When I was still in early labor, our nurses and doctor explained to us what would happen immediately after delivery so that we would be prepared. They all emphasized how important it would be to hold Hannah, and to take pictures of her and with her. It all seemed so morbid and unfathomable. I was scared to see her, I was scared to hold her, and the thought of pictures made me cringe.
I am terribly ashamed that I had those thoughts and feelings. After she was born, my immediate instinct was to reach for her. I wanted her in my arms, I wanted to see her, I needed her with me. The doctor and nurses warned us that she might not look like a normal newborn. They said because she had been dead for at least twenty-four hours, her skin may seem translucent. But it didn’t. At least not to me. To me, she was my precious baby girl with chubby, rosy cheeks, plump, crimson lips, a tiny pink tongue, ten perfect fingers, ten perfect toes, and surprisingly light, wavy hair.
I held her close, wrapped in a blanket, while I waited to deliver the placenta. When that happened, the nurses took her to clean her up and get her measurements. The hospital where I delivered has a very special team of nurses that deal with labor and delivery patients who are having stillbirths or other kinds of losses. These nurses took such good care of us and of Hannah. They took great care while they bathed her and asked if we had any special clothes for her. They all commented on how beautiful she was and treated her as they would any other newborn, including giving her an adorable hat with a huge bow, putting her hand and footprints on a decorative birth certificate, and handling her very carefully. I felt so much sympathy and support from our nurses that I’m able to look back at our birthing experience with positive feelings, despite the tragic outcome.
After I delivered the placenta, my ob did a quick examination of it to see if there was anything that might indicate what happened to Hannah. He said there was a small tear that probably caused the blood when he broke my water, but it didn’t look severe enough to have been an abruption or anything that would cause Hannah’s death. He also confirmed the two-vessel cord we had been diagnosed with at eighteen weeks. The cord is supposed to have three vessels, but Hannah’s only had two. When we were diagnosed we were told that since we didn’t have any other risk factors, we didn’t need to treat the pregnancy any differently. They did extra monitoring, including ultrasounds every month, but every one of them showed Hannah thriving and growing right on schedule. I had read that a two-vessel cord could possibly lead to stillbirth, but that it was incredibly rare. I also read somewhere else that there was no link at all and that the majority of pregnancies with a two-vessel cord progress normally and have no complications. I’m not a doctor by any means and I’ll never know what happened exactly, but I’ll also never be convinced that Hannah’s death had nothing to do with the two-vessel cord. I just can’t overlook it as a possibility.
Aside from the number of vessels, my ob noted that the cord was also located to the side of the placenta instead of in the center. A high-risk obstetrician later told us that the position could have led to a bend in the cord that restricted blood flow, but there’s no way to know for sure. We declined the autopsy, but our doctor said that the results wouldn’t necessarily provide any answers. We sent Hannah’s blood, my blood, and a sample from the placenta to a pathologist, but the results all came back negative for anything that could have caused the stillbirth. That’s all the information we have about Hannah’s death. Which is to say, we don’t know why she died and there was nothing we could have done with the information we had at the time to prevent it.
Danny held Hannah while the doctor stitched me up. I had a very small tear that only needed one stitch – quite a difference from when I had my son. In the moments that immediately followed Hannah’s birth, I was very calm. I wasn’t crying at first, the hysterical screaming from minutes before was a distant thought, I wasn’t scared of anything that was happening. I sobbed quietly on and off while we took turns holding her, but there seemed to be so much going on around us, that it was difficult to focus on my feelings. I honestly just wanted to hold Hannah as long as possible. I could look at her wrapped in her blanket with her sweet little hat on and pretend that she was simply sleeping. She looked peaceful and I allowed myself to soak up those moments like any other new mommy. I knew we’d have difficult decisions to make soon enough; I just wanted to snuggle with my baby while I could.
At some point, we agreed to have a photographer from the charity Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep come and take professional photographs of us with Hannah. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to look at them, but the nurses insisted, and it felt right at the time. I even had Danny take some with our phones and our own camera. Now, I cherish every single photo we have. The photographer was professional, careful, considerate, and very respectful of us and of Hannah. Before it happened to me, I would never have understood taking pictures in this kind of situation, but I can’t say enough how thankful I am that we did. I’ve heard many stories of regret regarding stillbirths, and I will be eternally grateful to the special bereavement team of nurses we had. They knew what we needed before we did, and because of them I can honestly say I don’t have any regrets about our birthing experience. We were very fortunate to have such wonderful people working to help us.
We were able to keep Hannah with us as much as we wanted until we were discharged. There were a few times when we let them take her to a special room so that we could have our son visit. The nurses dressed her in an outfit that I had packed in my hospital bag and they placed her in a Moses basket to “sleep.” That night, they said we could keep her with us in our room. I wasn’t sure about it, so I had them take her away. I changed my mind soon after that, and I was finally able to rest and sleep when she was placed next to my hospital bed.
The next day – Saturday, July 14 – we had to hand Hannah over to the mortuary. We were given the option of them taking her out on a stretcher or one of us carrying her out to the man who was waiting. It was an easy decision. We made sure her outfit was perfect, wrapped her up in a blanket, gathered up our belongings and mementos, and I held her while the nurse pushed my wheelchair through the hospital. My heart was racing and I felt the cold hospital air hit my face as we went down the halls. We had Hannah’s face covered so no one would ask unwanted questions.
When we finally got outside, I stood up and walked over to the van. I was sobbing uncontrollably. I couldn’t let go. I knew this was the last moment I could pretend that everything was ok. I was still in denial and in those final moments, it started to sink in. It hadn’t been a mistake or a bad dream. We wouldn’t be taking our baby home with us. She wasn’t just sleeping. She was dead. This was the last time I’d get to hold her close to me. I had to hand her over to a stranger who was going to take her to a strange, dark, cold, lonely place and I couldn’t go with her. I thought the grief would choke the life out of me. When I finally let go, it felt like I was giving up on her. The guilt crept in. I kept thinking of how unfair it all was, how angry and sad and hurt I was. It was all too much and I couldn’t see my way through to the other side of the grief. It was my absolute worst moment since I was told Hannah had died up until now. I have grieved and cried since then, I’ve been angry and resentful, but I have not had the same soul-crushing sadness I felt leaving the hospital and handing Hannah over the man from the mortuary. It’s the one memory that I’ve tried to bury, and it’s the one that comes to me in flashbacks.
Even though I don’t have regrets about Hannah’s birth, it was still an emotionally traumatic even. I can look back without being consumed by sadness, but the pain is still there and it’s still fresh. I’ve come to realize that this process doesn’t get easier, we just get better at dealing with it. I’ll never stop grieving for Hannah because she’ll always be missing from my life, but I’m also able to remember the time I did get to spend with her during my pregnancy and after she was born, and it brings me comfort. I got to know her better than anyone and I feel very blessed to have been given the opportunity.