Can We Really Quantify Loss?


measureDeath has been a little too familiar of late. On the same day my friend lost her brother my uncle passed away. A man in his mid-70s, I recall him mostly as shy and soft-spoken — the straight man to my gregarious father. It has been 20 years since I last saw my uncle so my sadness upon hearing of his passing was predominantly tied to the loss I knew my father was feeling. He and his older brother were practically Irish twins, altar boys who while sweet faced got into more than their share of trouble.

Watching the images of my friend and her brother at his memorial service my friend told me that the recent loss of a parent in no way prepared her for the loss of a sibling. As she described it, you lose a part of yourself, your childhood. In a conversation with my mother on the same topic — I was still worrying about my dad — she told me that yes, losing a sibling is more difficult. Losing a parent is part of the natural order though she assured me she and my father have no plans. Then what she said next had a delayed impact. The full force of it visited me during a minor bout of insomnia. She added “that’s why the loss of a child would be the most devastating.” It would just turn your life upside down. I assured her that I had no plans either.

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As I thought more about our conversation later I realized again how western society assigns value, grieving and support to different forms of loss. The loss of a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a friend, and the granddaddy of loss, a child — all have an understood mourning and response.  All except, that is, for the loss of a child-to-be.

In some religions, such as Japan’s Shinto as Peggy Orenstein’s book points out, there exists a mourning ceremony for miscarriages. An enlightened, empathetic but unfortunately minority view of the experience many couples face. Those of us who suffer loss through IVF or early pregnancy don’t get the benefit of the traditional grieving and support system. Being told to “get over it” is typically the extent of the support we get from society — if we get any response at all for that matter.

While much, oh so much, goes into trying to bring a child into existence with cumulative success at each step of the finely orchestrated process — from egg follicle development, egg harvesting, fertilization to embryos — all too often the result is private anguish and heartache.

My loss after several IVFs remains so visceral, so real that even a few years later I continue to mourn the loss of my children. Yes, mother, I said upon reflection in the still of the night, I have a very real understanding of how devastating losing a child can be.

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9 Responses

  1. Kami

    August 25, 2007 6:34 pm

    Your post brought tears to my eyes. I am one of the “lucky” ones who had a child born and then die. People could relate to that. We got sympathy cards. When people ask me “Do you have kids”, I often respond with, “We had one, but he died after birth.”

    I feel like they might understand that part of our journey a tiny bit.

    But I feel they should also understand that never having a baby or even a pregnancy is just as hard. The outcome is the same. I have been told that when we grieve the loss of a child so young, we are grieving the loss of who that child would have been. We are grieving what will now never be. How is that different than grieving the loss of a child that miscarried earlier? How is that different than grieving the loss of the child that was never conceived?

    It’s not any different and there should be rituals and support systems to recognize that as well. It boggles the mind that infertility has been an issue for as long as human beings have been around. Why are we still so bad at recognizing it’s impact?

  2. Lori

    August 25, 2007 8:39 pm

    You got me thinking. Maybe there is no ceremony in the Real World for a m/c, but might we come together in Blog Land to have our rituals?

    Even for m/cs that occured in the past.

    Someone would make a post to start her ceremony, others would chime in with virtual casseroles, bouquets, words of condolence, etc. The ritual can be whatever the person makes it. She can mark the loss with her cyberfriends.

    Has this been done before?

  3. MLO

    August 26, 2007 2:31 am

    I am lucky that in my family we have always recognized that not having a child is painful and needs to be mourned – as does miscarriage. Perhaps because I grew up with the stories of having to deliver a stillborn, multiple miscarriages, and never successfully having a child – even through adoption – I have never felt like I was completely alone in this journey.

    With friends it has been a mixed bag. Some people get it, some don’t. It just shocks me when anyone can say that a miscarriage is not a loss – or never having a longed for child is not a loss. That just seems to me to be a certain kind of heartless.

    Honestly, I think there has been a growth in truly psychopathic/sociopathic behavior in our society due to a desensitization towards other’s pain. For anyone not to acknowledge the pain of not having children when it is obvious that someone may have wanted them, is just cruel. I grew up with the notion that if you asked if someone has any chldren, and they say no, you say, “I’m sorry.” An automatic apology for possibly opening a wound and an acknowledgment of someone’s pain. But, it seems, even that little bit has gone the wayside.

    I’ve noticed that a growing number of people seem to say things like: “Good for you!” or “You don’t need ’em. Nothing but trouble.” I don’t know when that happened, or, if I was just lucky to be sheltered from such crassness when I was younger. And, yes, it is crass to say such things.

    I don’t know if it was the “child-free” movement, feminism, the media, or what, that took away the simple idea of saying, “I’m sorry,” away as an acknowledgment that there are types of pain that never go away.

    Once upon a time, women did acknowledge this pain privately. They did not share it with the menfolk. It was the domain of the midwife and her helpers. Is this the cost of modern medicine? Empathy going away? I don’t know. But it seems that the more advanced the treatments get, the less aware people are of the pain of infertility, miscarriage, and adoption loss.

    Of course, my plan has always been that if I do get pregnant, I won’t say it aloud – except to the blogosphere – until I’m in my second trimester. But who knows what happens next.



  4. Carlynn

    August 26, 2007 10:45 am

    Isn’t if ironic how even our families who have been alongside during so much of the process don’t think of us as having lost children? I think a more public acceptance of the grief of a miscarriage would help, it would be a recognition of a loss we have lived through.

    You capture things so well.

  5. mchope

    August 26, 2007 5:30 pm

    Firstly, my sincere sympathy for the loss of your uncle.

    Secondly, how wonderfully and eloquently put. I became emotional reading your post because we also have suffered the largely private loss of too many children…of course even one is too many. At times I have tried to quantify our losses by reminding myself that they were early on in the pregnancies. At the end of the day, though, it doesn’t make it hurt any less. Even though I didn’t get to see a heart beat or fingers and toes wiggle on an ultrasound screen, they were still our little ones…our little souls and chances at bringing a life forth into this world. In the class/support group I attended this past spring, we talked about the concept of considering yourself a mom even if you have not experienced a live birth. When a child is created you become a mom some would say. All I know is that the pain is very real, no matter the days, months, or years attributed to the life of the child. I really wish there wasn’t such a ridiculous taboo associated with loss/miscarriage in this country. Then so many of us wouldn’t have to suffer and mourn in silence.

  6. Deathstar

    August 27, 2007 6:38 am

    It took me a long while to even realize that it was “grief” because I couldn’t acknowledge that I had indeed undergone a loss. Even the loss of a the woman I used to be before infertility.

  7. Kareno

    August 27, 2007 6:48 pm

    Somehow I can’t find the right words to comment tonight – just thanks to you for saying things so perfectly. I’ll be back to read this post again, and again 🙂

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