How I Survived the Guilt of Losing a Baby by Alexis Marie Chute
When I gave birth to my first child, my sense of pride was all encompassing. I couldn’t stop smiling. I could hardly believe that I had made such a beautiful daughter. Every curve of her face was perfect and her seven-and-a-half-pound-frame fit just right in my arms. When my husband texted our family and friends, he wrote, “Alexis did amazing! Both mom and baby are doing great!” Our early visitors were also complementary. “Well done, Mom!” they told me. I felt like Super Woman. Strong. Invincible. The hero!
With all the wonderful affirmations mothers receive for delivering healthy children, it’s no wonder, unfortunately, that bereaved moms experience such inward-focused anguish.
My second experience giving birth was a stark contrast to my first. My husband and I learned – at 25 weeks gestation – that our unborn child would not live beyond the womb. The complications from our son’s cardiac tumor eventually triggered labor. The delivery room was silent that day my stomach tightened with contractions as my baby, Zachary, was born at 30 weeks. He never cried as he emerged into the cool air, and only moved briefly in my arms. I knew Zachary had passed. I kissed and rocked my baby boy; I told him I loved him and held him to my heart. The commentary following Zachary’s death was supportive, but also what you’d expect from our grief-avoidant culture.
In those moments – and in the years that followed – I felt intense shame and guilt. I could not make sense of what happened. Inwardly, I beat myself up with the ‘why’ questions: Why did my body fail me? What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently?
After talking about my loss with my girlfriends, I learned that I was not alone. Many of them had experienced miscarriage, stillbirth, or early infant loss. In our own ways, we all carried the weight of our tragedies on our shoulders, even when, medically, we were not at fault.
It is human nature to crave reason. One of my family members suggested Zachary may have passed because I got pregnant with him shortly after giving birth to my daughter. One girlfriend shared with me that her father guessed her demanding work schedule caused her baby to be stillborn at 38 weeks. When Nancy Kerrigan, two-time figure skating Olympic medalist and current contestant on Dancing With The Stars, recently opened-up about her six miscarriages, I wondered: Had anyone in her life blamed her training regime for her losses? While the words of others can deeply wound, often the most scarring blame-game happens within.
As women, it is ingrained in our societal-predisposition that we are innately knowledgeable and proficient babymakers; our bodies know what to do. Therefore, when Zachary died, I felt like a complete failure. I wondered for so long: “What is wrong with me?” That question unstitched many pieces of my identity and I found myself lost as a mother, woman, and artist. At that time, I believed things happened for a reason. When my family’s nine-months of genetic testing concluded with one simple word – random – I continued to wrestle with self-doubt.
I began to lose faith in my marriage and in God. However, the more intimate loss was the faith and love I could no longer find for myself. When I got pregnant again, I struggled to picture giving birth to a child that lived. I felt like my body was a tomb, not a protective sanctuary for a baby. The fear of another silent delivery room haunted me for months.
When I worried my anxiety would hurt my next child, I tentatively tiptoed into artmaking, among other intentional healing efforts, such as therapy and meditation. After losing Zachary, I had avoided art, terrified of what grief and anguish may subconsciously appear on the canvas. That season of life I call my “Year of Distraction” in which I busied myself with everything but self-care.
In returning to artistic activities – painting, making wood sculpture, dancing around my living room, writing in my journal – I tapped into the right-side of my brain. In contrast to our left-logic-brain, the right thinks abstractly, solves problems creatively, experiments, invents, plays, and more easily goes with the flow. By being in that headspace, I made peace with the answerless ‘why’ questions.
Through storytelling, vulnerability, and creativity, I surrendered to the unapologetic yet beautiful mystery of life. There I found personal hope and freedom, not to mention my wayward identity.
Expressing myself through art gave me a healthy outlet for my pain, rather than storing it inside in a pressure cooker of guilt. It gave me power over how I was feeling in that moment. I did forgive myself for being unable to save Zachary, whether or not I actually needed forgiving. Slowly I began to realize that I could be my own hero, caring for and showing myself kindness and acceptance. Losing a baby was the hardest thing I have ever endured, but when I think back to my delivery room experiences – all four of them now – I appreciate the gift of each and every one.