By Caitlin M. Heflin
I’ve tried to unwind the thoughts that tangle in my head since the death of my daughter, and there are many, many things that I have yet to say that I will not say here. Today, I would like to offer a small window into a world that most would rather not think about, let alone verbalize out loud. I am one of the unlucky “1 in 160” whose pregnancy ended in a stillbirth. I was induced, labored for 24 hours, and pushed her out, all with the soul-destroying knowledge that the only cries at her birth would be my own. Instead of taking my gorgeous girl home, my husband and I were dealt the heavy blow of choosing which tiny little urn would hold her ashes.
Since that day, I feel like I’m swimming below the surface of a lake, unable to break through. I can see the blurry, refracted image of a boat above me, and hear the garbled sounds of laughter and splashing. I remember what it felt like to be on the surface, onboard the boat with everyone smiling blandly and jumping in and out of the water. I remember not worrying too deeply about the water all around me, because I, with my head bobbing safely above the water, had my life vest on. Now, I don’t float, I swim and swim because if I don’t I’m scared I’ll sink. My vest is gone, and when I try to tell the people topside that I am exhausted and out of oxygen, they praise my resiliency and my strength to continue swimming, as if I had another choice. Others choose not to see me at all, preferring the uninterrupted bliss of the sky above them, because the waters of grief are rather uncomfortable and inconvenient, aren’t they?
There are the others, the ones who swim next to me, the only ones who seem to understand me, those dear hearts already swimming for their own reasons. I am so grateful for those compatriots, those who strive alongside me, just to keep living. However, today, I would like to talk to those people on the surface. Perhaps I can place this message into a bottle, and it will bounce against the side of your boat, and then you can see me and all those swimming alongside me.
I know that you have your reasons. Maybe you are afraid to be me, or you pity me, or you simply don’t know what to say, so you default to meaningless platitudes or silence. I want you to know that I deeply understand all three of those reasons, but you should know that this forces me into the torment of pretending she was not real or consequential when she was both. Please ask me my daughter’s name. Please ask me what she was like, what it was like to have her and hold her, brief a time as I had. Her name is like music to me, and I’ll never get to say it to her, to congratulate her with it, to tell her I love her with it, or even something so simple and parental as call her to dinner with it. I won’t have years of stories to tell about her, I won’t watch her grow up, all I have is this, and I beg of you, let me have it.
Yes, it is painful. I may cry when I say her name or tell parts of her story, but I would so much rather tell it than remain silent. Everything I have, all my memories and future experiences, both happy and fraught, are now tinged with a little bit of dull, leaden sorrow. You are sparing me nothing by avoiding the subject. Please strip yourself of that illusion. I am already in pain, I assure you.
The reality is that although stillbirth is far more common than you think, it is not something pregnant women are educated about. I was far more aware of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) from a young age than I ever was about stillbirth, and SIDS has a less frequent occurrence. To me, stillbirth seemed like something that afflicted women in the days before the ultrasound, the genetic testing, and all the other milestones that I whizzed by with no problem during my pregnancy. That kind of incomprehensible, unpredictable loss without warning makes people very uncomfortable, and while I understand that, I would just like to ask you if you think it was comfortable for me to hear the doctor tell me there was no heartbeat? Do you think it was comfortable for my husband to hear the news over the phone from a nurse because I was sobbing too much to speak? I have had pregnant friends avoid me as if stillbirth is contagious, and others who simply drop off the map because they had “no idea how to handle it,” as if I did.
The cuts I receive on a daily basis, though they sting, are unseen to most; a pregnancy announcement on social media, a baby in the checkout line, or a reminder of how close I am getting to my daughter’s original due date. However, I anticipate these everyday pains. I do not expect the world to come with a trigger warning, or to make things safe and comfortable for me. These are things I must grit my teeth and move through. All I ask is that you don’t ignore that I’m grinding my molars into dust in the process. Please grant me some relief, let me tell you about her life, even though it was short. Don’t brush it aside. When you tell me that I will have other children, or that I am lucky I can get pregnant, you are very much missing the point. My daughter is gone, no future children, though they are very much welcome, will unring that bell.
If nothing else hits home for you in my message, I only ask that you remember how horribly common pregnancy loss is and that you look down from the sky to the lake every now and then. You may see some of the people you love the most swimming next to me, unseen and unheard by you under the slate-gray waters of grief. Please break through the surface, reach down, grab their hand, and ask them about their babies.
Caitlin’s daughter is named Sparrow, after the gospel song, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” She loved Pachelbel’s Canon in D and kicked the hardest during the crescendo.
Caitlin is a writer, dancer, and dance educator. You can find more about her and her writing at caitlinmheflin.com