If I was an artist I might paint something or if I could keep my succulents alive I might plant a tree in honor of this little life, but I am writer, so I will write. Giving words to this experience has not only helped me grieve, but also helped me honor that little life that existed inside for not long enough. If you are reading and have also had a miscarriage, I am so, so sorry. I hope my words may resonate and remind you that you are not alone.
It’s a lonely and odd kind of grief, to miss someone who you haven’t met yet.
* * *
When Gerber and I deiced we wanted to start a family about three years ago, we talked about it July and 11 months later we had Elena. It all happened so fast, so of course we naturally assumed that it would be really fast the next time. We were wrong. Month after month I would convince myself that I was pregnant and then each morning when cramping started and my period showed up, I was disappointed. A quiet sadness would settle in as I reached for a box of tampons. In November my period was late by 3 days. I bought a pregnancy test for 15 quetzals, the equivalency of 2 US dollars, from the local pharmacy. It came back negative, but I had some abnormal spotting and I had fully talked myself into the fact that it was probably just implantation bleeding. I called my midwife on my way way to work, excited and confused. She gently cautioned me to wait and see. “Or” she mentioned over the phone, knowing that I am not one to just sit and wait, “you could do a blood test to check your HCG levels.” I who have a fear of needles have never been so excited to get blood drawn. I stopped by the lab that afternoon.
But my period started the next day and the results came back for my HCG levels. zero.
I popped two Advil to avoid feeling the cramps and swallowed my disappointment again.
I think they say the average amount of time for two healthy people to conceive a child is 8-12 months. So I was trying to re-adjust my expectations. It’s just been 5 months, I told myself. I had just weaned Elena. I knew in my head it could take a while, but there are no statistics that calm a mother’s yearning heart.
* * *
Elena and I flew to California in December. It was a welcome distraction and change of pace. Our days were filled with visiting friends, shopping at Traders Joe’s, and trying to find two bridesmaids dresses and two flower girl dresses for upcoming weddings. On a Wednesday morning we drove up to Santa Barbara for a quick 2-day trip. Somewhere along the 405 freeway while sitting in traffic, I realized I had forgotten to bring tampons and my period was supposed to start. Dang it. “Oh well. I can just buy some,” I told myself. I had forgotten for a second that I wasn’t in Guatemala, where you cannot actually find tampons at any corner pharmacy.
For two days we visited friends and played at the park and drove around town and I had completely forgotten about stopping to buy tampons. But I didn’t need to. Because my period never came.
On the way home I stopped by the Vons closest to my parents’ house. I scanned the numbered signs hanging above each aisle. I have been strolling the aisles of this grocery store since before I was in Kindergarten, but I had never once looked for pregnancy tests. I asked someone in the meat aisle “Pregnancy tests.” It was more of a statement, than a question.
“Aisle 7,” he said without looking up. The grocery store always causes bit of cultural shock. I stood and stared at the different types of pregnancy test before me. There were nine. I counted. Nine different types of ways to find out if I was pregnant or not. There were electronic ones and 99.9% for sure ones and early answer ones and $23 ones. In that moment I missed the familiarity of my local Guatemalan farmacia where you walk-up to a window and ask for una prueba de embarazo and they hand you one through the window. There is no choice; there is only one brand and there is a certain ease about the simplicity of the whole exchange that I missed in that moment.
Elena was perched on my hip, her head resting on my shoulder. She was tired and much too big for me be to holding. I switched her to the other hip and re-adjusted my purse. I grabbed the cheapest of the nine in front of me. And then I reach for one more, knowing either way I would test more than once.
I ignored the instructions that say you’re supposed to wait and test in the morning. I wanted to know now.
I peed and then, waited.
Sure enough, two lines.
I couldn’t believe it. I was happy and shocked and still in a bit of disbelief. I wasn’t sure I could trust my $14 pregnancy test. So, I hid it in the bottom bathroom drawer of my sister’s bathroom and didn’t tell anyone.
For four days.
I ordered some prenatals just in case and they arrived in two days. Can I just say, Amazon prime is amazing.
My sister texted me one afternoon. “ARE YOU PREGNANT!?!? I found your pregnancy test.”
I confessed,”Yes, I think so. But I am not sure.”
I warned her not to say anything.
I took another pregnancy test. This time in the morning. And once again positive. I stopped drinking coffee and tried to contain my excitement. Gerber was flying in in two days and I wanted to surprise him.
With a house full of people, we didn’t have a moment to ourselves until Christmas Eve. After Elena went to sleep, I crawled into bed next to him, surrounded by the same four walls in the room I had slept in growing up. Sitting cross-legged in my flannel pajamas I pulled out a little box wrapped in green Christmas paper, “I have I had a little something for you” I said. He opened it, slightly confused. We usually don’t do gifts between us at Christmas time.
He pulled out the card I made and read it to himself. His eyes grew and he looked at me.
He smiled and pulled me close. He bent his head down toward my belly button and whispered, “oh, I love you already.”
We talked in hushed tones and giggled with excitement. “We’re going to have a baby,” he kept repeating. We’re going to have another baby!”
“I know, I know. The baby is due in August” I told him.
I had already downloaded the baby app and of course calculated my due date.
We cuddled in the bed, my cold feet resting against his shins for warmth and the quite hum of Elena’s sound machine echoing through the baby monitor.
That was one of the happiest Christmas Eve’s I can remember.
* * *
On Christmas morning we deiced to share the news with my family. With Elena we had waited until 12 weeks before we told anyone, partly because I wanted to tell my parents in person and also to have an ultrasound first to make sure everything was ok. But this time around we were so overjoyed by this welcome and much wanted surprise that it felt like there was no need to wait.
We have an adorable video saved on my iPhone of Elena helping my parents open a small envelope with a handmade paper ornament. My mom read the words out-loud, New Baby coming in August 2016.
“I had a feeling” she says smiling with a mother’s intuition. One of my sisters started crying tears of joy.
My brother yelled out, “Am I the only one who didn’t know??!!”
“I didn’t!” my dad echoes.
Elena ran over and looked at me, “Mama’s gonna have a new bay-beee?” she asked with equal excitement and wonder.
Yes, I nodded as I picked her up to kiss her. We’re going to have a baby!
* * *
A few days later I had some spotting.
I was immediately worried, but Dr. Google assured me that spotting during the first trimester can be very normal. We spent our final few days in California eating meals with my family, watching Elena play with her aunts and uncle in Palm Springs and packing up to come back to Guatemala.
I had one last errand to do on our last day in California; getting my dress for my sister’s wedding altered. I stood in front of the three-sided mirror in a long, blush colored gown and turned toward the side. I asked the seamstress, who she was kneeling at my feet measuring the hem, if she thought the dress would stretch a bit. “I will be 4 months pregnant in March,” I announced as I pushed out my belly, trying to imagine a 17 week baby bump. She half-smiled while holding a pin between her teeth and nodded. “You’ll be fine, dear.” I glanced one more time at my profile in the mirror. I smiled imaging my sister’s wedding and a growing baby bump to fill out the edges of the dress.
We spent New Years Eve at the airport. I held our 30 lb sleeping baby in the ergo as we heard a local news station begin the countdown until midnight.
Haaaaappy New Year!
There was one airport bar still open. A few workers whistled and rang some noise makers. I was standing in the corner swaying back and forth. I gently covered Elena’s ears so she wouldn’t wake up. Gerber was on the other side of the aisle trying to look at our gate to see what time we were boarding. He mouthed, “Happy new year!”
I smiled and blew him a kiss.
2016, is going to be a good year, I thought. We’re going to have a baby.
I stood there in the airport, carrying one baby and dreaming about the next.
I was already going through our 2016 calendar. I was trying to calculate backwards how many weeks I would be in July to see if I could still travel with our last high school team. I imagined taking maternity leave in August and having 3 months at home with my babies. It’s funny how fast our minds begin planning ahead. Maybe it just matched the feelings in my heart, because I think as soon as you find out your pregnant you start mothering your baby.
* * *
We made an appointment for an ultrasound for the first Monday after we got back. I was still having light spotting and I wanted to get it checked out. I was just over 7 weeks. At least that’s what I thought.
The attending OBGYN was calm and kind. She found the baby sac and took some measurements. “Calculo que estas como 5 semanas.”
Something didn’t seem right. There was no heartbeat. I was almost certain I was more than 5 weeks pregnant. I have never so dearly hoped that I was wrong.
The OB said there was also a small part of where the uterus was forming that was “desmembrado” which she said could have been causing the bleeding. I still don’t fully know what that means in English, because I wasn’t completely listening. I was counting backwards the weeks since my last period. Week 1, week 2…I imagined the calendar in my head, counting each week. My thoughts were interrupted when I heard her say “cuarenta ocho horas de reposo.”
She sent us home with strict orders for 2 days of bed rest, a handful of progesterone pills and instructions to call her if there were any changes. When we got home I went up to bed and Gerber went into super dad mode. He brought up dinner, bathed Elena, bushed her teeth, brought me tea and refilled my water bottle all while I sat in bed. I had never seen him so worried.
Since he couldn’t care for the baby directly, he tried extra hard to take care of me. I stayed vertical for 2 full days. The spotting didn’t increase or decrease. I napped and tried to do some stuff for work. I emailed my family and updated a handful of close friends. It felt good to share and know that people were hoping and praying with us. I wanted to not feel so alone lying in bed all day. Physically I felt fine, but laying in bed for 48 hours made me somewhat lifeless, but I held on to the hope that our baby was going to be ok.
On Wednesday I got an email back from my midwife, Hannah. She was caring and concerned, just how you would expect a good midwife to be. “Don’t be too optimistic just yet” she cautioned. “I know this must be a roller coaster for you, but you may need to wait and see.”
I read the email out loud to Gerber. She gently suggested what I had feared. It concerned her that the baby sac only measured 5 weeks on the ultrasound if my calculations were correct. Gerber’s eyes welled up with tears, “I don’t want anything to happen to our little baby.”
I nodded and placed my hand on my belly as he wrapped his arms around me.
For some reason, I didn’t cry. Maybe I was still in disbelief or just holding out for hope and or at least for some more conclusive results. His feelings are usually on his sleeve, whereas mine are often buried between thoughts and to-lists. I often joke that my mind is like three weeks ahead and my feelings are like 3 days behind.
Thursday morning it felt good to be focused on tasks. We had a group coming in on Saturday and there were phone calls to be made, schedules to be planned and menus to be created. I sent a quick update to my family and friends saying that the doctor wanted me to do some blood work to see if my HCG levels were rising (as they’re supposed to be doing). I stopped by the lab that morning. Gerber kept calling to check-in. He had to be in Coyolate that day and had made arrangements to have our sitter stay later than normal with Elena.
The day was full and I was distracted, until I put Elena to bed that night. I came downstairs and sat on the carpet. Gerber was playing an old Elton John song on the guitar that we first heard together 4 years ago on our honeymoon in Barcelona.
As Gerber sang the words: /you can tell everyone this is your song/ I sat on the floor and let a few tears fall for the first time that week. I wiped them away with back of my hand.
He got to the line: /How wonderful life is while you’re in the world/ and all I could think about was the little life inside of me. And how I so desperately wanted him or her to come into the world and, yet I felt absolutely helpless in being able to control that.
I started crying.
Gerber stopped playing and sat down next to me. He held me tightly between his arms, squeezing out more tears and then sobs and then all of the fear and worry that I had been burying inside. He rested his forehand on my shoulder and prayed: “God, we want what is best for our baby.”
In that moment I realized that what if what was best for our baby was not best for me. I understand how science works and I believe God’s hand is in the miraculous little cells that form and spit and multiply. I know when there is some problem on a genetic level a miscarriage usually occurs. I understand how it works, but I still didn’t want to believe it to be true.
But I think my heart already knew, what my mind still feared.
Our baby wasn’t growing. On Friday night I started getting really strong cramps. We sat down to have dinner. I pushed the pasta and broccoli around on my plate. Gerber asked me if I wanted some Advil. I shook my head. Somehow I wanted to feel the pain. I needed a reminder that I was pregnant and might not for be much longer.
I laid down next to Elena, breathing slowly though the cramping as I kissed her goodnight and inhaled her sweet smell. Sometimes she still smells like a mix of sweet breast milk and sweaty ocean air, even though she hasn’t nursed in months.
I went to the bathroom and knew I was having a miscarriage.
I sat on the cold tile step by our bathtub. Gerber came in and sat down next to me. I kept saying, “It’s just so sad. It’s just so sad” as I wiped away the tears and rested my head on his shoulder.
He nodded, “I know. I know. I am so sorry.”
We sat there for a long time. I texted my mom. And then got ready for bed.
But the cramps started again. This time even worse. I actually sat on our exercise ball for awhile. The same one I had used when I was in labor with Elena. Albeit this was not in any way as painful as that labor, but it was much more physically painful than you would ever expect for a baby no bigger than a lentil.
The cramps eventually stopped and I crawled into bed, tired, sad and empty. It had been a week of wondering and waiting and the small relief that came from knowing was quickly replaced by the loss of what could have been.
I sent an email to my family and close friends. “We lost the baby” I wrote.
It felt nice to have a few people who knew. People who I didn’t have to explain to later.
Everything was kind of hazy and numb. Work was a welcome distraction that first week. Gerber was gone with a team doing water filters and I was working with another team of volunteers up at our school. Slowly the bleeding stopped and with that any physical reminders of being pregnant did as well. Between early mornings for breakfast up at the school and dropping off Elena back at home and making phone calls and grocery shopping, I didn’t let myself feel much during the day. But at night, when Elena was asleep and the kitchen table was cleared off and I sat down for the first time that evening, I felt the heaviness that I had been avoiding. The sadness crept in. And the tears fell. Some nights I just fell into bed too physically exhausted to cry, but the tears were always right there. I could feel them in my throat.
I called my midwife. She was the first person I talked to, besides Gerber. And I realized how helpful it felt to talk about it. She listened and reminded me to take care of myself, both physically and emotionally. “It’s ok to let yourself mourn this death.”
It was as if she gave me permission to name it.
It felt nice when my friends texted me and asked how I was doing, or when another friend stopped by with chocolate croissants. I appreciated emails from my family & friends who expressed their sadness about the miscarriage. The truth was it was on my mind all of the time so when people mentioned it felt comforting to be able to acknowledge it. One friend stopped by with a candle and card and tears in her eyes. She said she wasn’t sure what was appropriate to do after a miscarriage, but she wanted to do something. And just saying that, meant the world.
I still light the candle regularly and it has been a silent, simple invitation for me to remember and reflect.
Grief is such a private thing, especially the unseen loss of a miscarriage. No one sees and unless you share, no one knows. I wanted to tell people, but there was no easy way to bring it up. We had our fist staff meeting of the year that week with coworkers and friends I hadn’t seen since before December. “Feliz ano!” everyone greeted, “How are you?” “Good,” I lied, following the social norms, “just a busy week.” It was a half truth. It was a busy week. The odd thing about a miscarriage is wanting to acknowledge the joy of being pregnant and also simultaneously mourn the life that is no longer there. And yet it feels hard to do both, so I ended up not doing either very well.
* * *
I knew at some point Elena was going to ask. She’s only two and half, but she is so observant and curious, especially about all things related to babies. I knew she would be fine, but I wasn’t sure my heart would be. We had been at the school one morning and she was carrying one of her baby dolls in her arms. One of the teachers asked her in Spanish, “Cuando vas a tener un hermanito?” Without missing a beat she responded in English, “My mommy has a baby in her tummy.” Thankfully the teacher didn’t really understand what she said. I just smiled and patted her back. I knew I needed to tell her.
That afternoon after her nap, I held her on my lap while we sat on the couch.
Mija, I need to tell you something. She turned and looked at me with her big brown eyes. There’s not a baby in mommy’s tummy anymore.
Predictably, her first question: “Why?”
Well, it wasn’t growing anymore and went to be with Jesus.
Well, I don’t know, honey.
“How did it get out?” (I don’t know how she comes up with these question.)
Well….I take long pause and thankfully she asked another question,
“When you going to get another new baby in der?” she asked, so sweetly.
I smiled and pulled her close, “Oh I hope really soon.”
I told her if she had any other questions she could ask me later. She said, “ok” and asked for some Cheerios. I figured that was the end of it.
Then a few days later in the car, out of the blue, she asked me:
“Mama, why is da baby with Jesus?
Well, cause the baby stopped growing. I respond cautiously.
Well, because when babies and animals stop growing they die.
I watch her from the rear-view mirror as she thought seriously about that and I prayed I wasn’t damaging my child’s understanding of life and death.
“Sooooo….” She paused for a long time, “The baby died???”
Yes, mija the baby died.
“But we’re gonna have another one?”
Yes, I hope so.
“When? (somehow she asks the very questions I would so dearly like to know the answers to as well)
Well, I don’t know honey.
“But mama will tell you.”
Yes, sweetie I will tell you.
* * *
Gerber came home, our team left and out came all of the emotions and sadness that I had naturally stuffed down for the past week. For the first time I was able to tell him how much I missed been pregnant. I missed that little life.
Maybe like all grief the hardest part is how lonely it can feel; how it’s so hidden and private, maybe especially a miscarriage. You grieve not only the loss of life, but the loss of so much hope, the loss of all that could have been. I imagine that’s true when you lose a parent too early or a child. You mourn their life and simultaneously mourn the future events they won’t be at. For me I mourned holding this little baby in my arms. I mourned my tummy growing round and watching Elena get to be a big sister.
Maybe I am also mourning the fact that I couldn’t do anything to prevent it. I couldn’t control it. Gerber and I have never really mourned anything together. I have mourned leaving parts of my life behind in the US and he has mourned some of his losses in life. But we have never have collectively lost anything together. But together we lost our baby. And for how horrible as that was, it also has been strangely unifying.
I’m trying to give myself room to feel all of the feelings. Grief can lead to envy and sadness as I see a friend’s growing baby bump, but also a deeper empathy and gratitude. It’s a daily dance between those two extremes. And I often feel a mix of it all. I know I have a healthy and beautiful little girl to enjoy and celebrate and, goodness I do. I can only imagine bits of the pain that couples who have repeated miscarriages or who have struggled with fertilely must feel.
I remember full well the physical exhaustion while caring for a newborn, but I am learning about another kind of exhaustion: the weariness of waiting and wondering. There is a different kind of pain of not knowing when, or if we’ll get pregnant again.
Anyone who knows the pain of grief knows it not a linear process, it’s more like wading at the oceans edge. Sometimes the sadness and loss comes crashing down, usually for me at unexpected times like at the grocery store or seeing a friend’s baby announcement as I scroll through social media. Other times empathy and gratitude wash gently over my feet and I know, we’re ‘re going to be ok. I trust a God who doesn’t often give us answers as to the why, but does give us His presence and peace in the process. And for now, that has been enough.
We’re grieving and healing. We’re walking forward and enjoying this season with Elena. Our life is full and busy and really good, but every so often it still feels like my heart is dragging a few feet behind. Like there is something else; someone else, we’re longing for, but they’re not here yet.
So we wait, and hope and expect.
In Spanish, it can be summed up by the word: esperar. We are quite literally, esperando.
Waiting. Hoping and Expecting.
Funny how those words seem to be a recurring part of my life and so closely related to pregnancy and birth, and maybe also miscarriage.