Here’s what nobody told me about pregnancy loss: It stays with you even after giving birth to a healthy child. I had my daughter in 2017 after four pregnancy losses and, here we are, in 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, and I’m right back in my grief.
My employer recently announced that staff should return to the office starting next week. My reaction: Panic. For the past six months, I have spent most of my time at home. I do not run errands or visit with friends. I am privileged to be able to shop online and get groceries delivered. I have been holding my breath, operating under the assumption that I am going to get this virus and, when I do, I will be one of the people who ends up in the hospital with acute respiratory distress syndrome. And if I survive, I will be one of the people who has long-lasting, life-changing symptoms.
Why do I assume this? Because I have a deeply rooted belief in my own unluckiness.
My company has a short list of people who are exempt from returning to work—people who have certain medical conditions, people who are caretakers to others in high-risk categories. There is no category for people who have posttraumatic stress from pregnancy loss that is manifesting as health anxiety. There is no category for people who simply don’t feel safe. In this new world, safety is not a right; it is a privilege.
In 2015, I experienced the first of what would become four pregnancy losses. It was ectopic, the embryo hopelessly stuck in my fallopian tube. After emergency surgery to end the embryo’s life and save mine, I was told that this event was relatively rare, occurring in just 2% of pregnancies. My friend’s husband, an OB-GYN, assured me, “I’ve never seen a woman have two ectopics.”
Except I did. But not before losing two more pregnancies first.
My second loss was a miscarriage. “It’s very common,” I was told. These words were supposed to comfort me. The doctor gave me pills to help “expel the embryo,” but the pills did not work (something that happens for about 20% of women). It took more than a month—of bleeding and waiting and crying—before I could pee on a stick and not see a positive result.
When my third pregnancy went past the first trimester, I thought I was in the clear. This is what I’d been told. Google assured me that only 1.6% of pregnancies end after a heartbeat is confirmed. We saw and heard more than a heartbeat. We saw our son—we named him Miles—dancing across the ultrasound screen several times before his heart stopped at 17 weeks. I was told I could give birth to him or have a dilation and evacuation (D&E). I chose the surgery, and it’s a decision I’m unsure of to this day.
My second ectopic happened a few months after we lost Miles. My doctor described this ectopic as “strange,” which is not the word anyone wants their doctor to use. He could not see on ultrasound where the embryo had implanted. I’d already had one fallopian tube removed, and he couldn’t see anything amiss in the other tube. It was possible the embryo had taken up residence in my stomach cavity, a rarity within a rarity. I was given a shot of a drug that’s commonly used for cancer (“it’s a good cell-killer,” the doctor said) and monitored with blood testing several times over the course of two months.
Yes, it was two months before I was officially unpregnant.
Google tells me that only 1.7% of COVID-19 deaths are in my age group (I’m 40). I know this is supposed to calm my fears and make me feel capable of doing things like return to the workplace, but as Elizabeth McCracken says in her memoir, “Once you’ve been on the losing side of great odds, you never find statistics comforting again.”
Since my pregnancy losses, most of which were unexplained and all of which were described as “incredibly unlucky,” I have had ongoing health anxiety. I am convinced there is something inherently wrong with me, something that explains the loss of my babies and possibly foretells other medical sagas to come.
My doctor must roll her eyes every time she gets a message from me requesting a blood test to check for the latest ailment on my mind. For a while, I was obsessed with my fasting glucose levels (something that was brought to my attention as being high when I was pregnant). I went as far as to read an entire book on metabolic disorders and consult with a specialist before deciding that the results of my four (yes, four) blood tests were good enough for me to stop worrying (for now). I’ve gotten a C-reactive protein test to assess inflammation in my body (I don’t have much). I’ve gotten a complement C3 test because I read it can be a good indication of immune function (honestly, I don’t even know how to interpret the results). I did a complete nutrition panel, which revealed that my body does not make glutathione, something that a naturopathic medicine doctor told me was “very odd.” Glutathione is a major antioxidant so not having any has led me to think I’m destined to get cancer. And on and on.
This was all before COVID-19.
While writing my book, All the Love: Healing Your Heart and Finding Meaning After Pregnancy Loss, my co-authors, Meredith Resnick, a licensed clinical social worker, and Dr. Huong Diep, a board-certified psychologist, made me aware of the long-lasting effects of pregnancy loss on the psyche. One study found that symptoms of anxiety and depression can persist for up to three years following a miscarriage. I would say it could be even longer. I would say post-traumatic stress from loss can be long-term.
As Meredith writes in the book, “Post-traumatic stress is a reaction that occurs after the trauma itself is over. It’s like vapor that rises from the trauma itself.” The vapor, for me, is this health anxiety, this belief that I am medically doomed, that I will be the 1.7% of 40-somethings who dies of COVID-19.
Until COVID came along, I didn’t realize that my losses had imprinted on me this belief in my medical unluckiness. I didn’t realize how much fear was bubbling under the surface of my life. In a way, COVID has put me back in touch with my grief, which is a good thing. Residual grief is, after all, evidence of residual love—for the babies I lost, for the people they never got to be.
I will carry this grief with me always, and when it’s masked (pun intended) as something else, I can dare to remove the mask, confront the underlying fears, and allow my losses to continue to help me grow.