Trigger Warning: This essay discusses the trauma that can come with miscarriage.
By Jessica van Alderwerelt
There is so much I’ve wanted to say but haven’t been saying because it is hard for me to talk to you about what I’m going through, writing seemed easier. There are a few important things I have to communicate to you that have been going on because not saying them, I think, has created expectations that I am doing better than I actually am.
In hopes that you’ll understand me better, I’m going to share some pretty dark shit with you that I’ve been working on in therapy. I’m chipping away at making sense of my trauma but it’s a process that takes time and I will never be the same as I was before. I wanted to die. I wanted to stop the pain so much I was considering killing myself to make it stop. It was the scariest. Not only was it the immediate trauma related to my pregnancy loss but it dredged up so much past trauma, like my rape and my parent’s divorce, and my mom’s cancer (and my cancer scare), and my dad being absent for all those years. Trauma (and PTSD) is like that. It brings up all the stuff that felt the same, every time I felt robbed, scared for my life, abandoned, etc. Some days I physically cannot get out of bed because there is 2,000 pounds of weight bearing down on me. I can’t lift my arms or head. If I don’t have plans or obligations and no one is watching, I literally do not get out of bed to eat or shower or see the sun. Often for days at a time. I am debilitated.
Here is something I wrote in therapy. Maybe it’ll give you some insight into what I’m going through:
I wasn’t supposed to get too excited about my positive pregnancy test or tell anyone until I was sure and because so much can happen in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. For me, I experienced 12 weeks of sweating every night, hugging my belly, dreaming about my new future, celebrating to myself that I was finally pregnant.
I was so excited about what motherhood would bring– making plans for vacations to Iceland (where I honeymooned) with my little Olive and her daddy. I bought things for her room– my favorite being a beautiful, small hand-carved and painted wooden elephant that opens with a little latch securing a tiny hiding spot. She would have it on her dresser as a baby with a love note from me in it, she’d hide her diary key in it as a kid, put it on her desk as a teen to store her forbidden lipstick, and she’d move it with her to her dorm room to stash some pot– she would always have Ellie the elephant as a tether to home.
I know I wasn’t supposed to do that. To start planning and nesting. Not yet. But I wanted her for so long that it felt right to pick things out for her. I knew exactly what she’d like– I already knew so much about her.
When people asked I would say I wasn’t attached yet because I was scared. Because it’s science and it’s probability. But I was already in love. I’d complain that my pants didn’t fit. I had to buy new bras because my boobs got huge. I updated my wardrobe with perfect maternity pieces. I was going to be a cute pregnant woman and not abandon my style. On the opening night of my studio, my dress ripped at the seams from my tiny baby bump. I loved all of it. Because it meant I was pregnant and she was growing.
Two years we tried to conceive and we finally did and I was elated. I didn’t listen to the conventional rules that you are supposed to keep it hush…just in case. I wanted to share my joy with everyone and so I did. She came to the Southern Italian Coast with us, causing nausea, morning sickness, and food aversion to carbs and sea food. But missing out on Italian cheese, wine, and pasta was worth it because in a few months, she’d be here and my husband and I would joke about how she’d stifled our Italian vacation.
When we came home a few weeks later, the ultrasound did not detect a heartbeat. Mine sank and I began to cry immediately. Not my sobbing-ugly-cry but my trying-to-fight-it cry. I complained that I couldn’t really hold still long enough because the stirrups were so uncomfortable and had no padding– that they were digging into my feet. That if I could get the pads, I could stay more still so they could check again. She checked again and then said she’d call in the doctor– that she was just the technician.
The doctor did a different ultrasound and couldn’t find her heartbeat. He asked if there were any signs to indicate a miscarriage. There hadn’t been. He said that is it not uncommon to have a “missed abortion”. In fact, 20% of pregnancies are lost to miscarriage and that the good news was that I was pregnant and could do it again in a few months. This was just one of many. A statistic. So minimal. So ordinary. No. Big. Deal.
My body didn’t realize that my baby had died and still thought I was pregnant and kept on doing pregnant things. I still couldn’t stand the smell of eggs in a frying pan that had previously been my favorite breakfast. Milk made me retch. Morning sickness in full effect. My body wanted her as much as my heart did.
Now I would have to force her out of me. After a horrific, traumatic, and failed D&C, I had to try to evacuate my uterus on my own, at home with the help of some pharmaceuticals.
And then that was it. Pregnancy over. Dreams dashed. Icelandic vacations canceled. No nursery. No diary key. No lipstick. No dorm room. Our future life together erased. Parenthood revoked. I would never hold her. My Olive is gone.
I took two days off work and acted like nothing happened. I would accidentally mention in conversation “when I was pregnant” and meet pitying eyes when I followed up with “Oh, no. Um, I don’t have any kids.” Then I’d figure I had to explain myself, “I wanted the baby but I miscarried…yes its terrible…maybe I’ll try again someday…I’m glad your friend has a family now after she miscarried…oh three miscarriages…”. My loss is measurably smaller than hers. Insignificant. A blip to the world. To me, she was everything.
I ignored myself for months afterward. Didn’t tell anyone how much I had lost, how much she meant to me. I ignored my body. I stopped eating. Stopped sleeping. I worked 80 hours a week. I lived on coffee. I told people I felt great and to stop worrying, I was fine. My family and friends became worried and I pushed them away. I lost over 20 pounds. I ignored the pain and didn’t let myself think about her…where she might be now.
Five months after the loss I had a complete nervous breakdown. I walked around that day thinking I wasn’t real, seeing myself from a bird’s eye view. I kept pinching myself and not being able to tell still if I was really here. I thought I might be dead. I went home and took a nap. When I woke up I thought I was dying. I ran outside in my underwear, trying to outrun death. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to die. I was shaking uncontrollably, hearing french lullabies that weren’t playing…I was very confused about where I was. I kept trying to focus on my dog’s face (Oscar), petting him fiercely, trying to hold on to something that was real. I was slipping. I wasn’t dead but now I wanted to die, a flood of loss washed over me and I wanted to die. I looked up from Oscar for a moment and I saw her. She was three years old in her green patagonia puffer jacket, ready for Iceland, in the middle of a Los Angeles heat wave. There she was in my backyard. Her back was to me. I wanted to see her face. I wanted to meet her. I was seeing and hearing things that my logical mind knew weren’t there, but that part of my brain was losing the battle to the darker parts. I was floating above myself, I felt myself slip out of my body, I was dying or the light was being overtaken by the dark. I pulled myself back into myself and dialed 9-1-1 before I totally lost the battle in my mind. I needed medical attention and professional help and this was my last chance before I willed myself to death, or took more extreme measures.
It’s been 22 days (30 now) since my breakdown. I’m getting the help I’ve needed, I called in professionals, and the support system I had been pushing away. I am coping with my loss in all the ways I know how and am learning new ways each day.
Pregnancy loss is not something we like to talk about. If our babies are born alive, it is something to celebrate, to create space for in our lives, to honor, it is sacred. But if our babies die, are born still, or die pre-birth, then it is something to push away, to hide, to talk around. No time or space is given for them. It’s taboo and creates an air of shame. I can’t talk about my pregnancy for fear that it will make others uncomfortable. If I was still pregnant, people would see my big belly (I’d be nine and a half months pregnant). People would know that I need help and space and grace. If I had my baby to hold, people could see her and know that I need time and space. But I’m not and I can’t and it is all invisible. All my pain and my needing for help and my needing for space to heal and bond is invisible– it’s not real to anyone but me.
Jessica van Alderwerelt is a lover of flowers, hammocks, animals, and art. Jessica owns a charming flower shop & boutique in South Pasadena after quitting the world of politics to pursue her creative aspirations. She and her husband adore their four fur babies, Oscar the Italian Mastiff, Denver the Jack Russell, and two black cats Gina and Norman.