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The reality of empty arms: A father on the grief of stillbirth

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"It's worse for a woman," people would tell Todd Pitock after he and his wife lost their baby daughter. 

All along we had been unable to discover the baby's sex, and since we were only three days from the due date, we decided to wait for the surprise.

"Don't tell us," I said.

The technician smiled cheerfully and promised she wouldn't.

As it turned out, everyone had a hard time telling us. The radiologist didn't want to; he came in and glanced at the monitor. I asked if something was wrong. He left the room.

"I'm frightened," Toni said.

"Whatever it is," I said, "we'll deal with it." Soon I also started pressing my palms together. "Tell the radiologist I want to speak with him," I told the technician.

She went out, leaving on the image of the ultrasound. But my eyes could never pick up the details in the milky screen, I couldn't tell a head from a heart, and I didn't try. We just sat in icy silence -- I no longer believed in the reassuring words I said to Toni -- until the technician returned sometime later. "He'll see you alone." 

"I don't want to be the one to tell you this," he said.

Toni had walked in behind me. She screamed and held on to me, clawing at my back as if she were trying to keep from slipping down a rocky slope.

Outside it was cool, rainy November afternoon. We walked holding each other under an umbrella. "I can't believe this is happening," Toni said. "I just can't believe this."

At the midwife's office, I made two phone calls. I managed to speak in a whisper to my father-in-law. He could not grasp what I was telling him. "What?" he said. "But how? I've never heard of that...." What more could I tell him? I called my mother, but at the sound of her voice I had to bend at the waist to try and catch my breath. 

Toni and I agreed to get it over with as soon as possible. At first, stunned and horrified, she wanted "this dead thing" out of her body. Fortunately -- as we would learn when we'd met others whose babies had died in similar circumstances -- the hospital could not take us that night. We had to wait until the morning.

That evening at about seven, we took over-the-counter tranquilizers and climbed into bed. We spoke softly, too raw to speak in full voices. "How," Toni asked, "am I going to deliver this baby and come home alone?"

We went to the hospital at about seven. The maternity ward was cool and antiseptic like crisp white sheets. At the front desk, we saw immediately that we were expected. On the bulletin board, our names were posted in red magic marker; other names were written in blue. After a few minutes someone came to admit us.

It was not a bad room. Soft yellow light. A bed. An armchair with thick cushions. A window looking out onto trees, a parking lot, and a quiet street without pedestrians. Everything brown and grey and desolate. Toni put on a gown and lay down to wait. Her first labour had lasted twenty-three hours. She was hooked up to an I.V., which dripped into her hand a labour-inducing drug. She refused painkillers. 

I begged her to take them. "Why make this worse than it has to be," I said. I was afraid. What would a dead infant look like?

"Take an epidural," I said. "Please, Toni, take something." Maybe I thought I could escape pain if she would agree to avoid it. 

"This is all I'm going to have," she said. "I want to feel it."

She lay on her side, and as each wave of labour pain washed over her, she'd squeeze my fingers with one hand and hold the steel support on the side of the bed with the other. "I want to feel it," she'd say, her eyes shut, tears dropping one at a time onto the pillow. 

Every so often I would go into the bathroom and sink onto the floor biting a towel.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Sometimes we spoke of other things. The midwife and the nurse, Amy and Linda, were professional and did as much as two strangers could. This was Amy's first stillbirth delivery; it was Linda's speciality -- I don't know if there is a name for it. Eventually we'd sink back into staring and silence, and then, of course, I would wind up back in the bathroom. I'd come out, and Amy would pat or rub my back. Sometimes she too would have to leave the room. "If this is too much," Toni said to me at one point, "you can go."

I do not think she really expected me to leave, and I did not want to. It did not turn out to be a long labour.

Toni dilated quickly and gave birth at 12:59 PM. A resident stood in for the obstetrician, who did not arrive in time. The resident's voice was as cheerful as the technician's the day before. "Here's the baby!" he said, his voice so cheerful that for a fraction of a moment I thought, could it be? "Yeah, the cord is wrapped twice around the ankle. That's pretty snug. Yeah, here we are." Whenever I'd heard of umbilical cord accidents, I thought of the neck, of strangulation. It did not occur to me that anything which cut off the supply of blood and oxygen would be deadly.

They swathed the baby in sheets. My hope was gone. I could not look.

"Do you want to know the sex?" someone asked.

"Yes," Toni said.

"It's a girl."

That had always been our guess. "I'm going to have two girls," I'd say. "I always knew I'd have two girls. This one is a girl." I had convinced Toni I was right. "Just to spite us," she said after we decided on a girl's name but could not agree on a boy's, "it's going to be a boy." "Nope," I said with a swagger in my voice, "it's a girl. I'm telling you."

"Do you want to hold her?" Linda asked Toni.


I fell back into a chair and stood up and sat down, like someone trying to find a position to ease the pain of a physical injury.

The indecision was over whether to see her. I still feared she'd be a monster. I did not want to see a dead baby. But I wanted to see my child. Toni pulled back the baby blanket and examined her tiny fingers. "She has long arms and thin wrists," Linda said. "Just like her mommy. And a long neck. She's a beautiful baby."

I looked. Besides her lipstick-red lips and the rouge staining her cheeks and chin, she was almost perfect. Six pounds six ounces. Twenty-one inches long. Her tiny fingers lay across her belly. A darkness formed like a shadow under her nails.

"Did you pick out a name?" Linda asked.

I shook my head.

"Yes, Todd," Toni said. "We did. We did."

But I hadn’t meant to deny it. I just couldn’t speak. “Michaela,” I whispered finally. 

"Oooh," Linda crooned gently, "that's so pretty."

I reached out and held her. Now she was a reality for me, an individual outside the kicks and lurches I'd felt in my wife's bulbous belly. She looked like our firstborn, Elyse, the mouth slightly wider, the nose a little longer. We could see our features in her face, too, which reminded us that she was of us. I held her for only a minute, possibly less, yet the impression of her weight in my arms would stay with me, as would the regret of not kissing her and of not inhaling the scent of her baby flesh and the wispy baby hair.

I gave her back to Toni and I slipped into the tautest knot of grief. It seemed to cut off the circulation and a physical numbness spread through my feet and hands. I could feel nothing but burn of tears. I blinked and kneeled on the cold tile floor and scrawled words on the torn page of a telephone message pad. I wanted to record what had happened.

They took Michaela away. A few minutes later they brought her back. Toni wanted to hold her one more time. "I can't," I said to her. "I can't. We have to say goodbye. Please say goodbye now. Please. It's torture for me."

She handed Michaela to the nurse, who took her little lifeless body into a nook across the room and pulled closed a curtain.

We drove home.

"My body doesn't know she's dead," Toni would say. She held packs of ice to her engorged breasts. Her empty belly shrank down to its normal size, and whereas a month earlier she'd wanted her body back, now her thinness felt to her like failure. My eyes and mouth kept burning. I broke out in a rash of acne.

Michaela had died on a Tuesday. We buried her the Friday after Thanksgiving. It was a small gathering. My mother put a bunch of white lilies on the plain pine casket.

The grave was the length of my leg and the width of my outstretched arm.

The early expressions of sympathy were adequate. Some were even touching. My neighbour, whom I'd met twice, helped me pick out two trees and instructed me how to dig the holes and prepare the ground. People sent cards or phoned.

But grief is lonely, and later it became evident that because of the nature of a death like this -- no one had experience of the baby's physical existence besides us -- some people gave small measure to what we were going through. "At least," went one phrase, "you didn't have time to know her. It would have been worse if it had happened later."  "It's not like Toni's infertile, after all. You can have another." "It was God's will. You have to trust in God."   

How does one respond? That I would have bargained ten years of my life just to have heard her cry and known whether she had my blue or Toni's brown eyes? And why compare with words like "better" or "worse." Pain is a thing unto itself, not relative to other things. If one person breaks a leg in two places and another breaks an arm in one, the leg might be “worse” but that doesn’t make the arm feel any better. Toni's fertility was irrelevant. Do you replace one life with another?

And God's will? I guess anything inexplicably painful invites God into the conversation. But how did they know? Suppose it was God's will -- is that consolation? Suppose it's also God's will that a person is paralyzed in a car accident. This is what a supreme being wants for you? Really? These were the most common remarks, not the stupidest. We met a woman whose premature baby lived three weeks and died in her arms. "Your body knew best," someone told her. Another woman’s father-in-law said, "At least it wasn't a boy. Then you would have really been devastated." When I repeated these remarks, some people tried to explain: "Well, you know what they meant. Their heart was in the right place.” Meaning what, that the deficiency was in their brain?

For men, there is another problem. It’s as if they’re merely spectators.  "It's worse for a woman," people said.

Suddenly, I was aware of how frequently images of babies appear. They were the angle of war stories, consumer stories, car and tyre advertisements. The news carried stories of abandoned babies, abused babies, and of course, the joyful stories of births in elevators and cabs that it was hard to relate to. Movies that had nothing to do with babies suddenly spring a few clips of childbirth on you.

Supermarkets, malls, and afternoon lunches became things to avoid. But even if you stayed home all the time, the baby trade came to get you. Companies marketing formula and photography and all sorts of products tracked you down. "Congratulations!" said one postcard offering something or other. Another friend of ours, whose son died six days before Michaela, kept getting discount offers to photograph her new baby. She did not want to explain the situation to a stranger, but the same telephone marketing person kept calling back. "My baby died," our friend said finally. The woman on the other end hung up. 

Medical bills arrived. The doctor who did not arrive in time for the delivery and the hospital where we'd stayed for seven hours put out a palm, which, when they thought we were too slow to pay, clenched into a fist. A pathologist billed for "standard tests" that we hadn't authorised. His office would not give results, however. Medical protocol, they said, required me to get those from the obstetrician I hadn't met and who didn't return my phone calls. The pathologist's billing manager did. She kept referring to Michaela as a "fetal demise." She did not understand why that offended me, and since she saw my questions as indications that I was a deadbeat, she saw no need to dignify my complaints by changing her medically-educated terminology. "You'll still have to pay," she kept repeating. 

One night, Toni looked out into the garden and saw a nimbus on a branch. She blinked and approached and it didn't move. "I think I'm going crazy," she said.

There were days when she'd fall heavily on both knees and shriek. Why why why why? And a pause. And another Why? A one-word song of grief, one long and harsh note filling up the house. 

The bereaved unreasonably expect the world to stop. It doesn't. The phone would ring. Mostly just the usual. Sometimes, because it was the stage of life we were at, it news that someone else we knew was pregnant or just had a baby something. Six pounds ten ounces. A hard labour. "Can I call back later?" I'd say.

The darkness would lift for an hour or a day or a week and then it would descend. For almost seven months Toni wended through the fury and then the fatigue of despondency. Her arms felt the weight of emptiness and she was obsessed with getting pregnant. When her perspective would return, she'd understand that a subsequent pregnancy would not cure, just as the beginning of one story does not change the ending of a previous one.

We found a support group. Some couples had experienced first trimester miscarriages. Some had chosen to abort babies with severe defects. Some had lost premature babies and had to make the decision to turn off life support systems. Some couples became closer to each other. Other relationships were damaged because one person couldn’t understand the other. One woman who continued to attend meetings years after her own loss said how angry she’d been that her husband wouldn’t share his feelings. He was a truck driver. Much later, his friend told her that her husband thought he was being strong for her, but when he was driving he’d sometimes pull to the side of highways and sob.

We went through the motions until momentum carried life back into place, at least until someone intruded with their own assessment, some exhortation to see a bright side — we were still young, we’d have others, that kind of a thing, all hollow reassurances that were, I sensed, more about giving them a reason to keep their own feelings at a comfortable distance.

The grief de-activated. Years would pass. All feelings spend themselves, even sadness. What does endure, though, is a diminished sense of well-being, and it re-sets certain psychological default settings: you no longer carry an implicit presumption that things work out in the end. You know your worst fears can come to pass. If you congratulate someone on being pregnant, it’s because it’s what people do. In your own head, you think, “I hope it goes okay.” The seed of a tragedy blooms into a certain way of being. When your daughter tells you that you worry too much, you think, “Maybe I worry just enough.”

It was impossible to feel at peace during Toni’s next pregnancies, which included a first-trimester miscarriage. But we had two arrivals, sons who owe their own existence to a sister who came into the world but never opened her eyes. When people would ask how many children we have, I would say three, because everyone has more to their stories, and after a while there’s nothing to tell. Some people who knew us remembered; some forgot. It wasn’t their story and I can’t say I kept track of every detail in their lives, either. That’s life. And yet when I say, “Three,” even now it feels negating, and it’s such a strange experience because it’s all around a void that entirely changed the direction of our lives, and yet, quite literally, doesn’t get to be counted.

And because I love my sons and I'm grateful for them, I don’t want a negating judgment that it all "worked out” in the end. You can’t make judgments about things you didn’t have any choice in. It all becomes just what happened, and just as we celebrate their birthdays by thinking each year of what happened the day they were born, each November 21, on Michaela’s anniversary, we remember. It is, after a while, a staggering existential wonder that so much time passed. But in the intensity of the hours and days when we lost Michaela, when every minute felt like a period of time that we wanted desperately to escape, like eternal moments of bodily pain when you’re waiting for it to pass, we could not imagine we could get out from under the weight of it. 

At the time, we could not push her from our thoughts, but when we did, she came to us in wishful dreams. Now, I’d be holding a child in each arm. Now Michaela would be waddling uncertainly in diapers, or the girls would be playing together on the living room floor. 

There was a dream-image of a little girl. A four-year-old. She was dressed up in a skirt and a top and her black hair is pulled back into a ponytail. We were in the backyard. She was running to me with her arms open and laughter in her voice calling out "Daddy!" I reached down to pick her up and felt the lightness of her being as I threw her to the sky, but before she came down I woke up to the reality of empty arms. 


In New Zealand, Sands is a network of parent-run, non-profit groups supporting families who have experienced the death of a baby. You can contact them here