Of the many social dilemmas I’ve grappled with on Planet I Delivered a Dead Baby, perhaps the toughest has been when to disclose the recent past to those who don’t know or with whom I’ve newly formed relationships.
For example, I’m going back to school to pursue a master’s degree in environmental biology. Which professors and fellow students do I tell? Do I inform the program director, whom I met with back in July, when I was 7.5 months pregnant?
At Zoe’s 2.5-year checkup in October, the pediatrician asked if there had been any recent changes in our medical history. I hadn’t anticipated the question and wasn’t sure what to say. After debating for a minute, I said, “My son was stillborn in August.” This was when it was still hard for me to say that without tearing up. Her reply: “Oh.” She paused, her pen poised over her clipboard. There was an awkward silence. I cleared my throat. “He was 37 weeks.” “Oh,” she said again. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t even know that could happen.” Her expression was one of horror. “What …?” She trailed off. “It was something known as maternal floor infarction,” I replied to her implied question. “Basically, a huge clot formed in the placenta.” “I never heard of that,” she said. “Is everyone doing OK?” That’s a loaded question, I thought—and one I’m never quite sure how to answer. After I made up a response, she quickly turned the conversation to other topics.
That’s when it hit me. This stillbirth, this grief that has become my day-to-day existence, this tragedy that has been burned into my soul and become normalized, from which I have no escape, is a thing of shock and horror to outsiders—just as it once was to me, in my days of blissful innocence. Her reaction was a preview of what I’ll face in the weeks, months, and years to come each time I utter the words, “My son was stillborn. He was 37 weeks.”
It was a sobering moment, and one that’s made me hesitant to share Luke’s story with new audiences. Fast forward a week or so, and Zoe and I went on a field trip to the local pumpkin patch with her day care. Right away we met up with one of Zoe’s little friends and her mom. I was very glad to see them there because Zoe loves this friend, so much so that she says her name whenever I ask her what happened at school each day.
But within a few minutes of meeting, the friend’s mom informed me that she was on maternity leave. She told me her son’s age and I was able to calculate that he was born just a few days after Luke, in the same hospital. Ouch. Sucker punch to the heart.
When she asked if Zoe has any brothers or sisters, I again was unsure how to respond, just like at the pediatrician’s office. How could I say, I had a baby boy too, just a few days before you, in the very same hospital, perhaps the very same room. Only my baby never took a breath. And instead of maternity leave, I’ve spent the past two months grieving.
Yeah—not exactly something you unload on basically a perfect stranger. So instead, I mumbled, “No,” and we proceeded with the field trip. The girls had a great time, lots of photo opp moments, but my mind and heart kept returning to the juxtaposition of my dead baby and her live baby.
Then it got worse.
We spent a couple hours at the pumpkin patch, taking a hay ride, picking out pumpkins, feeding critters, playing hula hoops, going down slides, and much, much more. Toward the end of the afternoon, the friend’s mom started looking at her phone. She was typing a lot and not saying much.
After a few minutes, she looked up and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m getting all these texts—my friend just had her baby!” And then she showed me her phone, with said texts, and photos of happy mom, happy dad, and live baby.
The horizon reeled. Somehow I forced a smile and didn’t walk away, though it took everything within me not to jump in the car and just keep driving, to where it wouldn’t have mattered, as long as it was far away from all the reminders of what could have been.
The experience got me thinking. As awful as the pediatrician’s reaction had been, if I had told this mom after meeting her, would she have been more sensitive to my situation? Would she have not showed me those pictures, salvaging an otherwise pleasant afternoon? I’ll never know.
We’ve met up with this mom a few other times outside of school, and I still haven’t told her. The opportunity just hasn’t presented itself. And it makes me think, what if the opportunity never presents itself? What if the moment just never seems quite right? These are questions writ large: How long do we allow new relationships to develop before disclosing this seminal truth, this point of no return that has changed us forever?
I suppose, like anything, it depends on the situation, the person. And perhaps it is something that will become easier, more comfortable, with time. For now, it’s the thought that surfaces each time I extend my hand and say, “Hi, I’m Angela. It’s nice to meet you.”
Then my mind goes on to finish the introduction, with words that never cross my lips: My son was stillborn. He was 37 weeks.