The midwife wonder'd and the women cried...

Good Afternoon.

My name is Jess and I'm here to talk to you today about my experience of Stillbirth.

Before I begin, can I ask you all to stand up. Please stay standing if you have given birth, or witnessed the birth of your own child... Thank you... OK, now stay standing if you've given birth more than once? More than twice? May I ask how many children you have? How old are they? Wow! You have three children and you're studying full time to be a midwife! You're incredible!

OK, can you all stand up again. Stay standing if, as a Student Midwife, you've delivered more than 10 babies. More than 20? More than 30? WOW! How many have you delivered? 40-ish?! 44??!! How about you? About 40 too? Amazing! OK, please sit down.

I ask you these questions because I want you to understand where I fit in to all of this. I am not an expert on birth. I have been present at three births, and at all three I was the one doing the pushing. Of those three babies, one of them was stillborn. I am not an expert on stillbirth either. I don't know any statistics. I can't make professional recommendations. I don't have any official resources for you. What I represent is an opportunity... I stand here as a woman who has given birth to a dead baby and I am going to tell you my story, and her story, and then you can ask me questions. You can ask me anything, really and truly you can ask me anything. I promise - hey, listen! I'm brave! I can say vagina and everything! 

OK with that let's begin. On 15th May 2008 I gave birth to my second daughter, Iris. She died during early labour the previous day...

Photo by kevinwchu

The secret places of my heart are often visited by strangers.

I write them out in my best words and awkwardly proffer them to people from Missouri and Norfolk and South Australia.

I say them aloud. I turn my womb inside-out and speak its fleshiness.

Mutter, mutter. I conjure her. I create her. She appears, shimmering, then vanishes again into silence. 

She is an agreement between me and you.

She existed, didn't she?

Yes, yes, that's right, she did.

Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington.

I defy Noel Coward.

She shall have a stage. She shall have the biggest platform I can find for her. 

All babies are teachers, but the dead ones have the best lessons.

Have you ever shared your story with a group of strangers, like the student midwives I spoke to last Friday? How was the experience for you? What do wish you they knew about delivering a baby that has died, or is likely to die? Do you have an answer to the question I've asked before, and I asked of them again: Is it possible to have a good birth, when the outcome is a dead baby?


"psychogeography - the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals." 

Guy DeBord

“No matter whether one is flying over Newfoundland or the sea of lights that stretches from Boston to Philadelphia after nightfall, over the Arabian deserts which gleam like mother-of-pearl, over the Ruhr or the city of Frankfurt, it is as though there were no people, only the things they have made and in which they are hiding.”

W.G. Sebald - The Rings of Saturn

My daughter was born in our local hospital, about ten minutes walk away from my own front door. She did not die there. She died in another hospital, in a different town, about fifty miles away. 

The first hospital is so physically close, so much a part of my life, that I have started to tune its presence out. I used to walk past and feel the air dense, a haze of hopes and fears emanating from the coarse render, as though my daughters and I were replicated in every room on every floor. Now it hardly registers, a grey rectangle squatting on the horizon. The memory of my daughters' births overlaid now with a dulling patina of time.

It is the second hospital that haunts my thoughts, the one where Georgina died. It is an old building, a former work house and then an asylum. A strange, twisty place, full of echoing halls and outmoded gadgets. 

My haunting started early, even before my daughter died. In the windowless NICU parents' kitchen, amidst the labelled pots of yoghurts and stained coffee cups, I phoned my friend to tell her what had happened. I suddenly felt myself whizz up to the ceiling and then higher still, saw from above my distress call emanating from the gizzards of the building, a flickering patch of bioluminescence amidst stone and cement, a synapse firing helplessly in an uncaring nervous system of concrete and discoloured gloss paint. Tap tap tapping. And I knew that this place was one which would not leave my mind easily.  

The room in which my daughter lived was a small one, a side ward with a blue linoleum floor. There were four bays, the twins were in the two spots closest to the door, Georgina to the left hand side as you entered the room. This place where my first born spent the majority of her life, where she took her final breath. A room I subsequently spent a great deal of time in. I failed to recognise the incubator in which she had lived when it came around again, or to locate the room where she finally died, where her heart stopped beating. My husband knew them, the incubator he pointed out, the room he would not, but they had already left my memory. This made me feel as though I had betrayed her, that I could not find these two small spots of contact between my daughter and the earth that remained behind her. 

Image taken from the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL

I should like to go back into that room and stand there, now that it is empty of people, at nighttime perhaps? I don't know what it is that occupies that space now. An office? A different type of ward with larger occupants? I know that it is no longer a neonatal intensive care unit. That time has passed. The NICU is now located in another hospital on the other side of the town. I don't know what it is that I hope to find there, in that stillness, in the depth of the night. I always had a creeping sensation that there was something happening in the NICU, something hidden away behind the scenes. Because the plastic boxes and alarms surely couldn't be real. Too terrible and strange, surely a facade or a trick. Perhaps I hope that she is still hidden in the walls somewhere. Or maybe I am looking for pieces of her? Or shards of myself? Those that flew away with such force that pieces might still be embedded in the walls, those that crumbled away gently to such a fine dust that they could never be reconstituted, those I ripped out with my fingernails and cast away with a shudder of revulsion. Look, there's the part of me that cared when your boyfriend dumped you. That small pile of fluff in the corner, there's my certainty that everything will, in the end, be ok. That small translucent snippet of cellophane, a discard from some piece of medical equipment, the part of me that looked around eagerly for help, turned to higher powers for assistance and aid. 

There is only one other place where I can feel her so close at hand. Rather unromantically, it is the final toilet stall at my place of work, the one that adjoins the cleaning cupboard. In my dreams, the two places combine, to form a strange lurching amalgam of places where I might find some left behind pieces of my daughter. I turn away from her incubator to find myself in the toilet cubicle, although in reality these two places are miles apart.

I used to kneel there, by that toilet, clutching at the bowl, nausea roiling through my stomach. After she'd died, I walked back into the small, smelly cubicle for the first time in over a year and sunk to my knees again. I suddenly felt solitary and alone although it had been a long time since I had been a being in triplicate. I balled myself up amongst the cleaning supplies, laid my cheek down on the industrial size packet of toilet rolls and ached for her. "She was here," I murmured. "She was just here." And as I lay there, I momentarily felt that I could reach out, grab the empty air and twist it through ninety degrees, to send her hurtling away from her death and back to me. But, sadly, that proved to be just an illusion, although it is testament to my own desperation and craziness that I tried it. I had to check that it wouldn't work. 

 Are there any places that remind you of your baby or babies? Or where you feel a particular connection to them? How would you, or do you, feel about re-visiting these locations? Do you feel that you are looking for something?


It was sunny and warm here the last couple of days, and is supposed to be again come weekend. Tomorrow it's supposed to rain cats and dogs. And a week and a half ago we had snow. It was wet and clumpy, and there was enough of it to break things. Not near us, but close enough to affect friends. And it wasn't even the first snowfall of the season. That's how crazy the season has been. As I drive around, the trees are in a spectacular rich fall palette-- whole streets under canopies of gold, houses framed in the very colors of fall. There's a tree that glows red in the fall on one corner of my drive to Monkey's school. Every year that tree catches me off guard. Every year I keep meaning to come back with the camera.

It's warm, for now. It's gorgeous, really. But when I step outside I can't quite believe it. It's like the snowstorm tripped the binary switch somewhere in me, and now I know it's coming.  My season of (more) longing and (more) missing and (more) sadness. You know what else? Even without the snowstorm, how could I escape-- there's a frigging Santa figure, like nearly life-sized, parked in the isle of my local pharmacy.

I remember so vividly that four years ago, in my first fall of bereavement, the first snowflakes made me want to holler. They fell, tiny and fragile, melting almost on contact. The snow was here again, the planet being nearly through its yearly orbit. What I saw, or heard, or maybe felt in the first snow of that season was that time passes only for the living. That simple, cold truth got me that day. I am feeling nudged by it again. On the mornings when I have to defrost my windshield before I can start driving and on the mornings when I wear hiking sandals. It may be warm out, but I know it's temporary.


With the holidays (and snow) encroaching, I wanted to do this thing we haven't done in a while-- ask you how things are for you. So pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable, or as comfortable as it gets these days. Grab a mug of tea or a glass of wine and tell us: How are you?  


The conversation happened on an average evening. I wasn’t feeling any which way in particular, wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary. It was just a day, in the middle of another long week, towards the end of a complicated year.

I was taking my time wandering around the multiple level Whole Foods, rolling the cart as slowly as I wanted, perusing aisles that I had never entered, enjoying the temporary taste of aloneness that usually doesn’t exist under these conditions. Normally I’m running between wine racks and around food displays, chasing my two year old, who genuinely believes Whole Foods was created for hide and go seek. A simple visit for shampoo and milk can sometimes take more than an hour with her cheeky company. But not tonight.

As the clock ticks towards closing time, I wheel my cart in the direction of the check out lane to pay for my evening of solitary indulgence. An older woman greets me kindly.

Hello, she says.


And that was that, as the story goes.

And then this kid appears. This teenager, with scrappy hair and pale skin, just shows up out of nowhere to bag my groceries. He’s wearing a plaid shirt, baggy jeans and a sincere smile. He looks relaxed and eager almost simultaneously. And he smells like the middle class.

Hey man, he asks with measured enthusiasm. How’s it going?

I have learned how to dismiss these conversations with relative ease over the months since my baby died. In the beginning, when the dizzying shock was all there was, I’m not even sure I heard these kind of questions. I can hardly remember a single conversation with anyone in those first few weeks and months, let alone one with a complete stranger in a check out line. But as the months marched on, this kind of common social courtesy began ringing in my ear like a clanging drum. A friendly and casual how’s it going? from a stranger became a jovial sucker punch: HOW’S IT GOING!?!? ARE YOU HAVING AN AWESOME DAY!?!? I wanted to choke on the nicety. So I learned to ignore, or to respond with a muttered answer, or to simply avoid any situation where this kind of question might surface.

But tonight this sprightly chump has me, before I can even think one way or another. I just answer.

I’m good. How are you?

Pretty good man, he says, pretty good.

You’re putting a lot of items to the side, I note with a smile, remembering my own days in the bagging trenches. You trying to get them all in one bag?

Yes, he replies with an innocent grin.

I know that game. My first long term job was bagging groceries. I spent two years of my life playing tetris with food items, trying to find the perfect fit for each paper bag.

Yeah, he says through a chuckle. Cold stuff goes together, fragile stuff on top.

Exactly. The plastic bag people weren’t any fun though. You can’t organize anything in those bags. I guess you don’t have that problem here, eh? I’m surprised you guys even allow paper bags.

He laughs nervously and the checkout woman flashes me a smile, as if we’ve shared a little dig on her company. And there I am, laughing right along with them, like I enjoy these silly little chats.

And then with a hint of pride, as if he’s showing a veteran his immense talent, he hands me one individual paper bag, filled perfectly to the top with my produce and toothpaste and chips and everything else.

The magazine is down the side, he says with eyebrows raised, not wanting me to miss this little packing gem.

Nice one! I add excitedly.

It wasn’t until I walked out to my car that I even realized what had just taken place. Who was that in there, I thought to myself in a state of perplexity. Having conversations, laughing, using exclamation points - was that me? Did I really just say, nice one!? As I recalled the brief interchange, I could hardly believe it was real, as if I was watching someone else going through the motions of every day people.

I’ll tell you something though. The interaction felt like a minor fucking miracle. A brief sign that maybe this grief, which sometimes feels like a two-thousand pound bear sitting on my chest, is evolving, even in the slightest of ways. Because it’s not as if I forgot my baby was still dead in that moment. It’s not like I magically returned to my former self before my daughter died. She was there. My grief was there. As they always are, tucked and folded in to my very fabric. The truth is, we were all there together, having a pointless conversation about groceries. And it felt pretty okay.

How has your grief evolved over the months and years? Were there any signs that tipped you off to this evolution?

la llorona

photo by A30_Tsitika.

I paint my face like a calavera. I don't know what I am trying to achieve, making myself look dead, but I do it. I am alone. It feels like I am doing something wrong, and in that way, I am excited. I put a base of white onto my face. It reminds me of high school and listening to the Cure and being a punk rocker. Then I pull out the black face paint crayon and draw a joy there, a swirl here. Some flowers and decorations. I am more beautiful with the mask of death.

I want to feel close to her.  I want her to be amongst my posse in the afterlife, the otherworldly gang of ancestors that come when the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest, guiding me into good real estate decisions and warning me of enemies. I beckon her to come this day, the next and one after that. To rest in my arms while I dress like a calavera. We are but a whisper away from the other side. Maybe we are a coat of white face paint away.

I straddle cultures. I straddle existences. Half-white. Half-Latina. Half-mother. Half-La Llorona. I am an erstwhile Catholic and a half-assed Buddhist. I spent years living on the Mexican border in Arizona, speaking Spanish like a Chicana, and come home to a house full of Panamanians. I married a Southerner and live in New Jersey. I have attended midnight masses in four continents. I put each image of death, each candle burned, into a steaming cauldron, stew them for decades. I take some dark ideas out, adding liturgy and spells, until it is a soothing, warming bowl of ritual. Because above all else, I am a ritualist. I like rites. I like routine. I like customs. I like ceremony. I like something to do over and over because it is. What. We. Do. So I paint my face. I paint my face and I build an altar across my dining room. And I pull out the pictures of the dead.

I line up their photographs on my ofrenda. This time of year feels sacred and frightening. The leaves fall. My people fall. My grandmother. My aunt. My great-grandmother. My grandfather. My father-in-law. My daughter. So, I take a bit of them and add it to my Día de los Muertos altar. I decorate it with their funeral prayer cards, the Irish blessing written on the back. I put little bibles and prayer books. There is a rosary created by a blind nun and a bowl of fruit. I make sugar skulls. I paint a large painting of a woman crying and holding a stillborn baby. I hang it in the middle of the wall, papier-mâché skeletons flanking each side, flower lights hanging around the wooden frame.

Ssssshhhh. Don't tell anyone, but the painting is me and Lucy. It is a 16 inch by 20 inch secret done in bright acrylic. I tried to paint the Virgin Mary, but I always paint me holding Lucia and crying. It is pathological. It makes others uncomfortable. There is this show of competing artists. One of them could take pictures of nothing but clay and red dye that looked like bloody  internal organs. She suffered from colitis her whole life. She tried to create other work, but she always ended up painting organs hanging from a box. I keep painting my dead daughter. I paint death because I do not show her picture in my house, except on Day of the Dead. I put her picture in this little brightly colored frame that betrays the gray of our heartbreak. I can close it up with an orange ribbon when neighbors come by. Does anyone notice our Lucy there, lips red as the sacred heart? The lips are strange and mesmerizing to me, and I have kissed them. The dead wear makeup too.


Is it okay to tell you a ghost story? It is Halloween after all. Sometimes I feel like La Llorona, the Wailing Woman, who walks the edges of ponds, arroyos, the rivers, the places where water runs and her children might wash up. See, the legend goes that her children were swept away by a flash flood, carried off dead, and she, driven insane by the grief, wanders the rivers of the world looking for them. She screams and keens into the night. In another land, the legend is that she killed her children herself, threw them in the river. But the end is the same--they are gone, and she is condemned to wander the earth. But the scream is one we all know. She screams into the night, "Dios Mio! Mi hijos! Mi hijos!" or "My God! My babies! My babies!"

She is beautiful and terrifying. Every old man and woman in Mexico has a La Llorona story, even my mother. It is a ghost story, a nightmare, to lose your children. Everyone knows that. La Llorona is a warning told to children who become young adults. Do not venture out at night or La Llorona will snatch you. Do not go meet your boyfriend by the riverbed, under that beautiful weeping willow, La Llorona will steal you from us. I am both comforted that child loss is acknowledged, even in ghost stories, as something to drive you mad, condemn you for eternity, and also sad that we have such bad PR. I get La Llorona, I do. I feel condemned some days. Like La Llorona, wild hair, wild eyes, wandering the babylost rivers of the internet, wailing, "Dios Mio! Mi hija! Mija! My daughter. My daughter. Oh  my God, my daughter."

This time seems wrought with ghosts and visions and the other world. Today is Halloween and Samhain, the Witches New Year. Tomorrow and the next day, the Days of the Dead. Tomorrow is Día de los Inocentes ("Day of the Innocents") also known as Día de los Angelitos ("Day of the Little Angels").  November 1st is a day set aside to honor children and babies who have died. We who wander the internet wailing have created our own culture around death, our own rituals of mourning. An angel writes our baby's name in the sand across the world. We write poetry. We light candles together. We trade skulls and hearts and ornaments.

I paint my face white, turn myself into a skull. I commune with the dead. I create elaborate altars for her. I summon her, conjure her baby form in the arms of my grandmothers and aunts. I stare into a bowl of water, scrying and crying. There is something comforting in the desperation of these motions. It is something other than wailing.



What ways do you honor the dead during Halloween, Samhain or Days of the Dead? Or if you don't, why not? What rituals have you created for yourself? For your family?  Are these rituals different for your baby(ies) than for your older ancestors? Do you connect with the community of parents who have lost children during October? What rituals feel most comforting to you?


I am embarrassed to admit it, but my first thought was that she would be alone. All alone.

I should be embarrassed; maybe I should even be ashamed. I know that I cultivate, have cultivated, will continue to cultivate relationships. I know that I create friendships, relationships, a sense of other in my life.   But my first thought, when I heard that he died in that accident, that it was so sudden and unexpected, that he was dead, my first thought was that she was all alone. She had no one now.

I should know better. I should believe better. That will be me that one day.

It’s just. . .well, look. Frank* and Cassandra didn’t ever have children. I don’t know why, I didn’t ask. I know he had children from his first marriage, but after 15 years they didn’t ever have them together. And suddenly, quite young, he was dead. There she is with a house and travel plans and 2 cars and all of the trappings of togetherness and she’s alone.  There’s a life time of shared memories and no one to share them with. We hold on to the good times and make sense of the bad times by sharing stories. Very often our partner is the closest participant in the best and worst times of our lives.

I cannot help but think, when that partner dies, we lose part of our story.

One day Mr. Spit will die. Statistics tell me that he will likely die before me. He is older and male, and right now as a woman I am apt to live longer.

One day I will be Cassandra. It could be any day, really. If I have learned nothing in these almost four years, I have learned that tragedy can strike without warning, arriving into any life.

I like that song, Live Like You Were Dying, but the truth is, you can’t live like that. Real life intrudes. You can’t live each day as if it were the last. Living life well actually requires that you believe your life is an ongoing concern. You pay your bills, buy groceries for next week, put money aside for trips and plan celebrations. You live as if you have a future. You plan to make more memories, to continue the story together.

One day Mr. Spit, this man who is my comfort, my shield, my laughter, my joy, my companion and my delight, will be gone. I will still be here. I will live without him. When he is gone, he will only live in my memories. I know that when he is gone, I will follow. Perhaps shortly or perhaps many years later. 

It’s not the following part. It’s the in-between. The time I am here and he is not. I would wish that I could go first, but I think that simply replaces my pain with his. It doesn’t make me feel any more at ease to transfer my sorrow to him. One of us will be alone.

So what? The experts tell me that those of us who are childfree develop friendships and relationships to help us as we age.

Isn’t that a bit calculating? Think, just for a second. Shall I walk up to a woman like me, a woman without children and ask “Will you be my friend? For now, but also when I am old? Will you be my friend because at some point bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh will die, and I have no children and I will need a friend? I am a good friend and I am willing to do this for you as well?” And shall I find a man, a man who is handy and shall I tell him that I put a hole in my finger with a cordless drill and I cannot use a hammer to save my life, and will he be my friend? I will bake him cookies and knit him the odd pair of socks and remember his birthday and have no expectations other than a sincere wish that he understands the inward mysteries of toilets.  Shall I go looking, calculatingly, for others to tell my story to, when Mr. Spit is gone?

Is this what people do? Perhaps they are not so calculating, perhaps they do not engage in my tendency to think everything out to the nth degree.


Cassandra  is alone, Frank is dead, and one day so shall my husband be.  The story, the memories, all it will end.

And I will be alone.


Do you worry more after the death of your child, about what happens when your partner dies? Do you agree that our partners very often share the closest parts of our story? Do you wonder who will keep the good and the bad parts of the story, the closest memories of what made you, you?


*It is always a struggle when you blog, to write your own thoughts and stories and deal lightly with the places that your stories and thoughts intersect with the lives of others. The story is true, but I have altered names and circumstances, choosing to deal lightly with a person in grief.