Emma Hansen is 39 weeks and 6 days pregnant with her first child when she wakes in the morning and feels something is wrong. An ultrasound reveals that the baby has died in the womb and the next day, on her due date, she delivers her stillborn son.
While all of my book reviews are influenced by my own opinions and experiences, it would be impossible for me to talk about this book without talking about my own loss. I’ve been pregnant four times; I have two daughters. My second miscarriage came at sixteen weeks pregnant. A stillbirth is usually categorized as a loss at 20 weeks or more of pregnancy. So my story is different from Emma’s, just as every story of grief and loss is different. But there were many, many points in this book and in the story of motherhood laid out here that were very familiar to me. Not to mention that Emma delivers her son Reid in Vancouver Women’s Hospital in the spring of 2015, the same hospital where only weeks before I brought my firstborn into the world with a lot of uncertainties surrounding her health.
The book begins with the discovery of Reid’s death and his delivery. Because Hansen is at full-term, she is given labour-inducing drugs and is required to deliver her baby. It’s a tragedy I can hardly imagine. I vividly recall the options given to me in the hospital when it was confirmed that our baby had died. One of them was to go home and wait for labour to continue naturally and the thought of walking around with my baby’s body within me was one I couldn’t handle. Since I wasn’t as far along in my pregnancy, I was given the option of surgery, which I took and am thankful for.
It is an inexplicable feeling to carry death inside you when the very concept of pregnancy is so explicitly connected to life.Emma Hansen, Still (pg. 37)
From this devastating loss, we follow Emma and her husband Aaron in primarily the first year after Reid’s loss. Hansen is paralyzed by grief, struggling to move on in her life where she should have been experience new motherhood. Wanting to conceive again, she deals with a myriad of physical issues and the couple embarks on infertility treatments. For some, it might be easy to judge Emma and Aaron here and question why they weren’t willing to wait. I can recall my own doctor gently telling me to consider if, emotionally, I needed time before we started trying to get pregnant again and passing me the phone number of a psychologist. I also know that a new pregnancy can feel like the only solution to a heartbreak of this sort and I know how lucky I am that both of my miscarriages were quickly followed by healthy pregnancies.
There were a lot of pages I marked and lines I noted throughout the book because over and over in Hansen’s story I thought, Yes, this is what it’s like. The pain of watching your loved ones mourn with you but your inability to deal with their grief on top of your own. The pain of the milestones that pass but also the pain as they become less frequent and your baby’s existence moves further into the past. The fumbling responses of those around – some loving, others ignorant. Even the relief I felt that the friend whose baby was due closest to mine gave birth to girl because my baby was a boy, so that I didn’t have to watch her child grow and always think of my own lost one. Over and over again, Hansen expresses so much of what I felt, even when our individual experiences were very different.
This, I think, is the purpose of the book. Stillbirth and miscarriage are still taboo subjects in our culture. While I see some shift in this in recent years, as a society we struggle to know how to mourn the loss of a life that was never lived. We don’t have rituals or traditions around it. We recommend women not announce pregnancies until the “safety” of the second trimester but are we really telling women to keep their grief to themselves? And what of women like Hansen, like myself, who lose babies later in pregnancy, after the point when we’ve been told things will be okay?
I start to wonder if we can experience healing through our stories. We all have a story to tell, after all, and we all learn from other people’s stories too. Even though these stories can’t make our losses okay, is it possible they can bring meaning to our suffering?Emma Hansen, Still (pg. 75)
This too has been my experience. The story is painful but it begs to be told. I will forever be grateful to the friends who made space for me to talk and talk in the weeks following my miscarriage. And when I talked, others did too. Telling our stories makes us feel less alone; it tells others that they are not alone either. Stillbirth is rare but also more common than we might think. Statistics tell us that as many as 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage. These are not uncommon stories and yet so many women feel completely alone when it happens to them. The grief and loss of fathers is also something barely explored and I appreciated that Hansen touches on this too. The book is her story, not her husband’s, but their stories are entwined and she acknowledges and shares her grief where she’s able.
When Emma and Aaron do become pregnant again, her pregnancy is now high risk. She delivers a healthy baby boy but within days is back in the hospital, her newborn in the NICU, struggling for breath. Again, this is the same NICU where my daughter spent her first day of life. I read this section of the book holding my breath, the terrible unfairness of it. We want to believe that tragedy doesn’t strike twice, that we can somehow become inoculated against it when the unthinkable has already happened and yet we still know there are no answers.
The debilitating pain has subsided and memories have softened a bit around the corners. The wound is still there, though; it just looks different now. Not quite a scar yet, but no longer gaping, raw, and exposed. It will always be present in some form, I imagine.Emma Hansen, Still (pg. 197)
These too are words almost like ones I’ve used. I know I’ve described my own grief as a wound, not so raw anymore, not so gaping, but painful when poked and never quite vanished.