embracing the dark

“Just think positive.” Well meaning advice I heard over and over, but those words made me cringe, grating on my grieving heart. I grew tired of that cliche during my short-lived pregnancy following my first miscarriage. Feeling positive was a risky place. How could I let myself feel positive, only to feel soul crushing disappointment if the pregnancy didn’t last? Wouldn’t feeling positive make the fall that much harder? I thought that if I could somehow manage my feelings enough I could make the grief of a second miscarriage less devastating. I wavered between not wanting to get my hopes up, counting on my inner pessimist to keep me grounded, and daydreaming of our baby, full of hope that the next ultrasound would show us exactly what we wanted to see. Feeling negative wasn’t going to make another loss any easier, I decided every once in a while, and would slip into another daydream of when we would get to make our pregnancy announcement.

Once I miscarried a second time, I still received the same advice. “Positive thoughts! Third times a charm!” It was true, when you’re carrying the grief from a fresh loss, choosing a positive outlook makes you feel like a strong person. That this blow wasn’t enough to rock your faith in the world, that it couldn’t take you down. But somehow getting that advice from others made me feel like they didn’t truly understand what I was going through. That they didn’t get how hard it is to trust that you will get your healthy baby one day. Or what it’s like to harbor the increasing fear that something could be truly wrong, that this could happen again and again, and perhaps ultimately end with childless arms.

In my darker moments, I would confide in those closest to me that I did not think I would end up ever being able to have a child.  And of course, everyone told me that wasn’t true. I would have a child. But just because they thought that didn’t mean I wasn’t embroiled in my own dark grief, believing that I was facing the reality of motherhood lost.

Eventually, I came to feel positive and hopeful, with only sporadic pockets of fear and pessimism. But I couldn’t be told. I didn’t want to feel like everyone else thought all it takes is positive thinking to overcome this battle. I knew it took embracing all the negative emotions first. All the fear, the anger, the despair and the grief that have led me to my darkest place and shaken me so hard I wanted to explode. I needed to sort through these feelings, let them have their place and time, and then when the time is right put them away, and breath in the positive thinking that would ultimately carry me through this.

parallel pregnancies

With my first pregnancy, my best friend and I had due dates two days apart. After our positive tests we shared giddy glee, bewilderment and amazed that we would get to experience this side by side. I miscarried four weeks later. The grief following a miscarriage is intense; it will double you over and you’ll find yourself clutching your heart between your deepest sobs. When you realize you’ve been left behind, that the closest female in your life will go on to experience and have what you’ve just lost and so desperately want, it becomes unbearable.

A situation like this is truly complex and heart wrenching. You feel like you should still be able to feel only happiness for your friend, despite your deep pain. Isn’t that the definition of strength? To rise above your own misfortune to be able to relish in the joy of those you love? “You’ve been through a trauma,” I was told. “You can’t expect yourself to be able to do that.” I battled my conflicted feelings in the days following my miscarriage. I wanted my best friend’s support during my toughest days, to tell her everything I was experiencing and cry out the pain. But I couldn’t go near her. In my moments of strength I thought I could. “Update from my ultrasound today. I’m actually 11 weeks along right now, not 8” her text read. “Congrats” was my weak reply, before sobbing into my husband’s arm. “She didn’t even take her folic acid!” I wailed, knowing I sounded ridiculous. At our ultrasound two weeks prior we saw a slow-developing embryo, just three days away from it’s final heartbeat. I would have done anything to learn I was actually 11 weeks along, just one week shy of the desirable 2nd trimester.

As I focused on how difficult this was for me, she slipped away. Hearing of my misfortune, the agony and pain I’d been in, hit too close to home. She didn’t want to see her worst nightmare, personified in the form of her best friend, reflected against her own growing belly. She had too many of her own fears as she navigated pregnancy for the first time, and felt it was best if we stayed separate during this time.

I not only grieved the loss of my pregnancy and the loss of the baby I thought I would have, but I grieved for the loss of my best friend. I grieved not being able to be a part of this time for her, not being able to be her cheerleader, the way we both were for each other’s weddings. I became paranoid I was suddenly a pariah to pregnant women, as if somehow they would think what I went through was contagious. I thought I just needed to get pregnant again, to fill the void and mitigate the pain and jealousy. But it became so much more complicated than that.

The night of my wedding, as I was pulsing with love and appreciation for everyone who traveled to central Mexico to see my husband and me get married, I grabbed onto my brother’s soon-to-be wife. “I think we’re going to be pregnant at the same time!” I whispered to her delightfully, with all my innocence and naivety intact, giving her a booze-fueled hug. I knew she and my brother would be trying for a baby soon, just as my husband and I planned to. During my second pregnancy I had strong suspicions that she was finally pregnant. We spent three days over Thanksgiving nauseous and exhausted, complaining but never acknowledging to each other the culprit. I miscarried shortly after, at nine weeks along.  A few days later my husband walked into the kitchen and held me. “It’s true,” he said gently. It was something I already knew but still hit me like a thud in my gut. “She got pregnant the same week as you. She has your due date.”

I had wanted to be tough this time, to avoid the deep pit of emotional wreckage I experienced following my first miscarriage. But with these words,  every bit of displaced emotion emerged, and I collapsed into my husband’s arms and cried, sobs coming from a deep and broken place. “That’s MY baby!!” I wailed over and over, knowing I didn’t make sense, but believing it nevertheless. “She has my baby! That’s my baby, that’s my baby,” I cried, not knowing why I was saying it. “Where is my baby?” I finally asked my husband faintly, feeling overwhelmed with heartbreak that this question couldn’t be answered. I had tried to convince myself that this time it was easier, an embryo had never developed – there was never a baby to be lost. But in that moment I knew it didn’t matter. That familiar grief filled my body as I crumpled with the same heavy sadness.

Again, I anguished over the way I was feeling. I had looked forward to being an aunt for so long. I loved my brother and sister-in-law so deeply and was devastated that I would feel anything other than happiness that they were expecting. Their pregnancy announcement became about me, not wanting to cause me more pain, not quite sure how to share the news. I had robbed them of one of the more exciting parts of getting pregnant – sharing the news with loved ones. Once again images of them at their ultrasound getting good news, your baby’s heart is beating and is growing right on track, something we had yet to experience, filled me with that same sick feeling, the envy that pulsed through every bit of my being, the ugly pit in my stomach I had grown to hate. I knew from experience that time doesn’t dissolve these feelings; as she becomes more pregnant I will feel more and more empty.

I don’t understand why I had to endure such a difficult situation twice, why one of the more painful aspects of my first miscarriage had to replicate a second time with my sister-in-law. It seemed cruel, and unfair. But I knew I needed to use what I learned through the first experience to keep my relationship with my brother and sister-in-law healthy and loving. I knew the best way to make it through would be through love and communication. And I knew with silence comes misunderstanding. You start to project what you think the other person is thinking and feeling, always assuming the worst. She’s mad because I’m not going to her baby shower, I had thought of my best friend’s silence. She doesn’t understand what I’ve been through. She has no empathy! When we finally spoke I found the opposite true, she had been harboring feelings of sadness and guilt throughout her whole pregnancy, often so deep she had trouble maintaining contact. Because of the distance I felt the first time with my best friend, I immediately started grieving the loss of my brother and sister-in-law. I thought they would slip away too, in a blurry mess of awkwardness and not knowing how to not cause me more pain.

I know I’m being tested, and I know that I will need to harden myself enough to not let the seeping pain control me and cause me to experience the loss of more people in my life. I’m going to be an aunt and I’m going to let my love for my brother’s unborn child, my future niece or nephew, help me get through this.

losing my baby, again

After our first miscarriage, I felt like the only thing that would take the pain away would be to get pregnant again. My body, hormonal and raw after losing the first baby, was craving it, needing it. My husband, motivated by some kind of biological urge to impregnate his wife as quickly as possible, agreed. It took us three months of trying, a short amount of time in hindsight, but to us felt like an eternity. Every period that arrived after we started trying again reopened the wound. When I would see the drop in my temp and the faint smear of blood, I would cry. The loss would feel so fresh, like it happened yesterday. The blood caused visceral feelings of pain, reminding me of the moment I realized I was miscarrying and losing our baby. After a few days, my resilience would come knocking, and I’d prepare myself for another hopeful month of trying.

I already knew I was pregnant again before taking the pregnancy test. I knew what the familiar flutter in my lower abdomin meant. The slight bloating and the fatigue had already kicked in. I had just gone through the first few weeks of pregnancy less than 6 months prior, and the symptoms were very familiar. Even still, my heart was pounding when I took the test, and then was flooded with mixed emotions when the word ‘Pregnant’ stared back at us. My husband and I just looked at each other. We weren’t sure how to feel. I was happy and relieved, but I knew how this could end.

I called my doctor and she said to come in for some early bloodwork to test my hcg, progesterone and thyroid levels. I made an appointment for an early 5-½ week scan. At the scan, we saw an empty gestational sac, when we should have seen a fetal pole and yolk sac as well.  A flood of dread washed over me combined with crushing disappointment. I can’t go through this again, I said over and over in my head. My doctor said it could just be too early, and this happens sometimes. Even still, I went home and cried, reliving the grief of my past miscarriage, anticipating the grief of my next one.

I googled “empty gestational sac at 5-½ weeks” over and over, and kept finding happy stories of women that had seen no embryo, only to return a week or two later and see their little bean with a healthy, beating heart. It was so common, and slowly I started gaining hope. My feelings that I was just counting down to seeing the dreaded spotting and subsequent blood dissipated, and I started to feel optimistic.

I didn’t think I was capable of enduring a second miscarriage. I thought I’d break down and lose it, unable to go on, unable to function. When we finally received the bad news at our next scan, I was numb. I was afraid to look at my husband. I remained as hard as I could, even though tears started to stream down my face as I put my clothes back on. When we walked past the waiting room to my doctor’s office, I thought I heard a collective sympathetic “ohhhhhh….” as the tears hugging my face gave it all away. I still don’t know if it was real or imagined, but I rushed by the waiting room of pregnant bellies as fast as I could, head down.

My doctor told us that the fact that this miscarriage was a different situation that the first one was good news. It was less an indicator that there may be a problem, and more of an indicator that we may just be the victims of bad luck twice. Our first miscarriage, the heart had stopped beating at 9 weeks, this one, a blighted ovum. She said we could start with doing a blood karyotype on both my husband and me, to see if either of us carry an extra chromosome that we may be unknowingly passing on, and perform a blood clot test on me. She gave us my options for terminating the pregnancy.

I tried to go numb. I already knew what this would feel like. To truly grieve for a lost baby, a child I would never know, a little person I was hoping to hold in 7 months. I wanted to swallow the disappointment, move on, not acknowledge the aching heart. But it consumed me. I couldn’t run. Those same feelings came after me again. But this time, I was scared. Something wasn’t right.

my miscarriages

When I was young I remember distinctly a scene from a movie of a women being rushed through the halls of a hospital on a gurney, covered in blood, and wailing in pain. She was having a miscarriage, I learned. I don’t remember the name of the movie, or why I was watching that gory scene, but the image has stayed with me since. Miscarriage looked horribly traumatic and painful; the worst thing to happen to a pregnant women. Like many tragedies, I assumed it only happened to the unfortunate few, and clung to the unconscious assumption that it would never be my reality.

I just suffered my second miscarriage. Not only am I still coming to terms with the idea that this is part of my reproductive reality, I’m also struggling with the idea that I’m now categorized as a woman with “recurrent pregnancy loss”. While my first miscarriage was marked with piercing grief and disappointment, this second loss is a battle against fear. Will we ever be able to have children? Why did this happen twice? What is in store for us – will we have further losses or be thrown into IVF, and suffer continued devastating disappointments? Or are we the less than 4% of couples that have two losses in a row, and just plagued with two cases of bad luck? How much more sadness will we have to endure?

Our first miscarriage happened in early July this year. It was our third cycle trying when we first saw the word ‘pregnant’ on our Clearblue digital pregnancy test. My husband and I held hands as we walked together, with our eyes partially closed, smiling and nervous, to the bathroom to see the results. Pregnant. Seeing that word was an incredible moment, the feeling emblazoned in my memory forever. A simultaneous experience of disbelief, awe of the unknown, excitement, and relief it had actually happened. One of the rare moments when tears and laughter happen at the same time, I jumped up and down giggling, crying, as my husband laughed at my outburst.

We loved our baby instantly. We came up with a nickname and ascribed a persona that amused us endlessly, imagining our baby already with so much personality, busy in the womb, doing hilarious things. I felt the bond immediately, even before I knew for sure I was pregnant. Three weeks after the positive pregnancy test we were in the ultrasound room, seeing it for the first time, a blur of grey, with a rapidly thumping heartbeat. Seeing the ultrasound made my husband nervous. “It seems so delicate!” he marveled. I felt reassured. My body’s doing what it’s supposed to do.

“It’s measuring small,” the technician told us. At eight weeks along, it measured six weeks five days. Our doctor did not seem alarmed, only that we needed to come back for a second scan in a few weeks, to make sure it continued to develop. Dates can be off, she told us. We left the office, happy, excited, ready to share the news with our family. I ignored the nagging question, why is it small?

Three days later, I saw what makes every pregnant woman’s heart stop. Spotting. The blood was so faint I thought I might have imagined it. I called my doctor who told me to rest for the remainder of the day and call back if it turned heavy and red. I hung up and followed orders, teary and hormonal, but relying on my positive nature to cling to the hope it would be ok. The next night it was official. I let out a pained shriek when I went to the bathroom and saw the gush of red blood, the symbol of pregnancy loss, the death of our child to be. My husband rushed me to the emergency room, where they admitted me immediately. “Do you have any pain?” I was asked, and shook my head no, refusing to acknowledge my throbbing lower back, or the cramps that had plagued me the day before. If I don’t admit to them, maybe this won’t be real.

The four hours in the emergency room were hard. A doctor with a poor bedside manner, the endless moments of silence and waiting. I remember trying to read the ultrasound in the reflection of the window, as our technician’s poker face gave us no answers. Under some miracle, is our baby still in there? Ultimately we were given the news we already knew, and were sent home. I took a shower and lied awake for the rest of the night, empty, not wanting to go to sleep and have to wake up and remember that we were no longer expecting a baby.

Four months later we were pregnant again. Tentative, cautiously optimistic, the pain from the first lost finally starting to lessen. I felt constant anxiety, on some days feeling like it was just a countdown until I miscarried again, other days feeling like just maybe there will be a baby at the end of this. I was afraid to bond with what was inside of me, afraid to acknowledge it, so busy worrying about whether I would keep the pregnancy that I didn’t even dare to begin processing the idea of becoming a mom. I constantly tried to “read my gut”, as if my gut could predict the future. Is this it? Is this the one? Or will our pregnancy be taken from us once again?

At the ultrasound we should have seen an 8 week embryo with a clearly beating heart. All we saw was an empty gestational sac. I could immediately see on the ultrasound that there was nothing there. There is no baby, I said in my head, numb, not reacting. “This is not good” the technician said. She didn’t need to say it. Technically termed a blighted ovum, an embryo had failed to develop. I had three choices as my body had not yet recognized that this was not a viable pregnancy: wait to miscarry naturally on my own, take pills to cause my uterus to contract and pass the pregnancy tissue at home, or visit the surgical center for a D&C to remove the remnants of the pregnancy. After an emotional day of agonizing over which method would be the most painless and least psychologically debilitating, I chose the D&C. “You go to sleep with the problem and wake up without it,” as one doctor put it. The next day at 6am, I was in a hospital gown, attached to an IV, a tear sliding down my face moments before the general anesthesia took effect wondering, how did I get here?

As anyone who’s grieved before knows, time is the only healer, only it’s not a linear process. You become comfortable with the ebbs and flows of your feelings, being able to laugh and find joy again makes you feel like you’re being strong, but you know it might be short lived. The searing pain can come unexpectedly, the slightest reminder can be your worst enemy. I became so sensitive around pregnancy that even seeing a man with a sizable pot belly sent a quick volt of pain through my body, even though I knew that was ridiculous. The belly envy I felt was enough to make me feel sick, aggravating the ever-present pit in my stomach, and plunging me into a level of jealousy I had never known before.

Through the pain of these losses, I took comfort in still being able to see so clearly all the other ways I am so fortunate in my life. They cut through the bleariness of the days following my miscarriages and felt like a warm blanket. My husband and I grew closer than I thought possible and our love for each other intensified in such a visceral and tangible way I thought I might explode. We physically were not capable of leaving each other’s sides for even a moment in those days following our losses. We both cried on the other’s shoulder, taking turns in the support role. My beautiful home helped me feel safe, the sun that we can always rely on in our Los Angeles neighborhood never stopped shining. My family stayed by my side, often my mom laid on one side of me, my husband on the other, while my dog napped curled in the nooks of my body. I started receiving cards in the mail, flowers and cupcakes at my door, and even received a painting a friend had done herself, painted from a photo from our wedding. I cherished every gesture of love and thoughtfulness and used every bit of it to regain strength.

I still don’t know at what point of the journey we are in. I sit and wonder, is this just the beginning? It can take some couples years to finally conceive their healthy babies. How much more will our endurance, optimism and resilience be tested? How much more of our heart will be broken? Or have we gotten through the toughest part, with the odds on our side that our next pregnancy will actually result in finally meeting our baby? I’m having to learn to live with uncertainty, to take it day by day, and remain present in the moment. To become comfortable with living with a pain in my heart, a yearning for something I can’t have just yet. To understand that every dark place I visit during this time adds texture and depth to my life and the person I’ve become. This is just part of my story.