By: Sharon Schumack
I recently read a magazine article about aging constructively that asked its readers the following questions: What were some of the most challenging experiences in your life? How did you get through them? What pushed you forward?
I didn’t have to think very hard. The answers popped into my head immediately. The fact that my first child was stillborn was so extraordinarily challenging. The sadness was almost unbearable, as were the questions that burned in my mind:
Will I ever be happy or even be able to laugh again?
Will I be able to trust my body, which had so dramatically failed me?
Will this painful experience forever damage my ability to be a “normal” parent?
One of the most important things that helped me move forward was the kind and helpful condolence notes I received from a couple of much older women who shared their experiences of having lost a baby, and had gone on to have other children and full lives. Their words gave me encouragement and hope. Oddly, these were not people I knew personally; they heard about our loss through my husband’s work, and took the initiative to reach out.
This was in 1980, when the sharing of such private matters was much less common and comfortable than it has become over the subsequent decades, especially for women of an even earlier era. In addition to the unexpected and beautifully handwritten notes I received from two strangers, I also heard from two close friends, whose mothers, upon hearing about my loss, had revealed that they had also experienced a stillbirth. My friends had not previously known about this deeply difficult experience that their own mothers had kept secret! As long-time members of a feminist “consciousness raising” group we had been fortified and empowered by sharing intimate details of our lives for almost a decade.
It was amazing and saddening to us that these women, and millions before them, had felt the need to suffer in silence.
On the other hand, for me it was powerfully inspiring to know that both of these women had gone on to have happy and healthy families. Their marriages had survived, they had gone on to have successful pregnancies, and their child-rearing abilities had not been destroyed by the disappointment they surely carried in their hearts. I saw evidence that they had been able to raise wonderful daughters – my dearest friends, people who I knew were mentally healthy, competent, and loving, and who each had themselves two children they were raising with joy. Their family memories were strong and happy, not marred by a dark shadow of something their mother had carried and transmitted to future generations.
The four older women’s stories had a profound impact on me, offering the invaluable gift of perspective.
It was only natural to be drowning in my own trauma and sorrow at that moment. But their words opened the door to at least starting to see my experience as only a small part of the trajectory of my life. They gave me hope and confidence that I would be able to find positive answers to the deeply troubling doubts and fears that the stillbirth thrust into my awareness.
I am now 73, probably close to the same age as those women were when the stories they shared buoyed my spirits almost 40 years ago. At that time I was already in my mid-thirties, and aware that my biological clock was ticking. I had been plunged into a sub-culture I didn’t want to be part of: the world of pregnancy loss. I was shocked to learn the statistics about the frequency of miscarriages, stillbirths, and neonatal fatalities. I read everything I could find, which did make me feel somewhat less alone – at least in theory.
But my spirit was broken, and it was hard to imagine “moving on.”
My husband and I were fortunate to have received compassionate care in the hospital, where we were offered the opportunity for photos of us holding the baby, which we have cherished. They encouraged us to name our daughter, and to acknowledge that indeed we had become parents, though not in the way that we had hoped and dreamed. They referred us to a pregnancy loss therapy group that an affiliated social worker/psychiatrist team was forming. The process of healing, from both emergency caesarean section surgery and a broken heart, was underway. Our marriage had been strengthened by the devastating tragedy we had shared. Six months later a new pregnancy was confirmed.
Our son is now thirty-eight years old. My fears about whether I could raise a child without constantly thinking about the one I had lost were never realized – not during his infancy nor in the many years since.
The tragedy of having had a stillborn baby will always be part of my life and my story, but it is only one part of a rich and fulfilling parenting journey.
If you have only recently experienced a pregnancy loss, I hope that you, too, will be comforted and strengthened by the perspective that I offer, and one day will be able to look back on these sad days with some measure of comfort and equanimity.
Sharon Schumack currently serves on the Board of Directors of a grassroots non-profit organization working to improve the livability of Watertown, Massachusetts for residents of all ages and abilities.
She is happily retired after a long career in public health and legal advocacy. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, Zumba Gold, and long walks in the Boston area.