One Woman’s Journey Through Grief

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. As with the more well-known Breast Cancer Awareness Month (also October), the purpose of this campaign is to make people aware of just how many people are affected and tell personal stories that encourage empathy and action.

Pregnancy loss rates are hard to pinpoint precisely, but some sources estimate that just over 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage — a statistic that doesn’t include other types of loss, like stillbirth or infant death after birth.

On a personal level, this awareness campaign arguably hits pretty close to home: In addition to having friends and family who have known pregnancy or infant loss, I have experienced it, too — four times.

It’s not something I’m silent about. I’ve written about having both a rainbow baby and a sunshine baby — and now, a second rainbow baby.

Every October, I make a point of writing a brief social media post and hashtagging it appropriately. (I usually use #IAm1In4, to express my solidarity with people who have gone through loss and to share with the other 75 percent how likely it is that they know someone like me.) I’ll get many reactions, including comments from people who have been there.

And we all seem to feel sad for a moment, and then thankfully, November 1 arrives.

Except it’s not like that. The grief doesn’t end just because the month in which we publicly recognize it does. The sadness inside isn’t silenced. The feelings can’t be tied up in a neat little hashtag bow, to be reopened next year.

Grief affects every person differently, and every person has a different story to tell within the anthology that is Pregnancy and Infant Loss.

But the longer stories aren’t often told. Like waiting until 12 weeks to announce our pregnancies, we often stick with what’s more emotionally safe. There’s a quiet stigma, an unspoken shame, that comes with being seen as dwelling too much or too long on pregnancy loss in particular.

This is why, when I read my friend and former co-worker Rachael Maier’s new memoir, “Bowing to Light: A Mother’s Journey Through Grief,” I was so struck by her honesty, her raw emotion, her depth of despair — and how much life she poured into a short, 100-page book about losing (and holding onto) a precious loved one.

I felt, from reading the very first page, that this is what we’re often lacking in this space: unashamed and open narratives, told by people willing to selflessly walk us through their grief and unintentionally give us permission to admit our own.

Rachael takes us with her on her journey from pregnancy, to the loss of her daughter at 23 weeks, to the ongoing grieving and healing process. Throughout, she weaves in stories from her childhood and her life before becoming a mom, which is so key to understanding her story — because, after all, who we are is shaped by who we were.

Rachael has a beautifully poetic way with her prose. I came away feeling like I knew Rachael (and myself) better through her story and her relationships with her partner, family, friends, and perhaps most importantly — her connection with Elora, her daughter.

Although her story is so different from mine — and likely different from yours, too — each chapter is so very relatable. I laughed at some parts and cried at others, but the takeaway here is that it’s going to make you feel. And sometimes that looks (and is) ugly and uncomfortable, but I’m a firm believer that it’s always worth the effort.

I sat down with Rachael after reading her book and asked her about the sharing of her story.

First of all, congratulations on the book. Can you share why you wrote it?

This isn’t just my story. It’s about honoring my daughter Elora and connecting with people, and that was the whole purpose. I believe there’s healing and hope in seeing a version of your story told, in hearing from someone who has been where you are and come out the other side… It means so much to be seen and hear people call you a mom, whether or not you have a baby to hold.

It’s also been healing for me to talk about hard things and allow myself to be uncomfortable. I think the social narrative is to hold back on talking about loss so as not to compound the sadness, but I think most mothers who have experienced loss know that you’re not going to make us more sad than we already are — it’s just not possible. I’m not protecting anyone by keeping my story to myself and it could actually help to get it out there.

You talk about how, after your surgery, you asked the surgeon if she saw your daughter, Elora. She answered by talking about her medical findings, which clearly wasn’t what you wanted or needed in that moment.

Going through that experience, I felt like a number, shuffled in and shuffled out. It’s already such a highly emotional and stressful thing, but it seems like hospital staff don’t take any time to understand what the situation is — and I understand because mine was probably one procedure among 10 others that day. I don’t think anyone could do that job and show up fully with their heart every day. It would just be impossible to get through a single day of that kind of work. But still…

What do you think needs to change?

Something I thought about afterwards: Why isn’t it that, when someone gets assigned a surgeon or doctor — why aren’t they also paired with a social worker or therapist? It’s just so compartmentalized, and that’s a big miss. On my aftercare instructions, there was one small paragraph about emotional state that didn’t even really consider the complex emotions a person may feel.

Two things I really feel like need to change are one, looking at each individual holistically — taking mental health along with physical health into account — and two, changing the language that’s used. I actually rewrote the entire aftercare instruction sheet with the intention to send it to the clinic so they can think more about conscious language. It’s what I would have liked to read instead of the same cold technical jargon given to everyone.

How has this affected your relationships?

I hear a lot of couples will split up right after something like this happens because it’s just too stressful, and it can also put pressure on and reveal (preexisting) cracks in the relationship.

Kevin and I have been working with a grief counselor and learning about grief and how it affects people differently. Men, especially, may not show it or talk about it. It may look more like getting busy with work or focusing on something. It may not look like Kevin’s sad, but I don’t have the judgement I would if I wasn’t aware that he’s working through it in his own way.

Just having that education has really helped our relationship, even though the loss affected me on a much more visceral level. It’s so important to get that support, I think, and have an expert guiding you through and understanding your emotions and your partner’s way of dealing with things, so there aren’t extra layers of resentment or blame.

How has life changed since putting your book out there?

I felt like once I pressed publish, it would be a weight lifted and it would be done, and I would move on with my life.

Instead, what happened is, all these people are reaching out to me about this and I’m responding to them and, after months of being pretty internal and just putting it all on the page, people are having conversations with me about it. I wasn’t ready for that, and it was a little overwhelming.

I imagine it’s kind of like after just giving birth. And you feel like, that was a lot — and then all these people start coming in the room, with balloons and gifts. I felt like it was necessary, because it represents a milestone in my healing process. I can’t help but compare it to a birth, even though I haven’t really had that explicit experience.

Women [about to give birth] feel like I can’t do it, this baby is never going to come out of me because I can’t possibly push through this pain. And that’s kind of how I felt about this book — I mean, it was done a month and a half before it was released.

And now that it’s out there, I’m still wanting to protect Elora from any harm, from anything bad happening to her and it’s still that instinct — that she’s so precious to me and this book is so precious to me and I don’t want her to get hurt.

A mother’s instinct.

Yes. As the mother, I had to go through all these painful moments to make it happen, and now I can trust that it will be fine and I kind of did my duty.

“Bowing to Light” is one of the most powerful memoirs I’ve read in a long time. If you’ve gone through losses of your own, I encourage you to read it — no matter what your individual circumstances look like, I truly believe you’ll feel what it is you need to feel as you follow Rachael’s journey from grief to hope, from birth to rebirth.

Above all, remember that you aren’t alone. Reach out to people around you and share more than a hashtag. With 1 in 4 pregnancies ending in miscarriage — plus other types of loss — so many of us are in need of the healing that comes from shedding the stigma and connecting with others by sharing and hearing these journeys and the complex emotions that come with them.

And if you haven’t gone through pregnancy or infant loss, remember that you probably know and love someone who has — and maybe it’s your support they need. “Bowing to Light” is a short, quick, and impactful read that can increase your empathy and understanding — and also, don’t be surprised if you find some relatable moments in it as well. We are all human. Let’s lift each other up.

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