As many of you know, my first child – my daughter, Alana – was born still just two days before her due date in October of 2013. I had just released Shudder and spent the summer gushing about her impending arrival on a 12-week long blog tour that garnered rave reviews. I had big plans to stick to my once-a-year release schedule, completing the trilogy with Stuck’s release the following summer, and starting a new as-yet-to-be-determined series the next. I had a thriving career, a happy family, a shiny new home, was coming off my first blissful year of marriage, and I was young and eager and fulfilled.
Alana’s death derailed everything.
It’s amazing how much can change in an instant. We heard those words – there’s no heartbeat – and time ground to a halt. Up became down. The world pivoted, hard, on its axis. And I, as I once was, ceased to exist.
It’s still surreal to think about.
But though the world had stopped turning for me, it kept going for everyone else. When you’re 9 months pregnant and your baby inexplicably dies, you don’t get much of a choice about speaking up about it. Everyone who knew me knew that I was pregnant. Which meant that everyone now needed to un-know.
I’m not going to lie, this was a humbling experience. Humiliating may be better word. Because even though I knew in my head that I had done nothing wrong, that I’d followed all the doctor’s orders, that I’d have given anything – anything – for a different outcome, in my heart, I still felt responsible. I still felt like a failure.
[Because this is what our society does: blames victims. Victims of tragedy, of violence, of abuse. Because we are all too terrified to acknowledge that we could be next. This is stigma in action. Also, #misogyny – it’s convenient how the victims who “caused” their own trauma almost always seem to be female, no?]
It took me near a month to work up the nerve to publicly announce our horrific news. Part of me would really have preferred to just be left alone in my misery. But in the end, I knew if I could help just one person to feel less alone than we did – or better yet, prevent one family from suffering the same fate – that was the only good I could ever see coming out of all this devastation. That was the only legacy I could build for my daughter. And so I did.
We had an outpouring of support. But even surrounded by love, my grief was so suffocating I could barely breathe – for months, years even. I whiled away so many days in a stupor of tears and terror and guilt, even after the healthy birth of my son. The only thing I could bring myself to write about was her. (Hence why we, dear reader, find ourselves 5 years later only *now* finally releasing Stuck!)
But somehow, the gaping wounds scabbed over. The shards of our hearts sealed themselves back together. The vise-grip around our chests loosened up just ever so much.
And we survived.
Five years and two cherished subsequent children later, I can tell you that I still think about Alana every day, and my understanding (from those who’ve walked this road before me) is that this will be true until the end of my days. I miss her deeply, I wonder who she would have been, I ache for my other children who never got to know their older sibling.
But also, I am grateful. I am grateful for her – for the short time I had to carry her, and for everything (and everyone) she has brought to our lives. For the ways she’s changed us. I am bursting with gratitude, actually, the depths of which I could not ever have conceived of, before.
There was a time, after Alana died, when I couldn’t imagine ever feeling anything but sorrow ever again; a time when I couldn’t imagine ever wanting anything more than a chance to turn back the clock. Now, even knowing the outcome, I would gladly do it all over again. I’d choose her a billion times, over any other baby, even one that lives. (Though if choosing *her* alive were an option, that’d still take the cake every single time.)
Needless to say, I never in a million years saw any of this coming.
The worst part of this story, I’ve come to learn though, is that it’s not unique. What happened to me happens to 70 other families every. single. day. It happened to 70 yesterday, and will happen to 70 more tomorrow. And that’s just in the United States – and just stillbirth. Expand that out to include the rest of the world, to include miscarriage, to include SIDS and other neonatal deaths. The numbers are staggering.
And yet, the vast majority of us are suffering in silence.
Well, *I* used to be why. I used to be one of those “Everything happens for a reason!™” people. (If I ever said this to you, particularly in a time of pain, I’M SORRY. I TAKE IT ALL BACK.) But, as I can see now, this is another one of those things that we tell ourselves when we don’t want to (can’t) acknowledge the random cruelty of our world. This phrase is a get-out-of-jail-free card; it absolves us of responsibility in the face of suffering and injustice. It puts a wall between us – the lucky ones, the “chosen” ones (we believe) – and them – those unfortunate suckers who have an important lesson to learn, or some god’s work to do, or whatever. This works great, until the day that you become one of them. Then it just really sucks.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in 5 years of missing my child, it is this: heartbreak is the great equalizer. Every bereaved parent I know, no matter what color, class, or creed, aches the same way. Every bereaved *person* I know aches the same way, no matter who they are missing.
And so the woman who found meaning in everyone’s suffering but her own (b/c, of course, she had none of her own to speak of) died and was buried along with her daughter. And, somewhere down the line, a new woman took her place, one who lives and loves by a different motto (coined by none other than the apparently very wise Dr. Seuss):
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” –Dr. Seuss
*This* here, in my deeply humbled opinion, is the only meaning to be found in suffering. We are all bound to suffer, sooner or later – that is the price for love. The question is: what are you going to do about it?
And so that brings me back around to Awareness Month. As I somehow glimpsed in those early, empty, strangled weeks, this here is the good that I can do in my daughter’s name. I care a whole awful lot that no else walks into a labor and delivery unit to be blindsided. That no else is tormented by the words, “What if.” That no else is swallowed up by an ocean of grief without an anchoring hand to hold. That no one else’s love for their child is silenced.
This is what Awareness is about. It’s about compassion, for those of us who are in pain. And it’s about knowledge, for those of us who, thankfully, are not.
This October, if you have lost a baby, please, (if you’re ready) share your story. If you haven’t lost a baby, please, listen – and most importantly, learn.
If you love someone who’s lost a baby, please, show your support. If you think you don’t know anyone who’s lost a baby, please, listen harder – because unfortunately, I promise, you definitely do. (1 in 4 expectant women will lose a baby during pregnancy or infancy. 1 in 4!)
There are a lot of really simple things you can do to participate in Awareness Month, in honor of all babies gone too soon. Some (like changing your social media profile frame) take only seconds. Take a moment to learn more at www.starlegacyfoundation.org/awareness-month
And with that, I am heading out to spend the day celebrating – yes, as unbelievable as I would have found that 5 years ago today, actually celebrating – my eldest daughter’s brief life. I hope you will do me the honor of spending a few moments today learning about Pregnancy & Infant Loss and how to have an empowered pregnancy.
On behalf of Alana and myself, thank you. <3