Postpartum After Infant Loss: One Mom’s Story of Changes

A Mother is Still Postpartum After Loss

Trigger warning: In this post, our contributor, Erin, talks about unexpected infant loss. Some details may be difficult to read. While we at Postpartum Together believe it’s important to enter other women’s stories, even when uncomfortable, we also recognize the need to protect your heart and mind.

unexpected infant loss and postpartum for mom

Please introduce yourself and your partner and some background to your story. (Including where you are living and what that is like!)

Hi! I’m Erin, and I live in Uganda with my husband, Francis, who is Ugandan. Uganda is quite diverse and has everything from bustling cities to national parks where the elephants roam free. Francis and I live in a small, rural town in northern Uganda, about 35 kilometers from the city where he grew up, where most of our friends and family live, and where we attend church. Our town recently got tap water (woohoo!) so we live in a home with no running water inside, relying on solar power to meet our needs. Francis is an English and Literature teacher in a nearby secondary school (high school) and I work as a graphic designer serving US-based clients remotely.

My side of the family lives in the US, and from our door to theirs it’s about a two-day journey. I spent my childhood in Pennsylvania and my adult life in Ohio before moving to Uganda in 2015. Francis and I got married in 2018. I love life in Uganda and have imagined living here long term since my second visit in 2010. Meeting and marrying Francis has solidified that dream for me.

What did you know about postpartum prior to your own experience?

I’m a bit of a knowledge-gatherer, so felt like I did a moderately good job of preparing for postpartum, primarily through internet research. Being that this was my first pregnancy, I wanted as few surprises as possible (though obviously there are ALWAYS surprises even if you do tons of research). We read articles about what to potentially expect physically and emotionally, saved so many resources to refer back to later, and started following some great accounts on Instagram.

Additionally, I have limited access to American conveniences, so I wanted to plan in advance to make sure I had some products to make the healing process more comfortable. I actually felt well prepared to help heal my own body and knew I would figure out all things baby with time. My closest friend also gave birth last year, so hearing about some of her experience was also so helpful!

I didn’t know that losing my child was a possibility. No one mentioned that. Babies die far too often, be it from miscarriage, still-birth, infant death, or death at an older age. Should parents be told that it could happen? Should we be prepared for that horrible possibility? I don’t know the answer to that.

How did being away from your family and birthplace impact your TTC- postpartum experience?

We got lucky and became pregnant the first month we tried, one month after our wedding. It felt almost too easy. Once pregnant, we heard the question a lot from people wondering if we would have the baby in Uganda or in America. Many expats choose to go to their home countries to give birth, whether it’s because they want to give birth in a familiar setting, to be close to family, to make it easier to get their country’s citizenship for their children, or another reason.

My pregnancy was low-risk and it made sense to deliver here in Uganda — babies are delivered here all the time! My husband was denied a visa to travel to the US (we had hoped to go for Christmas 2019 after Silas was born) and I couldn’t imagine delivering our son without Francis or being in a different country for so many months. I have known some women that have to deliver in the US health reasons, away from their partner, and I felt so fortunate that we didn’t have to do that.

We found a great birth center about 40 minutes from our home. A few of our friends delivered with their midwives and they have wonderful rates of infant and maternal health. We received great antenatal care there. Everything was going so well and we were confident about what was to come.

Both Francis and his mom, Florence, were present for Silas’s birth and I felt so taken care of by them and our midwives. It’s typical here to have a helper with you when you go to deliver your child. Hospitals and birth centers don’t provide the same amenities as many US facilities, so Florence helped with washing linens, boiling me hot water for bathing, and more. Also, many men here do not attend their wife’s births, and even less are active in the labor and delivery process (much like in the US a few decades ago). Francis was so amazing and supportive throughout the whole process, I really don’t know how I could have done it without him!

It was a bit strange not having my parents nearby, but we kept them updated via WhatsApp. I’ve always been independent so it felt pretty normal to be honest. When my niece and nephew were born, my parents and I were able to meet each of them within hours of their births, so knowing my parents wouldn’t meet Silas until he was a few months old was something new to wrap my head around.

All that being said, things don’t always go to plan. Silas was born healthy and strong. I had a beautiful and empowering birth experience. Silas was delivered vaginally and unmedicated (which is normal in this part of Uganda and what I had hoped for) with almost no tearing. After delivering him into this world I felt like I could do anything! We had a blissful day together napping, learning how to feed, cleaning diapers, and getting to know each other. Silas was so amazing.

At around 20 hours after birth, Silas starting having some breathing issues and, to make a long story short, our sweet boy devastatingly passed away in a hospital at around 24 hours old. I would say it was my greatest fear coming to life, but I never feared losing a child because, in all honesty, the thought never crossed my mind. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening for a while, and once it sunk in I kept waiting to wake up from the nightmare we were living. When I held his lifeless body, I kept waiting for him to suddenly return to life, to start breathing again, to start moving again. But he never did.

After we held him and said our goodbyes, I followed Francis, carrying Silas’s body to the mortuary with my midwife’s arm around my shoulder. We left the hospital without our son. My womb empty, my arms empty.

The next few days were a blur. Neighbors came to our home within hours of our return, children eagerly shouting, “Auntie, where is your baby? We want to see him.” I had to learn how to say, “My baby died,” in Acholi, the local language. I curled up on our couch weeping, a wet spot of tears on the purple pillow case appearing all too quickly. Our pastors and friends from church came that same day to sit with us and talk about Silas’s funeral. Florence, with help from Francis’s siblings, made all of the preparations for the burial.

Here, you don’t hire a funeral home to take care of all of the details for you. No, you have to hire a neighbor to dig your son’s grave; a mason to come build the headstone; a carpenter to build a small casket. Caskets that size shouldn’t need to be built. You have to pick up your son’s body from the morgue the morning of his burial; take him to your family’s home; watch your husband’s mother gently clean his lifeless body as aunties watch in reverence, clothing him in the outfit you planned to bring him home in. Blue and white striped pajamas with an elephant on the chest. It’s all too much. And it’s all so tender and messy and beautiful and holy. The veil between heaven and earth is so, so thin.

It was difficult not having my parents here to mourn with us. We also didn’t have things like meal trains. My parents’ friends brought them food for a week or two and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t envious. Some friends bought food and neighbors occasionally shared meals. We don’t have a fridge or freezer so we couldn’t keep anything for long. Friends let us stay at their home in the city for so many nights, feeding us and loving us and letting us rest. Acquaintances offered free meals at their restaurant. We felt taken care of the best our situation allowed for. Friends still check on us to see how we’re doing. One friend sends me a message every month on the 12th because Silas was born on October 12th.

Friends and family showed up at Florence’s home for weeks after the burial, sometimes unannounced, to pay respects to Silas and our family. That is one time I have felt thankful to live far away from our family. I don’t know how I could have hosted people in the weeks that followed Silas’s birth and death. And yet it is expected.

Can you share more about what parts of postpartum you still experienced after the loss of Silas? 

Like all mothers who have gone through labor, my body ached for days. Weeks? My muscles were sore, everything hurt. Silas’s funeral happened just two days after he died, and that morning my milk was ready to go. My goodness, I thought my breasts were going to explode – and all of the hugs did not help! Thankfully, we found some Sudafed to help dry up the milk within a week. I wish I could have pumped the milk and donated it, but without proper refrigeration that’s not an option and it’s just not common where we live.

The emotional pain added to the physical. I had a lot of strange symptoms after Silas died, like chest pain and dizziness. I did so many tests at the hospital to rule out a lot of things, but looking back I think it was likely postpartum anxiety combined with grief. I honestly didn’t know where to go for help locally, though maybe it exists. A friend here who had a baby earlier in the year offered to take me to a facility where she went for a lot of postpartum follow up appointments which was so kind of her.

I was able to still take three months off of work, so I spent a lot of time resting, journaling, listening to podcasts, connecting with other grieving mommas, praying, and moving which thankfully helped. I had to train my brain to rewrite my dreams for the future. I’m still doing that.

RELATED: PPD and PPA stories from Real Moms

What do you wish more people realized about postpartum after loss?

Just because my child died does not mean my postpartum experience also died. I still need postpartum care in addition to grief care. My midwife did a great job at reminding my husband and I of this before we left (and when we went for our checkups). Francis was my greatest support in recovering and took care of me so well, asking for help when we needed it.

What are some of the things that people said/did that were hurtful? (Even if well-intentioned?)

There are so many.

“Don’t worry, I know God will give you another son.”

“Your pain will go away when your next child is born.”

“You just need to be strong.”

“I know exactly what you’re going through, my sister also lost her baby.”

Also, with some Christians (I identify as a Christian/follower of Jesus – I don’t love all of negative excess that comes with the word “Christian,” but that’s another topic) I was made to feel like my grief showed a lack of faith. People would tell me not to cry because Silas is in a better place. While I do believe that Silas is healed and whole and in the arms of our loving Savior and I take great joy in that, I still miss him. Grief and faith can live side-by-side. I could go on and on about this.

What are the things people said/did that were most helpful in a difficult time?

One of my closest friends would often tell me, “I don’t know what to say,” and that was SO refreshing to me.

With another friend, the first time I mentioned Silas to her after he died, said, “I never wanted to talk to you about him because I don’t want to make you sad.” I appreciate her honesty.

Here’s the thing: there is no helpful thing to say when someone dies, especially someone’s child. You can’t take away the pain, you can’t make them forget. You won’t make people sad by talking about the one they lost. Some people seem caught off guard when I talk about Silas or being pregnant with him in normal conversation. But I can’t act as if Silas never existed. Silas is real, he grew inside of me for 9 months, I held him in my arms and kissed his sweet newborn head, smelling his yummy newborn smell.

Silas is and forever will be my son. I love to talk about him. There is always the thought of him just beneath the surface, he’s on my mind basically all of the time. I’d rather someone talk about him and make me cry than never talk about him.

Also, if someone is going through a loss or hard time and you want to help, offer very tangible help. This goes for postpartum parents with living children, too! Instead of saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” say things like, “I would love to bring you dinner from (this restaurant) on (this day), what would you like?” or “Can I come over this weekend to help with laundry and vacuuming?And then follow through. The world seems so big after loss and I didn’t know how to ask for help most of the time. Offering specific things is so very helpful.

Anything else you would like to share about Postpartum After Loss?

If you’ve gone through loss or are figuring out life in a culture that’s not your own, I’d love to hear your story and connect! Feel free to message me on Instagram @erin.nyero 

Do you know someone who has suffered stillbirth, miscarriage, loss or another tragic birth event? Check out this Psychology Today article from Margaret M. Quinland, Ph.D., and Bethany Johnson MPhil, M.A. on Tips for Supporting Parents and Caregivers in Crisis.

This series, Postpartum Narratives, aims to bring awareness, normalization, and understanding to different postpartum experiences. No two postpartum experiences are the same, and as a society, we cannot have one view of what postpartum is or should be. By sharing stories, we diversify our own understanding and can then advocate for better support and resources for each person and space that affects a postpartum family- the home, the workplace, the medical field, social constructs, etc. if you have a postpartum narrative you would like considered for contribution, please contact me here.

RELATED: Infertility and Wishing for a Baby

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