One evening at the beginning of March, I pay a visit to a friend of Beth‘s named Vanessa. Vanessa and her husband, Matthew, connected with Beth and her husband, Jamie, through Bereaved Families of Ontario, having each experienced the loss of their firstborn last year.

Like Beth, Vanessa is expecting again; but every story of grief and loss is unique and, although each of these couples have experienced the death of their firstborn, that is perhaps the only similarity between their two stories.  Vanessa and Matthew, who have been together for ten years and married for six, lost their daughter, Leah, last June.

During the course of my visit, Vanessa confides that, since her loss, she has discovered there has actually been a bit of history of this particular kind of sorrow in her family: her  grandmother, aunt and a cousin each experienced neonatal/infant loss of their own.

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Aside from the natural anxiety anyone would expect might result from having been through such a tragic loss, Vanessa admits she has struggled with anxiety for much longer and, during this second pregnancy, access to the option of a home doppler device helps immeasurably to ease the onset of an episode.

Vanessa graduated from York with a PhD in Women’s Studies and her research has afforded a close familiarity with the innate power within women to access inner resolve and courage in situations of adversity. She draws from such reserves within herself since her loss.  As an academic scholar, Vanessa has found additional network of support via MIRCI (Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement).  The research she completed has also buoyed her during this painful time. Just two months following her loss, Angels on Earth: Mothering, Religion and Spirituality, an anthology Vanessa edited, was published. Naturally, she dedicated the work to her daughter’s memory.

With this first pregnancy, Vanessa and Matthew aimed for a natural childbirth. I think every woman I’ve ever spoken to has certain plans for the way they intend their birth experience to unfold and it nearly never happens the way they first imagine.  My own experience ended up unfolding quite differently than how I’d aimed it to progress.  Vanessa tells me that Leah was a very active baby in the womb and, at full term and due any moment, Vanessa had an intense intuition something just “felt different”. Her sixth sense proves right. Further investigation leads to an emergency c-section. The hours that follow are any parent’s worst nightmare. Matthew and Vanessa are told the membrane of the umbilical cord has ruptured and fetal-maternal hemorrhaging has resulted in significant blood loss.

In the critical hours following her birth, Leah suffers multiple seizures. Initially, medical staff suggest whisking Leah to Hamilton’s McMaster Children’s Hospital. However, it becomes quickly apparent that Leah will not survive such a transfer so Vanessa and Matthew decide quickly to focus all their attention on spending what little time they have left with their newborn daughter.  Thirty-three hours post birth, Leah tragically succumbs to her physical complications and passes away.

As she describes the heartbreaking events surrounding Leah’s birth and loss, Vanessa moves to the shelf in her dining room and lays out various memorabilia of her daughter. She details each piece she has kept and why. In the telling, her story moves from pensive reflection to visceral sorrow.  This profound loss is still fresh; only mere months ago, really. She has kept her pregnancy test, the blanket in which she swaddled and held her daughter during her final hours, photographs taken while she was still alive, the clay impressions of her tiny hands and feet.  She mentions that her daughter’s ashes are kept in the pink urn behind her on the shelf and I ask her whether I might photograph her with the urn. She agrees. Admittedly, it’s hard to focus the lens through my own tears. Vanessa’s openness and honesty, her sheer courage as she lifts her gaze to my lens, is humbling.

As I’ve written on Instagram, it is a quiet gift hard to describe when you are permitted to be in the presence of as naked an emotion as grief and be further allowed to document it. Like Beth, Vanessa believes it’s important to de-stigmatize grief, loss, pregnancy-related complications, stillbirth and the kind of physical and emotional struggles people endure. It is truly enough of a burden to go through that kind of immense heartache without having to hide or repress all the emotion and grief attached to such a loss.  The chance to meet and speak with people who “get it” via Bereaved Families of Ontario has been a crucial step towards the processing of their loss. Vanessa and Matthew discovered, as unique as each family’s experience of loss is, there is enough common ground within the landscape of loss to allow for a kind of communal keening within that network of support and understanding.

When we last communicated, Vanessa shares that it’s been confirmed she and Matthew are now expecting a boy.  She tells me that since she and Beth each lost a daughter and son respectively and are now each expecting a child of the opposite gender, they will be meeting to exchange the gifts of clothing they were each given for the firstborn children whose loss they are each mourning.

The poignant nature of this news strikes me as such a beautiful thread sewn into the fabric of their shared stories of grief and loss. I aim to document how these two separate tapestries continue to be woven and how they occasionally intertwine as each of these couples move towards the births of their second children.

Follow their stories here.

Do you have a story of how the womb affects or has affected you? Learn more about this documentary project and reach out.


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