I found out that I was five weeks pregnant on my birthday. It was a normal morning in our house. My 2-year-old, Fianna, woke up my husband, Peter, and me by shouting “MAMA! DADA!” and Peter rolled out of bed to tend to her.
We had been trying for another child, so I decided to take a pregnancy test. As I brushed my teeth, I looked down to see two pink lines appear. Moments later, unable to stop smiling, I showed Peter the test and a huge toothy grin covered his face.
“That’s amazing news. Ceol is growing in there,” he said, still smiling, and pointed to my stomach. Weeks prior, as he finished dinner and I set the table, we agreed that we both loved the name Ceol, which means “music” in Irish.
After my birthday, the uncertainty that accompanies the early days of pregnancy began. I was excited to be pregnant but afraid of losing the baby. I had already experienced significant loss in my life and knowing how common miscarriages are, especially during those early weeks, I feared grieving someone I loved again.
Traditionally, with a wanted pregnancy, women wait until the end of the first trimester, which falls 13 weeks after conception, to share the news because the chances of a miscarriage are by then significantly reduced. Despite that social norm, as soon as we found out that we were pregnant, Peter and I decided to share the news. We told our friends, brothers, sisters, neighbors and work colleagues when we saw or spoke to them.
My desire to share was driven by my belief that women deserve support in this uncertain time ― and also in the case of a miscarriage ― and because of my history with grief. In the past eight years, I lost my mother to ALS and my father to cancer.
Before I found out my mom had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, I had no personal exposure to or experience with death or the mental health issues that can materialize when facing a traumatic loss. Prior to losing my mom, I viewed a hardship as a bad breakup, a bad grade or a bad outfit.
My desire to share my pregnancy was driven by my belief that women deserve support in this uncertain time ― and also in the case of a miscarriage ― and because of my history with grief.
When my mom told me and other family members about her diagnosis, it was clear that she did not want us to share the news until she did, which began a bad pattern for me. Since many of my friends didn’t know about my mom’s ALS, I couldn’t share my experience as it was happening. She passed away a year after I found out about her disease.
A year and a half after my mom’s passing, my dad was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He successfully completed the first round of chemotherapy, but less than two years later, the cancer returned and we lost him too. While he was sick, I was consumed by the challenges that he was facing. Instead of reaching out to friends for support, I put my head down, pushed through my anxiety and pain, and held my sadness close to me.
By the time that my father passed, I was a shell of the person that I was before either of my parents had fallen ill. I had trouble focusing, cried in the bathroom stall at my job and lived with constant anxiety. I had nightmares filled with interactions with my parents before they passed and I snapped at my partner, who supported me through it all. Because of the pressure and emotional trauma, I felt myself changing and, not knowing how to process or share what I was feeling, I kept these emotions to myself. I was ashamed of the person I believed grief had transformed me into.
In the four years since then, I have worked hard to be kinder to myself. I have spent years mourning, left a job I hated and finally found a good therapist. I’m learning to love the woman who cared for her mother as she died from ALS and was by her father’s side until the moment he passed. The better I feel, the more I regret being ashamed of my grief and of my story.
So when Peter and I found out we were pregnant with our second child, I vowed to fight the urge to carry the news in silence. “Let’s not keep this a secret,” I told my husband. “If I have a miscarriage, let’s not be afraid to share that either,” I added.
I will admit that telling people I was pregnant may have seemed less intimidating because I honestly did not think I was at risk for miscarrying. Fianna was healthy and there were no scares during her pregnancy. Although I understand this is not logical, I also foolishly believed that my parents’ passing created some sort of invisible immunity around me in regards to any more loss in my life.
Despite those beliefs, I soon began to worry about Ceol. I had quickly put on weight with my daughter, but during this second pregnancy, I felt as if my belly stopped growing when I was around 10 weeks along. When I went for a run at 11 weeks, I started to glide along like my pre-baby self without the nausea and extra weight that I had felt weeks prior. I also began to experience daily headaches that were more intense and painful than those during my first pregnancy.
So while we waited for the results of the genetic testing I had undergone, I was anxious. At my last doctor’s visit, the nurse had told me that they would only call if the results indicated an abnormality.
When I received a call from the doctor’s office at the 12-week mark, I immediately said, “It’s bad news, right?” before the caller could even utter a word.
“Yes, it is,” the genetic counselor responded. “The test results show that the baby is at high risk for a chromosomal abnormality, Trisomy 13, which results in severe intellectual disabilities and physical abnormalities. Most babies with this disorder don’t live past their first year.” My brain felt like it was going to explode. I couldn’t take in what she was saying, but I tried to force myself to pay attention.
The genetic counselor then went through the next steps and responded to my questions, although I can barely remember the details of what I was told. The next morning, Peter and I were supposed to go into the doctor’s office for an ultrasound, and if that looked OK, there would be additional testing.
We made our way to the dark ultrasound room the following morning and a knot slowly developed in my stomach. The ultrasound technician was a young woman who greeted us with a smile. She confirmed my health information and covered my stomach in lubricating jelly.
When I was pregnant with Fianna, I eagerly anticipated each ultrasound, which always brought a new opportunity to watch her dance across the screen. But that day all I could feel was that knot.
Why is the sound off? I thought to myself as our baby boy finally appeared on the screen motionless. The ultrasound technician began to frantically move her magic wand on my stomach, repositioning it from one angle to another. With each move she got quieter.
“I need to show this picture to the doctor,” she said without any expression on her face. Avoiding eye contact with either me or Peter, she left the room. Minutes later, the doctor walked in and informed us that our baby had passed.
Peter and I held each other and cried in the ultrasound room. Every couple of minutes we were interrupted by a doctor explaining my options. I was told I could wait to let the baby come out of my body naturally or he could be removed. I desperately wanted to still be pregnant, but I did not want to go on any longer with my baby inside me while knowing he was no longer alive. I opted to have the procedure to remove his body that afternoon.
Within minutes, the doctor who would perform the dilation and curettage, or D&C as it’s more commonly known, called. There were two ways I could go through this: while sedated through an IV, which would leave me mostly asleep and with no memory of the procedure, or after taking oral medication, which would leave me relaxed but aware of what was happening.
I decided on oral medication. After losing my parents, I was anxious in hospitals and distrustful of doctors. I also did not want to erase my memory of this experience.
When I showed up at the hospital hours later, the doctors and nurses prepared me by connecting me to a heart monitor, taking my vitals, and giving me Ativan and ibuprofen. During the procedure, the doctor talked me through what she was doing. She first dilated my cervix and applied numbing medication. Her voice was calm and confident. I was surprised at how well I was managing the pain and getting through it.
Miscarriage is often dismissed as a women’s issue ― an experience that women are expected to grit and bear silently on their own. But, as Brené Brown said, “shame derives its power from being unspeakable.”
Next the doctor used suction to remove the “particles” from my body. When the roar of the machine began, a couple of tears dripped down my face, but as the sound continued, it began to reverberate in my brain and my tears turned to sobs. Within seconds, I was uncontrollably crying. I couldn’t open my eyes, afraid of what I might see.
“Are you OK, Katie?” the doctor asked.
“I’m not in pain. I’m just sad,” I replied. A young nurse held my hand, but I wanted to see Peter, who had not been permitted in the room.
“That’s understandable,” she replied. And I knew it was. It was my job to protect my baby and I failed him. How could I not be sad?
When we left the hospital that day, I was already thinking about who knew we were pregnant and how we now needed to inform them of our miscarriage. It is easy to share pregnancy news until something bad happens and I’ll admit that in that moment, I momentarily regretted our decision to tell others that I was pregnant at such an early date.
Feelings of shame about the miscarriage slowly started to creep in. Why did this happen to me? Is this my fault? I wondered. How much grief can I take? Fianna doesn’t have maternal grandparents and I couldn’t even give her a sibling. My mind began to spiral.
But I knew that we needed to share what happened, and so Peter and I slowly began to contact our friends. Telling our friends what happened created the opportunity for them to love and support me, and many of them did. One of my best friends flew from D.C. to California to go hiking with me for a couple of days. Another made me laugh until I cried. Several friends sent me flowers. I shared tears with my sister, who knows the pain of losing our parents and understands how my new loss added to that pain. And many friends called or texted to check in and to remind me that I wasn’t alone.
I have ended up with no regrets about sharing the news of my pregnancy earlier than many other people do, but to be clear, this experience has not been an easy one. In the weeks that immediately followed the loss of my unborn son, if my mind was momentarily able to forget what had happened, my body reminded me. I experienced bleeding, cramps, soreness, back pain and intense headaches.
We lost Ceol in April. There are days now that I wake up a grief warrior ready to be vulnerable with the world and other days when I only feel safe with Peter and Fianna. I cry and think of Ceol when I see a pregnant woman or a beautiful newborn baby. I’m angry that I lost another person I loved and I’m fighting to believe that life will bring me beauty again along with this sadness.
Every day, I’m still learning how to grieve Ceol. There is no ritual for mourning a baby who was never born. There is no body to visit, there are no ashes to throw. So Peter and I are finding our way together. We ceremoniously threw sand, instead of ashes, into the sea on a beautiful empty beach near Half Moon Bay. I will now always think of Ceol when I visit the ocean and I will hear his music that never got a chance to be played. And I’m openly speaking about Ceol and my miscarriage so that he and that experience are not erased by silence.
I understand that sharing personal news does not always result in positive responses. Some comments from friends and acquaintances have left me feeling hurt and angry. I’ve heard everything from “This happened for a reason” to “It’s Mother Nature taking her course” to “At least you have Fianna” and “Be grateful for X, Y, Z in your life.” Even though the people who said these things ultimately meant well, their responses minimize my grief and the complexity of emotions that I am feeling.
Conversations about death and loss make some people uncomfortable and the topic of miscarriage brings additional unease. Miscarriage is often dismissed as a women’s issue ― an experience that women are expected to grit and bear silently on their own. But, as Brené Brown said, “shame derives its power from being unspeakable.” Silencing these stories about miscarriage, which are more common than many people realize, creates shame and I will not be ashamed of my loss.
I believe that every woman who has a miscarriage should decide what is best for her, but I am sharing my story to call for the support we all need and, in my own small way, to not contribute to the silence. I hope that my story adds to the voices of women who are beginning to speak out about their miscarriages and who do not want to carry the weight of their grief alone.
Katie C. Reilly is a writer, attorney, mama and griever. Say hi to her on Twitter @KatieCReilly1.