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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Starting to Share the “Silent Sorrow”

A mother shares the heartbreak of miscarriage, and meaning of children born and unborn.
April 146

Ariel Levy’s story of miscarriage ran last week in the New Yorker and exploded across the country, receiving a resoundingly positive reaction from empathetic readers. When the Dish picked up her story, their readers also responded with an outpouring of comments describing the grief and pain of miscarriage. This bursting forth has opened a door, shedding new light on a previously unseen grief. Melissa Lafsky Wall explained the reaction Monday in her piece “Giving Voice to the Silent Sorrow”:

I never heard of the “silent sorrow” until a few months later. Learning that a phrase existed for women who’ve miscarried made me even sadder. Its presence means that there are untold armies of women marching grimly through life, carrying their silent sorrow like a wound patched up with duct tape, and no one even knows what they’re suffering. Pain will always accompany losing a pregnancy. But silence — that part is optional.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to interview a mother who lost three children to miscarriage. This is her story. My hope (and hers) is that it will keep the conversation going, and help other grieving mothers know that they are not alone, and that every lost child counts.

***

Mike and Katie sped along a country road in Fruitland, Idaho. The local hospital was on the other side of the Snake River in Ontario, Oregon—thankfully, only minutes away.  It was only a few days after Katie’s 20th birthday, four months after their marriage in an old Idaho schoolhouse.

Katie prayed frantically. “I don’t care if this baby is handicapped, I don’t care if this baby doesn’t have an arm or leg,” she thought. “I just want this baby. I want this baby alive.”

She remembered how happy they had been when they found out she was pregnant, only five weeks after their August wedding. The following months were gloriously normal. Katie had terrible morning sickness, and puked on the side of the road during a Thanksgiving vacation.

But in December, she began bleeding. She thought to herself, “Maybe the doctors can stop it… maybe the baby can still live…”

But the baby was gone. Friends told them helpfully, “It’s just your first baby, you’ll have another one.” Others said, “You weren’t very far along, it’ll be better the next time.” Katie smarted under their words. Her arms hung limp and empty, aching for her child.

Katie had three normal, smooth pregnancies between 2002 and 2006: the three boys, Braden, Nathan, and Ian, were healthy and boisterous.

When Ian was eight months old, Katie found out she was pregnant with her fifth baby. At 19 weeks, the family went in for an ultrasound. Everything was fine. Katie had begun to feel her baby’s little kicks. She hoped it was a girl.

For her 24-week checkup, Katie dropped off her three boys at her mother René’s house. At the doctor’s office, a nurse entered the examination room. Katie’s doctor was not in, so the nurse began her checkup. As Katie was lying quietly on the examination table, drowsy and relaxed, the nurse said, “I’m having trouble finding the baby’s heartbeat.” Katie paused, but shrugged off the comment. She thought to herself, This nurse doesn’t know what she’s doing. The baby is probably not in the right place.

The nurse kept trying to find the baby’s heartbeat for half an hour. Katie lay still, almost asleep. When her doctor finally walked in, she checked for the baby’s heartbeat, but could not find it. “Maybe the baby is in a weird position,” she said. “I’m going to send you to the hospital for an ultrasound.” “Okay,” Katie replied. She prepared to leave.

Then her doctor came over, gave her a hug and said, “I’ll be praying for you.”

An icy chill filled Katie. It suddenly hit her that the doctor really thought something was wrong.

Hands shaking, Katie dialed her husband’s number. When Mike answered, she asked him if he could get off work early and come to the hospital. “I’m already on my way home,” he told her. That was at least some good news: after working consistent 10-12 hour days, Mike was headed home at 1 p.m. in the afternoon.

Mike and Katie sat in the hospital waiting room. A daytime talk show was playing on the television. It seemed so frivolous to Katie, it hurt. She looked up at Mike, and could see how scared he was. The couple was finally ushered into an examination room. It was warm, dim, and quiet. The technician began their ultrasound in complete silence as Mike stood by Katie’s shoulder.

Katie waited, hoping for any comforting words. She finally asked, “Is everything okay?”

“No, I’m sorry.” The technician paused, and then continued, “This is the hardest part of my job. But I’m sorry, there’s no heartbeat.”

Shockwaves rolled over Katie. Mike put his head down on hers, and cried with her. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

I thought I had paid my dues, Katie thought. I didn’t think I would have to go through this again.

They called their doctor, and she recommended inducing labor. It was better not to wait with the risk of infection. The doctor also feared the psychological effect on Katie—whether she could deal with all the emotions, with the thought that… that I’m carrying around a dead baby inside of me.

Katie and Mike drove home for supplies, silent. They walked into the back porch, where Katie’s sewing room was. She saw the little, unfinished quilt she had been making. I don’t have anything to bury my baby in… I don’t want to bury my baby naked.

Katie gathered some scraps of fabric, quickly snipping and stitching. She pieced together a new little receiving blanket in less than an hour. She had to make something, do something… she had to show how her baby was loved and cherished, anticipated and longed for. But it seemed so little, so nothing.

Once at the hospital, the doctors induced Katie’s labor. The couple had a little girl—just as Katie had hoped for so long.

She weighed two and a half pounds. Her soft little feet were perfectly formed, smaller than Mike’s pinky finger.  Her fingers had tiny sliver fingernails. At six months in the womb, she would have been able to open and close her eyes in reaction to light. Her vocal cords were fully functional. She probably had had hiccups.

She was beautiful. She was everything Katie had hoped she would be. They named her Ellie René.

The family held a memorial service on March 3, in the graveyard minutes from their home. Biting wind and frigid temperatures froze tears and stung cheeks. While they waited for the ceremony to begin, the boys played freeze tag.

Katie choked back the thoughts that threatened to seep through her mind. At six months, she could have lived. She could have made it in intensive care. Did I miss something? Could I have prevented this? She couldn’t think these poisonous thoughts.

During the next few months, the boys accented Katie’s days with hugs, stick-figure drawings, and flowers. She couldn’t give up on life—even on the days she wanted to. Little Ian needed her all the time. He was nearing his first birthday and playing with the kitchen toys that Katie had hoped would be Ellie’s.

It was impossible to sew after Ellie died. She stuffed the unfinished quilt in a drawer, out of sight. Instead, Katie started knitting. It became her secret weapon: she channeled frustration and pain, temper and grief into needle and yarn.

Every night, Mike came home and played with the boys from dinner until bedtime. He changed diapers and reminded them to clear the table. Every workday, he reminded Katie to call him: “I want to know what’s going on in your mind and how to help you,” he would say.

Through the long days, Katie blogged, letting her struggle out in the words she posted.

Today I feel as though it’s catching me.
That huge storm cloud, threatening to strike,
to blow, to downpour, about to overtake me.
But maybe, if I keep doing,
keep talking, keep thinking hard enough
about other things…
it will stay behind my back.
But the emotional thunder is rumbling in my ears…

Katie didn’t know if she could ever face being pregnant again. But that mother’s cry still echoed in her heart. Two years after losing Ellie, Katie and Mike tried again. On January 1, Katie found out she was pregnant with their sixth baby.

When Katie and Mike announced the news to Braden, he said, “If this baby dies, it will be okay, because Ellie had the best life ever. Just straight to God… none of this yucky stuff.”

At 10 weeks, the family went in for an ultrasound. They heard a heartbeat—a strong, steady, perfect heartbeat. In celebration, Katie skipped school and made sugar cookies with the boys, cutting out hearts and stars. Mike bought her roses, with soft cream petals that blossomed red at their tips.

Though her mind told her it was too soon, Katie couldn’t help imagining holding her little baby in her arms.

At 17 weeks, Katie began wondering why she hadn’t yet felt her baby move. I’m just out of practice, I’m missing it, she thought. But at 18 weeks, when she still felt no movement, Katie decided to call in and go to the doctor.

She walked up to the white door of her parents’ house. Her three boys followed her into the kitchen, where her mother was quickly stuffing keys into her purse.

“I thought you were going to watch the boys?” Katie asked.

René turned and looked at her daughter. “Your dad is going to watch them. I’m coming with you.”

As she looked at her mother, Katie’s stomach knotted. René was nervous, and that terrified her. Her mother was always a rock. But the same fear in her eyes simmered in Katie’s heart. This scenario was too familiar.

They grasped at straws of conversation in the car-ride to the doctor’s office, anxious to talk about anything but the baby.

Katie lay on the table as her doctor began the examination.

But that strong, steady heartbeat—the heartbeat they had heard several times before—was gone.

The doctor bent over Katie and cried with her. Katie could not believe God would do this to her again. Instead of numbness and shock she felt sad… and weary. All these feelings are familiar.

Katie went through the same set of motions: going to the hospital for the ultrasound, deciding to induce labor. She had been knitting a cotton blanket for her baby… one that she planned to trim in pink or blue at 20 weeks. She finished it while she waited for the doctor. She wanted to bury the baby in it.

Their baby boy was born in the evening of April 7. He was much smaller than Ellie: five ounces and 10 inches long. His feet were about the size of Katie’s thumbnail. They named him Benjamin Curt, after Katie’s father.

Curt sat in the grass at the cemetery with his three grandsons, each wearing their camouflage hats and sturdy hiking shoes. They buried Little Benjamin in his mother’s blanket, in a casket built by his father, in a grave beside his big sister Ellie.

During the next week, the boys kept bringing Katie flowers. Friends stopped by with pie and cinnamon rolls. In his pain, Mike delved into a new building project. Katie watched him work from her lawn chair, taking pictures, lump in her throat. He laid the foundation and helped each little boy press his handprint into the concrete.

When friends asked Katie how she was doing, she replied, “I am doing better than I thought I would.” The thought continued, I guess I’m used to being sad.

Katie continued to take pictures of her boys, eating marshmallows and playing guitar after church. On her daily morning walks, she watched the sunrise over bare Idaho hills and listened to birdsong. She found herself singing as well. I refuse to feel guilty for it. I am happy, God is enough.

Then came the shock. Only three months after losing Benjamin, Katie found out she was pregnant. Too soon.

Katie sat in the driveway, in the sunshine, sobbing. I don’t want to do this again. She fully expected this baby to die.

That night, Mike and Katie took the boys to their favorite restaurant, and told them they were expecting a new baby. Nathan grinned from ear to ear as he gave Katie an enormous hug and kiss. Ian had to think for a moment before he decided to give Katie a kiss, too.

But Braden listened silently as Mike told him they would take Katie and the new baby to different doctors, hoping to find out what may have gone wrong in the past.  Braden didn’t say much—and didn’t smile much.

At bedtime that night, he prayed that God would give them this baby.

When Nathan turned seven in October, Mike asked him what he would like for his birthday. The little boy looked at Katie, gave a slow smile, and said, “I want Mommy to have the baby.”

Tears filled Katie’s eyes. “I wish I could safely have the baby tonight, too,” she said. “But it’s just not the right time yet.”

In her heart, she fought fear. Every day she wondered, Is this the day I’m going to lose my baby?

When the 18-week ultrasound came, they saw their new little boy for the first time. They heard his heart beating—156 glorious beats per minute. Katie cried tears of joy and relief. Hold on, little one.

Every night, she refused to fall asleep until she felt him move three times. Many nights, he didn’t move—and she would cry herself to sleep.

When February came, Braden told Katie, “It’s weird how much things are different once God has taken some things away. Because if God really gives us this baby, after not giving us the others, it’s just going to be … just… just…!”

Katie knew he was searching for a word big enough—and couldn’t find it. She smiled, because she couldn’t think of one, either.

On February 24, Katie and Mike dropped off their boys at Curt and René’s house. They drove to the hospital for their regular ultrasound, to check fluid levels and to see if the baby’s lungs had matured.

Please, let his lungs be ready, Katie prayed.

When the results came back, his lungs were at 55.2… maturity is reached at 55. The doctor told them he could do the C-section that afternoon, or wait a few days. Katie was ecstatic. Who would want to wait, when within just hours I could hold and see my baby?

Katie called René, and talked to the boys. Nathan whooped and hollered. Braden cried.

At 3:03 p.m., Katie saw her son, James. He was perfect. Though drugs were heavy and blurred many of her memories that day, Katie remembered pressing her lips to his sweet, soft head.

***

A year and a half later, Katie finished Ellie’s quilt. For years she hid it, unfinished, in the back of a drawer. But in the fall of 2012, a soothing feeling washed over her as she held it.

It was finished, and she could remember in peace.


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