Surviving After a Stillbirth
In July 2011, we faced every expectant parents’ worst nightmare when when we learned that our unborn daughter had died.
From the moment that I found out that Autumn was stillborn, my life drastically veered off course. I have since spent the past eight years trying to find my way back on track. I’ve often referred to this experience as my healing journey.
But what I have come to realize recently is that this has not been a journey of healing but rather, a story of surviving.
In the months following Autumn’s stillbirth I was inconsolable and completely devastated. I was so blinded by my grief that I couldn’t see two inches in front of me. It was just too awful to be real.
I struggled to understand how I was expected to move forward, when I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other. I had a young daughter who needed her mommy, but I wasn’t sure how to find my way back to her. I kept torturing myself by replaying the moment I brought Autumn into the world; that deafening silence would leave me shocked and numb for years to follow.
I simply couldn’t understand how one minute I had felt our precious baby girl kicking up a storm and the next minute she lay lifeless inside of me. I had never felt so alone or so helpless.
The magnitude of our loss completely transformed me. In the early days, the person looking back at me in the mirror was a stranger. These days, the reflection looks a bit more like my former self, but the years have been rather difficult, and I don’t foresee ever finding my way back to who I was before I lost Autumn. I’ve made peace with this idea, but I can’t help but wonder if things would be different for me today if I handled things differently 8 years ago. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself…
It’s not your fault.
I irrationally blamed myself for Autumn’s stillbirth, which left me falling at lightning speed deeper into my depression. In my mind, I had failed not only Autumn but my husband and my daughter. The expectations and plans that we had for her, for our family, were gone. I blamed myself for a very, very, very long time. But once I was able to recognize that I couldn’t have changed the outcome of things, I was finally able to let go of the blame that had been weighing me down for so long.
Be kinder to yourself.
I would beat myself up, day and night. I had convinced myself that I was weak because I couldn’t handle our new, very distressing reality. I had made things worse for myself by having unrealistic expectations of what mourning Autumn’s death should look like. I had grieved the loss of loved ones before, but this was like nothing I have ever experienced or imagined. I was unable to recognize that what had worked for me in other situations wasn’t necessarily going to work for me now. In the end, what I needed most was to show myself patience, self-love, and understanding.
There’s no reason to be ashamed and embarrassed.
Everyday hundreds of thousands of women successfully deliver healthy living babies into the world and yet, I couldn’t. I was completely mortified. I couldn’t bear to face anyone and so instead I hid. I isolated myself from everyone, when what I needed most was the love and support of my family and friends.
It’s OK to talk about her.
On the very rare occasion that I did see someone, I made a deliberate choice to not speak about Autumn because I did not want to make them uncomfortable. I chose to put other people’s feelings before my own. But looking back, I now realize what I needed most was to talk about her and hear her name. I also needed others to acknowledge her existence because she was real, she was very much wanted, and she was sorely missed.
She will always be with you.
For the longest time, I struggled to emotionally let go of any of the negative feelings I had that related to Autumn because in my mind, by doing that, I would be letting go of her. But what I eventually learned was that no matter what, Autumn will always be with me. It was only then that I felt my grief loosening its grip on my heart.
Let’s be clear, stillbirth is a life-altering event. Even though we know there is always risk of loss during pregnancy, we never expect it to happen to us. So, when it does, you suffer a devastating blow greater than any pain you’ve ever experienced. And the hard truth is that the pain and sadness live on with you forever. However, one day you will wake up and find that your grief isn’t as all-encompassing as it was the day before. And that is when you realize that your story of survival is just beginning.
By Debbie Haine, national advocate for families experiencing stillbirth