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Elizabeth’s Story: Grief Following Stillbirth

Posted by Lara Salahi  September 25, 2013 07:25 AM

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Elizabeth Berrien went into labor right on her due date. She wasn’t surprised. Tookie was his father’s son; the son of a military serviceman who took pride in being on time.  

For Berrien, 32, of Charlotte, NC, Tookie’s arrival in January 2008 was the natural culmination of the perfect pregnancy. She was healthy and energetic throughout the 40 weeks. Now the doctor, the midwife, the doula, and her medic husband Brian were ready.

ELIZABETH BIRTH 200.jpg

Everything was fine until my son’s head emerged and then he stopped descending.  

Tookie weighed 9 pounds. His shoulders were stuck and the umbilical cord wrapped around his shoulder. The doctors swiftly scooped him away and began CPR.

Sometimes babies are born quiet. We thought a few rubs and he would come to. We didn’t know.

The doctors didn’t tell the couple what was happening, or maybe they had and Berrien didn’t remember. She was delirious after birth. She had no concept of time. Later, Brian would tell her that the medical staff had worked to revive Tookie for almost an hour.

What she does remember was Brian telling the staff, “if there’s something wrong, just tell us.” So they did.

I never thought that losing a child could happen to me. And yet, at the age of 26, I lost my son to stillbirth.

Loss. It’s the section in pregnancy books many couples with healthy pregnancies skip, sometimes out of fear, sometimes because of the whole-hearted belief that the chapter just doesn’t apply. While infant deaths have dropped in the U.S. over the past several decades, stillbirths have remained steady. One in every 160 pregnancies in the U.S. ends in a stillbirth, about 26,000 each year, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. More than one-third of these deaths cannot be explained.

The term miscarriage is often mistakenly used to describe a stillbirth. Unlike miscarriage, a stillbirth occurs when an infant spontaneously dies anytime after 20 full gestational weeks.

Tookie was weighed, wrapped in a blanket and placed on his mother’s chest.

You think the first time you’re going to hold your child in your arms it’s going to be a miraculous, exciting, uplifting moment. For me, it was awe – that a beautiful child has come out of me, but that I couldn’t protect him. I had no control over him living or dying.

“Look at our beautiful son,” Brian said to her. Words like perfect and beautiful and precious and cute and healthy are meant to be said in delivery rooms. Eventually Berrien handed him her son and he walked out of the room. It was meant to be a private moment between father and son; Brian cried out over him and she could hear it. 

This followed by months of grief, which started as a toxic combination of guilt and shame. Her body ached. She slept through most days. She felt a heightened sensitivity to noise. A trip to the grocery store angered her.  

You wonder how the world is continuing when this huge loss has occurred. Doesn’t everybody know?

Grieving was messy and the first year was the hardest. Berrien wondered whether things would have gone differently if she had a c-section. Over time she rested with the fact that there was no predicting this outcome.  

I’ve had to accept my humanity, and my doctor’s humanity.

Still, she longed to be a mother.

Not being able to hold my son in my arms was a body aching longing. I knew that I needed to mother. I wanted to mother.

A year after the loss of her son, Berrien gave birth to a baby girl.

I didn’t expect it to take away the pain of losing my son, but I felt that it might be part of my healing to have that hope that I could have a healthy child.

There was no magical moment, no turning point in her grieving that helped Berrien overcome. Not even the birth of a new baby could do that. It becomes easier and less heavy and less consuming, but it never goes away, she said. The guilt and the shame, however, do.

Stillbirth is not that uncommon, and that if it does happen, there are so many means of support.

Holding him in the hospital mattered, Berrien said.  Spending a few debilitating months in silence under her husband and family’s wing mattered too. 

Now her family memorializes Tookie in small but meaningful ways. It’s okay to talk about Tookie, out loud and often.

Elizabeth Berrien is the co-founder of the non-profit The Respite: A Centre for Grief & Hope, the founder of the organization Soul Widows for widows age 60 and under and author of Creative Grieving: A Hip Chick's Path from Loss to Hope.

Six months after the birth of their daughter, her husband Brian, a Special Forces soldier, was killed on a deployment to Afghanistan. Berrien found herself a widow at age 27.

Elizabeth is a co-author in the book In the Spirit of Abundance (Hay House Publishing, release date July 2013) and is featured in the book Bounce Back Women by Meryl Hartstein (release date Fall 2013). 


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This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Lara Salahi is an award-winning multimedia journalist whose specialty is reporting health and medical stories. She has worked in local, network, and cable television, international print, and documentary film. She More »

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