In loving memory of Belle Scarlett Baldridge
September 29, 2011
I buried my baby daughter Belle today. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Babies just aren’t supposed to die. We are fortunate to live in a time of favorable survival rates for babies and their mothers. We enjoy high degrees of order and predictability in our day-to-day lives (here in the USA, at least), and it is easy to forget that one still has innocence to lose. This has been the saddest, hardest week of my life. I had always heard that a parent should never have to bury their own child. I didn’t doubt it, but now I know it, fully. This morning, I gazed down at a gaping hole, my little girl’s grave, while I held her casket in my arms. It mirrored the hole already in my heart. It disarmed and terrified me, but also showed me that both were there to receive Belle and preserve her memory.
With this post, I seek to honor and remember Belle, to thank those who have supported us this week, to help myself grieve, and hopefully, to help—perhaps a little—others in the future who must unfortunately deal with the death of their child. My apologies if the post is on the (melo)dramatic side. It’s how I feel, and it seems to be part of my healing process, so please bear with me.
My wife Cheryl and I had long been anticipating Belle’s arrival, with a due date of today – October 4, 2011. Like most expecting parents, we had considered many of the possible outcomes of the pregnancy, including even the possibility of complications that would involve our baby and/or Cheryl needing hospitalization — but never the possibility that our baby Belle wouldn’t make it into this world, never the possibility of a stillbirth. The unyielding march of life and death has left us suddenly and unexpectedly bereft of a person we loved, cared for and were ready to teach and eventually send forth into the world.
We knew Belle from her kicks, and her responses to our voices, songs, and laughter. It’s an imperfect medium of communication, but it suffices to start the relationship that one builds with one’s child — they simply aren’t strangers when you see them for the first time. This is something that can perhaps be hard to understand for those who have not yet had children, and it is a common source of pain for parents of stillborn children: it is somehow perceived by many to not be as great a loss as for those whose children died after their birth date. A great line I read in one of the many materials I’ve been given about such loss is that on a scale of one to ten, the pain of losing a child is always a ten, no matter the age or circumstances. It’s true. I would submit that there is a further dynamic element for parents of a stillborn child: you have gone from a state of accelerating excitement and anticipation, to a huge resounding thud of shock and disbelief. The “what if’s” have in very short order become “never be’s.” This sudden reversal kicks in the first moment you are told that your baby’s heartbeat has stopped and then reverberates as you reel from the pain and try to regroup.
Little Belle is true to her name: she is beautiful, even in death. I can now only imagine what she would have looked like as she grew up, but thankfully I can do at least that. And, I can do that from a starting point of having been able to spend time with her on the day she was born, September 29, 2011. We had a wonderful team with us at Belle’s birth—including doctors, midwives, nurses, and doula—and they helped us through the intensely emotional and difficult process of bringing Belle into the world and, perhaps more importantly, to help us spend meaningful time with her before saying goodbye. They encouraged us to be with Belle, to hold her and take pictures, and not rush things. We now have at least those memories—even so bittersweet—to keep with us, something which many parents of stillborn babies are never given because no one tells them they can and should. This is a really important aspect of Belle’s birth that I hope to get across: you are hurting and spinning from the shock and pain, yet there are important decisions to be made from the very start; while you may have been provided with comprehensive and well-written literature on how to approach the situation, you have little emotional space for it and there is too much of it to possibly work through before you must make decisions. If you or someone you care for finds themselves unfortunately in this situation, try to get across this message: take time with the baby and take pictures. You won’t get more chances later, and you’ll almost surely regret it if you don’t.
Another important thing for us was to have a small memorial service for Belle, and also a burial. As an agnostic without any religious affiliation, I had no default expectation for what to do. Cheryl and I had years ago decided that cremation would be the thing for us eventually. However, with Belle, Cheryl quickly realized that she wanted a place to visit her, so we went with a burial. I did not feel strongly about it, but it felt right to me when we did it today, so I’ll probably be glad for that choice in the long run. It was very hard to pick out her plot at the cemetery on Friday—it’s an area reserved for infants, a grid of small plots that serves as a concrete reminder of the fragility of the early days of life. Looking at the empty spot where Belle would be buried made it all seem more real, more this-is-really-happening, in the mix of surreal feelings of that day and the previous day. Of course, handing over a credit card to pay for the services and the plot then felt bizarre, an odd juxtaposition of a completely mundane action with the profound grief I was keeping in check. Regardless of that strangeness, it is one of those things which just must be done. Belle is now there, and it is a peaceful place, with trees and birds singing in them.
It turns out that stillbirths are more common than I would have ever thought. I had only directly known of one before Belle, and had assumed it must have been a case of extreme misfortune. Actually, in the USA, the average rate of stillbirths is roughly 1 in 150 births, about 26,000 babies every year. The rate is much higher in developing countries. Despite this prevalence, there apparently is not a great deal of research into it (and it seems to be an inherently difficult thing to research), so we still know little about specific actions that can be taken to prevent it. For the things we do know, such as tangled umbilical cords, there is very little warning — there is a window of perhaps 5-10 minutes from the time of fetal distress in which to save the baby. Knowing this actually relieved us of a great deal of guilt as we had initially second guessed ourselves, retracing our steps in the days leading up to Belle’s birth and imagining ways we could/should have known to try to get her out earlier.
Regardless of the statistics, regardless of whether we’ll know the cause of Belle’s death, it all just ends up feeling unfair. I’ve been robbed of my little girl, whose heart I had heard beating just days before. Belle should have had her fair shot at life, and I’m sure she would have made hers a great one. It shouldn’t have been this way, but that is what happened and now we must live with that and move on. In this, I’m so thankful for the amazing relationship I have with Cheryl. We’re both hurting, immensely, but we also are optimists who have both already overcome our fair share of challenges in our lives. Together, and with the help of family and friends, we’ll regroup and carry on, carrying Belle’s memory with us.
Little Belle, I’ll love you forever.
There are many people who have provided us with amazing, and often unexpected, support over the last week.
Our doula, Shelley Scotka, was our shining light on the day of Belle’s birth. Many people have probably never heard of doulas — summarizing quickly, they are amazing women who assist in natural childbirth. They bring their knowledge of traditional birthing techniques and practical experience from many births to bear on yours, including translating what the doctors are saying and doing so that you hear what is going on, in simple, understandable terms. Shelley was there for our son’s delivery, a 50+ hour marathon that she did a great deal to ease. Little did we know that she would be every bit as vital for us for a stillbirth as she was for a live birth. She was a rock who helped before, during and after the delivery, and who continues to shower us with love and care.
We’re also incredibly thankful for the medical team that delivered Belle last Thursday at St. David’s North Austin. Our practice is OB-GYN North, and the midwives, doctor, and technician who had to tell us that Belle’s heartbeat had stopped were caring and kind, and helped us immensely with the initial shock and disbelief. Kathy Harrison-Short, CNM had caught our son two years before and she immediately came to comfort us. Lisa Carlile, CNM stayed past her shift and was the one who ultimately caught Belle, at Cheryl’s request. Dr. Martha Smitz was the physician on duty that day. She demonstrated tremendous sensitivity, compassion and overwhelming competence throughout. She had an uncanny ability to put us at ease even in the midst of the sorrow and confusion we were going through. The nurses, other doctors, social worker and pastor were all similarly supportive and sensitive. The nurses deserve special thanks for taking such great care of Cheryl before the delivery and of Belle after it. Everyone treated us, and Belle, with tremendous dignity.
Since that day, our family, friends and colleagues have been incredibly supportive. One of the blessings in tragedy is the concrete realization that one is surrounded by a wonderful support network. My younger brother lives here in Austin and my mother had just arrived, ready to help us with Belle; they’ve been helping us through the whole thing, especially with our toddler son, even while dealing with their own loss and grief. My father flew in from Chicago, and my older brother immediately came over from Baton Rouge with his daughter. The sound of her playing with our toddler son over the weekend was a welcome, joyful addition that helped combat the otherwise tendency toward a somber mood. My brother’s wife helped us a great deal from afar, providing support both as a family member and as a practicing physician. My step-father will be here soon, a delayed visit (at my request) since I knew we’d need more backup once the main family contingent was gone.
Other have also given us great strength, including sharing their own pain and anger at the situation, and in a few cases, their own direct experience with stillbirths. There have been generous offers of help, including offers to teach some of my classes in the coming weeks. Though I’ve so far responded to almost none of them, I’ve read and appreciated every email of support from friends, colleagues, and students. In a way, this post is my response, so please consider this my thank you to you all. And to those who I have not yet gotten in touch with about Belle’s death, please understand that there has not been any particular plan or care with my communications regarding it — I’m just now getting geared up to pass the word on to more friends, and some of you are probably seeing this post as a result of that effort.
I must also give high praise to the people at Cook-Walden funeral homes. They have treated us very kindly and have been incredibly responsive to our needs. One of the things about the situation is that many decisions must be made in rapid succession, and you get some of them not-quite-right the first time around. Cook-Walden was very accommodating to changes in how we wanted to do the service and burial and to requests for articles of Belle’s that we only realized later that we’d want (such as a lock of her hair). They treated us and Belle with dignity and allowed us time and space to make decisions and say goodbye to her.
Finally, I must thank the volunteers from Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, who Shelley called in for us. NILMDTS is a non-profit that has professional photographers who come to take pictures of stillborn babies and their families, and then later retouch them to provide nicer images of the baby than one could generally hope to capture by oneself. They were caring and professional, and we look forward to seeing the result of their work with Belle. If you are looking for a great non-profit to donate to, please consider them.