September is month of birthdays in my family - me, my mom, my sister, my elder son who's turned four... and my younger son who was stillborn.
Until that day, 15 September last year, I hadn't given much thought to what that word meant - "stillbirth". One year later, I have sadly learnt too much about it. Stillbirth is defined as the death of a baby in the womb after a gestation period of 28 weeks. A shockingly high number of pregnancies end up in stillbirth -- according to The Lancet, it's roughly 1 in every 300 pregnancies in developed countries like UK, US and Australia and a lot higher in the developing world.
But despite theses alarmingly high numbers, it remains a topic that is rarely discussed outside of the circle of unfortunate parents who have suffered the loss. For us parents who lose a baby this way, it is an experience of soul-crushing pain. It leads to days and nights of confused emotions -- sorrow, anger, guilt, shame, failure.
"I did not believe that it was even in the realm of the possible that my baby, who had been in my womb for eight months, could be gone."
When the doctor told me that they couldn't find the heart-beat of my baby, I said, "Ok, so look again." I did not believe that it was even in the realm of the possible that my baby, who had been in my womb for eight months, could be gone. The doctor then held my hand and said "I'm sorry... your baby has died." I have no memory of the next few hours immediately after this pronouncement.
There are other such dark and out-of-body experiences I had in the hours and days that followed. I gave birth to my lifeless son on 17 September, two days after the day he had died.
One year on, I have realised that I can't make sense of any of this. It defies everything I know about life and death. And yet, it is real. My baby was real too. I called him many silly, funny names. He loved it when I ate noodles. When he started kicking, he did it like clockwork every morning. Until that day when suddenly and without any warning -- he stopped.
I now know some other mothers who've experienced this loss. Each one of them still feels that magical motherly love for their baby who they didn't get to nurture. They still remember their baby through the memories of them in the womb.
A few decades back, parents were not usually offered the opportunity to see their stillborn baby because it was believed that this would minimise their psychological trauma. However in the late 1970s and early 1980s this practice changed in most parts of the world.
"In those few precious moments that I spent with my son, I felt the same gush of love and pride that any mother does after giving birth."
This was largely because of outcry from bereaved parents. It is now a standard practice to encourage parents to meet and say farewell to their babies; and for stillborn babies to be handling like live-born babies, deserving of respect and tenderness. It has now been well established that spending time with her child has a more positive psychological outcome for the mother in the long term.
I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to meet my baby. In those few precious moments that I spent with my son, I felt the same gush of love and pride that any mother does after giving birth. I am grateful that parents who experienced this pain many years before me took the brave step of hoping and asking for change.
And now it is my turn - to hope for a change.
For a few weeks after losing my baby, I completely shut myself up socially. After weeks of seclusion, I started finding the strength to take steps in getting out into the "real world" and started interacting with my broader circle of friends and acquaintances -- all sensitive and well-meaning people.
Of all the people I have now met and interacted with in the last few months, only a few have acknowledged my son. Some have sympathised about the "unfortunate situation" but with most there has been an awkward silence.
Why this silence?
I think it is because this is an unnatural situation -- death before birth. So most well-meaning people find it easier to stay silent rather than risk saying something inappropriate.
I also know that until recently, I myself have never really known how to handle interacting with someone who has suffered a pregnancy loss. I therefore understand that this awkward silence comes not from a lack of empathy but from confusion on responding to this tragedy.
When someone who we love -- a family member or friend dies -- we talk about them and share stories about them with each other. This is our way to honour their memory. Talking about a deceased person is dark but it's also healing.
However when an unborn baby passes away, there is stony silence.
This silence makes it an invisible tragedy, leading to various misconceptions. Most people think that a baby who was born without a breath was not a proper entity or a tangible part of the family, since he didn't spend any real time with the family. So the loss is minimised because it's treated as an "incident" rather than as the death of a loved one.
I still find it hard not to be upset when someone says something like, "You will have another baby and then all will be forgotten like a bad dream." Any parent will know that one child doesn't substitute another -- even one whose cries you didn't hear.
"Stillbirth is a lot more common than we socially recognise. So let's find the strength to talk about it, to give tight hugs to the parents who are hurting and, most importantly, to honour the babies who are gone."
There is a vicious cycle of misconceptions and silence around stillbirths. I hope that we are able to break the cycle -- by breaking the silence.
I speak for every bereaved mother I know -- our babies who didn't get to see this world are still our babies and they will always be a part of our families. Their journey in this world was brutally brief but we love them dearly and miss them every day. A mother's love for her child starts long before the birth; often even before the conception.
A few months back, a friend said to me "I am so sorry to hear about your little boy. I send him my love and prayers." I said my most heartfelt thanks to my friend. It means a lot to me that my baby is acknowledged; that he is loved just as he would have if he were born alive.
Stillbirth is a lot more common than we socially recognise. So let's find the strength to talk about it, to give tight hugs to the parents who are hurting and, most importantly, to honour the babies who are gone.
One year on today, I have realised that acceptance will be an ongoing journey for me. In this last year what has helped me the most is when someone has acknowledged and honoured my baby. Like when my mother refers to him as her grandson. Like when a colleague sent me an email at Christmas saying, "I lit a candle for your little boy at church."
This also helps me find the courage to talk about my own experiences with my baby. That is my way of honouring his memory. It is painful but it is also beautiful -- a contradiction I don't question anymore.
I am a fiercely private person so opening my heart so publicly was a hard decision for me. I decided to write about my experience with only one objective -- to share the yearning of bereaved mothers for acknowledgement of their babies. Living life without one of her children is any mother's worst fear. She should not also have to live with the fear that her child will be forgotten. So if there is one thing that anyone can do for a bereaved mother is to acknowledge the memory of her lost child.
Joan Didion wrote, "Grief, when it comes, is nothing like what we expect it to be." For me this has been profoundly true. So today -- on what should have been my baby's first birthday - I feel nothing like what I expected. Of course I miss him with all my heart and soul but more than that I feel proud of being his mother.