Trigger warning: Miscarriage and infant loss with images at the end of the post.
Working as a doula has brought me so many colorful experiences that I cannot begin to even categorize them all. One thing that is very true about my job is that it is amazingly complex and very rewarding. It is not always happy. Not all pregnancies even happen (fertility issues). Some barely embark upon growing a person and then halt. Other babies grow to any number of points and then something happens and they die. They die. From very early pregnancy to full term stillbirth to infant loss, babies die. We are wired in a way to respond to this and it is uncomfortable. Our own pain is uncomfortable, but we are conditioned by society to distance ourselves from the pain of others. Sorrow is inconvenient and empathy takes energy. As a result, families are in this weird spot of what to do or say when they were planning a lifetime with this new being and then, in a flash, are planning a lifetime without them on earth.
A text in the middle of the night.
If you know me, you know I LOVE placentas. It’s seriously a thing. My family is no longer phased when I fawn over an incredible vascular pattern or want to show them a unique umbilical cord insertion when I am processing placentas. It is not unusual for me to get a text in the middle of the night inquiring about help with a placenta. The unique part was that this was from a friend who had birthed her 16 week gestation son earlier. Not only did this sweet friend, Judith, know she could reach out and ask me for help with this situation, she asked me to hold space and pray for her. Though this situation is hard, I feel tremendous gratitude and joy for being a person that is trusted in such a vulnerable and painful moment. She had placed the placenta in a jar in the fridge and we made arrangements for pick up.
When we met up, Judith showed me the jar, holding it protectively to her chest before extending it out to my waiting hands. She also had a bag with membranes in it. Off I went with these memories of a life already transitioned to heaven.
At home, I procrastinated get to this task, and eventually settled in to work with it after my house had gone to bed. The membranes had a lot of blood clotted with them and were difficult to manipulate, so I took the placenta out of the jar, filled it with water, and soaked the membranes in there while working with the placenta.
This placenta was so small, but totally a placenta. The membranes that were soaking in the jar were the outer layer called the chorion. The amnion, the inside layer, was still intact. There was a hole large enough for the baby to have gone through but a tiny sac remained preserved. I was able to put my index finger in and hold it up, showing the living space for this sweet boy. On the maternal side, the cotyledons (the part that looks like a brain) were present. After inspecting these, I turned the amniotic sac inside out so the fetal side of the placenta was easily visible. The tiny umbilical cord stump was present with a typical insertion. Not even the size of my hand, this was definitely a placenta. The beautiful lines from the blood vessels in their tree like formation made me smile.
In handling this small organ, I was touching a part of this baby’s life… something almost nobody will get to do. This is a scared privilege. I know this baby was here. Not just here like among us, like HERE! In this very spot I held in my hand. I am so grateful for the trust given in this moment. There is a huge vulnerability in discussing loss of any kind, and even more so when it is pregnancy related. I have worked with placentas from other losses and it always feels this way. It calls forth such reverence. In my hands is tangible proof that this person was here. I hate the circumstance but absolutely love that connection.
This brings me back to the title of this entry. We don’t talk about dead babies. We just don’t. It is true that some people may be wholly at peace with their loss, and some may even feel a sense of relief depending on circumstance. Those are not the scenarios I am calling out. I am talking about babies that are grieved. That may be a mother who finds out she is pregnant the same time she finds out she is losing her baby. That might be a father suffering because nobody even knew about the pregnancy, and it is even less common for men to talk about loss. That might be children that thought they were getting a new baby sibling and now are not. This could be anyone who loved a baby and then it passed away during an afternoon nap without any discernible cause. For the families of infants who die and stillborn babies who were at term or close to it, there is often an initial outpouring of support and shared grief. How long that lasts varies. These babies are tangible to more people. But even that tends to fade and people will get real awkward around the family and especially the mother. The earlier in pregnancy the loss is experienced, the less people are willing to be compassionate about it. Let me say that again:
The earlier in pregnancy a loss is experienced, the less people are willing to be compassionate about it.
Don’t be those people. Give the mother and family space to speak of their children. Allow them to grieve. Grieve with them. Ask them if their baby has a name. Ask them what they need. Let them know that you acknowledge their baby and will remember this baby. Tell them that even and especially after time passes, they can talk with you about this loss. One of my dear friends had a newborn son who died in his sleep. I looked to her for counsel after a mutual friend of ours experienced a stillbirth a very short time after. She told me something I will always remember: You will never do anything to remind her that her baby died, because it is not something she will ever forget. Not everyone will remember that her baby lived though, so be someone who does.
It was really weird and hard at first to talk to these women about their babies that died. But it got easier and I followed their lead. And then it got more normal to talk to other women about their losses from five weeks gestation to newborn. I use the word normal because loss is SO COMMON. What isn’t common is talking about it. So change that. I promise you know people who have been affected by miscarriage and infant loss. Talk about the babies. All of the babies.
When I felt compelled to write about this, I asked Judith if I could share pictures of the sweet little placenta that got me reflecting. Not only did she agree, she sent me pictures of her baby to share as well. These images are very, very intimate and it is a privilege to see them. Here is a bit of this very loved baby’s story:
Judith and Jordan had been praying and thinking about when they might want to add to their family. Judith was in a training program, the family decided to buy a home, and many things in their life were in transition. Still, the calling of an addition was there. In fact, she was already pregnant! They learned this the same week they signed the contract on their new house! Judith had a strong sense that this child was a boy and even knew his name: Eli. Life continued at a very busy pace and the pregnancy kept moving along… until it didn’t. One day, Eli quit thriving. The next, she woke to her uterus feeling a little different. Her water broke, but she didn’t realize it at the time and just thought she wet her pants. The day after that, everything changed.
Judith went to the bathroom and went to clean herself when she felt something bulging out of her vagina. When she looked down, she saw Eli’s tiny legs. After screaming for Jordan and explaining what was happening, they called a midwife to help walk them through the next, agonizing steps. The rest of his body was delivered and she was guided through cutting his cord so she could hold him. There is so much wrapped up in that moment. The final separation of him from his mother, from the body where he lived his whole existence. Eli’s siblings had been picked up early from school as the family was going to be heading up to the mountains. Jordan explained to the children what had transpired, and invited them to see their baby brother. Eli’s skin was so tender and fragile, it was quickly drying out. They decided to put him in a jar so they could take their time processing what happened without it deteriorating his body.
In this moment, there was tremendous grief and confusion. The whole family was in shock. This mother was trying to process her experience yet also lovingly connect and be present with her other children and husband. They waited for the afterbirth to come, and believed that it did. It turns out that it was part of the membranes and blood clots.
The placenta actually delivered much later. That is where I got to become hands on in this story. When I picked up the bag with the rest of the membranes and the jar with the placenta, I was also able to see Eli’s tiny cord, neatly preserved. It was such a tender moment to see this little piece of flesh, now dried, that once connected mother to baby. I always feel a rush when holding an umbilical cord… even after they’re cut, and even still after they are dehydrated.
Judith is at spiritual peace with the loss of her baby on earth, but that peace competes with worldly grief that is also very real. This baby was loved from before conception through his whole life in his mother’s womb and is loved now. Eli will continue to be loved for eternity. Judith isn’t continuing to grow him in her body, nor will she nurture him at her breast or raise him. Yet, she is postpartum in that she delivered a baby and her body is recovering. Her spirit is recovering. Her heart is forever changed.
When a baby dies, there is that flurry of reaching out right when the news breaks. And then it slowly tapers off… but it never disappears for the mother or others who deeply loved the baby. TALK ABOUT THESE BABIES. If they have a name, say it. Remember that they existed. Validate the loss. Set your discomfort aside and be present with the pain and grief of those around you. It makes a bigger impact than you can imagine.
Below are the images of Eli shared with me by Judith and Jordan and posted with permission, as well as the pictures of his placenta that I took. These images, while beautiful to me, may be difficult for some to look at.
A final note: All comments have to be approved by me before they are posted, but please save me emotional energy and only submit comments that are loving and supportive. I am sure you can appreciate the level of vulnerability it takes to be open about this experience. THIS is how we change and how we start talking about these babies. I am very grateful for your strength, Judith.