Love, Heartbreak, and Finding your People – A personal account on the experience of late term pregnancy loss...
My husband and I met when we were in our 30s. Despite attending the same 4-year college for the exact same four years, our paths had never crossed before. Until that fateful day 15 years later that we met on a dance floor after a baseball game and never looked back! Everything about it felt like it was meant to be, and we were engaged a year later and married a year after that.
Since we were 35 by the time we got married, and we knew we wanted 2-3 kids, we didn’t waste any time in starting our family. Again, we moved quickly, married in August, went on our dream honeymoon in October, and found out we were expecting a few days after returning home. We found out just before Christmas that we were having a girl and announced the happy news to our families! We were floating on air having just had the most amazing year leading up to our wedding. And now this news put the cherry on top of a fairytale time in our lives.
Doctors’ appointments came and went unremarkably. I was having one of the easiest pregnancies I could have asked for, and everything was looking great! Anatomy scan – perfect! And we started to drift into blissful daydreaming and planning for what life would be like when our little girl arrived.
Until one Saturday morning while I was researching babymoon locations, when everything changed. What started out as a funny “oh my gosh, I just wet my pants,” very quickly turned into “something is not right, we need to go to the hospital.” The panic didn’t set in until I walked through the doors of labor and delivery at 23 weeks pregnant knowing in my heart that my water had broken.
The doctors hoped for the best but prepared us for the worst. They explained about the extremely low survival rate of babies born before the 24-week gestational age. And what life would be like with a baby born so early, the very high likelihood of severe disabilities. Best case scenario would be that baby stayed put for as long as possible, and I would remain on hospital bed rest until she did. Every week she stayed in the womb would make a major difference in her chances of survival.
Gianna Marie was born at 23 weeks and 4 days gestational age, weighing 1lb, 4oz. She didn’t make a sound as she entered the world because she was too small, but she had survived. A nurse mercifully snapped a photo of her once she was intubated so I could see her before she was taken to the NICU. It would be over three hours before I was able to see her in person.
After three days of watching the NICU staff do everything they could for our girl, it was time to let her go. For the first time I would hold my baby girl in my arms, but at the same bittersweet moment we would say our goodbyes. The moment was simultaneously the most precious and the most painful moment of my life up until that point. I felt her heartbeat against mine and we were connected again. And I knew we would always be.
No parent should have to say goodbye to a child. No family should have to leave a hospital without their baby. It changes your perspective on the natural order of life. The way things are “supposed to be” no longer make sense. You feel like a rug has been ripped out from underneath you - going from a time of pure joy and celebration to a very dark place without any warning signs. It is very disorienting.
Bill Sweeney Charity
In the first few days and weeks after Gianna’s birth, I sat at home searching for resources and anyone who understood this very unnatural feeling I was experiencing. As wonderful as our friends and family were for the outpouring of love and support, I longed for others who could understand the depths of what I was feeling. I called hospitals, therapists offices, social workers in hopes to find someone who was equipped to sit with me in my grief. I kept running into dead ends. Eventually I found an amazing loss group that met once a month at one of the local hospitals. And it helped so much to be around other families who knew the specific type of pain we were experiencing because they were walking that journey alongside us. Anyone who experiences the loss of a pregnancy or infant will tell you, it’s a club no one ever wants to join, but the connections forged from this experience will help you survive it.
My persistence to find community eventually paid off when I found an amazing therapist who specializes in counseling families experiencing perinatal loss. I was able to work through the trauma and normalize the feelings I had experienced since Gianna’s birth and death. It changed the face of my grief into something I could bare. And in the safety of this relationship is when I knew I wanted to channel my experience in any way that I could to help families like ours. So, when asked to join the Bill Sweeney Perinatal Care Fund at its inception, I jumped at the opportunity.
I am so grateful to have found the resources that I did. Without them, I don’t know how I would have been able to move forward, to become pregnant again (during a global pandemic) and go on to have a beautiful and healthy son - my rainbow baby who lights up my days. Pregnancy after loss is another whole experience deserving of its own story - but that’s a story for another day.
I tell my story for many reasons. I tell it to honor my daughter, so that the world will know she exists, and to keep her memory alive. My first born and the one who made me a mom.
I tell it because I hope that it helps someone who is currently living their own version of this story. Because although each of our stories are unique, they are not uncommon, and you are never alone in your journey. And regardless of what you may be thinking, you are a mother and a father who loved a baby, and you deserve to be honored as such. You will survive this. You need to find your people. Do not be afraid to ask for help and resources - we are here!
And I tell this story to spread awareness. So that family members and health care providers can become educated on the ways to support families who are experiencing a loss. To make it more normal to talk to a loved one about their loss. To let these support groups know it’s ok if you don’t know what to say - say that. But reach out. And keep reaching out.
The work being done by the Bill Sweeney Perinatal Care Fund not only provides support and memory making for families who are experiencing a loss. But also provides training and education for health care providers. So that these resources can become less scarce and easier to find. Since its inception 2 years ago, we have provided training to health care providers, and 100% of the families that have reached out for support have been seen.
If you are interested in learning more about how you can support a loved one that has experienced a loss, or how to donate to an organization that can directly change lives, please visit the website www.billsweeneycharity.org