The most helpful thing I heard when I went back to work after my miscarriage.
Sometimes, acknowledging the worst is the best you can do.
Former ESPN anchor Sara Walsh’s revelation that she suffered a miscarriage on air has me thinking a lot about pregnancy loss and the workplace. What is it like to go back to an environment that emphasizes success and forward progress, when one’s personal life has stalled so dramatically — and so publicly?
I remember putting on a dress the morning I went back to work, and feeling like a kid playing dress up. I hadn’t gotten out of sweat pants in 2 weeks, because I had just had a baby. I had delivered my daughter Sloane on the very last day of July, and then the next day I went home without her and climbed straight into bed. There, I hid from the world for as long as I could afford to.
I found out that Sloane had died when I went for my normal prenatal checkup and they couldn’t find a heartbeat. It shocked me at the time, but babies still have to be delivered even when they die. They don’t just disappear. So even though she never took a breath, I still gave birth to my daughter. And I still loved her, and I still grieved her loss, hard. But also, I still had to go back to work and earn my paycheck.
Hence, the dress and my flat chest underneath it, my breasts bound by a sports bra to stop my milk from coming in. And the tears, and the adrenaline of nerves surging through my body, making my fingers shake when I tried to apply my eyeliner. Making it hard to hold my coffee cup or my husband’s hand as we took the train into the city that day. I could barely breathe around the lump in my throat and the swollen heart that constantly threatened to burst through my ribs with its fear and sorrow.
Why was I so scared? I worked at a human rights non-profit where I was surrounded by compassionate young men and women, many of whom were parents themselves. They had been nothing but supportive since I had first broken the news to my supervisor — “I know I said it was just a check-up, but I lost the baby” — who had then quietly filtered it through the office with my permission. Nevertheless, I had avoided all their texts and emails, leaving my phone on the other side of the house because the very ping of the message notification was like an arrow in my heart. Honestly, I didn’t want anyone’s condolences or support. I just wanted my baby back, and those pings reminded me that it wasn’t going to happen.
I was scared of the looks I would get and the conversations I would have to have once I returned. I was embarrassed that I was no longer pregnant, after being so openly joyous just weeks before. I felt ashamed when I remembered telling my colleagues — “we’ll have a new little team member joining us this January” — and how many hours I had spent imagining that moment and crafting just the right words, not too cutesy but enough to keep the element of surprise going as long as possible. How stupid of me to be so smug and proud then, so self-assured, when even at that very moment my baby could have been dying inside of me.
I remembered running into one of the executives in the bathroom and how she had squealed, “you have a bump!” I didn’t tell her that I had seemed to pop that very morning, and instead of working I had spent the day at my desk shopping for maternity clothes that would show off the proof of my new special status. Now I had no bump, but I still had pregnancy weight. I had a grotesque dumpy body that looked wrong in my work outfits and absolutely nothing to show for it but the memory of my greatest hope.
And so because of all this, I couldn’t bear the thought of looking anyone in the eye. And yet from the moment I set foot back in the building, all I wanted to do was scream “I had a baby!”
Despite knowing that everyone in that office supported me, that first day back still felt incredibly awkward. It felt like there was a hush around me, and no one — myself included — knew quite what to say. There were a lot of hugs, and a lot of “I’m so glad to see you”s and “I’ve missed you”s. There were cards and stuffed animals on my desk. And yet nothing soothed my frustration, my desperation to talk about my daughter, to make sure they all knew just bad it was.
And then, I walked by a colleague’s office and caught her eye. I tried to just lift my fingers in a brief wave, but something pulled me into her space to say hello. She welcomed me back, and then said the single most helpful thing I would hear that day, or in the days to come:
I’m sorry for what happened. It’s just so damn awful. And there’s nothing any of us can do about it.
In those few words, my colleague acknowledged the magnitude of what I was going through and that no one could fix it or make it better with words or gestures. She let me know that she took it seriously, that they all did, and that I wasn’t alone in feeling totally powerless and vulnerable. She gave me permission to grieve for as hard and as long as I wanted to, because she understood that this was one of the worst things that would ever happen to me. It was a brutal thing to say, and yet one of the kindest things too.
When a person loses someone they love, we all just want to make it better. But some things can’t be helped, and we shouldn’t be afraid of this. It is a wonderful thing to show support with words and gestures, but sometimes all I wanted to hear in my own grief was a recognition of how much my life sucked in that moment. If my grief could be helped, then maybe it meant that I was starting to get over my daughter — and I simply wasn’t ready for that yet. I needed, with raw desperation, to be as miserable as possible for awhile as I adjusted to the new reality of no longer being pregnant. And in just a few short words, my colleague let me have my misery and gave me faith that I wasn’t alone in it.
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