Mrs. Yoyo here. I’ve invited my sister-in-law and best friend in the world, Terri, to share the story of her son Luke. Little Luke was stillborn about six months into her first pregnancy.
Five years ago, when Terri called me to tell me what had happened, I rushed to the hospital to support her in whatever way I could. I remember sitting in the hallway outside her room, blindsided and blubbering, feeling so helpless. As one of the doctors passed by, he looked down at me sadly and said, “You know, labor and delivery isn’t always a happy place.”
I hope you’ll read on knowing this isn’t meant to scare anyone. Rather, it’s a chance to open up a dialogue about something that is still kept quiet too often. While the Internet is certainly helping, there remains a certain taboo to talking about stillbirth that does no one any favors, especially the mothers who suddenly have to cope with a shocking new reality.
She’ll tell her story in two parts – the first will be her personal experience, and the second is her recommendations on how you can better support any friend or loved one who experiences a stillbirth.
I am a mother of three beautiful boys, but when you look at our family portraits, you’ll only see two of them. Let me back up a little and explain.
Five years ago, I was almost six months into my first pregnancy, eagerly anticipating what was to come. We were expecting a boy – a boy who we’d named years before. His name would be Luke, and despite the fact that I’ve never seen “Star Wars” the whole way through (I know, I know…), I looked forward to years of jokes involving my husband carrying him around and saying, in a deep, Darth Vader-type voice, “Luke, I am your faaather.” I nicknamed him “Starbuck” and thought I might call him “Lukie” from time to time, especially when he was a teenager, and I planned to embarrass him in front of his girlfriends.
I also worried. I worried about not having enough money when he was born. I worried about my body not returning to its pre-pregnancy state, of stretch marks, of thunder thighs, of the third-trimester woes involving ugly toga-like dresses. Oh, how I would grow to hate myself for those worries, normal though they were.
But I thought I had such perspective and wisdom, and we looked forward to life with our much-anticipated baby. My father bought him a Spiderman fishing pole, eagerly waiting for the day when he’d walk with him alongside the ocean and teach him how to fish, and tell him stories about what it was like when he himself was a little boy.
Then came that day in April 2007. I was just over 24 weeks pregnant. It was the day after Easter; we had spent the day with family and even gotten a tiny Easter basket with Luke’s name on it. I had been concerned that Luke wasn’t moving a lot, but was told repeatedly, despite my concerns, that it was a first pregnancy and I didn’t know what to look for.
After my doctor brushed off my concerns yet again, he placed the Doppler on my still-kind-of-smallish belly and listened. And listened. After what felt like eternity, all we continued to hear was the swooshing of my own beating heart. “It’s OK,” the doctor said. “He’s just curled into a ball, hiding. Go to the hospital for a quick ultrasound. Everything will be fine.” And I believed him.
Everything wasn’t fine. Later, with my husband and my parents at my side, a resident scanned my abdomen. What she said next ripped my hope, my world, and my identity from the core of my being.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. There is no heartbeat.”
I sat in shock, confused, unsure of why they weren’t bringing in a crash cart, slicing open my uterus, and ripping out the baby to save him. They do it on TV, don’t they? Why was my father curled in a ball in a chair, with tears streaming down his face? I flung myself from the bed, locked myself in the bathroom and sobbed.
Meeting and honoring our son
The days that followed involved a 30-hour labor with no epidural until the last half-hour. There was something oddly comforting about extreme physical pain as a distraction from reality.
And then I said hello and goodbye to the beautiful boy who made me a mother. He had ten fingers and ten toes and dark hair. He was perfect because he was mine. I held him, though not for as long as I would have liked. I had some pictures taken, though not as many as I would have liked. But really, what would have been enough? A few loved ones (my parents, my husband, my beloved Mrs. Yoyo) saw him, and for that I am thankful, because they know he was real. We entered the hospital with everything, and we left it with nothing.
A funeral wasn’t enough to honor him, but it’s the best we could do. We did our best to try to make sense of a world torn apart. We came to find that in the throes of physical and mental anguish, breasts full of milk for a baby who didn’t need it, a body recovering from a birth that brought nothing but pain, we were not alone in this parallel orbit. There were others, part of a secret club that you don’t know about until you join. Quiet hands reaching to us in the dark, saying, “We know. We’ve been there. We will lead you.” That is the good that comes of this. The gossamer web that extends around the world: grieving parents holding each other up. You can’t see it. But it’s there.
Clockwise from top left: 1) Town of Luc-Sur-Mer (“Luke by the Sea”), Northern France – picture taken by Luke’s grandparents, summer 2010; 2) Flowers for Luke at the Buddhist temple in Oahu, HI; 3) Candles burning for Luke at Notre Dame in Paris, 2010; 4) Luke’s tree, blooming for his birthday (2010)
Going through the motions
It seemed as though the world kept spinning, but I stepped off into an alternate universe, and when the time came to return, I no longer spoke the same language as everyone else. On the rare occasion in those early weeks when I mustered the nerve to attempt to leave the house, I would stand inside my front door and wonder if I could face the world that day. More often than not, I turned back around and decided that I couldn’t.
Physically, the recovery took time. The same things that happen after you give birth to a living baby happen when you give birth to one who has died – you just don’t have anything to distract you other than non-pregnancy-related TV shows (they can be hard to find, suddenly) and the occasional friend or sibling who drags you to see mindless comedies or on pointless trips to Home Depot just to force you to keep on going.
People said things they meant to be helpful but were just the opposite. I was told to wait two cycles before attempting to get pregnant again, and I was also told that I should take antidepressants. I was dismayed at the lack of support from medical professionals who just seemed not to understand or even acknowledge what I was going through. I wasn’t depressed – wouldn’t the very definition of “crazy” have been if I wasn’t sad?
A new pregnancy
On Father’s Day of the same year, after we traveled to New York to bury our son in my family’s plot alongside my grandparents and my older sister, also stillborn, we found out that we were expecting again. We spoke only of the baby as something that might happen, not something guaranteed, because our blissful faith in the future was gone. Each sentence began with, “If things work out this time …” and we took pains to protect ourselves, as if somehow one could prevent grieving if the worst was to happen again. Every night, I talked to Luke, begging him up there in heaven to protect this sibling he’d sent my way. I was superstitious, refusing to eat at restaurants I ate at last time, wearing different clothes, doing everything differently, as if this time, the path would lead to a different place, as if I could control the uncontrollable.
In February 2008, we welcomed another little boy, now 4. Another followed in October 2010. Luke has two little brothers now who know someone came before them – someone special who we love. They know that it’s OK to love someone, to be happy they existed and sad that they died. People may give them a strange look when they say they have a brother in heaven, but we’ll teach them that families transcend heaven and earth – that their brother will always be part of our family, and that we will always love him.