When your baby dies, you get a seat at the table nobody wants to sit at

·6-min read
One in 200 babies are stillborn in the UK, but in 2015, 921 babies were affected by stillbirth, early death or disability caused by oxygen deprivation in labour (Getty)
One in 200 babies are stillborn in the UK, but in 2015, 921 babies were affected by stillbirth, early death or disability caused by oxygen deprivation in labour (Getty)

In Netflix’s The Starling, debuting today with Melissa McCarthy as Lilly and Chris O’Dowd as Jack, infant death, grief, and mental health struggles stream into homes across America. The movie couple grapples with the death of their daughter. While Jack receives treatment at a mental health facility, including counseling and group therapy, Lilly pushes ahead with life while dealing with a pesky bird on her property.

Film and television storylines about a loss are often manipulative or overly sentimental, trying too hard or missing the mark of the unvarnished aspects and nuances of the experience. The reviews suggest this could also be the case with The Starling. Yet an infant’s death greatly impacts many of us — parents as well as siblings and grandparents — for our entire lives. According to the CDC, each year about 24,000 babies are stillborn in the United States. Another 3,400 deaths occur from sudden unexpected infant death.

The people behind these numbers often do not share their most personal pain, and if they do it is often while seated at a table no one wants to be sitting at.

Years ago, I sat at a conference room of brick building adjacent to a hospital center, with our grief counselor at the head of the table. Various people gathered: a woman and a teenager, a man and a woman, another new couple holding hands, a mother and a daughter, a husband and wife, and me. My husband did not accompany me. The weight of Sam’s death on top of my already strained 11-year marriage eventually led to divorce.

“I am so sick of the people at work,” said a woman in her thirties with horn-rimmed glasses and a short blonde bob. “They avoid me, but I see the way they look at me.” Her voice rose and her hair swung as she leaned forward. “They don’t want to hear my story. They say I make them uncomfortable. I want to tell them, ‘You are lucky this didn’t happen to you.’”

We all nodded, having known that feeling. Our leader said, “Going back to work is difficult. People often don’t know what to say.”

“I just want to talk about my son like the others do. And show pictures,” she said, referring to snapshots of her baby after his death. “My son didn’t even get to sleep in his crib. We came home from the hospital without him, but the furniture was still in the nursery. We had to call the store and they came to took it away. I wanted to burn that furniture. Some days I want to burn the whole house down.”

Murmurs of support circulated. We knew her rage. Then she sighed, her shoulders rounding forward. “Our house is empty.” Her husband squeezed her hand and closed his eyes. After a few minutes of silence, several people shared comments about returning to work or creating some new normalcy when everything in their lives had changed.

A newcomer introduced himself and his wife. “We thought coming to the meeting might be… helpful,” he said, as he looked in her direction. He told of putting their six-month-old baby to bed. “He was fine when we put him down and then when we went to check on him — like we did every night — he was not breathing. We tried to revive him. We called 911, the ambulance arrived, and then the police came.” His voice dropped when he said mentioned the police. “They questioned us for a long time. Like we did something to him, but it was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Just one of those things that happens to other people… and then it happened to us.” His wife sobbed into a tissue and some of us at the table sobbed, too. Others sat, stunned. Their baby died, and they got questioned by the police. What could be worse than that?

The table overflowed with tragic stories: A car accident where the pregnant mother lived but the unborn child did not. Twins born ten weeks premature who spent months in the NICU, only to then die, one after the other. A couple experienced five miscarriages.

On this particular night, I did not talk but instead came to witness and validate the pain of others. At a previous meeting I had shared that at 37 years old and 26 weeks’ pregnant, I rushed to the doctor’s office near my suburban New Jersey home after not feeling my baby kick for a day. An emergency ultrasound revealed no heartbeat. My third son, Samuel, arrived stillborn without a cry upon delivery. Then my husband turned away stoically while my anguish flowed.

I could hardly stand and barely function. Family and friends came to the memorial service. Older friends and relatives wrote me letters revealing losses that had gone unshared for decades because “people didn’t talk about it back then.” Other friends told me they prayed, and they understood. But some things cannot truly be understood unless you live them.

Everything shifted that day when I held my son’s motionless body. My husband and I sat on my sofa and told our boys, aged just five and seven, that their baby brother would never come home. We had to tell one he would not get to be the big brother he imagined, and to tell the other he would have no little buddy. Huddled together, we cried in disbelief. None of us realized how this would alter our family: a divorce with shared custody and alternating weekends, a new house and school for the kids, a balancing act of near full-time motherhood and a career as an editor for me.

We learned that the mention of a dead child did indeed make people uncomfortable. Silence filled the air after someone asked, “How many children do you have?” When I shared what had happened, others said, “Everything happens for a reason,” and my brain screamed: “In what world is there a reason my baby should die?”

As the years went by, it seemed people had forgotten about my baby who was gone too soon. My family didn’t forget, though. Samuel touches us each day, even when we don’t speak his name. We experience life while he did not get the chance. We miss him, the person he would have grown up to be.

In the early months of the aftermath, I drove to many of those bi-weekly meetings alone. I soaked up the support of the strangers who had experienced a loss like mine and knew my deepest pain. They propped me up in a time when I had no hope, a time when I thought of stopping my days from coming at all.

The years have melted one into another now and my older sons, strong and robust, are immersed in college and work. This fall, as Samuel’s birthday passed along with the yellow school busses circling the neighborhood, I thought: My Sam would be fifteen. He would be in the tenth grade. I sank to the floor and folded into myself.

This year I did not go to the group which still meets every other Tuesday night in the conference room, with the same leader at the head of the table. But I thought about all the mothers, fathers and families who lost their babies — and I felt less alone.

Lisa B. Samalonis writes from New Jersey, where she lives with her two sons. She is at work on a memoir, Just Three, about single parenting and loss.

If you have been affected by the issues discussed in this article, consider contacting one of these charities which specializes in miscarriage, stillbirth and infant loss.

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