Invisible loss: What I learned about tragic pregnancy
It would have seemed like an innocent enough question.
Standing at the supermarket checkout, struggling slightly with a bulging belly as I hoisted heavy bags into the trolley, with no children in tow: ‘Will this be your first baby?’
The answer should be simple. If a one word response will suffice, I’ll have no problem. No, this is not my first baby, my first pregnancy. It is my seventh.
I have a split second to prepare my reply, in the knowledge that an entirely honest answer will undoubtedly lead to surprise and further probing.
‘You have six children already?!’ Followed by an opinion - trust me, when you’re pregnant everyone has an opinion.
So, I have to decide; do I juggle my groceries while explaining that out of six previous pregnancies I only have two children?’
Do I add that while two of the pregnancies ended early in miscarriage, another two progressed past three months before I knew my babies had died? Or that each of the babies was desperately wanted, anticipated and loved for every minute that the pregnancy lasted?
It just doesn’t seem fair – to reignite and expose my grief or to upset the well-meaning checkout assistant.
So, as usual, I choose a half-truth. I deny those babies that only live in my heart and I refer to the two beautiful girls that I am so fortunate to have filling my life with joy.
Inevitably, the conversation moves on to ages, gaps between siblings. Another sensitive area for me.
I hear myself agreeing that the three years between my first two children was a ‘good’ gap’. I don’t mention that it might have been 18 months or two years without one or other of the later miscarriages.
It’s all over quickly enough and is a performance I am well rehearsed in, but it still grates.
I can only imagine the strength required to negotiate such inquiries when pregnant following a stillbirth.
Every day in Australia about six babies will be born, but never take a breath, utter a cry, lock eyes with their parents. Often they die inexplicably at the end of an otherwise problem-free pregnancy.
I can only imagine that pain.
But having spent 18 months talking to many couples who have experienced it, I know that the inability to acknowledge those babies, to mention them, to use their names, often adds to the heartbreak.
They are invisible losses. No one wants to hear about your dead baby. Most people do not know what to say.
The world goes on and people expect you to ‘get over it’. You don’t. You learn strategies for living with your new reality – like lying at supermarket checkouts.
I hear myself agreeing, again, that this pregnancy is ‘exciting’ (a word which would never be my choice) and shove the trolley towards the door.
Next stop a maternity wear shop and another minefield. Obviously, in this environment I am a sitting duck for more fast-fire questions about the impending birth.
With relief, I make it to the changing cubical without having to side step any pregnancy commentary.
I even manage to get an opinion on a dress without having to negotiate a single tricky question.
But once more it is as I am paying that the exchange enters more difficult terrain.
‘Is the dress for a special occasion?’
A perfectly reasonable inquiry.
But again, how to answer?
I think the shop assistant is pregnant, not in my unavoidable obvious state, but I have my suspicions nonetheless.
Here is the honest answer: ‘Yes, the dress is for a party. A party to celebrate the publication of a book I have written. What is it about? Pregnancy. Pregnancy loss. Miscarriage and stillbirth. Why it happens, how it happens, how people survive, how others react, about breaking down the taboos around talking about dead babies.’
As I consider a less than honest or detailed reply, the irony is so clear I can almost feel it hanging in the cool shop air.
Still chastising myself slightly over my supermarket denial, I come clean.
It is obvious immediately, something in the eyes, in the expression – this woman understands. I know before she tells me that she has been there, has experienced loss. We don’t need to go into too many details, but we have an understanding.
Given the statistics – one in four women – it is not unlikely that the checkout assistant at the supermarket had been touched by pregnancy loss too.
I’ll never know.
But my conscience is eased slightly by my courage in the maternity shop. I have made a small step in acknowledging all my babies, in starting a conversation about the fact that not all pregnancies have happy endings and offering the comfort that comes from feeling less alone.
My sincere hope is that the book will do the same and much more.
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