I will never celebrate the coming of my daughter’s first menstruation, her first love or announcement that she’s met ‘the one.’ She will not call me in the middle of the day or night to say her waters have broken or ask if I have suggestions for the naming of her children. These are just a few of the endless barbs of grief, jolting me into the recognition that it is possible for me to mourn the loss of things I never really had in the first place.
With time’s propulsion into another month, another year since her passing, there are solid pieces of ground for me to stand and reflect on how far I have come on this path of recovery. There are also unflagged patches of sinking sand where I still have the option to pull myself out of sadness or allow myself to dwell in it a little longer, both to honour the truth of how I feel and to remember what must never be forgotten – about her or about what happened to me, to us.
With my book Invisible Earthquake : a woman's journal through stillbirth finding its way onto bookshelves and into cyberspace unexpected doors have opened, welcoming my daughter and I in with a sometimes overwhelming intensity and urgency. Our story and my intimate perspective as a mother have arrived in communication gaps and pain-filled silences within women, families and within medical fraternities across the world. I have not only been asked to do readings and interviews for radio, TV and print media but to kickstart vital conversations about the transformative potential of grief and the profound yet simple human resource of creative expression for those affected by stillbirth and other losses. People’s responses to these interactions have covered the entire spectrum from devastation to healing release and deep inspiration. The incredible nature of this journey which started with Iman Bongiwe’s death and the subsequent birthing of this book, is that it is an equal exchange. In the two-way process of sharing I am both the giver and the receiver. Numerous mothers and a few fathers have shared their experiences of stillbirth with me. I encourage them to continue to face and give permission to their grief and remembrance to do its (therapeutic) work and to reach out for professional bereavement support.
I have been humbled and motivated by these encounters, each one filling the hole in my heart with a sure sense of purpose. I have felt authentically useful to others in making the connections between clinical responses, cold statistics and documentation of stillbirths and the raw humanity of the experience, a mother’s voice, which still remains widely blanketed in silence. I have taken to saying that I simply show up, open my heart and my mouth and my daughter does the actual work. Not only does this mindset bring me comfort and confidence to speak, but it also brings moments of essential ‘lightening up’ into these grave conversations. It is a verbal affirmation of just one of the ways I am making meaning out of our loss.
Timeously, I have had a growing education around the research, facts and updated global statistics about stillbirth, particularly through the work of Dr Joy Lawn of Save the Children/Saving Newborn Lives, the recently launched Lancet Series on stillbirth and the International Stillbirth Alliance’s e-newsletter in April 2010. I have become acutely aware of how urgently we need to break the silences, stigma and misconceptions around stillbirth wherever and wherever possible. Our collective ‘noise-making’ about the reasons for stillbirth, the preventable causes, the need for global government and private sector investment in this relatively neglected area of health care – can change the numbing statistics from today, even if it means saving one baby’s life at a time.
If in South Africa alone, a country not nearly as under resourced as others in the Southern region or in South Asia, are having up to 61 stillbirths per day, then we can at least confront this mountain by starting right here at home in our own cities, our communities and within our extended families. In many cases the lack of information, support and ongoing education, both of mothers, medical staff and the public, could save babies’ lives and begin to ease the protracted suffering stillbirth can lead to. Instead of spitting out excuses or length explanations about the obstacles, we could be investing this energy into immediately feasible solutions and preventative strategies.
I am privileged woman from a middle-class background, who had the benefit of a gifted midwife throughout my seven months and 21 days of pregnancy and during the delivery of my daughter, as well as access to specialist medical care when complications set in. I have had access to various forms of alternative healing and grief support over the years. All of this has brought me this far in my recovery, but still could not erase the suffering stillbirth brings. In comparing this relative privilege to the ‘horror stories’ I have come to know, specifically for women in poorer contexts, I am filled with gratitude and feel compelled to find more ways to be of service. I offer my time and testimony toward stemming this tide of stillbirths and its heartbreaking silences and also to give some small comfort in the aftermath too many mothers and families are grappling with.
I have said many times before, even in the delivery room on 3rd January 2003, that I do not believe my daughter came to bring me sorrow. More and more I begin to understand and accept the unforeseeable/unforeseen gifts and life lessons that she continues to bring, from that very rupture in my heart and the inner earth of my body. I will never be the same and the direction of my life, the depth of my living has irrevocably changed. Even though she was not destined to stay, I can never ever regret that she came.
May 2011, Cape Town