Guest Post: A Candid Portrait of Grief

Babies on the BrainJust wanted to share this guest post that I wrote for a dear friend’s blog, a candid portrayal of my grief after losing my daughter, for anyone out there who might be hurting right now (whether due to babyloss or any other type of loss).

(Check out the the Babies on the Brain blog for more honest accounts of different hardships – infertility, postpartum depression, rape – and follow along all month long for a new series of posts about how individuals and companies can support expectant mothers, particularly those going through difficult times!  You can subscribe at the bottom of the link above – only blog posts go out, no spam.)

In case you didn’t know, October is Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness Month, so if you see pink-and-blue around this month, that’s why!  If you’ve been personally touched by babyloss (as a parent, grandparent, aunt/uncle, cousin, sibling, friend, etc.), consider participating on October 15th in the global wave of light by lighting a candle at 7 pm (local time) in honor of all the babies we’ve lost. <3

Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness Month

Finding Balance

Or: Why It’s Taking Me So Long to Finish Book 3

I know you’ve all been waiting patiently for an update on Stuck (Stitch Trilogy, Book 3).  I was really hoping I’d have a completed manuscript (or, at least, a firm release date) to share with you this fall.  But I’m just going to come right out and say it: I’m not even close.

That’s not to say I haven’t been working diligently toward that goal whenever I can – I have – or that I’m any less dedicated to getting the final installment of this trilogy into your hands as soon as possible – believe me, I’m as excited as you are!  It’s just that, I’ve had to readjust my expectations for what “whenever I can” and “as soon as possible” means during this season of my life.  And as a result, it’s looking like it’s going to be a while yet until Stuck is ready for public consumption.

And my instinct now is for the next thing out of my mouth to be “I’m sorry.”  But I have to tell you: I’m sorry, and I’m not.  Because the reason I’ve been struggling to find time to write is that my son is at a very precious and fleeting stage in his life right now, and I just can’t bring myself to miss any of it.

As you may know, I’m the work-at-home parent in my family.  And I know lots of awesome work-at-home parents who hire a regular babysitter or utilize daycare to give themselves more time to be productive (or just recuperate), and when I see them doing this, I say, “Right on! Good for you!”  And I see how they benefit, and I see how their kids benefit, and I understand where they’re coming from when they encourage me to do the same.  But the thing is, I’m just coming from a different place.

As a mother who’s had the singular and heartwrenching experience of burying my only child, I’m coming from the same place as my friend, Kelly, whose beautiful toddler son, Kevin, was tragically taken from her too soon by Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.  Kelly posted this heartfelt reminder to other parents on Facebook the other day as part of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month:

“I know I only had 2 1/2 years. I know 95% was spent on a roller coaster. I know that he’s not here now. I regret every break I took, every time I picked up my phone in front of him, and it wasn’t to take his picture. I regret every time I went to the sleep room and took a nap. I regret every time I went to the bathroom, and he couldn’t come with me. Some days it eats me alive. […] Forget cellphones on Saturdays! Forget cellphones as much as you can! Set alarms if you have to. Go out! Go play! Give them your TIME. It is all they will ever need or want and it won’t last for long. […] I just urge all of you to treasure EVERY second. […] Treasure the time.”

Of course, no one would ever begrudge Kelly – or any parent, especially one dealing with something as inconceivably stressful and horrific as childhood cancer – those naps and bathroom breaks and occasional zone-outs on the phone. That’s just survival.

But I felt the same way after my daughter, Alana, was stillborn.  I regretted (regret) every moment that I spent doing anything other than soaking her in, and basking in the miracle of her pregnancy.  I thought I had the rest of her life to really pay attention to her – I never realized just how short that life would be.  And this is where my mind goes when I need to decide now where to spend my time.

Should I take a couple hours this afternoon to go upstairs and write, or should I just stay here and let him and his glorious imagination cook me yet another “gourmet meal” from his play kitchen?  Should I pull my phone out and try to sneak some work on my outline, or just marvel as he so intently and purposefully pours water back and forth between cups for the next ten minutes?  Should I get on my computer while my mom reads him his book-of-the-moment for the 8000th time today, or should I stay here and do it myself so I don’t miss it if he suddenly looks up and busts out a newly mastered word with the biggest, proudest smile on his face?  More often than not, my son wins out.

And is devoting so much of myself to my child the “right” choice, or the healthiest or most sustainable, for either me or him?  I’m the first to admit that it’s probably not.  Any of my family or friends will readily tell you that Kiran and I suffer from a (mutual) separation anxiety which is hugely inconvenient to anyone and everyone who wants to spend time with either of us.  Some days (luckily, usually only a couple days a month when my nerves are raw from hormones or lack of sleep or what have you), I am burnt out and not the mother I know I could be – and I second guess my choices then, and wish I made more time for myself, and I strongly consider hiring regular help (or depending even more heavily on my mom than I already do – thank you, Mom, I honestly don’t know what I’d do without you!) so I can finally finish this book.

But then I have weeks, like I have had most of this past month, where the days – slogging and repetitive and interminable as they may be – are somehow also just brimming with delight.  Where I watch with wonder as my toddler discovers a boundless love of merry-go-rounds and waves with pure joy at every pass around the carousel.  Where I might be overtaken at any moment by an unexpected bear hug and chubby little hands yanking me in close (by the hair!) for an open-mouthed kiss on the cheek that fills my heart to bursting.  Where I lay down each night with my son in one arm and my cat in the other (my poor husband curled up in the remaining seven inches of mattress…), exhausted to the bone, but so, so full of love.

How can I bring myself to miss any of this, when I know so viscerally that it could be over at any moment?  I just can’t.

And please, please, please, don’t mistake me – the last thing I want is to send anyone off on a guilt trip for making choices that are different than mine.  Every family and every parent is different, and this is not a critique of anyone’s choices, or the completely valid reasons and experiences behind those choices.  I’m also painfully aware of the enormous and glaring amount of privilege I’ve been blessed with to even be able to have choices in this arena.

So this is just me trying to explain where my head is at, and why I’m finding it so hard to find the time to actually write, as much as I find meaning and enjoyment for myself in doing that – and as much as I absolutely hate feeling like I’m letting anyone down or failing to accomplish something I set out to do.  It’s just that, I know I can’t get any of this time back.  And when it comes down to it, I’m just not willing to give it up.

So what that means for me – and for you, dear readers – in a real-world, practical sense, is that I pretty much only get to write when Kiran is napping.  And he’s never been a big napper.  And half the time he falls asleep while driving somewhere, and then that’s it for the day.  And I wish I could just stay up late after he goes to bed or get up early in the morning to write before he wakes, but… I am tired, people!  And just like my friend Kelly, and all parents, I need that time at the end of the day to watch some TV or zone out on my phone or just talk to my husband – regular people-stuff, you know?  So basically, that doesn’t leave me with very much time to actually write.

The good news, though – for those of you waiting for Stuck – is that I have really been putting those few hours I get each week to good use.  Truthfully, I have not made too much progress on Stuck itself just yet, but I have been working on a secret little get-myself-back-on-the-horse project, which involves a good amount of brand new content within the Stitch universe. :-D And I’m planning to release that soon (hopefully before the end of the year, though again don’t hold me to it, as you now understand that I am beholden to the fickle whims of a toddler’s erratic sleep schedule!).

So, that’s where I’m at.  Trying to find the balance, and doing my best to love my life as it is, for as long as this season may last.

Thank you, as always, for sticking with me as I work to figure it all out.  And may you also, always, treasure the time.

Where I’ve Been + Stuck Update!

Hi Stitch Fans!

First off, thank you for waiting SO patiently for word on Stuck (Stitch Trilogy, Book 3) – I am going to make an announcement about plans for Stuck in the next few weeks, but until then, I wanted to give you an idea of what I’ve been up to for the past year (while – sorry! – not writing…).

My son, Kiran, just turned one a few weeks ago, and I really cannot even begin to comprehend where the last year has went.  It’s such a cliche, but it feels like only yesterday that we were bringing our tiny shrimp home from the hospital… and just like that, we have a glorious, giggling, gorgeous toddler scooting his adorable little butt all over our house.  See for yourself in this “second-a-day” video that my husband and I put together to celebrate Kiran’s first birthday:

As you can imagine, this sweet boy has certainly kept me busy the last year, and I can honestly say I wouldn’t trade a second of it for anything (even a finished Book 3, sorry!!).  And that’s especially true now looking back and realizing just how fast it’s gone by (new parents: I know it can be pretty rough in those early months, but people really aren’t lying when they tell you that it flies by and before long you won’t remember anything but the good stuff!).

Given everything we’ve been through with our daughter, Alana, in the past two years, reaching Kiran’s 1st birthday is a HUGE milestone for us.  After all, when you bury your only child (despite a 99% chance of survival…), you understand in a visceral way just how fragile and fleeting life can be, and that there truly are no guarantees.  I knew damn well that it could happen to us (to anyone) again, and a large part of me really did not believe that we would ever be lucky enough to see this day.

And yet, here we are.  (Sigh of relief.)  Kiran has really lived up to his name and brought so much joy and light back to our lives – but at the same time, it’s been an incredibly bittersweet year as we come to understand just exactly how much we’ve missed out on with Alana. So even though it hasn’t been the most productive year for me writing/career-wise, I am SO incredibly grateful for every second that I’ve gotten to spend with this vibrant, beautiful little boy – and you can bet your pants that I will continue to cherish every second to come (even when he makes me want to pull my hair out!).

Thank you so much, readers, for all of your support over the past few years – it really means the world to me.  And I will be in touch *soon* with more concrete news about Stuck!  (Promise!)

PS – For those of you in the US, it would mean the world to me if you could spare a moment to sign this sign this petition at whitehouse.gov asking the federal government to acknowledge the stillbirth crisis and hopefully draw more funding towards stillbirth research and awareness to prevent future tragedies.  No spam, no money, just a minute of your time to help save potentially tens of thousands of lives.  Thank you!!  #SignForStillbirth

We were going to have a baby, but God gave us an Angel instead – In Loving Memory of Our Daughter, Alana Marie Banerjee

Trigger warning – this post deals with pregnancy loss and the death of a child.

Alana Marie Banerjee was born on October 4th, 2013 at 2:21 am – 6 lbs 8 oz of pure joy for me and her father.  At 20 inches long, she was a tall baby, with long skinny legs, slender fingers with perfect miniature nails, and big soft feet with all the requisite toes.  She had her father’s nose and ears and eyelashes, my lips and eyebrows, the softest skin I’ve ever felt, and a full head of silky black hair.  There was only one thing wrong with this storybook ending, following nine months of a perfectly healthy and blissful pregnancy: our daughter was born dead.

“Stillborn” is the technical term for a baby who dies in utero after 20 weeks of gestation – Alana was 39 weeks 5 days, just two days short of her due date.  Up until the moment the nurse couldn’t find a heartbeat, she’d been healthy and strong.  The doctors had called her fetal monitor read-outs “textbook.”  She’d been active and lively, rolling around in my belly, suffering adorable bouts of in utero hiccups (often more than once a day) for weeks.  She’d passed every prenatal test with flying colors.  There was never a cause for concern – never a single warning sign.  Until, all of a sudden, she was gone.

The doctors still don’t know what happened, and there’s a good chance they never will (around 50% of stillbirths are never positively explained).  And the most shocking, tragic part is that this kind of heartbreaking loss is much more common than you might think – it happens in 1 in 160 births in this country, affecting over 30,000 families each year in the United States alone.  (That’s almost 1% of births, more than 80 babies per day – the same number of people who die in car accidents each year.)

We never knew, until it happened to us.  We were completely unprepared for what we would face, and if not for the wisdom and grace of the people supporting us, would likely have made mistakes that would have haunted us forever.  So we wanted to share our story, in hopes that if this ever happens to someone you love (and we pray that it doesn’t), you’ll be as prepared as you can be for such a tragedy.

These links will jump between sections in case you’re reading this across multiple sittings.

Our Birth Story – Part 1
Our Birth Story – Part 2
The Aftermath
What Happens Next

Our Birth Story – Part 1

The story of Alana’s birth begins at my 39-week checkup.  It was a Tuesday afternoon, and I went in to my doctor’s office for routine monitoring as I had been every week for the past month or so.  Even though my pregnancy had been trouble-free, my doctors liked to play it safe – all patients are asked to come in weekly the last several weeks of the pregnancy for external fetal monitoring and a quick internal exam.  I sat down in the chair and the nurse strapped the belts over my tummy, and just as it had at every other visit, Alana’s heartbeat sounded clear and strong over the speaker.  I settled in for the next 20 minutes, basking in the glorious sound of my daughter’s little heart plugging away and clicking the button every time I felt her move, which was often.  Everything was as it should be – I couldn’t have been more relaxed if I tried.

When I was finished, the doctor came in to check my print-out.  “Perfect,” she said.  “This is exactly what we want to see.  She sounds like a little athlete in there – strong heartbeat, strong movement.  Textbook.  You’re doing great.”  I beamed with pride.  Not even out of the womb, and already my little girl was an overachiever.

I switched rooms for a quick internal exam and was pleased to learn that my cervix had finally started to creep open a bit.  I expected that Alana would show up right on time for her due date on Sunday, or perhaps a day or two late.  But either way, we would finally get to meet her soon.

As the appointment came to a close, everything looked good.  I even got an ultrasound before leaving the office, since Dr. Vosko was a little perplexed as to why my belly’s fundal length was measuring slightly smaller than the previous week.  (I contended it was because my last appointment had been directly after a big lunch.)  To be safe, she wanted to double check everything, and popped me in for a quick ultrasound.  Sure enough, my fluid levels and the baby’s size and activity all looked great.  She sent me home with a pat on the back.  “I’ll see you next week, if not before!”

If I’d known what was to come, I never would have left that office that afternoon.  I would have sat back down in that monitoring chair and refused to get up, would have counted every heartbeat and every kick until I noticed something amiss and made them take that baby out right then and there.  But I didn’t know, and neither did they.  In only 48 hours, we were all to be blindsided.

I went home and spent a normal evening with my husband.  Deep had been working from home all week due to an ankle injury, and I was glad to have him close by instead of down in the city every day with my due date looming so near.  We ate dinner and watched some TV, then headed up to bed.  As usual, when I lay down that night I felt lots of movement in my tummy – Alana was always active at bedtime.  However, this time it felt a little different, like waves rolling downward through my abdomen.  It wasn’t painful in any way, and I took it to be Braxton-Hicks contractions (sometimes called “false labor”) which up to this point in my pregnancy I’d never felt before.  They happened every 10 minutes or so for about an hour, until I got up to use the bathroom, and then they stopped.  I was excited – my body was getting ready for show time, and Alana would be here soon.  I couldn’t wait.  I fell asleep with a smile plastered on my face.

The next day is a bit of a blur.  I’d like to say I remember feeling Alana kick all day long, but to be honest, I’m not really sure.  I wasn’t paying close attention – I was just trying to keep myself busy with small projects around the house to make the day pass faster.  It wasn’t until dinner time that night that I distinctly remember a change.  Contractions had started – real contractions, ones that felt like menstrual cramps and were coming in a steady rhythm for the rest of the evening.  I thought maybe when I lay down for bed they might go away, but they didn’t.  They continued the whole night through, coming closer and closer together and getting stronger and stronger.  I slept in 5-10 minute bursts that night and most of the next day, breathing through the contractions as they increased from menstrual-cramp-level pain to diarrhea-level pain to food-poisoning-in-the-back-country-of-China-level pain.

After almost 24 hours of this, I was sure it was for real.  I’d taken Bradley classes to prepare for a natural childbirth, and I was doing a good job managing the discomfort and resting between contractions to conserve my energy until I hit active labor.  Deep made sure I kept hydrated and fed, and encouraged me throughout the day.  Our cat, Gio, was my constant companion, purring through my belly and sniffing eagerly under my dress like he had all pregnancy long; he was excited to finally meet his baby sister.

Intuitively, I still felt like we had a long road ahead of us before it was time to go to the hospital, but around 5 o’clock I decided to give the doctor’s office a call before they closed, just to let them know we might be coming in later that night or early the next morning.  They asked a bunch of routine questions.  “How far apart are your contractions?”  “How long have you been in labor?”  “When’s the last time you felt the baby move?”

That last one stumped me.  “Well…” I thought back, “I’m not really sure.  I’ve been feeling a lot of movement all day long, but I’m having trouble telling what’s the contraction and what’s the baby.  I’m pretty sure she moved fairly recently, though.”

The nurse paused for a second.  “Okay, let me check with the doctors.”  She put me on hold and came back a few seconds later with a report from Linda, one of the midwives at the practice who was on call that night.  “Linda thinks you should come in and let us just check.”

I groaned.  I really did not want to go to the hospital too early.  As I knew from a stack of reading and hours of Bradley training, the only thing they can do for you at the hospital is give you something for the pain or catch your baby.  I knew I didn’t want any medication, and I knew my baby wasn’t ready to come out yet, so what was the point in going to the hospital?  Plus, I lived 20+ minutes away and didn’t really want to spend an hour in the car going back and forth for no reason.  I felt perfectly fine.  I was sure the baby was perfectly fine.  It wasn’t time for the hospital yet.

I tried to explain this to the nurse, and she put Linda on the phone.  “Samantha, I really think you should come in, just to be safe.”

I proposed a compromise – how about if I monitored her movement more closely for a while and came in if it didn’t feel like enough?  Linda reluctantly agreed – I was to drink 16 ounces of juice, lie on my side for an hour, and if I felt less than 10 kicks, come in right away.  That sounded perfectly reasonable to me.

I choked down the closest thing we had to juice – cranberry lemonade – and lay down on my side.  Then I counted.  At 45 minutes, I’d tallied four possible movements, but all were during contractions, and none were definitely kicks.  That’s when I started to get worried.

I sent Deep hobbling upstairs on his injured foot to finish packing the hospital bag.  He described this time as being incredibly frustrating – he just wanted to get to the hospital, and his physical limitations were delaying us.  Still, it only took him a few minutes to grab everything, and then we headed for the car.  I’ll never forget Gio’s face as we left, looking up at me from his bed.  I was trying to explain to him where we were going, and that either we or his grandma would be back for him later that night.  I assured him everything would be okay.  But he knew – somehow, he already knew – that everything would not be okay.  I could see it in his eyes.  He just didn’t know how to tell us.

I burst into tears as I crossed the threshold into the garage and climbed into the passenger seat, stuffing a pillow behind my lower back.  Deep did his best to reassure me.  “Everything’s going to be fine,” he insisted, pulling out of the driveway.  I was crying because I thought my worst fear was about to come true – that I’d be rushed into an emergency C-section, and my plans for a natural birth would go right out the window.

What I wouldn’t give now for that to have been the case.

We pulled up to the hospital and Deep dropped me off at the front while he parked the car.  I went up to the doctor’s office (which was conveniently attached to the hospital) to check in.  The waiting room was mostly empty being that it was 6:15 and coming up on the last appointment of the day, but instead of waiting impatiently I got a jump on the urine sample that I knew they would request.  As soon as I finished with the bathroom, the nurse invited me in to the monitoring room and I sat down in the chair.  Deep came in then and sat down next to me.  I grabbed his hand and smiled, sure that in a moment, Alana’s heartbeat was going to come blaring through those speakers as usual and we’d go home to finish my labor in peace.  False alarm.  Sigh of relief.

The nurse strapped the first belt on, the top one that monitors contractions.  Then she squirted the jelly onto the second strap, and I pointed to the spot on my belly where they’d always found her heartbeat in previous sessions.  She placed the sensor onto my tummy.

…And nothing happened.

“Hmm…” she said, sliding the sensor around.  “She must have moved.”

Oh, crap, I thought.  She’s breech!  How could she turn around NOW after being head down for the past three weeks??

The nurse tried moving the sensor to the top of my belly.  Still nothing.

For another agonizing minute, she continued to search, smearing the cold, slick jelly across my entire abdomen.  “One second, let me just get the doctor…”  She shuffled quickly out of the room and closed the door behind her.

I knew at this moment that something was seriously wrong.  I just looked at Deep, and he just looked at me, squeezing my hand.  The silence rang in our ears like a warning siren.

The midwife, Linda, came in, the nurse trailing behind her.

Linda tried her luck with the sensor on a few quick spots on my belly, but still, the monitor was silent.  “Forget this,” she said, the apprehension just barely creeping into her voice.  “Let’s get on the ultrasound.”

We all got up and walked briskly down the hallway to the ultrasound room.  I lay back on the table, the technician lubing my belly up with more goop, this time heated just a little too hot for comfort.  It stung a bit, but the pain barely registered – all I could hear was my own heartbeat in my ears, my eyes glued to the screen as my fingers clutched for Deep’s.

Shouldn’t there be some movement in that line at the bottom of the screen? I thought.  Come on, move, I urged.  MOVE!!!

But it didn’t.  The screen was still.  Everything was still.

Finally, Linda spoke.  Her voice soft, she took my hands and Deep’s in hers, and said the words that by now we should have realized were coming but were still frantically trying to push out of our minds.

“I’m so sorry,” she breathed.  “There’s no heartbeat.  She’s gone.”

Our Birth Story – Part 2

You know how they say that in a crisis, time slows down?  In the matter of a few ragged breaths, it’s as if the whole world freezes, but you’re somehow not a part of it anymore – everything is muffled, distant, restrained, as if the air has suddenly congealed.  You look up, and everything is shattered, the sky is falling down around you, and yet somehow, instead of panicking, instead of screaming and fighting and ducking for cover, you just watch.  You watch like a cool, impartial observer as life as you knew it ends, and something horrible and sick and cold takes its place.

It was like that.

I heard Deep cry, “No,” his voice breaking, his tears spilling onto my shoulder as he immediately grasped at the facts.  I heard Linda explaining calmly that if there was anything at all they could do, I’d be on an operating table already, that we wouldn’t be standing around talking about it.  I saw the technician turn away, her hand raised to hide the water that pricked at her eyes and flowed down onto her cheeks.

But I felt nothing.  I was numb.

My baby girl was dead, and it was already too late – there was nothing I could do to bring her back.

And then it got worse: Linda went on to explain that I’d have to deliver the baby.

Deep was openly horrified, aghast.  I just continued to shut down.  I yearned for an escape from this nightmare.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought, maybe they can just knock me out and remove the baby, and then I can wake up and this can all be over.

Linda must have seen it in my eyes, because she said then, “We can perform a C-section, but I’d strongly urge you to deliver naturally.  It will be much healthier for your recovery and for your future pregnancies.”

I nodded my head.  I must have been terrified somewhere in my heart, but in this moment it was more of a detached, analytical terror.  Like, what will it feel like to deliver a dead baby?  Will they expect me to hold her?  Will I even want to look at her?  And then my mind turned to more practical matters.  We have to tell our parents.  They’ll want to come here, but it’s late, and they’re going to be upset – what if they get in an accident?  What if the news gives my grandma a heart attack?  How will my brothers react?  Someone has to go pick up Gio.

I wondered if I was weird, for reacting this way.  Shouldn’t I have wailed?  Shouldn’t I have cursed God?  Shouldn’t I be crying at the least?  But the tears wouldn’t come.  Not yet.

First, I had something I needed to do: I needed to deliver my baby.

Having a mission – a purpose – helped.  Maybe I couldn’t feel, but I could act.  I realized then that I needed to give my daughter the birth she deserved, the one I’d been training for the past nine months.  There wasn’t time now to be scared, or sad, or angry – I just needed to be strong.  For her, for Deep, for our families – because if I wasn’t okay, no one would be.  So I made myself okay.  For now.

Linda checked my cervix.  I was two centimeters dilated, and definitely in labor.  She said if we wanted some time, we could go home and wait – she was sure I’d deliver naturally in a day or two.  Or we could go down to the birthing wing now, and she could give me some Pitocin to increase my contractions, and we could be done by morning.

I opted for door number two.  Let’s get this over with, I thought.  And then I was ashamed for being callous, even in my own head.  Your baby is dead inside of you, I admonished myself, why can’t you even cry??

But I’d morphed into a robot, my mind spinning with logistics and questions, no room left for emotion.

Okay, let’s make a plan.  First, we need to call my parents.  Hopefully they’re home from that event, but I don’t think they are… I just hope they aren’t driving now.  I’ll ask them to bring Gio to their house, then come to the hospital.  That should take about 40 minutes.  In the meantime, we need to call Deep’s parents.  They’ll want to drive up from NJ, but it will be so late by the time they get here… it’s too dangerous.  We’ll tell them to wait until tomorrow.  Wow, these contractions are starting to hurt.  I wonder if I can get an epidural… I don’t need to worry about harming the baby now, right?  But what about me – are there risks for me?  Argh, I never did any research on this.  I need to be extra careful not to let anything happen to me – this family won’t be able to take it if they lose me AND the baby.  What is this even called, what’s happening to us?  Stillbirth?  Is that still a thing?  I didn’t think that happened anymore.  Why would her heart just stop?  Why??

Again, Linda seemed to read my mind, or maybe Deep had asked – I’m not sure.  She explained that maybe it was a cord accident, that it might have gotten wrapped around her neck or developed a kink.  We wouldn’t know until I delivered.

Okay, I reasoned, let’s get this baby out and then maybe we’ll get some answers.  And deep in the recesses of my mind, a tiny beacon of hope sparkled through the barren, mechanical darkness I’d descended into.  Maybe there won’t be anything wrong with her at all – maybe this is all just a big mistake.  Let’s just get this baby here and we’ll see.

Linda moved us to a quiet office where we could call our parents.  Everyone was in disbelief.  “That’s impossible,” my mom kept saying.  “That’s impossible.”  “I know,” was all I could respond.

Eventually Linda walked us down to the birthing center in the hospital.  The nurses had been apprised of the situation, and they were waiting for us.  Everything was quiet, hushed.  The wing was mostly empty – only one or two other mothers in labor – but they found us a room in a far corner where we wouldn’t be disturbed.  My parents arrived.  We all hugged.  I was still too dazed to cry.

One of the night nurses, Carol, was assigned to our case, and helped me get set up with the IV and vital signs monitor.  She explained that she’d lost her first baby, but went on to have twins the next time.  She understood how we felt right now – but she wanted us to have hope.  Her eyes shone wet with kindness.

Linda started me on a bag of Pitocin, and I asked her about the epidural.  The risks were minimal, and she assured me there was no reason not to make things a little easier on myself.  My parents waited with us for the anesthesiologist.  Once he got me hooked up, the physical relief was almost magical.  I felt warm and tingly all over, but not paralyzed as I’d expected.  I could still move my legs, still feel everything, just not the pain of the contractions.  I started to get a bit itchy – a common side effect – and they gave me a dose of Benadryl.  Then I started to get sleepy.

My parents had rushed straight to the hospital, so they still had to go back to my house to get Gio.  They decided they’d bring him to their house, change into something more comfortable, and come back to wait for the birth.  Linda thought it’d probably take 12 hours.  She told me and Deep to do our best to sleep in the interim.  Carol reminded my parents to bring back a camera, but we said, “What for?”  She said, “Trust me, you’re going to want it,” then she turned down the lights and closed the door to give us some privacy.

The next part of the night lasted about four hours, but felt like it went by much more quickly.  We didn’t really sleep, but Deep and I lay beside each other in the dark, and we talked.  We talked about how we couldn’t believe this was happening, how much we loved each other, how lucky we were to have everything we have, even if we couldn’t have our daughter.  We were surprisingly positive and clear-headed and calm.  Finally, at one point, I cried a bit – for the future we’d planned, for everything we’d lost, for the baby girl I’d been so looking forward to holding in my arms and was now afraid to even see.  Embarrassingly, my crying sent my vital signs monitor into a tizzy, alarm bells ringing in every direction.  I calmed down.

And then, suddenly, I felt the urge to push.

Carol came in when I rang the buzzer, and went to get Linda.  Frustratingly, as soon as Linda arrived my contractions slowed down.  But Carol and Linda sat with us, watching the monitor and chatting for the next 30 minutes while we waited for the urge to push to come back.  Finally I had a big contraction, and it was time.

I felt like the pushing flew by.  Deep and Carol and Linda supported me, encouraging me, helping me get comfortable in between contractions, suggesting different positions to ease the pain when my epidural started to wear off.  After what seemed like only 10 contractions or so, they started exclaiming with joy as the baby finally came into view.  “She has black hair!” I remember someone calling out brightly.

I’d expected this part to be a nightmare, knowing in advance that our baby wasn’t going to make it.  I’d expected terrifying.  I’d expected somber.  I’d expected heartbreak.  I’d at the very least expected hard work and physical exhaustion.

Alana BanerjeeBut what I didn’t expect was joy.  I didn’t expect to feel focused and strong and confident as I brought my baby into this world.  I didn’t expect unadulterated wonder and appreciation and awe at the tiny little miracle my body had produced.

I certainly didn’t expect that my baby girl would come out warm and soft and glowing, looking like a perfect sleeping little angel.  That her face would so much resemble her father that it would take my breath away.  That my heart would immediately burst with love for every inch of her flawless little body, as devastatingly still as it was.

Carol was right – we wanted the camera.  We took the requisite photos of us holding her, and for a few moments at least, we were happy.  A family.

It turned out Alana’s birth wasn’t a nightmare at all – it was beautiful.  It felt right, everything I’d hoped for.

Everything except the fact that she hadn’t taken her first breath, and never would.

So we told her we loved her.  We gave her grandparents a chance to hold her.  And then we said goodbye.

The Aftermath

All said and done, Alana’s birth took only five hours start to finish from the time they started me on the Pitocin – less than half the amount of time anyone had expected.  I ended up with just a couple small tears, all internal, and I would heal up extremely well over the coming days.  I had very minimal pain – nothing that couldn’t be addressed with a couple Advil – and my bleeding was normal.  The doctors and nurses were very happy with my recovery.

It was 4 am by the time we’d finished up in the delivery room.  My parents hugged us tightly and headed home, and Deep and I settled into the tiny twin bed side-by-side to try to rest.  Finally, after holding my baby in my arms, the full impact of what we’d been through hit me.  My arms were empty, my belly was empty… and my baby girl was gone.  I wept.  Deep wept.  We held each other.  And eventually, we slept – we were both so very exhausted.

We stayed at the hospital just through the end of the following day.  The day nurse, Wendy, was extremely supportive – after surviving eight miscarriages of her own, she knew the devastation of losing a child (and later went on to have two sons, one biological and one adopted).  Everyone at the hospital was aware of our situation and went out of their way to make us comfortable.  In fact, we felt very grateful that the nurses and doctors seemed to know what we needed better than we did, starting from Linda’s advocating for a normal birth and Carol’s insistence to bring the camera.

We found out that the nurses had performed a layperson’s baptism on Alana that night, and had bathed her and taken beautiful photos of her.  They’d filled out her nursery card with all her stats and taken her footprints and saved a lock of her hair.  They’d put all these mementos in a packet for us, along with information about grieving.  They’d called a priest to come do a reading for us, and called ahead to the funeral home to let them know we’d be coming in a few days.  And various staff members came in over the course of the day to check on us, intending to ask about our support network and each time being pleased to find that we were surrounded by loved ones who were just as devastated as we were.

Linda and Dr. Vosko both came by to talk about what had happened.  We decided to get an autopsy and an investigation on the placenta to see if they could pinpoint a cause, since Linda’s examination the night before had not turned up any obvious culprits.  They explained that the autopsy likely would just show that she’d lost circulation to her heart, but of course, what we wanted to know was why.  We’re still hoping that the placental analysis might be able to answer that question, but it will take weeks or months to get results back – and even then, there’s about a 50% chance it will be inconclusive.

Our doctors explained that in a way, the lack of a clear explanation is actually a good thing.  It means there’s no easily identifiable genetic or chromosomal issues, that it was just some kind of freak accident that’s very unlikely to recur in the future.  They assured me that I’m healthy, that we didn’t do anything wrong, that there’s nothing we could have done to prevent what happened.  For whatever that is worth.

Dr. Vosko in particular was quietly outraged.  She’s generally a pretty stoic woman, so it was clear this had hit her hard.  She railed about the injustice, about how some women smoke and drink throughout their pregnancy, and don’t even want a child at all, and then somehow manage to deliver a healthy baby – and then women like me who do everything right, who desperately want their children and would do anything to keep them safe, are just stripped of their chance for no reason at all.  She was angry on our behalf.  She got it.  And the planner in me loved that she was already working on a strategy for the next time, on how she would monitor me more closely and induce delivery as soon as the next baby was ready, how we would not allow a chance for this to happen again.

We left the hospital that evening for my parents’ house.  Walking out those doors with empty arms was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.  And the empty car seat in the backseat was a grim reminder of everything we’d lost.  Amazingly, it’d only been 24 hours since we’d arrived at the hospital the evening before.  It felt like a lifetime.

When we walked in the door at my parents’ house, Gio’s face was flooded with pure relief.  He came bounding to us, and spent the next 10 minutes alternating between me and Deep, rubbing kisses on our faces and purring as fiercely as I’ve ever heard.  He’s been our constant shadow in the weeks since, showering us with affection and never letting us forget how much he loves us.  It’s very difficult not to smile, even through tears, with those big green eyes looking up at you.  Gio reaffirms for us every day why that tiny knot of hope still beats in our chests; he’s a living testament to how much love there still is in this world, even if our daughter is lost to us.  That cat is truly nothing short of a godsend.

We spent the next few days surrounded by family and friends, everyone grieving together.  We finally delivered the surprise that we’d been safeguarding for months, that we’d chosen to give Alana the middle name Marie, after my grandma who we love so much – of course, Grandma Re was honored.  We were amazed at how much we managed to smile and laugh in between the tears and heartache.  Everyone pulled together – Deep and I, our parents, our brothers, all our cousins and aunts and uncles.  Everyone united in our shared misery.  This family had been dealt a great blow, but we would get through it, together.

We broke the heartrending news to our friends slowly over the next several days.  We contacted the funeral home to make arrangements for Alana’s memorial.  We went home and spent the week preparing.

On the night before the memorial, we decided last minute to visit the funeral home and spend a few hours with Alana as we finished up assembling the photo boards for the wake.  We couldn’t believe we’d managed to fill three full poster boards with memories.  We shared each of them with Alana, told her again how much we loved her and would miss her, stroked that soft, soft skin while we still had the chance.  Even a week later, her skin still glowed.  It broke our hearts how beautiful she looked, even in death.

The following morning we held a wake, a full Catholic mass, and a burial.  My brother, Mikey, delivered a touching eulogy – a testament to how much this little girl meant to all of us, before she’d even had a chance to live – and we buried Alana – perfect in her tiny white casket – in the same plot as my other grandma, in my favorite cemetery in my hometown (where, no kidding, I used to like to play as a kid, much to my own mother’s dismay).  We felt very good about everything.  It brought us a lot of closure, and gave us an opportunity to honor the person she would have been – the person she was already, to those closest to her.

What Happens Next

Some days, this entire pregnancy feels like a dream.  A happy dream, filled with hope, that ended in an unthinkable nightmare – but then we woke up, and went back to our lives as they were.  It’s an eerie feeling.  But the hard truth is that it was not a dream at all.  And, frustratingly, we’re left still with more questions than answers.  We don’t know why Alana died, or even when she died, and we probably never will.  The trust that I had in my body is completely shattered – I feel so betrayed, beyond what words can even express.  But despite everything, we’re hopeful for the future; I guess that’s the miracle of human nature.

Everyone keeps asking how we’re doing, and we’re not really sure how to answer that question.  “Okay,” we say, or, “We’re hanging in there.”  The truth is, the grief comes and goes.  Sometimes it’s absolutely, devastatingly crushing, like a mountain of sorrow sitting on my chest, and sometimes it’s surprisingly, mercifully absent.  After all, it’s hard not to smile when you’re surrounded by the people you love, even if one of them is conspicuously absent.  But the gaping hole in our lives where Alana should be is never far from mind – we can push it to the side, for a time, but eventually it sucks us back in, laughing cruelly as we struggle just to stay afloat of our tears.

We know that it will get easier, eventually.  But we also know that it will never be right.  We will always be missing something – someone – and there’s nothing that we can do to change that.  That’s probably the hardest part.  We want so badly to fix this, but there simply is no cure.  It’s taking a while for that to really sink in, for us to really come to terms with everything that’s happened.  And every time I come to the realization, again, that there’s no way she’s ever coming back, that I really am not going to wake up from this nightmare, that this is now my life…  Well, it just hurts all over again.  But we just press on – what else can we do?

We want everyone to know that we’re not trying to forget our daughter.  We love Alana.  Every time someone speaks her name feels like a gift.  And we want her to be as much a part of our lives as she can.  So please don’t be afraid to bring her up – don’t be afraid to ask us about her, or about what we went through.  We may cry, but know that those tears are always there whether you can see them or not.  We will never be upset with you for reminding us, because we can never forget.  On the contrary, it feels good to remember her.  It feels good to honor her memory and the place she will hold forever in our hearts.  We want to talk about her.

We’re doing everything we can to remember Alana.  We’ve saved all her mementos in a keepsake box in our bedroom.  We got those photo boards from the wake laminated, and will share them someday with Alana’s siblings, so they’ll know the story of the big sister who came before them.  We planted trees in her honor, and are getting a portrait painted so we can see her smile.  I wear a necklace every day with her birthstone, which her father had bought in advance of her birth for me as a gift, hoping that I would someday pass it on to Alana herself.  We filled out her baby book, sent out birth announcements – basically did all the things we would have done anyway, because we want to celebrate her life.  She brought so much love to us in the short time she was here; we just want to share that love with whomever’s heart is open to receiving it.

I’m still in utter disbelief that this happened to us, that this happens to anyone in this day and age.  I had of course worried through the whole pregnancy about the possibility of miscarriage or early delivery – not being able to carry a healthy baby to term was the deepest, darkest fear of the past 28 years of my life.  But once we hit full-term at 37 weeks, I’d finally breathed a sigh of relief.  No matter what goes wrong now, I told myself, they can take that baby out and she’ll be fine.  It still amazes me that with all the reading I did, all the education I have, somehow I managed to overlook the entire possibility of a stillbirth, that I never knew it could happen to me.

In the days since Alana’s birth, the presence of our families and encouraging words from our friends have been a great comfort to us.  I’ve become a collector of stories, ravenously filing away every tragic account of loss and healing I come across, so that I never forget how very far from alone we are in our grief.  Gio continues to shadow our every move, a loving headbutt never far from reach.  He’s even taken to sleeping between me and Deep, nestled snugly into the hollow where my belly used to be.  If only we could so easily fill the hollow that Alana has left in our hearts.

I know that she is somewhere better now, somewhere filled with love, somewhere I never need to worry about protecting her.  I have hope that someday I will get to hold her in my arms again, get to know the little girl that I was so looking forward to meeting, the woman she would have become.  So I grieve not for Alana herself, but for the rest of us, for all the memories we never got to make, for all the time we never got to share.  It’s so, so unfair.

And as selfish as it may be, I still ache to have her back, ache with every ounce of my being.  I would give anything to change what happened.  Absolutely anything.  But as I have to keep reminding myself, this isn’t one of my novels – there is no time travel, no magic, no chance that this is all some crazy, messed-up dream.  My daughter is gone, and all that I can do is try to accept it.

The one thing that has brought me the greatest comfort is knowing that in her short life and after her death, I have done everything I could do for my daughter.  I had a wonderful, happy pregnancy, I nourished her and loved her from the moment I knew she existed, and now that she is gone, I’ve done everything in my power to honor her memory and cherish the person she was.  Of course I question if there’s anything I could have done differently, if I should have known sooner that something was wrong, if I made some kind of terrible mistake – I’m only human, after all.  But in the end, I know that these doubts stem from my desperate wish for control, from wanting something or someone to blame, even if it’s myself.  But I know in my heart that this was in God’s hands.  Try as I might, I cannot control everything.

We’re very lucky to have received the compassionate care and good guidance that we did from our doctors, nurses, the funeral home, and our family.  In most cases, our initial instincts about what was best were absolutely, positively wrong – I would have regretted it forever if I had not delivered my daughter and held her in my hands and immortalized those moments in photos.  I treasure all the little mementos they sent us home with, including the heart-wrenching children’s book that inspired the title of this post.  And I’m so grateful to the funeral home for giving us the extra time we needed with Alana, and to my mom for encouraging us to spend those extra hours with her – without them, it would have been much harder the next day to say goodbye.

Physically, I’m recovering extremely well.  Within two weeks of Alana’s birth, I felt almost back to normal.  And we’re very hopeful that we’ll be able to try again soon.  As much as I know another baby can never replace Alana, I think we could all use something to look forward to again, as terrifying as another pregnancy may be.

And so as hard as it is, we wanted to share our story because we’re hoping that perhaps some good can come of our loss.  At least now you know this happens, so if it happens to you or someone you love, you will know you’re not alone.  And in that worst case scenario, you’ll also know what you need to do to heal – hold your baby, take photos, save mementos, be present – no matter how hard it seems.  And I don’t know if this would have made a difference in our case or not, but the one thing I wish I’d done differently is to pay closer attention to Alana’s movements – so go ahead, be neurotic, keep a kick count, and be vocal about it if you think anything might be wrong, because I can promise you that the alternative is not worth the risk.

And just know that no matter what you do, no matter how perfect everything seems, it really can all come crashing down in a moment.  Cherish every single second you get with your baby – with all of your loved ones – because you never know when your time might be up.

To Alana, I just want to say I love you.  We love you.  Your presence is already greatly missed, and will be for the rest of our days.  We will never, ever forget you.  And we look forward to the day when we can finally hold you again.  We love you so, so much, sweet baby girl.  Watch over us.  Keep your future brothers and sisters safe.  And know that you are always in our hearts.

We are so incredibly grateful for the outpouring of love and support we’ve received from so many people in the days following Alana’s death.  We are amazed and saddened to learn how many of your lives have been impacted by similar tragedies, but inspired that all of the stories we’ve heard have happy endings, filled with the laughter of children and the smiles of loving families.  We pray that someday our story will have a happy ending, too.

In the meantime, many people have asked what they can do for us to ease our suffering.  Just knowing that you are grieving alongside us brings more comfort than you can imagine.  We know that Alana was loved far and wide, that this is not just our own private loss, but a loss that is shared by a whole community of people.  Thank you for that.  We are also inundated in beautiful flowers and more food than we can possibly eat – thank you for all the thoughtful gifts.

Moving forward, we would like to request that gifts be made in Alana’s memory to Star Legacy Foundation, in hopes that improved research and education can continue to reduce the number of families that suffer the devastating loss of a child, and to Molly Bears and Heartprints, both of whom graciously provide much-needed support to grieving parents.  Thank you again for all of your support – we know we are not alone in our grief, and that knowledge has helped us to get through each passing day.  Love to you all, pray for us, and please – give your babies a kiss on our behalf.

Update: The results of a thorough medical investigation indicated that Alana died of an acute cord accident, likely compression or twisting, which was exacerbated by the fact that her cord was thinner than average.  Our doctors assure us that there is no medical reason to believe that this should recur in future pregnancies, but will provide us with extensive monitoring nonetheless to be extra careful.  We are grateful that there are no chromosomal/genetic/placental issues for us to worry about, though we are of course frustrated that at this time not much can really be done to prevent another accident from happening.  We encourage everyone to please speak to your doctors about the possibility of cord issues and to ask for extra monitoring and pay close attention to your baby’s patterns of movement, even if there doesn’t appear to be any reason for concern – some cord issues can be detected via ultrasound/NST/close observation and early delivery may be a safe option to preempt a tragedy.

Update 2: Our son, Kiran, was born healthy and thriving on October 23, 2014.  It was a long, anxious (though blessedly healthy) pregnancy with lots and lots of monitoring, and though there were no signs of distress with Kiran, we decided to induce his birth once he reached full term at 37 weeks to be safe. Though we continue to miss Alana deeply, from the moment he existed Kiran has brought the light and hope back to our lives, and we are eternally grateful to be honored with his presence and love.

Additional Resources/Actions: More information about stillbirth and stillbirth prevention.  Detailed information about kick counting, fetal hiccups, and other warning signs.  Emerging research about the potential importance of sleeping on your left side.  Our recommendations for what to do if your baby dies.  Help raise awareness and combat the stigma by asking your medical provider to distribute this pregnancy loss info sheet and this brochure about stillbirth prevention to all women at the start of their pregnancies.

Alana Marie Banerjee, Stillborn 10/4/13 @ 2:21 am, 6 lb 8 oz, 20 inches