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How My Son’s Tantrum Helped Me Grieve My Pregnancy Loss

Isabelle FitzGerald

Two months after the baby I was expecting died in utero, I was late to pick up my kindergartener. We lived in Brooklyn, but Henry’s school was in Manhattan, and our evenings were often rushed. I took the school’s front steps two at a time, my whole body an exhausted ache. I longed to tuck my two children into bed and attempt, once again, to sleep.

In the lobby, Henry raced over to me, chattering about something he’d made in art class that he wanted to show his dad. I wasn’t listening. I was too busy wrestling his parka onto his wiggly body, my patience thin as a blade. His backpack flapped open. Homework sheets scattered across the floor.

Don’t snap, I thought.

Since the miscarriage, insomnia left me frayed. My fatigue was even more intense than after my children’s births. Technically, I was postpartum again, but instead of tending to a newborn, I was awake nursing a visceral sadness.

I hurried Henry outside. He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk.

“I forgot my paper airplane in the art room.” He demanded we go back. I said no. He protested. “It’s going to be thrown out!”

So that was what he wanted to show my husband. We were already late for dinner. He needed food, and I needed rest. We were not turning around for a folded piece of printer paper. “I’m sorry,” I said. “We have to go.”

He started wailing. I gripped his wrist, kept walking. Pedestrians stared. I reached for words to end the tantrum before we squeezed onto a crowded train. Our home across the river felt like an ocean away.

I know!” I said. “Let’s make another airplane.”

My suggestion only made him cry harder. “But I loved THAT airplane.”

Recognition struck my core: My little boy was grieving.

Fifteen weeks into my third pregnancy, after my husband and I announced our news, a routine ultrasound revealed ghastly stillness. Before, there’d been the steady flicker of a heartbeat, the bright outline of a baby sucking her thumb. Now a grey orb bobbed in darkness.

After a procedure to complete the miscarriage, the surgeon instructed me to lay low. My body recovered quickly, but my heart remained raw. In bed, all I could think about was the baby. I was eager to return to my routines, hoping they’d help me heal.

A week later, I went to a spin class. I imagined sorrow flowing out of my legs and into the pedals of the stationary bike. Afterward, a friend spotted me in the locker room. “How’s pregnancy going?” she asked.

“It’s actually not going,” I said, but the thumping bass obliterated my voice.

She made a sly joke about my fertility. “Three kids.” She winked.

“The baby died,” I shouted over the music.

Her jaw fell. The gazes of curious strangers prickled my back. Condolences tumbled from my friend’s mouth. My skin burned with the nauseating realization that wherever I went, I’d end up in this conversation.

Most people responded to me compassionately. Friends sent thoughtful texts and bouquets of flowers and a spread of smoked salmon and bagels. A few acquaintances admitted they had no clue what to say. I appreciated their authenticity. The most meaningful exchanges were with women who shared similar experiences. Grief pulled me along in its dark tide, but their stories glowed, lanterns along the shoreline that might eventually guide me back to land.

Yet for everybody who responded graciously, there were others whose reactions made me wish I’d never ventured outside. They glossed over what I was telling them like they were attempting to ignore an off-color joke at a dinner party. They minimized the loss: “At least you already have two kids.” They bypassed it: “You’ll get pregnant again.”

I don’t think they meant harm, but I walked away hot with anger, even shame.

Shame around miscarriage is incredibly common, but what I experienced wasn’t the shame I’d heard other women describe, the feeling that my body was defective. It was social shame. My misfortune made people squirm. Their responses suggested that my grief was intolerable – not for me, per se, but for them.

Weeks passed, and I expected to feel less tender. Instead, I stared at the backs of my eyelids each night, desperate for sleep, fretting over who I might run into the next day, what thoughtless thing they might say.

On the subway platform, Henry kept crying. By suggesting he make another airplane, I’d said the equivalent of: “You can try again.” Not only was I unable to make his sadness disappear, but my attempts to quiet him implied that I found his feelings burdensome.

My shoulders softened. I knew what I needed to do.

On the train, Henry nestled on my lap. I stroked his hair, resisted the urge to shush him, cheer him, offer solutions. Anguish doesn’t need to be fixed. It needs to be seen, heard, held. Every so often the sobs lulled, but then he’d shudder, and they’d start again. His tears didn’t peter out until we pulled into our stop.

Brooklyn was quiet. For several blocks, we walked in silence. I started thinking about the baby, about the women who’d also lost babies, and the solace I’d taken in their stories. An anecdote I thought he might appreciate popped into my head. “When I was younger, I lost something I was proud of, too.”

“What did you lose?” he asked.

“My computer crashed. Every paper I’d ever written was gone.”

He looked up. “What did you do?”

“I was so sad that I didn’t write for a long time,” I said. “Eventually, I started again. I still miss what I lost, but I’ve made other things that make me proud.”

Henry asked a few more questions about the computer before launching into a story about recess. His brightness had returned – for now. He slipped his hand into mine. We turned the corner for home.

I used to believe grief was innately isolating. Now I understand it is an opening, if only we are willing to see others in their distress and allow them to see us in ours. Eventually, the process of spreading my news would end. A day would come, sooner than I imagined, when I’d only have to discuss the miscarriage with people who wanted – or needed – to hear about it. I would light my own lantern, a beacon offered to other suffering women. In the meantime, moving forward meant releasing my concerns about how my loss made others feel. I was so hurt by a handful of tactless remarks that I’d shut out not only insensitivity but also genuine consolation.

When my husband got home, Henry realized again that he’d never get to show the airplane to his dad and his tears returned. I fought my urge to placate him. A paper airplane was a minor thing, but a child learning to grieve in a society where grief is relentlessly shunted aside was not. As I noticed the effort it took to hold my tongue, my anger toward the people who’d offended me began to dissolve. Sitting with my son’s pain was, in fact, painful. I was not a perfect witness, either, but I would keep trying.

“Tell me what you loved about your airplane,” I whispered while I tucked him in. He described the green teeth zigzagging along the fuselage, the second set of wings.

I wrapped my arms around him. Soon, his breathing steadied, and he drifted off to sleep.

For the first time in months, I did, too.

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