Ghostly Grief: On Miscarriage and Loss

What do you really lose when you lose a pregnancy?

I lie back against the paper-coated examination table, alone at my first appointment, eight weeks pregnant. I’m thankful that I’m not violently ill like in my last two pregnancies. I look up at the ultrasound screen with an unhindered joy — soon, I will berate myself for it. You should have known better than to be happy.

Instead of finding a peanut-sized body on the screen, I see nothing. Emptiness. I watch reality flick across my doctor’s face. She gathers herself to say the words I know are coming.

“I’m sorry. I can’t find a baby here. It looks like the embryo just never developed.”

The day is lonely. I call a friend to pick my oldest son up from camp. I barely breathe the words to her: No baby. More tests. My husband, Chris, is working from home, watching my other son, who’s sick. I drive from the doctor’s office to the hospital. Another ultrasound. More emptiness. Another blood test. More bad results.

What do you really lose when you lose a pregnancy? Did I lose a child? Can you lose a child that never really existed? A child that never developed?

*  *  *

A friend recently sent me a note after hearing about my loss: “Miscarriage is the strangest grief, ghostly but intensely embodied.” That word, ghostly, has stayed with me. What is it to lose a child who never became? What is it to host death in your own living body? In the womb that always before gave life? Ghostly grief. Ghostly sorrow.

*  *  *

The day after the ultrasounds, I’m still pregnant. That is the part no one warns you about. That you’ll still feel exhausted, you’ll still feel burdened. When there’s nothing in the ultrasound, you either wait for your body to get the memo or you schedule the procedure to rid yourself of the leftovers, your body’s failed attempt at giving life. Either choice demands waiting, days of carrying the lifelessness inside you.

I choose the procedure. I want it out of me. I feel betrayed and embarrassed by a body that lied to me.

I schedule the D&C for Tuesday, five days from now.

The boys have one more day of camp. All week, I’ve been working. But the day after the terrible news, I decide to take a break. I’ll shop. I’ll get a manicure.

I force a smile for the nail technician. She says, “Oh, you’re having a nice day today, getting your nails done.”

“Yeah.” I say. “I don’t do this often, but the kids are at camp and I’m trying to enjoy my time without them.”

“Oh, how many kids do you have?”

“Two,” I say. And breathe deeply. Thank you, God. For two healthy kids.

“More for you?”

“What?” I look up from my nails. I stare at her eyes, willing her to unsay her words.

“You want more? More kids?”

I want this conversation to stop. I ask God to zap our mouths so we don’t have to finish. I think: This was a bad idea, getting your nails done. You should be working. I feel my nerves light up along the base of my womb where NOTHING and everything lives. The place that formed my living babies and let this baby die. Or did it ever exist at all?

I look at this woman, whose eyes are cast down on her work, my fingers. I try to gather grace for her. How could she know the sharp stab of such a question?

“Yes.” I say. “I do.” I look back down at my nails and try not to tremble the words. “Want more kids.”

“Oh, yes. Maybe someday, huh?”

I nod my head. Yes, maybe someday.

*  *  *

Chris goes with me to the D&C procedure. We sit in the waiting room until they call my name and walk together into the clean, white room. It looks just the same as the room I sat in last week. The room I walked into with plans for a baby in January: a new year, a new life.

I change into the white robe and lie on the table. Dr. Lam opens the door, his face already set in compassion. He’s an older, gentle man with kind eyes. He grabs my hand. “I am so sorry.”

And then it starts. The drug shot into my arm sends me whirling. They said I would feel drunk. What I feel is a spinning white room and a much-too-conscious mind. I keep my eyes closed so the ceiling stops moving. I was hoping for happy gas, the childhood cavities stuff that left me giggling all the way home.

I’m not drunk, not giggling. There’s the first sting. And the “pressure,” they call it. It feels like a shove, an internal punch. I dig my nails into Chris’ hand while the whoosh of pain shoots through my lower body. That’s when they turn on the vacuum.

A vacuum made for a vagina, I think. The pain rolls in again, too reminiscent of childbirth. I grip Chris’ hands and let my tears escape in silence, except for the vacuum sucking out eight weeks of life-giving. Am I crying because of the pain? The sadness?

I think to myself: This is what abortion feels like. And I think of all the girls who do this alone. All the women in the world who have lost a baby or chosen to lose a baby. All the women who have dug fingernails into the table, and not into the hands of someone who loves them.

When it’s over, blood drips onto the paper beneath me. My blood, remnants of the life that didn’t make.

I’m too woozy to stand. I lie still in silence while the doctor and nurse put away the equipment. They turn the lights low for me. I open my eyes and look for where the vacuum is kept, where the pregnancy my body made has been neatly disposed of. I see a box. In there, I think. And I tell myself that there is no baby there. It never developed, I tell myself. It never really happened.

*  *  *

What I didn’t know about miscarriage was the power of the passing months. The seasons of internal lifelessness gathered and charted. I’d never watched from this vantage point, where time passes and I remain empty.

The Internet makes it harder, of course. Always there are pregnancy announcements, women due at the same time I was due. I ache for the baby that never was.

Ghostly grief, my friend said.

*  *  *

In the weeks that follow my procedure, I travel with my children to Texas and the mountains and the East Coast. I walk by myself on dirt roads and watch sunsets. I tell my story to friends: the sound of the vacuum, the mysterious sorrow of losing a child that never actually lived.

“You want more kids?” Everyone asks this: strangers at the grocery store and the post office and well-meaning friends at the park. What does it mean to want? To make space for life in a place that carried death?

“I do,” I whispered to the woman at the nail salon the day after my baby wasn’t there, the day after I learned of its life undone, its life dissolved into my body.

“I do.” Like the vows I took before my husband 10 years ago in that white fitted dress, in my toned, younger body that had never given nor received life.

I’ll say it again. I do, I will. Vows, all of them.

Image courtesy of Volkan Olmez.

Micha Boyett
Written by

  • Alise

    The pain of childbirth without the child feels like one of the cruelest things a woman can experience.

    Thank you for writing down this pain so that others can understand. Praying for your continued healing.

    • michaboyett

      Praying for yours too, Alise. Thanks for all the ways you’ve supported me.

  • http://www.tanyamarlow.com/ Tanya Marlow

    I have tears. This is so exquisitely beautiful, even in the sadness. Ghostly grief. I have a feeling this will breathe life and freedom into those who have held this grief in silence for so long.

    So thankful for you, dear Micha – for your courage to tell of vulnerable places, for your talent to tell it with such clarity, for the grace that pours from you. This story felt like a gift. Thank you.

    • michaboyett

      Thank you, Tanya.. So honored to see you here.

  • Jennifer Schmidt

    Powerful!

    • michaboyett

      Thank you, Jennifer.

  • Jessie Breines Burns

    i eagerly awaited this post, and it so accurately captured my thoughts and emotions as i went through the same ordeal. Thank you for putting into words what swirled in my head for months. And happy to announce we are right behind you with another baby on the way 🙂

    • michaboyett

      Jessie, so happy to hear that, friend! And honored to be have put some of it into words for you. Writing this was a privilege.

  • Ellie

    This is so powerful and sadly so relateable. Thank you so much for sharing. I am so sorry you have had to go through this. x

    • michaboyett

      Thank you, Ellie.

  • Lara Trottier

    This is so powerful and so accurate, I felt the same way when I was told that my baby had died at 8 weeks, when I should have been entering my second trimester. It’s a silent pain, because most people don’t understand.

  • Karen Pashley

    Thank you for sharing. I know there are many more women out there who will be touched by your words.

  • MennoMama

    Thank you for your heartrendingly beautiful reflection. I was particularly struck by your question, ” What is it to host death in your own living body?” It continues to be a question that I grapple with following the stillbirth of our daughter a full-term last year followed by a miscarriage at just shy of 12 weeks for our wee one who stopped developing around 8 weeks. What do you make of death in the place that is meant to hold life?

    Thank you for naming this silent grief and for helping to unmask the shame and silence that seems to go hand in hand with miscarriage. I think I felt much more lonely and unsettled after the death of our child through miscarriage. With a still birth people recognize that as a real loss–after all there is a fully formed, beautiful baby who just looks like she is sleeping. It’s acceptable to have a memorial service to invite people into your grief but we don’t know what to do with a miscarriage. I just felt a lot of shame…like I brought this on myself and it was foolish to desire a baby after our devastating loss and that somehow I had brought this pain on ourselves. I realize of course, that longing for a child is not something that should be shame filled or that either loss was my fault but there is such a jumble of complicated emotions that accompanies the death of a child. And the only way through is to just keep feeling the feelings and living into the pain, giving it a name.

    And it is all the more magnified with “helpful” people point out, “at least you’ve got your son.” (Of course, everything will be better if only you would cheer up.) Yes, I am grateful for our son but his presence does not replace the absence of the other children who should be in our home. There is a hole in our family despite the fact that that they never slept in the crib or wore the tiny diapers we had prepared.

    Thank you again for so beautifully giving a voice to what so many experience but are not given the space to name out loud.

    • michaboyett

      Thanks for this story. I’m so sorry for both of your losses. And you’re right, it feels like our culture is so afraid to let sad people be sad, to let grief run its course. And especially when it’s a loss that no one else–even your husband–can really grasp. I’ve been so saddened by the stories other women have shared with me about how they’ve kept the loss to themselves or felt like they were selfish if they actually grieved it. I think our culture’s fear of letting people feel their losses is one of our greatest shames. Peace to you, MennoMama.

  • C.T.

    Even though it’s been over 20 years since the last of my 4 miscarriages, these words ring so true. I am the mother of 3 wonderful adult ‘children’, and I feel at peace with the lives and deaths I carried within me. We are members of a sisterhood we never wanted to join, but it’s wonderful that it needn’t be a sisterhood of silent suffering. Peace to you.

    • michaboyett

      Thank you, C.T. Yes, that’s such a interesting reality: So many other women have reached out sharing their stories. It is a sisterhood.

  • Amelia P

    Goodness. When I had the same experience and chose the D&C, I was completely put under for the procedure. I am so thankful for that.

    You put the experience into words nearly perfectly. Thanks for sharing your grief to help others understand what they haven’t experienced, or process what they have.

    • michaboyett

      Honored I could do it, Amelia. Thank you.

  • http://howtotalkevangelical.addiezierman.com/ Addie Zierman

    Beautiful friend. Yes. Yes to all of it.

    • michaboyett

      Thank you, A. Love to you.

  • Emilie Bishop

    Yup, all of this. It is like a ghost takes up residence in your heart and never quite leaves. And you don’t want them to leave, either, not really.

    • michaboyett

      Yes. Exactly.

  • Maggie Brock

    This was so beautifully written. Thank you for putting into words what I felt after losing my son Collin at 18 weeks gestation. Although I have two healthy boys, the loss I experienced nine and a half years ago is one I still carry, as if a piece of my soul is missing.

    • michaboyett

      Grateful to hear from you, Maggie. And honored by the opportunity to give it some words.

  • http://karissaknoxsorrell.com/ Karissa Knox Sorrell

    Blessings on you! I went through the same thing after two healthy pregnancies . . . the ultrasound showed an empty sac. The fetus had just not developed. Yet my body had been “acting” pregnant – I was tired, and food smells were stronger and bothered me. Fortunately they put me completely under for my D & C, but there’s an ache that’s hard to explain after something like this, when you never got to see or feel that baby or anything. May you find peace and healing. You are not alone.

    • michaboyett

      Thanks for your story, Karissa. Grateful for your words.

  • http://www.leighkramer.com/ Leigh Kramer

    Oh, Micha. Ghostly grief indeed. Love you dearly, my friend. I am so sorry for your loss.

    • michaboyett

      Thank you, sweet friend. Love back.

  • Brent Doster

    thanks for your honest reflection and openness. May your loss be recognized and your grief be given its proper place, wherever that is in your life: to remember, honor, connect, process, move forward with and have our being. God bless the child that always was and never was. God bless you and your family.

  • Carrie Ward

    So very sorry. Your words will bring healing to others as I’m sure letting them out have helped you through the grief.

    It was a different grief from any I had experienced. We have 2 healthy children and had 2 miscarriages between them. I had a D&C with both. The waiting was the hardest part for us, finding out there was something abnormal and waiting a week to discover the heartbeat was gone. My doctor said to be cautiously optimistic while the specialist said he was very hopeful. Both had the same conflicting words to share with the next miscarriage and we hadn’t even recovered from the first. I was empty and sorrowful (ghostly grief), but I didn’t cry much. I tried to make myself cry b/c surely I was cold hearted if I didn’t. My husband shut down and I went on autopilot. A family member asked why I chose to have a D&C since she said it was an abortion. I was taken off guard, startled and angry at the comment. Did I do that even if there was no heartbeat and the life form was shrinking away? Another advised me to name the baby and annually visit the hospital memorial site for the unborn. That didn’t feel right so I once again felt cold hearted.

    Some things people offer are harmful. Your post is helpful. Thank you. Praying for healing.

  • pastordt

    Oh, Micha. This is so beautifully and poignantly written. Thank you for tackling this painful piece and for writing it out so very well. Love you. A whole lot.

  • thatlostgirl

    I have never experienced the grief of miscarriage or losing a child. My pregnancies culminated in life, for which I am utterly grateful every day. My heart breaks for all of my sisters who have experienced losing a child, for it is a pain I can’t begin to imagine. Today, though, Micha, your writing helped me to understand the pain a little better. Because it is something I have never experienced, I can and try to always hold space for grief but I can never fully understand the pain, the loneliness, the ghostly grief. Thank you for your words to help me grasp, even slightly more, the difficult reality that while my womb has only held life, so many womens’ have held death. Devastating. Holy and wholly devastating. My prayers are with you and all families who have walked that difficult road. I am so sorry for your loss.

  • L.W. Dicker

    And then Jesus came upon his disciples and said, “Brethren, I’ve heard it said among you that I am the Son of God and was sent to die for your sins.

    Brethren, may I asketh, who among you is the lunatic who came up with this Neanderthal bullshit!!!???

    Blood sacrifice!!!!???? Brethren, have you completely lost your fucking minds!!!!????

    Surely I say to you, I’d sooner lick Judas’ ass crack than subject myself to the Stone Age insanity of human sacrifice!!!

    And the disciple whom Jesus loved the most said,

    “Well, shit man!!!! What the hell are we supposed to do now!!!!????

    Hey, is that fat bastard over there the Buddha!!?

    Tell that some’ bitch I need to have a word with him!!!

    —-The Holy Bible, if it was actually true

    • http://ourgirlsclub.blogspot.com/ Ginny Bain Allen

      Why are you here, anti-Christ? Your comment is disgusting, disrespectful, diabolical, deplorable, dysfunctional, disordered. You have no place here!

    • KellyLynne

      How very sad and lonely your life must be, that you have nothing better to do than to read a poignant story of grief and loss, and shit all over it. Really, dude, grow up.

  • http://neighborfoodblog.com/ Courtney @ Neighborfood

    I lost my first baby at 6 weeks last year. It was the most difficult experience of my life. We hadn’t told anyone we were pregnant, so even though we shared our miscarriage, if felt no one could truly share our grief, since they hadn’t shared our joy. The months are incredibly difficult. I remember each one vividly–the due date passing with no baby in sight. Now, a year out, it is easier. I cry less. I hope more. But the ache has never left completely. It’s an old bruise now…faintly seen and only painful when prodded. But I think I’ll always wonder about and long for my first child.

  • KellyLynne

    Thank you so much for this. Ghostly grief really is the perfect phrase. I’ve had two miscarriages, both at five weeks and pretty much indistinguishable from a normal period except for the pregnancy hormones, and the deep sense of loss. It seemed so strange to me to be grieving when I wouldn’t necessarily define what happened as death. For me at least, I think the answer to “What do you lose when you lose a pregnancy?” was “hope.” I had the same “You should’ve known not to be happy, not to get your hopes up,” reaction that you did.