What It Feels Like To Almost Have A Child After Losing A Child

Two weeks from today, on May 7, around 12:30pm in Los Angeles, we are scheduled to meet our third child, a boy, who if anything like his older sisters, will be long and thick and blue eyed and full of hair.

We have a name picked out for him. We have a few things ready for his arrival; an old car seat, some hand me down articles of clothing, an aqua colored swaddle blanket and a scattering of other necessities, like baby soap and a sealed bottle of whiskey. Barring any unforeseen calamity or early entrance, he will come into the world after spending thirty-eight and a half weeks inside his Mother, the same amount of time his sister spent in utero before dying.

Seventy-five weeks of pregnancy has come down to this.

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We are dancing more and more these days. My three year old and I run around the house singing wildly off key to the vibrations of Florence + The Machine, cranking the volume during the “loud parts,” as Stella refers to them, and pumping our fists and spinning in circles and group dancing with Momma, which involves an awkward three person and one belly swaying hug.

We have been doing this sort of tribal dance ever since Margot died. It was always a brief respite from the agonizing grief, a tangible way for us to contrast the sadness surrounding Stella’s life with some joy. But something feels different now. As the song ends and we throw ourselves onto the couch in exhaustion, the sadness that once lingered after the dancing is now replaced with anticipation, the light at the end of another long pregnancy tunnel, the hopeful gift of a son, out of the ashes of his sister.

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I have been growing a beard since we entered the third trimester because I don’t know what else to do for my son in utero, because it’s the only outward sign of hope I can think of, because the simple act of not shaving feels like something I have control over. It is thick and black and surprisingly vigorous after two months. And it’s mostly awful looking, something my partner says “doesn’t look bad or good.” But it’s there, growing simultaneously with my son, exuding love and hope every time I pick food out of my mustache or my daughter yanks at it in laughter or I itch it at work or gently pull at it while I’m thinking or reading.

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Thirteen months and one day ago, as my partner bled and bled with no clots in sight, we were twenty minutes away from a hysterectomy.

Thirty-six and a half weeks ago we got lucky, damn lucky, that the cells of a tiny egg and a tiny sperm entered into a union that has, up to this point, stayed the course. There is gratefulness in abundance.



Mostly though, there is this inescapable feeling like our lives are hanging in the balance, like we’re standing on the edge of a cliff, overlooking a rugged coastline, waiting to be pulled back or kicked off the ledge.

I don’t know how we could go through this again.

I really, really, don’t know how we could go through this again.  

It’s damn near impossible to keep myself from looking over the cliff, from imagining the free fall should this little boy not make it. The fear, which introduced itself early on in the pregnancy, as if on cue, has successfully set up iron gates around my hopeful heart, holding me in a perpetual state of doubt, my gaze nearly fixed on the rocky coastline below. The emergency run to labor and delivery at thirty weeks didn’t help. Nor have the poor non-stress numbers, the abnormal blood work, or the two dozen times we had to get the doppler out to see if he was still alive. The only relief from the fear and worry is that it’s persistence has become commonplace.

And then there is the hope. Hope that this baby will live, and keep living. Hope that I will hold him in my arms and look into his eyes and tell him that he is my favorite boy in all the world. Hope that I will get to introduce my three year old to her live sibling, to see the two of them together, a dream of such vivid beauty I can hardly even think about it.

Hope that in two weeks time, we will pick up what’s left of ourselves, step back from the cliff, turn around and walk back towards home.

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If you have had a subsequent pregnancy, what was your experience like? If you haven’t had a subsequent pregnancy, how does it feel to read about other members of the baby loss community who are pregnant? Is it hopeful? Diffiicult?

birthing a dying child

Janel Kragt Bakker is proud mother to Caritas, whose name means "self-giving love." Cara suffered from a debilitating brain tumor and massive hydrocephalus. She was born prematurely on October 16, 2009, and was removed from life support the following day after her condition was deemed untreatable. Janel, her husband Laryn, and their two-year-old daughter Alleia are learning how to live their "new normal" lives amidst their profound grief.

I discovered Janel quite by accident when she referenced my previous writing on a topic that continues to tangle and evade me: our perception of birth and how our notion of our bodies as vessels changes with loss. Janel wrote this piece to be featured in Catapult Magazine, a publication that explores Christian theology. Regardless of what beliefs we subscribe to, the philosophical prompts Janel offers are universal. She expands my hot-headed thinking with grace, and she was kind enough to allow us to share her reflections with you.

~ Kate



Immediately after a woman has birthed her baby, writes midwife Jan Verhaeghe,

Every cell in her body knows and shows her strength. At the end of hours of pain and emotions felt more intensely than at any other time in life, she is exultant. To know the exhilaration, euphoria, and power that comes with the exhaustion and pain of giving birth is truly empowering. After giving birth, a woman knows she can do anything, accomplish any goal.

~ "The Empowerment of Birth." New Life Journal. December 2003.

Verhaughe is certainly not alone is her assessment of the birthing experience. Giving birth has long been associated with creativity and conquest. And among many contemporaries, especially proponents of “natural birth,” the experience of giving birth is perceived as the zenith of women’s empowerment. I do not share this perception. On October 16, 2009, I gave birth to a dying child. The experience was one of absolute helplessness.

Twenty-nine weeks into my pregnancy and two months after receiving the devastating news that Caritas Anne, our daughter in utero, suffered from a massive and likely fatal brain tumor, my body went into labor. Due to pregnancy complications caused by Cara’s condition, my labor could not be stopped. All night my uterus contracted and my cervix dilated. At the appropriate time, I began pushing. Cara’s head, swelled beyond the size of that of a full-term infant by spinal fluid and lesion, would not descend through the birth canal. After I was quickly wheeled into an operating room for a cesarean section, I stared at a partition while a team of health professionals wrested my ailing daughter from my body. She did not cry; she barely breathed. And there was nothing I could do to make things right. I couldn’t even touch my child. While another team of doctors worked to intubate and stabilize my daughter, I did what she could not do and the only thing I could do; I wailed.

As expectant parents dream up their their ideal “birth plans,” young mothers describe their birthing experiences around water coolers or playground equipment, and well-wishers congratulate new parents on Facebook walls, the birthing experience is often closely linked to merit. The fewer the interventions, the longer the unmedicated labor, the more (or less) dramatic the coping with labor pain, the bigger the baby, the higher the Apgar scores, and so on, the more heroic the birthing woman. Anyone who believes machismo is a strictly male phenomenon should listen to newly minted mothers swap their birthing stories. The natural birth movement in particular and the contemporary North American culture of parenthood in general deemphasize the unavoidable fact that no matter how much a woman takes care of her body, knows her body and trusts her body, the birthing experience may go horribly wrong.

As Kate Inglis, another mother of a baby who died, writes,

People anoint bodies in hospital beds with words like “fighter” and “miracle” and “goddess” because of the cultural urge to wrap up formative life events with neat little bows. But in doing so, they silently demote everyone else who dies. Or who screams for an epidural, or who falls apart at the incubator of a one-pound child.

We do not exist or fail to exist — or birth and "fail" to birth — because some are stamped with a rubber imprint of GOOD or STRONG or WORTHY and some are not.

The Passing-through of Necessary SpacesGlow in the Woods.

The fact is that giving birth, like so many life experiences, is largely outside of our control. Giving birth is a powerful event, but the power is witnessed rather than manufactured by the mother, father, child or anyone else in the room. To give birth is to encounter beauty, mystery and transcendence, but to give birth is also to meet grave danger and to be laid bare before cosmic forces that we cannot control any more than we can understand.

portrait of surrender (not of the author), lovingly shared by mainemomma

Receptivity is a central motif in Mariology across Christian traditions. "Here I am, the servant of the Lord," says Mary in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke as the birth of Jesus is foretold. "Let it be with me according to your word." Mary’s openness to the mysterious movement of God is her chief virtue and ours. But opening ourselves to that which is beyond ourselves is dangerous business. The possibility of parenthood is no exception. When a couple open themselves to reproduction, they also open themselves to the relentless pain of being unable to conceive, unable to give birth. A pregnant woman opens herself to being cruelly betrayed by her own body, to standing by helplessly while her child is betrayed by his or her own body. Opening oneself to giving birth is opening oneself to suffering and death-to managing debilitating handicaps, to burying one’s child, to being overcome with sadness at the mere sight of another parent doting on a healthy newborn. Opening oneself to giving birth is opening oneself to hell.

Of course, opening oneself to giving birth is also opening oneself to beauty and transcendence. When I gave birth to our firstborn daughter two years ago, it was indeed an experience of elation and wonder. My husband and I were brought into the presence of God in a unique and profound way as we marveled at the miracle of new life. The veil was also somehow lifted, though in a different way, as I gave birth to Cara. We encountered a God who knows what it is like to watch one’s own child die. And we strongly sensed that God suffered with us and with our daughter.

Some Old Testament scholars define "lament" as the reaction to a belief-shattering experience. Even though I knew better, before I carried and birthed my daughter Cara I believed that if I did what was right, I could expect positive outcomes. This is my lament. Metaphysically speaking, I do not know why bad things happen. I do not know whether God wills them, merely allows them, cannot stop them or something else entirely. What I do know is that I am not fully the master of my own destiny and that one day I will again witness the birth of something beautiful.

~ Janel Kragt Bakker

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Reflecting on birth, what do you feel you know? What do you feel you'll never know? What is your lament?

The passing-through of necessary spaces

The passing-through of necessary spaces

One day, you breathe. And you know that, despite not being fashionable or palatable, you are more compassionate now than you ever were before. You know how surreal it is to cradle an urn in rush hour traffic. You are all at once a giant and a meek, trembling, spitting thing. You know now to embrace both. You know that it's not your fault that some people can't bear the taste of black licorice.

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warrior mama

When I was pregnant with Dahlia, I was absolutely, undeniably, nothing’s gonna get in my way going to birth my child at home, and naturally. I was even, I admit, judgmental about anyone’s choice to do otherwise – I just couldn’t understand why anyone would actually want to have their baby, on drugs, in a hospital. Without being aware of it, I took for granted that a healthy baby would be the guaranteed reward of my empowered choices – an exceptionally healthy baby who would thrive even more than expected because s/he would come out of me naturally and go directly to my breast, uninterrupted, in the comfort of our home.

Dahlia had other plans. After 32 hours of hard back labor at home and several of those hours stalled at eight centimeters, I made a very clear choice to go to the hospital for an epidural. Six hours later, she was born easily and safely and immediately put on my chest. Four hours after that, having signed a dozen liability waivers to be allowed to leave the hospital early, we were back home in our bed with our new daughter.

I had my healthy child, in spite of her hospital birth. Even then I took for granted the incredible miracle of her health and her life. I spent a good part of the next year working through my guilt around having chosen to go to the hospital and have an epidural. A part of me felt inferior for the choice, and I felt, in some way, that I had failed.

I did it with Tikva too. Even with this child whose life – of any length – I knew would be a miracle, I fretted for a while during her short life about having chosen the epidural. The epidural I told Dave I wanted because I didn’t feel relaxed, and I wanted – needed – to feel relaxed as I delivered my child whom I knew would be unable to breathe on her own, who might not even make it past her birth. Maybe it was my brain’s need to fret over something that really didn’t matter in order to distract myself just a little bit from what was so constantly at the forefront of my consciousness: That my daughter’s life was fragile and unsure, her future – and mine – unknown. That she very well might die, and that I would be forever changed no matter how the story unfolded.

My thoughts have rambled before around the question of how to birth a child and what my choices mean. But it’s not this that is on my mind right now. Though related, it’s something different.

I have read my share of birth announcement emails and birth stories since Tikva came through my life. All are different. All but one have announced the birth of a healthy living baby (or babies). Some were born in the hospital, some at home, some vaginally and others by scheduled C-section for various reasons. Regardless of location, those that told the stories of vaginal deliveries have shared one quality:

Praise of the superior mother who births her child naturally, vaginally, and without drugs.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a progressive place, a liberal place, a funky place, full of New Age and yoga studios and locally grown organic produce and raw food vegan restaurants and Michael Franti concerts in small venues. I love it here, it has been my home for 30 years. And I recognize that I am immersed in just a tiny sliver of the way most people in the U.S. – let alone the world – approach life. Before he met me, my husband didn’t even know babies could be born at home in the western world.

Yet there is a certain holier-than-though message being communicated here without being spoken outright, and I don’t think it is just here in California. As the day of Tikva’s birth approaches a year later, I have become extremely sensitive to it. The message tells me:

You are a powerful goddess, a mighty warrior when you have birthed your child naturally, trusting your inner wisdom and strength to guide you.

Because you are a warrior, you will be rewarded with the undeniable manifestation of your choices – a healthy child.

So what am I? What am I if I birth my child in another way? Am I less mighty, less empowered for choosing to have an epidural? Am I less of a warrior because I birthed my children in the hospital? Do I trust my inner wisdom less?

And what is Tikva, my child who died, whose body was too fragile to live for very long? Any less a gift? Any less a manifestation of the most incredible grace and magic life has to offer?

And what of Dahlia, my precious light who was born healthy, in the hospital, with an epidural?

See what I’m getting at here?

How about this for warrior:

I birthed two babies, and carried three. I said goodbye to one too soon at just 10 weeks of pregnancy. I carried Tikva for 20 of her 40+ weeks knowing that she might not live. I moved halfway around the world to give her every fighting chance. My relationship with my husband grew deeper and more solid throughout her life and since. Together, we cared for Dahlia while she, too, loved and lost her sister.

I loved my daughter fiercely for every day of her short life. I lived with grace, connected to her and to God in every moment. I loved her so completely, so unconditionally, that I knew when it was time to let her go. I held her as she breathed her final breaths. I felt the moment when her spirit left the beautiful body that I held in my arms for the last time. I stroked her soft cheek. I held my daughter as she died.

Am I less of a warrior because of how and where I birthed her? Am I any less her mother because she is not here in my arms?

So much of our collective identity as women is tied to being a mother. No wonder all of that comes into question – in our own eyes as we look at ourselves now, after loss – when our child dies. I can only imagine how much more so when that child dies before s/he is born, or during or shortly after birth.

But we are no less a warrior, no less empowered, no less mighty and powerful and connected to our inner strength without our children here to prove it. I never knew the depth of the warrior I could be until Tikva entered my life, until she departed. I never knew the grace I could live from was possible before her.

I think we are asked – in the moment of loss – to tap into a warrior in ourselves we might never have known was there. Because to mother a child who has died – to say goodbye over and over, to let go a little bit every day for the rest of our lives – is HARD. It is powerful, mighty, full of grace.

The work of a warrior like no other.

That’s what’s been on my mind lately when I think about birth.

That’s what I remember when I read another birth story, when I doubt for a moment the true warrior that I am.

Yes, I am a warrior too.

And so are you.

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What makes you a warrior? Do you believe that you are? How did you approach birth before losing your child, and now?

The First Lesson

Today's post comes from a guest writer who is dear to my heart. Mani was the student midwife for my previous pregnancy, which ended in a way no one intended it to. I called her Mani-calm-my-heart. She is young, beautiful inside and out, and full of wisdom. Not long after Glow in the Woods launched, I know I wanted to see Mani write something here one day. I felt that her perspective of her experience of birth/death/loss from that of a student midwife will be so valuable to all.
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this cup pass from me

I am carrying a child who is almost precisely the gestational age her brother was when he was born.  And when he died.  And this is scaring the shit out of me.

26 weeks, 1 day is actually pretty decent for a micropreemie.  They told me Finn had at least a 75% chance of survival without major complications, statistically...even if he was a white male fetus, that most vulnerable creature of the species.

I have learned, more viscerally than any professor could ever have hammered through my skull had I actually braved such a subject in my studies, that statistics lie.  Or that only fools believe they will come out on the positive end of them, at least.  He did have major complications, ones that proved insurmountable, fatal.  Despite steroid shots, his lungs collapsed.  One so severely that they tubed him directly through his skin, through his tender, papery flesh and the tissue of his tiny ribcage.  I do not even know if there was anesthesia...I was ten rooms away, trying to recover some feeling in my legs and a blood pressure reading high enough to qualify as alive, to prove to the nurses that I could stand so that they'd let me hop in a wheelchair and go to him.  When we finally won that fight and were ushered to his incubator, the wounds of his own battle were already vivid upon him.  His little fingertips and toes were blackened from lack of oxygen, and his chest had been cut, his throat tubed.  Before his mama ever held him.  Before there was ever a gentle touch or a voice that spoke his name.

Then we did hold his hand, and he squeezed our fingers, and we stroked his little feet and marvelled at him, and in the end hours upon hours later when the outcome of the battle was undeniable we surrendered and unplugged him and held him and tried to fit a lifetime of love and comfort into one last hour, before he was gone.  We were lucky, beyond measure, to have that time. And he was medicated, probably more than I even realized, so I do not think there was pain for him at the end.  I allow myself to think that.  I need to think that.

But for the longest time the rest, those brutal early hours, were something I simply did not allow myself to think about at all, because there was this primal cry that would rise in my throat and choke me.  Because my baby, my tiny baby, had been born to a shock and suffering that even now I know I only know the half of.  Because that was the first of his brief hours of life.  And because it was me who enabled it to be that way, me who made the decision, at 26 weeks exactly, that we would rescind our previous "no heroics" designation and go all out to save the baby I believed by then could be saved.

I don't exactly think I made the wrong decision...that's not why I lie here in a cold sweat before dawn some mornings.  The odds were that he might have survived and thrived.  I would, I think, have felt worse had we done nothing and lost a baby who might otherwise have come through okay.  And I don't exactly feel guilt, because I made the decision without guile and on the basis of the best advice I could get at the time.   But owning that decision and the pain that it - that I - caused that tiny boy will sit with me, part of me, until the day I die.  It is, if I am honest with myself, the cruellest thing I have ever caused to happen to another human being, no matter my intentions, my investment, the depths of my love.  And what wakens me in the thin light of 4:30 am these days, heart pounding, is the fear that sometime in the next week or two I may have to face it again, to choose again.

Choice is often and in many ways a privilege.  When you have no real control over the outcome of your choices, though, it can feel like a mockery, like a bitter joke.

They ask me if I want the steroid shots and I say, i don't know and I cast my eyes around the room like a trapped animal, wondering hell, do i look like i'm writing this story, like i'm in charge here?  The truth is if my cervix is showing significant weakness of course I want them NOW and if it's not I want to wait because they are most effective when given within two weeks of delivery and preferably after 28 weeks but sometimes it's weak and soft and sometimes it's not, that tricksy cervix.  The truth is these same practices have taken far less significant decisions out of my hands in the past, in the crises of labour, so the fact that they defer to me on this Big Thing just leaves me wary, puzzled.  The truth is they don't know what's going to happen and I don't know what's going to happen and I don't want control of Big Decisions in this liminal boundary zone because I know it is a fool's game. 

I am chickenshit, burnt crispy.  I want to abdicate.

The little life that hangs in the balance...for my own sake, sure, I want her at all costs.  But for hers?  That is the road I do not seem to know how to walk this time, the road I wish I could close my eyes to and ignore until it is safely past and I get to believe, maybe, that I will not have to choose again whether or not my child's brief life will be one of pain and machines and invasive procedures, until we reach a place where I can breathe and hope that I will get to play mother this time, not hapless, impotent god.

I whisper, please.  give me a few more weeks, and i'll happily pretend that I'm bossing you around for the rest of my life.