People don’t talk about the fact that babies die. I didn’t know it happened until it happened to me.
It’s treated, I think, much like bulimia, suicide or drug abuse. So many people have experienced those things in some way, but they don’t go around talking about their experience.
Why? Probably because it would be awkward and probably a huge downer to any conversation.
I used to work with a young woman who was actively and openly bulimic. If you know any recovering drug addicts, you know the kind of honesty this woman displayed, except that she wasn’t recovering. She was in it full time, but somehow managed to have no shame. I don’t think she was proud of her obsession, but she knew it for what it was and she didn’t pretend.
When my daughter died she was 19 hours old. The autopsy says she was 12 hours old and my theory is that had she not been under the hands of the paramedics at 4pm that day, she wouldn’t have lived until 9:30pm. They did everything they could do, but her lung infection was much more agile and had done too much damage before there was anyone fighting it off. Anyone besides herself, of course….
I was clueless. Babies are weird when they’re born. The midwife gave us a checklist to go by; heart rate, breathing, temperature, behavior, but the variables were broad and my understanding was narrow. Everyone that advised us that day used calm tones and made suggestions like, “let’s call an ambulance,” as if all of it was “just in case,” overly cautious.
When the doctor (an expert in something who had been called in from his drive home) came over wearing his plaid button down shirt and khakis, he leaned his backside against a cupboard and folded his arms, tilting his head thoughtfully, I did not expect the words that came out of his mouth. Everyone else had been so calm and they had given us our own room and I took these as signs that it was all under control. No one shouted, “STAT!,” no one seemed to be preparing me for something they knew was inevitable.
While my sister was on her way to the hospital with snacks for me (I hadn’t eaten real food in days) and her kids in tow, the doctor was telling us that our daughter had zero percent chance of surviving. Zero. Even the way he said it avoided the words everyone else avoided.
Your daughter is going to die.
For the next weeks and months I heard more than I ever would have imagined from the women that I lived and worked and went to church with. Miscarriages, infant deaths, still births. Stories from decades ago, stories from recent years. The community experienced my daughter’s death and, in turn, I experienced all the other deaths that had taken place in the community. These stories get buried quickly for many understandable reasons.
Is it a club to join? No. I believe the silence has everything to do with people hanging on to the hope that even though this happened to me, it doesn’t have to happen to you. And this also is true. If I admit to you that babies die, I also have to admit that quite often babies live.
Since my daughter has died, I have mostly met people who have babies who live. Not all of them, but most.
Another sad misconception I’d love to expose is that the stage of life in which a child dies is a measure for the amount of grief that follows. Women who have “only” had miscarriages hear my story and often shrink back as if my grief is more valid because I gave birth to a full term, living child. From my perspective, I feel like being able to meet her alive was an unmerited gift and (while I was still married) I feared miscarriage because it could make my body a graveyard.
Every death is a real death. Grief is very personal. Months after my daughter died, a good friend of mine had a miscarriage and I struggled with how to comfort her, what to say. Lots of people have lots of advice, but my point here is that every loss leads to some kind of grief. All of it real, all of it requiring kindness, love and prayer.
You don’t have to talk about the fact that babies die. I am more willing than most, but still cautious of timing, cautious of my audience, concerned that it not become a morbid kind of dwelling. As much as I need to share my struggle, I also need my daughter’s life to be about more than how it ended. And so I write this for you as much as for me, as much as for her. Love your babies. If they die, don’t be afraid to grieve. If you need to talk, I am here to listen.