- Listen. Parents are expected to relate their labor, delivery and newborn stories. “For couples who have stillborn babies, having people who listen compassionately and without judgment is a true gift.”
Facts about miscarriage and infant loss
Miscarriage: A spontaneous loss of pregnancy before 20 weeks
D&C (Dilation and Curretage): the surgery often recommended by obstetricians if miscarriage has occurred but not yet passed the body
Stillbirth: fetal death in the womb after 20 weeks, occurring approximately 1 in 200 births in the U.S.
Age of premature infant viability: 23-24 weeks; girls’ survival rates, particularly that of African-American girls, are higher than boys; white baby boys have the lowest survival rates
- One in every four women will miscarry a pregnancy
- Twenty percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage
- Between 50 percent and 70 percent of miscarriages occur for no known reason
- Most miscarriages occur before 12 weeks
- If miscarriage delivery occurs naturally after eight or nine weeks, contractions maymight be necessary to dilate the cervix to pass the amniotic sac and fetus
- A 2011 Pennsylvania law permitted birth certificates to be issued for stillborn children at parents’ request
A midwife’s perspective
Dr. Linda Layne’s research reveals midwives’ patients reported less psychological distress after loss. Birth Care, a midwife-run birth center in Lancaster County, serving York women, lists “miscarriage care” as a service.
“It’s a commitment,” said Karen Crouse, a certified nurse practitioner.
“Between 5 weeks and past 8-9 weeks, there’s a big gestational difference,” said Crouse. Some miscarriages and stillbirths may require labor. The midwives offer physical support in the woman’s home or the birth center.
Women finding the amniotic sac intact can sit with a midwife to find the baby’s form.
“It can be really good for closure,” said Crouse.
Mothers of early losses receive tiny boxes with a blanket and two footprint pins as a remembrance and place for thoughts and memories.
For larger miscarried and stillborn babies, the midwives encourage dressing, taking photographs and time for bonding and saying goodbye.
“No matter the gestational age, it’s a baby,” Crouse said.