My stillborn son’s birthday was the worst day of my life

My stillborn son’s birthday was the worst day of my life

In early 2013, I became pregnant with my first child. Excited to start a family, my husband and I bought a house in Toronto’s Corso Italia area. We planned to bring our baby into the world in our new home. When I was about 20 weeks along, we found out we were expecting a boy. As my due date approached, we grew giddy with anticipation. I was huge and felt ready. Soon, I was one week overdue. My husband and I were out walking our dog when it occurred to me that I hadn’t felt the baby move all morning. We headed home, where I had something sweet to drink to stimulate our baby, and lay in bed to count his kicks.

They never came.

We met one of our midwives at Etobicoke General Hospital. She tried to find my son’s heartbeat, but couldn’t. An ultrasound tech brought in a portable machine, and he couldn’t find it either. Finally, a doctor came to break my waters and put a sensor on my son’s head. He tried this twice, only to hear the same horrible silence. The doctor confirmed what we had been unable to contemplate in the car ride to the hospital: our son was dead.

The doctors gave me an epidural and induced labour. Over 30 hours later, an obstetrician pulled my son from my body with forceps. I didn’t feel a thing: no contractions, no urge to push. Throughout my labour, I was hoping that I was asleep, that none of this was really happening, that we’d soon wake up with a healthy newborn.

The author, pregnant with her first child, Auguste. The author, pregnant with her first child, Auguste.
 

But then my midwife placed our beautiful baby in my arms. We named him Auguste. I was overcome with joy at the feeling of becoming a mother and finally meeting my baby, and with a deep, unfathomable sadness at the reality that he was dead and that we’d never get to see him grow. We marvelled at his perfect face and studied his features.

We were moved to a private recovery room, where a butterfly, an emblem for baby loss, was taped to the door. I held Auguste again. I never unwrapped him from his swaddling blanket. I was too scared to see his dead body. I am endlessly thankful that my midwives insisted on taking photos of him, an idea that I initially found unbearably macabre. These photos are among the most precious things I have.

Auguste spent the night in our hospital room. I could hear babies crying down the hall. When I woke from a fitful sleep I could see the shadow of my husband walking over to the bassinet. He lifted our son out with so much care and tenderness, and kissed him.

I was in shock in the days after Auguste’s death. I barely felt present as I floated through post-birth follow-up appointments and visits from my midwives. Family members came by to visit, friends dropped off food and flowers, and my husband and I sat on the couch in a daze. I didn’t want the gifts and visits. I wanted to disappear into a dark hole and cease to exist.

My milk came in, painfully and with fever. I stood in the shower, expressing to ease the swelling, watching my child’s undrunk milk spiral down the drain. I wanted to forget the trauma of my loss, but my body wouldn’t let me.

Especially in the early stages of my grief, I never quite felt safe talking openly and honestly about the magnitude of my pain. So I tried to avoid it. Please just be tomorrow, I’d think, so I can be one day further away from the worst day of my life. I withdrew from friends and family. I was already dreading my return to the office. I had planned on having a year off to start raising my child but, based on the leave allotted for mothers of stillborn children, would have only fifteen weeks. Now I had to imagine facing my colleagues as a bereaved mother.

About six months after the death of my son, I started to emerge from the fog of immediate, all-consuming grief. I realized my sadness over my immense loss wasn’t going to kill me. Since Auguste’s death, I’ve struggled to understand why, even three years later, stillbirth is so difficult to talk about. Death is hard enough to contemplate. But babies—little tiny beings filled with hopes and dreams and stories that aren’t told yet—just aren’t supposed to die.

Through reflection, I’ve started to figure out how to carry Auguste with me and how to bear all that has happened to me without collapsing from its weight.

I’ve learned that my grief changes shape and intensity, sometimes unpredictably. I may be going happily about my business when I see a mother tending to her newborn, and my heart takes a dive into the pit of my stomach—such a moment can remind me with brutal clarity that I never got to mother him.

Initially, I wanted to stop feeling so much grief, to return to normalcy. But I’ve learned to let go of “normal.” Nothing is a sure thing, and after losing our son, we take less for granted.

Giving birth to our second child—now almost two years old—has given me so much joy that I never thought I would feel. I love him fiercely. But I am unable to resolve the painful reality that I will never have what I really want: all my children, alive and safe in my arms. There will always be one missing.

Daniela Payne is a freelance writer, editor and yoga instructor. Email submissions to memoir@torontolife.com