By Monica Novak –
When our daughter Miranda was stillborn 14 years ago, despite the love and support from family and friends, my husband Al and I often felt a strange aloneness, as if we were existing in another world emotionally separated from everything and everyone around us. My saving grace became the local Share support group, a place where everyone understood. It’s sometimes difficult to build up the courage to attend your first support group meeting – it was for us – but the benefits are innumerable and immeasurable. You’re about to read the first chapter of my book, The Good Grief Club, which details our first support group meeting. My hope is to remove the mystery and fear of the unknown and encourage you to take that first step.
I didn’t see it coming. None of us did. How could we? For Heidi, Tracy, Wendy, and me, it came with the words, “There’s no heartbeat.” For Dawn, Beth, and Darlene, the crushing blow was, “There’s nothing more we can do.”
Between the seven of us, we have buried, cremated, or miscarried eighteen babies. Miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death-these were things that happened to other people. Until they happened to us. This is our story.
* * * * * *
It’s the second Thursday of July, 1995. My husband, Al, and I make our way through an endless maze of hallways and elevators in the quiet north pavilion of Advocate Good Samaritan, the suburban Chicago hospital where both of our daughters were delivered. Now in the basement level, we pause outside the only open door in the long, deserted corridor. Looking at each other for strength, we take a deep breath and walk in. Our first support group meeting.
We’re the first couple to arrive. Empty chairs are set up in a large circle; bright fluorescent lights glare down from overhead. Across the room in the corner is a woman setting out books on a table. Another woman, pretty and petite with shoulder-length dark hair, I guess to be in her 40s, is waiting to greet us. That must be Pat Vaci, the Perinatal Support Coordinator, I think to myself. Although she’s never met us, she already knows who we are and introduces herself with a warm smile, embracing each of us. “Monica, Al, I’m glad you’re both here. I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you delivered Miranda. Candy stepped in for me while I was on vacation.”
“We understand,” I tell her. “Dr. Ross was disappointed you weren’t there, but Candy was wonderful. She knew all the right things to say and do. I don’t know what we would have done without her.”
“Did you know Candy is new at grief work? She’s never handled a full-term loss until yours.”
“No, she didn’t tell us, and I never would have guessed that,” I answer. “I don’t know what we would have done without her.”
Pat smiles and nods. “Candy is a natural at grief work.”
“I have the rest of Miranda’s pictures for you,” she says as she walks over to a table and comes back with a large envelope. I thank her and we sit down. I stare at the envelope, mustering courage to open it. Finally, I give in and open the flap, sliding out the pictures of my baby. Taking one look, I shove them back inside and quickly wipe the tears from my face.
We watch the door as people stream in. Some are couples like us, looking unsure, like students on the first day of school walking into the wrong class. Some women come in alone, others with a friend. I walk over to get a cup of juice and straighten my baby angel pin-anything to pass the time while nervously waiting for the meeting to begin. The air-conditioned room is, like most public buildings in the summer, too cold for me, and I’m glad I’ve worn Capri pants, albeit maternity. But I didn’t think to bring a sweater to wear over my short-sleeved oversized shirt, and goose bumps are making their way up my arms. When I sit back down, Pat takes a seat next to me.
“Did all of these people deliver here at Good Sam?” I whisper to Pat.
“Some of them did,” she answers. “But many of them delivered at other hospitals and were referred to us by someone.”
Suddenly I remember something Candy told me during my hospital stay.
“Pat, you lost a baby too, didn’t you?”
“I did,” she answers quietly. “Our first child, Jennifer, was stillborn at 38 weeks.”
“It was seventeen years ago. My husband and I were very private people and kept our grief to ourselves. There wasn’t any support available that we knew about. We have two boys now.” Sensing that she doesn’t want the conversation to focus on her, I silently nod and cease my inquiry.
The circle is almost full with about a dozen or more people, and Pat announces that we’ll begin. She reads the group’s ground rules: “Everyone’s grief is unique. There is no timetable for healing after a loss. No one will be asked to speak, but all are encouraged to share their feelings and experiences. Tears are outward signs of the depth of love. Here they are accepted, encouraged, and supported. If a group member needs to leave, someone will go along to be sure the person is doing okay and able to drive home. Confidentiality is an important aspect of group. Members are asked not to use the names of people or institutions in discussions inside or outside of group.”
Pat asks a woman named Dawn to begin. She’s tall, with dark medium-length hair and glasses and seems to be in her mid thirties. She’s a veteran at this, I can tell. A few minutes ago, I watched her quietly laughing with some friends. “I’m Dawn. In February of 1994, I delivered triplets at twenty-three weeks. Christopher was pronounced dead after one minute. Katlyn lived for two days and Amanda lived for three days.”
As I listen to Dawn talk, I’m amazed that after all she’s been through she can sit here calmly and tell her story without tears. Although I can’t see her battle scars, for they’re hidden deep in her heart, I can tell with one look that her wounds have mostly healed. She’s a survivor, and I find simple reassurance and hope from her.
After listening to several heartbreaking stories and watching tissue boxes being passed down the line, Al turns to me, his face overcome with emotion. I haven’t seen him like this since the memorial service. “I can’t believe we’re here,” he whispers. I nod. I know. Being in this room with these people validates our loss.
“I’m Beth,” says a woman with short, brown hair wearing baggy shorts and a plain cotton shirt-like me, having just given birth and still stuck between maternity clothes and her prepregnancy wardrobe that doesn’t fit yet-who looks about my age, mid to late twenties. “Last month I went into premature labor with my son Joshua. I was admitted to the hospital and given medication to stop the contractions, but I developed an infection, and the contractions kicked in again, and on June 19th Joshua was born at twenty-four weeks. Two hours later, he died in my hands. This is my first meeting,” she says bitterly.
The woman sitting next to Beth, who came in with her, is now staring down at an imaginary spot on the floor in the middle of the circle. Also about my age, dressed in baggy post-maternity like Beth, with short, strawberry blond hair, her face becomes flush as she struggles to keep her composure. “I’m Heidi.” Several seconds go by. I hold my breath. Finally she gathers the courage to speak, breaking the awkward silence. “I was thirty-two weeks pregnant with my daughter, Brittany. My five-year-old son, David, and I were on vacation in Florida with my mom and grandma. When I noticed the baby wasn’t moving, I went to a nearby hospital. They told me there was no heartbeat. I flew home and two days later, on June 7th, my doctor induced labor and I delivered Brittany stillborn.” Heidi wipes the tears from her eyes with a tissue and blows her nose.
Pat nods to me, signaling our turn. The women have been doing most of the talking, and when I turn to Al, he gives me a look of encouragement, holding my hand tight. “My name is Monica, this is my husband, Al. On June 20th, our daughter Miranda was stillborn at full term.” I begin to cry and Al squeezes my hand harder. I hadn’t expected it to be this difficult. The room is silent, heads nodding in understanding, as I struggle to catch my breath. “She had a knot in her cord.” I hang my head down and grab a tissue out of the box that someone has handed me.
After introductions, the session becomes an open forum, and everyone is invited to talk about anything they’re feeling. I don’t know if I can talk. Maybe tonight I’ll just listen.
“After my first miscarriage,” says one mother, “I didn’t even know if I should tell anyone other than a few close friends and relatives. The general attitude seemed to be that it’s nature’s way of taking care of something that wasn’t supposed to be. Even though I didn’t believe that, I tried to tell myself that maybe I shouldn’t be so sad. But then when I had a second miscarriage, the pain of the first loss was compounded. I never really dealt with the grief, and now that I’ve lost two babies, I just can’t pull myself together. Those were my babies. It doesn’t matter how small they were. They were supposed to grow big and be born and we were going to be a family.” The woman hangs her head down and cries quietly while the woman next to her reaches over and squeezes her hand.
I feel a sudden pang of guilt. I’m one of those people that had taken the “nature’s way” attitude. Never having had a miscarriage, I hadn’t considered the feelings of loss and helplessness a woman might feel if she deeply wanted to be a mother. I never thought about her hopes and dreams, and of the attachment she might feel to her newly forming baby. I should have known. I was attached from the moment I conceived both of my children. In fact, I was attached to the very idea of my daughters long before their tiny hearts ever beat for the first time.
The woman sighs and looks up again. “I still remember the day six months after my first miscarriage. I turned the calendar that month, and there it was, written in big red letters-BABY’S DUE DATE! I fell apart all over again, like the miscarriage had just happened. When my husband came home and saw my red, puffy face, I pointed to the calendar. He didn’t know what to say, so he just held me while I cried.”
“I can’t stop asking, Why? Why did this happen to me?” cries Heidi.
The room remains silent. We’ve all asked the same question countless times, and nobody has a good answer. Pat sits listening quietly, speaking only when asked.
“People I respected at my church told me it was God’s will,” says Beth. “It’s part of God’s plan, you’ll learn something from this, God doesn’t give you more than you can bear! So what is God’s role in our everyday life? What makes someone else’s prayer heard and not mine? We desperately prayed in the hospital, Please, God, don’t let our baby die! But Josh died. Were my prayers unheard because they weren’t said correctly? I feel like God didn’t listen to my pleas, and I blame Him for taking Josh away.”
“I asked the same questions you are,” says Dawn. “People around me were praying to God, having faith that God would help them and take care of their problems. I was made to feel that if I went to church and prayed, bad things wouldn’t happen to me. But where was God when I needed Him? We prayed harder in those few days at the hospital than at any other time in our lives. So many people were telling us, ‘This was God’s will.’ It was one of the things I hated to hear the most. Why would God take away three babies from loving parents who wanted these children more than anything, yet allow a cocaine addict to have her baby only to let it suffer?”
I sit quietly, remembering Pastor Needham’s words at Miranda’s memorial service. He said that if he believed God had caused Miranda to die, taking away the life that I carried for nine months and which I grew to love even before she was born, he could not stand in his pulpit and speak to us. “I don’t think God took my baby,” I tell the group. “I just can’t figure out why He didn’t do anything to stop it.”
“Our priest told us He’s there, even though He may not be answering our prayers the way we want Him to,” says Dawn. “And I said, ‘Well, what good is He doing me then?’ He told me God didn’t want my babies to die; don’t let people make me think that God took my babies away from me. Well, when I get up there and finally meet God, whoever is behind me in line is going to have to sit and wait for a long time, because He has a lot of explaining to do!” Everyone laughs, and for a moment the sadness is lifted. I wonder if Dawn realizes how funny she is without even trying.
The meeting goes on with issues that seem to be common to most of us. Birth story details. Funeral comparisons. Frustrations with unsympathetic medical personnel, family, or friends. More unhelpful things that well-meaning people say.
“Someone told me, ‘You’re young. You’ll have more children,'” says Dawn. “Why do people say this? If they lost a parent, would it be okay for me to say, ‘You’re young, you can go find another parent’? Family members were telling us ‘enough is enough, get on with your life, what’s your problem, what are you moping around for?’ People seem to think I didn’t have time to get attached to my babies, that it shouldn’t take me long to get over losing them. Because I never brought them home, some people act like it was no big deal. Would it bother them more to lose an older child than a younger child because the younger one wasn’t around as long?”
“And then there are the ones who don’t even remember and ask how the kids are doing,” Dawn continues. “What I’d like to say is, ‘Oh, well, they’re six feet under. They’re pretty dead by now.’ I bite my lip trying not to laugh out loud, and glance around to see everyone else hiding grins and chuckles while Dawn goes on. “But instead, I just smile politely and tell them, ‘Our children passed away. I don’t know if you remember.’ And then their eyes pop open, they apologize and walk away very quickly.”
Dawn’s had more than a year to deal with these issues and it’s obvious. I wish I wasn’t here, and I wish Dawn wasn’t here, but at the moment I’m thankful for this woman with wisdom who shares my fate.
Heidi complains about the phone calls that come in. “‘Congratulations, this is Olan Mills, your baby is one month old today. Blah, blah, blah.’ At first I was nice about it and told them, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, my baby died.’ But after a while, I started yelling, ‘You idiot! How dare you assume that my baby is healthy enough for a picture!'” Everyone laughs again, and I’m starting to get a sense that I’ve come to a very healing place.
Someone else complains about the endless stream of ads and coupons for baby products that began showing up in her mailbox after her baby’s due date had passed. One woman received formula samples.
“There’s a way to get your name off those lists,” says Pat. “I’ll give you the information after the meeting.”
Beth tells us about a recent incident a few weeks ago. She was in a grieving haze; she didn’t know the day or the time. She didn’t know if she had even eaten that day. At a grocery store, on the way to her family reunion, she got into the express lane with one item and took out her debit card.
“Oh, well I guess this isn’t the Cash Only line!” the woman behind her quipped.
Beth looked at her card as the cashier handed it back to her. She looked up at the sign. CASH ONLY. She looked back down at the card and then back at the cashier. “I thought this card was like cash,” she said to the cashier.
“No, it’s not!” snapped the woman behind her.
“No, it’s not,” sneered the cashier.
Beth began to cry. “You know what? I just buried my son! I’m sorry if I didn’t read your damn sign!” she yelled. “You people are so damned inconsiderate.” Now she was sobbing.
“I’m sorry,” mumbled the woman behind her.
Beth grabbed her bag in an angry rage, went out to her car, and sat crying hysterically. She was so mad she could have punched someone. There was nothing she could do about the woman behind her. But she could do something about that cashier.
She marched back in and asked for a manager. “I spend a lot of damn money in this store, and I really don’t deserve to be treated like this a week after I buried my son. I can’t control what that woman behind me said, but I certainly have something to say about what your employee said to me. We can’t all be perfect all of the time, and your employees need to know how to treat customers!” she sobbed.
“I’m so sorry!” the manager apologized. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of this. We’ve had this problem before.”
“Good, I hope you will!” she said and stormed out, glaring at the cashier who was watching. Beth felt good. She felt empowered. She was glad she hadn’t punched anyone.
The room breaks into laughter and applause from those of us who envy Beth’s courage, and as I watch the corners of her mouth curl into a grin, I get the feeling that, like Dawn, her brutal honesty is probably more humorous than she intended or realized.
At the end of the meeting, everyone is invited to stay and browse through the lending library books or talk with each other. I walk over to the table and scan the books covering a range of topics on death, grieving, pregnancy and infant loss. I grab two books-one on stillbirth, the other a collection of letters from bereaved parents-and wander over to Beth and Heidi. It’s become apparent to me during the meeting that Beth and Heidi were friends before their losses, and I ask them to explain.
The two women knew each other casually through their husbands who went to high school together. When Beth learned that Heidi’s baby, Brittany, had died, she was afraid of upsetting Heidi at the funeral with her own bulging pregnant belly, so she stayed away and instead sent Heidi a card.
Twelve days later, Beth’s baby, Joshua, died. This time, Heidi sent Beth a card and wrote, If you ever want to talk, just call. Beth never called. One week later, Heidi called Beth. Heidi will be so much better than me, I’m sure she’ll have good things to tell me, Beth thought, knowing Heidi was three weeks past Brittany’s death. As Beth sat listening to Heidi go on and on, deeply immersed in grief, she thought, She’s not really doing so well. Is this what I sound like? Is this what I have to look forward to? I’m in big trouble.
Heidi called again with information about a support group called Share, for pregnancy and infant loss, and asked if Beth wanted to go. “Greg isn’t interested in going with me because he’s healed,” Heidi said. Beth laughed. Her husband, Jeff, wasn’t like that; he wanted to talk about Joshua. He would have talked more about his son, but Beth was so incapable of supporting him that she didn’t want to hear him talk about it. She didn’t have it in her to take care of herself, let alone Jeff.
I nod my head, fully understanding. That’s how I feel about my mom and mother-in-law; I can’t bear their pain simultaneously with my own.
After talking with Heidi and Beth for a few moments, I already feel a bond with these two mothers. We all seem surprised at the intensity of the love and grief we carry for babies we knew such a short time. Having lost our babies within two weeks of each other, our grief is at the same stage and will likely coincide in the months to come. I realize I’ve found a new family in this circle of chairs; I’m not alone anymore. With every telling of my story and every tear shed, a tiny piece of my broken heart is mending.
We hug each other tightly and say goodbye until next month. Al and I slowly navigate the hallways and elevators, finally emerging outside into the parking lot, now dark. As we pull away, I look up at the five-story hospital. A wave of emotion overtakes me, and I’m flooded with the memory of the night one month earlier when I arrived here, scared and alone.
Monica Novak is the author of The Good Grief Club, the highly-praised memoir about her friendships with six other women that carried them through the ups and downs of grief and motherhood following the loss of their babies in miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death. She also serves as editor of Open to Hope’s Pregnancy and Infant Loss blog page. For more information about her book, and for pregnancy loss and infant death resources, please visit her website at www.thegoodgriefclub.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.Tags: grief, hope