The call came from my wife on November 15th, 2012 while standing in my professor’s office in my first semester of graduate school. “There’s no heartbeat,” are the words I remember most from that searing conversation. Our baby was gone, just like that. I fought off hot tears as I tried to safely drive home from New Jersey to face the two day ordeal of experiencing my wife deliver a late stage stillbirth. I could barely process what I had lost. Finding out that we were carrying a daughter and saying goodbye to her in the same day just didn’t seem possible. How to say farewell when hello had barely occurred? How to even talk about her when she did not yet even have a name.
Pregnancy loss, whether an early term miscarriage or a late term stillbirth, can be a devastating loss. Is this a women’s health issue? It is uniquely a woman’s experience in the way her body has gestated, nurtured, and delivered this child and yet there’s usually a doting other parent involved. It thus affects both men and women albeit perhaps in different ways. On a clinical level this can lead to anxiety, depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is a unique kind of loss in that the loss is ambiguous. It is not entirely clear what was lost. Did I have a child? If so, do I count it among my living children when people ask how many children I have. Was this simply a pregnancy that was lost and I should “move on” with my life?
So many decisions and choices to make so suddenly in this pain crazy state of mind. Do we want to hold her? Do we want photographs taken? Footprints? Who should we allow to visit? What kind of burial? Will there be any memorial service? Will there be any baby naming? Perhaps the most difficult, what do we tell our daughter, both now and later? So little time, so much to decide.
Angels appeared in the form of our family, friends and select hospital staff and volunteers offering both practical help and deep shoulders of support. Who knew that so many in our lives had themselves experienced such loss? We talk so much about babies entering this world and yet experience complete radio silence on babies slipping away so quietly, still born.
Ambiguous loss is a term I became intimately familiar with. For those who want to treat this loss as something more there are many difficulties. There is very little that is tangible to hold on to. No memories of a child playing in the sandbox and looking up at you with a sweet smile or of a toddler daring the world to stop it as it’s about to woosh down the slide. None of the endless Snaps and selfies we post of our children. I would never experience the joy of watching our oldest daughter play Princess games with her younger sister. Many in our life likely do not know much about this loss. Only those who knew you were pregnant and see you regularly are likely to realize you lost the baby. Often the cause for the pregnancy loss is not known, leading to self-blame and increased anxiety in subsequent pregnancies.
My journey for answers and meaning started immediately. I scoured the academic databases that had become my trusted graduate training resource for tips on how to handle this traumatic event. I immediately decided to dedicate my dissertation research toward this area. Over the next five years I became an expert on the psychology of reproductive trauma and posttraumatic growth. With the support of my wife and family I maintained my focus on my research toward the end goal of providing support and meaning to others experiencing such losses and reproductive challenges. As I went further I met some amazing researchers and clinicians spread across a range of disciplines. They were warm, welcoming and generously gave of their time, and supported me as one of the few men delving deep into this area. With the support of my research mentors I balanced the personal and professional/academic focus that my work required. Over the last five years my area of interest expanded to a range of issues related to reproductive and women’s mental health to include infertility, mood/anxiety disorders during and after pregnancy, parents with a baby in the NICU, and many other challenges related to family building.
Through this social media project Positive Family Building I hope to raise awareness, curate fascinating conversations, and generate actionable ideas that this area needs. I will share my research and those of the many wonderful colleagues I have met from across the globe. We will interact with the diverse network of cool and delightful professionals and dedicated lay advocates through various forums. This will be a platform to share my own and others’ experiences in a safe and supportive atmosphere with the full respect for the uniqueness of each person’s experience. It will be a canvas upon which new and novel ideas can be brainstormed and developed for clinical and lay support and legislative/policy action thereby leading to a paradigm shift in the way we conceptualize and work with reproductive health. Conceiving, carrying, and raising children (while retaining our sanity) is one of the most challenging things most of us will ever do and it is increasingly so in our ever growing internet connected universe. With most technological boons come another source of anxiety. We need to and can be doing more to support parents in the family building journey. I welcome your feedback and see this Positive Family Building project as an ongoing collaborative effort. All you need to do is care to make a difference, one bit at a time. I leave you with some thought provoking questions to consider. Do share your responses, both definitive and speculative…
How do you respond, if you’ve lost a pregnancy, when asked how many children you have?
What kind of issue is pregnancy loss?
Was this simply a pregnancy that was lost and I should move on with my life?
How do you make important decisions when working with such limited emotional and mental headspace?
How to say farewell when hello had barely occurred?
Dr. Moshe Winograd, Ph.D. is available for counseling in Boca Raton. I am also available for speaking engagements and consultation. I can be reached at [email protected]