The Art of Life After Loss & Miscarriage

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss awareness month. US President Ronald Reagan declared October as a month to recognize the unique grief of mourning parents in 1988 in an effort to support the families affected. Sadly, this year, the month of October opened with the country joining Chrissy Teigen and John Legend as they mourned the loss of their third child. The Washington Post reports “Chrissy Teigen revealed late Wednesday [September 30th] that she lost her baby boy after being recently hospitalized for bleeding issues related to her third pregnancy.” October 1st, Teigen tweeted, “Driving home from the hospital with no baby. How can this be real.” In strength and courage Teigen even shared a sobering picture of herself mourning baby Jack in real time on Instagram.

The truth is, many women are suffering and mourning the loss of their children year round, but particularly during the month of October. Including me. My hope in sharing my story of navigating life after loss and miscarriage is that it will bring awareness during the month where we focus on pregnancy and infant loss, bring hope to those grieving, and help others understand the weight of such an experience.

My Precious First

Aislinn Ridley, author and artist.

May 7, 2020 marked my first BFP (Big Fat Positive) pregnancy test. My husband and I were ecstatic! Though we both experienced several significant losses prior to this day (both our grandmothers, just to name a few), this news filled us with great joy and excitement despite the death that surrounded us. In a year filled with the pain of a pandemic we believed this pregnancy was going to be our blessing.

We told our immediate family and began making plans to welcome our little one into the world. I downloaded the app “What to Expect” and began tracking the development of my little one, who at this point was about the size of a vanilla bean seed. Week by week my body changed in response to the growing life inside of me. I was officially a momma, and you dared not tell me otherwise.

Without delay, I found the best prenatal vitamins I could get my hands on and even ordered other supplements to ensure I was not lacking any nutrients. Due to COVID-19 my first “doctor’s appointment” was over the phone with a nurse practitioner. She helped me feel at ease and told me everything I needed to know as an expectant mother. June 11th was my eight-week ultrasound, and with that information I headed to New York for my grandmother’s viewing and burial service.

Grandma’s Funeral

On April 10th, my grandmother celebrated her 80th birthday and by the 27th of the same month she took her last breath at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. My heart couldn’t feel anything. When my husband broke the news to me all I could say was “ok.” At 3am the following morning the tears flooded down my face. My body went into shock. It was very difficult knowing that we could not lay her to rest until the first week of June. Somehow, we manage to drive ourselves to New York and my husband officiated the service. Speaking words of hope and inspiration to my family, my husband was grieving himself as he lost his Nanny just one month before.

About a day or so before Grandma’s viewing I spotted for the first time. Immediately, I searched Google typing “spotting during pregnancy” and “lower back pain during pregnancy.” I called the clinic explaining to them what I was experiencing. They assured me that as long as there was no heavy bleeding that my symptoms were perfectly normal. By this time, I was about 6 weeks pregnant.

I always thought my grandmother would be around to meet my children or, at the very least, see me pregnant. Unfortunately, that wasn’t my reality.

I loved my grandmother and miss her everyday. After her services my husband and I got back on the road to return home. We drove with expedience excited to finally meet our little blueberry-sized baby.

Heartbeat

June 11th couldn’t come any sooner. It was finally time to see what was happening inside of my womb. My husband Jason was not allowed into the clinic because of the new restrictions related to the virus. This saddened us. All we wanted was to share this moment together. But our only option at this point was to include him via video call, which thankfully was allowed.

I did all of the things you’re supposed to when you go in for an ultrasound. I put on the odd-looking backwards frock and proceed to lie there vulnerable in the cold examination room. I remember feeling blank. It was as if my heart wouldn’t let me feel anything because deep down I had been feeling a decline in my pregnancy symptoms. I wasn’t feeling that soreness in my breasts anymore; the bloating I once felt was gone, even the frequent sprints to the bathroom dissipated. Yet, I remained hopeful.

When the doctor came in and began the procedure I could finally see the inside of my womb on the black and white screen. I held up my phone so Jason could see too. It took just a few seconds for the doctor to realize, to our dismay, there was no heartbeat. “This seems highly suspicious of a missed miscarriage,” she said. According to progny.com, “A missed miscarriage, also known as a missed abortion or a silent miscarriage occurs when a fetus is no longer alive, but the body does not recognize the pregnancy loss or expel the pregnancy tissue.” I felt absolutely nothing but numbness in my heart. My eyes began to water a little, but I quickly choked back the ears.

Original artwork provided by the author.

My doctor assured me that this happens frequently to many women and was sorry this was our first experience with pregnancy. I tried to listen to the words she conveyed, but it was as if my body was still in the room but my mind left a long time ago. “You have three options generally in this case,” she said. “There’s a pill that you can take that will make your uterus contract to expel the contents in your womb, or you could have a procedure called a D&C, which is essentially a loud surgical/vacuum-like procedure that would remove the embryonic sac and the contents as well. Or, you can see if your body will handle things naturally and have what is called a spontaneous abortion.” All of these options sounded horrendous to me, but I didn’t want them interfering with my body so I chose to allow things to take care of themselves naturally. Though I was not aware of it at the time, my body had already begun the process of releasing the life that once lived in my womb. I was being forced to say goodbye to a love I had not yet known; a little one I would never get to meet.

Pain into Power

The support I received from family, friends, and co-workers during this experience of great pain gave me power. The very next day I returned to work and my co-workers surrounded me. Without hesitation they formed a prayer circle right there in our classroom and began praying over me. The tears couldn’t be held back this time. God revealed to me that in the most terrible moments we may experience on this Earth that He will hold my hand each and every step of the way.

After the prayers, tears, and hugs, I went to the restroom and noticed I began spotting again. I called my husband and told him I was on my way home. I hardly remember the drive home that day. But I do remember that the support, prayers, thoughts of hope and peace, and so much more were just what I didn’t know I needed.

Original artwork provided by the author.

Curious, I asked Google, “what happens to your body when you’re having a miscarriage?” “Will I be in pain?” I tried my best to prepare for what I should expect, but nothing could prepare me for the physical pain I was about to experience. The cramps hit me while at a friend’s socially distanced birthday party. I began feeling sick and decided it best that Jason and I leave the party early for the emergency room. The contractions became unbearable. It felt like someone angry whacked me in the abdomen with a 2×4. I begged God to relieve the pain, at least until we got to the hospital. The entire time I’m praying for relief I was also trying not show my husband just how much pain I was really in. I wonder why we as women often feel the need to appear strong when we’re really struggling. For me, I think I wanted to appear stronger than I felt. I didn’t want to alarm Jason. And I may of even doubted how high my pain tolerance was. Either way, I was suffering but didn’t want anyone to see it.

In the Emergency Room

At the hospital I went through the necessary screening for all patients coming in during the pandemic. I was asked several questions like, “do you have a fever?” “Have you been in contact with anyone who’s had the following symptoms in the last x amount of time?” “Do you have a cough?” After taking my vitals and answering even more questions, a nurse walked me into the room where I would be for the next couple of hours. Jason had to leave because they would not allow him into the room with me. So there I was again – alone – in a cold hospital room.

It was just me and God in that room. We shared some special moments that evening together. All I can say is that He allowed me to feel His comforting presence like never before. I laid there listening to Gospel music on my phone in between getting poked with needles and being examined. Those nurses probably thought something was wrong with me, but I didn’t care. In that moment I was making peace with God about my circumstance trusting that He would bless me with children in the near future. And if not, I was adjusting my heart to trust Him with His plan for my life.

The majority of the physical pain had subsided (or so it seemed) and God allowed my body to do what it was made to do when things don’t go as planned. When it was all over, I remember being walked to the door by another nurse. She was very kind to me, and before leaving she told me that she had also experienced a miscarriage before she had her daughter who is now 10-years-old. Her story gave me hope.

Mothering

Once we got home, Jason told me that he asked my mother to come to Ohio to be with me as I healed. I didn’t think it was necessary. I planned to go back to work after a day off. Looking back, I obviously wasn’t thinking straight because I didn’t realize that I would not have the physical nor the emotional capacity to work after such a traumatic loss. I also wasn’t aware of the physical pain that would soon ensue.

I tried cooking breakfast the next morning and kept burning everything. It was then that I felt like the Holy Spirit tell me that I need to get back into bed and stop being stubborn. I was in pain. I could barely stand up for 5 minutes. I needed help. And that morning my mother was on the first flight to Columbus.

As an adult we sometimes think that we can handle situations on our own, but I quickly learned that even as an adult I needed my mother’s care. I count it a luxury to have the type of mother who would drop everything at a moment’s notice just to be there for me during my time of need. God outdid Himself when He made Mommy, and I hope that I can be at least half as good of a mother as she was to me. That would truly be something. Because my husband went out of his way to disregard my denial concerning my pain I was able to experience the nurturing care that I needed.

Jason

Jason and I went on to celebrate our one-year anniversary on August 24, 2020. Yup, all of this loss took place within the first year of our marriage. When people ask me how my first year of marriage has been, it’s always the same answer: unimaginable. It’s been filled with traveling (prior to COVID, of course) to several states and countries learning to live out of a suitcase, while also settling into our home and building a life together. It has been a beautiful journey that neither of us could have imagined.

During this year I have learned a few things about my husband, who just happens to be a Pastor. Most prominently, is that in the midst of his own grief I witnessed him officiate two funerals (the first one being his own grandmother’s funeral) along with three of his former members’ funerals in which he was part of the program. Then he suffered the loss of his first child. And as I’m watching him bury, pray, and care for everyone around him I’m wondering who is helping him grieve? Who is making sure that he is ok? It is so critical that we understand that Pastors are people too. They have feelings just like you and me, even though they often have to hide them. They hurt when tragedies happen. And they need support just as much as anyone else. What’s unfortunate, is that they are expected to have it all together when in reality no one really does. So the next time you want to pass judgment on a pastor, remind yourself that they’re just as much a child of God as you are.

Pastors shed tears too.

In the midst of all this, Jason took the best care of me. But this miscarriage happened to him too. In the midst of his pain he brought me food while I laid in bed, and even bought me a brand-new pair of sneakers with a note that said, “I could never understand what it means to be in your shoes.” He is navigating this loss in his own way, and I’ve seen his heart throughout the process. I am so grateful that God has drawn us closer together in ways that only He could during such an experience.

Jason, I love you.

Original artwork provided by the author.

Healing Through Creative Expression

In closing, I want to let you know that my healing is in no way linear. I don’t believe any type of grieving is. Truthfully, I’m still grieving today. Part of my processing has been in acknowledging the trauma I’ve experienced and admitting the hurt, pain, and confusion I felt. In addition to therapy I began doing what felt natural for me for so many years of my life – expressing myself creatively. As an art therapist it was a no brainer for me to begin creating artwork to feel and express my emotions. I created four artistic pieces individually reflecting various stages of my processing, and two in collaboration with Jason.

Original artwork provided by the author.

Another decision that was powerfully healing for both of us was that we left a picture of the ultrasound at each of our grandmother’s gravesites. This was difficult but necessary. We needed to acknowledge the grief which seemed to be happening simultaneously. Thus, it only felt right to honor each life with this small, yet powerfully symbolic act. My Grandma and his Nanny, now resting next to the little grandchild we hope they will meet some day.

Photo provided by the author.

Allowing myself to go to the places in my heart that were trying to hide was freeing. Once I released my thoughts and feelings in each work of art I began to feel a shift in my healing. Strength began to rise up inside of me and I began to see myself as strong, yet soft at the same time. The artwork I created with my husband included a memory box and an environmental assemblage (a collection of natural materials) to honor our precious first. Within the box there are items that remind us of the journey, the joys and the sorrows from May 7th – June 14th. Though it seems like a short amount of time to some, it felt like an eternity to us. The artwork we created using nature is symbolic of the growth, hope, and future life, whatever that may look like, that we are believing God for. Each day I carry the thought of my little one wherever I go. And thus a quote from the beloved childhood classic, Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss, means so much more now:

“A person’s a person no matter how small.”

Life is a miracle. It is precious. It is a gift. If I’ve learned nothing else from this, I can say that I definitely value life on a completely different level. As I continue to grow from it all, my hope and prayer is that I will continue to be responsible and intentional about my healing. No more trying to downplay my pain or put on a brave face when I’m hurting. Instead, I will be honest and authentic with myself first and others second.

I’ve begun a new journey of body positive affirmations that I’ll probably make art for as well. My prayer for parents who are experiencing pregnancy and infant loss is that you find the light in your darkness, the strength in your weakness, and the restoration in your pain. God is with you and He feels every bit of your sorrow. Allow Him and those around you to comfort and heal you as you mourn.

Original artwork provided by the author.