Trigger warning: This piece includes the author's descriptions of experiencing a miscarriage.
I was really dreading Monday.
We’d had the most perfect weekend; it was early May, 75 degrees in Philadelphia, and our Sunday was wide open. I was craving donuts, which I attributed to the babe growing in my belly, so my husband, toddler, and I set off in pursuit of a treat. I’m not known for my sense of direction and, true to form, I miscalculated the bakery’s location—a 15-minute walk turned into 45 minutes. But it didn’t matter—I had beautiful weather, a baby coming in the fall, and my boys, Tim and Clay.
We stuffed ourselves with the fluffiest donuts from a hole-in-the-wall Italian bakery (the best kind) and slowly made our way back home, stopping on a tiny street so Clay could set up his toy cars and reimagine his most recent construction scene.
I went to bed with a full heart—but a wistful one too. I wished for one more weekend day, for the monotony and structure of the work week to stay away for a bit. “Please, not an ordinary Monday,” I thought, as I drifted off to sleep, my hand on my 17-week belly.
When I woke up the next morning, I lay in bed for a while, gearing myself up for the day. Sleep cobwebs were heavy in my brain and I stared at the ceiling, hearing Tim and Clay clanging around downstairs.
I suddenly felt a familiar expulsion, like the start of my period. I threw off my sheets and examined it with my finger: Brown and rust red.
l ran to the bathroom, hitting the toilet seat just as a gush of liquid and blood followed. I screamed for Tim.
I remember the knot in my stomach. My heart beating in my head. The thin vein of panic in my voice as I tried to explain to the midwives’ office what was happening.
Tim called his mom. “Mom, there's something wrong with the baby. Can you come watch Clay?”
I was in denial... There wasn’t anything wrong with the baby. No one had said there was anything wrong with the baby. There couldn’t be anything wrong with the baby.
A few weeks prior, my midwife had a hard time finding the baby’s heartbeat at my appointment. The relief that followed when I saw the heartbeat flicker was immediate. As I recounted it to a friend, I felt lucky. “You feel like ‘Oh no, it’s happening, the unthinkable is actually happening to me,” she said. “Exactly,” I replied. “It’s such a relief that everything’s okay.”
I was 17 weeks and 2 days pregnant. Past the scary first trimester of tests and blood draws (all testing came back beautifully) and into the second, where first kicks are felt, fears of miscarriage subside, and morning sickness disappears.
Tim and I made our way to the hospital, the same one where I’d birthed my son just over two years before. As we checked in, I was self-conscious about the size of my belly. It was barely perceptible, especially compared to those of the other women checking in, round and full. They looked at me in confusion, then away as they realized I wasn’t really supposed to be there.
I lay on a stiff bed as a nurse moved the doppler over my stomach again and again. “I’m not getting the heartbeat, so I’m going to have the doctor perform an ultrasound,” she said calmly through her N-95 mask. My chest felt tight, and my heart was numb. I wished for my ordinary Monday back; I’ve never wished as hard for the mundane as I did on that bed.
The resident came in. She was petite with glowing skin and a warm, strong voice. I felt cold jelly on my stomach, heard the ultrasound machine whirring. Her eyes were on the screen, prodding my belly this way and that. I saw the silhouette of my baby—his sweet round head, his little knees—and I knew. He wasn’t moving, wasn’t doing the telltale dance of a baby swimming in the womb.
The resident looked at me with sorrowful eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t think your baby is alive any longer.”
“Okay,” I whispered. Tears made my vision blurry. Tim held my hand tight and stroked my head. “Are you going to run it by the doctor?” I asked. She was a resident. It could be a mistake, I told myself. Perhaps she overlooked something that a more seasoned medical professional would see. “I will,” she said, exiting the room quietly. I lay my head back on the pillow and closed my eyes, salty tears dropping onto my hospital gown one at a time.
When she returned with the news that the doctor was in agreement with her prognosis, I asked her to run the ultrasound again. My voice was apologetic, as if I was inconveniencing her to check for signs of life from the baby I carried. “Of course,” she said. Jelly on my belly again, the baby’s profile lighting up the screen. She showed me how the lack of color on the screen pointed to no blood flow; how no flickers meant that the heart wasn’t beating and delivering vital blood to the organs.
From there, it was a flurry of decisions. How did we want to proceed? D&C or induction? Go home and come back? I felt assaulted by the questions, asking my husband Tim what to do, he as helpless as I was.
I felt like I tossed a coin, unsure of what was best, but ultimately decided to be induced because I didn’t have to leave the hospital and go home. That seemed like torture.
Tim and I got situated in our hospital room. An OB came in, a familiar face because I saw her when I was pregnant with Clay. Only her eyes were visible above her mask, but they looked right into mine and she said, fervently, “I’m so sorry that you have to experience this loss, especially at a time when the world feels so hostile.” She turned the ultrasound screen away from me and probed my belly for the last time, looking for any signs of life. She asked her resident to confirm he saw the same thing, and he did. They inserted pills into my vagina and delivered medication into my IV to begin the process of labor, 23 weeks too early.
Through my shock, I felt a deep, frantic desire to get pregnant again. I had visions of going home and immediately trying to make another baby. Time felt like it was ticking too fast, and I told myself that if I wasn’t going to have a baby come October 2020, surely I would be pregnant again by then.
My nurses were angels. Equal parts compassionate and self-deprecating, they were the warmth that I needed on this very cold day.
Tim and I tried to find a show to pass the hours it took to induce the delivery; everything felt too depressing or too lighthearted. We landed on David Chang’s “Ugly Delicious.”
My twin sister called with the news of the gender. I had given her my test results login a few weeks prior and she’d been carrying this news with her, happy to hold such a sweet secret. Tim and I hadn’t planned on finding out the gender, but in this situation, we decided we wanted her to tell us. It would be a softer blow hearing it from family. “A boy!” she announced with triumph, tinged with sadness.
A few things stand out in my mind during those hours of waiting. The gentle touch of a resident’s hand on my leg as he explained another medication to me. My nurse coming to my bedside during a quiet moment with tears in her eyes, apologizing for the pain that was stabbing my heart, for the unfairness of it all. A woman passing my room, cursing through a slew of contractions. The joyful sound of a newborn crying a few rooms down.
My body started to cramp, not unlike period cramps, which progressively became more intense. I’d been warned that it could take a while for my body to birth this boy. After a few hours, I clutched the hospital bed railing, contractions tightening, and prayed for it to happen quickly. I felt a pop and a gush, looked between my legs, and called my nurses. “I’m bleeding,” I said into the intercom, “and I feel like I need to push.” The head nurse came in casually—I’d only been induced a few hours before, surely too recently for anything to happen. Then suddenly a flurry of doctors, medical terminology being thrown around, and a bright light turned on.
One of my nurses gave me her hand, and I squeezed it through contractions until I’m sure her fingers went numb. Tim stroked my forehead, and I began crying. Not the quiet tears of earlier, but painful, gut-wrenching sobs. “Not yet, not yet,” I wanted to yell. “I’m not ready!” I wanted my baby boy safe in my body.
I pushed out my son effortlessly at 11:08pm on May 4, 2020. Instead of a baby’s wails filling the air, it was my own. As one of the nurses inserted her hand into my uterus, searching for leftover tissues or clots, I screamed. It was animalistic, foreign. It was the only physical pain that felt like it matched the anguish of my shattered heart.
They asked if we wanted to see him. I’d been unsure, but decided I wanted to. My nurse laid my baby next to my head, a tiny head, feet and fingers, eyes forever closed. Tim broke down for the first time, his face streaked with tears. I nodded to indicate I was ready for them to take him away.
I told Tim, days later, that I felt guilty for not touching the baby, not holding him. He told me that through his tears, he could see my face looking at our tiny baby and it was filled with peace, the only peace of the day.
The following hours, we had to make quick decisions—genetic testing and cremation, burial and consent forms. Nothing prepares you for that.
We returned home the next afternoon to our darling 2.5 year old. Our only physical evidence of a baby being born was a tiny stamp of his feet. Our city row home was filled with flowers, our doorbells ringing endlessly with cookie deliveries, dinners, pound cake. Our inboxes were filled with Caviar and GrubHub gift cards. One friend arranged for coffee and an oat milk chai latte, our favorite drinks, to be picked up the next morning. Friends sent toys and books for Clay. My family sent me an emerald earring, May’s birthstone. I’d told my sister that my arms longed to hold one of my son’s stuffed animals at night when I lay in bed, but ever the zookeeper, my son wouldn’t give any of his up. So, our friend sent a lion she crocheted, weighted so that when I held it against me, it felt substantial.
As I went through the process of telling friends and family that I was no longer pregnant, stories poured in of similar experiences. Though the next few weeks were heartbreaking, I’ve never felt more surrounded, more beloved.
We named our son Leo, which means “lion.” A tiny name for a tiny babe. My Leo, my second son, my little lion.
The past eight months have been an unexpected mix of heartache and joy, stress and hope. My journey to become pregnant again hasn’t been easy and we’re in the middle of seeing fertility doctors and learning the language of secondary infertility, which is the medical term for mamas who have previously had a healthy birth but have trouble getting or staying pregnant the next time around.
I had a second miscarriage, in the early days of 2021, and am bleeding as I type this. Thankfully, it’s far less traumatic than my first—my bloodwork was poor from the beginning and my doctor found an infection in my uterus, which likely began shortly after Leo was born. I started bleeding a week after my pregnancy test came back positive, but this time around, I feel optimistic. If my infected, inflamed uterus could house a baby for a short time, surely my healthy uterus can carry a baby full-term. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. I’m seeing a fertility acupuncturist weekly and nourishing my body with warm soups, vibrant veggies, and lots of supplements.
I think about Leo every day. I think about getting pregnant nearly every minute. It sometimes hurts to see full, round bellies. But sometimes, it’s healing and hopeful—in fact, I asked a friend to send me a selfie of her growing bump today.
I was certain I’d be pregnant again by now, but life rarely goes according to plan, doesn't it? I’m sad for our present situation, but I have hope for the future. We bought a fig tree in memory of Leo. It’s in our bedroom and faces out toward the sun. For now, I’m here, rooted on earth with my boys, Tim and Clay—and Leo, my little lion, my precious son, up in the sky.
Many friends and family members asked how to best support and show their love. Of course, every parent is different, but below are some the things I found (and still find) most helpful while grieving a miscarriage.
Tips for Those Supporting Someone Who’s Experienced Miscarriage
- Use the baby’s name. If they’ve publicly shared a name, chances are that they’ll feel supported when you use his or her name, rather than “your angel” or “the baby you lost.”
- Let the mama know you’d love to hear the birth story if she wants to share it. Some don’t—it’s incredibly personal. But others, like me, are verbal processors and sharing it helps keep the memory alive.
- Keep visits short & sweet, unless you’re asked to stay longer. It’s lovely to be supported, but can be exhausting to see all sad eyes (punctuated even more by masks these COVID-19 days). Stay for a short time, giving the parents an easy out if they’re not feeling up to it.
- Reach out on anniversaries of the miscarriage, the due date, or holidays. A few friends reached out monthly for a while, on the 4th of every month, and it was sweet to know Leo was being thought of. My sister embroidered me a lion this Christmas to remind me that Leo was never forgotten.
- Don’t expect her to bounce back linearly. While I feel like I’ve returned to a relatively normal disposition, I still think of Leo all the time and some days are harder than others. Ask her questions about how she’s doing that particular day, not in general. Grief comes in ebbs and flows.
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Update 2/24: After several of you expressed the desire to connect with other readers about your own experiences, we created the space to do that in our Facebook Group.