Several years ago, friends of ours lost a baby at childbirth. The mother was inconsolable. My wife and I visited her, were stunned at the extent of her grief, and thought, "It's certainly sad to lose a baby, but not as sad as losing an older child, a child you've held and fed, a child you've watched grow up."
A few years later, my wife became pregnant. Because we are Jewish, we were screened to see if we were carriers of Tay-Sachs disease, a fatal genetic disease that is carried in a recessive gene by one in 25 Jews of eastern European descent. Our tests were both positive. My wife had to undergo amniocentesis, a form of prenatal diagnosis, to see if the fetus was Tay-Sachs affected. When the doctor called us several weeks later and said gently, "I have some bad news," we knew we had only one option: to terminate the pregnancy.
After a horrible weekend of waiting, my wife and I went to the hospital for the abortion. She was 5 1/2 months pregnant, and the baby had just started to kick. The doctor injected one chemical to kill the fetus, another to induce labor. After six hours, I watched my wife deliver our beautiful, perfectly formed daughter -- stillborn. We lost this child, the chance to hold her, love her and raise her; we lost the joy of anticipation about her future; we lost the many little questions we had. Would she be a good sleeper? Would she inherit the musical talent on both sides of our families? Who would she look like? What would she become when she grows up? I think the worst part of our loss was the awareness that we would never know this child. My image of her will always be frozen in time: delicate and tiny, she was like a flower just beginning to bloom.
We are fortunate that some of our friends, family and coworkers recognized the extent of our loss and comforted us. But others seemed oblivious to our experience. Or else they thought what we had thought about our grieving friends several years ago: Why is this couple taking the loss so hard?
One uncle told my wife, "Well, that's the way the ball bounces."
A cousin said, "You don't have bad news, it's good news -- good news that it's possible to test the fetus for Tay-Sachs."
On a visit to her parents, my wife got a call from an aunt who chitchatted about everything under the sun but never mentioned what happened to us. Another aunt had written to my wife's sister about her back problem, but didn't even mention our loss, let alone send us a note.
Some friends told us about a support group of parents who had lost children, and then wondered who suffers the most -- parents who lost an infant, a young child or a teen-ager.
At work, there were people whom I was sure did not know, because they never said a word to me. Then, sometimes weeks later, I would discover that people whom I had thought were ignorant had known all along.
Two and a half months after the abortion, I was riding the elevator with a coworker. "Congratulations," she said to me. "I hear you just won a writing award. Good things come to good people." I replied -- arcanely I thought -- "All kinds of things happen to all kinds of people." She took my hand and said, "I know." She knew? She knew and for two months said nothing?
My wife and I often felt like lepers, as if no one could bear to touch our loss. It's true, there are no easy words to say, no formulas to follow, in consoling parents who have lost a child during pregnancy or at childbirth. "She lived a good life." "She is no longer suffering."
These cliches for mourners do not apply. Yet our grief was similar to that of someone who has lost a child, a parent, a sibling, a spouse. We were comforted by those who followed the conventions of mourning -- bringing us dinner and staying to eat and talk with us; making a contribution to charity to mark the loss.
All we wanted to hear from people were the words "I'm sorry." We wanted to know that we weren't alone, that others felt for us and understood our sorrow. We were grateful that modern medicine prevented us from the tragedy of having a Tay-Sachs child, but our gratitude did not mitigate the sense of loss.
In talking with other couples who had had a therapeutic abortion, or who have miscarried, we found that our emotions and the reactions from family and friends are quite common. It's not that people are insensitive, my wife and I believe, it's just that they honestly don't know how to react to this sort of tragedy. So some try to cheer the couple up at a time when they need to grieve, and many remain silent, perhaps thinking that the subject is better not raised, or that any expression of sympathy would be inadequate.
There were days when we felt especially bereft, and when people seemed especially silent or unfeeling, that we began to question our right to mourn -- were we too obsessed with our loss? In these difficult times, the words of two acquaintances gave us the strength to accept the legitimacy of our feelings, and by expressing them, to eventually come to terms with them.
When my wife had visited her midwife soon after the abortion, the midwife told her, "I don't know if this will make you feel any better, but I lost my first baby 29 years ago, and I still mourn for her."
And at work, a woman told me, "People will say, 'It's not as bad as losing an older child.' But no matter what anyone tells you, remember, this is your time to cry.' "