Over the past five weeks, Michelle Tolfrey has shared her incredibly challenging journey; navigating life after losing her baby daughter, Orla. She is now pregnant again and discusses the complexities of pregnancy after loss…
After losing Orla, there was initially an overwhelming innate need to be pregnant again, to grow a baby that we would bring home and pour our overflowing love into. However, it also felt terrifying – the thought of starting again, knowing what we know now. That not all babies make it. Then came the fear that stopped us from actually trying as well as the shock and numbness that meant that days and weeks passed without us really understanding how. As medically advised, we duly waited a few months and I did what I could to get myself physically and mentally ready. Whatever that actually means, since I think that no one can ever by fully prepared for pregnancy after loss.
When the positive test was actually in front of us, I think we were in complete shock and disbelief. I didn’t anticipate how many confusing and conflicting emotions would come with pregnancy after loss: the renewed waves of grief, the guilt, the isolation, the extreme anxiety. The sudden reality that another baby was beginning its own journey in the place that Orla had grown only months before bought both comfort and sadness. I wondered if this was more significant when you lose your first child – this sense of a sacred space that has only been known by you and your firstborn. I felt an increased sense of guilt that I hadn’t been able to keep Orla alive and that I was now hoping that I would be able to do so with her younger sibling. And then an overwhelming fear that my body would fail and we would lose yet another baby.
I worried that people would think that we were ‘moving on’; that we were somehow recovered and over the loss of Orla and just looking forward to a possible second baby. I thought people would forget Orla, that they would focus on a new baby and feel that this would be a replacement and take away all of our pain. Mostly, I was terrified that somehow Orla would view this as a betrayal and that we had forgotten her. And then I felt guilty that my focus remained primarily on Orla and not this baby and how this would impact on them.
I am a changed person who fears every single day that the baby that I am now carrying could also die
I think I entered detached mode for the first few weeks. I felt incredibly lucky to be in this position, yet I also felt completely overwhelmed. For many reasons we have waited quite a while to tell people our news. Being so far away from home for so long (on the fundraising trip in the USA and Canada), we didn’t want family and friends to worry. We also wanted to ensure that our time away was focussed completely on Orla – we hope so much that we will get to make a lifetime of memories with this baby, so Orla deserved to have that whole time dedicated to just her.
Then came baby loss awareness month, which again I wanted to dedicate to Orla, but I was also acutely aware of how emotionally charged those weeks were for so many of my new friends in the loss community. And following this, Orla’s six-month birthday. It has been really important for me to remember that despite the hopeful anticipation we feel, the grief and sadness that we experience as a result of losing Orla is incredibly raw and new and nothing will take this away.
Since starting this Instagram account, I feel as though I have found my place, somewhere where I feel understood and accepted. I have had people to turn to, people who say what I am also thinking and who I have connected with at a level that I have never before experienced with people I have not met in the flesh. The sense of distance I felt from my old friends who hadn’t been through this loss felt manageable alongside the closeness and support from these new friends.
But suddenly I felt worried that our news would create distance again and I would feel completely alone. I worried that these new friends would think it was too soon, that I could no longer understand what they are going through, that I had it easy and that there were others more deserving than me. Daily, I had to state to myself why Andy and I deserve this – that before Orla we also suffered a physically traumatic loss that compromised my fertility; that I am 35 and already in a higher risk category and that Andy is older than me; that we have been trying for a family for a couple of years and are so ready to welcome a baby into our lives.
This sense of responsibility for others can be overwhelming in life after loss
The truth is, I know that I shouldn’t feel the need to justify anything to anyone, yet grief does unbelievable things to your thinking. Previous losses, subsequent losses, difficulties with fertility – we are all on our individual journeys and comparing them is futile. Absolutely anyone who has suffered a loss is deserving of a healthy subsequent pregnancy and I am always thrilled to know of stories of happiness after such sadness. But I am also aware that not all paths after loss are straightforward, and to imply so would be disrespectful. Therefore, I absolutely understand how and why even pregnancy after loss announcements can be painful and equally as torturous as other pregnancies.
Maybe this is another reason why I have struggled to announce this pregnancy more outwardly. The thought of adding any more pain to another person sits very uncomfortably with me. But I am starting to feel very lonely. I am desperately trying to make this pregnancy as ‘normal’ as possible, but I don’t feel normal.
I sat in a pregnancy yoga class the other week and I felt like an alien; everyone else appeared to be so calm and happy, caught up in the day to day aches, pains, challenges and excitement of pregnancy. Yet I was sat there almost having an out of body experience. I couldn’t believe that I had been just like them a few months ago, joyfully awaiting the arrival of our first baby within days. And now I am a changed person who fears every single day that the baby that I am now carrying could also die. I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone. I was terrified that my presence would somehow ruin their experience of their last few weeks of pregnancy – as though I am the black cloud of tragic reality personified. The one that absolutely no one wants to know exists.
Afterwards my rational mind was able to say that I was making assumptions about these people and their own journeys to motherhood. I didn’t know whether any of them had experienced loss. But without words, I guess I would never know.
Since losing Orla, I have come to regret not documenting much of my pregnancy. I have some photos, but not as many as I wish I had taken. I have no videos of her moving around. If I knew then that this would be my only time with her, I would have done so much more. So I am caught in a position where I want to do as much as can to cherish this pregnancy whilst also feeling terrified of getting too attached. The fear of loving too hard and losing again I worry could completely destroy me.
In the same way as I have shared Orla, I also want to be able to share this journey more outwardly and to talk about the challenges of pregnancy after loss. To have a space to reflect on the emotional and psychological impact that I am already finding a huge challenge. To connect with other people who also understand. But also to have somewhere that I can enjoy this pregnancy and baby as much as is possible, to find joy where I currently feel terror.
Yet what I don’t want to do is hurt others and to leave anyone feeling any more pain that they already have. This sense of responsibility for others can be overwhelming in life after loss (although I am also aware that my own personality plays a big role in this). I just hope that I can navigate this sensitively and respectfully.
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The Early Hour is donating to Michelle’s Just Giving page – raising funds for SANDS (the stillbirth and neonatal death charity) – as payment for her articles. If you’d like to donate too, please click here.
The complexities of announcing a pregnancy after loss was originally published on Dear Orla on 6 November 2016. It has been republished with permission.