Speaking Openly About Stillbirth

When we share our stories, we break the deafening silence

Stillbirth has been shrouded far too long in taboo, and it is so important to talk openly about it. Watching Dr. Eleni Michailidis describe the stillbirth of her son, Alexander, in a video posted on the New York Times’ Well blog yesterday, I was moved by her frank and open description of what it means to give birth to a baby who has died.

Her account transported me back to a frigid December morning in 2005.  I lay on an examination table in my doctor’s office, a nurse repeatedly repositioning a Doppler wand on my belly to find my baby’s heartbeat. Finally she left to get the doctor. As I write this, the shock still steals my breath. To this day, I cannot believe what happened to me.

A sonogram showed a baby without a heartbeat. My son had died.

The rest of that morning is a blur. I understood only dimly that I would need to deliver my baby. I walked to the hospital through the throngs of people preparing to celebrate the holidays. There were carols being piped from stores and children everywhere.

I had a strange sense of acquiring a whole new identity. I was so confused. I felt certain that everyone I had ever met would be so mad at me, so angry at my failure. I felt shame like I had never felt.

It was as though I was on a raft being pushed out to sea. “When are you due,” a nice lady asked me. No words came as I opened my mouth to speak. My eyes filled with tears.

I delivered my baby over the course of days. I fought to birth him with the full knowledge that I would then have to relinquish him. This set of facts seemed impossible to comprehend. I was sedated, but I wanted to stay present so I let my mind unspool and find all the beauty that was present in the room and in the birth of my baby: the harsh and weirdly beautiful sterile light, the snowflakes outside.

My son arrived. His hands and lips were beautiful. The silence that accompanied his birth was the loudest thing I have ever experienced. The boy I had planned to discover was in utter absence. But my love for him was fully present.

In speaking about stillbirth, we honor our children. We take possession of the experience of being parents of children who have died. And we break down the shame and the guilt that so many women take on, even though they are not responsible for their losses.

Stillbirth exists in a terrible twilight – where birth meets death. And parents feel stuck there, keepers of a terrible secret, and, at the same time, witnesses to an exquisite beauty. There is honor in unmasking the secret.

If we can just step out and say to others – this happened to me. Here is my baby. I am his mother. Please, let me tell you something of him. Telling our stories is transformative. I am grateful to Eleni Michailidis for sharing the story of her son, Alexander. Sharing our experiences allows our children to take their rightful place in our hearts, our memories, our families, and the world. It brings them out of the darkness and into the light.

Find more information on how to survive stillbirth and support women and families who do.