shape + -less
Five months ago, I took the first stab at writing this piece. Frequent returns to rearrange these words and add to them have become part of comprehending the dull strain on my heart. Every month since, I have bled again and a little bit of that strain tightens. I clench up on the sight of bellies as far along as I would have been, and let my grief renew itself privately.
Sadiqa de Meijer wrote in her own account about “the thing, more complicated than any telling.”¹ I concur, feeling like my pregnancy, scarcely a pregnancy, might lead only to a story, scarcely a story. But I simply want to honour my body and its experiences, so I swallow the hesitations and fears of sharing. This is my story about the small but significant ways two disparate pregnancies took root in me, and then left me.
At the time of writing the first draft, it was a week after receiving confirmation that a loss was already in progress. I had no concept of how long a miscarriage would last or what it would feel like in this body. Miscarriage, heh, what a term. Failure, mishap, defeat, malfunction, undoing.
I learned firsthand — from blood that became increasingly brighter and urgent-looking; clots that grew more and more substantial; repeated waves of contractions on two evenings exactly 24 hours apart; weeks of crimson Rorschachs of loss whenever I urinated.
I learned that my miscarriage — naturally unfurled — would last one whole month from when the spotting first began.
I learned that the pregnancy hormone leaked out of my bloodstream far too slowly, resulting in weeks of intermittent lab work and I felt sorry for my poor, tiny, hard-to-find veins. The last session, two days before New Year’s Eve, hurt the most. But it gave me the good news I had been waiting for: my hCG levels were at 3 finally.
Anything 3 and under means that you are non-pregnant.
I learned that my breasts — and how I marvelled at the speed in which they grew tender, swollen, and heavy upon learning I was pregnant — would deflate suddenly after a night’s sleep, returning home to lightness, to sorrow, to a familiar plane.
We learned that we had made the right choice to seek midwifery care, recommended by a trusted friend who was nearing her own delivery date. In contact with no less than three midwives from our team throughout early stages of pregnancy and the loss, we were heartened by their compassion and check-ins all the way through.
At our first ultrasound appointment, fifteen cosmic images of an empty yolk sac glared back from the glowing screen.
I learned that it didn’t matter how early in the process this happened or that once the spotting began a few days after that ultrasound, we tried to prepare for a suspected loss at what should have been ten weeks gestation. The pain has been bewildering all the same.
I learned that mourning would come in fantastic waves. It choked me at the receipt of the news over the phone, calmed down and hid for some time, before flooding my senses again. At the “Quiet Christmas” church service where I found the utmost permission and nerve to break down amongst strangers, my grief was undulating.
It was punctuated with feelings of embarrassment and paranoia that perhaps we’d shared the news too soon, before the sacred 3-month rule. That photograph I’d made to share with my family? It became a sad reminder of jumping the gun.
I learned that 1 in 5 pregnancies ends in a miscarriage in the first trimester and some even say that number is more like 1 in 4. I read that early pregnancy losses are most commonly caused by chromosomal abnormalities and that they usually happen for no known reason.
I tried to understand and rationalize how my body was protecting me by not allowing the pregnancy to continue, especially during a taxing two weeks in Hong Kong when I would have been five months along. That this happened doesn’t seem at all fair, but I found a certain strange ease in picturing the loss as a form of self-preservation.
Now, that photograph of food items related to the size of a growing embryo is no longer a source of shame and I share it here unabashedly. While still associated with a bitter memory, the photograph overwhelmingly represents a time when our family simply wanted to share in the joy of good news with loved ones, and could then find consolation when the reality dissolved into tears.
In between clots and contractions, Leo and I made chicken soup and talked about certain moments of darkness we had each encountered separately — attempting to drive away from a broken, long-term relationship during a heavy snowstorm, and breaking down repeatedly in the bathtub after an abortion. It has been a great relief experiencing this together, especially when the abortion I had underwent a few years earlier resulted in a different, deep sadness and bereavement.
Back then, my last long-term partner and I had already been broken up for a few months. After discovering the pregnancy, he attempted to be around yet was emotionally absent, unknowingly riddling me with guilt and loneliness. “All I ever wanted was to have a family,” I remembering him saying on the bus.
I had already made up my mind, but that didn’t stop me from wondering on more than one occasion if I could attempt single parenthood, knowing that our relationship was likely irretrievable. I tried hard to reconcile all that I was feeling, including my own perceived guilt of having been so vulnerable and careless following our split.
So to have a truly present partner and friend so close at hand has lifted me amidst the ache, especially as I turned a year older during this time. I found solace in small moments at birthday brunch, a Japanese pottery sale, baking for a seasonal gathering, and conversation into the night with friends. I tapped out poems while sitting on the toilet before transferring them to a typewriter in the quiet of night, while cross legged on the laminate floor.
In the thick of the sadness and physical discomfort, these were affirmations of life’s pockets of splendid mundanity, and it has been integral to gather them all into the folds of this story too.
Trying to rebuild, I actively sought out and discovered countless women and some men recounting their own experiences of varying kinds of pregnancy loss in library books, online forums, and self-published personal essays. Drawing on the tenacity of family members and friends who have been open about their own issues of loss in my lifetime, I was spurred to explore the terrain of grief through writing and photography, to add to the discourse and perhaps, deliver some solidarity and consolation.
My story also serves to counter the culture of silence surrounding this topic. However, I recognize that I myself have not been exempt from participating in this culture of silence.
After my abortion more than three years ago, I made a photographic series out of my medical documents and quietly put the images up on my website. A year later, I publicly acknowledged this work for the first and only time when I delivered an artist talk to an undergraduate social justice seminar. I didn’t want to shy away from the experience but still needed the relief of hiding in plain sight, in a room full of strangers.
Even with nothing but certainty in my decision to end my first pregnancy and the most open-minded of friends, worry about being judged and keeping silent have resided hand-in-hand in me and I have guarded this one secret closely, disclosed carefully.
I felt safe spilling open to my now-husband early on when we started dating — mere months after the procedure — but only revealed it to my mother when discussing Leo and I starting a family, and later to my father, through the first draft of this piece. They are both pretty liberal but are still Chinese parents at heart, so I didn’t want to face their disappointment or concern in the moment. I felt a release confessing to them.
This time, a few years on, I am uncovering courage in sorrow to vocalize my experiences of abortion and miscarriage in a way that I did not and could not with the first instance. As with other issues of bodily trauma, divulging such intimate circumstances may come in our own time, or not at all – and it has to be said that that is perfectly okay too... Self-care and preservation are inherently vital for survival. My losses feel particularly tender right now, but remarkably, they also feel ripe enough to share.
The title of this text is inspired by the line “a grief with no shape,” in P. Petrie’s poem “Lost Child” (1984), referenced in Laura Seftel’s Grief Unseen: Healing Pregnancy Loss Through the Arts (2006).
1. Sadiqa de Meijer, “Stork Bite,” in How to Expect When You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood, and Loss, eds. Jessica Hiemstra and Lisa Martin-Demoor (N.p.: TouchWood Editions, 2013), 34.