Unpregnant: The silent, secret grief of miscarriage
When she miscarried in her mid-30s, Alexandra Kimball felt profoundly alone: abandoned by a feminist movement that didn't recognize her loss, accused by conventional wisdom of waiting too long to conceive, and deprived by society of the rituals that mark other forms of grief
Illustrations by Eleanor Shakespeare
This article was originally published on Dec. 3, 2015.
I was 10 weeks pregnant when I went for my first scan. The waiting room was full of pregnant women; I'd never seen so many in one place. The clinic was just for them, with posters about breastfeeding on the walls, and parenting magazines on the plastic tables, and in this atmosphere, they seemed a different order of alive. They laughed with each other, pointing to their bellies and breasts as they described their symptoms. When they rose from their moulded plastic chairs, they would brace the small of their backs, a gentle push. An already maternal touch, I thought: the way you push a child on a swing. The waiting area was divided from the examining rooms by double doors, and every few minutes, a couple would float through them, absorbed in a printout of their ultrasound.
My husband, Jeremy, couldn't stop looking around. He is a person who enjoys rites of passage, social convention. He likes graduations, weddings, reunions; he spent months conjuring up a perfect way to propose. That he delights in these narratives and I distrust them has been an organizing distinction of our relationship. When I think about us, I often picture two climbers, tied together by a thin but unbreakable string. He is above me, and I am a bit further down. His easy faith that life will proceed according to plan lifts me up, makes me optimistic. And my cynicism brings him closer to the ground.
Yet when Jeremy squeezed my hand and smiled – the very picture of the proud new father – I couldn't look him in the eye. Over the past few weeks, my pregnancy symptoms had tapered off. My breasts were no longer sore, and I didn't have any of the strange cravings or moods I'd expected from my first trimester.
Still, I wanted to be optimistic, like him. To the appointment, I'd worn the talismans of hope – an empire-line top, a pregnancy bra. My phone was full of pregnancy apps and a list of baby names. At home, we'd stood in our front room and swept our arms around. Here is where the closet will go, here's where we'll put the changing table. Every night before bed, I touched my stomach and said Goodnight.
And I'd told people: my parents, then my close friends, then people I barely knew at all. The more anxious I felt, the more people I told, believing on some level that announcing my pregnancy would oblige it to go on.
But alone in the examination room, it was impossible to keep up these tricks of faith. I started sobbing the moment I hit the table. My technician was young and pretty, with a thick black ponytail and gold rings on her fingers. She told me I had to stop crying, because she couldn't get a clear picture when I was shaking like that. When it became clear that I would not, she put a condom on a long probe and inserted it in my vagina. It pushed into my bowels and knocked against my spine. I couldn't look at the monitor: I knew it was full of wrong.
Instead, I closed my eyes and listened to the taps: my tears hitting the paper-covered table, the technician's mouse. At some point, the doors in the hallway opened, and I caught a punch of laughter from women in the waiting room. Even their voices sounded fertile, bellied with luck.
"We can't expect to see much at six weeks," the technician said, finally.
"Ten weeks," I corrected. "Almost 11." My voice seemed to come from somewhere other than my own mouth, and I was surprised at how calm it sounded.
I asked her what she saw on the screen, and she said she was only a technician and that I had to speak to my doctor.
"Is there a heartbeat?"
A long pause. "No."
I don't remember running into the waiting room in my bare feet and paper gown, though I must have, because suddenly I was there, being steered back through the double doors by a stout nurse in floral scrubs, Jeremy following behind. She guided us into an empty exam room and closed the door.
"I'll give you two some privacy," she said. I lay down on the exam table and cried.
"It's a mistake," Jeremy said, rubbing my hand and smiling. It was the same smile from the waiting room, the proud-dad smile – his face hadn't caught up with the world yet. "I'm sure it happens all the time."
He was already on his cell, trying to contact my family doctor.
At no point in any of this did I think about my baby. I didn't think, "Oh, it's dead," or "Poor baby." What I did think is, first: I shouldn't have told all those people; and then: What the fuck am I going to tell all those people?
Before my miscarriage was a loss, it was the thing I didn't know how to say.
Miscarriage is a solo and secretive happening. Women miscarry alone, isolated by the 12-week rule: Don’t announce your pregnancy until the second trimester. The thinking here is sensible. One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage; most in the first three months. A woman who does not announce her early pregnancy will not have to announce its loss.
There was no distinction between a fetus lost in utero and a child who died after birth for the ancient Hindus, who buried their miscarried and guided the bereaved through ritual post-death cleansing. Before Europeans colonized New Guinea, natives held naming ceremonies for babies lost to miscarriage; the entire community would attend a memorial service to honour the loss. In modern Japan, couples who miscarry still practise a rite called mizuko kuy – literally, a fetus memorial service, in which the bereaved make offerings to Jizo, a Bodhisattva who watches over the souls of children.
But for us, miscarriage is a solo and secretive happening. Women miscarry alone, isolated by the 12-week rule: Don't announce your pregnancy until the second trimester. The thinking here is sensible. One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage; most in the first three months. A woman who does not announce her early pregnancy will not have to announce its loss. She can move on in privacy, as if it never happened.
This is the language doctors use: in privacy. "I'll give you two some privacy."
Privacy vs. secrets. If privacy is about covering information too precious to share, secrecy is about withholding something dangerous. The Romans painted roses on the ceilings of their banquet halls to remind diners that what was spoken there should stay there. Sub rosa, the Latin term for "under the rose," means "in secret." The symbol comes from Aphrodite, the goddess of fertility and motherhood. She gave a rose to her son, Eros, which he used to bribe Harpocrates, the childlike god of silence, in exchange for keeping quiet about her sexual indiscretions. In their world – which became ours – the first secret was the one between a woman and a child, infused with the danger of her sex.
After my miscarriage, I thought a lot about women in their first trimester, the ones whose pregnancies were still secret. I still do. I imagine their anxiety, their tricks and evasions. I know a woman who told me that she'd get out of drinking by telling her friends she was on antibiotics. Another, violently ill from eight to 10 weeks, got time off by telling her boss she had food poisoning.
"I just need to get out of the danger zone," a friend once confided when she was nine weeks along. "Then I'll start announcing." The zone is the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and the danger is of miscarriage. Or is the danger in the telling?
My doctor could not schedule a D&C for two weeks. D&C – dilation and curettage – is the standard procedure for a "missed miscarriage," where the fetus dies in utero, but the body won't expel the tissue. During this time, I had no idea what to do with myself, with my body that was both pregnant and not pregnant. As a freelance writer, I had our large house to myself during the day and no set daily tasks. This was an ideal arrangement for motherhood, but now, the still emptiness of my days had a hostile quality.
I tried to keep busy. I pitched long, convoluted story ideas to magazines, and then declined when they were accepted. I cleaned the house and cooked compulsively – meals I couldn't imagine eating. After my husband went to bed, I stayed up all night, doing more of the same.
I hadn't realized that a pregnancy could end so quietly, without any bleeding or pain. I knew women who miscarried – I must have, if it's as common as I'd learned. But, until my own, all of my ideas about miscarriage came from the few scenes I'd seen in movies, where women emerged from bathrooms covered in blood. Their miscarriages were spectacular and abrupt. As the time dragged on, I found myself envying these fictional women. The bloodiness seemed to make it okay for them to scream and cry, instead of whatever I was doing.
'At least it will be over," I said to my husband. We were sitting in the waiting area of the day-surgery ward, before the nurses came to take me in for my D&C. No pregnant bellies in this room – just resigned-looking patients with hospital bracelets and IV stands, most of them old. There were a few younger women sitting with their husbands, and I wondered if any, like me, were there for miscarriages.
My nurse at this procedure was also stout, also clad in floral scrubs. She said they'd have to be careful, because a preoperative scan showed I had a dodgy fibroid. She told me to remove my wedding and engagement rings, and I placed them in Jeremy's hand. Then, on the back of my admission form, she drew the fibroid for me: a large circle, branched with blood vessels, intersecting my uterus from the top. A Venn diagram of jeopardy. I twisted the skin on my finger where my rings had been.
But it went okay. After I came to, the nurse helped me walk to a toilet, where, to my great relief, I expelled a vast quantity of bright red blood. I thought: Now that's more like it.
I was a wildly anxious child and young adult: clever and kind, but with thin skin and raw emotions. When my innards scratched up against the world, I would – and I did this well into my 20s – lay my head on my mother's lap and cry.
"It'll be okay," she'd say. "You'll see. You'll meet the right person, and then you'll get married, and you'll have a baby, and everything will be fine."
I didn't trust my mother's words, but I trusted the sentiment. I believed in the power of this sequence – marriage, baby, happiness – even though it clashed with my burgeoning feminism. Even after I was employed, and married, and certainly happy, I still felt drawn to the idea of motherhood as redemption. When I pictured myself as a mother, the first thing I saw was not a baby; it was a woman anyone could look at and see had turned out just fine.
My husband brought me home after my D&C and settled me in. He'd set up the bedside table: orange juice, painkillers, sleeping pills, an e-reader loaded with digital books. It was the bedside table of a sick person, not a pregnant one, and I was relieved to have made that transition.
Once he left for work, I got out of bed and went downstairs to my desk in our living room. I opened my laptop and sent an e-mail to all the people I had told I was pregnant. This was supposed to be cathartic. Then I realized that they might respond. The idea that they'd have something to say to me – even something kind – made me dizzy with rage. So I diverted all their e-mail addresses to my junk folder, and immediately after that, I deleted my Facebook account. Then I picked up my laptop and phone – there were three messages already, from people I'd just e-mailed; delete, delete, delete – and hauled both into bed, where I would spend most of the next three months and a good portion of the next year online.
There are words for other kinds of woman: bride, mother, widow. But there's no real term for a woman who has been pregnant and then is not. Unpregnant: This is the best label I could come up with.
Here is how you spend three months in bed. The bed is large, a Shaker-style four-poster, solid and immovable. When your husband leaves for work in the morning, you can steal the pillows from his side, and use them to prop your upper body against the headboard while you scroll miscarriage forums on your phone. Leave the blinds drawn; it gets bright. Every morning, there is a new litany of user names – waitingforbaby, missingmyangel – and a new miscarriage to follow:
" For ten days I was convinced there was a second baby inside me. That hope was actually quite healing. I had heard of cases where women miscarry and a twin survives."
There's an online memorial gallery for miscarried children, where some women are posting ultrasound photos of 12-week-old fetuses. My precious angel, the women write. They don't look remotely like babies; they look like prawns, with red skin and lidless peppercorn eyes. Feel grateful that you are not yet so crazy you would do this. Then realize what you wouldn't give for a prawn picture of your own.
Sleep comes randomly and decisively. Predictable dreams for an unpregnant woman: You've left everything on a train that is pulling away from the station, your teeth are forever falling out of your head. You wake with your phone in your sweaty hand and your knee on the keyboard of your laptop, which is booping away in error.
Each morning there's coffee downstairs for you. Your husband doesn't drink coffee, but he's kind enough to make it for you and leave a pot on the burner. At least I can drink coffee now, you say to yourself.
There are three friends who phone and text you constantly. The first is a man you have known since high school. He's also recently married, and you needle him for news about his wife. Is she pregnant?
"Actually…" he says. Then: "Don't tell anyone."
So long for that guy.
The other two are female friends you've known for a long time, too. They want to come over, make you tea and watch Netflix. Care for you. But you don't want to be cared for, you want to be here, in bed, alone.
You understand that you have stages of grief to go through, five of them: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance. You imagine you can do this all in bed, that the stages will simply pass through you like phases of a flu, and eventually, you will be done; all better.
You get a prescription for sleeping pills and antidepressants, because the more numb and less conscious you can be while grief happens to you, the better.
You eat once a day: when your mother comes over after work to coax you out of bed and to the dining room, where she serves you omelettes, soup, some pasta you liked as a kid.
"You'll have another baby," she says brightly, sometimes.
You know you won't. You know this with the same certainty you knew you would miscarry. The knowledge seems to radiate from the fibroid itself, pumping dread like a bad second heart.
Your husband comes home late. He has a crazy job; he's always coming home late. But now he's coming home at 11:30, midnight. He's always at the gym, and when he gets in, you watch him from the bed as he takes off his suit jacket and shirt and inspects his hardening body in the full-length mirror on the door.
"It's really paying off," you say.
A little routine of normal conversation. Somehow, it clears a patch in the insanity.
The more I considered it, the more I became convinced that the silence around miscarriage was connected to feminism’s work around abortion. How could I grieve a thing that didn’t exist? If a fetus is not meaningfully alive, if it is just a collection of cells – the cornerstone claim of the pro-choice movement – what does it mean to miscarry one?
Feminism was my religion. As a feminist: I was the sort of girl and young woman who liked to preface her sentences this way – at times, I still do. It wasn't just a belief, it was the way I saw the whole world. As a feminist my high-school best friend had the women's symbol tattooed on her middle finger, and I thought this was the coolest thing in the world. As a feminist, my bibles were things like the Riot Grrrl manifesto, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and Naomi Wolf, and later, Hélène Cixous and Judith Butler. In class, I spoke about systemic power and heteronormativity with undergraduate fervour.
Feminism didn't just warn me about the things that would happen to me as a woman – that I might be raped; that I would loathe the shape of my own body; that the road to an education and job would be paved with condescension and discouragement and truly bad pay – but it let me know what those things would feel like when they happened, and what I could do about them after that.
And I had looked forward to a feminist motherhood: a toy chest stuffed with gender-neutral toys; picture books about girl pigs who played baseball and boy penguins who raised chicks. I imagined a community of feminists who took turns babysitting while the others worked on their paintings or books.
Now, in my empty house, I wandered around our living room and looked at my bookshelves, the rows of Cixous and Butler and de Beauvoir, and realized that feminism had nothing to say to me. Here, lined up left to right, was sexual assault, abortion, childbirth, body image: but nothing about miscarriage. In real-world activism, there was no equivalent to The Vagina Monologues for the miscarrying woman, no doulas for D&Cs, no demonstrations like a Take Back the Night or Slutwalk for the unpregnant. Ditto with feminism online: There were no ribbons or Twitter hashtag campaigns to interrogate the 12-week rule that ensures miscarrying women have limited – if any – support while grieving.
I realized this wasn't just a question of offering me a theoretical framework or moral support: With a few exceptions, feminism hasn't done for miscarriage what it has done for sexual assault, for instance, by covering gaps in health policy – like the still-standard practice of having untrained ultrasound technicians inform women of their miscarriages, or admitting women who've had stillbirths into maternity wards. This is exactly the sort of socio-sexual crisis in which feminism typically intervenes.
The more I considered it, the more I became convinced that the silence around miscarriage was connected to feminism's work around abortion. How could I grieve a thing that didn't exist? If a fetus is not meaningfully alive, if it is just a collection of cells – the cornerstone claim of the pro-choice movement – what does it mean to miscarry one? Admitting my grief meant seeing myself as a bereft mother, and my fetus as a dead child – which meant adopting exactly the language that the anti-choice movement uses to claim abortion is murder.
Some feminist thinkers have posited a way out of this paradox, by admitting the personhood of the fetus as they champion a woman's right to abort it. In other words, abortion is murder, but a justified one.
This didn't feel quite right to me, either. I began to wonder if the personhood of the prawns we carry is a result of our relationship with our own pregnancies. Unlike the aborted fetus, the miscarried child has been spoken to, fantasized about, maybe even greeted on an ultrasound or named. My precious angel.
A few weeks after my D&C, I waited for my husband to leave for work, then put a sweater on over my pyjamas and stepped outside, prepared to break down when I saw a baby. But it was late autumn and the city was crisp and bright, and things were still growing. There were squirrels and cars and teenagers sitting on curbs.
As if on cue, I saw a pregnant woman pushing a twin stroller, but she didn't bother me as much as the squirrels and idle high-school students. The squirrels and teenagers had been babies once, too, and the grass had been seeds, right? Their cells had divided on schedule; they had grown the way things are supposed to grow. All living matter was a form of reproof. Even the image of my own hand, with its neat expanse of healthy skin, was testimony to a process that had failed me. Why these things, but not my baby?
I'd had an abortion myself, when I was 26, living on a graduate student's stipend in an illegal sublet infested with brown bats. I didn't think much about it afterward; I knew then, as I know now, that it was the right decision. There was no question in my mind that the fetus I aborted was a fetus, and the child I lost was a child. It struck me that, in its work toward abortion rights, feminism had denied women's right to define pregnancy however we want.
Women make and unmake our children, not just in the biological sense, but in the ontological sense, too. The fetus is a fetus, and the child a child – only the woman knows. If we deny her the power to define her own pregnancy, we deny the power inherent in womanhood.
After my miscarriage, when I thought about my abortion, it was with almost-envy for my younger self. I hadn't fully appreciated how feminism had allowed me to process and eventually come to terms with that event. I had a language through which to express my feelings; I had other women's stories to help me anticipate the abortion procedure and to realize what would come after.
But in the months that followed my miscarriage, I had none of these things, and my sense of betrayal – in that primal, religious sense – was keen. Having a miscarriage was maybe the first thing I had gone through not as a feminist. I felt not just invisible to the ideology I'd grown up with, I felt forsaken.
My uterine fibroid was in a bad place. Fibroids, benign tumours in and around the uterus, are common: Up to 70 per cent of white women have them; in black women, this number rises over 80 per cent. In most cases, they do not cause a problem with fertility, but in an unlucky few, they do. And so, in the slush of winter, my husband and I trudged around the hospital district in Toronto, seeing gynecologists.
Two of them thought the fibroid didn't cause my miscarriage, but the third, a highly regarded fertility specialist, was certain it did. In February, after five months of consultations, I checked into the hospital to have it surgically removed – a procedure called a myomectomy. It grew back almost immediately.
In May, I checked into a different hospital for a second, more invasive myomectomy, where they cut through my stomach as they would have, had I undergone a cesarean section.
"The scar will be low," the surgeon said, before I went under. "You'll still be able to wear a bikini." I almost laughed: me on a beach!
When the hospital discharged me a few days later, my husband took me back to the house. He braced my elbow as I walked up the stairs. But when we reached the bedroom, I discovered a mess. There were clothes strewn everywhere and a bunch of file folders in the tangled sheets.
"Don't you know everything I've been through?" I cried, as he scurried to make the bed.
"It's all I know," he said bitterly. He left the room, and I got into my made bed and onto the Internet.
I'd never considered that before: how grief turns us into assholes.
When Jeremy and I conceived quickly, I was relieved. When I discovered that the reason for my miscarriage – the fibroids – was linked to my age, I didn’t feel guilty, I felt vaguely insulted.
Throughout my 20s and early 30s, a series of incendiary news reports had taunted me – invariably accompanied by an image of an egg timer – warning about my declining fertility. And so, when I married at 34, my head was full of numbers.
Miscarriage is common – it happens in up to 25 per cent of pregnancies – but carries with it a 250-per-cent increased risk of depression and a 22-per-cent higher chance of divorce. I knew that at my age I had a 66-per-cent chance of having a child, compared to 75 per cent at age 30; I also knew that by age 40, my chances would drop, to 44 per cent.
Since the 1970s, the number of first-time mothers over the age of 35 has risen fivefold. This trend toward delayed childbearing means more would-be-mothers are struggling with infertility and miscarriage.
While this doesn't surprise me, what does is how readily this has been blamed on the rise of feminism. The thinking here is that modern women are so busy leaning into their feminism-forged careers that they don't want to start trying for kids until their mid-to-late 30s. They made the mistake of "wanting it all."
Yet, among the women I know in this age group who have fertility issues, or simply missed the window to have children, none of them have what such critics consider "real" careers. Almost all of them were either dumped in their early 30s, or couldn't find the right guy, or were toiling in the sorts of overeducated, debt-burdened underemployment that put their household income way below the threshold where they could responsibly raise a child. In other words, they weren't waiting to "have it all" – they were waiting to have enough.
The rise of precarious employment, the evisceration of unions, degree inflation, and an inflamed housing market have all limited my generation's access to the milestones of regular adulthood. It's economics, not feminism, that has most altered our patterns of courtship and family-building, consigning us to the extended adolescence of baby-boomer legend.
And so, when Jeremy and I conceived quickly, I was relieved. When I discovered that the reason for my miscarriage – the fibroids – was linked to my age, I didn't feel guilty, I felt vaguely insulted.
But the blame for women's infertility is placed on us alone. The media reports that freaked me out in my 20s made it very clear: Ladies, we're talking to you. There are no equivalents in the men's press, no articles in Esquire or Men's Health that ask: Are you dating a 30-year woman who wants kids? Because if you are, you should probably decide what you want to do about that.
Amid this cultural alarmism, the post-35 miscarriage or infertility patient is branded with a special shame. What right do we have to grieve, if that grief is inevitable?
The second fibroid surgery was supposed to prevent another miscarriage, but once I recovered, I found I couldn't conceive at all. Month after month of negative pregnancy tests brought me back to the fertility specialist, who thought there might be a problem with my uterine lining. After weeks of ovary-stimulating injections and blood tests, he coaxed 11 eggs from me under twilight sedation, to be frozen and stored for later. I remember my doctor's masked head bobbing up from the foot of the operating table. Was this what it was like to give birth?
By then, my baby would have been three months old.
My baby would have been eight months old when, one day, Jeremy came into the bedroom. I was in bed, reading online forums on my phone. His expression was both determined and desperate. "Uh oh," I thought.
"You can't be like this," he said. I sat up in bed, and he took both my hands in his.
"I can't stand it. I can't stand the way you are." He started crying; I hadn't seen him cry in years.
"Neither can I," I said. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault," he said. We hugged each other for a long time.
"I mean – where did you go?" he asked. He sounded truly confounded.
It was confounding. Where had I gone? The only thing I could say is that I lost myself trying to find my baby. I'd looked for her in my feminist books and on the Internet and on TV shows. I had been prepared for that. I'd been willing to make that sacrifice. But I'd forgotten that Jeremy was tied to me. If I went under, searching for my baby, he went under, too.
By spring, I still hadn't been able to conceive, and now my periods were gone, too. My husband and I met with our fertility specialist to discuss my last round of tests. His office featured blank walls, issues of Self on the table – fertility clinics are careful with the decorations.
Our doctor told us about Asherman's syndrome, a condition that occurs in a minority of women who have had uterine surgery. I'd had four: the abortion when I was 26, the D&C after the miscarriage, and then the two myomectomies. One could have caused it, or some, or all. The only thing he knew was that the lining of my uterus was now non-functional; if I were to conceive, it could be dangerous not just to the fetus but to me as well.
Jeremy looked pale. He hadn't been expecting this; I had. I held his hand as the doctor started talking about "other options for building families." In the euphemistic parlance of the infertility world, this meant surrogacy and adoption.
"Oh, we can do this," Jeremy said, researching surrogacy on his laptop later that night. I could actually see his mood elevate as he read. His natural helium.
But I was still thinking about my uterus. "It's like Michael Jackson's nose," I explained to my friend, one of the ones who kept lovingly pestering me, over the phone. "You can operate on an organ only so many times before it just falls apart or stops working." I felt proud of my humour, my ability to joke.
But then, about a month later, I buckled into the middle of the sidewalk. I was trying to do something, some banal errand, and then in a flash, I was on the curb, chest heaving, face a sheet of tears and snot. Blank terror and a familiar question, urgent: What am I going to tell all those people?
What people, though? Everyone was gone; everyone but Jeremy and my mother and two girlfriends I resented for their caring. I realized that I had been waiting to go back to my old life with an announcement of a new pregnancy. And in that expectation was a deeper, sadder one: that my miscarriage was erasable, that it could be undone.
I couldn't believe it: I'd lost a baby, and it had almost destroyed me, and there would be nothing to come along and make it better, or even make it make sense. I'd never heard of a miscarriage that was not followed by another pregnancy.
Another piece of missing language: What is the word for an unpregnant woman who will have no kids?
That night, after Jeremy went to bed, I sat at our dining-room table, lit the candles in a crystal candelabra we’d been given for our wedding, and spoke out loud for a while to the baby I’d lost. I gave her a name and addressed her by it. I told her I was sorry: that my body couldn’t house her; that I couldn’t let her go.
I'd cried in public before, but this time I understood immediately that I had to go somewhere specifically for people who had fallen apart, and as I saw it, there were two options: a mental hospital or a church. The local Catholic church, which mostly operated as a soup kitchen, was closer.
I'm culturally Catholic. I attend Christmas and Easter mass with elderly relatives, but refuse to take communion, because I've never been convinced that God exists. I feel compelled by the simple power of certain traditions, like praying the rosary, but also repulsed by Catholicism's antiquated sexual politics. I paced back and forth in front of the church for a few minutes, debating whether I should go in, or what inside could possibly help me at this moment. But eventually I did, and a priest was there – a man around my parents' age, in a sweater, sitting in an office before a bulky desktop computer.
"Forgive me, I just got back from a funeral," he said as he closed down windows on his computer. I was surprised that he was not surprised I was there, or that I was openly crying, though I realized later that crazy people must walk into his office all the time. His name was Father Mike, and on his desk were some psychology books and a Koran.
I told him I had a miscarriage, and we sat silently for a while, me with my face of tears and snot, and him with his hands folded in his lap.
"I'm not a Catholic," I said. "I don't take communion."
"Communion just means community," he said. "It means what we have in common."
There had been 200 people at the funeral he had just officiated. Funerals are not just for the souls of the deceased, he said. They allow the community to affirm the family's loss. Without these witnesses, he said, the grieving can find it hard to move on.
I had been pushing away from this idea, as I'd been pushing away the other people who had tried to help me in my grief. But now I circled it; allowed myself to settle in. I realized this was why I went to the church, instead of the hospital: because I was desperate for someone to tell me that the child I had lost was real and worthy of the usual, public rites of mourning. Communal grief for a common loss.
There are no rituals for miscarriage in modern Catholicism. But the religion is very good at grief. The priest decided – rightly – that what I needed was ceremony, even though what he suggested was almost certainly not orthodox. After we prayed, I went home with instructions for something that looked a lot like a funeral: name my baby, light a candle for her, and talk to her, either out loud or in my mind. A private act at first, so I could know what it felt like.
That night, after Jeremy went to bed, I sat at our dining-room table, lit the candles in a crystal candelabra we'd been given for our wedding, and spoke out loud for a while to the baby I'd lost. I gave her a name and addressed her by it. I told her I was sorry: that my body couldn't house her; that I couldn't let her go. I did this every night for two months.
It would be a simplification to say that this little practice made me less sad. I did not feel less sad for a long while. But doing it felt correct. Staying in my bed, watching things on the Internet, I had felt as if I was stuffing my grief further and further inside my body. But when I talked about it, and especially when I talked about it out loud, it felt like I was pushing it into the world.
I went back to see the priest every week for a month or so, and then I stopped. But I think about Father Mike often, this person who seemed to understand that the prerequisite of healing is communion. Occasionally, I still light the candles – even though I don't stay in bed at all now, and work full-time, and am rarely alone. Now, sometimes I say the things I say to the candles to other people: to the friends who have filtered back into my life, and new people I've met since I left my bed. I have told them that her name was Molly.
Since my miscarriage, I have wondered if the rift I felt with feminism was in part because of how it has compartmentalized nature. Unlike sexual assault or unequal pay, miscarriage is an event for which there is no person or policy to blame. The majority of miscarriages – up to 75 per cent by some accounts – occur as a result of random chromosomal errors in the fetus, while the rest are often the result of a uterine condition. Mainstream liberal feminism has glorified the good side of nature – pregnancy, menstruation, breastfeeding – while ignoring nature's darkness: miscarriage, grief, disease, death. Unpregnant and infertile women are not the only ones left out of this equation: Elderly and sick women are ignored by mainstream feminism, too. I found myself fantasizing about what a feminist miscarriage would look like, or, on a larger scale, what a feminist approach would be to grief and death.
When I was recovering from egg retrieval, someone sent me a video on Facebook of some chimps. In it, a female chimpanzee carries the corpse of her dead infant into a clearing and sets it down on the ground. Her expression is tender, curious. She examines the body's ears and teeth with her forefinger and sniffs its fur, then walks a few paces away, to where the clearing joins the brush. She looks at the corpse from this distance, then returns and repeats the same exploratory moves.
A few other chimps join her. They, too, circle the dead infant's body, sniffing and examining it, their leathery faces fixed in the same expression of gentle inquisitiveness. They stay with the infant as the mother goes back and forth, back and forth, between the edge of the clearing and her baby's corpse.
The first time I watched the clip, I thought I knew what she was doing: She was trying to figure out where in this lifeless bundle her baby had gone.
After she examines the infant once more, she scoops it up in her arms and scoots out into the brush, beyond the camera's range, the other chimps following behind. A title card comes up, explaining that the mother chimp had brought her baby back to the group, which in turn, disposed of the body.
I recognized then that she had not been looking for her baby; she had been practising how to leave it.
Alexandra Kimball is a freelance writer and editor living in Toronto. Her work has been published in magazines across Canada.
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