After Pregnancy Loss: How to Move Forward Without Moving On

brent stoller pregnancy loss moving on forward

After enduring two miscarriages, three rounds of IVF, and a 1-in-500 chromosomal condition that complicated it all, my wife, Emily, got pregnant for a third time.

This was supposed to be our fairytale ending. This was supposed to be our rainbow. For a while, it looked as though it would be, and we convinced ourselves it was.

We started thinking about names, and pediatricians, and nursery configurations. Around the 16-week mark, once the baby apparently had working ears (according to pregnancy guides), I’d started talking to it in hopes of feeling more like a parent.

Then, at Emily’s 20-week anatomy scan, the doctor said, “We have a problem,” and the world came crashing down on us.

Our baby, whom we subsequently learned was a girl, was the victim of a lethal genetic abnormality—an abnormality that was completely unrelated to our previous issue and that occurs in 1 in 35,000 pregnancies.

And this time, we were the 1.

After we’d suffered through the initial shock and devastation, and had started settling into our new reality, Emily and I finally asked each other:

Should we try again?

This proposition, of course, scared us—what if something goes wrong again? Arguably, though, our biggest roadblock came from our own thoughts and feelings. We worried: If we tried for another child, would we be moving on from or letting go of the child we lost?

Moving on—that’s what you do with jobs and troubled relationships. It’s a phrase that implies leaving something behind, not thinking about it, like you’re done with it forever.

We didn’t want to move on from our unborn daughter. She meant, and will always mean, too much to us.

We didn’t want to move on from our unborn daughter. She meant, and will always mean, too much to us.  Yet we knew we needed to move forward.Yet we knew we needed to move forward.

It’s a subtle, semantic distinction. But, Emily pointed out that it couldn’t be more important.

Moving forward is what we should all aspire to be doing, all the time. It’s how we get stronger, and find happiness, and get to where we want to go. It’s how we make the most of our lives.

And in this instance, moving forward would allow us to resume our journey toward parenthood without carrying the guilt that we were somehow forgetting or trying to replace our little girl—while still carrying her with us in our hearts.

It was important to us not to take it lightly and actually have rituals and practices to make it meaningful. Here are three ways in which we’ve done this.

We Memorialized Our Losses

When Emily and I moved into our townhouse, we removed every living organism from our small outside area—every bush, vine, and blade of grass. We didn’t want one thing out there that we had to take care of.

Now we have two. Three months to the day after losing Emily’s third pregnancy, we planted two plants in front of our home. Each plant has two bulbs, giving us a total of four — one bulb for each of our three losses, and one bulb for hope.

In a short dedication, Emily and I both read a eulogy of sorts in which we spoke to our unborn children. We told them how much they mean to us, how much we love and miss them, and how we will forever cherish them.

Though this ceremony was painful, it was also therapeutic. It was a way to get out what had been bottled up, honor our children’s memory, and move one step closer to acceptance.

These days, there’s a different vibe, a different energy at our front door.

Over the last two-plus years, I’ve thought a lot about our unborn children. Now, I have these tangible reminders of them whenever I leave, and when I come back, and whenever I pick up our unending string of Amazon deliveries. And I actually enjoy watering them.

Sometimes seeing the plants touches old wounds, as you might expect.

But most of the time it gives me comfort, because it reminds me that the children we lost are still here, right where they’re supposed to be—at home, with us.

While we planted plants, we also could’ve written a letter or poem, or hung a picture, or commemorated an anniversary—anything that would help us to clear our minds a little, yet still maintain our connection in a healthy manner.

We Stopped Avoiding Our Grief

Throughout the third round of IVF, the subsequent implantation and the early stages of Emily’s third pregnancy, we listened to a playlist of one of our favorite artists, Joshua Radin.

Every time Emily took a hormone shot, we turned on the music. And every night after dinner, we slid aside our coffee table and danced to it in our living room. It was a way to lighten the mood, and to keep our spirits up and our anxiety manageable.

The struggles of infertility and pregnancy loss are rooted in what you don’t have—a child, or a chance at a child. Yet, in an ironic twist, our struggles with these traumas have taught me to focus on what I do have.Those songs became the soundtrack of that stressful yet special time—a time during which our child-to-be was created and came into our lives.

When that pregnancy was lost, though, we couldn’t go near that playlist. The idea of it, much less the sound of it, seemed unbearable. But as we began contemplating whether or not to try to have another child, we knew we couldn’t keep ignoring it.

We had to tie up our loose ends. The time for avoidance was over. Everything that had been too hard to talk about, or think about, or listen to—we had to confront it. We had to confront every last inch of our grief, so we could absorb it, accept it, and move on from it.

In August, the four-month anniversary of receiving that fatal diagnosis, Emily and I held hands on the couch and hit play on our Joshua Radin playlist.

From the first chord of the first song, I knew it was going to be difficult. But it wasn’t until the second song that I lost it. And as “High and Low” played—a song with lyrics we could’ve been singing to our newborn—I realized Emily had lost it, too.

Every note, every melody washed over me, flooding me with memories of the fun we’d had before, of the moments we’d shared, of how hopeful we’d been.

But these memories weren’t joyous now. They weren’t even bittersweet. They were eerie, even haunting, because I knew how everything would end.

Armed with that 20/20 hindsight, I pictured us dancing months earlier, with smiles on our faces but no rhythm in our feet.

I felt sorry for those two people, for those past versions of Emily and me. For all they’d been through to that point, they still were so innocent, so naive. And they had no idea of the ticking time bomb in their midst.

When the final song finished, Emily and I looked at the ultrasound pictures of our unborn daughter, images that had, to that point, been too much for me to see.

It was an agonizing experience. But it was just as necessary.

Until we dealt with that despair, it was going to linger over us, shading and permeating every thought and moment we had going forward. We had to face it, so we could one day be free of it.

We Got into Gratitude

I think a lot about what was taken from me.

I think about how I’ll never look into my child’s eyes, or hold her hand, or hear her laugh, or kiss her forehead.

I wonder what it would’ve been like to see her roll over, and help her with her homework, and move her into her college dorm.

What would she have looked like? What would she have sounded like? Would she have been blessed with her mother’s smile, or cursed with my chicken legs?

Would she have done gymnastics, or played basketball, or taken up guitar? Who would she have been friends with? What passions would she have pursued, and what music would she have listened to, and what team would she have rooted for?

I don’t know. She’s my daughter, and I’ll never know.

But that’s OK. The struggles of infertility and pregnancy loss are rooted in what you don’t have—a child, or a chance at a child. Yet, in an ironic twist, our struggles with these traumas have taught me to focus on what I do have.

And our daughter gave me plenty. She gave me joy—and hope. She gave me purpose, made me laugh, opened my eyes with wonder.

She inspired me to dream, challenged my (lack of) vulnerability, and filled my heart with a love I have never before experienced.

In other words, she made me a father—something I’d doubted I was ever capable of being.

Emily and I will never forget her, nor could we ever replace her. But I can think of no better way to honor her than doing everything possible to hopefully one day meet her sibling.

You have to find your own path; there is no “right way.” But moving forward from a painful loss in healthy ways can help you prepare your heart and mind for the beautiful possibilities to come.


Contributor

Brent Stoller

Brent Stoller is a writer in Houston. In trying to expand their family, he and his wife, Emily, have endured three pregnancies, three lost pregnancies, and one continuous heartbreak. Yet they still hope to one day hold their own healthy child. For Brent’s hopeful, humorous take on the traumas of infertility and pregnancy loss, visit BrentStoller.com.


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