“How many children do you have?”
“Is she your first?”
“When is she getting a brother or sister?”
These every day, well-meaning questions, directed towards me and my 2.5-year-old daughter running about, are anything but simple.
For anyone who has experienced the loss of a child, like I have, these seemingly innocuous questions are difficult to answer.
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month.
“Pregnancy and Infant Loss” is an umbrella term that encompasses miscarriage (the loss of a baby before the 20th week of pregnancy), stillbirth (the loss of a baby between the 20th week of pregnancy and birth), and infant loss (the loss of a newborn or infant before their first birthday).
About 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. But the actual number is likely higher because many miscarriages occur so early in pregnancy that a woman doesn’t realize she’s pregnant. Stillbirth affects about 1 in 160 births, and each year about 24,000 babies are stillborn in the United States.1 That is about the same number of babies that die during their first year of life each year.
Stillbirth occurs in families of all races, ethnicities, and income levels, and to women of all ages. However, there are major differences in stillbirth rates among different groups; the stillbirth rate for Black Americans is more than double the rate of White, Latinx, or Asian Americans. Racism and its effects are factors in the health disparities in
pregnancy outcomes and babies’ health. For around half of all stillbirths, the causes are unknown.
Behind all these statistics, there are stories, one of which is my own.
My first daughter, Ava, was stillborn at full term. In the beginning, I had so many questions. Through tears, often the only word I was able to utter was: why? Why did Ava die? Did I do something wrong? How can I live without my child?
When Ava died, I was sure that my motherly intuition had failed, since I had not sensed that she was in danger. No explanation, medical or otherwise, could be given for her death. With the not-knowing came a particularly vicious cycle of guilt and of questioning if I had done something wrong.
After struggling with anger toward others and guilt toward myself, I slowly came to realize that most of my questions were either futile or unanswerable in this lifetime. The only question my partner Dale and I could meaningfully grapple with was this: what does it mean to be a parent to a child that has died? We learned that this question could be answered by our lives, and how we chose to honor Ava’s. The answers could be flexible and evolve, as all relationships do.
Dale and I had so much love to give Ava, but she was not physically present to receive it. We had to learn how to be parents for the first time, and parents to a child that had died and was no longer with us. Although we were both Ava’s parents and had gone through the traumatic experience of her unexpected death, we grieved in very different
ways. I had to realize our grief experiences were simply different, and I could not and should not force him to grieve the way that I wanted him to.
The work of grieving a perinatal loss takes time, so much time. It takes patience with ourselves, as we learn to navigate a very different life than we were expecting. It takes patience with partners, who are also hurting and may be expressing grief differently. It takes patience with friends and family who say the wrong things, who may hurt us by accident with their carelessness, discomfort, or their silence.
As a wise friend once told me, “Time doesn’t heal; it’s what you do with that time that heals.” While acknowledging that nothing about grief can be rushed or controlled, my partner and I started making routines and rituals for processing our grief together. We went to the cemetery where Ava was buried, each month on the 17th. The grave itself wasn’t incredibly meaningful to us but going regularly gave us opportunities to set aside time to talk about Ava and connect over her life. We also attended a monthly support group for parents who had experienced perinatal loss. Individually, I attended art therapy sessions for 13 months. I was given a weekly space where insight and integration would often occur, a space in which to process my relationship with my daughter.
After Ava died, I struggled immensely with feeling like no one understood my experience, that no one could appreciate the depths of what I had been through. Throughout the years that followed, I came to realize that the task of understanding my experience was not meant for anyone else to undergo; it was mine to fully understand,
process, and reclaim. Over the past few years, I have had to relearn and redefine who I am, and how to incorporate my love and grief for Ava into the person I am becoming. Nothing about my grief journey has “fixed”
or solved anything. My life will never go back to the way it was before my child died within me. I will never have a simple response to the question, “How many children do you have?” But there is beauty in how I am answering with my life, and the love for Ava that I will always carry with me.
For those facing the loss of their baby, here are some resources for families:
~ Kate Lobo, BA – Graduate Clinical Intern
I believe that healing exists at the intersection of acceptance and change, and that multiple truths can exist at the same time without having to be contradictory. We all contain multitudes, and I’m here to honor every part of you that makes you who you are. I view you as the expert on your own identities and experiences, and my role as a therapist is to bear witness to your experiences and empower you to gain the skills you need to make positive change in your life.
Education & Training:
Kate earned her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Notre Dame and is currently pursuing my Master’s degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice.
Areas of Specialization:
Kate is passionate about working with people experiencing anxiety, depression, trauma, grief and loss, infertility, spirituality struggles, relationship issues, and transitions to parenthood.