We had only a few hours to get to know and love our stillborn child. But that was enough time for us to realize we'd miss him forever.
Our Empty Cradle
My second pregnancy took my husband, Randy, and me by surprise. Because my 40th birthday had already come and gone the year before, we'd assumed that we weren't meant to have any children besides our son, Bradley. But after the initial shock had worn off, the three of us couldn't wait to welcome a baby into our family.
I was a bit worried about being pregnant at 41, but my doctor, who's about my age and had recently given birth to her fourth child, eased my fears. When my amniocentesis results came back normal, I pushed my worries back further. I made sure to eat right and exercise, and I cut back on my hours as a merchandiser for Anne Klein watches to get plenty of rest.
Bradley approached the pregnancy with all the gusto of a 5-year-old. He'd kiss and hug my tummy and laugh when the baby hiccuped or moved in my womb. Randy and I had decided not to find out the baby's gender until delivery, but Bradley was convinced his little sibling was a boy. I tried to gently remind him that he could have a sister, but he just "knew" this was a brother. "How about if we name him Brian?" he asked. We agreed it was a fine name for a boy. From then on, whenever Bradley talked to my stomach, he always called the baby Brian.
On September 5, 1998, I did indeed give birth to a son, Brian Edward. But we had never imagined that instead of welcoming our newborn home, we'd have to explain to Bradley that his little brother had died.
What Went Wrong?
At my scheduled 36-week prenatal visit three days earlier, I'd felt fine but mentioned that it was taking me longer -- sometimes an hour and a half -- to get my kick counts at night. My obstetrician, Alisa Williams, M.D., listened to the baby's heartbeat and didn't detect anything unusual. "Call me in two days if you don't see an improvement." She didn't seem alarmed, so I tried not to be.
A couple of days later, I dropped Bradley off at kindergarten. When I got home, Randy, who works as a police officer, had just finished a 12-hour graveyard shift. I told him that I hadn't noticed any change in the baby's kicking. We called Dr. Williams, who instructed me to head to San Diego's Mercy Hospital for a stress test. Randy insisted on coming along, even though he was bleary-eyed and needed sleep.
At the hospital, the technician strapped a band around my stomach to measure any contractions and another band to monitor the baby's heartbeat. She tried for several minutes with me in different positions but couldn't find a beat. When she left the room to call Dr. Williams, I turned to Randy with fear in my eyes. "Everything's going to be okay," he said.
Dr. Williams arrived, breathless -- she had run from her office across the street. As she performed an ultrasound, I couldn't bring myself to look at the screen. "Nadine, here is the baby," Dr. Williams said. "And this is the heart." She pointed to a dark area on the monitor that wasn't moving. "I'm so sorry." Time stopped.
I waited for her to tell me what we were going to do to save the baby, but she remained silent. It was too late to do anything. With tears in her eyes, Dr. Williams hugged me. I started to cry. Randy cried. We held on to each other, sobbing. Suddenly, I remembered a magazine article that I'd once read about stillbirth. "They're going to make me deliver this baby," I stammered to my husband, feeling a new rush of despair and hopelessness.The doctor told us to go home, collect our thoughts, and think about when we wanted to schedule the delivery. Randy and I walked out in a daze. It was exactly one month before my due date. How could things have gone so wrong so fast?
A Difficult Delivery
When Brad got home from school, he wrapped his arms around my belly. Randy and I weren't sure how to explain what had happened -- we were so confused ourselves. "The baby was sick, and angels had to take him to heaven," I told Brad.
"How did the baby get sick?" he asked. We told him we didn't know; it just happened. I could tell this was difficult for him to comprehend -- I still obviously had a baby in my tummy.
While Randy was lying down for a nap, I paced the house, wishing my pregnant belly didn't exist. I tried to separate myself mentally from the child inside me. I avoided looking in the mirror and refused to put my hands on my stomach. That touch had been so comforting once -- a reminder of the precious baby growing within. Now I just wanted it to be over.
I called Dr. Williams to see if we could have the delivery that night. She said she would meet us at the hospital at 8:00 that evening and induce labor. Dr. Williams explained that once the baby was born, we could hold him for as long as we liked. We would be able to take photos too. That struck me as weird: I doubted that I would want to hold our lifeless baby, much less take pictures. But as I was packing, I put a camera in my bag anyway.
At the maternity ward, I kept my eyes lowered, hoping not to catch the gaze of a friendly stranger who might smile at me in anticipation of a baby's being born. After we checked in, a nurse showed us to a delivery room. Because I wasn't at all dilated, Dr. Williams suggested a suppository to soften my cervix overnight before inducing labor in the morning. Randy spent the night by my side on a roll-away cot, and in the morning, Dr. Williams administered Pitocin.
Contractions came on quick and hard. After a few hours, I had an epidural. There didn't seem to be any reason to endure such tough physical pain, especially for a labor with such a sad end. At 3:36 p.m., we delivered our baby. It broke my heart to hear Randy say, "It's a little boy." I thought of Brad and the little brother he had so wanted but would never get to know.
The nurse wrapped the baby in a blanket, and my arms automatically reached for our son. Randy and I both cradled him and cried over what we had lost. He looked so perfect, just as Brad had been when he was born. I told the baby how much we loved him and how we would miss him. I told him about his big brother, who had named him Brian. As I held his tiny body and snuggled his soft cheeks, I felt the first and only sense of peace since looking at that ultrasound screen.
Randy and I spent several hours getting to know our baby. I was exhausted but forced myself to stay awake, sensing that every moment counted. I unwrapped Brian's blanket and studied the little feet that had so often kicked me, the knees that I could almost still feel poking me. I asked Randy to get the camera from my bag and snapped a few pictures of him holding Brian. Then he took a few photos of me with our son. I'm so glad we did this. Looking at those pictures now brings back memories of how wonderful that short time with Brian was.
The next morning, we left the hospital -- not with our newborn but with a keepsake box containing a lock of Brian's hair, his hospital identification bracelet, his footprints and handprints, a couple of Polaroid pictures the nurses had taken, and the little hat and blanket he had been wrapped in.
Randy and I decided against an autopsy, but lab tests on the placenta found the cause of the stillbirth to be something called villitis of unknown etiology. This inflammation of the hairlike vascular projections on the placenta decreases or cuts off oxygen flow through the umbilical cord. Many babies survive this condition. My pregnancy had appeared normal all along, and without doing a stress test, there was no way we could have detected that the baby was in trouble, Dr. Williams explained. Still, I felt guilty for letting Brian down, for not knowing that my child was slowly suffocating.
We held a memorial service for Brian with immediate family two weeks after his birth --the day my sisters-in-law had originally planned to throw me a baby shower. The process of visiting the mortuary and cemetery to choose an urn and a niche for our newborn seemed so contrary to the natural order of things. Randy and I should have been up in the middle of the night for feedings, not because grief kept us awake. We were supposed to be setting up the baby's crib, not writing an obituary for the newspaper. We sent out birth announcements to let our relatives and friends know of Brian's death. In those first days, printed cards were easier than talking to people and saying the words "Our baby died."
Bradley had to learn things about life and death that most kids his age don't. He would often leave toys -- a Beanie Baby or a little car -- on the shelf where I keep Brian's pictures and the mementos from the hospital. I could tell that Brad was disappointed, too, and wanted to connect with his brother. He even asked for photos to keep in his room. I think seeing pictures of his father and me holding Brian makes the baby more real to him.We've all grown stronger through this process. Questions about the stillbirth no longer catch me off guard. In the beginning, neighbors and acquaintances would excitedly ask, "So did you have a boy or a girl?" It was hard seeing the uncomfortable expressions on their faces when I answered, "We had a boy, but he died." But Randy and I have learned that talking about Brian lets us share our son with others. Several friends have even opened up about their own personal losses.
Randy and I also find comfort in attending monthly meetings with a local support group, called Empty Cradle. We've learned from other parents who have lost babies that there are no shortcuts through grief. The pain eases but never completely disappears. Nor do I want it to. If the pain were gone, it would be like losing another part of Brian. I have moments of sadness even now, more than two years later. But this tiny baby has helped deepen the bonds of our family. Now when Randy, Brad, and I think of Brian, we don't shed as many tears. We're finally able to smile at the sweet memories of our angel.
Facts on Stillbirth
About 1 in 200 pregnancies ends in a stillbirth (fetal death after 20 weeks' gestation), reports the March of Dimes. These losses are often unexpected-up to half occur in pregnancies that had seemed problem-free. The most common causes of stillbirth include placental problems (such as placental abruption or other conditions that prevent the placenta from supplying enough oxygen and nutrients to the fetus), chromosomal abnormalities, and infection. Less frequent culprits are umbilical cord accidents, death during delivery, trauma, and maternal diabetes or high blood pressure. In more than a third of cases, the stillbirth is unexplained. "There often are no physical symptoms to alert you to a potential stillbirth," says Bruce Flamm, M.D., a Parents advisory-board member and a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, Irvine. "You should be aware of your unborn baby's movement, but not consumed by it." After your 26th week, if you notice fewer than ten kicks every two hours, feel that your baby is moving less than usual, or experience any vaginal bleeding, call your doctor immediately. Tests such as an ultrasound or fetal-heart-rate monitoring can help assess your baby's well-being.
Copyright © 2001 Nadine Benton. Reprinted with permission from the March 2001 issue of Parents magazine.