Parents of lost babies and potential of all kinds: come here to share the technicolour, the vividness, the despair, the heart-broken-open, the compassion we learn for others, having been through this mess — and see it reflected back at you, acknowledged, understood.

Many thanks to artist Stephanie Sicore for allowing us to feature her little bird in our banner.

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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



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


reflections on baby photos: three voices

1 :::

Several weeks after Sadie died my sister-in-law had the first picture we took of her painted on canvas for us. It is a beautiful shot taken as I held her for the first time, all chubby cheeks and serene newness.

It has been a focal point sitting on our bedroom mantle ever since. Most mornings I send a quick I love you, Munchie towards it before heading off to work. There have been times that I’ve sat on my bed in front of it, sobbing under the weight of how much I miss her.

My brother took my second favorite photo. In it Sadie is sleeping in her father’s arms. The pose of her tiny little fist curled up under her chin like a miniature, tired old man makes me smile. I’d probably have a wall-sized mural of it instead if I didn’t think it’d have every guest running for the hills, calling me a whacko over their shoulder as they went.

The honest truth is that I struggle between that sentiment and a lingering guilt over not having enough of them up.

The strength of our love for her merits having her image splayed across every surface we own. So why the hell should I worry about whether or not it makes our dinner guests fidget in their seats?

We probably took several hundred photos of Sadie over the course of her six weeks with us. At any point I can open those files and look back for as long or as little that I care to. They allow me to remember every curve of her perfect face. The video clips remind me of how hilarious we found it when she grunted her way through a poop. They allow me to grieve as and when I choose.

These images we keep tell our heartbreaking truth: that along with our memories, they are all we have left.

~ Jen


2 :::

Our only pictures of Silas are from when he was still in Lu's womb, and after he had passed away. His presence was too brief and traumatic to capture while he was alive

It is almost impossible for me to look at photos of Lu while pregnant, but I need to see his beautiful and serene face in the collage Lu created in the months after he left us. In it he is newborn and perfect, a gorgeous little kid. The photo was taken by the hospital staff and given to us in a box along with imprints of his hands and feet in clay and in ink, a lock of his hair, the tiny hat he wore at the hospital and several other beautiful photographs of him.

There is absolutely no question that this collage or a photograph of Silas will always be displayed in our house. He was our child and although we did not get to have him long, the physical presence of his life and existence is vitally important to us. Frankly, I've never for a moment considered any other arrangement, or even if having his photo displayed would make guests feel uncomfortable.

Just the idea that someone would want for us to do this differently to make them feel better makes me extremely upset.

It is our choice to remember our son openly and honestly in our home. If any friend or family had any other opinion they would be well served to keep that entirely to themselves. It is up to them to deal with their own inability to face reality and not at all my problem.

In the framed collage Lu created is his photo, the ink imprints of his hands and feet, a haiku I wrote about missing him, a photograph of his name written in the sand on the beach at sunset, photographs of the tattoos Lu and I both have in his honor, and a small print of the constellation Orion, his middle name. It is not nearly enough or anywhere what we deserve but it is what we have, and somehow, it will have to do.

~ Chris


3 :::

What I think about displaying pictures of dead babies in one's house is that no-one but the parents gets to have an opinion on this. A picture, bazzillion pictures, where, how-- none of this is up for discussion. Anyone who doesn't like what the parents do is welcome, and is hereby courteously invited, to shut the fuck up. People's homes, coincidentally much like their grief, are theirs. Both are about them and their family, not about anyone else's idea of what's done or what's proper. Even when an anyone else in question is a close friend or relative. Particularly when it's a close friend or relative.

You'd think that with attitude like that I'd have at least a couple pictures of A up around here. But we have none. Back then my hospital didn't offer contact information for NILMDTS photographers. Even if they did, I don't think at the time we would've been comfortable letting a stranger into that room. Scratch that-- I know I wasn't. It bugs me now, because now I would be. And because what we ended up with are the few pictures my sister took with my blackberry. The quality isn't great. It's not awful either, but it's not great.

I've edited some of the pictures we have, cropped, played with effects. Over the years, I posted two of these edited photographs on my blog. I have all of them, original set and my edits, on my laptop. I can look whenever I want to.

There were stretches of time when I looked every day, sometimes several times a day. But there have also been stretches of months when I haven't looked at all. Not because I "moved on" or any such platitude. I think of A every day, I miss him all the time. But I don't need to see the pictures all the time.

All of these things are true, but none of them are the real reason we don't have the pictures up. The real reason is that parents is plural. There's two of us in this, and JD didn't want the images displayed. He doesn't usually look at them either. He doesn't need to. Not to remember, not to love, not to grieve, and not to miss. I think, truthfully, that in the photographs JD sees too much of his own pain, that the pain he sees clouds the beautiful baby whose pictures those are. I think he sees more clearly in his mind's eye.

And so we don't have any photographs up. What we do have are the two framed drawings of Monkey's, family portraits both. One she started while A was still alive, all of us lined up in front of our house, A with a hypothetical future dog. She had done the outlines in pencil and had started on coloring it in with markers before A died. In the days following our return from the hospital, cleaning her room with her, we stumbled upon the drawing. I asked if I could have it, and she said no-- she would finish it and we would hang it on the wall, for everyone. Finishing the drawing was hard on her. It took her weeks, and in the end some of the coloring is sloppy, too sloppy for what she was normally doing back then, and in darker colors than her usual palette.

The second is the portrait she did in art class last year. It's in paint and is fairly impressive artistically, for a seven year old. As in, for example, people have recognizable features. There are two small boys in that one. Nearly identical, with one slightly larger than the other. She proclaimed the larger one to be A, and the smaller (duh!) the Cub. The boys in the painting are holding hands.

So this is the idiosyncratic place our little family finds itself on the pictures thing.  But like much else in this whole babylost experience, it is not etched in stone. A's actual photograph might still end up on a wall in our home. For a while now I have been thinking about creating a collage type arrangement in one frame, floating or otherwise, with pictures of all three of my kids. I think I want to have something of all of them together, since, you know, I can't have all of them together. I am not sure when I'd do it, or how, yet. I was thinking of using the picture of A's hand in mine, but I am not sure what pictures of Monkey and the Cub to use with that. So it might end up being a picture where you can see A's beautiful little face, or maybe both. See how figured out I am?

And if I do manage to make something that I like, I don't know where I would want to put it. In my office, where most wouldn't see it, or somewhere more conspicuous? It depends. Depends on what it comes out looking like-- too tender and intimate to share with just anyone or something I am ok with people seeing? And depends, of course, on how JD will feel about it. I guess, again like so much in this strange world of ours, we will figure it out when (if) we get there.

~ Julia


How do you feel about displaying photos of your baby in your home or in other personal spaces? If you've chosen to feature them in your life, how have your photos been met by loved ones and friends? What do photographs of your child mean to you?


prayer of a babylost parent

May all living beings everywhere, on all planes of existence, known and unknown, be happy, be peaceful, be free from suffering.

Borrowed from a metta (loving kindness) Buddhist meditation. Hopeful. Sensible. Simple. It doesn't matter how you identify, or what you believe. It's all semantics for this one wish, this desperate want and longing.

Liam feels distant. That window has closed, the one through which everything sparkled and vibrated with knowing after his death. Life trudges. My time to post comes and goes and I've got very little other than a vague sense of being grateful that people who need this space continue to find it, that the embrace is so vivid.

I wish you quietness, and the kind of rest that has you wake up feeling calm. And warm feet and glowing embers, and shortbread cookies or latkes and rosy cheeks or whatever sustains you. And tears if you need them, wet and cleansing.

These words render me mute by being all that matters.

And so I pass them on, and nod to you.


What's your wish?


Of Birds and Bees

We all bring a set of issues to the table of grief, whether it be a side-dish of marital problems, a salad of anxiety, or an appetizer laced with previous tragedies which this seems to compound. There's the bottle of money woes, the dash of low-esteem, and perhaps even (hidden under the napkin) the telltale odor of previous bouts with depression. All of these shade and color our experience, and shift our individual abilities to cope with babyloss. I'm not here to rate which are at least edible, and which could stand to be thrown into the compost, but I am going to discuss one particular problem many bring to the table and set down with a thunk, with the grace of an overcooked, 25 pound stuffed turkey.

That would be infertility.

Babyloss after -- during -- infertility is it's own peculiar injustice. For starts, infertility in and of itself can create it's own side excursions into mental trauma. As one avid reader here said to me in person recently, infertility is its own kind of grief.  For starts, what comes naturally in the pickle commercials and to your friends who seem to just look at each other naked and procreate, for you is not meant to be.  Frankly, that alone deserves some mourning.  There's the monthly reminder of failure, which you try hard not to internalize, but it's hard to go through more than a year without getting a bit mopey about overall body image and capabilities. Add to this the strain on marriage, which you try and avoid by making sex fun! And unto itself! But seriously, you're both eyeballing the calendar and know and wonder when it will be fun again, and secretly debate who exactly is letting whom down. Meanwhile all of your friends are pregnant and having babies and wondering what in hell you're waiting for? Time's a ticking! You go to your thousandth baby shower with a stiff upper lip and cry on the way home.

You finally go to an RE (that's Reproductive Endocrinologist) who runs you through a pantheon of testing. If you're lucky, you've climbed online and read up on this stuff so you're prepared for the discomfort of mulitple blood draws on various days of the month, watching radioactive dye run through your fallopian tubes, or having your uterus filled with liquid and monitored via ultrasound, or an uncomfortable uterine biopsy. There's the indignity of going in on day two of your menstrual cycle for a vaginal ultrasound to check the status of your ovaries, and the ever-popular post-coital testing where you run into the office when you should be lounging naked with a glass of something and a cig, and have them take a sample of everything that you didn't leave on the mattress to see if sperm can indeed make it through the secretions that you produce. And don't get me started on the discussion with your husband, which starts with "Honey, I really want to have a baby" and ends with "And so you need to go into the office where they'll hand you a jar. If you're lucky, this office may even have some inspirational magazines for you as well."

And that's just to get a diagnosis. If there is one to be found. Like so many things medical, after all of this, the answer is often "unknown."

Because now we know, maybe, or at least have an idea, there might be surgery to rid of endometriosis or fibroids or a blocked tube. Or IUI (Intra-Uterine Insemination -- you know, the old fashioned way, except with a turkey baster). Or if your husband presents a problem in the equation, IVF with ICSI (Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection. Say that 10 times fast). Drugs are dispensed, often to yourself with syringes and detailed instructions on what needs done intramuscularly. Sometimes you skip right to IVF (In Vitro Fertilization), and sometimes there's a mind-blowing discussion about dead or absent sperm or a lack of eggs or a misshapen uterus that ends with the RE telling you about gamete donors and/or surrogates. Sometimes there's the unexpected surprise that all of these miscarriages you've been having are caused by a genetic problem carried by you or your spouse. Sometimes there's simply a vial of pills, sometimes there's the fluke of luck while waiting for the next round of shots to start, and sometimes there's the hellish conclusion that this will not end the way you intended when you walked in.

I should pause here and remind people who are staring at this jumble of acronyms and procedures like hieroglyphics that much of this testing and prodding and medicating and inseminating is not covered by insurance. Unless you're lucky enough to live in a small handful of states (or countries) that have rightly deemed infertility a medical problem necessitating treatment and hence coverage (and you're lucky to have insurance to begin with!), you're paying for this out of pocket. According to Resolve, the average IUI runs $865, depending on the medication needed; IVF's average (that's average) $8,150K, NOT including medication (which runs, on average, an additional $3,000-5,000). (For the record, I just used some banal progesterone, apparently necessary to keep embryos attached to my uterus but not covered by my insurance. The cost per 4 weeks of a daily single dose was $800, and I needed 8 weeks. And I consider myself lucky that's all I needed this time around.)

I know people who took out second mortgages for ART (Assisted Reproductive Technology), and people who used inheritances, and people who drew out of their retirement accounts and/or borrowed from family. All to achieve what many can do after turning off the late night news and climbing under the covers.

But let's say you get lucky, and get pregnant.

Worth it, right?

And now let's say your baby dies.


Back up for a moment to what this reader said to me: Infertility is it's own kind of grief. It's a monthly dash of hopes, a monthly reminder of promises gone down the drain, often with the checking account. It's the thought when an embryo is tucked safely inside you that this is it! This is life! This is our life.  This blob will be my child! Only to be greeted by one line and blinding white two weeks later. Multiply this over, and over again. Possibly for years. Possibly having set your limit -- your emotional and financial finish line on the next attempt: this one is the last one. This one works, or we grieve never having children of our own, and move on to something else. Hope and faith and trust and marital communication may have left the building long before the death of a baby. You may have been desperate, on that last attempt, bargaining, wondering if anything would work.

In that regard, the death of a baby is part of this winding vine already invading your life. It's another loss, another dash of hopes, but this time on a much larger scale because . . . well obviously, it's different to hold a dead child than to stare at a negative pregnancy test, but there's also the thought that That might have been it.

Because you can't simply wake up one morning and say, Let's try again. As hard as that discussion is to have another baby after the death of the last, if you're infertile it's more complicated. There isn't the subconscious knowledge that Well of course this will work again like it's supposed to.  You need to pick up the phone and explain to people what happened, and what you'd like to do next. You need to go through a lot of the rigamrole again. You may need to alter how many embryos you transfer, or depending on why your child died, move to gamete donation or surrogacy. Perhaps you need to now fork out for PGD (Pre Implantation Genetic Diagnosis) (Incidentally, another average of $3,500 on top of your IVF expenses) to make sure any genetic problems aren't being passed along. You need to set to set a new limit, a new finish line, and further deplete your bank account. And each month that passes with an HCG (Human Chorionic Gonadtropin) test of two or less, you sink further into a bleak place. Perhaps that child was it. The only time this would work.

And sometimes, that is it. There are people here in this community, who read here, who reached the end. The end of the line. The money tree dried up, their emotions were frayed after years of trying and failure, and they needed to stop and move on. Move on with another life than the one they originally envisioned when they simply set out to have a baby of their own making. And that, putting behind not only a dead child but the attempt to have another of your own, is it's own crucible of grief. Inextricably wound up with the death of a baby that we're all familiar with, but branching out and encircling so many other parts of your conscious and marriage and identity and being. And like any loss, this deserves its own moment of grief, too.

Did you seek Infertility treatments in order to get pregnant with your child(ren)? Are you having to with a subsequent child? For you, how does your babyloss fit in with infertility -- does it stand alone, or has it become a chapter or branch within a greater struggle? Do you have limits? Have you met them already? 


Winter. Discontent. 

I must admit-- it snuck up on me. Suddenly, it's dark by five and it's snowed twice since Sunday. Fall around here was a blur of pass the flu, and have you seen my deadline, but good things too, like sneaking away for a retreat or taking a short family vacation over Thanksgiving. And somehow in the midst of all the crazy, or maybe because of
I managed to not let myself dwell on the the impending change of seasons, to chase away any stray thought of it that snuck in univited.

Winter, which I used to love without reservation and which still contains many things I love, is now my grief season. A's anniversary isn't until the very end of January, but for the third year now, I begin to feel its approach with the change of seasons. I am thinner this time of year, more transparent. The wind blows straight through me, or maybe through a hole in me-- I can't tell. It whistles the tune of longing, of missing, of love. 


Anniversaries abound in the bereavement blogosphere these days. But for those whose actual days come in a different season, and  for those whose losses are too recent still for any -versaries, there are the holidays to contend with. Ubiqutous decorations, ever-present lights, mandatory good cheer. Cards in the mail, commercials on TV.


So I just wanted to stop for a bit and ask-- how are you? How is the season treating you? How are you taking care of yourself these days?

Come, sit a minute. Have some tea. Have some wine. Have a good cry. Tell us how you are.