By Cherie Golant
My baby died. She died inside of my body five weeks from her due date. I didn’t know she was a she, then. The physician who confirmed my baby’s heart had stopped beating had used the male pronoun to describe her.
For the 41.5 hours of induced labor that followed, I believed I was delivering a stillborn son. During that time, my husband and I fretted we didn’t have a boy name yet; we had agreed on a girl name weeks earlier. Sometimes I still dream about a baby boy that never came.
All of this happened eleven years ago, going on twelve.
My firstborn daughter, Julia, was born at 4:30 am. The delivery room was dark and quiet, save a young nurse’s weeping beyond the intense, bright circle focused on my perineum. Julia had a full head of dark hair and her father’s wide mouth.
The doctor said: “Your baby is a girl.” Then: “The cord is tight around her neck.” And then: “She is perfect.”
The nurse wrapped Julia in a blanket and put a hat on her head, handing her to me. She was warm from the heat of my body. When I looked at her face, my heart shattered into a million pieces and the hardwiring in my brain booted into mother-mode. For the brain science behind this, see here.
Julia’s face seared my memory like the shadow of a nuclear blast. Her eyelashes were as sparse and fine as sand falling off a seashell’s scalloped edge.
Before leaving the hospital I held Julia once more for the briefest moment; it was too much for me. Now I wish someone had helped me unwrap her blanket so could see all of her — maybe bathe her, take pictures together. All we have are three degrading Polaroids of her in a baby burrito, held by the gloved hand of a nurse.
She was possibly the same nurse who told me how her sister had made peace, in time, after her child had been stillborn 21 years prior.
She was possibly the same nurse who grabbed my hand and told me, with an intensity born of her own grief, “You’re still a mom,” before she took my Julia away for the last time.
Less than eight hours after delivery, my husband and I crawled into our bed — in each other’s arms. We burst into tears.
We became pregnant three months after Julia died. And again, three years after that. I carried to near term three times in five years. That’s a lot of pregnant. And to all in the outside world, I’m very much a mom. My living children are the heart of my world — despite my busy, sometimes demanding career. There is something about being Julia’s mom, however, that is harder for the outside world to accept.
I maintained relationships with other mothers of dead children online, ones who had somehow survived this experience and gone on to support others. Their message to me was the same: “You will always be Julia’s mom. Someone will always be missing from the family. You will never get over this, but the pain will lessen over time and it will become something else. Find ways to honor her memory and you will find the truest part of yourself.”
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. — Kahlil Gibran
The first year after Julia died was the hardest of my life. I was deeply bereaved and pregnant for most of it, delivering Rosie just eleven months and four days after Julia was born dead. Two weeks from my planned induction — swollen and emotional — Mother’s Day found me waiting for cards and calls that never came.
The year before, I had been celebrated as a mom-to-be. What was I now? It was confusing, being filled with the terrible longing for my dead child. At the same time I was filled with a different — and equally intense — longing for our unborn child. I waited for Rosie’s safe arrival, for the miracle of life to actually show the fuck up, and to finally, finally, be a mom in real life.
The miracle happened, or at least the nightmare did not recur. Rosie came like a bright light into our shrouded lives. I loved being her mom and she was a lovely baby.
I wasn’t the same as other moms.
I went to a group where 40 moms in a circle shared their birth stories — good, bad and ugly. I told the truth. My voice shook with tears and I was hot with fear and sweat: “This wasn’t my first delivery. My first child was stillborn at 35 weeks, so I was induced at 36 weeks with Rosie.”
No one made eye contact with me. No one, not even the group facilitator, approached me afterward to see if I was okay. I hung around a bit and changed Rosie’s diaper. I never went back.
When my daughter was three months old, I quit my job to stay at home. I felt no rush to return to my career. Within the year, I started a group for parents pregnant again after a loss.
I was barely down the road from my own loss and subsequent delivery but I wanted parents like us to find community, support, and understanding in our city.
We say the names of our children.
I had daily contact with other bereaved parents through the MISS Foundation — a non-profit started by a stillbirth mom. It supports parents of children who died at any age, all over the world.
Finally I found a playgroup with moms I liked. The misfits. The had-three-miscarriages-before-IVF mom. Another mom whose baby had died a month before ours. The struggle-with-postpartum-depression mom. The lesbian stay-at-home mom whose partner experienced multiple losses, who adopted a baby from South America.
These women experienced deep sorrow but took the risk of trying to love again. These women were on the fertility treatment carousel, signing up for the byzantine journey of international adoption, taking the chance to try again. I tried not to turn into the world’s most neurotic mother.
Possibly, I was in the running for this title even before Julia died. Most of the time I find an uneasy balance — keeping my sweet children safe, yet letting them explore and develop.
In The Day My Nipple Fell Off, breast cancer survivor Jennifer Mork writes, “Acknowledging death makes living the hard edge of joy.” I honor every day the sadness of Julia’s absence, my deep love for her. Her death helps me appreciate the joys and challenges of parenting my children. I learned to choose carefully how and when to share Julia with people.
But share her I do — on the playground, at the preschool, and beyond. I’ve talked to flight attendants about Julia. I’ve talked to strangers at the park, when they asked just the right way. I’ve stood in front of nurses, doctors, social workers, genetics counselors, psychologists and doulas and told my story.
I cry every time.
I’ve talked to my kids’ teachers about Julia, in case they bring her up in class. I’ve talked about Julia in job interviews, though I don’t recommend this. When up for a promotion at work and the CEO asks you about your biggest achievement and you talk about your dead baby and subsequent family, it sends a different message than expected. You can pretty much kiss that job goodbye.
On Facebook I connect with other bereaved moms and dads, whom I met in the first days of my grief. I follow them, watch their children grow, mark anniversaries, share articles, and still, grief.
I share Julia on social media, bringing an avalanche of likes and comments.
I think most people get it. Julia remains a part of our family even in death. All of us have lost or will lose someone close to us. Grief is a universal experience, and yet so uniquely isolating. As a spiritual non-conformist, part of me longs to be reunited in afterlife with the child I’ve never known — if there is an afterlife.
It’s hard to understand my relationship with someone who never lived outside of my body. My closest clue to her personality was she kicked like crazy for No Doubt’s Hella Good — and the entire overture from West Side Story.
David Whyte writes in Close to Home: “Those who will not slip beneath the still surface of the well of grief turning downwards through its black water to the place we cannot breathe will never know the source from which we drink, the secret water, cold and clear, nor find in the darkness glimmering the small round coins thrown away by those who wished for something else.”
Popular culture has co-opted Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of death and dying. The bereaved are constantly told that grief has stages to be completed, that we’ll get over a death and move on. The truth is that surviving loss requires unexpected movement deeper into emotional pain. The fiery crucible of love and grief inside you is where transformation occurs.
You allow it to burn away what no longer serves you. My love for Julia links my future and past. My love is gravity, anchoring me to the earth.
I believe that sharing my enduring love and grief for Julia teaches something essential about being human. To acknowledge my daughter is to understand that each life ends, that the answer to the eternal question is love.
Cherie Golant is the mother of three daughters. She lives and works in
San Francisco, where she founded and facilitates a Pregnancy After Loss support group. She shares her story with deep gratitude to her
family, friends and bereaved parent community.