Now it’s a month since your visit
and your memory lingers on,
Somehow feels like you’re around,
even though I know you’re gone,
and in these times when you feel so low
Ain’t nothing you can do
But we’re still thankful for your visit
Cause we changed cause of you,
Yeah we changed cause of you.
– The John Butler Trio, Spring
If you drive on the winding country roads and streamlined highways of northern New South Wales you will probably notice the occasional wooden cross, staked just off the roadside. Sometimes there is just one; often there are two or three clustered together. They mark a place where someone’s life has ended, stopped short and by surprise—someone’s mother, father, friend, or child. And they mark a place where those who loved them were stopped short also, and where lives have been ripped open, tears shed, and gods cursed. They tell us a story—about life and death, about chance and fate, mystery and healing—reminding us that in the end, we are at the mercy of something much bigger than our plans.
The crosses may be simply painted, while some are ornately decorated with talismans in honour of a life that once was—plastic flowers, photos, candles, and toys—sun-faded and weather-worn. Still and silent, they stand juxtaposed against the stream of cars rushing past them. Life carries on.
Some wooden crosses never make it to the roadside, the loss too private to share with rushing cars and trucks. And some exist for only the eyes of those who know the tale.
On a quiet side street in the heart of Paris, Rue Ormesson, a tiny wooden cross is staked into the garden just outside the hotel door. It’s not really there, but it would be, had time and materials allowed. It was in that place that my pregnancy ended, quite by surprise, at the end of my fourth month.
Miscarriage isn’t usually the sort of thing that people write home about, let alone to an entire magazine readership. But as I had let you in on my pregnancy last edition, I felt it only right to let you in on how it ended.
We were overseas that month, mostly visiting family in the UK. Still in London, I began spotting some days prior to the miscarriage, at which point I phoned my midwife in Australia. She was very pragmatic. She said, ‘This baby is either going to stay, or this baby is going to go. Either way, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. You might as well just chill, and enjoy your time overseas.’ And so, I did. Don’t ask me how. I think I just resolved not to ruin my holiday, and certainly not to plague the little being inside me with stress hormones.
By the time we arrived in Paris some days later, it seemed things were quietening down and I thought I was out of the woods. But the next day, I was feeling worse and by the following morning, in a small, dishevelled hotel room with my two children, Arun and Sahaja, my husband, Alok, and my mother at my side, I lost her—a baby girl whom we later named Sarah.
Now Paris is not a place that one normally associates with loss and sadness (except for the loss of Princess Diana). In fact I had other things in mind: strolls through the Luxembourg Gardens, running through the Louvre with bored kids in tow and communing with gargoyles at Notre Dame. I had been an exchange student there many years ago during University, and during that time had made the back streets my own. And so, if there were a place other than home that I’d rather have such an experience, it would be Paris.
So there we were, all tearfully huddled together on the same double bed, each of us spending time with Sarah in our own way. I was so amazed by Arun and Sahaja’s response, how present and available they were. After some time, Alok put Sarah in a small empty cardboard pastry box he just happened to have in his backpack. She was just the size to fit—about the length of my outstretched hand. Complete with fingers, toes, ears, and eyes, she was a tiny, whole, person. We decided to go to Notre Dame, just a ten-minute walk away, and light candles for her. We placed the box back in Alok’s backpack, and set off for the Ile de la Cité—home of Notre Dame, but also the site where the Gauls worshipped Greek gods and goddesses at the Temple of Jupiter some 2,000 years ago.
It is said that when you light a candle for those deceased, you not only light their way as they travel to the next place, but you light your own way as you travel through your grief. I think the cathedral received a record number of coin donations that morning, from all the candles we lit. We slowly moved throughout the various inner chapels, finding places to sit quietly. For Alok, it had been the first time he willingly entered a church for spiritual reasons since his Catholic-tortured childhood. It’s questionable whether or not we lit Sarah’s way, but most certainly we lit ours.
Surrounded by the river Seine, our next step was obvious. We would gather flowers and have a small ceremony by the river, somewhere private—if that was at all possible in the middle of Paris. To the north of the little island, we came upon a bridge over the river, and underneath was a small platform at the water’s edge. Not a soul was around. And so there we said our goodbyes to her. With a final word, Arun lit a last candle for the top of the box and Sahaja sprinkled flower petals. Alok set the small box afloat on the river, which gently took it downstream. My mother and I couldn’t watch, but at one point I turned to see Alok, Arun, and Sahaja walking next to the river, alongside the box as it drifted away; as Sarah floated out of sight, away from our lives.
Some time later, I phoned my midwife to let her know what had happened and to see if there were any indications I needed to look out for in case I needed medical attention later. She told me that our bodies not only know how to give birth, but also know how to end a pregnancy, and therefore not to worry. But if I became faint, or if I should lose lots of blood, then I should seek help. According to the Mayo Clinic, most miscarriages, even late ones, do not need any intervention. Most medical institutions practise what is called ‘expectant management’, meaning that symptoms are observed closely, watching out for trouble signs such as extreme bleeding, faintness, etc. With that advice, we carried on with our travels. My body was surprisingly strong. But emotionally, of course, I was fragile. The journey back to northern England the next day was the longest day of my life.
It was several days later that things became even more intense. I started bleeding heavily while at a bookstore and began feeling faint and dizzy. Grabbing my mother’s arm I told her to take me back to the flat, and call an ambulance. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared. Minutes later a team of paramedics were at my bed, asking questions. The one named John asked if I was allergic to anything. ‘Yes!’ said Sahaja with utmost earnestness. ‘She’s allergic to cats!’ ‘I won’t give her any cats then,’ said John. I knew then I was OK.
I went to hospital in the ambulance. By the time I had an ultrasound, I’d stopped bleeding badly, stopped feeling faint, and, by all indications, was stable, but the doctor decided I should have a D and C. Had I lived close by, or were I to be around for two or three more weeks, then they would have probably elected to just observe me, but with travelling so much, it seemed safer to intervene.
The doctor assured me that severe bleeding sometimes happens after a miscarriage, and going into hospital during the miscarriage would not have made any difference. ‘We prefer to see how the body wants to deal with it naturally,’ he said, ‘but given that you are moving from place to place and we can’t spend time observing you, this is the best option.’ I awoke after the procedure feeling empty, alone and deeply sad.
That night I had a dream. I was lying down on a busy street, around me was a loitering crowd. In the background I could hear the drone of a didgeridoo. Two Aboriginal women came pushing through the crowd, making their way to me and knelt down at my side. One introduced the other as Mary. They began singing over my womb.
When I look back at the experience, I feel overwhelmingly lucky. Strange to say that, but I do. I feel lucky that my midwife gave me such simple advice on the onset of the miscarriage. So many women are advised to ‘quick, go get an ultrasound’, which invariably leads, should the baby be discovered dead, to the miscarriage being hastened through medical procedures. While birth is already considered by the mainstream to be a medical condition, miscarriage is seen as even less natural. Even though, if you think about it, it’s as natural as having a full-term baby. It’s only the outcome that is different.
In receiving such sane advice, my family and I were given our dignity within which to meet such a loss. We were allowed to be with the baby and each other, to have time with her, and say goodbye to her in a way that was natural and normal for us. To this extent I feel it allowed us to heal our emotional loss quickly, and to feel a completion.
As the days passed and I began to share the news, I was amazed at how many mothers and fathers had also lost a child to miscarriage and how massively their lives had been affected: ‘He would have been 17 years old this year,’ wrote one father, a friend of mine who has three children. ‘I can still feel her with me, though it was five years ago,’ wrote another friend. My neighbour suffered two; my grocer, three; the woman down the road, one; my farrier’s daughter, three. Many stories were from close friends whom I’d known for years, and yet had never heard of this important event in their lives. There have been so many babies lost, so many unnamed faces—tiny wooden crosses on invisible roadsides—unseen and unspoken.
It made me think of how unfortunate it is that the stories are not told more, as if to do so would shame us in some way or might be a way of admitting some kind of defeat. And when things go hidden like this, when they hang out in the realm of secrets and unspokens, then they can become vulnerable to superstitions, wives tales and dark underbellied beliefs that become toxic.
One of those beliefs is that miscarriage means something went ‘wrong’, that it is a result of some kind of pathology, or worse, is a result of something a mother did. In small-picture thinking, maybe this is so, but there are other forces at work and larger plans than just what we see in the material world. Life, in its boundless complexity, is mysterious in its workings and our rationalisations of beginnings and endings can often be naïve at best, punishing at worst.
I think such small-picture thinking, especially in these cases, leads to all kinds of unnecessary intervention, guilt, and heartache. As well, it can deny a natural response to a natural event, further complicating the grief process, closing all our doors to deeper seeing, understanding, and wisdom.
Pathologising natural events such as birth and miscarriage robs us of our instinctual nature. I can’t imagine what my experience would have been like had I miscarried at a hospital, had I not be allowed to see and connect with my unborn child. And I can’t imagine what it would have been like for Alok, Arun, and Sahaja. This is why I feel so lucky.
Taking things out of the unspoken and into the spoken makes for strong medicine, not only for those speaking, but also for those listening. Some time ago Kindred featured a bravely written story on miscarriage (Vol 18, June– August 2006), a first-hand account of loss and healing. Had I not read that story, I think I would have found myself less prepared for the loss of Sarah, less trusting of my instincts.
Perhaps a door needs to be opened into that invisible realm of tiny crosses—of losses thought too ‘small’ to acknowledge, where we could wander, place brightly coloured plastic flowers and toys, and share medicine stories. A place where our rational knowing steps aside for curiosity and respect for the unknown. A place where we could acknowledge the wisdom that comes from entering the underworld of loss and grief. Perhaps if we opened that door, our wild nature would return, our instinctual selves, to stand unafraid of what life may bring, or take away.
You can read more of Kelly’s writing at EQUUS, here.