After he died, I was inconsolable. I felt so much guilt that my body failed him, and so much shame that I couldn’t perform one of life’s most basic functions to carry him to term. I had never before met anyone (to my knowledge) who had lost a baby in this way — it just wasn’t supposed to happen. Elderly people die, and babies are born. Babies are not supposed to die.
Before I became pregnant, I was so excited about the prospect of growing my family with my husband. I saw — or at least thought I saw — so many women breeze through pregnancies without any major complications. Countless photos on Instagram showed adorable pregnancy announcements, growing baby bumps, and glowing mamas-to-be. All over the media, there were photos of pregnant celebrities, and a few months later their newborns appeared.
What is seldom talked about is the incredible amount of loss so many women suffer. It is estimated that one out of every four pregnancies ends in miscarriage or loss. It is so common, yet it is rarely talked about, let alone the subject of social media posts. People post their best moments, their life highlights; most don’t post photos of their lost babies.
After I delivered Eli, I felt like an empty shell. Even though I have a highly supportive husband, family, and friends, I felt so emotionally isolated and betrayed by my body. Because we were in New York City, a city still reeling from the covid-19 pandemic, we were also physically isolated. It felt beyond cruel that I was unable to hug my parents or my sister at my son’s funeral. Friends could not visit us. Our apartment, which was once our safe haven, felt like a prison, reminding us so much of the trauma we had endured.
In my grief and pain, I sought out virtual support through social media for women who have similarly experienced infant loss. I was blown away by what I found through the community of “loss moms”: women who were complete strangers to me, and yet became dear friends, bonded through our shared suffering. Women who understood “empty arms syndrome,” the physical ache to hold our lost babies. Women who knew the gut-wrenching pain of never seeing our babies smile, never hearing their voices, or getting to see their first steps.
These moms cried and grieved (virtually) alongside me. They checked in on me every day, spoke Eli’s name, lit candles for him, and asked to see photos of our beautiful boy. They told me they would always hold a place in their hearts for Eli. They answered questions about the brutal postpartum period, such as how to stop my breasts from producing milk for my baby who did not come home with me. They delivered ice cream to my door when I had postpartum complications. One dear friend sent me a Starbucks gift card on my first day back to work to let me know she understood how lonely it felt to carry on with “normal” life when things were anything but. Ultimately, they validated that Eli existed, that I had carried his life inside of mine for six incredible months, and that he mattered.
We had all joined the worst club in the world, and yet found a sisterhood of strong, resilient women who held each other up during the darkest times.
As a clinical psychologist, I often treat individuals who experience trauma. I teach my patients about the “just-world fallacy,” a theory that we are socialized to believe from a young age that good things happen to “good” people, and bad things happen to “bad” people. If we just follow the rules, work hard, and do what we are supposed to do, then we will be successful. So, when terrible things happen, we must deserve them. When trauma occurs, we all want an explanation about why it happened. It is well documented, and I see frequently in my clinical work, that humans greatly fear a lack of control. This increases our tendency to blame ourselves rather than believe that such randomness exists in the world.
I did all the right things during my pregnancy. I did not drink or smoke. I switched to decaf coffee. I read the baby books. I even changed to organic shampoo and conditioner. I did everything I could to keep my baby safe, and yet ultimately, I could not protect him. However unjustified, I have felt an incredible amount of guilt about what happened to Eli. Intellectually, I know I would have done anything in the world to save him and that I could not control when my body went into labor; nonetheless, it is very difficult knowing that it was my body that forced him out before he was ready.
I can certainly understand why so many women suffer pregnancy and infant loss in silence. It is extremely uncomfortable to talk about, and often not well received, as even well-intentioned people do not know how to respond. I had more than one person tell me, “don’t worry — you’re young, you’ll have more!” without realizing how hurtful their comment was. I noticed my own urges to withdraw and keep our loss private. Ultimately, my husband and I decided to share our story publicly. When we did so, I received messages from women all over the world who wanted to let me know about their own losses. Many of these women had not shared their stories with anyone else due to similar feelings of shame and guilt. These women let me know that when I shared, it made them feel less alone and better able to talk about their own experiences. Hearing from these women has been an integral part of my own healing.
Recently, Chrissy Teigen shared that she and her husband, John Legend, experienced a second-trimester loss of their baby, Jack. I was heartbroken for them. When I saw her post on Instagram, I was amazed by her bravery to share photos of her labor experience in such a raw and vulnerable way. In speaking with other loss moms, we all felt Teigen’s pain so viscerally. Her photos transported us back to our own deliveries, knowing that we could have taken those same pictures in the hospital. I was shocked at the backlash she received from posting these photos — some critics saying she “overshared” or “exploited” her loss for “likes.”
These people do not understand the incredible gift that she gave to others. By using her platform to share her loss so widely, she broke the silence around the devastation of pregnancy loss. Knowing that someone as admired, gorgeous, and accomplished as Chrissy Teigen could lose a baby made so many of us feel less broken and alone.
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month. I hope that following Teigen’s example, other mothers will feel empowered to share their own stories of loss, whether publicly, anonymously in virtual support groups, or with a close circle of friends. In doing so, we can help each other heal collectively, rather than suffering alone. We can take the time to remember and grieve our lost babies — Eli, Jack, William, Charlotte, Poppy, Sam, Tess, Hunter, Juni, Griffin, Jonah and countless others who are not with us physically but live forever in our hearts. We can create space on social media representative of all different mothering experiences — not just a highlight reel.
And we can lend one another strength and resilience, and hold on to hope for one another even when we may not see the light at the end of the tunnel ourselves.
Carolyn Spiro-Levitt is a clinical psychologist. She lives in New York City. You can email her at email@example.com.