After Adrian’s death, I left the hospital in a fugue state. I had thought I was “okay,” but as the first notes of music came on the car stereo, the tears returned. My sister reached across and held my hand, my other hand other clutching the teddy bear from the hospital. I was thankful then for the weight of the bear. It was exactly what I needed.
The First Days After Adrian’s Death
My dog Amy Anne met me at the door, howling a very specific, pitiful cry she only used when she was upset or overwhelmed. I opened the back door to let her outside and sat on the grass, still clutching my bear. Amy jumped around me, alternately licking and bark-crying, running short distances and then running back again. She tried briefly to take the teddy bear from my arms, but when I told her no, she stopped.
I don’t remember if I ate that night after Adrian’s death. I mostly remember wanting my bed. I crawled under the covers, cuddling with my cat, my dog, and my bear. I slept for the whole night.
When you lose a child at term, your body still makes milk
It is an irony of nature that even mothers without living children experience the aftereffects of giving birth. I woke up the next morning full of milk, swollen to the point of pain. I had decided in the hospital that I would donate my milk. It felt important to me. So although I wanted nothing more than to stay in bed forever, the pain and my promise both forced me to get up.
I found the box of pumping supplies in the spare bedroom. Assuming I wouldn’t need it for weeks, I hadn’t prepared anything. I’m sure the pump was easy to use, but in my foggy state, it took more than an hour and several YouTube videos to put it together correctly. When I was finally ready, my breasts were so full they weren’t able to be pumped. My sister called my doula, who sent over a list of suggestions. She also came to visit that evening, and helped me pump just over a thimble-full of early milk. It felt like the biggest accomplishment in the world.
In the following days, I think it was milk that kept me going. It was the desire to produce that spurred me to eat and drink. It was the need to be “clean” that kept me from alcohol. It was the pain of the milk itself that got me out of bed each morning. It was the one thing I was capable of doing.
Early Days & Hard Things After Adrian’s Death
I was not capable of talking to people. My sister had handled the first phone calls for me. She had called my team leader, who communicated the loss to those who needed to know. She fielded calls from multiple concerned managers, and coordinated with the coworker who brought me flowers and food the second night we were home. She handled everything I asked her to, but some things had to be done by me.
Since my son was born on a holiday weekend, the “normal” events were somewhat delayed. My sister had cancelled my appointment with the midwives, but they called Monday morning to ask about rescheduling. It was the first time I had to say the words, “My baby died.” It came out as a screech.
The second conversation took place with the hospital’s coordinator for the disposition of remains. They had been closed by the time of Adrian’s birth on Friday, so his body had remained in the morgue over the weekend. Because they called me, I was shocked at their lack of preparedness — one of the first questions the coordinator asked me was if my insurance policy was under my husband’s name. She also asked me repeatedly if I wanted an autopsy on my son’s body; after discussion with the pathologist, I decided only on an examination of the placenta.
I avoided personal conversations for a long time. It was so difficult to form sentences; I couldn’t imagine entire conversations. I turned off Facebook almost immediately, and sent every personal call to voicemail. One evening, I worked up the courage to call my best friend, but I missed her. When she returned my call, my courage has disappeared. I sent messages in text, told a handful of people who been trying to check in. Each conversation was excruciating. Each conversation was recognition that my son was really dead.
Related: Write Your Grief: That Day
If it had been an option, I may have stayed in my house forever. I ordered groceries (and ice packs for my breasts) from an online delivery service. My sister cooked all of my food. When I finally did have to leave, I didn’t know what to wear. Knowing that women still look pregnant for months after delivery, I had originally planned to wear my maternity clothing, but that now felt so painful. I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone asking me when I was due. For those first weeks, I dug into my closet for the largest t-shirts I could find, paired with ratty sweatpant-material capris. As I told my sister, I didn’t care if anyone thought I was just fat.
On 4 July 2017, a day I had planned to be cuddling a new baby, I started planning Adrian’s funeral. It was hard, but it was necessary; I felt a burning need to honor my son’s life.
Throughout this time, I cried and raged and continually fell apart. As focused as I was on funeral arrangements and continuing to pump milk, it was still a daily battle to get out of bed; to understand that this was my new life.
A week after his death, I sent a five-line email and funeral announcement to everyone I knew. Writing it took hours. Sending it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Related: Adrian’s Funeral
After the funeral, I fell apart again. I continued to eat, drink, sleep, and pump milk, but I had little energy for anything else. My sister had a commitment at work and had to leave. She was worried about me, but I promised her I would be okay. I had promised Adrian I would be okay.
After my sister left, I picked up Adrian’s ashes from the funeral home and some memorabilia from the hospital. They had saved his clothing like I requested, and also provided two sets of dental-clay hand and footprints. I was so thankful to have so many pieces of my son’s memory.
I continued to sleep with the bear from the hospital, and also with a stuffed gray elephant that had been given to me on a diaper cake. My bed was full of things to cuddle. I placed his ashes in his bassinet.
I continued to write to him. Like planning the funeral, it also felt necessary. It was how I continued our bond. It was how I explored our grief.
During the funeral, my brother and my cousin’s wife both offered to visit me. I think everyone worried about me being alone, but I needed it. I needed time to feel and scream and grieve. At the end of July, I went to visit them instead.
Travel & Family
My brother, aunts and uncle, and several cousins live in California. Getting on a plane to visit them after only three weeks felt both too soon and also like going home again.
I have always been close to my cousin Neil*, who is only a year younger than me. When he married March, it felt like instant kinship. As she is also a therapist with a very gentle personality, staying with them felt right.
My second day there, March asked if I wanted to join her for yoga. I had gone once several months prior, but hadn’t kept up with my practice during pregnancy. Still recovering from giving birth, it was difficult getting back into my body again, but the difficulty felt good; grounding. We went twice more during my trip, and I continued my practice when I returned home again.
We also went shopping. I was normally such a clothes horse that Neil had commented on the size of my one small bag, but I had almost nothing that fit. We shopped enough that I left with a second bag, and felt far more confident in my post-delivery appearance.
I also felt good just being around good people. My cousin’s family was easy. His two young children were sweet and playful, and my aunt was an energetic but soothing presence. I also spent time with my older cousin and his wife, and discovered that they had experienced child loss as well. It is a terrible and too often unspoken story.
While in California I continued to pump milk, but having never established a strong supply, it was always difficult for me. On the seventh day of my trip, I pumped for more than an hour to produce less than one once. On that day, I decided I was done.
Back at Home, Trying to Make Sense of Life After Stillbirth
When I returned home, I visited my midwife and my office. At work, I wanted to check-in, to show myself I was capable of walking back into the building again. I also wanted to determine when I would be coming back to work. A lot had felt uncertain before.
At my midwife’s office, I was surprised with a summary of the pathology report on my placenta. I hadn’t realized it would be ready so soon. She discussed the high-level findings with me, promising to send the report itself by email later. I left in a fog, with more questions than I understood. I also didn’t realize until much later that it was typical to be physically examined at the six week mark. That didn’t happen for me.
The following week, my sister and I went on a cruise I had booked in a fit of impulsivity the week following Adrian’s death. I thought it could be a healing trip, as if healing could be accomplished solely by blue water and sandy beaches. For the first few days, I threw myself into activities, trying. Towards the end of the trip, I realized it’s possible to be miserable while surrounded by beauty.
I had one week at home before starting work again. Even after seven weeks, everything felt rushed. I felt like I never had the time or space I really needed to grieve.
* Names have been changed to protect privacy.