There’s so much we don’t know about miscarriage, but this much is true. Someone you know has had one.
Maybe it was the friend who stopped returning your messages for a while. Maybe your sister has experienced more than one loss. Maybe your wife or partner is having a miscarriage now. Or maybe it is you who has been on the sonographer’s table, screaming inwardly against the silence in the room that grows and grows.
About one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and we still don’t know why. In fact, the more we learn about miscarriage, the more we appreciate all that we don’t yet understand
About one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and we still don’t know why. In fact, says Dr John Kennedy of the Sims fertility clinic in Dublin, the more we learn about miscarriage, the more we appreciate all that we don’t yet understand.
What we do know, he says, is that “miscarriages are extremely common. They’re a normal part of women’s reproductive journeys, and yet people don’t realise that until they’ve had one themselves, and they start talking to other people.”
The other thing we know, he says, is that “it’s not the individual’s fault. Miscarriage is not caused by any action or inaction on the part of the woman. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’ve yet to meet the woman who hasn’t forensically dissected everything she did in the lead-up to her miscarriage.” But it’s never her fault.
Society still doesn’t treat this “normal part of a woman’s reproductive journey” as just that. Although miscarriage is discussed more openly than in the past – in the past few weeks Andrea Corr, Rosanna Davison and the television presenter Laura Whitmore have shared their experiences publicly – there is still a secrecy around it. This is generally well intentioned – a desire not to invade anyone’s privacy or to heap hurt on hurt – but the secrecy can intensify the loneliness.
“When high-profile people speak out it is helpful,” says Deirdre Pierce-McDonnell, chairwoman of the Miscarriage Association of Ireland, who has suffered losses of her own, a little boy, Rory, who died at 22 weeks’ gestation, and another one five years later, at 15 weeks’ gestation.
“People are using social-media platforms to talk about their experiences.” The Instagram hashtag #ihadamiscarriage leads to moving, empowering, sad and sometimes visceral stories of what one poster calls this “grey area of womanhood”.
Talking about it can be “very therapeutic for people”, she says. “Society is more accepting of the huge, devastating, heartbreaking loss that miscarriage is. For a long time it was a hidden loss.”
There is more than one way to grieve, and no reaction – sadness, disbelief, anger, envy, fear, shame, guilt, pride, relief, a sudden and overwhelming love – is more valid than any other
We know, too, that there is more than one way to grieve, and that no reaction – sadness, disbelief, anger, envy, fear, shame, guilt, pride, relief, a sudden and overwhelming love – is more valid than any other. We know the pain of the loss can be crippling, whether the pregnancy was planned or unplanned, a microscopic foreshadowing of a life or a baby whose kicks and squirms could already be felt. We know that, for those lucky enough to eventually have other healthy babies, those babies aren’t a replacement. We know that subsequent losses don’t get any easier.
“Statistically speaking, having a miscarriage doesn’t mean you’re more likely to have another,” says Kennedy. But if you have had more than one, the risk does go up. The miscarriage rate in pregnancy also increases with age. By 40 your risk is around 50 per cent, and after that it rises by roughly 10 per cent every year until, “by the time you’re 45, it’s over 90 per cent”.
After the publication of two recent personal stories of miscarriage in The Irish Times by Aoife Walsh and Sarah-Anne Buckley, readers were invited to share their own experiences. In the more than 50 submissions from women and men of all ages, from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences, some common threads emerged. Some of those who responded described how they had lost not only a pregnancy but a future that had begun to feel real as soon as those lines appeared on the test.
Some were opening up for the first time about an experience they had never shared with anyone else. Many have gone on to have more children, but grief, as their experiences make clear, has no expiry date. Others wrote from the throes of early, stunned shock. For one woman the grief is so raw she has still not been able to bring herself to bury her baby’s remains.
For a striking number who told their story, one of the overwhelming emotions in the immediate aftermath was guilt. “I was alternating between numbness, anger and uncontrollable tears. And guilt. Guilt that this was my fault. Guilt that we were so lucky to have a healthy happy child, when some struggle to conceive at all [and] we weren’t happy with our lot. Guilt that I had failed our family,” wrote one woman, who wanted to remain anonymous. You can read her full account below.
“I blamed myself for not wanting it enough, that I didn’t deserve it,” says another, who found out she had a surprise pregnancy just after her 38th birthday.
When we do talk about miscarriage it can be with a language that seems callous and dehumanising. “Never before,” wrote another woman, who had two miscarriages within the last year, “have I been so aware of the medical terminology they use that makes you feel like a failure and generally less of a woman” – “blighted ova”, “geriatric pregnancies”, “incompetent cervices”.
Even today, medics still don’t always get it right, but women are generally treated with much more compassion than was the case 20 or 30 years ago. Ieteke Oggel had two miscarriages within a few months 16 years ago, the first at seven weeks, and the second at 11 weeks. “In my mind, I already had the baby room sorted, with little clothes, and imagined our two girls playing with the new one. But you were expected to just keep going, as if you just got over some illness or a broken arm... You get these platitudes like, ‘Luckily, you didn’t feel the baby move,’ and, ‘You have two other children.’”
It is never, says Pierce-McDonnell, a good idea to address someone who has experienced pregnancy loss with the words “at least” or “luckily”.
The consultant turned towards his six medical students, all lined up at the foot of my hospital bed, and said, ‘This patient spontaneously aborted her foetus yesterday’
Times have moved on from Esther Hoad’s experience in June 1993, after her tiny boy, Myles Eoin, died at 20 weeks’ gestation. “In the hospital, a consultant came and stood beside my bed. I’d anticipated his arrival and so I lay there, waiting to ask him my list of handwritten questions. He didn’t greet or acknowledge me; instead, he gestured in my direction with his upturned right hand, turned towards his six medical students, all lined up at the foot of my hospital bed, and I realised I’d have to wait my turn. ‘This patient,’ he said, ‘spontaneously aborted her foetus yesterday.’”
Later, at home, Hoad heard her husband, Joe Carroll, “as he dug the tiny grave, crying and shouting all his lost possibilities into the squally June rain”.
In the months that followed she became very depressed and thought of suicide, floundering in a mental stupor. “In September, three months after the miscarriage, our nine-year-old girl came home from school one afternoon, looked at me and said, ‘Mummy, will you ever be all right again?’” After that heartbreaking intervention, Esther began to recover – and, 26 years later, has never again had suicidal thoughts. But she still attends counselling and every June bank holiday remembers the missing son, brother and uncle. “There’s no deadline for healing,” she says.
One byproduct of the silence is that many of the women who shared their stories said they had no idea what to expect. Many were stunned by the brutality of the experience. For a lot of women, miscarriage is an agonising, bloody, terrifying, lonely experience. They described the spotting, the cramps, the blood loss, the intense pain. And “the emotional pain is deep and animal”, one says.
For some, says Pierce-McDonnell, the physical pain can be horrendous. Medics need to be “honest about what can happen. It is not for everyone, but for some women, physically, it is like labour. The amount of blood loss can be quite scary. So don’t just say, ‘It’s like a heavy period,’ because it’s nothing like that.”
The majority of miscarriages are still unexplained. “We’re making progress in terms of what we’re finding out. When pregnancies don’t go right it’s a problem with the embryo or the housing,” says Kennedy.
As we sobbed our hearts out on a bench in Merrion Square immediately afterwards, we did not know how we could pick up the pieces and try again
There is, he says, no “worst” way to have a miscarriage, but there is particular cruelty in the loss of a baby conceived through IVF. One reader described her experience of losing a baby at eight weeks, after three IVF cycles in six months. “As we sobbed our hearts out on a bench in Merrion Square immediately afterwards, we did not know how we could pick up the pieces and try again... We had already been on a horrific physical and emotional roller coaster, only to have our hopes dashed so cruelly by nature.”
She described how she placed the embryo in a container and brought it to the hospital, “where a kind midwife gently took it from me to send away for testing. My only tiny consolation was when she recorded my name on the paperwork as the mother.”
This woman ultimately had two miscarriages, before giving birth to a “big strapping boy” and, a year later without intervention, a “second miracle” of another boy.
Suffering from repeated miscarriage can be particularly cruel, says Kennedy. “It gets harder, not easier. You never get used to it. Each time there’s anger, guilt, shame, disappointment. Each time it’s gut-wrenching.”
But, he adds, “you have to have three consecutive miscarriages in order to justify explorations. The first reason for that is economic. The second is that there is very little that can be done with the results.” Most medical professionals, he says, “tend to shy away from things medicine can’t fix.”
Sometimes, particularly in cases of repeated miscarriage, if a chromosomal issue is discovered, undergoing IVF with pre-implantation genetic screening “is one of the only things we have that has been shown to have a tangible chance” of resulting in a healthy baby, says Kennedy.
There are still no guarantees of success, because even chromosomally healthy embryos go on to miscarry. But, he says, a growing number of people are opting for this route.
What started out as some spotting led to a scan ‘that changed everything’. As her husband made his way to the hospital, Emma was told that her baby had no heartbeat
Emma Byrne, who is from Northern Ireland and now lives in Scotland, described how in February 2018, when she was 14 weeks and four days pregnant, “my world – our world – imploded”. What started out as some spotting led to a scan “that changed everything”. As her husband made his way to the hospital, she was told that her baby had no heartbeat.
In the early stages of her grief and shock, other women who had had miscarriages tried to comfort her by telling her that “if they hadn’t had their miscarriage, they wouldn’t have had their next child. That didn’t help me. I didn’t want another child. I wanted that one.”
A postmortem showed up some chromosomal abnormalities, and the discovery that her husband has a condition called balanced translocation of chromosomes. “My miscarriage started in February, and we were able to grieve, and then, in May and June, we were introduced to this whole new genetic issue, and we had to grieve again.” They went on the waiting list for IVF with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, and kept trying naturally while they waited.
“We lost again, four times. The first of those was just as emotionally tough” as the very first. “Between September and December we lost pregnancies three to five.”
There was a happy ending for Emma and her husband. “As I write this, my rainbow baby is lying napping next to me. He was conceived in the December after that last loss, and born in early October 2019.” She knows she will likely face more losses in the future, “and I’m not sure if it will be easier or more difficult knowing that we’ve overcome the hurdle once before”.
Some parents wrote for the first time of a loss they had suffered decades ago. Lots of those who shared their stories spoke about the desire to have their baby’s brief existence acknowledged, and their name remembered, and the overwhelming desire to parent them.
Fifteen years ago Conor Norton and his partner lost a daughter, Laoise, after she was diagnosed at 22 weeks’ gestation with Edwards syndrome. At that time the earliest his partner could be induced was 36 weeks. That meant 14 more weeks of pregnancy.
“Others may benefit from early termination, but for us it was ultimately healing for my partner to give birth to our daughter, for us to be with her for the 13 hours she lived and for her extended family – especially her brothers – to meet her. She was held as she died. She was brought home. She was washed, dressed, given a funeral, buried. It is extraordinarily difficult to screw down the lid on your newborn’s white coffin, but it is also one of the few acts of parenting I got to do, and I was grateful for it,” he wrote.
“It may be a cliched male response, but I was immensely angry afterwards. It was easier to feel anger than the pitch-black grief that lay underneath.”
My little girl made it to 38 weeks and 9lb 4oz, despite the damaged placenta that ultimately let her down catastrophically. A piece of my heart died that day
Among the most heartbreaking submissions was the one from Susan Boyle, whose daughter, Ann, died at 38 weeks’ gestation in 1984. “My little girl made it to 38 weeks and 9lb 4oz, despite the damaged placenta that ultimately let her down catastrophically. A piece of my heart died that day.”
Over time, she wrote, “I fold up my sorrow into smaller spaces in my head, which is not to say that I ever, in any way, ceased to grieve for Ann, and the cruel loss of all that possible life and potential. Her birthday, when she would have started school, her debs. All those empty days.”
Last June her eldest daughter, Marianne, gave birth to “her longed-for firstborn, a beautiful little girl called Lily. Born at 38 weeks’ gestation, weighing 9lb 2oz. She was stillborn.”
As they come to terms with the loss of Lily, all of her own “carefully controlled grief and sadness are back out in the open as if it were yesterday, as I try to guide my daughter through the wilderness of loss”, she wrote.
Susan initially requested anonymity, but she later wrote to give permission for the names to be used. Marianne, she explained, “feels the need to have that little, lost baby acknowledged and named at every turn”.
Amid all the grief and loss, many people stumble on, finding comfort in a sense of community among bereaved parents, and moments of compassion in sometimes unexpected places. One woman who discovered, during her 20-week scan in March this year, that her son had died described the extraordinary kindness of the staff at the Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital and some friends.
“On mother’s day,” she wrote, “a friend rang the doorbell and quietly dropped in a bunch of flowers before heading home with another bunch for his wife. These acts of kindness are immeasurable. There are also friends who know what happened and never mentioned a thing. This is hard. My advice to others is even if you don’t know what to say, you can at least acknowledge what has happened – a simple ‘thinking of you’ will do.”
Miscarriages are very scary. And they are very secret. And the emotional pain is deep and animal
A colleague called a few weeks ago to tell me about her miscarriage at five months. She wanted to make sure nobody asked how the pregnancy was going. She apologised for having to tell me. She said very little really. So I told her about mine.
I have had four pregnancies and only one baby. My first miscarriage was horrendous. It made the other two seem easy. (They are never easy.) When they saw on the scan that there was no heartbeat at 12 weeks I was shocked. My heart shattered. I remember my mother asking me in the waiting room beforehand why I was so calm. I never imagined this could happen to me.
But when it did I realised I wasn’t alone. I told women, and slowly stories of friends’ and colleagues’ miscarriages came out. Each one bookended with “They’re so common.”
My first started with a little blood, then a week of torturous waiting to see would nature sort this out by itself. I tried drugs, the medical-miscarriage method. The night I took them I bled all over our bed and our floor. I spent the night crawling to and from the bathroom to change pads, passing out on the way. My husband talked about calling an ambulance. I didn’t know how I could get into an ambulance. I bled and cramped and contracted, and my husband did all he could until it was over and I drank sugary tea and I slept. It was very scary.
Then we found out that intervention didn’t work. The “products of pregnancy” were still in my womb. So I got another go at the drugs – a smaller dose. When that failed I had the D&C. The whole process took a month.
My baby came after another miscarriage. That second time involved a trip to the maternity hospital, where my miscarriage was completely dismissed by a midwife; I was asked did I feel I needed to see a doctor. When my most recent miscarriage started I knew straight away what was happening. I rang my GP and told her my symptoms and refused to go to hospital. I wasn’t capable of dealing with that lack of feeling again.
So that day on the phone I told my colleague some of my experience, but not all. I didn’t want to scare her. But miscarriages are very scary. And they are very secret. And the emotional pain is deep and animal. I told her that miscarriages are all different and they don’t seem to have a bearing on fertility (especially not the first). I told her it’d take time to sink in and that the pain was normal. I also told her to go out and get pissed with her husband when she felt up to it, because it’s important to remember that you can be frivolous and fun and that there’s a reason you two chose to stay together before there was ever talk of a baby.
That woman took more time off shortly after her return to work. It was too much for her. We let that woman down by not being open before her life fell apart, so she would be able to talk about this without apologising, and by not sharing the gory details of our own experiences so she could talk in a cathartic way about her experience without being afraid of scaring people. Miscarriages are scary. But they’re real. And they’re common. And we need to open up about them. This is my way of doing it.
I carried her around in a little silver box for weeks. When I felt sad I would put my hand in my pocket and feel comforted that I still had her near
I will never forget the aching pain in my chest when I miscarried our second baby, Robin, in 1999. I really wasn’t expecting that. Pure sorrow. I was “only” 13 weeks pregnant. I carried her around in a little silver box for weeks. When I felt sad I would put my hand in my pocket and feel comforted that I still had her near. When we were ready we buried the silver box under a tree in Wicklow. Some people were so kind and sent flowers. Others ignored it completely. That was hard. Last year we brought our five children down there and told them about her.
My husband held me as we limped slowly down the hospital corridor, past the pregnant ladies and nursing newborns
I remember the cold winter’s night I first saw those two blue lines on the home pregnancy test. My husband and I had clutched each other in excitement. We had met when I was in my late 30s, and we both knew time was not our friend.
Weeks later, on a celebratory trip to a small seaside town with bright boutique shops, the store assistant admired the woollen winter coat I was trying on, designed for style and a blooming body. I placed my hand on my still smooth midriff. I was ecstatic to be purchasing my first maternity piece.
I went to the toilet that evening. I was startled when I noticed the spotting on the toilet roll. An anxious phone call to our health insurer’s nurse line advised rest and a check with my doctor. I would have to wait three days, as it was a bank holiday.
Three whole days and nights of anxiety, constant checking, rechecking and uncertainty. I cried. Plans to meet friends were cancelled, feigning illness. Days later, the sonographer looked apologetically towards me, as I lay on the hospital bed, my legs prised apart. The coldness of the probe had startled me. I was reading her face for a sign of hope. “I’m sorry. I can’t get a heartbeat.” My own heart plummeted.
My husband held me as we limped slowly down the hospital corridor, past the pregnant ladies and nursing newborns. Waiting another 10 days for a repeat scan meant more anxiety and sleepless nights. Not being able to tell anyone what we were going through was the hardest; a forced smile on my masked face with work colleagues. My worst fears were confirmed on my repeat scan. My husband cried for the first time in front of me. Our hopes and dreams shattered by a lifeless black-and-white blob on the sonographer’s screen.
Comments like, “Don’t worry, miscarriage is very common,” from well-meaning family compounded my hurt. “It’s not very common to me,” I raged internally. My woollen winter coat bought to keep me warm during my pregnancy, lay lifeless, unworn at the bottom of the wardrobe.
I still feel stress after a very unsupportive return to the workplace
After three miscarriages in succession I couldn’t hold it together as well as I had been, so I took a few weeks off work to help with the physical and emotional healing. Upon my return I felt shamed at having taken that time. I got the feeling they thought I hadn’t planned it well. But how can you plan a miscarriage? I still feel stress after what was a very unsupportive return to the workplace.
My biggest fear is finishing IVF treatment with no baby and the knowledge that I lost 10 babies
Losing four tiny babies was hard enough, but what made it even harder was that many people wouldn’t consider our losses to be real miscarriages, worthy of the same level of sympathy and certified sick leave, because I wasn’t officially pregnant. They were four five-day-old embryos, the products of two gruelling and expensive rounds of IVF treatment. Recurrent implantation failure is the official diagnosis. There is no explanation and no cure. The treatments that were offered at the time, steroids and an excruciating “endometrial scratch”, have since been disproven.
We still have six frozen embryos in storage, waiting for their big day out. It’s been two years since our last transfer. It was never meant to be such a long break. My biggest fear is finishing treatment with no baby and the knowledge that I lost 10 babies. I owe it to my tiny microscopic frozen children to give them a shot at life, no matter how futile it seems. And if/when it ends with another negative pregnancy test, I’ll call in sick, take one day off work, and then act like nothing happened even though I’m grieving hard, imagining what could have been.
I always feel a mad urge to cuddle a doll when it happens. There’s an intense need to hold a body and kiss it goodbye. They all had secret names, our lost embryos. They were all alive and had a mother and a father who loved them.
I don’t like euphemism. Miscarriage is death, death of a baby
My second and third babies died by miscarriage. People talk about losing a baby or pregnancy loss. I don’t like euphemism. Miscarriage is death, death of a baby. We don’t break when you talk to us about our dead babies. We don’t break when you tell us you’re sorry or use some swear word in an effort to describe what has just happened. But we do hurt when people avoid us, or say things like, “You can always have another,” or, “At least you can get pregnant,” or, “At least it was early.”
Very few people said these things to me, but very few people visited. No one came with sandwiches or cake (although one friend did bring chocolate, tea and a box of tissues). There was no way to announce the death of our babies. No way to spread the word without having to say over and over that my baby was dead. No wake. No evening when people came to shake our hands. People close to us didn’t tell friends because they thought it was a secret.
We were not allowed to take the bereavement leave that we can when a close family member dies. I had to take sick leave, and because my baby was dead it was no longer counted as pregnancy-related sick leave. Had either of my babies died when we had reached 20 weeks, and not eight and 12 weeks, I could have chosen to take maternity leave, but only if they had been more than 500g!
We named our little babies. Our little boy knows their names and talks about them. We buried one with my grandad, and we’ve not ready to bury the second just yet. I hope we will sometime.
People don’t know what to say, and can often say the wrong thing. What is the right thing? It is a hidden loss
I experienced early miscarriage four times. The first was 27 years ago. My second pregnancy happily resulted in my now-26-year-old son. Three more miscarriages followed over the next 12 years. There was no counselling or psychological follow-up care. After one I was told by my obstetrician, “At least it happened on a Friday. You will have the weekend to recover before you go back to work.” He was not trying to be insensitive; he was speaking of my physical recovery as this was the only “recovery” catered for at the time. I did not tell my extended family after the first time. People don’t know what to say, and can often say the wrong thing. What is the right thing? It is a hidden loss. At the time you can feel you did something wrong. Perhaps there is more support now. I hope so.
I was fixated on people knowing I was seven months pregnant when Holly died. I felt 27 weeks didn’t give my grief the enormity it deserved
My name is Anne-Marie, and I’m Holly’s mum. I like to use any excuse to call myself that, Holly’s mum. It was two years ago when our world changed forever. Holly, our third child, was stillborn at 27 weeks’ gestation, which is almost seven months pregnant. In the early days I was fixated on people knowing I was seven months pregnant when Holly died, as I felt 27 weeks didn’t give my grief the enormity it deserved. I have since realised how ridiculous that was, but when the pain engulfs you you don’t think rationally.
Before losing Holly I had “experienced” miscarriage and stillbirths through my work as a midwife at Cork University Maternity Hospital. We have a room on our labour ward called Room 11. It is our pregnancy-loss room, the room we all pass several times a shift, glancing an eye at, checking for a green sticker on the door to indicate it is occupied. I silently pray as I walk up the corridor that no one is in that room. Every time I have to go in there I’m right back in that 24 hours I spent in there, being induced, labouring and delivering my beautiful angel Holly.
Is it an inherently Irish trait to always want to put a positive spin on an undeniably shitty situation?
One in four pregnancies, they say, but still I never imagined it would apply to me. I was arrogant. I had conceived my first child, now 2½, as soon as we started trying, and I had a routine, uncomplicated pregnancy. I delivered two weeks early and unusually quickly – no time for pain relief or epidurals. The midwife winked. “Some women’s bodies are just built for having babies.” I’m not proud of it, but I felt smug.
Three years and two miscarriages later, I now know how wrong I was. The first happened a year ago. We had been trying for six months, surprised at how long it was taking. When we saw the two blue lines we were delighted, but after a week I knew something wasn’t right. I told my husband that I just didn’t feel pregnant, and he told me I was being overly anxious. When I started spotting, a few weeks later, we headed into the hospital, him anticipating reassurance and me expecting confirmation of what I already knew.
After a four-hour wait in the emergency room, a scan revealed the absence of a yolk sac and, in its place, an ominous black dot. A blighted ovum, I believe it’s called, whereby conception happens but successful implantation does not. Never before have I been so aware of the medical terminology they use that makes you feel like a failure and generally less of a woman: blighted ova, geriatric pregnancies, incompetent cervices – the list goes on. The midwives were both professional and empathetic, obviously seasoned women who had seen it all too many times.
The next one was only a couple of months later, but it was almost over before it began. The second blue line was faint, and I began bleeding only a week later. More scans, more appointments and, this time, the looming fear that now we had a real problem. Close family and friends tried to console, but few were able to say the right thing. “At least they are only early miscarriages. It would be much worse if you were further along.” Possibly true but nonetheless unhelpful. Is it an inherently Irish trait to always want to put a positive spin on an undeniably shitty situation?
We are trying again: the usual cycle of functional intercourse, peeing on sticks and trying not to feel too defeated when the results do not go our way. But I still can’t shake the niggling anxiety that it’s just not going to happen for us. I try to keep this to myself.
You never really understand fertility issues until you are in the trenches yourself. Over the past year I have been quite shocked at how many friends, colleagues and family members have had similar fertility problems, either miscarrying or failing to get pregnant in the first place. And they are only the ones I know about. But hearing those stories is so crucial. They bring hope to so many of us going through the same struggle.
I went home with a broken heart and some paracetamol
The first baby I lost, I lost in Holles Street. It was my second child, much longed for and scheduled to arrive two years after my first. I had a clot in the toilets at work, and had to get out quickly. I am the boss. I could tell no one.
I had to collect my son from creche and bring him to the hospital with me because we couldn’t tell anyone. I bled on a white leather couch in a waiting room in Holles Street while other women had routine scans and all the joy they bring. I went home with a broken heart and some paracetamol.
The second baby I lost was six months later in Brussels. I was speaking at a conference and I started to bleed. I couldn’t tell anyone. I bled through the speech and caught my plane home, heartbroken.
No one other than me and my partner knows those babies died, or about the days after, the endless sobbing in bed and the sheer terror that I would not have another live baby. But I did somehow have two more.
My first miscarriage was the first time I realised Ireland could break you. Send you home from the hospital with a baby dead inside you and a pack of painkillers.
Tell the stories. We all have them. I have two. My sister has five.
I screamed like something possessed, and they let me. I doubt if I could have stopped anyway
“You don’t have to do this. No one expects you to.” My mother stood at the bathroom door. I could see she was desperately worried. I knew I didn’t have to go. This was my plan entirely. Some inner voice had planted the notion in my mind where it reached through the darkness, took shape and grew. I knew it would take all of my strength and a big dose of courage, but I knew it was the right thing to do.
It had been eight days. “Come back,” I screamed inside. “Come back.”
From the kitchen I could hear the laughter of the children, my father clattering dishes and humming gently as he saw to their breakfast. The mirror reflected my face, swollen and puffed, a tap of tears turned on and constantly flowing. Will they ever stop, I wondered. My postpartum hair came out in handfuls as I brushed and teased it into shape. The trickles of warm milk still leaked into my nightshirt, all evidence of the promise of his life. But he was gone. The heartbeat that I had heard on the monitor, the big strong kicks that I had felt, were all gone. My hands rubbing across my flesh that felt his life beneath registered only stillness and silence.
My mother hovered anxiously, busying herself with chores, the tasks of life that never stop. She tried to reason with me, to protect me from further hurt, but I knew I had to face this. The intensity of the pain frightened me. I couldn’t allow it to consume me or swallow me up in angry, bitter despair.
And so we took the journey together, we his parents. Heading back to the small country hospital where just one week earlier he had been born. Stopping once on the way to summon courage, almost turning back. We walked the corridors together, past the room where he had lain beside me, and I had held his hand as it grew cold. The howls of childbirth, of child death, still echoed in my mind.
We came into the room and there was my wonderful sister Jo, bursting with love and nurturing kindness as she has been all of my life. Together we had mapped out our joint pregnancies, travelled to appointments, and signed up with the same consultant. We could not believe our luck that each baby, a third child for us both, shared a due date. She reached out to embrace me, then took her little boy and gently placed him in my arms. We cried together, adult tears and an urgent infant wail. The baby settled and snuggled in. I held him close, caressed his soft blond hair. I felt the warmth of him, the life in him, my gorgeous newborn nephew. Together we celebrated both our boys and mourned the loss of the little one we almost had.
Edward was born on April 27th, 1985. The placenta had ceased to function and he was stillborn. I remember the scene in flashes. The monitor ceasing to register the baby’s heartbeat and only mine could be heard. The staff leaving the room one by one told me he was gone before the doctor did. I screamed like something possessed, and they let me. I doubt if I could have stopped anyway.
He was baptised in the hospital and Paul dressed him in the clothes we had ready for him. The funeral was arranged without me; I was too ill to leave the hospital. (How bizarre it is to think that back then it couldn’t wait.) Paul carried the white coffin from the hospital to the back seat of his car, and drove to the cemetery where family were waiting.
On September 13th, 1987, our daughter Nicola was born in that same hospital with the same staff and consultant, who once more took great care of me throughout the pregnancy. She and Michael, my nephew, became great childhood friends. My son called his first child Oisín Edward, in memory of his little brother.
My husband had to go home to an empty house to clear all the preparations for bringing home a new baby
We were eagerly looking forward to the birth of our first baby in July 1976. Following a protracted labour a baby girl (subsequently named Sinéad) was born apparently healthy, weighing 8lb 3oz and scoring 9 out of 10 in the maternity delivery points system.
Within an hour Sinéad stopped breathing and was rushed to intensive care. I was left oblivious to what was happening and why. My husband stayed in the ICU, where Sinéad died 10 hours later. He was told nothing could be done, given no explanation. He had to go home to an empty house to clear all the preparations for bringing home a new baby.
Throughout my remaining stay in hospital I was left numb, feeling isolated, listening to the sounds of the needs of other new babies being met. The consoling words offered to me were that these things happened and that, as we were young, other children would come in due course.
Sinéad’s death certificate indicated death due to subarachnoid haemorrhage. No explanation as to how and why, only that it was very rare. While I remained in hospital my husband had the difficult task of arranging and burying Sinéad. For me the most distressing thing was not having the opportunity to see or hold her from the time she was taken from me. Having to deal with the ecstasy of delivering a healthy full-term baby, only to lose her shortly afterwards, traumatised me for a very long time.
In those days no counselling or support services existed, and only with the loving care of my husband, mother and two close friends was my mental anguish eventually eased. I subsequently had four other children, but the pregnancies were full of anxiety. Although it is true that the pain of loss eases with time, it never passes. Today it is good that people can talk and grieve for their loss and that support is available.
We did try, but I didn’t get pregnant again. Colleagues and friends becoming pregnant cut me to the core. I really wanted a baby
The 12-week scan showed my baby had died at 10 weeks. I was no longer pregnant. After the D&C I convinced the kind Irish nurse that I was okay to leave. I didn’t mention I was heading straight to the airport and a flight back to Ireland to my partner. I didn’t get a lot of support. He was wrapped up in his own interests and I was way down the list. I have no doubt he loved me; he just wasn’t capable of suppoprting me emotionally. The response of a good friend, on hearing of my miscarriage, was, “Oh, I hope you won’t be too pregnant to come to my wedding.”
My family was great, and after a few days I flew back to my job. The hospital had asked if I would take part in a survey about my miscarriage experience, in the hope that it could improve its services. I was delighted to agree: I would have been really happy to express my thoughts and feelings. We’ll contact you in a few weeks, they said. But they never did. Some months later they wrote to say that, as my due date had just passed, their health visitor would like to call to see how my new baby and I were getting on. I wrote back to tell them that this wouldn’t be necessary.
We did try, but I didn’t get pregnant again. All the tests could come up with was “unexplained secondary infertility”. Colleagues and friends becoming pregnant cut me to the core. I really wanted a baby.
My partner moved halfway around the world. Our relationship ended. My longing for a baby also ended. It just faded away with time.
It’s 20 years since I first noticed the spotting. How do I feel now? I am not sorry I was once pregnant and miscarried. It was one of my many life experiences that have made me who I am. More emotional support at the time would have been welcome. How would being a single mother have worked for me and my child? I cannot answer this, but I do know that being a lone parent was never something I would have wished for. This might sound callous, but, looking back and weighing everything up, I am now glad I lost my baby.
My husband and I grieved quietly, in private, not really talking about it with anyone, not even each other
My husband and I, after what seemed like an age of trying and medical help, found out I was pregnant with our first child. We were hopeful, nervous and excited. Everything went according to plan. We were fortunate to have a healthy, strong son in our arms who filled our hearts with love.
The second time we knew the drill – the medication I would need to take, the difficult side effects I would endure – but were safe in the knowledge that there was a good chance it would work. We were lucky compared with so many other couples. I became pregnant quickly.
Then, at nine weeks, I had some bleeding. The midwife told me it’s common and to hang tight. Then I had some more bleeding, bright red, unwanted. I found someone to mind our son, and my husband and I went to our maternity hospital. I met a junior doctor who scanned me and couldn’t find a heartbeat, but couldn’t be sure. We had to leave, knowing in all likelihood we had lost our baby. We were in limbo. We were to wait for a call to book an internal scan.
It was coming close to Christmas; hospitals were busy. There was no appointment until December 29th, 10 days away. We were left, bleeding, losing our baby, grieving yet hoping because nobody could utter the word miscarriage to us.
My husband kept the show on the road through Christmas. I was alternating between numbness, anger and uncontrollable tears. And guilt. Guilt that this was my fault. Guilt that we were so lucky to have a healthy, happy child when some struggle to conceive at all. Guilt that I failed our family.
Between Christmas and New Year we returned for the internal scan. There was no heartbeat. Now finally, those words, “You’ve had a miscarriage,” 20 days after I first started to bleed. I had three options: wait and let nature take its course, take some tablets (which I heard was excruciating) or have surgery. We opted for surgery. “Great. I’ll book you in for five days’ time, if there’s a slot,” they said. I refused to leave. I had been left in limbo for 20 days; I wasn’t waiting five more. I camped out in the consulting room until the junior doctor caved, not quite sure what to do with this furious, immovable, devastated woman.
I had surgery that day. We tried to distract ourselves, planning a trip away with our little boy, ice cream in Dún Laoghaire, searching for the Gruffalo in Marlay Park, anything but what we were going through. The procedure was completed, our little, much-loved baby was removed from my body, and we could grieve.
I remember the anaesthetist was pregnant. I felt sorry for her – it was a difficult place to work during your own pregnancy – until I encountered her abrupt, brisk approach. “Did you not know that someone with PCOS – polycystic ovary syndrome – should take 8mcg of folic acid, not 4mcg, to reduce the risk of miscarriage?” No, I did not. “Did you really continue to work while miscarrying?” Yes, I did. I didn’t know I could take sick leave for this. The guilt was greater than ever.
My husband and I grieved quietly, in private, not really talking about it with anyone, not even each other. We were lucky that I fell pregnant again very quickly and that, despite being a nervous wreck, all went very well. There was still guilt, of course. People would say, “Ah, your second, how wonderful,” and I would have to stop myself from saying, “Well, second baby but third pregnancy.” I didn’t want to forget but also didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.
Now I am pregnant again, without intervention, and all is well. This is my third child (hopefully) but fourth pregnancy, and I still grieve for the second little one we lost. I remember due dates, the date I first noticed I was miscarrying, and the date of the surgery. I remember it all, and it still hurts. I can’t imagine what people are going through when they can’t conceive, or have multiple miscarriages, or experience a stillbirth or any other of the array of terribly sad things that can happen to women and couples. We are fortunate, my husband and I, but it’s still sad for us too, and that’s okay.
We lost friends, as we were not in a position to tell them how we were and they didn’t ask
We emigrated from Dublin in 1986 to Brisbane, pregnant with our first child. We welcomed our first daughter in 1987. Two years later we were expecting our second. The pregnancy went well, the baby due on April 17th. At my hospital check-up on April 6th they could not find a heartbeat, and I was told my baby had died.
I was put in a room away from mothers with live babies, and they told me that the younger nurses would not be sent in to look after me, as they would get upset. I asked for a Caesarean but was told I had to give birth naturally. It was horrendous knowing that after labour our baby would be born dead.
We were grief-stricken. We had no family in Brisbane and we felt like aliens from another planet. An Irish friend helped us, and Australians we knew were wonderful. People in Ireland didn’t know what to say. We lost friends, as we were not in a position to tell them how we were and they didn’t ask. Family were equally reticent, except for my mother; I wrote to tell her what it was like, and she kept in touch by phone.
We sent our son’s ashes back to Glasnevin to be with my father, as we didn’t know if we would stay in Australia and we didn’t want him on his own in Brisbane if we returned to Dublin. We went on to have four more children who all know about their brother Rory, who was born and died in 1989.
This year, while back in Ireland, I retrieved his ashes from Glasnevin and brought him back to Brisbane to be with me. His ashes are beside me, and he will join me when it is my time to go. My two Irish friends in Brisbane had sons in 1989 too, and it has been very hard to watch their boys start school, make their communion and so on. It gives me a view, though, of what my son would have been doing throughout his life. Stillbirths are still happening, and I hope that research will limit this heartbreak for future mothers and fathers.
I was sent for an ultrasound to be told it was a possible ectopic pregnancy. I couldn’t believe we were going through all this again
I’m 25 years old. When I was 19 I fell pregnant. It was such a shock to me and my partner, as we were only dating a few months. I started bleeding at seven weeks, and I was told we had experienced a miscarriage. My heart melted. We were after finally getting our head around the fact that we were having a baby, only to be told we weren’t. I cannot explain the emptiness and the sadness.
After I miscarried my monthlies totally stopped. I was 2½ years without a period. When they returned we decided to try for a baby. After another year and a half we got our positive pregnancy test. We were so happy but so nervous. A few weeks into the pregnancy I started bleeding. I was sent for an ultrasound to be told it was a possible ectopic pregnancy. I couldn’t believe we were going through all this again. The doctors decided to keep me in hospital that night and give me an injection the following morning to completely end the pregnancy.
That morning came around and they sent me for a scan before the injection; there in front of us on the screen was our baby’s heartbeat. They could not give me the injection because of the heartbeat, so it was just a waiting game to see how everything went. I was in and out of hospital for weeks on end, being told that it was a 50/50 chance of my baby being okay. After two months the doctors finally told us that we were safe and things looked good for our baby. We were so relieved yet still so worried. Our beautiful girl was born October 6th, and she is now two years old.
The doctor seemed nice. Tall, with nice olive skin and lovely clean nails. Lie back, madame, he said
Paris, September 2013. It was a bitterly cold day. A cold day to go for your first scan, but that did not matter to me as I made my way down Avenue de l’Opéra in my new black coat with diamond buttons. I had waited 11 weeks. The pain of the two miscarriages was still with me. The pain of being woken up with darts of agony going through you like a knife. The pain of waking up having forgotten what had happened, only to be reminded that you did not have a bump any more.
The doctor seemed nice. Tall, with nice olive skin and lovely clean nails. Lie back, madame, he said as I made myself as comfortable as I could on the industrial tissue placed beneath me. I thought of home, of running through bluebells, of swimming in the deep waters of the river near my parents’ house. I could feel my pulse jumping in my neck.
“The prognosis for this pregnancy is precarious,” he said, using medical terms I did not understand. The appointment finished abruptly. The doctor never said goodbye. The nurse just handed me a brown folder. “You need to go to see your GP,” she said.
A day later I sat in front of Mme LeBlanc, my local GP. She had the brown envelope open. She wore a gold snake ring with diamonds in the eyes. “Based on the blood test results, madame, your foetus has a chromosomal abnormality. The lungs are surrounded by fluid, which will expand.” She paused and looked at me. “If you have this baby at full term, it will either not live or be handicapped. But it is not likely that you will get to that stage. As the fluid grows, it will compromise the organs and crush them.” The tears fell out of my eyes. I felt a pain in my heart. “If you make it to term you could elect to have surgery on the baby. It is unlikely, however, that you would both live. So you would have to decide. Decide who should have a life.”
I could feel myself shaking. “You have two options,” she said to me, impatient at my emotion. Clearly, she had missed the empathy class at medical school. “You can have a medical abortion before 14 weeks, as it is the best path, medical and managed. Or you have a full delivery after 14 weeks.” And what if I don’t? “The choice is yours, madame, but medically unethical with the information we have.”
I got a taxi home. Sinéad O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2U came on the radio as we raced down the Seine. At each weekly scan the fluid was expanding. I fell apart. At 28 weeks the fluid showed signs of regressing. I went to London for an amniocentesis, to develop a postbirth care plan. I could see the needle on the monitor, slowly going into the waters holding my child. By week 34 the fluid had regressed more. The genetic test came back negative. There was no chromosomal anomaly after all. By week 38 the fluid was completely gone. I lost myself during this journey, but where there is life there is hope. Saoirse started school in September 2019.
Leaving our small baby in a tiny coffin in the ground was the hardest thing we've ever done
On March 13th this year, my partner and I arrived at the Coombe to see our little baby for the third time at our 20-week scan. Over the last few months our lives and perspectives for the future had shifted forever. Little did we know that when he appeared on the screen that day, we would see that our little baby had passed away.
Two days later I was induced, and Alex was delivered in one of the bereavement rooms at the Coombe. He was small but totally perfect. We were encouraged to spend time with him in hospital, and brought him home for a night before he was buried in the Angels Plot at Glasnevin. I read a letter I wrote and we had some music.
Leaving our small baby in a tiny coffin in the ground was the hardest thing we've ever done. As a mother who has just given birth, your body is producing milk and screaming at you to look after and protect this little baby that you have to leave behind.
The staff at the Coombe were extraordinary. We were guided sensitively and respectfully by the dedicated bereavement team through a process that no-one is prepared for. They treated Alex with such dignity and respect. I am so grateful for this, and think a lot about so many women and families who have not had this support.
We are really lucky to have a wonderful network of friends and family who have sat with us, listened to us and supported us over the last few months. On mother's day, a friend rang the doorbell and quietly dropped in a bunch of flowers before heading home with another bunch for his wife. These acts of kindness and understanding are immeasurable. But, there are also friends who know what happened and who have never mentioned a thing. This is hard; our little baby existed, and we have been through such a sad time. My advice to others is even if you don’t know what to say, you can at least acknowledge what has happened – a simple “thinking of you” will do.
We have had to recalibrate over the last few months. While I am happy for all my friends who have had healthy babies, it is also a constant reminder about Alex. After everything, I was terrified that if I stopped feeling sad, both I and the world would forget about Alex. I now know that I will never forget him, and he will always be in my thoughts. I don’t cry as much now, but I know there is still a long road ahead.