While October is Mental Health Awareness Month at Sanctuary, it is also Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. If you have been touched by miscarriage, stillbirth, infant loss, or any other form of loss associated with pregnancy, we see you and recognize that these experiences can have profound effects on mental health and wellbeing.
On 11 July 2021, my husband and I lost our son, Benjamin, who was stillborn. The following post is for those who’ve been through a similarly painful loss.
You may not feel ready to read this, and that is okay. Please take a moment to check in with yourself. You can pick it up later if the time is right.
I know these things are hard to talk about. I’m writing to remind you that you’re not alone. At the same time, your story is not like mine, or anyone else’s. Sometimes the statistic “1 in 4” makes pregnancy and infant loss sound common and therefore expected or somehow less important than other losses. But each experience of loss is significant; it has its own shape, its own particulars, and it matters.
If you’ve been through this experience (or more than one), I am so sorry. I want to reach out through my screen and squeeze your hand and ask you to share whatever you’d like about your little one. I would call your baby by name and imagine him or her playing somewhere in a wide open field of gold with my little boy, Benji, who was stillborn after he’d been sharing space with me from February through July.
And I would sit with you in the silence because there really are no words for losses like this.
Then, if it seemed comfortable and some time had passed, I might ask you if something has helped you walk through grieving or if there are any places you find comfort that feel like the warmth of a fire or a hug from a friend.
If you seemed open, I might share some words that have comforted me (while recognizing that what comforts one doesn’t necessarily comfort another).
At first glance, these words may not sound comforting at all:
“I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”
When his son dies, these are King David’s words as they’ve been translated in English (2 Samuel 12:23).
In her analysis of the Hebrew, Bible translator and poet Sarah Ruden writes that this is “one of the most moving pieces of phrasing there could be.” She explains that literally, the first part of the phrase can be translated: “I am walking to him,” and that “David may be picturing himself in a lifelong trudge towards his lost child, not just transported to him after his own death.” In the second part of this phrase, “the child is gone from earth with a more absolute finality than any simple verb in English can express. A fuller sense might be ‘He will never return to me.’”
In response to the Hebrew writer’s expression of David’s grief, Ruden pens this poem —
“I’m dressed. The sky is stone, my path a sea.
I’m going to him, he won’t return to me.
I eat. The shattering waves have calmed the sea.
I’m going to him, he won’t return to me.
I worship, sowing grain across the sea.
I’m going to him, he won’t return to me.” 1
This poem captures the tremendous sense of devastation and finality in David’s loss but also hides an audacious future hope. The father will not lose the desire to see his son again, and his earthly steps will lead to him. Although David’s son has gone ahead of him, their paths will meet one day. Ruden’s translation gave me a picture to cherish: Benji has gone ahead of me, but I will always be walking towards him.
Another comfort has been, perhaps paradoxically, that though he is gone, he is still with me.
When I was at the hospital delivering Benji, I was given the most tear jerking memento: a necklace that consists of a large, silver heart with a heart-shaped space in its centre and a second smaller heart that dangles within it. The larger heart with the hole in the centre left the hospital with me, and the smaller heart went with Benji.
“i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)”
These words from e.e. cummings’ poem floated into my mind soon after—along with the findings of research into fetal microchimerism.2 Early in pregnancy, fetal cells cross the placenta and are known to congregate, especially in areas of injury in a mother’s body and particularly in the heart, an adaptation believed to bolster the heart through labour.
Quite literally, I carry Benji’s cells in my heart, my body. If you’ve lost a child that you’ve carried, you also carry your baby’s cells within; your little one is always with you.
Following our loss, I was so grateful to be living in Canada, where anyone who has a stillbirth can receive maternity benefits. I didn’t have to return to work immediately, but I found myself wondering: who will I look after? I felt an almost audible response: you’re going to look after yourself, mom. And in this way, Benji has become the parent of my heart.
I pray that you are able to care for yourself through the back and forth of grief, that you have loved ones around you who remember your baby’s name, and that you allow yourself to cry when you feel tears start to come. Even if it happened long ago, it is not too late to grieve. It’s not too late to give your baby a name.
While many know the poignant children’s story Love you Forever, most don’t know that author Robert Munsch wrote it after he and his wife had two stillborn children. When I learned this fact, I finally understood the haunting sadness in that book. After their second loss, the song Munsch sang quietly to his child eventually became the refrain in the story:
“I’ll love you forever
I’ll like you for always
As long as I’m living
My baby you’ll be”
I know you will love your little one forever, and as you carry this loss, even if it has felt unspeakable, know that I am carrying you in my heart (as you carry your baby in yours).
The Mariposa Trust is a UK based charity working within the field of baby loss and bereavement. The trust hosts “Saying Goodbye” services of remembrance around the world for those affected by baby loss at any stage of pregnancy, at birth or in infancy. They also aim to provide comprehensive support services and work to improve the care of anyone going through loss.
Written by Zoe Clark-Coates, grief expert and founder of The Mariposa Trust, this book provides practical and compassionate support and resources for navigating the path of grief. Clarke-Coates writes as a counsellor and as someone with lived experience of multiple pregnancy losses. Additionally, she incorporates the lived experiences of other bereaved parents with the aim of supporting readers through a range of experiences of loss.
A non-profit organization in the US that provides education and resources for the bereaved and healthcare providers. See: “More Than Surviving: Caring for Yourself While You Grieve,” and “Healing Together: For Couples Grieving the Death of Their Baby.”
A publisher of bereavement books, videotapes, audiotapes and other helpful resources aimed at persons who have suffered loss. See: “When Hello Means Goodbye: A guide for parents whose child dies before birth, at birth or shortly after birth.”
This monthly podcast, produced by The Star Legacy Foundation and hosted by Chris Duffy, provides relevant information about stillbirth and pregnancy loss featuring experts from across the globe.
Our free resource, while focusing on issues on grief and loss during COVID-19, offers principles, insights, practices, prayer, and art which can relate to the experience of pregnancy and infant loss. Sarah Ruden, The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible (Pantheon Books, 2017).  Keelin O’Donoghue, “Fetal microchimerism and maternal health during and after pregnancy,” Obstetric Medicine 1 no. 2 (Dec. 2008): 56–64, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4989712/.
Kate is Sanctuary’s Programs Director. She has an academic background in International Development Studies and English Literature, and has worked as a teacher, pastor, manager, and writer. She finds the common threads of social justice and community development woven through the many roles she has filled and is inspired by the ways church communities can become even more loving places of belonging and hope.