When I was pregnant, I was enchanted with my physical body. Despite the minor inconveniences, I loved knowing I was growing a human being. When I “popped” at 10 weeks, I was proud of my belly, excited for the need for maternity clothing. I loved the tiger stripes of my stretch marks. I treasured every hiccup and kick. I talked and sang to my son. I am glad now I was so present then. I am thankful for every moment shared between us.
Thoughts of my Physical Body after the Loss of a Child during Pregnancy
When the doctor told me there was no heart beat, my first instinct was to reach for my belly. I could still feel his body, pushing against his favorite spot under my right ribs. My thoughts ran in circles: “He can’t be dead. He’s still right here.” My voice screamed: “No!”
But there is a physical immediacy to pregnancy loss that can’t be delayed. Even while I was processing, the doctor was rushing me to a delivery room. And my first thought, when I was capable of thinking, was that it couldn’t be possible that I still had to deliver him. A detached part of me had automatically assumed there would be a C-section.
I think if I had asked, surgical birth would have been an option. I know I’m not alone in that initial feeling. I am thankful now, though, that I chose to deliver vaginally. Adrian’s delivery is my most intense and one of my most valuable memories. It was part of the process of saying goodbye.
Related: Adrian’s Birth Story
After Adrian’s delivery, I spent 24 hours with him in the hospital. That first night, I wasn’t able to sleep until they laid him in my arms. I needed to feel the weight of his body. Throughout that 24 hours, I held and cuddled my son. I know this sounds strange; it still sounds strange to me, but it was also necessary. I took photos with him. I inhaled his scent. I traced the lines of his fingers and his tiny nose. I felt an instinctive need to develop those tactile memories. If I had had a choice, I would never have let him go.
At home, I did the same with his things. His nursery was set up in my room. His clothes were washed and folded and everything was waiting. I slept with a weighted bear they had given me at the hospital, and one of Adrian’s blankets. I think if I could have fit inside his crib, I would have slept there. I wanted to be surrounded by his things.[sta_anchor id=”postpartum” unsan=”Postpartum” /]Physically, I experienced the typical physical realities of the postpartum period. I was sore from four hours of pushing. There was pain from where I tore. I experienced hot flashes and an incontinent bladder. I bled nonstop for days and intermittently for weeks. Everything normal for a woman who had just given birth. Everything a painful reminder of my son out of reach.
The hardest physical sensation was the one without a name. It was the thing I felt when I woke up in the morning and my son wasn’t crying. It was the feeling in my arms when they curled around the teddy bear from the hospital, but still felt empty. It was the physical feeling of absence. It felt so heavy.
Even today, I often sleep with the urn of his ashes.
[sta_anchor id=”milk” unsan=”Milk” /]When you Lose a Child at Term, Your Body still Produces Milk
While I was in the hospital, the midwife gave me advice on how to stop my milk. When I told her that I wanted to donate it, she seemed surprised, but I needed something meaningful to come out of this experience.
I requested a consultation with the lactation specialist. She brought me bottles and brochures, and told me how to contact the milk bank for coordination. What she didn’t tell me was that it would be so physically difficult.
When I woke up that first morning after coming home from the hospital, I wasn’t prepared for the pain. My milk had come in quickly and my breasts were engorged; painfully swollen and warm to touch. My doula sent some information and visited that evening. With her help, I produced about a thimble’s worth of milk, gradually growing into larger amounts during the following days.
Baby photos and visualization are generally recommended to stimulate the let-down response while pumping, but that exercise was more difficult for me. I don’t believe I ever developed a true let-down. I did notice, though, that when I pumped, I often felt very faint contractions in my lower belly. More rarely, I also felt the ghost of kicking in Adrian’s favorite spot on my right ribs. These sensations were both beautiful and painful to me.
It is difficult, though possible, to establish and maintain a milk supply through exclusive pumping, but it requires commitment. Most consultants recommend pumping between 8-12 times per day to build a strong supply. Although I wanted to pump, I didn’t have the physical or emotional energy for that schedule. Because of this, my supply never grew beyond a few ounces a day.
As an unexpected side effect, pumping was physically good for me. It gave me a reason to eat right and drink enough water. And although the milk bank allowed consumption of alcohol in limited quantities, it gave me a reason to choose not to drink. It was also part of my motivation. On my darker days, when I might have never left my bed, I had to get up to fulfill this commitment.
Three weeks after Adrian’s death, I flew to California to stay with family. There wasn’t a local milk bank there, but I researched means of transporting the milk back with me. I purchased an insulated cooler and small blocks of blue ice, and the bank emailed a letter I could carry with me.[sta_anchor id=”stopmilk” unsan=”Stopmilk” /]About a week into my trip, I pumped over an hour to produce less than an ounce of milk. As much as I wanted to do this beautiful thing, I discovered I couldn’t sustain it. I decided that day I was done. In four weeks, I had pumped twice daily, producing a total of 48 ounces of milk.
Because my supply was so low, I thought it would fade completely when I stopped pumping. Although I never again felt the intense pain of the early days, I leaked milk off and on for several more weeks. It was a bittersweet feeling.
[sta_anchor id=”appearance” unsan=”Appearance” /]Physical Appearance & Still looking Pregnant after Stillbirth
Going home from the hospital, I was not surprised that I still looked about six months pregnant. This was normal. What bothered me was having a body that was still a subject of conversation. Strangers could still look at me, ask for my baby’s name or when I was due. No one intends to be hurtful, but these questions would break my heart.
I stayed home for three days. When I finally had to leave the house, I tried on everything in my closet. But I had never been a fan of oversized clothing, and almost nothing fit me. The few things that did fit were tight across my belly.
Most women who have given birth continue to wear maternity clothing. Emotionally, that wasn’t an option for me. When I had to go to the funeral home, I borrowed a shirt from my sister, paired with ratty sweatpant capris. I looked ridiculous, but it was preferable to looking pregnant. Afterwards, I wore the same three shirts for the next week.
My doula brought me a belly wrap. When properly applied, it helped to minimize the swelling in my belly. Unfortunately, it also aggravated my back pain, and I couldn’t handle wearing it for more than a few hours.
My sister reminded me I needed something to wear for the funeral. Deep into summer, the black dresses for sale were mostly short and geared towards dating. I bought an oversized maxi skirt and a selection of black chiffon tops online. I had no idea what size I would be, so I bought one of everything. I also realized that even when the swelling finally left my feet, they were permanently larger. I got rid of all my shoes.
Physical Body After Stillbirth
By the day of the funeral, much of the swelling had gone down in my belly. In the flowy chiffon top, I mostly only looked overweight. It was a feeling I could handle. I didn’t care if people thought I was fat.
The funeral was the first and only day I tried wearing makeup. It used to be a ritual; I wouldn’t leave the house without at least powder and concealer. When I came home from the hospital, it was no longer important to me. I tried wearing makeup that day mostly to hide the heavy dark circles under my eyes, but it felt empty to me. Makeup didn’t become habit again until I returned to work, and very rarely on the weekends.
Related: Adrian’s Funeral
By the time of my trip to California, a few more items from my closet fit, but barely enough to fill one small suitcase. My aunt and my cousin’s wife March* took me shopping. I found more flowy clothing. It helped me feel like I didn’t have to hide my body.
[sta_anchor id=”activity” unsan=”Activity” /]Physical Activity Can be Grounding After Tragedy & Loss
I have always been a moderately active person. In the ten years before Adrian was born, I ran two marathons and multiple 5Ks and obstacle races. It is one of my regrets that I didn’t exercise as much during my pregnancy.
While recovering from delivery, I was unexpectedly sore in my arms and upper back. Labor had become a full-body activity. Even after the soreness faded, my lower back continued to hurt. I also continued to experience the wrist and arm pain that had developed during my ninth month, but I was reluctant to see my regular doctor to take care of it. I still didn’t know how to talk to my providers about what had happened to me.
I started sleeping on my back again. One morning, I woke from a sound sleep, gasping from the electric shock running down my right arm. I literally could not move it from the pillow next to me; it felt like my nerves were on fire. My sister brought ice packs and helped to reposition me. The next morning, I was able to fit into a cancellation at my doctor’s office, but he couldn’t find anything wrong with me. The pain revisited a few times, but eventually faded with no explanation.[sta_anchor id=”yoga” unsan=”Yoga” /]While in California, March asked me to join her for yoga. It was the first physical activity I had tried since giving birth. About halfway through, I stopped and sank into child’s pose, exhausted. Even incomplete, I was thankful I had shown up. The activity was the first time I was able to turn off the thoughts whirling through my head. It also woke me up from the nearly dissociative state I’d lived in with my body.
At a second class with March, I discovered my stamina increasing, but during my third downward dog, my wrists objected to the strain. I rested for a few days, but the moment I tried weight-bearing activity, the pain returned. It continues today, though I have learned to do many activities on my forearms. This pain is also unexplained.
When I returned home, I discovered restorative yoga. It became my Tuesday evening activity. It was the perfect balance of body and mind, and I often found myself writing afterwards. I also often cried. When I was feeling up to it, I would attend hatha classes, periodically at first, then with greater regularity. In September, I attended a yoga-centered retreat for mothers who had lost children. Today, I alternate between hatha and yin yoga, though I’ve petitioned my local studio to start an evening restorative session. All of this feels right to me.
My prenatal providers had told me back pain was normal during pregnancy, but when I continued to feel pain two months after delivery, I returned to my chiropractor. I saw him for three adjustments before I moved from my old city. The pain decreased greatly, but returned on a handful of occasions for no discernible reason. The last time, in mid December, I bent over to pick up a piece of paper, and pain shot from the top of my right buttock to the center of my back. After finding a chiropractor in my new city to control the flare-up, I started physical therapy, strength training, and Pilates. Combined with yoga, this has all seemed to help.
When I returned to work seven weeks after delivery, I think many people assumed I was fully recovered. Few women openly discuss the complications of delivery. It wasn’t surprising then when a very well-meaning colleague suggested intense workouts to work through my grief. She had never been pregnant. She didn’t understand that the walk from the parking lot was a workout for me.[sta_anchor id=”walking” unsan=”Walking” /]In late December, I started walking for exercise. When the back pain was strong, it made walking difficult, but as I’ve made progress in therapy, I’ve been able to walk greater distances. At the end of January, I achieved 20,000 steps for the first time since my pregnancy. I also find a lot of clarity while walking. It is often where I complete the first drafts of my writing, talking to the speech detection engine on my phone.
As I’ve recovered more physical ability, I’ve been able to resume some old activities. Prior to pregnancy, I had spent several seasons alternating between snowboarding and SCUBA diving. This winter, I picked up my snowboard for the first time in four seasons and was surprised at how quickly the ability returned. I was also surprised at the emotional pain. Even when my physical body has recovered, my heart will never be the same.
[sta_anchor id=”massage” unsan=”Massage” /]One of the hardest activities to resume was bodywork. I had previously found comfort in massage therapy as a complement to physical activity, but after giving birth, it was emotionally difficult. My first massage took place on the cruise six weeks after Adrian’s death, and I cried during the consultation. I don’t remember much of the massage itself.
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I think a lot about how different our lives would be. Should be. Without you, I live in a world of unwanted freedom. . I live in a world where I can pack up and head to Tahoe on a random weekend, but none of this is enough. So much of this feels empty. . I see kids flying by me, full speed, no fear. This is what I planned for you. You were supposed to have these opportunities. . I will always wish things had happened differently. I will always wish you were physically with me. . I miss you with every part of my world.
At home, although I had developed a relationship with a neighborhood massage therapist during my pregnancy, I couldn’t summon the courage to call her. It was still difficult to talk to people who knew me when I was pregnant and who didn’t know my son had died. One day, when my back pain was so bad I didn’t want to get up off the floor, I asked my sister to call her for me. That small act re-opened the door to massage therapy again, which physically helped me tremendously.
During my trip to California, I learned about the emotional aspects of other types of bodywork when March’s sister treated me with acupuncture targeted to both my physical pain and my grief. Something of a skeptic, I surprised myself by crying during the quiet portion of the first session. It was intense and brief, and felt like a miniature release. After moving to California, I found an acupuncturist in my new city who stimulated these same deep feelings. I also found a massage therapist who specialized in cranial-sacral therapy. Although I can’t speak to the medical efficacy of either of these treatments, I can state that I feel safe and open enough in session to relax and explore my feelings, and this is important enough for me.
Thoughts about the Failure of my Body to Carry a Pregnancy & Protect my Son
So long committed to the idea of the natural order, the death of my son forced me to choose between two beliefs — was nature wrong, or had my body simply failed me?
After I returned from California, my midwife reviewed the pathology report on my placenta. Although my son was perfect, the report revealed multiple previously unidentified problems with my pregnancy. While none of them individually could be identified as a definite cause of his death, all of them contributed to my feelings of inadequacy.
After this meeting, I did a lot of reading. I examined every piece of my pregnancy, looking for possible causes. I met with multiple specialists. I needed to understand what had happened to me. I needed to know I wasn’t physically broken. But that, too, brought complications — if there was nothing wrong with me, then why did my body fail at one of its most basic functions?
Still having no answers, I questioned everything. I wondered if my hand or arm pain could be indicative of more serious issues. I worried that my phantom kicks were signs of liver damage or gallstones, something that was reinforced when blood tests revealed a single mysteriously and unexplainably high liver enzyme. Every minor twinge and ache felt worrisome to me. I wondered often if there was something seriously wrong with me.
I also waited with anticipation for the return of my period. Viewed by many women as a burden to be tolerated, to me it was a sign that at least part of my body had returned to normalcy. I needed to know I could still function as a woman. When it did return in mid September, it felt like the first physical thing to go right for me.
About six months after Adrian’s death, I realized I had never been physically examined following delivery. I asked my new doctor for a referral to an OB. I needed someone to actually look at me. The OB was patient and kind, and he took time to sit with me, answering all of my answerable questions. But there will always be unanswerable questions. There will always be “what ifs?”
This will always be painful to me.
Physicality and Importance of Screaming & Tears
When the doctor told me Adrian had died, the tears poured out of me. I didn’t think I would ever stop crying. The tears dried up in the immediacy of his birth, but returned quickly afterwards. For days, they slipped out of me, often prompted by literally nothing. I felt like I was made of water.
I discovered, though, that there are other acts of grieving. Sometimes, I cried soundlessly. Sometimes, I screamed. In my more intense moments, I devolved into numbness, physically unable to cry. This happened at Adrian’s funeral.
The following day, I barely got out of bed. I pumped in the late morning, then collapsed on the couch, emotionally exhausted. That evening, running my hands over his things, the tears overwhelmed me. I was just thankful they had returned.
In the dark days that followed, when his death started to sink in, my crying often turned to screams. During several dark nights, when I almost couldn’t breathe, I learned what it meant to keen.
I cry out of nowhere now. I cry when I’m writing. I cry when I see a small child. I cry when I’m happy and I realize he will never physically join me.
I still go through periods of numbness, and it still feels physically painful to me. I am always thankful for the return of my tears. They are so very important to me.
[sta_anchor id=”weight” unsan=”Weight” /]
Holding onto Baby Weight & My Belly after Stillbirth
I came home from the hospital at 187 pounds; 27 pounds higher than when I became pregnant.
For several months, I held on to the weight. I lost exactly enough to fit into my largest work clothes with the top button undone around my waist. I probably often ate my feelings, though never enough to change the scale. My body felt like a link to my son.
Around October, I found motivation to lose weight. I started tracking my calories, and most days I made healthier choices. It was a slow process, but it worked for me. By November, I had lost five pounds. The clothes I had purchased in California became loose on me.
By the end of December, I pulled on a pair of pre-pregnancy jeans, startled that they fit. It wasn’t a victory.
Related: Pre-Pregnancy Jeans
I think we often view weight loss as a beautiful thing, the ultimate achievement. But while my weight loss was necessary, it wasn’t beautiful to me. I was far happier in my ninth month of pregnancy. I was far happier with the weight to remind me. Being able to put on my pre-pregnancy clothing was a painful reminder and one more layer to my loss, even though necessary.
I continued losing weight. I had been overweight to start with, and it was important to me. By March, I was five pounds below my starting weight, with a goal of ten pounds lower. When I looked in the mirror those days, my image felt like a stranger. It will probably never not be painful that my outside doesn’t mirror what’s within.
Related: Write Your Grief: The Kindest Thing
Throughout this time, while the pounds melted away, my belly remained. This is normal; many women retain a “pooch” after delivery. It’s a physical reminder that my body is forever changed. Most days, it keeps me in flowy tops and empire waistlines, though I will always be proud and thankful for my body. Some days, even now, I still look a little bit pregnant. This will always be publicly painful and privately beautiful to me.
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In the past months I’ve written a lot about my body. My feelings about it will always be beautifully complicated. . This past month, I realized I am almost 10 lbs lighter then when I first became pregnant. My body is still different. I still have my stretch marks. I still have a bit of a belly. I feel thankful for a lot of this. I love these permanent signs that I carried my son. . Yesterday, I did a photoshoot to document some of these changes. It’s my way of exploring my 7th trimester. It’s my way of accepting this beautifully permanent change to my life. . #AdrianJamesHernandez was #stillborn on 30 June 2017. I am his mother. . 📷 by @lunakaiphotography, who made me feel amazing. 💙
Some days, even now, when I sit very still, I can still feel him kicking.[sta_anchor id=”footprints” unsan=”Footprints” /]
Miranda’s Blog: My Seventh Trimester Body
Miranda’s Blog: Pre-Pregnancy Jeans
Write Your Grief: A Letter to my Belly
Write Your Grief: The Kindest Thing
Miranda’s Blog: Friday the 13th
Miranda’s Blog: 29 October 2017