October is pregnancy and infant loss awareness month. I know there are tons of “XYZ Awareness Months” out there. We can’t possibly notice them all.
But I wanted to highlight this because I’ve found, through my work at the church, how common this still is. Miscarriage happens to 1 in 4 pregnancies. Infant death still happens, even in the 21st century. And it is so isolating, because nobody ever talks about it.
Talk about it.
For help, go to the website of Saying Goodbye, a charity that deals with pregnancy and infant loss.
Two excerpts from A Merry Requiem, which deal with this issue:
* * *
He is dying. Half the time Helene cannot bear to hold him – the other half, she cannot bear to let go.
She argues with herself in the splotched pages of her journal.
He is not mine – he has never been mine – I have stared greedily at his tiny fingers and the way he sucks in his sleep, but he has never been mine, any more than I was ever my mother’s. We are all God’s. We are all strangers and exiles on the earth, and the world is full of sin and darkness, and man hath but a short time to live.
But if we are God’s, why does he not keep us in his care? Why are we so completely abandoned to the cruelty of the world, left to twist in the wind as the cross bites ever deeper into our hands and heart?
Madame Clouet finds the page open. She is living with them now, as least for two weeks, as there is a quarantine and she cannot leave. Her husband is with his sister, and he’s getting older, and she worries. Helene does more of the cleaning now – one of the servants is sick, has broken out in a red fever across her face. And Helene admits the cleaning helps, gives her something to do, something to be furious at. She puts on a tan muslin day dress and gets at the scrubbing and the dusting and the beating of carpets, and she likes to feel the sweat start into her hair at the nape of her neck, likes to feel her hands made raw by the sharp lye soap, likes to feel herself exhausted and occupied with something. It takes her mind away.
Madame Clouet doesn’t know what to say – the journal was open, so it wasn’t as though she was snooping, and she wants so desperately to say something. She writes a letter instead, sticks it into the open page. She notices that evening that it is gone, that Helene’s eyes look puffed and slightly reddened, and she says nothing.
Ma petite Helene –
So you are learning now that suffering is not beautiful. It is not noble, nor elegant. And there is no reason for it.
I will not waste your time exhorting you to suffer patiently the will of God; I am not quite so naïve as to believe such a thing. I am no priest, no scholar or poet. I am a mother who has conceived four children and borne only one, a wife who has followed her husband around army camps and seen battles. That is what I know – not heresies or theories or anything of that sort. Only forty years of living.
You will never find sense in this. This will never be justified. And it will always have happened. There will never come a time when you will not look back over your life and remember this. Remember that you never did a thing to deserve it, that you were unable to help your child who was in pain.
That somehow God allowed you to live, and took your child.
Life will come from it – you will perhaps, in time, develop a capacity for tenderness towards the sufferings of others. You will be able to give sympathy to a dear friend who will suffer as you are now. But that will not make up for what you have lost. There will never come a time when you will say, bright and happy, “it was good, after all, that this happened.”
You will hate God. You will fight with him. You will begin to wonder why he has an endless fascination with death. You will unreasonably wonder why the death of his son didn’t make him more compassionate towards yours.
You will forget sometimes that he is dead, and go to check on him in the middle of the night, and then you will remember again, and it will hurt.
You will hate Philippe – unreasonably – and the body that was life and nurture and comfort. You will hate the milk that still flows in you, and you will hate watching it dry up. You will be unable to take any delight in your husband. His body – and your marriage sacrament – will mean different things to you.
I could say tritely that there is a reason for this – that this is happening so as to teach you to survive it, that this is a test that will refine the gold in you and make you stronger. But you would laugh at me. And rightly so. It may be true – maybe only partly true – but you would justifiably laugh in my face and wonder what good I am to you now, in the freshness of your agony.
And I could tell you that God suffers with you, that he is like a mother dove brooding over her young. And this is true. Perhaps it will be some comfort to you someday, but perhaps not now.
I love you, ma petite fille – love you with all the passion of motherhood that now is the cause of all your pain. Would to God I could shield you from this, or make it all right.
All I can tell you now is that sometimes managing to survive in spite of it all is a triumph. Give your son what love you can, and send him to God. In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.
* * *
She has been with Claire, who has been ill. The same illness that took Francois, coming like a recurring dream. “You’re not going to die,” she has told her. “Do you hear me?” And Claire has nodded weakly, one hand on the belly that swells with a four-month’s child, and Helene has sat beside her, cooling her forehead with cloths, surprising herself by how confidently she orders around another woman’s servants.
“You hate the salons, don’t you?” Claire asked after a long and strange conversation about everyone else’s business, where Claire kept falling asleep or repeating herself or murmuring nonsensical fevered sentences.
“Yes. I hate the façade of it all. The way I must put on a face and make stilted conversation. And I hate the small and narrow circle of wives with nothing else to do but decide who is in and out of favour.”
“It is a wretch, isn’t it? I pity them, vaguely, when I can be bothered to. Their whole life is comparing invitations and clothes with one another. You and I, if we lost some money or had to re-use last year’s evening dresses – we would survive. They would weep. You should see them squabbling over rooms at the great country hotels; it’s embarrassing.”
“You seem not to mind it so much, though.”
Claire had shrugged.
“I am used to it. My father’s family is old and established – penniless, but the name is still worth something. These are the sort of evenings I’ve been used to since I was thirteen – I can manage the harpies. But I know they work you to nerves; I have seen it.”
“Your position is more secure than mine. One false step and I become nothing more than the butcher’s granddaughter whose father scrambled his way to a commission and who had to spend two years in a convent school before we could afford a governess. Can you imagine what they would do with that if they knew?”
“Yes,” Claire had said ruefully. “I can.”
“And Philippe has done very well, and we even now have our own carriage and driver, but it is all so very perilous.”
“They are such hypocrites. Half of them are only in society at all because their husbands struck gold on the stock market – they’re no more established than you are. In fact, my dear, you have ten times the class and breeding of most of them.”
And now she stands above Didine’s bed, looking down with glazed eyes and remembering that awful moment after the fever broke, when the doctor said, “she is going to live – but the child, I’m afraid, is dead. There is no heartbeat, no movement.”
So now she is the one with the living child, and Claire is going through this night of hell and she is unable to help. Claire has been given tonics and oils to push her body into expelling the thing, and she must walk and breathe and push as though with an ordinary labour, but knowing, horribly, the whole time, that there is nothing waiting at the end of it but a bundled body that will be disposed of as a bag of waste. And all Helene can do is curl herself into a ball in the corner of her bed and hope she will be asleep before Philippe comes home so she will not have to talk to him. Because if she talks, she will break.