When grief is silent

‘The only cure for grief, is to grieve’  – Earl Grollman

Exactly eleven years ago to the day, we lost our first baby. I miscarried on a flight from London to Johannesburg, when seven weeks pregnant. A miscarriage is generally defined as a loss before twenty weeks gestation, with most occurring in the first trimester. The tricky thing with that, is that most of the time you haven’t told many people of the pregnancy to start with. When you then lose the baby, often the mourning is done silently.

In April 2006, having lived in London for just over nine months, we discovered I was pregnant. In the UK, if part of the public healthcare system, you only have your first scan (the booking appointment) at eleven weeks. As it was very early on, we only told our close family the exciting news and we couldn’t wait to celebrate with them. Luckily we were visiting at the end of April after attending the wedding of friends in Cape Town.

We arrived at the airport on 26 April 2006, after a busy day at work. We both were feeling exhausted, but happy to be flying home. Just before boarding our flight to Johannesburg, I quickly went to the bathroom and that’s when I saw it – blood. I told my husband, I phoned my mom and we found an airport staff member who was very helpful. She called a nurse and when the nurse arrived, she explained that there was nothing much they could do except advise me not to fly. However, if I was miscarrying, staying put in London would not prevent it from happening. We decided to carry on with our trip to South Africa. If it was going to happen, we needed to be with family during the difficult time.

So we boarded the flight and headed for Johannesburg. Two seats were organised for me, so that I’d be able to stretch out and attempt to sleep. I wasn’t very successful though. I must have gone to the bathroom every twenty minutes during that eleven hour flight. I started losing hope. By the time we landed, I was bleeding heavily and we knew we had lost the baby. Somehow I managed the two hour flight from there to Cape Town, but by then I was in agony. The cramping was unbearable. We rushed off to the nearest hospital where they saw me immediately. By now, we had spoken to our parents and they knew the sad news.

I had an ultrasound, the doctor took a tissue sample and also did blood tests. Within twenty four hours, the miscarriage was ruled as ‘complete’ and no ectopic pregnancy detected. Over the next week, we received plenty of support from our family before heading back to London. Life returned (almost) back to normal. Being at work was fine as no one knew a thing (regarding both the pregnancy and the miscarriage). It was very emotional for me about a week after though, when my boss told me that his wife was sixteen weeks pregnant. I smiled, said congratulations and joined in on the baby talk, but deep down inside my heart was breaking. Why did it happen to us?

We were told that the body recovers very quickly after a ‘spontaneous miscarriage’ and thankfully there had been no complications. We could start trying again. So we decided to go for it although deep down, I probably knew I wasn’t ready. But there was one big reason for not waiting. My mom was battling cancer and the prognosis wasn’t good. She needed to be operated on and I started thinking that there was a good chance we could lose her soon. I really wanted our future baby to know one maternal grandparent.

I had a period soon after and then nothing for four weeks. But unfortunately the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy anticipation were far from happy. My mom took a turn for the worst while in hospital and we immediately booked flights to fly straight to Durban, South Africa. All this happened on 11 June, the thirteenth anniversary of my dad’s death. She had to be resuscitated, but clung on with everything she had. My mom was in a coma when we arrived at the hospital, but every day from then on, she started showing some improvement. During this time, I secretly did a pregnancy test, as my period still hadn’t arrived. The test was positive. But we didn’t feel the excitement we had previously. The emotions were a mixture of fear, anxiety and sadness as a result of what was happening with my mom. By the time I headed back to London, my mom was doing better. Seven weeks after arriving in hospital, she finally went home.

This time, we didn’t tell a soul about the pregnancy. I also didn’t want my mom worrying, while she was dealing with her recovery. We made our first appointment at the beginning of August, when I would be eleven weeks along. Day after day went by and I had my moments of panic and anxiety attacks. I tried to stay positive but it was so hard. Six agonising weeks later, the day finally arrived and we went in for our scan. I then got to hear those dreaded words that were every pregnant woman’s worst nightmare: “I’m sorry but there’s no heartbeat’’. We couldn’t believe it was happening again. I felt absolutely numb. It was like some terrible nightmare where I’d wake up and find I’m still pregnant. The doctor told us that I could have a D&C (dilation and curettage) as soon as possible to remove the foetus, or wait two weeks for the miscarriage to happen on its own (as it had before). We opted for the latter. To this day, I have no idea how I survived those two weeks in silence. We did not communicate with the outside world, besides having to break the news to our families once again. This time there was no exciting news preceding the devastating announcement.

We went back to the doctor after two weeks, as nothing had happened. At this stage, we had to tell the hospital that we were flying home to South Africa permanently, in a week’s time. The doctor told us that I couldn’t fly if the miscarriage hadn’t happened, as it was too risky. So we opted for a D&C, two days before leaving the country. We were supposed to spend our last weekend in the UK in Devon, relaxing and doing some last-minute sightseeing. But plans had to change. My husband contacted the B&B where we had booked in for three nights. He started by saying that we wouldn’t be able to make it, and at first the woman (husband and wife owners) was not very impressed. But then he explained why and she fully understood. They had suffered a miscarriage two weeks before us. It suddenly hit home that we weren’t the only ones out there dealing with something like this, although most of us were suffering in silence.

I had the D&C and two days later we flew to South Africa to start our new life together on home soil. It took six weeks for me to fully recover physically. Emotionally, it was a great deal longer. Looking back, I really should’ve seen someone professionally to talk about it all. We moved to a new city where most people didn’t even know we’d been pregnant twice, let alone suffered two miscarriages. Eleven years ago, social media hadn’t taken over our lives yet. You didn’t know what was going on with people unless you asked them directly. And the topic of miscarriage wasn’t deemed to be appropriate dinner table conversation. If it was ever brought up, I was often met with ‘at least it was early’, or ‘luckily you’re still young. You still have plenty of time to start a family’. It made you almost feel guilty for grieving something you never had in the first place. But what people don’t understand, is that there was the promise. The promise of having a child and becoming a parent, can be all consuming, especially if it appears to be just within your reach. You fall pregnant and in nine months’ time, you should be holding your baby. Then that dream is snatched away.

On the flipside, I’ve had friends who had miscarriages after already having had a couple of children. They get ‘well at least you’re already a mom’ or ‘focus on the family you do have.’ This too doesn’t make the pain go away. You are almost made to feel selfish or greedy, when in actual fact you are mourning the loss of a child, an addition to your family.

Only when my mom passed away nearly seven years ago, did I finally see a psychologist. I was emotionally empty and just couldn’t fake it. I lost the person I spoke to every day, my sounding board. I also had a busy two year old on my hands and a nine month old who wasn’t sleeping due to chronic ear infections. I needed to carry on and be strong for them, but I was hanging on by a thread.

I began seeing someone weekly and I started feeling more like myself again. Just having someone to talk to who would sit there and listen, calmed me and made me feel like I would get through the pain. There would always be sad days, but I knew there would also be days where the sun shone brightly and I’d feel overwhelmingly happy and grateful for what I had.

When Nicholas was born a day before the second anniversary of my mom’s passing, the world came crashing down yet again. But I think because I was already in the throes of therapy, this time I could deal with it head on.  I grieved the child I expected to have but I also knew it was ok to do so. This time I wasn’t going to be silent and keep my feelings to myself. I would allow myself to give in to my emotions and that way I discovered a calming inner strength. Yes, we were given an unexpected diagnosis of Down syndrome and all the uncertainty that goes with it, but Nicholas was thankfully alive and we loved him. Any obstacles along the way, we would endure together as a family. We would keep talking.

Around the time of Nicholas’s birth, I thought a lot about my two miscarriages. Most often than not, a miscarriage is a result of a genetic abnormality. As much as you can blame yourself or go crazy imagining what went wrong, it’s usually completely out of your control. That baby was simply not meant to survive. So when Nicholas came along, with his extra 21st chromosome, I thought to myself ‘here is our child that was meant to live.’ I do not condone abortion but at the same time I believe in every woman’s right to choose. If I’ve learnt anything during my journey of motherhood, it is that you cannot judge anyone unless you’ve been in their shoes, standing exactly where they are. We were thankfully spared a choice with Nicholas, as it was a birth diagnosis. I just knew that he was meant to be on this earth and he would change our lives in ways I never imagined.

Everything I have been though in my life, has moulded me into the person I am today. One of the most important lessons I learnt along the way, is never underestimate the power of communication. If you suppress your feelings, they will always emerge at some point in time, be it weeks or months later and often with consequences. With grief especially, you need to allow yourself to be sad, angry or just simply curl up in bed for the day. But most importantly, you owe it to yourself to talk about it. Communicating and asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness and we all need to acknowledge that.