Lifetime Film Portrays Stillbirth

The importance and heartache of watching this groundbreaking film

by Sarah Muthler
May 15, 2014

Return to Zero, a film that will air on Lifetime at 8 pm ET/PT on Saturday, May 17, follows Maggie (Minnie Driver) and Aaron (Paul Adelstein) as they experience the stillbirth of their son and the grief that comes with it. It is based on the true story of the stillbirth that filmmaker Sean Hanish and his wife Kiley endured in 2005.

As much as I looked forward to the release of this film, my palms became clammy as I sat down to watch it this past weekend. My daughter was stillborn in 2011, and at this point, I know how to keep my grief pooled in one corner of my brain. I knew this film would push me into that dark place.

The opening scenes – birthing class, a baby shower filled with happy conversations with family and friends – had me shaking my head in dread, knowing the heartbreak that would follow. Most of us are so unaware of stillbirth nowadays that few think twice about preparing a nursery and filling drawers with baby clothes. I once did the same thing and then lived through the same nightmare that Maggie does.

As Maggie lies on the exam table in her doctor's office, a nurse searches her belly for a heartbeat. The scene was so similar to my own experience that I shook watching it.

What follows is that unthinkable conversation sadly familiar to parents who have experienced stillbirth. How would you like to deliver your baby? Do you prefer a burial or cremation for your baby? This is the scene that gets to the heart of stillbirth. Birth and death collide. In the space of a few minutes, the happiest day of your life becomes the most devastating.

Thankfully, the film jumps forward (revisiting the delivery later) to the time after Maggie and Aaron return home. I needed the break because by this point I was a weeping mess and was worried that I wouldn't be able to watch the rest.

I traveled with Maggie and Aaron through the many facets of grief: numbness, anger, loneliness, and thought that this part of the film had the greatest potential to build understanding among those who haven't been through stillbirth. Yes, grieving parents spend a lot of time crying, but we also spend a lot of time staring at the wall, trying to figure out how to put our lives back together. Aaron, who had hoped to someday take his son sailing, begins to build a boat. This might seem a task that would only deepen his pain, but I understood his need to create some testament to his love for his son.

One of the most important parts of the film for couples that have been through this kind of loss is the relationship Maggie develops with her new doctor, who supports her in a way no one else has. I found similar help by attending a support group for pregnancy and infant loss. When everyone was waiting for me to get back to normal, I needed someone in my life who understood that I would never return to my old self, that I was profoundly changed.

The most emotionally difficult segment of the film is Arthur's birth, but it is the part that I most want my friends and family to see. My daughter's birth was a defining moment of my life, and yet I feel that I cannot talk openly about it. The film captures so well the sadness, fear, and love that come with delivering a baby who has died.

Without giving too much away, I will say that along with deep sadness, there is joy and hope in this moving film, and, though it is a difficult movie to watch, Return to Zero offers insight for every type of viewer.

Those who haven't been through stillbirth might better understand how to talk to and support those who endure this experience. People with a recent loss will see that they can reach a point of acceptance and hope. For me, the film brought a renewed sense of strength. I cannot fathom how people survive stillbirth, how I survived it. But we do, and then we reach back and offer whatever help we can to those behind us. Return to Zero is that helping hand on a grand scale.

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Sarah Muthler

Sarah Muthler

Sarah Muthler is a freelance writer and a mother of three. She blogs about parenting, loss, and life at Land of Abe.

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