To mark Sands Awareness month, which aims to break the taboo around stillborn children, our writer describes the stress caused to her marriage by the traumatic death of her first child
Nothing could have prepared me for the emptiness after my first child, my daughter, was stillborn. The brutal vacancy in my once-taut belly, the gradual shrinking of my useless breasts, the unpopulated space in my home, the all-encompassing, crashing, relentless wave of despair that left me, at times, feeling that I couldn’t breathe.
Which would have been a blessing, in a way. I wanted to die.
Still, I got up every day. Well, nearly every day. Made coffee. Showered, shoved breast pads into my bra. Stared blankly at the television. Listlessly swept up the fallen petals from sympathy bouquets and wondered why on earth people send flowers, which die right in front of you, to console someone about death?
My husband? Oh, he was fine. He worked. He slept. He prepared and ate food. Regularly. Each time, it was a gut punch. I couldn’t eat; how on earth could he? It was just proof that he didn’t care. That he hadn’t really wanted a baby. He frequently left the house; something I couldn’t do for fear of the universe dangling pregnant women and babies in my path, just to torture me.
He’d lost a family member the previous year to suicide; I relentlessly scrutinised and compared his reactions and found them, in our instance, to be lacking. I spent countless hours on online bereavement forums; he didn’t. I wept at counselling sessions; he was awkward and monosyllabic. I was filled with disbelief when he worried aloud about the effect of the news on his mother, who ‘had already been through so much.’
Grief can make you selfish. It didn’t once occur to me, consumed and bleak as I was, that he was coping as best he could – not only with the loss of his child, but the loss of his wife. Not once did I consider that I, my actions and inaction, may have been as insulting to him as his were to me.
The return of my period signalled a whole new source of conflict: I was fertile and ready to try again. So we were going to try again. Right?
Even if sex-on-demand weren’t such a joyless and problematic thing, his job, requiring drop-of-the-hat travel, meant that timings were always going to be tricky. I begged that he block out sections of his calendar; raged against him when he pointed out that this wasn’t feasible. He said we’d fallen pregnant easily before, there was no rush, perhaps we should give ourselves time to heal before thinking of trying again – and in return I hated the casual cruelty of his biology, hated that I required it for a baby, hated him for being fertile every day of the week and for years to come, whereas I had small windows for a finite amount of time.
Grief can drive you mad. I scarcely recognise the person I became, the person who, deprived of genuine autonomy, sought to wrest back control with acupuncture, herbs, diet and, bizarrely, the removal of sharp or heavy objects from the bedroom. I berated my husband if he drank beer, cycled or swam. I was trying, why wasn’t he?
Years later, we have three healthy, wonderful children and matching tattoos commemorating our firstborn. We visit the spot where her ashes are scattered. But I still wince inwardly at his “Is it? How many years now?” when I mark her anniversary. How does he not just know?
Are you grieving after the loss of a child – or helping someone who is? The author of this article recommends sands.org.uk for support and advice; and Empty Cradle, Broken Heart: Surviving the Death of Your Baby, by Deborah L Davis