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Mia Freedman: 'To those who wrinkle their noses at Meghan's story, I say you know nothing of grief.'

This article deals with pregnancy loss and may be triggering for some readers. 

A few weeks ago, while unpacking boxes after moving house, I found it. 

A small silver box that I hadn’t seen for maybe a decade. And as I gingerly opened it, I was hit by a slow wave of nostalgic pain. Faint grief, dulled by time. Inside, were a sad little collection of objects. A hospital bracelet. Some sympathy cards. Some grainy ultrasound pictures. The receipt from the funeral home who phoned me to gently break the news that the body was so small, there hadn’t been enough ashes to give me after the cremation. Has there ever been a sadder little piece of paper than that receipt and the story behind it?

It was a memory box of the worst kind, a shrine to the miscarriage I had more than 20 years ago. It wouldn’t be my only miscarriage, but it was my first and it was my worst, if such things can be measured or compared. 

It happened the day after my wedding when I was five months pregnant. At least that’s when I learned of it, during a routine ultrasound when the sonographer went quiet and started asking me pointed questions about my dates and when I’d last seen my doctor.

It still took a few moments for my new husband and I to stop our excited chattering and register that this was not like the other ultrasounds we’d had, not with our son and not with this new baby who was starting to make itself known under my swelling belly.

As the sonographer moved the ultrasound wand more insistently around my stomach and peered closely at the monitor, the energy in the room changed. “Mia, I’m so sorry,” she said, touching my arm. “There is no heartbeat.”

“But I felt the baby moving just now,” I cried. “I’m sure I did.”

I was wrong. 

“You’re measuring about 17 weeks” she said, evenly. I was meant to be 19 weeks pregnant.

I was five months pregnant at my wedding. Image: Supplied.

It would be years before I would disclose that small, important, devastating fact to anyone. It felt like the ultimate shame piled on top of an unscalable mountain of it. I had one job. To bring this baby safely into the world. And I’d failed my baby.

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Not only that, I hadn’t even realised my baby was gone. I’d missed the moment. What kind of mother doesn’t notice that the child inside her body has died? 

After we stumbled out of the ultrasound room, my husband held me up as I tried to muffle my sobs. I felt the sting of shame as we ejected ourselves from the place meant for women whose babies had not died, waiting excitedly to see them flickering on the ultrasound screen in the happy bubble of their imagined futures.

We drove to a quiet street to process what had just happened. And from beneath the crashing waves of my grief, I had a question. Was it a boy or a girl? This question was the start of a long and bewildering process of trying to build an identity for someone I would never meet, never hold, never watch grow up. 

I would never get to know this baby but I could find out this one thing.

It seemed so very important.

We called the ultrasound place and spoke to the sonographer who had seen us. Could she tell us the gender of our baby? “I think it was a girl but I’m not completely sure because I wasn’t looking closely for that. Would you like to come back and I can do another scan and try to give you a more definitive answer?” 

We would. We did. And she was, in fact, a girl. I’d secretly wanted a girl. I had a daughter and she had died inside me while I’d been planning my wedding.

I had been pregnant with a daughter. Image: Supplied.

 It was 1999 and that detail - the year -  is important when I explain what happened next. If it had been just a few years later, one of the first things I would have done on that awful day is to Google “miscarriage”. And in a second, an ocean of support and information would have opened up to me. I would have found women just like me and I would have been able to read or hear their stories. 

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Instead, back in 1999, just like all the women who had miscarried before me, it’s almost impossible to articulate how alone I felt. It was a feeling of isolation entangled with a deep sense of shame. I felt abnormal; like a freak and a failure.  

The nuance of these awful emotions and the toxic toll they take is something only women who grew up before the internet can understand.

The pain of going through something difficult is compounded horribly when you feel like you’re the only one who has experienced it. Helping women to feel seen, heard and understood would go on to become the DNA of Mamamia. But without the internet in those dark weeks and months, I stumbled around in the dark, alone in my grief.

I didn’t know anyone who had had a miscarriage, at least not that I was aware of.  I vaguely recalled reading a story about it in a magazine years before but I had no way to find that story again. In desperation, I went to a bookstore and wandered bereft from the health section to the pregnancy section. Nothing. 

What a freak I must be if there are books about bed-wetting and how to deal with a partner who snores but nothing about miscarriage.

There were certainly no cultural touch points. I could think of nobody in the public eye who had ever had a miscarriage. All my pop-culture references were of beaming celebrity mothers holding beautiful healthy babies on the covers of magazines or royal women standing on the steps of hospitals.

Watch: A tribute to the babies we've lost. Post continues after video.


Video via Mamamia.

There was no signpost for my grief that told me I was normal or that one day, I’d be okay.

Over the next few days after that ultrasound, a lot happened and also nothing happened. I was still pregnant and yet I wasn’t. I bumped into someone on the street near my house and they asked when the baby was due. I lied and said, ‘oh, a few months’ and I didn’t cry because it felt like my grief was bigger than that, deeper and somehow unavailable to me.

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I met with my doctor and he gave me two choices. I could deliver the baby vaginally, as I had my son two years earlier, or I could have a general anaesthetic and my daughter could be removed from my body while I was unconscious.

I took the option of being unconscious and yet again, I felt like I was failing her.

A good mother would bear witness to the birth of her baby even if she wasn’t alive. A good mother would honour her baby by giving birth to her ‘properly’ and hold her. A good mother would stare down the tiny body who emerged from her own.

But something inside me very strongly made itself known and said ‘I can’t’. 

I knew I wanted to have more children and I knew that the memory of giving birth to a dead baby was more than I was strong enough to bear.

I looked for other ways to honour her, to will her into being. To make her as real in the world as she felt to me. How could I show that she existed and that she was loved when the only proof of her existence was the hole in my heart?

A few days later, when I returned to work, I remember wearing no make-up for weeks and dressing in the most drab clothes I owned. I wanted my outsides to match my insides - irrevocably changed from the woman I was before she died.

So much cultural energy is expended in telling women we should erase all signs of pregnancy and birth. The emphasis on getting our bodies ‘back’ has always baffled me. There is no part of your life or identity that isn’t impacted by becoming a mother. Why are we so hell-bent on erasing the physical evidence of it as though that was a goal as important as the baby itself? 

But when you lose a baby during pregnancy or soon after birth, the complexity of feeling is epic. It is truly unlike any other form of grief because you’re grieving someone you never got to meet, someone without an identity beyond that of your hopes and dreams for their future and for your own dreams of being their mother. They might not even have a name.

Listen: Coping with pregnancy loss. Post continues after audio.

I was determined to name my daughter even though my husband wasn’t keen. There is nothing as lonely as grieving in a different way to the person you’re closest to in the world, and so it was with us.

Despite having the outlet to do so as a journalist, editor and writer, I didn’t speak of my miscarriage publicly for years until I wrote a memoir and included a chapter called 19 Weeks.

I was pregnant with my third child at the time and I put off writing that chapter until the very end, so fearful was I about writing it. I sobbed and sobbed as I wrote; for myself as I uncorked the bottle on the grief I had compartmentalised and for the daughter I never got to hold in my arms. Soon after the book was released, a woman called Rebecca Sparrow gave birth to her second daughter, Georgie. 

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She was stillborn.

During Bec’s pregnancy with Georgie, she’d read my book and remembering the 19 Weeks chapter, she asked a friend to bring a copy to her in the hospital, so strong was her need to know she wasn’t the only one who had experienced this very particular kind of loss. Mutual friends put us in touch soon afterwards and 10 years later she is one of my closest friends. I thought I was helping her but in our connection, I found someone I could talk to in real life, in real time, about the loss of my own daughter years earlier. We healed one another. 

There is no closure when you have lost someone you love but you can grow more comfortable with the discomfort of that loss. The power of connection and true empathy, the power of feeling seen and heard and understood is one of the most potent tools we have for healing.

And so to Meghan Markle writing about her miscarriage in the New York Times this week.

"You have no right to tell someone how to process it or how much of it to share." Image: Getty.

To those who wrinkled their noses at such public airing of such ‘private’ matters, I say you know nothing of grief. You have no right to tell someone how to process it or how much of it to share.

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I imagine Meghan Markle is not the first royal woman to have had a miscarriage, but she’s the first to talk about it and for that we should be grateful. 

Role models and those in the public eye are not just there to show us what success looks like but also hardship. 

By writing so candidly about her loss and her grief, Meghan will now be a touchstone for the millions of women who will miscarry in the future;, women who don’t even know that one day they will draw some small but significant comfort from her words.

There’s another reason why women write and post about losing our babies. It’s not just altruism. It’s how we mother our babies who are no longer here. It’s how we show our love for them to a world who will quickly forget they existed.

When Chrissy Teigen posted a series of raw, intimate photos on the day she gave birth to her son who was stillborn, I understood perfectly why she did it. In showing the grief in her face, she was showing the love she had for her little boy, making tangible proof of her depth of feeling. Those photos said, I am broken by your loss. You have changed me forever.

And she was also gifting other women a very public, easily accessible reference point for their grief, past, present or future. 

Back on the floor in my bedroom a few weeks ago, looking through the meager contents of the box of memories I have of my daughter, I felt heartbroken for the woman I was after she died. At the bottom of the box, I found an old, yellowed newspaper clipping. It was of a first-person piece written by a woman about her own miscarriage. I can’t remember if someone had sent it to me or if I’d cut it out of the paper myself but I remember holding onto it like a life raft because this woman had articulated what I felt and her words felt like balm. 

Sharing moments of intense personal grief is not for everyone. Not everyone feels able or willing. But to those who are and do, we owe a debt of gratitude.

As the poet Sean Thomas Dougherty wrote, “Why Bother? Because right now, there is someone out there with a wound in the exact shape of your words.”

Thank you Meghan and Chrissy. Your babies mattered. They existed. They made a difference.

If this has raised any issues for you or if you would like to speak with someone, please contact the Sands Australia 24-hour support line on 1300 072 637. 

You can download Never Forgotten: Stories of love, loss and healing after miscarriage, stillbirth, and neonatal death for free here.

Join the community of women, men and families who have lost a child in our private Facebook group.

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