The Look

Today, I got “the look”. We’ve all experienced “the look”; the one that you get when you mention your child, or mention stillbirth at all. That quick darting of the eyes away. That slightly stunned look as the person rapidly takes in what you’ve said and searches for a way to escape or change the subject. It happens even when we aren’t visibly sad or upset in any way. Today, someone sat beside me at a research conference and said: “I heard you’re on sabbatical! What are you doing?”

(Me, excitedly!) I’m writing a book!

(Other researcher) Oh that’s wonderful, what are you writing?

(Me, still trying to convey excitement) It’s a book about pregnancy after a loss! It’s meant to be a guide to help women going through this difficult time. It’s been great, I’ve been interviewing all these women and just today, my last one is having her baby! I’m so excited for her, I feel as though it is my baby too.

And somewhere in that last exchange, I watched her face fall. I watched as instead of catching my enthusiasm, she didn’t hear any of the wonderful things I said. She just heard “loss”, and stopped listening, panicked and tried to find a way to change the subject.

At first I thought this made sense, after all, who wants to hear about death? Death is sad and scary and horrible, especially the death of children. Then at 5:00 on my drive home, I heard the news….

  • James Foley beheaded in Iraq.
  • More rioting in Ferguson, MO after the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown.
  • A mudslide in Japan has killed a two year old boy and one of the rescuers who tried to save him.
  • More calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women after the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine is found in Winnipeg.
  • There’s an Ebola outbreak in Western Africa
  • Mass extermination of people in Syria and northern Iraq continues

Death, death, death, death. And so many of these are children.

And it isn’t just the news. Pop culture is focused on death too. How many of the top TV shows are about death, usually in gruesome ways? If you can watch Game of Thrones, how could you possibly be disturbed by the idea that sometimes babies die?

Do people distance themselves from death on the news or on television as somehow not real? It happens to other people, in other places, far away? Do people blame the victim, as if somehow all these people deserved their fate? With stillbirth the victim is the ultimate innocent. They weren’t even born yet! Or is the stigma around stillbirth related to something else?

As much as it might hurt me to see “the look”, there are things that are more important than my feelings. My personal hurt is part of a much broader picture. An estimated 8200 babies are stillborn every day. Half of all stillbirths have no known cause. And in order to find out, we need to have more and better research. Where the cause is known, stillbirths can often be prevented. We need to know why the stillbirth rate in the United States is 3 times the rate in Finland. When stillbirth can’t be prevented, we need to know how to care for a woman and her family going through this horrible time. But research is dependent on funding, and funding decisions are made by women like that one I sat next to at a conference. The one who was so disturbed by my book that she couldn’t even bring herself to talk about it.

This post first appeared on Still Standing Magazine.

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