Jessica Zucker is a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist who specializes in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health. She is the creator of the @ihadamiscarriage campaign. Find her online www.drjessicazucker.com and on Twitter @DrZucker.
Laura Norkin is an editor at InStyle; her work has appeared on The Cut, Glamour and Refinery29. She tweets at @inLaurasWords.
This article is republished with kind permission from Dr Zucker and was originally published on Elle.com.
Kay Kremer was in a therapy session for perinatal depression when she felt her baby stop moving. She was 32 weeks pregnant, far enough along that a fetus usually makes its presence known through near constant jabs and wiggles, even pelvic pressure signifying that it’s almost ready to press on through. That wouldn’t come to pass for the now 37-year-old makeup artist. Her son, whom she named Sullivan, was born still the next day, July 5, 2015.
With the help of a bereavement nurse at her Shawnee, Kansas hospital, Kremer and her husband had photos taken of Sullivan, and planned an open-casket funeral at their church. “I want people to fully acknowledge Sullivan as my child and as a real baby,” she says. And so she set about to concretize this loss—to make real someone who had only been ephemeral; a life that wasn’t lived, but nonetheless existed, acutely, for her.
“I got a tattoo. And then another one. And, well, let me count,” she says, before landing on the total of seven pieces of forearm art, nine hours under the needle. First came his name, then she added a foot and handprint. A few months later came the date and time of his birth. Over time she added angel wings, the letter “S,” blue jay and cardinal feathers, and finally a black heart with a puzzle piece taken out to represent what’s missing from hers. She says the process of getting tattoos was healing: the adrenaline numbed her pain, and the ink became a wearable memorial and an invitation for others to ask questions she was eager to answer. “It meant that I could share my story with people.” She also shares her story on an Instagram account, @DedicatedToSullivan, where her followers will frequently see the black-and-white images of Sullivan’s still face, a family photo where a little-boy shaped silhouette joins the couple and their two living children, Layla, now 6, and Adler, 13 months.
While there is no blueprint for how families manage this kind of loss, there are repetitions on a theme—take photos, make art, hold objects—anything to make meaning you can keep, hold, and carry. Several women interviewed for this story echoed this sentiment: We want to acknowledge our losses, and the way we do that—the way we each mother our dead children—is different.
The American Pregnancy Association has a page devoted to what you do when your baby is stillborn—from how to “survive emotionally” to how to memorialize the loss. And nearly each idea (preserve a sprig of her hair; have photographs taken; jot down her measurements) represents a cottage industry that has sprung up. There are professional photographers, specifically practiced in the art of capturing the deceased baby to look like a sleeping one (which, while healing for some, is not without controversy). A Google search for “stillborn baby keepsake box” surfaces 124,000 results, ranging from Etsy shops and Pinterest boards to Hallmark items; and charity programs from the U.K. to Seattle to Philly.
Samantha Gadd, 28, a loss mom (a shorthand way some women who've been through this refer to themselves) in Canton, Ohio, focused her grief on raising money to help other families in her area enduring loss. In early 2017, when she lost her daughter, Victoria, at 22 weeks, she wasn’t afforded a Cuddle Cot, specialized resting places that act as the opposite of an incubator: They refrigerate an infant’s remains “to slow down the decomposition process,” she explains. Each one costs $2,500 to be installed in a hospital, and it serves no medical purpose; it’s there to help parents honor their loss. “It buys families time to hold their babies and look at them, because the process happens so fast,” she says, adding that they're usually used for babies delivered closer to full-term, and that having hers dismissed as not legitimate in the same way sharpened her pain. And so raising money for a cot at the hospital where she lost her daughter felt like an urgent way to make her pain be of some use. “I was hoping it would be one of those hospital devices that sat in a corner and gathered dust,” she says, nevertheless needing it to be there, so her daughter’s name would be for a memory. Two months after it was brought in, that Cuddle Cot was used by a local family whom Gadd knows.
There isn’t always a body to hold and look at, and so concretizing loss can also take less literal forms. Some look to the trees. After three early miscarriages, Paula Knight, 49, Bristol, U.K.-based author of the graphic memoir The Facts of Life says she became drawn to seeds. She and her husband collected acorns and planted three oak saplings in The National Forest in central England, which was being reforested after, “rather fittingly,” she says, “the land had been left barren by mining.”
A page from Paula Knight’s graphic novel Facts of Life.
Writing her book about coming to terms with childlessness was a long term goal and a distraction, she says, though it kept difficult emotions raw for quite a long time. The trees, on the other hand, provided catharsis. “Trees last longer than people, and it felt good to be contributing to the future as well as to the environment,” she says. She and her husband did go back to visit their corner of the forest once, three years later, and she was surprised to find her trees now stood nearly leaf-to-eye with her. “They grow up so fast, don’t they?”
For Leata-Mae D'Avoine, 28, a London-based doula, a favorite tree became the final resting place for the idea of her daughter Ada—a pregnancy she lost at nine weeks along, and never got to know beyond what she calls her “womb life.”
“We wanted to have a goodbye ceremony because we never even got to say hello,” she says. So she and her partner made one up as they went along, burying under a tree a bowl in which they had placed pieces of their own hair (“to represent that she was part of us”), a rose quartz representing unconditional love, and a slip of paper on which they had scrawled the name Ada. Though it was too early to tell, she says she knows her fetus was a girl. Naming her, and speaking about her, was central to Leata-Mae’s healing, which she says is ongoing. She opened up to her family first, and then on Instagram. “Finding a community, one of silent understanding, helped me face my grief head on. You don't really heal from ignoring it. You have to face it,” she says.
Leata-Mae D’Avoine, pregnant with her daughter Iah, who was born in April.
“The only way I memorialize is through acknowledging I was pregnant,” says Imani Payne, 26, who works in human resources in San Francisco. She experienced an ectopic pregnancy rupturing her Fallopian tube before she had even known she was pregnant. “I didn't get to experience the joy of being pregnant before I experienced the loss of it,” she says. But she was fascinated by pregnancy even before that, which her ob/gyn knew, and so she captured a unique memento. “She took pictures inside of my ruptured tube and gave them to me so that I could have photos of this pregnancy,” Imani says. The proof that it happened is meaningful to her now, five weeks after the birth of a healthy baby. “I never wanted to act like my pregnancy with my son was my first.”
Imani Payne, pregnant with her son Leon, who was born in March.
Rachel Darlin, 27, a doula in Arizona, gave birth to her first son, Jameson, stillborn, two weeks before his due date, this March. Proving and remembering his existence is an urgent priority for her. “I wanted to remember every detail of my son... his hands, his hair, his feet, his body,” she says, and so she had a friend come take photos in the hospital. “His skin was paper-thin, and was tearing; but I wish I could have done more skin-to-skin and looked him over more,” she says. She was able to lay together in a queen-sized bed in the hospital with Jameson and her boyfriend, Tanner, before they chose to have his remains cremated. The hospital had given the couple a memory box, including some of Jameson’s hair, a cement footprint, ink handprints: “I kept anything he ever touched in the hospital: the blanket, his clothes,” she says.
After leaving the hospital, she and Tanner got matching daffodil tattoos, three of Jameson’s birth flower, to signify the three of them together forever. Six weeks later, for Mother’s Day, they took a trip to Hawaii. There, they had a wooden box hand-carved where they would place Jameson’s ashes. As part of her healing, Rachel pumped and donated 100 ounces of breastmilk, and now she feels a strong pull to work as a bereavement doula to help other mothers going through this. “We eventually want to buy a little plot of land and call it Jameson’s Garden and plant a tree and go there on his birthday, and eventually it would be a lush, full garden where other families can go who have lost a child, and you can see things people have left for their children, like stones.”
Rachel and Tanner’s tattoos memorializing Jameson.
The choice whether or not to bury a child was fraught for a lot of the mothers we spoke with. Samantha Gadd felt strongly that she and her family—Gadd has two older sons and a daughter, Abigail, born at the end of last year—have a place to return to to visit Victoria, their stillborn daughter. But, the business of it was a challenge. “I never realized, because luckily I never had to bury anyone, how expensive it is,” Gadd says over the phone while tooling around Target with her kids. “We were prepared to buy a crib, not a plot, a casket, and a headstone.” But they found a way to make it work, and they still return once or twice a week to check in. When Abigail was born, a friend decorated Victoria’s plot with a “big sister” banner. It’s a must stop on all holidays for Gadd’s family, but—as when grieving adults—some families see the finality of a gravesite as difficult to face.
Kay Kremer, Adler, and Layla visit Sullivan’s grave.
“It’s my duty as his mom to visit him, I feel guilty if I don’t,” says Kremer of her son Sullivan. But it’s not an easy task. One can sense she undertakes the rather painful outing as a parental obligation to her lost son. “I have a love-hate relationship with the grave, because I could only visualize the casket for a while, the trauma.” Still though, she and her family come with picnics sometimes, and she says she decorates the tombstone. This weekend, for Sullivan’s third birthday, they placed potted flowers, balloons, and small toys around his headstone. In short: “It’s just as I would do for my living children.”
For every grieving parent decorating grave sites and adding tattoos to their skin, there’s one who prefers not to lend any more tangibility or permanence to their loss. “I sat with my sadness, guilt, and anger, and wondered, did I do something wrong? I thought maybe I was even being punished for something,” says Janel Martir, 30, a doctor in New York City, who experienced a miscarriage early in her second trimester. In spite of her medical background she felt guilt, which she worked through quietly, often in her dreams. “It’s only recently that I have dreamt of having a calm pregnancy and a healthy baby: a resolution to my fear and anxiety.”
There is a stigma and silence around this kind of loss. What these mothers have shown is that coming out from under that shame and trauma is an even more acute need, often expressed by finding something tangible to have, to hold—and to represent that so much has been lost.