I understand why J35, the killer whale, carried her dead calf. A member of an Orca pod in the Pacific Northwest, Tahlequah (J35 as she is known to researchers) gave birth to a calf who died a few hours later. For an unprecedented 17 days this summer, J35 carried out an exhausting ritual of pushing it repeatedly to the ocean’s surface. For 17 days, and over 1,000 miles she kept her baby from sinking to the ocean floor. Scientists explain that orcas and other mammals carry out these grieving rituals, but the length of time this mother continued to carry her dead calf was extraordinary.
I suspect many women could relate to the sadness of this mournful display.
The daily news updates of J35, continuing to carry her dead calf, called to mind my own reproductive failure. Four miscarriages. 25 years later, it saddens me to reflect on it, although thankfully the emotions are now not nearly as raw. I grieved for the babies I would not hold. I worried I would never have a baby to hold. Recurrent pregnancy loss is an invisible sorrow. The first loss, I sadly accepted, with miscarriage being a common event in up to 20 percent of all pregnancies. By the fourth loss, I thought I would never be able to have a successful pregnancy. I didn’t want to accept that.
As my biological clock ticked away, I was astounded at how many people would ask when I was planning to get pregnant — as if it was their business. I would try to brush off the intrusive questions, forgiving them, as they couldn’t possibly have known. Others would encourage me to “just try again.” Well, I did (and did and did). Due dates of lost pregnancies came and went as cruel reminders of the failings of my body. An OB colleague told me, “I want Christmas off this year because I have children and you don’t.” Yep. Wow. After each loss I would return to work, caring for pregnant woman and delivering their beautiful babies, not begrudging their incredible fortune, but quietly despairing of my lot.
I have delivered stillborn babies and experienced the terrible silence that fills the room after the baby comes. The quiet. Quiet that gives rise to the sobs of the parents, united in their grief. I have carefully bundled the limp baby in a blanket and placed it in the mother’s arms. I have seen parents keep their baby with them as long as possible, sometimes later bringing the baby back from the morgue, so they could say just one more goodbye. It is always heart wrenching, and it is these deliveries that call on all of the compassion and skills of labor and delivery personnel, nurses, midwives, and physicians.
When I am taking an obstetric history from a patient in clinic, they report the number of pregnancies and deliveries they have had. It is not uncommon for a woman to cry when recounting of the details of a pregnancy loss or stillbirth. One year ago, or 35 years ago, it matters not. I have had a seventy-seven year old woman apologize for her tears, saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to cry — it was a long time ago.” Yes, it was. Many women carry their losses in their hearts for a lifetime. It is not always on the surface, but the sadness never truly goes away.
I understand why J35 carried her dead calf for 17 days. I grieved with her. And I was relieved when she let her calf go.
Sheila Watson is an obstetrician-gynecologist.
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