I was waiting for blood. Every time I went to the bathroom, I was waiting for those spots. But they never came. No sign that the life that had been developing inside me wasn’t any longer. That I was pregnant one minute and then wasn’t the next.
When the doctor first said she was having trouble finding the fetus’ heartbeat, I didn’t think anything of it. Ten weeks was still early to hear it from outside, right? The ultrasound was just a precaution in case there was an issue. Which there wasn’t.
Until the ultrasound technician’s face was unreadable. Until my husband was silent. Until I was putting on my jeans and realized that something was missing – the unmistakable thump, thump, thump of the heartbeat. But I didn’t really believe there was an issue until my doctor sat down and said, “Shannon, I’m so sorry.”
I gripped my husband’s hand, my breath seizing up. It emerged from my throat in small, short gasps; tears dripped down my face. I yanked a tissue from the box the doctor offered, her pretty brown eyes and downturned mouth reflecting my loss.
She told me the fetus stopped developing at seven weeks, most likely because of a genetic error. As there had been no bleeding, cramping, or any symptoms at all, I would have to take action myself. She told me I could take pills that would force my body to expel the dead fetus, but that was unimaginable. Or I could have a dilation and curettage (D&C) surgery, a procedure that’s similar to what is done during an abortion. I chose the latter.
Arriving back home, we sat together on the couch in silence. Even though my two-year-old son didn’t understand what happened, he knew mommy was very sad. He climbed in my lap; I hugged him as my tears fell on his shirt. He sunk into me, not moving until I let go. Occasionally, my husband or I would start to say something, but drop off after a phrase or two.
Eventually, the stupor faded. We started plodding through our to-do list—we had bags to pack. The next day, we were flying to Las Vegas to visit my husband’s family. We had already rescheduled the trip once, when my toddler had a stomach bug. But more importantly, the trip offered a way for me to avoid drowning in my pain. I didn’t want to have this tragedy erase an opportunity for joy. So we were still going despite the circumstances.
We pulled clothes out of closets, assembled toiletries, and picked out books to bring while our minds and hearts were elsewhere. We left the next morning, left the room we hadn’t yet cleaned in anticipation of the baby, left the house we were dreaming in.
We left everything except my broken body.
I had been so proud of it after giving birth to my son without painkillers and nursing him for a year. Now, it had betrayed me. In my mind, I knew there was nothing I could have done and nothing I had done wrong. But I had to blame something—my body it was. I hated it; I was afraid of it.
I dreaded going to the bathroom, fearing and hoping for that blood. Fearing the complications that could result; hoping it would make my trauma physical and not just mental. The image of the ultrasound, the memory of choking back tears, the pain rattled around in my head. Not able to grasp anything physical and having just read Game of Thrones, that book’s image of a stillborn child haunted me: burnt, blackened, shriveled. “He had been dead for years,” the midwife/magician said to the grieving mother. “He had been dead for years.”
Having no other choice, I took the character’s mantra as my own: “If I look back, I am lost.” Choosing to dwell on what happened would paralyze me, so I set my sights forward as best I could.
As I hoped, the trip offered some reprieve. We hiked the dusty orange mountains of Red Rocks, smiled at animals at a nearby bird sanctuary, and climbed a giant tree house at the kid-friendly Container Park. On a date night, my husband and I even ate out at a Michelin-starred restaurant and gasped at Penn and Teller’s antics. I let these experiences wash over me, basking in their pleasure. As I said to my husband, “It feels good to be happy.”
But of course, it didn’t offer a full escape. During moments of quiet, intense sadness washed over me. I wondered what the baby would have been like. A boy or a girl? Calm like their brother or a hyper ball of energy? A good sleeper or up all night? The loss of what-might-have-been haunted me.
Among these thoughts, I sobbed on my sister-in-law’s couch, sinking into the desert-colored cushions. I slept, hoping not to dream. I drank a lot of wine. While I would have been ashamed of my tears before, I didn’t make an effort to hide them now. I deserved the right to be sad.
Returning from the trip, I faced the surgery. I arrived at the office resigned, unsmiling in response to the surgeon’s oddly jovial manner. Much like my miscarriage itself, the procedure was surprisingly bloodless. I was under general anesthetic, so I wasn’t even conscious for it. There was some bleeding afterwards, but not much more than a period. Nothing visible hinted at my suffering within.
Those few days were only the beginning of my healing. I now know what it means to be triggered—I have to steel myself against stories of pregnancy and child loss like I never did before. Just reading about it can lead to my throat tightening. For months, I avoided thinking about it except for the moments when it forced itself into my thoughts. It was too much emotion, too much pain, too much loss to face head-on.
Even when I did think about it, I didn’t tell anyone. I met even the vague suggestion of sharing my story—like when there were a number of articles about Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s experience with miscarriage—with defensiveness. It wasn’t shame though; it was protection. I held my experience close to me. It was my pain, my loss alone to process.
But now I’m ready to share it. I’m pregnant again, more than halfway through. I’ve come to terms with my body, enough to trust it with a second child-to-be. I’m no longer filled with anxiety whenever I think about my pregnancy, haunted by what-could-have-been. I still think about what happened, such as when my previous due date came and went a few weeks ago. But now I can move beyond it, not have those flashbacks playing on a loop in my head for the rest of the day.
Just after the miscarriage, I needed to find joy in the few spaces that were not overwhelmed by pain. Now, tragedy still creeps in, but it no longer dominates. I have freed myself to look backward with sadness, but look ahead with hope.
Shannon Brescher Shea has been a writer for as long as she can remember and a mother rather more recently. She and her husband are trying to raise their toddler to be as awesome as they believe he already is. When she’s not at her day job as a science communicator for the federal government, she writes about parenting and growing up in the process herself at We’ll Eat You Up, We Love You So. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
We want to hear your uplifting, inspiring, funny, or touching story about your experience as a mother. Please visit our Storytellers page for more information on how to be published on the Good Mother Project blog.