(adapted from an article previously published on Medium.com)
This is what stillbirth is:
They call it a miscarriage if the baby dies before it would have survived outside the womb. That’s a wrenching sadness. They call it stillbirth when the baby dies during the time when, if you had delivered her when she was alive, she would have gone on living.
With a stillbirth you’re always thinking, maybe if you had delivered her just a day earlier, you would have beaten her to the punch, and got her out, and then she would still be here. But you didn’t deliver her a day earlier. Your body killed her first, and delivered her afterward.
That’s a gut-punching sadness, knotted up with guilt and what-ifs and an endless procession of if-onlys.
It will make you question God, and the Church, and everything you’ve ever known, the hours you spent walking around and nobody knows you’re not a person anymore but just a coffin.
You started off so happy. Your baby is inside, a tremendous little mystery, kicking and stretching alongside the umbilical cord
(that vile betrayer).
You sit and rejoice at your sonograms, and marvel at the growing little person. You stare at those fuzzy grey pictures and try to impose yours and your husband’s features on that mysterious little face. You feel it move and grow, getting stronger and bigger and having, in the waning days of pregnancy, a surprisingly specific personality. “It’s calm, this one,” you say, and you know you’re right. Calm but playful. Easy but fun. All the contradictions springing out of love.
You live this dream for the whole forty weeks. Your belly precedes you through doors and you can’t remember what it was like to turn over in bed without help. Baby has favorite kicking spots and it always seems like one of them is your bladder. It’s the time for happy complaining, joyful griping, the twisted half-smile where you are grumpy but not really because you’re about to be a mother.
One night, less than a week before your due date, but you don’t know exactly when because you didn’t write it down, you didn’t know you would need to, and then when hell came it put dates and times right out of your head — anyway that’s the night the baby’s dad presses through your belly against a tiny foot. And the foot kicks back. Dad pushes another spot, and the baby pushes back again. Minutes pass — hours? days? — as they play their little game, and you are the conduit, the life-giver that unites father and child. This is the culmination of everything, the fulfillment you were seeking when you looked for true love and planned a wedding and bought baby name books. That you would join the legions of women that created the human race, that the endgame of creation would sing in you. You are Gaia, Mother Nature, the secret weapon of life itself.
The universe taps you on the shoulder and asks, am I not glorious? You marvel at the beneficence of a God that allows such blissful moments to its inhabitants. Your every pore, every cell, breathes Thank you. You believe in kindness and goodness and world peace because anything is possible in a world where this astonishing baby is possible, this calm playful baby and its little messages outward.
Then, as if you don’t see the storm clouds gathering above your life, you go to the doctor. Not for anything in particular, everything is fine. Just because it’s scheduled. First thing in the morning. You’re hardly awake. You were inclined to skip it because you’re due any minute and travel is so hard with the Belly coming along with you everywhere, and it was kicking just fine last night, and really these appointments are so routine.
But go you do, like a good little girl, because you want to do everything right,
but apparently you messed up somewhere.
It’s a confusion, a blur of darkness. The doctor says things but the words whir around your head in a sort of dark cloud, describing something you can’t understand. People move and speak but it’s all a fog. Hours later the cloud coalesces around this hideous fact, this faceless monstrosity that must have been spawned by a truly Godless universe, this sickening truth they bring in a specialist just to tell you
that a C-section is a major surgery that carries serious health risks for the mother, and so all else being equal, they won’t do one if the baby is already dead
which leaves only one way for the baby to exit, and it can’t be helped, these are the facts, I’m so sorry, I wish it were otherwise, and on and on and on and on and on and time passes but it is still true.
You planned for this, took the birthing classes, read the books. Only…only. How can you do that when you already know?
If there was justice, if God had any compassion, you would just drop dead of a heart attack right now, because how can you survive such a thing? How can anyone survive such a thing? You can’t see how you can keep on breathing with this monster in your future. Its loathsome stench fills the room.
But breathe you do. In and out, in and out, you just won’t stop.
The universe is a wicked place, intentionally and brutally cruel, because the monstrosity arrives before you were scheduled to be induced. It seizes you from the inside and wrenches you apart. You want to yell at him to leave you alone but you don’t, it’s only a metaphor, or at least, that’s how it looks to everyone else.
Now you have to go back to the hospital early, and you have to explain your tears to strangers on your way in, and it hurts, so much, it hurts. And this is how you know the universe is a heartless, cruel, cold and empty void, and the Church cannot be true, because you’re unexpected, and there is no anesthesiologist.
The monster laughs, because he knew, and digs his claws into the tomb that is your distended belly, daring you to call him a metaphor again.
It’s not the worst part, because worst just keeps piling on worst until the word has no meaning, but it is a worst part. You checked, just a few hours ago, and there is no official church doctrine about stillbirth, and the Baby who played with its father will have no name or appear on the records of the Church, even though it’s seven pounds and has a personality and which pain is worse, this one or the other
And it hurts so much and then it hurts more and then it keeps hurting even more than that, and there is still no epidural, and after a while it even hurts almost as much as the gaping hole that opened in your heart the moment the OBs face twisted up like that during what was supposed to be a routine checkup — what are they for if not to prevent this very thing and the contractions come and go but the anguish is constant, and now you know for sure that the universe is not only wicked but is out to get you personally, because how could it let you suffer so much for no reason? it’s dead, it’s dead, it’s already dead, it won’t grow and toddle and pronounce things comically and hug me with fat arms and be a ballerina and the President, and my belly is on fire and my testimony is upended and my brain is about two days behind the rest of the world, still saying “What do you mean, no heartbeat? What does that mean?” and is it my fault, did I do something wrong, or did the universe just fixate on me for spite, because I had been so exquisitely happy.
Then with a yell and a wrench the physical part is over. But everything is wrong. In and out, in and out, your traitorous lungs just keep breathing.
It is deafening, the silence a dead baby makes.
The universe, that cold imp, surprises you though. They hand you the baby, and it’s a girl, with long fingers and toes just like you, and a head full of soft light hair like her dad’s, and the most beautiful little nose and pink rosebud lips. And her skin is on your skin and her seven and a half pounds are the lightest and heaviest you’ve ever felt. She’s soft and still warm, and a gentle nurse takes a picture that you will secretly sew inside a stuffed bear and sleep with for months and months and months.
But here and now you are calm and the Spirit taps you on the shoulder, as if to ask, What do you think of me now? It’s placed a baby in your arms, after all. A most unbelievably beautiful baby.
But the doctrine of the church did not have an answer for you. The handbook does not contain the words that would have comforted your raw and anguished heart. On the contrary, the church has a policy that fences off the names of the unborn, proclaiming with scratches of ink on paper that they are not among those gathered in. There is anger to be mined here, if you choose to invest in it.
And yet you are reminded, as you hold your daughter for the first and last time, this is also the church that taught you how to pray.
This is the church that houses the true priesthood power of God, and has set you on the straight and narrow path through symbols and ordinances toward power and salvation. This is the church authorized to proclaim the gift of the Holy Ghost, and to endow you with priesthood power. This is the church whose doctrine gives you the confidence to stand before the Creator as His daughter and heir, and claim your appointed privileges and blessings. This is the church that proclaims, above all other things, that we too are gods.
You do not need to go through a bureaucracy to discover the spiritual status of your unborn child; you can go directly to your Father. He gives to all his daughters liberally, and does not upbraid them, but lifts them up and breathes comfort and knowledge to their souls.
So you pray, and you are heard.
For good and ill, you are never the same. Over time, the ocean of tears dries to a rivulet, and flowers bloom in the silt. Jokes are still funny, sunsets are still beautiful, and autumn twilights are still deliciously cool and set you skipping and dancing through the crunch of leaves. You will go through the next years with the Lord at your side, and He will be visible to you in a way He never was before.
You will see that there is another flavor of joy than the one you lost, and there is an even greater joy coming. The Spirit has more to say on this, and will never tire of telling you.
You go on. You go to church. You have all the answers you need.