“Elephants,” I thought. “No, it was a whale.”
I read about her a few months ago. Her sweet baby had died and she glided through the ocean with a small body on her back, unable to let go. Her whole pod surrounded her as she carried her lifeless child for 17 days. I like to think that they moaned when she moaned and that they moved swarms of fish in her direction so she didn’t have to work too hard to eat. I don’t know how grief works in the quiet, cold ocean life among whales.
I do know that on land it can feel both quiet and cold. It can feel like constant noise and burning anger. That’s the peculiarity of a painful loss, I suppose. It’s as if we humans are capable of holding every contradictory feeling at once without fully feeling anything at all. It’s a cunning defense mechanism that allows a person like me to sweep my shattered heart off the floor of a midwife’s office and take it home with me. To text my parents news of a loss instead of an ultrasound picture as planned. To drive home to my husband instead of remaining paralyzed in the parking lot with hot tears slowly meeting the crisp, cool air of springtime.
There are millions of women who have experienced at least one miscarriage, yet I can’t stop thinking about that whale. She held onto her calf for 17 days — nearly as long as my body chose to hold onto my lifeless child. Scientists were mystified by her behavior. They knew she had likely already lost two calves. They wondered about her grief even as they exercised caution in projecting human emotions of grief onto an animal. But any mother who has lost a child knows better. We read the story of her loss, and we feel her desire to hold on even when all hope has been lost for days.
I learned the term “missed miscarriage” this past spring while being told that the child inside me had stopped growing a few weeks prior. Even though I logically knew that the baby had stopped growing weeks ago, I still wanted to hold on. Apparently, my body did too. That’s why it was a “missed” miscarriage. That’s why it was possible for my body to lie to me every day, convincing me that I was still pregnant. My body had demanded that I fill my stomach to make the nausea subside. It filled me with exhaustion and so reassured me that my baby was alive and safe, making me walk around with a smile on my face. My body held onto this false hope for me and fiercely protected a life that did not exist anymore.
I wondered if I would ever be able to trust my body again.
Could I place any hope in my ability to carry a baby to its first breath? So this time around, when I found out I was pregnant, I had to make space for both hope and heartbreak. I now knew in my body how easily I could slide from one to the other. From the moment of the positive pregnancy test, one day would be filled with excitement and dreaming of names; the next day would be spent on the verge of tears.
The tears and heartbreak won out this time, too. I sat in the same ultrasound room this fall and scraped my heart off the floor before leaving. Again. This time, I knew enough to bring my husband with me so he could hold my hand, ask the questions, drive us home. This time, when my hot, salty tears met my lips, I was right back with the mother whale. I longed to touch her cool, wet face to mine and say, “me too.” I want to ask her what gave her the ability to let go. What did it feel like when she did? Was the lightness she felt unsettling or relieving? Does she still feel empty — like a vast wasteland without hope for new life? Will that feeling ever go away? I want to think that her friends and family are as good as what mine are. Mine are the type that bring soup and bread and flowers and teddy bears and hugs and “I’m here for you.” They make heartbreak more manageable and remind me that connection and community are the most important experiences we can have in this life.
I want to believe that this mother whale and I will have another shot at being filled with new life — another chance to make space for hope and heartbreak. Perhaps next time will be better. Perhaps hope will rise above the heartbreak at last.
Abigail DeZeeuw is a small-town, Michigan native and feels most at home while walking through open fields with her dogs, husband, and toddler. She is drawn to the ways story can bring us together and always tries to bring a listening, curious heart into each person’s story. Abigail is recently ordained to hospice chaplaincy, teaches Hebrew at Western Theological Seminary, and has a B.A. in Writing. When not working or caring for her family, you will likely find her dreaming about the sustainable farming lifestyle.