October 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. For more information on grief and healing, visit Hand to Hold’s bereavement resources.
I have never liked visions of heaven that have it be a separate place, a place where we float as souls disconnected from our bodies. You know, the halo, the harp and the clouds? A priest I used to know preached that heaven and hell are in us now as we work out our salvation, not a separate plane of reality.
This year we experienced a particular sharp, unhappy separation — a miscarriage. A baby we had never met died before we could hold him or her. Babies who do not make it are sometimes called “angel babies,” but I wanted to be careful not to use that term for our child because angels, in Scripture and religious literature, are creatures who never had physical bodies. I did not want to forget our brief connection with the baby here.
Our religion teaches us the way to connect to one another and to God is to pray, the most important service that we can perform for the world. I believe that we should pray, and this would connect us to our child, but I am still pretty bad at it. I believe in God in my heart, but in my head, I am still a returned Peace Corps volunteer, coming up with programs and campaigns to heal the world’s injustices and ills. When a friend asks me to pray for their distant relative with a health problem, do I remember to say his or her name before bedtime? Usually not.
When we found out that we were expecting our second child, we wondered when to tell people. You don’t want to announce a pregnancy far and wide because if there is a miscarriage, you don’t want to have to go back and tell casual acquaintances of the loss. Also, it feels as if you’re disappointing everyone, as if you’re attracting a great deal of attention for something that never shows up.
With our first child, we waited until 12 weeks, at which we were “safe” from first trimester miscarriages. We sent postcards to everyone only to discover that we were not “safe” at all as our son, Gabriel, was born at 22 weeks and 6 days of gestation, setting a record for most immature survivor to emerge from his hospital, which has the busiest NICU in the state. With our second pregnancy, we were afraid of scaring people with the announcement. When Gabriel was born, a relative had a blood pressure spike so bad that 911 got called.
What we decided to do this time was make immediate phone calls to 30 people at church who had provided huge amounts of cooking and other support for us during our five-month NICU stay, and we asked them to come to a prayer service at church when Miri was at the five-week mark with the pregnancy. We decided that their help and prayers were far more important than getting past that 12-week mark after which it’s “safe.” We also did not want to be alone with our fears. At that point, my greatest fear was not a miscarriage, but another life-or-death dilemma in the hospital with a child unlikely to survive. Gabriel’s first neonatologist told us he would not resuscitate him unless he was born after midnight. At that time, the hospital’s policy was that babies had to make it to 23 weeks and 0 days before resuscitation could be performed.
You might notice the obvious illogic of what I have just said – that I was more afraid of a complicated live birth than a miscarriage – but this what happens to your brain when you are a micropreemie parent.
They came to the service, and we felt quite self-conscious, having asked for all this attention, but also glad that we had done what we could at that point. I have always felt that Gabriel’s premature birth was the result of something we did – or failed to do – despite the doctors’ assurances that we had not. It’s an irrational belief, but it never goes away.
This time around, this thought has worried me again. At seven weeks, an ultrasound showed the egg sac’s growth falling behind, at nine weeks, there was no growth at all. What did we do?
I thought we were having that prayer service because we were frightened. It turns out, the most important aspect was that we were talking to the baby while he or she was still alive. This was thoroughly unsatisfying, loving someone you don’t know, believing your actions are meaningful when you know you won’t see a result. I believe the prayers are meaningful, but I’m not very good at believing that.
I still try, though, because the prayers were the most heaven we could share with the baby, and we did.