To disclose or not disclose

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.

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16 thoughts on “To disclose or not disclose

  1. Never forget when I lost my first baby sitting outside at my moms still feeling very raw…my sister In law pound out like without any feeling for what I had lost and pronounce she was pregnate! It cut thru the bone…then turning around losing another within a year in the same month! Thought I never get over it! To some degree you never get over it, I can remember them as if it was yesterday! I wonder what they look liked… Didn’t get to see either of them ( both girls! I’m lucky in that I went to a different dr and they found my problem and was able to have my son ( your husband) and a daughter! And even when Zack was born and he was in distress I didn’t look at him right away cause I thought I would lose him to! I feel nothing in life is a sure thing whether it be family or friends! I’m so grateful for what I did get and what they have given me .. I feel blessing come from our heartaches… Of course I didn’t back then .., feel like my joy would ever turn out the way I invision ! Praying someday your heart will be filled with joy once more! 🙏

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    • I’m so grateful you were blessed with both Zack and Nanci – I don’t know where I would be without him. The joy is there, it’s just mixed with a great deal of sadness and thoughts of what would have been … hoping it gets easier with time, but like you said I know it will never go away.

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  2. I used to stammer when asked how many children we have. I never wanted to not include our son who was killed, but I also didn’t want to start off a conversation talking about the loss of a child. Its hard to know how to approach it. So sorry for your loss and pain.

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      • I realized that I was cheating both myself and my son by not mentioning him when asked how many children I have. So I say three, two girls and a boy. If they ask how old, I say between 34 and 40. If they ask for more info I tell them about each child even Jake. They have opened the door for me by asking.
        Some losses are hidden like miscarriages, abortions, and stillborns. They bring deep grief that can be difficult to move forward from. To lose a child of any age is one of the greatest shocks a parent can ever experience—it feels entirely wrong. My opinion is that these children are not to be forgotten. Any person really interested in knowing about you would want to know about the things that cause you deep sorrow. You have to find a comfortable way to talk about the most uncomfortable thing in your life.
        Does it get easier, yes. There will come a time when you will go twenty-four hours without thinking of your loss, but I continue to think of Jake most days 23 years after his death. I always say, it doesn’t get better, we just get used to living in his absence. Praying that you will know peace again.

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      • I can’t imagine ever going more than 24 hours without thinking of him, though I suppose it is inevitable – and that makes me sad, in a way. If I don’t think of him, who will? Thank you for your note – you have given me some things to think about!

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  3. First of all, I cannot believe your pediatrician didn’t know stillbirth can happen. Are you freaking kidding me? Shame on her! Seriously. And her reaction, aside from that, was horrible overall. Those types of situations always knock the wind out of me…

    I don’t have living children yet, so I doubt I enter as many of these situations as you do, but I find that each time I do, it is so confusing and heart wrenching. The other day, a stranger bidding on a project in our house asked if we had any kids and Mark said no, and it upset me a lot (not sure why – like, who cares about this stranger?). Gosh, there’s definitely no right or wrong. I think, in the future, I’ve decided I’ll always try to answer as honestly as possible (even if it’s awkward and not as socially acceptable). I guess I’d rather do that than have it eat me up… But everyone is just SO different in this regard, and that’s okay.

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    • You are very brave to do that! I don’t know if I can … I don’t handle awkwardness very well; it just makes me even more awkward. I’m hoping someday I’ll be able to figure out a response I can say with some ease and comfort. I can totally understand how it would eat you up not to say something; all we want is for our children to be remembered.

      And yeah – pediatricians, like most other medical professionals, don’t inspire a ton of confidence, unfortunately.

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  4. I grapple with how to answer the question of children as well. We lost our daughter shortly after birth just a few months ago. She was our firstborn. At first it was all I could do to not tell total strangers…like the woman at Starbucks asking how my day was going, took all my willpower not to reply “my daughter died 3 weeks and 7hrs ago, so I am doing terrible, k thx for asking”. I wanted everyone to know about the horrible tragedy we were going through. Now as more time has passed I still struggle with talking about it. I had to disclose our loss to my dentist, my primary care doctor, and a few people I work with that hadn’t heard. I joined a new church, and have emailed with several of the women who welcomed me and told them a bit of what we are going through. Sort of a fair warning, I might cry when we talk and this is why. Being in public is still so hard for me.

    I can’t believe your pediatrician is so clueless, like Christine said…shame on her!

    One of the saving graces about the loss community- this club nobody wants to be a part of, is we all get it. I feel your pain and I am so sorry for your loss.

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    • Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, I know exactly what you mean about wanting to say that to the Starbucks workers! “How are you?” became such a loaded question and still is for me … I still don’t really know how to answer it. That was a good idea to email your church group; hopefully they are understanding and caring and will help you through this.

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  5. I know these feelings only too well – it is so hard to know what to say or what not to say. Over a year on from losing my son, who was born prematurely at 27 weeks and died 8 days later, I’ve roughly put people into two groups – those I tell, who are people who I’m likely to see again/will be part of my life, and those that are just people in shops etc who I’m unlikely to see again, who I generally don’t tell. It doesn’t always work out this way, but making my own ‘rule’ has made be less anxious about what to do when the questions come. I wrote something on my blog about this too.There is no right or wrong way and you will gradually find what works for you. Wishing you strength for the new year xx and I too am in shock about the ignorance of that paediatrician!

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    • That’s a good way to think of it, dividing people into two groups. It’s still hard for me to figure out when exactly to say something, and how to say it, though. Wishing you strength and comfort as well. ❤

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  6. Mama, first, I am sorry you have lost your baby. While pregnant with my baby I became acutely aware of how easy it is to lose a baby. My mind would go into trying to imagine what it would the reality be if I lost my baby and my mind would retreat in honor. Babyloss mamas don’t have that luxury of retreating from horror because you are living it and it just plain sucks.

    Second, I encourage you to share your son and your story with people. Yes, it will make many people were uncomfortable because that will force them to have their mind go into the horror of imagining this happening to them, and who wants to be confronted with unpleasant things? But we must realize that giving birth is serous busenness that can easily go wrong and does go wrong for 1 in 4 moms, ad that is a huge number! So we need to learn how to deal with it, we need to be taught how to be there for bereaved parents, we need to empathize in meaningful way. So yes, please share. Your story is no less valid than my story. Living or dead, our babies make us parents.

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    • Thank you for your note, Olga – it really moved me. You are right that 1 in 4 is a huge number – that is 1 in 4 women who are suffering and grieving and unsure how to talk about their children because they don’t want to make people uncomfortable. Our society is just terrible at dealing with loss, but people like you go a long way toward changing that. Thank you for your kindness and understanding ❤

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