They never tell you what happens after your baby dies. Some, like myself, are never even told that a baby could just die. For no reason. Overnight. They never told me it could happen.
And I didn’t ask. But it happened. And it happened to us.
We later found out that the rate of stillbirth in Stockholm is .3%.
3 out of every 1,000 babies in Stockholm are born “sleeping” every year. It sounds like such a small number. Until it happens to you.
To be fair, I had heard of stillbirth before. We all have. Some distant relative’s child died during labor- We hear about it during family holidays/reunions. A colleague relates a story in hushed tones of their friend whose baby died in the womb. Beyond this, though, it’s not usually talked about. It’s not really a story people want to hear.
It’s incomprehensible. Horrible. It’s not fair.
I’ve been using that phrase a lot lately. “It’s not fair. IT’S NOT FAIR!!! It’s. Not. Fair.” But it never changes anything. We had our beautiful little baby on the 13th of December, the evening of Lucia, during the first whispers of snow that winter. I woke up that morning to the growing surges of labor and the sweet, melancholy tune of “Sankta Lucia” (St. Lucy’s Day) twisting softly down the hospital corridor, and the tearful blurry faces of my husband and mother, both struggling to find themselves in this gaping nightmare hole in the ground we had all tumbled into. I was going to have my long-awaited little angel. And I already knew that angel was gone. It wasn’t fair. But that fact was never going to change.
We learned of the death the morning before, when we excitedly arrived to the hospital to finally have our baby. It had been a grueling two weeks of waiting, heading in to the hospital every day for check-ups and CTGs to make sure baby was still doing alright while we gave my body time to go into labor. There was no need to rush anything. My pregnancy had been perfectly healthy to this point. Baby was on the small side, but was responding beautifully to all the tests. We were doing fine. No need for worry. At my 42 week-mark, my doctors thought it was time to set things in motion, and the day before we were scheduled for the induction we headed to the hospital for one last CTG. Baby was still doing great. I was starting to feel increasingly intense contractions. I was happy.
That night before our induction, we had headed into beautiful Gamla Stan for a Lucia concert at Storkyrkan, a stately old cathedral from the 13th century with amazing acoustics. Our little stranger just loved it, squirming around and kicking in response to the beautiful music we were enjoying. My contractions continued on through the night, and by morning sunrise, I had a faint glimmer of hope that my body just might go into full blown labor all on its own, and we would be meeting our little son or daughter very soon indeed.
Our nurse checked us in and proceeded to hook my belly up for yet another CTG before sending me up to the delivery ward. I didn’t even think twice. I had done this so many times before. We all knew the drill. I was making jokes as she kept trying to find a heartbeat, moving from the left side of my belly to the right, and then back again. She grew quiet and casually said “I’m just going to go find our doctor on call to come in with the ultrasound machine” before slipping out of the room and slowly clicking the door shut. I stared at the ceiling and did not look over to my husband or mother seated to my left. I could feel the mounting wall of despair building up. I knew everything was fine.
“I’m so sorry.” The doctor turned to me, clasping my right hand in his and looking me full on in the eyes. As if he was willing me to understand what I was so desperately trying not to comprehend. My mind became a blank. Rather, it became a wild cloud of white hot fury and confusion. “What are you telling me?!” I countered. The tears hadn’t come yet. I was reeling. He took another breath, glanced again at the ultrasound, and said with a voice full of sorrow “There’s just no heartbeat. Your baby has passed away.”
The moments after this transcend words and description. It felt like we were in that hospital room for hours, tears streaming, shocked beyond comprehension. I pray to God that I will never again have to experience the type of wrenching heartache and pain that we experienced on that day. I have seen the dark side of my heart, and it swallowed me whole. We were irrevocably changed that day, and I don’t think any part of it will ever seem real for as long as I live. After 15 vials of my blood were taken and one strangely clinical discussion took place regarding how I wanted to deliver my dead child’s body, they sent us home to rest and gather our strength for the big challenge ahead: birth.
Arriving home was an out-of-body experience. We set down our bags we had packed so particularly with all manner of birth-having gear (essential oils, warming pads, baby’s first outfit, etc) and took in the space around us. The birthing ball I had been using for the past four weeks. The stroller, all packed and ready for action. The baby room, ready to welcome its tiny inhabitant. The silence. The silence was deafening. I took two of the sleeping pills they gave us and slipped into a strange, fitful coma. I woke up a few hours later (which actually felt like a few years) and was suddenly terrified I would go into labor at home, so we called in to the hospital and asked to be admitted that night. I slept as much as I could in the strange hospital bed during that horrible night, waking up periodically due to the increasing surges, and sometimes just to cry. I woke up to that awful sensation you sometimes get where you have absolutely no idea where you are or how you got there. They came in to examine me and decided it was time to break my waters. Labor had officially begun.
In spite of the nightmare day prior, and the hellish days after, this day was a day full of beauty. The birth of our child was a truly magical experience. I will never be able to look back on that day with anything but overwhelming love and awe. My brain had cut off all destructive thoughts and feelings, and supplied only soothing emotions and a determined will. It knew how much I could handle. It knew there would be plenty of time later for the grief. A lifetime for it. It was a gift. My husband was my champion, coaching me to breathe through each surge like I had asked him to while we were writing up our birth plan. The midwives did their best to follow as many of our wishes as they could. My mother stood strong in the gap when our strength was beginning to flag, like the mother bear that she is. Collectively, we honored our baby’s birth. We worked as a team, and I felt love and care and compassion at every stage. And just when I thought that my strength just might fail me after all, he arrived. The breathing, the waves of pressure, the encouraging urges from my midwives for “One more breath, one more push, just a little bit more” all ceased. And all was still.
We had a boy. A beautiful, perfect little baby boy. We looked. And looked. And looked. We took him in, each and every little part of his 6-pound, 20-inch baby body. He was a he. We finally met our little stranger and discovered that he was a boy. We named him August. His name is August Jonathan Danielsson Ankarcrona, a very long name for such a tiny little person. From his dark head of hair to his tiny feet, he was the spitting image of both his father and me, a more perfect combination than either of us could ever have dreamed of. He was already such a little man. I can only imagine how precious his little face would have looked with his eyes peering up at us. But this wasn’t to be our fate.
The soul-crushing emotional aftermath during the days and weeks following his death/birth is ongoing. Ironically, we are thankful for the time we have had to grieve, although the thing we would really rather be thankful for is a healthy, living child. But these are the kinds of things you have to tell yourself to get out of bed every day. You have to run down the slowly growing list of things that are good in your life every morning you open your eyes and the grief starts to settle in. You have to somehow find a way to navigate this life that you didn’t ask for, and hope for the day when it starts to get just a tiny bit easier. Or a tiny bit less impossible.
We have limped down the road of recovery during this process, thanks to the friends and family who have risen to the task of bearing this burden along with us. Although they may not be physically present during every dark moment, their love is always felt and is often just enough to take the edge off of the painful sting. We are beginning to experience fleeting seconds here and there where we actually forget our grief. Although it’s hard to know exactly how to feel about it, the momentary relief is so needed.
We are parents. We don’t have our baby with us, but we are parents all the same. We have experienced the loss of our child, and the life of that child along with it. The first smile. The first words. The first steps. First day at school. Unique hobbies, interests, and dreams. Music lover? Practical jokester? High school graduation. Backpacking around Europe before college? Wedding. Grandchildren.
Everything. Everything that is supposed to happen won’t happen. Instead, we purchased a headstone. We own a family grave plot. Who already knows at the age of 28 where they will be buried? I do.
But as my husband so aptly responded after one of my recent spirals of frustration and tears, we will get to know him through his siblings that we will, God willing, meet later on. Each one, although unique and precious in their own right, will offer small pieces to the puzzle of who he might have been. This is a small comfort. We will never forget our son. He will always live on in our hearts and we will always think of him in the days to come.
And those days will come. And come and come and come. Life invariably goes on for those that are left behind in the wake of death, whether you want them to or not. And we are forced to reconcile with the version of us that rises from the ashes. “It’s interesting how death can force you to face yourself.” I wrote this while I was pregnant with August, and I can’t help but look back and wonder at how strangely poetic life can be.
All we can do is try. And try we must. You never quite know what stuff you are made of, until it happens to you.
August Jonathan Danielsson Ankarcrona
*†13th December 2015