I'm not ready for this.
Every day, all day -- I'm just not ready yet.
Surviving life after stillbirth is difficult. I'm not sure what the actual percentage is, but a common thread among moms within the stillbirth community is the persistent, debilitating anxiety that settles in after the loss. When our grief counselor told me she thought I had PTSD almost two months after losing our son, I thought she was in need of a break -- PTSD was for veterans of war, not me.
The truth is I did have PTSD, and I needed her help. The suddenness of our loss shook me to the core. How could this happen when I was doing everything right? I was doing everything I was told to do. I mean, I was even drinking herbal sludge every morning to give him the best start. How was this outcome even possible? And, since I now knew it was not just possible but my heartbreaking reality every morning, I wondered, what else will go wrong?
And there it was, the haunting question: what else could go wrong? I struggled to put my 2-year-old in his car seat, worried about car accidents. All of a sudden I wanted my child to wear a helmet on the playground! I was scared of my husband being hit by a car on his road bike during his morning commute, my mother's diabetes, my stepfather's daily drive for UPS, the mental list went on and on. It seemed like everywhere I looked, all I could see was the worst possible outcome, and I wasn't ready for it.
The social anxiety was most surprising. Our home was flooded with family and friends who understandably had no idea what to say to us. Even the most well-intentioned of them could say things that hurt. I started to worry about what people would or would not say. Saying nothing hurt too.
My grief counselor encouraged me to normalize my feelings by acknowledging my fear and reminding myself that anyone who had experienced what I had would feel this way. Tell myself I'm okay.
About a month after we lost our son, our then 2-year-old had a haircut. I thought it was a fairly easy start to get back into the world. I thought I was ready and prepared myself to try out my story on our stylist, who did not know what had happened. It was difficult to share. I became aware of the shock our story had on others, and the need to help them through taking in the tragedy. I felt like a guardian of their emotional experience at a time when I was ill-equipped to handle my own.
On our way out, I bumped into an acquaintance from work. I panicked and couldn't even speak to her. Just stood there shaking and crying. I wasn't ready for that. I wasn't ready for the outside world. I wanted to run back to the safe cocoon of my house. Seemingly innocuous encounters were now, well... Terrifying.
My social experiences dwindled to nothing. I barely got out of bed to pick up my living child at daycare. (Let's be honest, my mom or husband even did that for me most days.) Going out with friends was not an option.
I took the full FMLA to take care of myself and try to get my anxiety under control. I talked with my grief counselor and doctors and decided to take medicine to help me cope. It took at least two months or so on the medicine to feel like I returned to a somewhat sane version of myself.
Three months after losing our son, I prepared to return to work. I was terrified of the uncontrolled environment I was about to enter. I sought out the assistance of my counselor who had offered to meet with my coworkers to prepare them for how to handle a grieving and anxious me. Two years later, I continue to be grateful they cared enough to do this. The type of job I had required me to interact with a lot of acquaintances who had seen me pregnant and who (justifiably) wanted to know, how's the new baby?
What do you say? Dead? Sometimes I lied and said he was fine to avoid the story and emotional pain it brought me and shock for them. Most of the time that answer did not feel right to me. I felt dishonest and like I was dishonoring my child. So, I would do my best to gently walk them through our family's experience and answer their questions.
A year after losing our son, I was fortunate enough to meet the Count the Kicks founders who I had reached out to months before with the hope of helping others avoid stillbirth. They were expanding their efforts to promote fetal kick counting outside of Iowa through an Ambassador program. Meeting other moms from around the country who shared similar stories confirmed the normalcy of my feelings post-loss. They knew exactly what to say without causing hurt. They were my safe cocoon out in the world. And, we all shared a desire to do what we could to prevent others from joining our club. (I believe fetal kick counts might've saved my son.)
When we became pregnant again, we were lucky enough to have two other Ambassadors to share the experience with. We shared our anxiety. I also had the support of two conscientious physicians coordinating my care. I remember staying detached from the baby for the first several months. It did not help matters that her due date was one day after our two-year anniversary of losing our son (at 40 weeks gestation). Halfway through the pregnancy we saw our baby girl in 4D. I became panicked. How could I trust myself to care for this baby? How could I trust my body to keep her safe?
As soon as I could feel her kick, I started counting. Every day, anytime I felt worried, I would count. Sometimes I felt like I couldn't breathe until I knew, at least for this moment, my baby was okay. Kick counting also gave me a special time each day to bond with my growing baby girl. My husband, son, and I all talked with her, felt her movements, sang -- whatever felt right.
About six weeks before her arrival, I started to frequent the Labor and Delivery ward, usually on nights and weekends. My physicians gave me open invitations to their offices during the day with promises to do whatever test would put me at ease. I had a routine: non-stress test Monday, biophysical profile Thursday, L&D Saturday night. Without my anxiety medication, I honestly do not know how I would've made it through.
The moments after seeing my new baby were like an out-of-body experience. I could not believe she was alive. I was holding her.
Life moves forward even when you're not ready.
We're weird, over-protective parents. We have a movement monitor on her at all times. We wake up and jostle her baby just to make sure she is alive. However, we have felt an immense sense of relief and healing through parenting our baby. She reminds us that what happened to our son truly was not our fault.
Today, two years later, sharing my son's story still causes anxiety. Not sure that feeling will ever go away, but it does get easier because I've got my script down now and it's more routine. I try not to expect anything of the person I'm telling. I have people I can talk to if I need someone who can understand.
For those of you reading this blog who have had a loss and suffer with anxiety, please know there are people and resources out there to help you. Anxiety is perfectly normal, given what you've gone through. Reach out even though you're not ready. You may never be ready. There's no way around it - you've just got to go through it. As you well know, the hardest part is already over.
Meghan Hughes Petty honors the memory of her stillborn son, Miles, by volunteering as the Tennessee Ambassador for the Count the Kicks Campaign. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee with her husband, Jamie, two living children Oliver (4) and Misa (5 months), and two rowdy dogs. Meghan works full-time as an Auditor for TVA's Office of the Inspector. She relaxes by binge-watching television when she ought to be sleeping and dreaming of future international trips. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to learn more about the Count the Kicks public awareness campaign.